Monday, May 5, 2014

REVIEW: Nikon D4s-Real World Autofocus Challenges from a Canon 1D X Shooter (Part II)

Nikon D4S DSLR Camera (Rear View)
Nikon D4S DSLR Camera (Rear View)

I’m a parent of three kids, so I’m very in tune with the reality of parenthood. While most parents couldn’t possibly afford a camera at this price point, much less all the lenses and accessories to go with it, it’s a sad fact that this is the best camera I’ve used for all of the tough situations life throws at us parents. Mom’s and Dad’s out there, you know what I mean – the kids indoor activity under horrible gym light conditions, kids swinging on the swings on a dark, overcast day, trying to catch a special moment of your active child with only a room lamp and perhaps the TV being the only light source. Many situations like are where parents discover that f/2.8 usually means that you are lucky to get 1/125 sec at ISO 12,800, so the odds are stacked against you if you actually need depth of field or want to freeze action. What’s more, with anything but the fastest focusing lenses means that your AF system is typically hunting for its life to find contrast in the scene to lock onto.

f/3.5 @ 105 mm, 1/400, ISO 4500, No Flash

Yeah, these are scenarios that will make even the best Pro Sports Photographers fail because there’s no super bright stadium lights, or wireless lights ready to fire. It’s just you and the camera often without a flash or in scenarios where an on-camera flash alone just isn’t going to cut it. They are spontaneous and they aren’t planned, so the best parents will know to go to manual and dial in the aperture they need, set the ISO to auto, and the shutter speed necessary to freeze your active little bugger and hope for the best. With point and shoots, cell phones, and most consumer grade cameras the result is often a blurry shot, a unusably dark shot, or if you are lucky a noise filled shot that the photographer in you would never want to show anyone in the real world. Yeah, the real toughest job in the photography is being a parent (or grandparent) of an active toddler/pre-schooler, so I quickly fell in love with the Nikon D4s. It’s really one of those rare things in life where you can throw money at the problem and see results.

These realities made me try hard to see how this AF system would withstand the tough challenges of life. As parents we don’t have time to fiddle with controls or get lights set just right. It’s whip it out, shoot, and put the camera away before you get the evil glance from your significant other.Success is expected, but rarely achieved with modern day cameras so would the D4s be up to the task? The D4 wasn’t, and until now the best I had tested was the Canon 5D Mark III and 1D X, but neither of those cameras were entirely without fault. Would the D4s finally be “the one” that could handle everything that life throws at it?

What follows are real world scenarios where I feel I gave the D4s some difficult, but realistic challenges. The images are taken from in-camera JPEG’s and have not been modified in any way from how they came out of the camera. I did leverage some in-camera features to get the best results, but better results are certainly possible if you want to invest the energy in the RAW files taken with each of these shots.

Most shots were taken with the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II Lens, but some 50mm shots were with the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G Autofocus Lens. Unless otherwise stated, no flash was used and most shots were with most camera defaults in manual mode, single AF point (usually AF-C with Active Matrix Metering), and Auto ISO. White balance is typically Auto White Balance (AWB – Auto2 Warm) or Shade. The picture control was Vivid for the Easter Egg Hunt, but Standard for the rest. High ISO Noise Reduction was Normal for all but the shots taken on or after May 2nd where I reduced it to Low.

Easter Egg Hunt

The tough part about an Easter egg hunt is that kids move quick and unpredictably. They often pass obvious “next stops” and seem oblivious to some eggs around them. They run erratically and move quick, so there’s little time to think. Auto-focus systems love to get confused and focus hunt under these conditions, and minimum focus distance is your biggest enemy.

f/2.8 @ 70 mm, 1/500, ISO 100

When I acted quickly, I was rewarded. The AF system often locked on fast and captured exactly what I was aiming to get – faster than I could think about it.

f/2.8 @ 85 mm, 1/500, ISO 110

Getting perfect framing, a cute look and perfect focus all in one shot isn’t easy (as I only have focus here). However, knowing your camera can do its job makes it easier for you to focus on your job with framing and the burst mode handles the luck side of things – getting the perfect expression.

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/500, ISO 100

Kids switch directions instantly, but the AF system was always up for the task. My only fault as a photographer was framing and sometimes not having the right shutter speed for the action (1/1000 sec would have been a better choice this day)

f/3.2 @ 200 mm, 1/500, ISO 140

At first I was shocked when only this frame out of seven was in focus, but after the perfect performance thus far I knew it had to be me. Sure enough, I forgot I had switched into single shot (AF-S) mode (a Canon requirement) when the action stopped, and I forgot to go back to continuous (AF-C) when the action resumed. As a result the camera did what it was supposed to do and what I told it to do, not what I wanted it to do. That was my bad, so all was well.

f/3.2 @ 185 mm, 1/500, ISO 160

While I was having a hard day with my framing, the D4s did its job very well.

f/2.8 @ 170 mm, 1/500, ISO 110

The odds may have been stacked against me with the framing and background distractions, but I was extremely satisfied with the AF performance from this hunt which lasted roughly 5 minutes.

Out of 188 shots, the only ones that weren’t on perfect focus were the ones where I tested out group mode. Group mode did a good job of keeping my son in focus, but often times it wasn’t where I wanted the focus to be (his shirt or his basket – with a blurry face). It never had any total misses, so I’ll take that. I also could have used a faster shutter speed for some of the action to get the best results, but overall I was very satisfied with the AF performance in this test. 

I had done a Easter Egg hunt the previous week in very bad weather conditions using SIGMA 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM | S with my Canon 1D X  (see and while it performed very well too, I didn’t have this level of success with the unexpected transitions. I didn’t have the same great light, but I did feel like this Nikon lens and camera combo certainly bested the Canon / SIGMA combo.


Kids love to blow dandelions, but parents often find it tough catch this carefree moment of innocence in the act. This requires both a fast burst mode and an intelligent autofocus system that won’t shift focus to the flying seeds. The first shot was easy due to ample light, but to get the best results under tough lighting conditions I had to go to the fastest burst mode without shooting RAW to avoid having the buffer fill up on me too early. My preferred, RAW+JPEG, wasn’t an option, and for reviews I use JPEG’s so I couldn’t do full RAW only. The D4s could have handled just RAW, which is what most people shoot with, so RAW shooters shouldn’t be stressing out here – yes, there’s plenty of buffer in the D4s before it bogs down – in JPEG only or RAW (14-bit lossless compressed) only shooting conditions.

f/3.2 @ 92 mm, 1/500, ISO 100

f/2.8 @ 185 mm, 1/320, ISO 2000

Under less than perfect light, my first set of tests resulted in 50 of 50 perfect in focus frames.
In my second set of tests, I got 92 of 92 perfect in focus frames. My favorite frame is shown above.

f/2.8 @ 185 mm, 1/320, ISO 1800

In the final test with four dandelions I took a single burst of 84 frames, but half were soft but the primary area of focus was on my son. I was using group mode this time instead of a single AF point and it seemed to favor his sleeve with the logo more than his face. The Single AF point on the eye is the right choice for this scenario, but I was getting cocky to see if it could pull it off. Focus was NEVER on the background or the flying seeds, so I’d still consider this a success.

Overall, I’d say this test passed with flying colors. The buffer never hiccupped in JPEG only mode and group mode proved to be very good, but not magical as some have suggested on the web.


Athletes run predictable patterns with grace and form, but children run wild with carefree abandon. As a result there are no rules. Running wild switching directions with no obvious pattern and lots of distractions are normal, so you often find yourself getting a fast shutter speed set, turn on burst mode and hope for the best.

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/1000, ISO 140

While this frame may not convey the difficulty of this shot, trust me when I say this was a tough one because my son was zig zagging without any predictable pattern with all his extremities doing something different. This is a classic case where the AF system will typically give up and focus on the background for a frame or two, but it never did. This is a VERY tough shot to get in a series, and it did. 26 of 28 frames were in perfect focus, and the two that weren’t I blame group mode once again for favoring my son’s waist over his face. I wasn’t mad at group mode though because I’ll take 26 of 28 any day for a tough challenge like this as I suspect that’s better than I would have done with using a single AF point.

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/1000, ISO 100

This was one of those situations where you say “where the heck is my child”, then you hear some screaming coming your way. I pointed and shot with no time to think or prep and nailed it. The exposure was a bit dark, but that’s an easier post processing fix than a blurry shot so I was very satisfied.

f/9 @ 200 mm, 1/1000, ISO 1000

The subject here is my wife with a single AF point locked on her. It’s not especially challenging but sometimes items like her shawl can shift and throw the AF system off. You can tell by her toe nails that she’s clearly the target subject here, but in the next shot below you see that the AF stays put like it should.

f/9 @ 200 mm, 1/1000, ISO 800

Sometimes AF systems will see the brighter foreground person and choose to switch focus to them, but the D4s stayed locked on the intended target despite the black shirt, flying shawl and minimal separation between the two subjects. I can get this result with my Canon cameras, but I have to choose the right AF settings to do so. The Nikon D4s just did it without my input, so I was very pleased about that!

f/3.5 @ 195 mm, 1/400, ISO 100

Group AF started off okay, but I was thinking I needed a faster shutter speed…

f/3.2 @ 195 mm, 1/400, ISO 100

…for the next frame the AF system just got totally confused…

f/3.5 @ 195 mm, 1/400, ISO 100

…then it got confused about what the subject was…

f/3.2 @ 195 mm, 1/400, ISO 100

…then it magically found my subject and nailed the focus. This sort of AF confusion isn’t uncommon on all of the camera’s I’ve tested (including the D4), but what was remarkable was how quickly it recovered from utter confusion. Sadly, it lost it again. Oddly enough this was a 13 frame set where 7 shots were not in sharp focus (with 5 complete misses). I’d later discover that this running away from the camera seemed to be a weak spot from an otherwise excellent system!

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/1000, ISO 250

Even with an unexpected cut and jump on the return run towards me in identical conditions, I got 58 for 58 frames (at RAW+JPEG) in perfect focus with no buffering problems.

f/2.8 @ 92 mm, 1/200, ISO 160

Even here where my son just randomly jumped the fence, I was able to grab a perfect focus on his eye with a single AF point. I was very happy that the D4s did exactly what I wanted, and the motion blur introduced by me honestly not being ready for this shot was perfect to show the action of the moment. I couldn’t have done better had I staged this shot.

f/2.8 @ 70 mm, 1/1000, ISO 100

How often is the shot after the slide series a total blur? Often! Not today though, and that was the theme for the day for nearly everything.

f/2.8 @ 200 mm, 1/400, ISO 560

Yeah, this is the real deal! Running in the bushes with tons of distractions and branches and the AF system just nailed it – over and over.

Running away shots with busy backgrounds (while in group mode) was the only thing I could do during all of my testing in outdoor conditions (both sunny and dreary weather) to trip this camera up. This AF system is the real deal and very impressive for running.

If you shoot high school track where the conditions can be super tough – especially in bad weather –  I think you’ll be quite pleased!

More Articles

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CORBI Marc said...

I thought Nikon D4s improved colours over the greeny results of the D4 .. but on your samples, they are still looking rather with green/yellow tones. Compared to your former 1Dx samples, it look as if you have change your monitor calibration.

It should also be interesting to shoot outdoor samples between 1Dx and D4s to see if there is any real improvement.

Andy Bo said...

The link to the Nikon sponsored 70-200 takes you to a Canon 70-200 Lens at B&H. Probably not your intention given the article

John Smith said...

You made your point with the autofocus in daylight. Did you try it in sport competiton indoor (tennis, gym) or ballet or even worse classical musicians shot at close range in low light (they move more or less at random dancing with their instrument).