review: high-ISO performance – Nikon D4S vs. D4 / D3s / D610 / D700

review: high-ISO performance Nikon D4S vs D4 / D3s / D610 / D700

Judging image quality between different cameras, is most often quite subjective when we have equal glass with each camera. The reason for this is that the pixel count has an effect. For example, how do you compare the high-ISO noise performance of the 36 megapixel D800 vs the 12 megapixel D3? You can’t just simply zoom in to 100% and go by that. You would have to print to a specific size, or at least down-size the D800 image to 12 megapixels to fairly evaluate the images. So there’s a bit of a murky area here in fairly comparing cameras of different sensor sizes.

We now have a new King of awesomely awesome high-ISO noise performance – the Nikon D4s (vendor). I posted one image in the review of the Nikon D4S auto-focus / AF performance, which was shot at 8000 ISO. In my opinion it looked remarkable.

So how does the Nikon D4s high-ISO noise compare to the other Nikon cameras? Well, I chickened out here. Instead of doing comparison photos and then processing them the same, and figuring out some kind of baseline in terms of image size, etc etc … I wimped out. I’m giving you the high-ISO RAW files, shot from 800 ISO and up, for various cameras. Download them from that link via a right-click and save-as.


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I photographed Olena in the studio. You’ll recognize her from previous Tangents articles. We kept the pose simple. So, no critique there, please!

The setup was simple
– a dark grey paper backdrop about 15 ft behind her, so it would go black;
– Westcott Spiderlite TD6  w/ 36×48 shallow softbox (Amazon)

I used the Nikon D4s; D4; D3s; D610 and the older D700. These images will give you an idea of the progress that has been made in sensor technology. Actually, the D700 holds up pretty well, until around 3200 ISO. But by 12,800 ISO, the D4s and D4 and D3s pull away.

Oh, and the D610 camera – I made a complete noob mistake with the borrowed camera – I forgot to switch it to RAW. So the D610 images are the SOOC JPGs at the default settings. So while the other files are RAW files, and you can adjust Sharpening and Noise Reduction to your heart’s content in comparing the images, the D610 images are kinda set in stone. JPG stone. But I am including them here since they do still give a reasonable comparison.

I used the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G lens, and ran up the shutter speed while bumping up the ISO. At some point, I did run out of shutter speeds, and then I changed the aperture accordingly. I kept the naming of the ISO ranges as they appear on the camera, with regard to when “High 1” etc kick in. In other words, be aware that Hi-1 on the D700 is the same as 12,800 ISO. But your RAW processor’s EXIF display will tell you anyway.

While the Spiderlite does have Daylight bulbs in them, they don’t quite give “Daylight” with the exact same spectrum as daylight. So there’s that factor to keep in mind.

I shot with Auto WB to see how well each camera coped. The D700 and D3s didn’t fare so well in this regard. But these are the RAW files – change the WB to what you think looks good.

So here you have it:  the high-ISO RAW files of various Nikon cameras. You figure out how good the Nikon D4s (vendor) is in comparison to the other cameras. Have fun, and let us know your observations. I’d like to hear.


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15 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 2Majd says

    Hey Neil, I think you forgot to add the links to the D610 files.
    I own the infamous D600 and I feel the ISO performance could have been better with the available tech at the time. I am really disappointed with Nikon in the past two years crippling most of their camera models to retain a selling edge on their higher-end models. The D600 should have been much better in many regards. Sometimes i feel that Nikon doesn’t understand the customer base it has which is sad considering the great history of the company. I really hope they pick up the pace and go back to focusing on innovation rather than silly sales policies because that’s what they have been always good at. Otherwise, they will fall behind.
    On another note, I am very keen on the new D800S that is supposed to be announced during this month. I really hope Nikon will give it their all this time and won’t do the same mistake again. They must understand that the D800 line and the D4 line are totally different and they shouldn’t worry about losing sales from one to another.
    Thanks for the review. The D4S is one big beast of a camera indeed.

    • 2.1Charles says

      Canon does the same thing. Their high end models are too expensive for the casual or low end professional who seem to be migrating to other brands – sad.

  2. 3 says

    Oops … I’ve added the D610 files now.

    I also think there is a gap in the line-up. A D700x or something. A direct competitor to the Canon 5D mk3.

  3. 4Majd says

    I totally agree with your note on the gap in the lineup. In my opinion, the D600/610 shouldn’t have existed as the D7000/7100 line is good enough to cover the advanced hobbyist lane. A D700x should have been introduced instead with unleashed specs. The new D800s should cover for the smaller file size with the sRAW option but the frame rate is still slow and the higher pixel count will cripple the color and tonal range at higher ISO so it won’t fill in for the D700x for sure – even though the current usable ISO numbers are massive.
    I really wonder why they don’t address these issues! All Nikon ambassadors are great photogs and these facts are second nature for anyone who has been in the industry for more than a year. There must have been feedback on these topics.

  4. 6Spero says

    Just wanna let you know Neil – the lord of darkness is still missing….

    Its the DF! Low Light King!!

    But I don’t like the camera due to several issues (price too high; only 1/4000; viewfinder not full coverage; no split-screen for old manual focusing lens; AF system of the d600 not of the d800/d4; build quality/materials lower than d600; only one sd card slot; ergonmics bad not comforable! etc.)

    But may be the DF2 is better then for me….i think it will come due to the fact that it seems it selling well despite my or those issues……success increases the chances potential of a worthy successor!! Hopefully then better constructed, designed and built..!!


  5. 7 says

    Thank you Neil great info for those who don’t have those cameras to play.
    To me all D4S files are pretty soft, coming from 1DX, I expected to be sharper.
    (The first one when ISO 800 doesn’t count as softness due to a camera shake)
    Anyway tanx

  6. 8Michael says

    Rumor is that Canon will be introducing new bodies and probably as soon as August. Both the 1DX and 5D3 have been out for a few years now and it looks like they are going to upgrade it soon.

    One thing to mention when talking about low light / high iso is the raw image processing software. I use DXO Optics PRIME noise reduction software and it works great in my personal opinion. Lets say you have an older camera body. Instead of spending thousands of dollars to upgrade you can use one of the many raw image processing software which is out there.

    There are quite a few noise reduction software out there such as:

    – DXO Optics
    – Neat Image
    – Photo Ninja/Noise Ninja
    – NDNoise
    – Topaz Labs DeNoise
    – Nik Define
    – Noiseware
    – a few others not mentioned

    I will say the DXO Optics on the PRIME setting is slow and demands a high end desktop computer, however, I think it works great. Its not for everyone because it does take time to process. For me, the DXO Optics on the Prime setting takes about 2-4 minutes per photo. When processing 100 photos you are going to wait around a bit.

    In any event, any noise program will make the noiseful photos better then what they appear.

  7. 9 says

    You’re on the money there with your comment about the RAW processing software. I’ve started to update old posts on my wedding blog, revamping some of the images. They look much better now – partly because my post-processing technique has changed, but also because the RAW processing software has improved over the years.

  8. 10David Ashford says

    Well, this post is most timely and helpful! Thanks particularly for making the RAW files available.

    I have a D700 with a 24-70mm f2.8 and have been trying to decide on the upgrade for the D700 for a while.

    Experimented in LR5, jacking up the shadows to 100 to see how much detail there was lurking at the bottom end which highlighted the extra range and lower noise with the D4 & D4s over the D3s. Night and day vs the D700.

    Just played around with the ISO 12800 shots from the D4s/D4/D3s & D700 with shadows at +100 and highlights at -100. Beautiful mid tone graduation on the D4s getting steadily less defined going down the product list. The noise reduction on the 4s looks particularly good.

    Was planning on a D3s but think I’ll go for a D4, just can’t run to a D4s

    Incidentally, I thought I’d try out the lossy DNG conversion. Seems to be very little IQ loss even on the pushed shadows. The 21.2MB D4s 12800 NEF went down to 19.8MB on the lossless DNG and 16.1MB on the lossy.

  9. 11mike says


    thanks for sharing the nef’s!

    Great to see how “good” my “old” D700 still is :)

    Hope you can show us in future more test with the orginal nef’s :)

    Greetings from Austria,

  10. 12Jef says


    Thanks for this really helpful comparison ! First, and to begin with the downsides, it’s such a shame the D610 is in jpeg, moreover, it would have been be great to have a comparison with D800 too, and maybe the D810 in the future? But that’s not the point and you did a really great job here, so thank you !

    To me, and to my poor eyes, I think there is a real gap between the Nikon D4s and all the other DSLR’s of the test.
    I admit I just looked the 6400 to 25600 isos pictures, and, it’s all about the black and shadow tones and rendering, not the skin/clear tones. The background, in fact, is not just black, but plenty of grey tones. Moreover, we can really see the separation between the colours of the jean she’s wearing and the background. Look at all those relections in her hairs…And eventually, the general looking is clearer with the D4s. The D4 and D3s are really good too, but the shadow tones just can’t match the D4s. The D610 and D700 are really behind in terms of dealing with those shadow parts…I recognize there the rendering of my D600, and I often find myself not using over 3200 isos, because of those shadows rendition.

    I’m really impressed with the work Nikon did with the D4s…Hope the D810 will be nearly as good…

  11. 13Francisco says

    Hi Neil.
    Thanks for the comparison .
    I see that the D4 had the 1.03 firmware.
    Too bad because 1.05 and above really shows a significant improvement in auto WB.

  12. 14Donna says

    I use both D700 and D3s, I find both to shoot pretty warm in Auto, I end up removing alot of yellow tones, but I shoot alot in very very low light at high ISO’s for band photography, so it’s a trade off. Wanted to try to DF just for fun, but it won’t perform in my frequent low light situations, but my friends who shoot daylight hours say it’s awesome. thanks for you tips Neil, I love Tangents.

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