review: Nikon D4S auto-focus / AF performance
The Nikon D4s (B&H / Amazon) updates the already-awesome Nikon D4. The short summary lists some improvements, which while they may appear incremental, overall make for a solid new release by Nikon:
– a newly designed sensor, offering better high-ISO performance,
– an additional AF mode has been added – Group Area AF – for more accurate subject tracking,
– 11 fps continuous shooting with continuous AE/AF (compared to the 10 fps of the D4)
– ‘small’ Raw size of 8 Mpx,
– 1080/60p video
– faster processing with the new Expeed 4 processor
– improved battery performance,
– Multi-CAM 3500FX Autofocus Sensor Module with “thoroughly recalibrated AF algorithms”
For this review, I want to highlight the auto-focus performance. AF speed and accuracy is in a way subjective. There’s no numerical value we can attach to it that will tell us in discrete steps how much better the “thoroughly recalibrated AF algorithms” with the new AF sensor module will improve on the D4 camera.
My friend Yasmeen Anderson specializes as a fitness portrait photographer in NJ, and I asked if I could tag along on some of her shoots. With this photo session of actor / model Joe Monbleau, we shot in a colorful urban area in NJ. Joe tirelessly sprinted and bounced and jumped for numerous sequences. Enough time for me to fire off the D4S and see how it perform in grabbing crisply sharp images of someone moving fast.
And yes, I am very impressed. The Nikon D4S is noticeably more responsive with auto-focus on moving subjects. I’ll blame those “thoroughly recalibrated AF algorithms” in the new AF sensor.
- 1/6400 @ f/4 @ 800 ISO
- Nikon D4s (B&H / Amazon)
- Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II @ 150mm
- 1/6400 @ f/4 @ 800 ISO
- Nikon D4s (B&H / Amazon)
- Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II @ 200mm
The image at the top was shot at 1/8000 @ f/4 @ 800 ISO, with the lens racked to 200mm. (The image was cropped to 4×5 ratio for posting here.) I purposely shot these sequences with 800 ISO to boost the shutter speed to action-stopping levels. The aperture was at f/4 which is fast enough for shallow depth-of-field, but with a tiny bit of leeway.
- 1/2500 @ f/3.5 @ 1600 ISO
- Nikon D4s (B&H / Amazon)
- Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G AF-S
Again, the ISO was pushed up for a higher shutter speed. The Nikon D4 has great high-ISO performance, and the D4S improves on that, so I had no hesitation to go to 1600 ISO.
The image above had Joe move more or less laterally to the camera, so the AF had an easy time.
For these images, I was using AF-C (continuous AF mode), with the 3D pattern.
A sequence like this one, shot with the 24-70mm zoom, gave me nearly a 100% success rate with sharp images. So the AF had little difficulty keeping up at 11 fps.
With sequences like this (shown with first three images in this review, Joe was moving more diagonally to the camera, and I was shooting with a longer lens. Slightly more difficult for a camera to keep up. I would say out of sequences similar to this, my success rate was (conservatively) better than 90% in getting sharp images.
With Joe running at full tilt past the camera like this, I would (conservatively) say the success rate was better than 80% for all sequences. Quite impressive. Even the last few frames where it is just Joe’s arm in the frame, were sharp. The AF algorithms obviously kept track of the “momentum” of the subject being tracked, as good AF systems should.
With repeated sequences like this … I got respect for Joe’s stamina .. as well as the ability of Nikon D4S to just snap into focus, and keep up. Even at 11 fps.
Now, this is clearly a subjective view, but I can honestly say the AF performance of the Nikon D4s (affiliate) is noticeably better than the Nikon D4. And that says something too.
Nikon D4S auto-focus performance in low light
The official bumf on the Nikon D4S mentions:
Unbeatable AF accuracy and versatility.
The D4S’s Multi-CAM 3500FX Autofocus Sensor Module has thoroughly recalibrated AF algorithms to quickly zero in exactly where and how you intend it to—no matter how near, far, or abruptly your subject appears in the scene. Expect detection accuracy even for subjects in low-contrast situations, such as backlighting. The detected subject stays in constant focus, thanks to improved tracking capabilities.
I would agree. Even photographing a band performing in a club, the Nikon D4S grabbed auto-focus faster and with more precision that I would’ve expected from my trusty D4 bodies. I saw a higher success rate for challenging light like this, that I am used to.
Now we come to another juicy aspect of the Nikon D4S – high-ISO performance.
I shot that image at 1/100 @ f/2.8 @ 8000 ISO … yup, 8-thousand ISO.
Here is a 100% crop, with the Luminance Noise Reduction set to 25, which is my default in Bridge/ACR and Lightroom. Yes, the high-ISO noise performance of the Nikon D4S is that impressive! But more about that in a follow-up review where we will look at exactly that.
You can order a Nikon D4S via these affiliate links: B&H / Amazon
19 Comments, Add Your Own
Today, I learned a new word from this blog entry, bumf.
That aside, I’ve always liked Nikon’s “s” pro cameras, since they take a greater emphasis on acquiring AF while shooting fast. I don’t need more megapixels at this point, which is what the lower-end cameras tend to emphasize.
I absolutely trust your judgment, but it just seems that if every new model can still improve noticeably on the previous one, how bad were the first autofocus cameras is the 80’s? Could they focus at all, except maybe on static subjects in daylight?
2.1Cliff Williams says
I had one of the first autofocus Cameras in the 80’s (Minolta Maxxum 7000 and 9000), the autofocus seemed like magic at the time, but I tried it recently and I have to admit… the Fuji X100’s AF is vastly superior to those cameras, and no one raved about the AF in THAT camera!
Looks great, that AF seems to be very impressive and when I first saw the D3 a few years back was impressed then, but the bar has been raised to Olympic Pole Vaulter’s status.
4Gary Smith says
Many thanks for this informative review. I think one thing of note is that you were using great lenses. I would expect a lesser lens not to be able to keep up with the auto focus demands from the body.
5Frank Palmeri says
Neil, that degree of low noise at 8000 ISO is truly amazing! I’m a Canon shooter though…is there anything in their line-up that even comes close to that ISO performance in your opinion?
6Neil vN says
The Nikon D4 and Canon 1Dx are about on par in terms of high-ISO noise.
Check the comparison and download RAW files.
So that would probably make the D4S ahead of the bunch at this point. I still have to properly compare.
But right now, the Canon 1Dx is ahead of everything else in the Canon range. Check the comparison and play with the RAW files.
Ultimately though, very few of us can continually upgrade and chase each new generation’s improvements. At some point we have to settle down and use what we have, and skip a generation or two.
7Jon Lloyd says
It’s an interesting read – but as a Canon shooter and can only draw a rough comparison with the AF system on the 1Dx and what I use – the 5D Mk3. They are the same AF system but as I shoot a lot of Mountain Biking which is generally at some pace with the subject moving towards the camera. As I invariably shoot with one or two speedlite’s (and the ST-E3-RT it throws a curve ball in with shutter speed.
Using each of the different Focus ‘Case’ I have also had mixed results but I have it on good authority the system is pretty darn good otherwise.
So my question is Neil – how does this compare to the Canon AF system in the 1Dx and 5D3? (oh, and what the hell am I doing wrong!!)
8Neil vN says
I’ve played with the 1Dx and 5D mk III, so my experience isn’t extensive by any means.
The 5D3 is a definite improvement over the 5D2.
The 1Dx is far superior in terms of AF (and high-ISO noise), compared to the 5D3.
Because cameras have the same AF modules, is not to say their AF performance is the same.
I remember the arguments on the photography forums regarding the Nikon D700 and D3, which had the same AF modules. Fans of the D700 said it was the same as the D3, and the D3 owners were deluding themselves (and justifying the higher price) by thinking the D3 had better AF. Yet, in my experience the D3 was better.
I think that would be the same case with the 1Dx … it’s beefed up.
8.1Jon Lloyd says
It prompted me to look a little deeper into it and I found this resource which does in fact highlight the minor differences between the two – so you are correct. He doesn’t refer to the term “beefed up” or any other similar Bovine reference – but I see your [cross type] point. :)
8.1.1Jon Lloyd says
That would be this resource: http://www.andrewsgibson.com/blog/2013/03/understanding-eos-autofocus-the-eos-5d-mark-iii-and-eos-1d-x/
9Jon Pertwee says
Considering trading in my D3s for a D4s.. What are your opinions? I’m mainly using it to shoot Circus performances (Similar light to Music gigs, but much more movement). The D3s (in my opinion) has unacceptable noise in low light at ISO above 6400. It also has issues with focus. Is the D4s much better? I also shoot with a D800, which (Surprisingly) has much better Low light performance. Oddly, the D3s meter give me ISO 12800 in the same situation where my D800 meter says 6400. Oh, and the dynamic range on the D3s sucks compared to the D800 for any given ISO up to 6400. My only issue with the D800 really is that it’s slow, and I miss shots.. Otherwise I’d be using that all the time.
So.. D4s.. Is it that much better than the D3s, or should I keep the money, and buy another D800 and shoot 3 cameras instead of 2?
10Ajay Kapoor says
Thanks for this lovely review. How would you rate Canon 1DX’s AF performance compared to Nikon D4s?
Nice work and thanks for your efforts.. I have the D750 my first ff up from the D7100, and prior to the the D90 and prior to that the D40. Go back far enough and I had a Brownie Bullseye! I think you can only see those in the Museum of Ancient History right alongside the six horse Model A Roman chariot!
One thing others me about this camera is that the focus points do not really go as far to the top and bottom and sides as the D7100. Is this normal for FF cameras and why is that? And how do you get around that and am I making a problem where there is none?
12Neil vN says
I would agree with the AF sensor placement – it is too central still.
It was a problem when Nikon introduced the full-frame D3, and kept more or less the same placement of AF sensors as the crop-sensor bodies. Since then they haven’t boldly placed the AF sensors across the frame.
12.1Pablo Minier says
Hi Neil, thank you for such a great website, I’ve learned more about flash photography in the past month of reading your articles than in the 2 years since I first picked up a dslr. I finally saved enough money to get a nikon D750 but I’m a bit concerned about the AF sensor points being to close to the center of the frame. I currently own a D7100 and there is always an AF points anywhere you might need one. How do you overcome that when shooting portraits with your lens wide open? Is the focus and recompose technique even an option with such shallow depth of field?
Thanks again Neil!
12.1.1Neil vN says
With the longer focal lengths (e.g., 70-200mm zooms), where I am most likely to be using wide apertures for shallow DoF, the angle through which I swing the camera for focus & recompose, is much less than it would be for a wider lens … so this doesn’t bother me as much.
Neil, Thanks so much for this write up. Your files helped us to decide to get the D4s over the d750 based on the noise comparison and files given so we can see for ourselves. When we do buy, we will def use your link to help out as you have helped us!
14Ciprian Vatamanu - Fotograf Nunta Iasi says
Great camera to own, that’s why I’ve invested in it. Do you consider it’s worth the upgrade to D5? Will I really see an upgrade? Ok, the ISO is better, but …? What do you think?