Nikon D4s Review

Over the past few years, I have written numerous lens reviews on my blog, but this is the first time I'm reviewing a camera. Why? Because the Nikon D4s is a camera that I've come to feel so strongly about, and want other photographers in my position to see some real world feedback on this camera (especially with the lack of current reviews online about the D4s). In my opinion, Nikon really hit a home run with this one :)

Below is a brief overview of my experiences with previous cameras as a professional photographer, prior to the D4s

1. Nikon D200: first semi-pro body, loved the FPS, hated that its usable ISO ceiling was 800. The 11 AF point system pissed me off a lot. Used mine to death until the rubber grips started to fall off.

2. Nikon D300: this was my workhorse for a couple years and I really loved it. It improved on everything that I didn't like about the D200...51 point AF module, usable files at ISO 2000, 6 fps, better color, longer battery life.

3. Nikon D700: my first FX body, was a game changer for me. I really appreciated that its layout was very similar to the D300, making the transition seamless. The large viewfinder, usable files at ISO 3200, and the overall look of the bokeh and color convinced me to sell my DX stuff and transition to 100% FX bodies and glass.

4. Nikon D4: I was amazed at how responsive this camera was...the number of photos (and usable ones to that end) that I shot at weddings increased quite a bit. Built-in vertical grip was something new, but I realized how useful it was. Ability to AF in live view was a revelation for me. Perhaps people had overhyped it online, but I was underwhelmed by the ISO performance (didn't like shooting it over ISO 5000), and quite often, the color just didn't feel right (not as vibrant as I liked, and a little too green on the hue in certain situations, although it made me realize how much the D700 biases towards magenta in hue). Battery life wasn't as solid as I had also expected. Maybe it was my copy, but the AF wasn't as much of a leap forward from the D700 as I needed.

As a full time wedding photographer, I put my gear through some really grueling paces on a daily basis. During the height of the wedding season, the company I shoot for, Isle Media, averages several weddings a week. This means I'm shooting thousands of images a week, and the gear I use needs to just work. Out of all the cameras I've used over the past 6 years of shooting weddings, the Nikon D4s has done the best job of being the extension of my mind without getting in the way. It does exactly what I need it to do, and then some. In fact, within a couple weeks of first using it alongside the D4 and D700, I was convinced enough to sell both bodies and buy another D4s. I haven't looked back since. This review was written over the course of 4 months. Since purchasing both bodies in April, I have shot 88,634 images on my D4s cameras, and I finally feel I am in a position to give somewhat of an accurate insight into Nikon's new flagship camera.  

This camera just feels right when you pick it up. The deeper hand grip and sloped shutter (see top photo) that first appeared in the D4 is here in the D4s, and makes for a very comfortable shooting experience. Both changes have significantly helped with the hand fatigue, especially after a few days of consecutive shooting! I still shoot with a D700 as a third body at weddings (my tilt shift lives on it so I can grab it quickly), and it feels quite uncomfortable to use next to the D4s. The biggest improvement to me, from the D4 to the D4s, was the beefed up battery door, and thumb grip on the vertical grip. On the D4, I was skeptical about how strong the battery door was, considering a lot of the pressure is being placed there when you shoot. Those thoughts went out the door once I started shooting with the D4s. The thumb grip (vertical grip) on the D4 also felt a bit odd, but Nikon got it right in the D4s, as it doesn't feel forced at all. 

Going from the D4 to the D4s is very seamless. Pretty much all the buttons, dials, and controls are the same, with the exception of one important change: the autofocus adjustment knobs got a cosmetic change, and are made of a much more solid plastic with excellent grip. On the D4, these knobs had a rubber finish, and were slightly recessed in the middle, which I wasn't a big fan of. The new knobs on the D4s are so much more responsive and easy to use, and as a shooter who focuses with single point focus, I end up using them a great deal, so this change was huge for me! Coming from shooting the D300/D700 for a few years, the ISO-QUAL-WB buttons and LCD screen on the lower back of the camera took some getting used to in the D4/D4s, but I absolutely love it now, as it is much easier to change the settings than peering on top of the camera as I had to do with the D300/D700. 

Aside from being tested to 400,000 cycles, the D4s's shutter just sounds cool. It has a very clean snap, and not clunky like the D700. In addition, both the D4 & D4s have the "Quiet" shutter, which essentially dampens the mirror slap. Audibly, it's not exactly that much quieter, but the shutter drags out so it's not as noticeable during something like a wedding ceremony in a church (where I've had to use this feature). The downside the Quiet shutter is that you can't burst with it (which makes sense, since it is being drawn out). 

I remember when I first shot the D4 @ 10 fps, I wanted to cry, it sounded so beautiful. Coming from the 5 fps of the D700, this just blew my mind! The D4s does improve on the D4 with the ability to shoot 11 fps, without having to have the AF locked. A 1 fps difference might not sound like much, but for moments like the bouquet and garter toss, any additional frame that I can get in is awesome! 

The one thing that irked me about the D700 was that its viewfinder was only 95% coverage, so I'd end up having stuff in my frame that I had not intended for, resulting in more post production time. The D4/D4s both have 100% coverage viewfinders, which are noticeably larger and brighter than the D700. Pair this with a bunch of f1.4 primes, and you have a viewfinder that is bright even in dimly lit areas. Nikon claimed that it optimized the D4s mirror mechanism so there is less blackout time, compared to the D4 when in fast fps, but I haven't noticed too much of a difference. 
Backlit Buttons
Speaking of dimly lit areas, another nice thing that the D4s adopted from the D4 is the backlit buttons. I've never had this in any camera prior, and it's come in handy when I shoot wedding receptions. What's nice is that the buttons sync with the SB900/SB910 backlit screen and buttons when it's mounted in the hotshoe, and both turn on their backlights at the same time, when you turn the on/off switch all the way to the right. My only critique is that not all the buttons are backlit (i.e the delete and playback buttons, which are very important). 

Following suit of the D4, the D4s caters quite a bit to video shooters, and has a plethora of connectors, including peripheral, HDMI, headphone, and mic jacks. In addition the Ethernet connector is beefed up, and supposedly offers up to 10 times faster transfer rates over the D4. I also appreciate that the covers are separated, so if you're only using one, the others remain covered, unlike the D700 which had just one cover for all the ports).

The D4s weighs in a 1,180g (2.6 lb) without battery and memory cards, which is the same as the D4. Considering how much more this camera can do, compared to the D700, it's pretty good that it only weighs 20% more! Since I shoot mostly primes for weddings, the overall weight is kept down, but once you throw on a 24-70 or 70-200, it will wear on you fast, especially if you're carrying two bodies like me...

CF+XQD Slots
This was quite a controversial move by Nikon to move from 2 CF slots in the D3s to a CF and XQD slot in the D4 (and now D4s). Since the XQD is still a relatively new format (I think of it as a SD card on steroids), the D4/D4s are the only cameras the market that shoot the format, making it kind of awkward to use. However, the speed and performance of the XQD has blown me away! (Write speed in the new "S" series card is 180 MB/sec). In addition, the upload speed is about twice as fast as the latest UDMA 7 cards in my experience. In my last timed test, the XQD uploaded 12GB of photos to Lightroom in 2 minutes 30 seconds. Another benefit of having the XQD is that you can scroll through your images faster in preview even faster than CF.

Yes, it sucks to have to buy two different card readers and at $200 a pop, the XQD cards aren't cheap, but I have come to come to like this set up a lot. Here's why. The CF slot allows you to use your old CF cards from previous cameras, and the XQD slot gives you the speed when you need it. Personally, the two slot feature of the D4/D4s was one of the main reasons for upgrading from the D700. As a wedding photographer, any steps that I can take on my end to ensure the safety and integrity of my images is huge, so I have my D4s cameras dual write RAWs to both the CF and XQD simultaneously, in case one card fails at a wedding (other options include overflow when the primary card fills up, or to write RAW to one card, and JPG to the other).

Battery Life
The big story here is the new EN-EL18a battery, which has a higher mAh than the older EN-EL18 (2500 mAh VS 2000 mAh). This results in a pretty significant increase in battery life. Out of the dozens of weddings I've shot with the D4s, it averages about 2800 images before the battery is exhausted (I'm lucky if I get 2000 images from the EN-EL18). What does this mean? I can shoot two full day weddings on a single EN-EL18a battery :)

Weather Sealing
One of the things I admire the most about Nikon's pro bodies is how much thought the company put into making sure they are weather sealed. In the case of the D4s, every button, dial, and control knob has rubber gaskets to keep dust and moisture out. The frame is also made out of a magnesium alloy (which helps as I tend to bump my bodies around when carrying them on my Black Rapid straps). I've gotten caught in several downpours during weddings (see above photo), but the D4s keeps on shooting. During one wedding, part of the wedding cake fell on my D4s (the cake was structurally unstable and when the groom walked next to the cake, a piece fell off onto my D4s. A quick clean with a baby wipe, and the camera was good to go. One minor annoyance that I do want to mention is that the battery holders in both my D4s cameras don't slide in smoothly into the battery takes a little bit of wiggling to get them locked. 

Image Quality
To put it simply, the D4s churns out the most beautiful images I've ever seen in a camera. Colors are very true to life, and I love the slight punch in saturation that the D4s has compared to the D4. Click here to link to the shoot I did with Remi, pictured above.

Another thing I appreciate about the D4s image quality is how smooth the tones are between shadows, midtones, and highlights. This especially becomes apparent when I shoot my old D700 side by side with the D4s on assignment, as the D700 files are much more abrupt in their tones across the board. Click here to link to the shoot I did with Kristy, pictured above (all images shot with the D4s). 

Dynamic Range
The D4s has a remarkably wide dynamic range. I did some research online, and apparently the D4s has around 13 stops of dynamic range (compared to 11 with the D700). This is a huge plus for me, especially when I'm shooting in high contrast scenes for weddings or model shoots. In the image above, I metered right around the middle, in terms of the shadows in the highlights. 

While this is a bit of an extreme example (I pulled back highlights and whites in LR5 to -70 and boosted shadows to +50), it demonstrates the latitude that the D4s can give in these high contrast situations. 

Since getting the D4s, I've noticed that my photos look a lot more complete with detail, especially with those with lots of sky or bright background where I would have normally lost a lot more information with the D700. 

Live View
One of the most useful functions of this camera is a carry-over the from the D4: the live view. Coming from the D700, I never had a camera that had the ability to AF in live view, and let me tell you, this was absolutely ground breaking for me. I use live view quite a lot during weddings, because it allows me do things like get low angle shots of decor or details, and high-over shots during reception dancing (the live view is unusually very accurate in light). It also allows me to view white balance in real time, which can be invaluable when setting a manual temperature to match unusual lighting. Live view comes in handy when I'm shooting into the sun (which is quite often), and allows me view the flare through the screen instead of being blinded in the viewfinder. Unlike the live view on the D3s which caps out at 1/250 sec, the live view on the D4/D4s can operate at any shutter speed and has a much smoother refresh rate.

**The video abilities on this camera are pretty extensive (full 1080p in 24/30/60 fps, writing to external recorder, audio monitoring, etc), although as a photographer, I do not use the video mode for my assignments, so I haven't had any experience with that side of the D4s yet. 

To put it simply, the D4s has the best AF performance that I've ever seen in a camera. It tracks in literally every single lighting condition that I throw at it during assignments, and it's really only limited by the glass that you pair it with (i.e 24-70 or 70-200 makes for a versatile combination). In the image above, I went cosmic bowling with the Isle Media team to celebrate our 3rd year anniversary as a company. The entire room was completely dark and was only illuminated by the black lights along the bowling lanes. The D4s tracked and nailed this shot of Kay and Brendan bowling w/the 35mm 1.4G. 
Auto White Balance
Nikon worked their magic under the hood, because this camera is incredibly good at finding the right white balance, even under trying lighting conditions. The AWB works particularly well in tungsten lit situations (which is very helpful for wedding settings like the getting ready and reception), as well as outdoors. However, while the D4s will nail the WB 98% of the time, the other 2% seems like it doesn't know what to do. In the example image above, I had just shot an image of some bridesmaids doing their hair in the bathroom under tungsten lighting (which the camera shot correctly). Then, when I came out into the living room to shoot the bride getting ready, the camera gave me this seemed to have gotten hung up on the tungsten bias from the bathroom and didn't adjust. Again, this only has happened a few times over the past 5 months that I've owned this camera, but it is something to note. 

ISO Performance
This was the main reason why I got this camera. As a wedding photographer, I am often placed in very difficult lighting situations, such as the outdoor reception above, where there was no ceiling to bounce flash off of, and everything was lit only with dim tungsten lights hanging above the guests. This image was shot at ISO 12800, straight off the camera, no noise reduction or color filters applied. It was after I saw this image that I knew this camera meant business when it comes to low light shooting.

Prior to shooting with the D4s, my ISO ceiling was 3200 on the D700, and 5000 on the D4. That ceiling has now been raised to ISO 25,600. 

Here is a test that I ran on the D4s noise performance. Everything was shot on a D4s w/24-70mm, tripod mounted. The following images are 100% crops of shooting the D4s at different stops of ISO.
**Note: all images from this test are straight off the camera, no noise reduction or color modifications made. 

For my uses, this camera is usable around ISO 25,600, which is groundbreaking, considering I didn't like to go above ISO 5000 for the D4 (the noise just didn't look good to me). 

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 12,800

ISO 25,600

ISO 51,200
ISO 102,400

ISO 204,800

ISO 409,600

More Images
Here are links (NSFW) to model shoots that were shot entirely on the Nikon D4s.



Here are wedding shoots (with Isle Media) that I did with the D4s.
**Note: the second shooters on our team were using either a Nikon D700 or Canon 5D mkII so the guy's getting ready and a few images throughout the post weren't shot on the D4s. I will update this section with more weddings as we post them on the Isle Media blog.

Wan and Johnny engagement 
Jessica and Alvin wedding

Jen and Minh wedding
Ginger and Tyler wedding

Sabrina and Adi wedding

This camera has ultimately changed the way I shoot. It comes closer to delivering what I see with my eyes, better than any other camera I've previously used. Over the past 5 months of owning the D4s, here are my final thoughts:

--Extremely pleasant to hold. Deeper grip, new textured rubber material, and vertical shutter makes shooting easier. 
--Sturdier AF adjustment jobs were a game changer, especially being a shooter that stays on single point focus for most of my shooting. 
--11 FPS is beautiful. 
--100% coverage viewfinder is top notch.
--backlit buttons are very useful when shooting in low light. 
--separated covers for the various connecting ports are a nice touch. 
--CF+XQD: best of both worlds, really. XQDs are ridiculously fast. 
--The new EN-EL18a battery allows me to easily shoot two weddings on one battery. 
--Weathersealed like how Nikon's flagship camera should be. 
--Best IQ I've ever seen in a Nikon DSLR. Files have very smooth tonal transitions, colors pop better than the D4, in my opinion. 
--13 stops dynamics range. The amount of information that this camera captures is awesome. 
--Live view allows me to get shots from different perspectives, while also allowing me to view WB in real time.
--Very intelligent AWB, especially under tungsten lighting. Seems like Nikon optimized this camera to figure out skin tones just right.
--My lenses fly on the D4s AF. Even the 85mm 1.4G, which was a bit of sloth on my D700, is snappy on the D4s. 
--The D4s AF can literally see in the dark. Very handy for those dark wedding receptions. 
--Very useable at ISO 25,600.

--Two of the most important buttons (playback and trash) are not backlit...why not, Nikon?
--While this camera isn't much heavier than the D700, you'll notice the difference, especially after you throw on a 2.8 zoom like the 24-70 and a flash.
--AWB: it gets hung up on readings in some situations, which I've never seen in previous cameras. 
--This camera comes with a huge price tag. Definitely worth it, but you have to decide that for yourself. 
--On both of my D4s cameras, the battery needs to be wiggled a bit to slide into the battery chamber. With a pro camera like the D4s, I'd expect the machining to be a bit more precise. 

I can see three groups of people looking to get this camera. Here are my thoughts on if you're on the fence about upgrading:
1. D700/D800 users: Yes. The D4s is a huge upgrade in all areas, from AF acquisition, to ISO performance, to ergonomics (vertical grip and AF joysticks). The dual slots in the D4s are a huge plus for pros, especially wedding shooters. 
2. D3/D3s users: Yes. Similar to what I said for #1, the D4s is a significant enough upgrade in all areas.  
3. D4 users: Yes in my experience. Perhaps I had a bad D4 copy, but I felt so much better about the D4s when using it side by side with the D4 at weddings that I promptly sold my D4 within two weeks of getting the D4s. The D4s just does everything a little better than the D4, whether it's overall handling, AF tracking, IQ, etc. How much better, that can be subjective to each person, but I've never looked back, and love the D4s to death. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this very long review! Feel free to leave comments or questions below. 


  1. Always enjoy reading your reviews. I'm currently shooting with a D3S and I wasn't sure the upgrade was significant. Now I have a bit to think about. Thanks !

  2. Thanks Brian! One of the photographers that I shoot weddings with has the D3s, so I've been able to use that camera in the field. The D4s noticeably improves on everything, from controls, to ISO, to IQ, so if you have the funds, I say definitely go for the upgrade! :)

  3. Good read, thanks for posting. Would you say the AWB is a noticeable improvement over the D4, specifically in lessening the green bias?

    I am a bit irked that Nikon chose not to implement highlight-weighted metering into this camera. Feel about it how I felt about D800 not having the D4's AF point orientation recall. Why!

  4. Thank you! Yes, the AWB is noticeably better than the D4, esp. with the green bias indoors. The D4s has solid metering, although recently I have noticed that one body has a slight tendency to underexpose in certain situations, usually in high contrast outdoor scenes.

  5. Not a pro, but my D700's getting super long in the tooth by now. Looking to rent a D4s for a friend's wedding in a month, and after reading this review I'm getting really worried that I won't want to touch my D700 again :D



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