Friday, May 16, 2014

REVIEW: Nikon D4s-Real World AF Miracle Shots and ISO 409,600 from a Canon 1D X Shooter (Part III)

Nikon D4S DSLR Camera (Top View)
Nikon D4S DSLR Camera (Top View)

The first two parts of this series are here:

Typically when I review products I don’t do a series unless I’m comparing a group of similar products against each other, but this is different. This is a very special product that changes the game for photography and what our expectations are about keeper rates. I’ve shot 3000 photos* with this camera up to this point and it’s become painfully obvious to me, a Canon 1D X owner, that this truly is the best autofocus system I have ever tested. It’s not because it does things that the 1D X can’t, but rather it does it without me having to help the camera with its decisions (as is required by the Canon AF system). The net result is that I can focus on the creative aspect of photography because this camera will rarely miss a shot – even in the most difficult scenarios.

I thought the D4 was a joke as I had better luck with the D3s I had used in the past, so apparently that “s” moniker on Nikon D series bodies means “super” – because that’s just what this camera is. Yes, I’m a Canon 1D X shooter, but I’m a D4s fan boy too – because it’s earned that right based on the results I got with everything I threw at it.

Boys and girls, this is one bad a$$ camera that will not disappoint when it comes to autofocus – that’s for certain based on what I’ve seen!

* = CORRECTION: Previously I had mistakenly said 6000, but I double counted due to shooting RAW+JPEG during my testing.

About this article

In this installment all of the images featured in this article are straight out of the camera with ZERO post processing. They are the original in-camera JPEG images that have been renamed by Lightroom but not modified in any other way.

I have intentionally taken them in everyday life scenarios without any staging or special tricks to show you results that you can expect if you were using this product. What you see is literally what you get. This isn’t about art, it’s about showing you what this product can do in tough situations that you’ll find in both everyday life and on the job. If you know how cameras work you’ll appreciate the complexity of what this camera accomplishes to get the featured shots.

To see a full gallery of shots for this series, visit


Without question, one of my most beloved features of this camera is its ability to lock on to your subject and not get tripped up by obstacles that prevent the AF system from full seeing your subject. My 1D X has settings that allow you to do this, but you  have to know what type of challenges you are going to face and dial in the right AF Servo mode. The D4s just does it without any user intervention which is a much more flexible solution.

In this section I have a bunch of throw away shots that clearly demonstrate scenarios where the AF system chose the right target against all odds. When I tested the D4 it failed 100% of the time on this class of scenarios, but the D4s just nailed it without any input from me beyond a single AF point that I used to track the subject (which was NEVER, EVER the center focus point).

It was so good that I went overboard in the number of shots that I show here, but I can’t help but show the success stories because it’s often the shot after these that’s the hero shot. If the AF system fails on this shot then the odds are almost nil that it will recover for that hero scenario right after. As a result, this camera makes you look like an focus guru who has been shooting sports for decades.

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/400, ISO 160, No Flash

That blur you see is a crapload of bushes completely obscuring my view of my son running through the forest, yet for these (and others in the gallery) it never lost track of him

f/2.8 @ 195 mm, 1/400, ISO 200, No Flash

Paparazzi are going to love this camera because my wife through her hands up out of nowhere here and the D4s didn’t miss a beat – it stayed locked on to her face as I wanted it to do

f/8 @ 185 mm, 1/400, ISO 1800, No Flash

This was a WTF, you’ve gotta be kidding me shot. I was just messing around and following my son on the escalator from quite a distance. I was already happy that it was tracking him on a moving escalator through glass, but when this blown glass came into play I full expected to lose him. It never did so this is where I started to get sad at the thought of returning this camera after my review!

f/2.8 @ 50 mm, 1/200, ISO 6400, No Flash

Like above, Kai’s had just flew up from the table unexpectedly but even with the 50mm prime it stayed locked on.

f/2.8 @ 70 mm, 1/1600, ISO 2000, No Flash

This was a shot I wasn’t ready for so when my son poked his head through I just raised the camera and started firing. The first frame was a miss, but everything after that was dead on.

f/2.8 @ 175 mm, 1/2500, ISO 100, No Flash

When you track kids through the playground there’s always poles getting in the way but I was amazed at how often the D4s simply ignored them and continued to stay locked on to the correct subject.

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/1000, ISO 100, No Flash

So many things to lock on, but again it didn’t trip up. Group focus points probably would have, but I quickly discovered that single point (no matter which point you used) was the way to go.

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/400, ISO 140, No Flash

Are you kidding me? I’m no rock star at keeping my AF point locked on a kid running an unpredictable pattern through the woods with tons of obstacles, but you’d never know that by looking at the series of shots it nailed under impossible conditions.

There are more in the gallery, but there are also MANY from the 6000 shots I took with this camera that prove obstacles are indeed no obstacle for this camera. Wildlife, Paparazzi, Event and Parent photographers are going to love, love, love this autofocus system. Just put it on single AF point and AF-C and magic happens.

While my 1D X can do this well, I have to be set up in the right mode to let my camera know that this is what I expect to do. It doesn’t just do it by default and making that choice means I’ll get these but miss others that the D4s would just nail without user intervention. When it comes to obstacles, the D4s is the hands down champion of this generation of cameras.

Multiple Subjects

Like obstacles, there are things that happen during the course of shooting that can trip a camera up. Most often it is when another person appears in the scene because there’s probably some face detection algorithm which decides who to focus on. In my testing I gave the D4s the ultimate test with my son swinging and he tilted his head where his face was no longer visible at the same time a new subject entered the scene. No camera I’ve ever tested before this would have got this shot right, but the D4s knew my son on the swing was the subject. It never let itself get tripped up by all the distractions here which is exactly what I wanted.

f/2.8 @ 85 mm, 1/1600, ISO 400, No Flash

I’ve put 101 shots from this swing series in the gallery here so you can see how it just stayed locked on and did the right thing.

f/2.8 @ 70 mm, 1/320, ISO 2000, No Flash

My subject is the boy with the blue shirt and despite all of the distractions it stays locked on to my intended subject.

f/3.2 @ 200 mm, 1/320, ISO 6400, No Flash

My shutter speed was too low (user error), but this lady stepped out in front of me and the D4s never faltered. It stayed locked on to my subject for the shots before and after this.


Kites are tough because they can be unpredictable and the background distractions can be brutal. For this series I chose to go with the group AF points because I didn’t feel I stood a chance keeping a single AF point on this subject. The winds were strong so it was taking lots of unexpected turns and dives, yet most shots were spot on.

f/3.2 @ 200 mm, 1/800, ISO 100, No Flash

I laughed out loud with this shot because I thought – you’ve gotta be kidding me. How the hell did it get the right subject – especially when it’s using a cluster of AF points?!!! This is why some have made bold claims that this AF system reads your mind. This is pretty damn close to that!

f/3.2 @ 200 mm, 1/800, ISO 100, No Flash

In group AF mode it generally does a good job of making choices as to what is the subject and what’s noise to ignore.

f/3.2 @ 200 mm, 1/1250, ISO 100, No Flash

However, group AF mode has a higher tendency to get confused for a frame here and there. Surprisingly it often refocuses back on the correct subject in the next frame.

f/3.2 @ 200 mm, 1/3200, ISO 100, No Flash

Focus remains spot on for nearly all of my kite shooting, but I had my fair share of shots where the exposure was off by 1/3rd to 2/3rd of a stop. This is one area where I still think Canon is significantly stronger, but if you shoot RAW this isn’t a showstopper issue. If you shoot JPEG only then you’ll constantly fight this problem – but it is MUCH better in the D4s than the D4.

After my kite test I once again found myself amazed and happy with the results. If someone paid me to shoot a kite festival I’d probably rent a D4s if I had to because it’s definitely the best tool for the job.


Slides shots are fun but they are tough to nail because kids move fast and the slides are often steep and short. Despite our super fast burst modes, it’s not uncommon to only have a keeper here and there after a days worth of shooting slides.

f/2.8 @ 70 mm, 1/1600, ISO 400, No Flash

This is one of a series of 14 shots that represent the extreme accuracy I was getting on slides like this during my entire shooting time.

f/2.8 @ 70 mm, 1/1000, ISO 100, No Flash

After a kid finishes sliding it’s often “off to the races” to the next activity, so if you were lucky enough to get a single nice slide shot, you’ll lose them immediately after they get off the slide. The D4s seemed to have the same carefree attitude as my son and demanded – “done, what’s next”? I was superbly impressed!

f/2.8 @ 180 mm, 1/500, ISO 100, No Flash

f/2.8 @ 180 mm, 1/640, ISO 100, No Flash

f/2.8 @ 180 mm, 1/640, ISO 100, No Flash

f/2.8 @ 180 mm, 1/640, ISO 100, No Flash

Spiral slides are one of the toughest because your subject appears out of nowhere for a split second and then you are done. In this series I used group AF points and it failed for one but recovered and got the rest. I ended up with two keepers and three that I could use which is a lot more than I’m accustomed to with most cameras. My 1D X can do this too, but this is the first Nikon I’ve used that was this reliable in this scenario. If I would have used a single AF point I probably would have got every shot in focus had I been at the right spot and released the shutter right for the first frame above.

Swing Test

Shooting subjects on swings are super tough because AF systems like a predictable pattern. They can detect that an object is traveling and then use offsets to keep the AF tracking properly, but swings mess that all up by going back and forth often with little to no pause in the transition period. Of the several hundred shots I took for this test only a few of those transition points failed to focus, but everything else was a keeper.

I’ve put 101 shots from this swing series in the gallery here so you can see a couple sample sets exactly as they came out of the camera – distractions and all. No shots have been eliminated from the set.

f/2.8 @ 85 mm, 1/1600, ISO 500, No Flash

Minimum focus distance issues can be a problem, but usually your nemesis for shots like these is when you transition from forward to backwards.The D4s didn’t have a problem there but if I used group auto focus points it would have what felt like a random blurry shot. The rest were great, so for this series of 101, I used a single AF point for the best results.

f/2.8 @ 85 mm, 1/1600, ISO 500, No Flash

Despite the thunder of the D4s, people still managed to get in my shot, so the AF system had to work very hard here but it kept doing its job by staying laser focused on my son.

f/2.8 @ 85 mm, 1/1600, ISO 500, No Flash

Surprisingly transitions weren’t the problem that they typically can be.

This was a spectacular test with unreal results. I looked at the D4s and literally told it – I’m buying you if I win the lottery. I didn’t, but like most of the people reading this – we can dream right?!!!!

School Gym Event

The gym I tested on this particular day was actually lit much better than the average school gym. School gyms can be torture tests because you have nasty color light in dark conditions and often are there to take photos of fast moving subjects. The net result is often high ISO shots that still end up being blurry because you are afraid to push your ISO to its limits. On this day I only had to go to ISO 10000, which the D4s does just fine. Any problems I had this particular day were user error (like the wrong white balance and the occasional distraction which caused me to point to the wrong subject).

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/200, ISO 1250, No Flash

It was nice to pick out my son in the crowd and get a clear shot. This type of shot with a single AF point was never a problem.

f/3.2 @ 70 mm, 1/320, ISO 2000, No Flash

This was fast moving, but I prepared in advance by doing test shots on the cracker before the fast moving action got this scene. Despite this, about 50% were total AF fails, but the burst mode was good enough to get enough shots that I was still able to get a few keepers.

f/2.8 @ 190 mm, 1/200, ISO 1250, No Flash

The D4s didn’t need practice, but I did. I wanted to make sure I knew where to put my single AF point when the action made its way to this stage of the race.

f/2.8 @ 175 mm, 1/320, ISO 2200, No Flash

It was nice to see that my biggest errors were my own in shutter speed and white balance choices. Those are problems I can fix on the spot, but a camera that can’t focus is far more frustrating. Fortunately that was rarely the case with the D4s.

f/2.8 @ 70 mm, 1/640, ISO 10000, No Flash

The tug of war meant a higher ISO and a lot of distractions, but I was confident by this point that I just needed to boost my shutter speed and put an AF point on my son and the D4s would do the rest. It did – without fail.

Not pictured here was group indoor jump rope which was a pretty big challenge, but the D4s rose to the occasion for it as well.

I wish I could have tested in a darker gym that more closely represents most peoples reality, but alas I didn’t get a chance to do that. I don’t think the AF system cares, but I was curious to see what those real life challenges would look like.

Around the House

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/320, ISO 1600, No Flash

It was only a few years ago where ISO 1600 was feared and loathed by many photography curmudgeons, but it’s as good as ISO 200 was on many of those cameras. These are good times in the world of photography!

f/4 @ 105 mm, 1/320, ISO 1800, No Flash

Even with Auto White Balance set to the warmer Auto2 setting, I found that the images are still typical Nikon green (those background walls are beige). This is an area where I much prefer Canon, but again it’s only a problem if you are shooting JPEG only.

f/10 @ 70 mm, 1/8000, ISO 409,600, No Flash

Only MythBusters is going to use this ISO, but it’s there if you want to capture paranormal activity.

f/7.1 @ 70 mm, 1/4000, ISO 102,400, No Flash

While not great, at this tiny resolution and compared to above this looks stellar. Click the image to see the original to learn that this isn’t an ISO you’ll really want to use often, but it doesn’t suck like 409,600.

f/7.1 @ 70 mm, 1/640, ISO 25600, No Flash

ISO 25,600 is very usable and feels spectacular after looking at the shots above, so that opens up lots of options in tough conditions like the 1/640 sec shutter speed shown here at f/7.1 in very dim light – that’s awesome!

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/400, ISO 10000, No Flash

This feels like a normal natural light shot until you look at the ISO, so there’s no reason to fear higher ISO’s with this camera – that’s its job.

f/2.8 @ 50 mm, 1/200, ISO 5000, No Flash

I found myself trying to compensate for the green and overdoing the red, so I was wishing I would have used my ExpoDisc more for the sample shots.

I once declared the 5D Mark III as the ultimate parents camera, and it’s still a good choice, but both the D4s and 1D X offer a whole new level of performance that consumers cameras can’t compete with. Yes, you pay the price so few parents could possibly afford it, but perhaps tech savvy well-to-do grandparents will!


Sadly I can’t publish my 850+ gymnastic shots, but for those who are interested I can say that the results are in check with everything you’ve seen here. Group AF causes the random miss and focus on the background subjects, but single point was bang on. The high ISO performance meant I could just leave it on Auto ISO and set my desired settings in manual mode. As a result, I had the shutter speed I needed and the AF system did a superlative job getting 98%+ of the shots in perfect focus – even when there were distractions.

I HIGHLY recommend this camera if you have to shoot indoor sports like gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, etc…


I’ll give my full conclusion in the final installment, but as you’ve probably guessed by now the D4s is the cats meow! I am a very happy Canon 1D X owner, but I can’t stop gushing over the AF system on this camera because it’s so damn good – and idiot proof. It just works and you don’t need to think about it. There’s a lot of value in that, but this camera is very expensive so few will be able to afford it. However, my advice to existing Nikon shooters who care about focus accuracy and high ISO performance is that you find a way to buy one of these cameras. This is game changing performance that gives you confidence in your camera such that you stop thinking about focus problems and your ISO going too high – you just focus on the creative and this tool gets the job done – very well. That can mean money when you get the hero shot, so I’m very confident that true PRO photographers will get a great return on their investment with this camera. Sadly this is the demographic that often seems to be the least suited to pay this price, so most will likely go to rich high tech geeks who like to collect the best electronics toys. If that’s you, then you won’t be disappointed either!

Advice for Canon Shooters

IF you take the time to master the Canon 1D X system, all the results here are totally doable. The AI Servo defaults of the 1D X are also far superior to the frustrating 1D Mark III, and the vastly improved but still challenging 1D Mark IV. As a result, I’d stick to my long-term advice of not chasing the latest technology and changing camera platforms over to Nikon. Canon still has a great lens line up, and incredible radio frequency flash (600EX-RT), Cinema class video support, a superior metering system and an Auto White Balance / default color that I find more pleasing. However, if you have a 1D X or 5D Mark III and still find yourself frustrated with your keeper rate, then this is definitely the solution to that problem.

If I was shooting the Olympics again, the D4s is definitely the camera I’d want to take for that job – or any big job where missing the shot due to a focus error isn’t an option. For me that means I’d have to rent it, but that also means renting lenses so the math behind that gets ugly quick. As a result, I’d probably only go down that path if business was very good such that I could afford to invest $10k in a D4s, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II Lens, and a SB-910. Even that makes little logical sense, so my ultimate conclusion remains that I just need to make sure I stay up to speed on how to make the most of my 1D X. 

If I had a small collection of Canon gear (especially those with really old collections), then I might consider selling it all to switch to the D4s. I honestly think it is that good, but I don’t have a small collection and the economics of it all always points to stick with what you have and only replace the body when you have to. The best investment is always on lenses!

Click here to view the first part of this D4s review series, and part II is available here. The final installment is here:

Where to order

Click here to learn more or order the D4s on the B&H web site.

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If you make a purchase using links found in this article, I may make a commission. It doesn’t cost you a penny more, but it does help to support future articles like this. The D4s for this review was loaned to me by B&H and the 70-200mm was loaned to me by Nikon USA. Like all my reviews, I am not being paid for this review nor has anyone been allowed to preview this review before it was published.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

I concur with your comments (as I have the D4s). I think Canon had something to do with Nikon waking up. It was being complacent with the D4 replacement of the D3s. This is all good for us shooters. I can hardly wait for what is next. Aside from the focus advantages and accuracy, also AWB is superior to any other camera I have found. OOC JPEGs are really surprisingly good. And I have found solace in the RAW processor of Aperture and Capture One with the D4s images. (I have issues with interpretation of RAWs in LR.) Just quicker and sharper images coming from AP and C1. Thank you for your time and effort for the review, and for your other great articles.