If you’re going to put a pro D-SLR to the test, why not do it in one of the most challenging sporting arenas there is? That’s just what top sports photographer Bob Martin has been doing at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics with Nikon’s new flagship D4S. It’s already making waves for its frankly jaw-dropping ISO range: 100-25,600, extendable to an industry-leading 409,600 (equivalent). Bob’s verdict? Well, put it this way – he’s already ordered one…
Your first impressions out of the box?
Although I’d briefly seen the D4S before it was launched, Sochi was the first time I got to use it with vengeance! Nikon gave it to me in Sochi after I’d flown out there, so I just did test shots for the first couple of days at a few low-key events to ensure I could get the RAW files in Photoshop, which I did – although the best quality so far is with Nikon software.
There are minor ergonomic changes to the body shape from the D4, but as far as I’m concerned they’re just slight tweaks, and you quickly get used to them. Control-wise, the two cameras are still almost identical so you could quite happily use them side by side; if the D4S had felt very different and had very different controls then I wouldn’t have taken a chance with it in Sochi. I ended up using it for 14 days, so it’s had a pretty good test.
How did you get on with the expanded ISO 25,600 range?
The D4 was a massive step forward with ISO, and the D4S marks another – it’s the highest you can shoot now and I don’t think I’ll ever use its full potential. Traditionally, sports photographers would never have gone above ISO 1600, then along came the D4 and you could go far higher, and now with the D4S I’ve been using ISO 8000, purely because I can – if it’s there, I might as well try it!
Depending on the lighting, the improved ISO sensitivity gives you between 1.5 and 2.5 stops more, and you don’t realise what that means until you’re shooting at ISO 4000 and it looks like ISO 1000. A stop and a half makes a vast difference, especially when you’re working so much with floodlights. I used to be shooting 1/500sec at f/2.8 and ISO 1600 at Arsenal under the lights – with the D4S I can now shoot 1/1000sec at f/4.0 using ISO 6400 and see the beads of sweat frozen on the players’ faces. It means you can shoot at night under floodlights with a 600mm lens and still freeze the movement.
So the big thing this camera gives me is the ability to absolutely stop the action under floods with a bit of cushion, and instead of using f/2.8 or f/4 you can rack up the ISO and go to f/5.6 and still get these perfect results. Take that fisheye bobsleigh team shot – 1/4000sec, f/4.5, ISO 4000 and it’s frozen perfectly, with no noise. I couldn’t have got that image before, even with the D4.
What about file quality?
The quality of the RAW digital files is mind-blowing – the competition is invisible by comparison! And the step-up in JPEG quality is very impressive, too. I always shoot RAW, with low-res JPEGs as reference files, but now the JPEGs are so much better – the tonality is smooth, with better skin tones across the ISO ranges – so for a newspaper or wire photographer who has to shoot JPEGs for speed, this will make a huge difference.
Talking of speed, how did you find the higher 11 fps rate?
It’s good, but what is really important is that Nikon have kept the huge buffer size, which means the D4S is usable for long bursts, even on RAW. The buffer is vastly superior to anything else on the market and it’s designed for shooting RAW – and for quality magazine photography when you’re shooting RAW, a big buffer is a big deal.
And the autofocus – that’s had a few changes, too…
While the AF on the D4 was pretty good, the D4S’s is a step up again. I really noticed its focus ability with the snowboarding events. What is really good about it is that it’s holding onto the subject for far longer. So if you’re using a larger lens like a 70-200mm or a 300mm and photographing somebody running towards you, gaining in size, it locks onto them more quickly and holds onto the focus for longer, which gives you a few extra frames. You can see it in the shot of the bobsleigh team running towards the camera – it was shot on a 500mm with a 1.6x converter, 1/1600sec at f/5.6 and ISO 5000 (and it looks no more than ISO 800!).
Any other things that particularly appeal?
The battery appears to last for longer, and it uses the same charger as the D4, which is a good thing. In an ideal world you want the same charger for all your batteries – in fact, you want all the same batteries, and the D4S’s battery is compatible with the D4, too. So the fact that I don’t have to carry different chargers and batteries if I’m using both a D4 and a D4S is good.
So what’s your overall verdict?
When I first saw the D4S’s spec prior to using it, I thought, ‘Oh, it’s not much different to the D4’ but when you use it you realise it is a lot different. You now have the capability to send your images 10x faster with the D4S’s Gigabit 100/1000TX ethernet port, the AF is better… but the ISO is the biggie. It’s the game-changer for which lenses you buy, which kit you take, how you approach your photography – and the more I use it, the more I realise that.
Think of how much you pay for a fast f/4 or f/2.8 lens over a slower one… the D4S is giving you a stop and a half over every lens, it’s opening up your lens choices for night time or floodlit situations. You can now work at f/5.6 instead of f/2.8 or f/4 just by racking up the ISO, and it’s not affecting your image quality too much. Since the fastest lenses are so heavy and it’s often really important to have the mobility that a lighter kit offers, this is a big deal.
You now have much more choice with your lenses – you might want the limited depth of field that super-bright f/2.8 lenses offer, but the compact, lighter 300mm f/4, for example, suddenly becomes very relevant. I took quite a lot of shots with the new 800mm f/5.6 and a 1.2x converter with the ISO way up, and the quality was phenomenal; I was really happy with it. It’s a particularly lightweight lens anyway, and with this camera it’s a game-changing lens, especially in snowy conditions and for indoor events where there’s no worries about heat haze. Normally when you up the ISO you’d get too much contrast; now it’s just smooth, and there’s so much detail in the pictures. Shooting at night with the D4S is almost the same as shooting in sunlight.
I’ve now ordered my own – it’s a no-brainer. The D4S is infinitely better than anything else on the market.
You can see more of Bob’s pictures at www.bobmartin.com