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[NR] exclusive: Nikon D4s high ISO/low light comparison with D4, D3s, D800E and D600 cameras

Nikon D4s DSLR camera 7
d4_01Nikon-D3sNikon-D800-6Nikon D600
Terry Hansen did a very extensive and detailed high ISO/low light comparisons between the Nikon D4s (including RAW and small RAW files) and the D4, D3s, D600, D800E cameras. In this post I have included only the samples from ISO 6,400 and above, since this is the range where most readers will be interested to see the results. The rest of the test images are available on flickr (direct links: D4s (RAW normal)D4s RAW small | D4 | D3s | D600 | D800E). Here are the details:

With the release of the new D4s flagship DSLR, Nikon is touting substantial image improvements, especially in high ISO low light shooting conditions. They attribute these advances to the combination of their new EXPEED 4 engine along with an all-new sensor design.

Such claims are all well and good for the photographer who shoots in-camera JPEGs; these shooters rely on high quality internal processing for fast delivery. However, compared to previous Nikon DSLRs, what are the image improvements for the photographer who shoots exclusively in RAW? In largely bypassing the JPEG processing advances of the EXPEED 4 engine, does the new D4s sensor, in and of itself, provide significant high ISO improvements or better dynamic range compared to other Nikon sensors? And with the choice of the new RAW L (Large, 16.2MP) and RAW S (Small, 4MP) file formats, does either format provide an inherent advantage over the other for cleaner images?

These are the questions I decided to tackle. For this purpose, I ran a comprehensive series of test shots of a still life under controlled conditions. Here are the testing parameters:

  • Test multiple FX bodies: D4s, D4, D3s, D800e, D600
  • Shoot exclusively RAW (including RAW L and RAW S for the D4s)
  • For online viewing, convert externally to JPEG without applying any image adjustments or noise reduction processing
  • Use the same lens (a Nikon 24-70 f/2.8) across all bodies, set at a constant focal length (38mm) and aperture (f/8), shooting in Aperture priority mode
  • Assemble a still life featuring a wide dynamic range, including both bright specular and inky matte surfaces, along with areas of flat grey contrasted with highly detailed textures and deep shadows
  • Use a dim and challenging lighting design
  • Other than shutter speed, be sure that all relevant camera settings are identical across all bodies, including metering modes, and all internal processing (if such would even affect a RAW file anyway) options turned off or minimized when possible
  • Focus was always set on the head of the grey mannequin
  • As neither Lightroom nor Aperture can yet process the new RAW S format, I used Nikon’s own Capture NX-D Beta software for all JPEG conversions.

The resulting images are grouped and labelled accordingly. (They say “RAW” in the name, but that is a reference to the source; you are seeing JPEGs.) Compare shots across the several bodies used, and feel free to draw your own conclusions, adding your thoughts to the comments area. No laboratory measuring devices here, let your eyeballs be the judge—who do you think owns the crown “Low Light Champion”?

By the way, this is not necessarily intended as a test of resolving power. From this series of photos, while one can certainly get an idea of a sensor’s ability to capture fine detail across a range of ISOs, this test was put together primarily with high ISO and dynamic range evaluations in mind; another test, another day, with all those lovely charts and test patterns, is for someone else to take on. :)

And finally, many, many thanks to Nikon Rumors for allowing/encouraging me to assemble these photos to be shared! I’ve been a fan and follower of NR for years now, and have long benefitted enormously from this site. This is my humble attempt at paying it forward.

Enjoy!
—Terry Hansen

ISO 6,400

Nikon D800E:

Nikon D600:

Nikon D3s:

Nikon D4:

Nikon D4s RAW S:

Nikon D4s RAW L:

ISO 12,800

Nikon D800E:

Nikon D600:

Nikon D3s:

Nikon D4:

Nikon D4s RAW S:

Nikon D4s RAW L:

ISO 25,600

Nikon D800E:

Nikon D600:

Nikon D3s:

Nikon D4:

Nikon D4s RAW S:

Nikon D4s RAW L:

ISO 51,200

Nikon D3s:

Nikon D4:

Nikon D4s RAW S:

Nikon D4s RAW L:

ISO 102,400

Nikon D3s:

Nikon D4:

Nikon D4s RAW S:

Nikon D4s RAW L:

ISO 204,800

Nikon D4:

Nikon D4S RAW S:

Nikon D4S RAW L:

ISO 409,600

Nikon D4s RAW S:

Nikon D4s RAW L:

This entry was posted in Nikon D3s, Nikon D4, Nikon D4s, Nikon D600, Nikon D800, [NR] Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • Richard Krawec

    I was just wondering … i am a D4 owner and i was hoping someone could give me some insight or a quick run through about firmware..?

    My question is … if the Df has the same sensor as the D4, can the D4 be hacked with the Df firmware to unleash( lol ) the higher ISO of the Df ?
    or could it be reprogrammed in a sense to yield better results . Does this question hopefully make some sense to everybody…… don’t mean too sound like a nob….. but i don’t right firmware updates …
    thanks

    • John_Skinner

      Sensor and attached/associated hardware are a completely different issue. This is an apples and pears question.

      So in a word… No.

      • Richard Krawec

        Thanks John,
        Simple enough, never looked at it as hardware attached.

  • Nitpicker

    Oh i remember what humongous leap in image quality the D3 and D700 were over the D2x and D200. Then I found the color reproduction of the D3s at high ISO values even much better than the very good D3 – so i bought a D3s for my work. Then the D4 came out. I was underwhelmed. So after I passed on the D4 I said to myself I would skip “number only” models all together and get the next “s” update instead. Now I compare the Image Quality of my good old D3s with the D4s – and I’m still pretty underwhelmed! Now I even think that a D5 could possibly be a letdown when it hits the shelves, again compared with the D3s.

    I mean “yay” that’s kinda great, never thought in these times something like longevity could exist for a digital camera. Maybe Nikon just made the D3s “too good” by mistake. :-) But I reckon we won’t see many new cameras that can blow us away like the D3(s)/D700 did. Those times may have passed. We had SD now we have HD – and the quality leap was huge! Now we get 4K … and it’s pretty superfluous for most people. Same thing with cameras IMHO. Slightly increased resolution or low-light performance aren’t enough to take the cake anymore. We have very affordable “small medium format” with the D800, we have friggin’ night vision with the D3s – only very few people really need more than what readily available cameras can give us today. — We will probably have to wait till the “next big thing” hits the market. Light field Magic, one-button-3D or what have you. Or we just skip two to three camera models all together to once more be blown away by increased dynamic range, resolution or low light performance.
    I love my trusty D3s and 36 mpix out of my D800 are more than enough for 99,9% of my work. Nikon really needs to work hard to get more money out of me …

    • wonderingpi

      Smart not falling for the marketing hype

  • John_Skinner

    Terry. Many thanks for your time and effort on this post.

    We’re loosing so much by way of screen images and not being able to actually see the paper when it comes out of the printers. I’ve played with the D3, D3s, D4, and now this body over the last 3 days and I have to tell you… Here, I’m not seeing a justifiable difference in D3s vs. D4 and the D4s.. I just can’t see it.

    The day to day ISO ranges (at least here) vary quite a bit. But never up past 12K and beyond. I’ve just never run into a situation where I have encountered a shot where it’s been needed.. And after 30 years, that’s a statement in itself.

    My personal feeling is had this been an actual upgrade seeing the best of all worlds.. 36MP with higher ISO ranges, and FPS in the 11 range, I could see this as a working upgrade with true workflow benefits. But the tale is a pretty short read with these results and will only perpetuate the people with G A S to acquire the ‘latest & greatest’…merely because they can, and not really because the need to do it.

    • wonderingpi

      Finally a smart photographer whose not falling for marketing!!!

    • Ray

      I think
      we don’t use higher ISO then 12k because quality
      is so poor if they really make a camera
      with one take same quality
      images
      at 25k like d3s doing
      at ISO 12k probably we will start to use it…
      or probably not :D from my experience in situations where I need 12k I try to find the way to get out with 6k,
      and 12k is a critical point
      but normally 6k max and still weary
      unique
      situations. Long live to the D3s :D

  • D700guy

    I’m keeping my D4. I see no reason to trade up to a D4s.

  • Bill Ferris

    Does anyone else see the green tint to the background in the D4 images? Looking at the ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 samples, the D4 images present the background as having an unnatural green color cast in comparison to the D3s, D600 and D4s images.

    Also, the D600 holds its own quite nicely up to ISO 12800. Thirty seconds in Lightroom would make that image totally usable. And at 1/2 to 1/3 the cost of the other three. Just another example of amazing value of the D600/D610,

    • Ray Justice

      Also the color tone on the guy doll with legs crossed is much more realistic on the D4s as compared to the D4. The doll has a greenish tint on the D4 but looks naturally gray on the D4s.

      • wonderingpi

        imo d3s looks best out of all of them less chroma.

    • BigEater

      Nikons in general have a big weird problem with the yellow-green part of the spectrum. Every day I thank the Great Photographer in the Sky for the Targeted Adjustment Tool in Lightroom and ACR because it allows me to bring skin, wood, (and of all things, pasta) back to some semblance of normality.

  • SkyMeow

    D4s sure have better high ISO, but not a worthy upgrade for me. Please just release the D4x. I’ll buy it!!

  • BigEater

    Great work! Thanks!

  • jb

    WHO CARES ABOUT ALL THIS ISO!!! WHERE IS THE LIGHTROOM 5 UPDATE TO SUPPORT THE D4s RAW FILES
    !!!

  • Joakim Sundberg

    OK, my D800 with my 24-70 compared to the D4s with 24-70.
    I did a test indoors at my lokal camera dealer and the results are.
    -Do not underestimate the awsomeness of the D4s
    If only i was told to get a used D3s when i got the D800 back in 2012
    My 36mp´s are all great but they do need some SB 910´s to shine.
    ( if your subject is dead you can make better images with a D800 if not see your lokal dealer for a paymentplan on your new D4s )

  • psv

    Sorry D3S is the best picture of all

  • Ray

    It’s hard to say, but D3s still
    king of the hill way sharper and have less color noise
    at 12800 then d4s.

  • Eric Eikenberry

    My .02; The D600, D4, and D4S images are overexposed. If the D3S and D800e images are “correct” then the newer cameras are overexposing, and that’s killing the highlights and washing out the colors. If the NEW cameras are right, then the OLDER cameras were underexposing all along, and we should all count ourselves fortunate that Nikon, in their infinite wisdom, has finally seen fit to grace us with new cameras with such amazingly bland color accuracy and correctly-overexposed highlight areas.

  • Richard

    The results are misslabled in places. For example, there is no D4s Raw L example at 25,600. What is there is the example for the D800e.

    • Terry Hansen

      Please check the photos as posted over in the Flickr site. I have personally gone through every single photo there and verified that each and every photo is labelled correctly. :)

  • Puzzled

    Thank you Terry!

    You made it bossible for me to compare D3s to D4s. Looks, that I don’t gain anything buying D4s. Okey, some extra pixels, better AF. They would be nice, but I’m lookin ISO’s in my photography. I have to.

    Couple of days ago I used rental D4. It nail it. I cancelled my D4s order. Going to wait a while now.

    Thanks again :)

  • Guest

    Hi NR: Nikon release New D4 Update out now in uk.

  • David Prewitt

    I work as a newspaper shooter and carry 2 D7000 bodies, and really need lower light capabilities. I’ve used a D3s and loved it, but I’m really interested in the D610, is there anyone using this for low light sports, let me know what you think.
    Thanks

    • David Portass

      I do event and gig photography with the D600 and I have barely touched the luminance reduction slider in lightroom with shots over 6400. The big difference between the D600 and D610 from what i’ve been able to tell is ISO 12,800 and ISO 25,600 are marginally cleaner, plus half a frame per second faster

  • TJDphotog

    Side-by-side comparisons of 100% crops would be helpful. Saves the curious reader a bit of time ;).

  • http://www.photosincolor.com/ Ed Gregory

    I just think that its amazing that these camera can actually take a photo at ISO 409,600 wow. I guess with that you can photograph things that cannot be seen by the human eye. Interesting thought then, how do you focus if you can’t see it.

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