Nikon Announces the D4S

Photo: Nikon D4S with 58mm/f1.4 AF-S Lens

The Flagship Nikon SLRs

During the film era, Nikon used to introduce their flagship, single-digit F series SLRs on an eight-year production cycle, roughly coinciding with every other summer Olympic games. After the transition to digital photography, due to the rapid improvement in high-tech electronics, that cycle has been reduced to four years, with each major introduction about a year ahead of the corresponding summer Olympics. Between major introductions, usually there is a minor, mid-cycle update to an S model. For example, after introducing the D3 in August, 2007, and the D3 was very popular at the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics, Nikon updated it to the D3S in mid October, 2009, three months prior to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. This new D4S follows the D4 in the a similar manner. However, the major surprise is that the D4S is officially announced one day after the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics, although Nikon did pre-announce it back in early January, and there is little doubt that various pre-production D4S cameras were tested at the winter games.

The Nikon D4

For still photography, the D4 is not significantly different from its predecessor, the D3S. The pixel count went up modestly from 12MP to 16MP. The high-ISO capability is perhaps slightly improved. The AF module remains the same, the 51-AF-point Multi-CAM 3500 with 15 cross-type AF points, but the version on the D4 is somewhat improved and includes 9 AF points that can work with slower lenses with a maximum aperture of f8, which typically is the result from adding a 2x teleconverters onto an f4 telephoto lens or adding a 1.4x converter onto an f5.6 lens. The main improvements on the D4 over the D3S are mostly on the video side.

Improvements on the D4S

The D4S retains all features from the D4 with quite a few minor to moderate improvements. The number of improvements is considerably more than what is typical in a mid-cycle S upgrade, but nothing stands out as being major.

Nikon has made some subtle improvements on the ergonomics so that the D4S is supposed to be more comfortable to hold. However, other than the D4S model designation on the front and the back, the D4 and D4S look almost identical.

The Sensor

The sensor remains to be a 16.2MP, CMOS one that produces a 4928×3280 RAW file, but it is a newer, improved version. The high-end of the ISO range is expanded from 12800 on the D4 to 25600 on the D4S, and the extended Hi 4 setting goes up to ISO 409600 equivalent. In other words, the sensor on the Nikon Df, which is the same as the one on the D4, is no longer the top-of-the-line 16MP sensor from Nikon.

RAW with Small Size

The D4S has a new RAW Size S option that generates a 12-bit, 2464×1640 file, which is approximate 4MP, for faster file transfer. In this mode, the pixel count is exactly cut in half in each dimension.

EXPEED 4 Processor

The processor inside is updated to the latest EXPEED 4, which is about 30% faster than the previous EXPEED 3. As a result, the frame rate moves up from 10 fps on the D4 to 11 fps on the D4S.


Nikon D4S, back side

Auto Focus

While the AF module remains to be the Multi-CAM 3500 that was introduced with the D3 and D300 back in 2007, the D4S has a new Group Area AF mode that uses the four adjacent AF points to assist the chosen primary AF point to track moving subjects.

When a photographer uses a long lens with a tripod collar that is mounted to a tripod, they can rapidly rotate the camera between a horizontal (landscape) and vertical (portrait) compositions. The D4S has an option to retain the relative location of the selection AF point inside the frame after such rotations. For example, if the photographer has selected an AF point towards the upper left of the frame in a horizontal composition, when he/she rotates the camera counterclockwise by 90 degrees to vertical, that original AF point would be moved to the lower left of the frame. However, the D4S has the option to automatically select another AF point that is in the upper left in the new orientation.

JPEG Buffer

On the D4S, the buffer for JPEG is increased to 200 frames.

Camera Construction

The D4S body is very similar to the original D4, but the grip is slightly slimmed down to provide a bit more clearance to the lens. The vertical grip is also modified a bit to have a thumb rest. The shutter features a new mechanism that can reduce mirror slap and blackout time for the benefit of high-frame-rate capture.

Otherwise, the D4S continues to have one CF memory card slot and one XQD slot. The shutter is expected to last 400K actuations.

Rear LCD Display

The color on the D4S’ LCD display is now adjustable.

Battery

During the transition from the D3 to D4, Nikon also changed the battery from the EN-EL4a to EN-EL18, which has a smaller capacity apparently for safety reasons, as Lithium-ion batteries can potentially overheat and become a fire hazard in rare occasions (as Boeing found out with the 787 Dreamliner). However, Nikon has reversed course and, for the D4S, introduced a new EN-EL18a that can hold more charge than the previous EN-EL18, although the 18 and 18a have the same shape and are interchangeable. The CIPA rating is that a fully charged EN-EL18a can power the D4S for 3020 single captures. However, Nikon’s figure shows as many as 5960 frames in continuous mode.

Video Improvements

  • 1080/60p full-HD video capture, the D4 was limited to 1080/25p and 24p.
  • The D4S can deliver uncompressed 1080/60p video via its HDMI output.
  • Save video files simultaneously onto both the XQD and CF memory cards, in the backup mode.
  • Smooth exposure transition during time-lapse and interval-timer video capture: when the lighting is changing over time, the D4S can smooth out the changes from frame to frame during interval capture to reduce flicker in the final video.
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Conclusions

The D4S seems to be a fairly typical mid-cycle, S-type update from the D4. There are actually a lot of small improvements this time, but they are mostly minor to moderate, in the nice-to-have category. Perhaps to some photographers, the extra stop in ISO 25600 and the improved video capabilities are important, but otherwise nothing really stands out to be a critical enhancement. Unfortunately, the price has also gone up a bit, from $6000 for the D4 to $6500, inching closer to its main competition, the Canon EOS 1DX.

I am quite surprised by the timing of the D4S announcement. Back in 2009, Nikon announced the D3S in mid October, over three months prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. This time, Nikon pre-announced the D4S in early January ahead of the CES in Las Vegas, but the official announcement is one day after the end of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. However, it is still months ahead of the football (soccer) FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janerio

Related to that, we can expect a D5 in the latter part of 2015 or early 2016, once again about a year ahead of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Hopefully Nikon will improve the Multi-CAM 3500 AF module that has been in use since 2007. Therefore, the D4S will probably be the flagship Nikon DSLR for only a year and half, and we will see another major update in the not-too-distant future.

Availability and Pricing

Nikon expects to start shipping the D4S around March 6, 2014, for a suggested price of US$6499.95.

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