The Nikon D4 vs D3S, D3, and D7000... D3S Wins??? [Updated]

The Nikon D4 vs D3S, D3, and D7000... D3S Wins??? [Updated]

Last night we put 3 Nikon cameras up against the new Nikon D4 in a studio ISO test and the D3s won. Don't get me wrong, the D4 files look fantastic, and beyond ISO 6400 the D4 did have slightly less color noise compared to the D3s but when we compared the images side by side we saw a pretty significant drop in contrast and sharpness. Even though the D4 has more megapixels, it appeared to be capturing less detail.

The Test
We have all seen still life camera tests where the tester will shoot a table full of objects ie: paperclips, crayons, bottles, etc. I personally shoot people for a living so I wanted to do a test with a human face. I called Reese Allen and Steven Hyatt over to help me out with a test. Nobody wanted to model so I sat on a stool for 45 minutes and attempted to remain perfectly still. Our goal was not to create a "pretty" image but rather an image that has details that you would find in the real world. My face was lit from camera left with a 7 foot Octa so that we would have a nice even gradiation across my face. From behind me camera right my cheek was blown out just a little with a large strip box. The background is simple dark grey paper and my shirt has a simple pattern with a little color.

We started shooting at the highest ISO for each camera and went towards the lowest ISO. At the beginning we were forced to shoot with the modeling lights because the ISO settings were too sensitive (even at F22) and once we reached ISO 6400 we switched over to strobing with the Profoto D1 monolights. At this point we left the camera settings the same for each shot and simply raised the flash output one stop as we lowered the ISO for each shot.

We tested the D4, D3s, D3 (same sensor as the D700), and D7000. All of the images were shot at F8 at 70mm and we zoomed out to approximately 46mm on the D7000 to make up for the 1.5 crop sensor. We set all of the cameras to the same picture settings and we shot RAW+Jpeg.

The Results
During the shoot Steven was the one actually taking the pictures and due to the D4's new screen, he said the images look significantly better on the back of the camera. Once we got them on the computer that was no longer the case. Images with ISOs up to 400 all looked pretty much the same except that the D4 images were the softest of the full frame cameras. The D7000 was slightly softer than the full frame cameras.

In low ISOs the D3 and D3s images looked identical. The D4 shots have 4 more megapixels so they are larger in size but they are softer and have less contrast.

Once we got to ISO 1,600 the D3s and D4 started to pull away from the pack as the D3 started to become noisy and the D7000 even noisier. At ISO 6,400 we began to see the slightest hint of color noise in the D3s files but the D3s files were still significantly sharper. At ISO 12,800 the D4 was still doing a fantastic job of handling color noise in the shadows but with each ISO stop the images were getting softer and softer. The D3s was introducing slightly more color noise but was remaining sharper.

Could this be a lens issue?
We were all having a hard time believing what we were seeing and we all agreed that this must be a lens issue. The test was shot using 4 different cameras and 4 different 24-70mm lenses. We decided to go back into the studio and shoot 4 shots on the D4 with each of the 24-70mm lenses. Each of these shots looked identical so all of our lenses were performing fine.
After we had finished for the night the only thing that we all agreed could be going on here (besides the camera actually being softer) is that the lens needed to be calibrated in the camera. We noticed that the focus seemed to be falling off a little quicker on the D4 than the D3s or D3 (IE: my ears were more blurry on the D4 than the other cameras). That led us to believe that perhaps the lens was front focusing by a few millimeters. We didn't have time to test that theory

RAW vs Jpeg
At this point we had only been comparing the Jpeg images so we installed Nikon View to look at the RAW files up close. Nikon's software did a fantastic job of making the RAW files look almost identical to the Jpegs so we decided that test wasn't fair. We downloaded Lightroom 4 and opened up a few of the RAW files. To our surprise the D4 files did look significantly sharper. We exported those two files as TIFFs and compared them up close. In the example below I downsampled the D4 files to 12MP so that the images match in size. This is a "fair" comparison for printing from a RAW file.

I've heard many people say that the D4 is "one stop better than the D3s" and that simply is not true. The D4 does do a better job of handling color noise in extreme ISOs but it does this at the price of image sharpness. It appears that Nikon's software is simply "blurring" the color noise to make it blend.

So then you may be wondering, is it worth upgrading from the D3s to D4? Well that all depends on what you are doing with the camera. Steven Hyatt who helped me with this test has owned a D3 and D3s for years and he has a D4 on the way. After this test he said he will be returning the D4. I personally will be keeping the D4 as I will be shooting video on it 50% of the time and I LOVE all of the video features. After this test I see the D4 as a D3s with great video options and I am totally fine with that. The camera also has a ton of other new features like a new focusing system that may be enough to sell many shooters but at this point, if you are only interested in image quality, I don't think it's worth the upgrade. If you don't down a D3s and you are considering buying either a D3s or a D4 I would totally suggest buying the D4 for the additional $800. The D4 will retain it's value since it is a brand new camera and the other camera updates (especially the autofocus and video features) make the $800 a small price to pay for a camera of this caliber.

Keep in mind that if you primarily shoot with a low ISO setting then this is the wrong camera for you. A used D3 or D700 will get you the exact same quality image in the studio as the D4. If you are a studio shooter hold off for a few more weeks and check out our review of the 36mp Nikon D800.

Download High Res Files
Nikon D4 VS D3S ISO 6400 RAW converted to TIFF
All cameras ISO 200 JPG or RAW
All cameras ISO 6,400 JPG or RAW
All cameras ISO 25,600 JPG or RAW

Update: Our good friend Nasim over at just did similar, but far more scientific, test comparing the image quality at all ISOs between the D4, D3S, and D3. After looking at his results it does appear that our D4 was having the front focusing issue that I mentioned above. In his test, the D4 does appear to be slightly sharper BUT the conclusion is the same: The D4 is not a significant improvement over the D3S in terms of image quality.

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I upgraded from a pair of D300 bodies to a pair of D3s bodies in December 2011. Having seen this I'm very glad I went with the D3s bodies instead of waiting and paying an extra £1000+.

★☆★ Tam Nguyen ★☆★'s picture

Great job Lee. I like that this review/test has more of a real-life-situation environment, and it's got some personal touch (no pun intended).

To the fstoppers crew, awesome test!!! However... im a canon shooter, would it be possible to do this sort of test with the 1dx(when it becomes available), 1dsiii, 1div, 5dmkii...??

Lee Morris's picture

We are going to try. I want to get to the point that we are reviewing all gear for all brands. It's just a TON of work so we need to come up with a system. 

Olympus too?  I can't wait. 

Lee Morris's picture

who uses that? kidding!

You should totally do a full on fashion shoot using an Olympus to show that it is not about the equipment... lol 

but in all seriousness I am surprised that you picked up a D4.  I spoke to you once in NY and you were using 2 D7000's.  Are you happy so far?

Lee Morris's picture

I've been shooting weddings professionally for over a year now on D7000s because the D700 can't shoot video. I've been waiting patiently to buy 2 or 3 D800s but when I realized they were 36mp I decided to go with the D4. 

If the D400 shoots quality video and gives me a stop more ISO over my D7000 I will probably buy 3 of them and sell my D4. As a wedding photographer I do not need a camera that shoots this fast but at this point it seems to be my only option. 

Imagine if the new D400 is a 24MP FX Camera and 1080p and 720_60FPS

I would get 2 of them right now!!! :)

Why would it be full frame? That line has always been DX.

I know it seems totally ridiculous but some contacts from Thom Hogan thinks that thismight change this year, why? Because the D7000 should remain the top of the line DX and D400 should move to FX. Why ? Well check Lee Morris who is a top photographer in Wedding thinks that D800 is not for him and D4 is overkill... But he had "no choice" to buy the D4.. well maybe HE can afford it but many other won't be able too.. The GAP between the 2 is TOO big. D800 is indeed for Studio and landscape photography and D4 is to me for Sport photography... There is a big gap for all in between.. Weddings, low light without the speed and Medium to High resolution... I think that's where the D400 would fit... Imagine a 24MP camera that is very acceptable to 6400 ISO... FX, 5-6 FPS 1080p 24fps and 720_60 FPS.. that would be awesome....

I shot with the Olympus E-5 for about a year and can't recommend it to anyone... heavy, lacking power, and ridiculously expensive compared to competition. 

A real-world test is valuable and appreciated.  However, due to the likelihood of focusing errors (as you acknowledge), it would be nice to set up a rigorous test with test charts, using LiveView to verify ideal focus and remove the lens differences, just to verify the apparent (but surprising) D4 noise vs. sharpness tradeoff conclusion.

Lee Morris's picture

I agree and I assume there will be tons of websites that do that test and we will post it here when they do. We have never done any camera tests before so we are not prepared for a chart test yet. 

Seems that Thom Hogan's D3S vs. D4 comparison suggests a very small advantage of the D4 vs. D3s, although he sees slightly better resolution.  D3s owners who do still work must be feeling pretty good.  :)

Patrick Hall's picture

Since these were shot at f8, even if the AF was off by a mm or two, would that really affect the sharpness to the point of saying we needed a focus test chart yada yada?  Seems like you are splitting hairs at that point.  At f4 or less sure, but at f8 there is like  a good 4-10 feet of DOF.  

Even though I really don't want it to be the case, I think the D3s just looks better and that's how it is.

Splitting hairs (or eyelashes ;) ) at this level definitely requires critical focus.  DoF means that there is a range of distances that are perceived to be sharp at a normal viewing distance given some assumed resolution of the human eye.  But focus is focus -- the only thing that is ever critically in focus is at the exact focus distance of the lens.  That's physics.  As Lee acknowledges, there are some sharpness aspects of the D4 that seem incredible.  It will be important to see other ideal test results before concluding that the D4 trades off sharpness for noise in the manner that appears to be true here.

In practice, none of it matters; they are all superb cameras, good enough for almost any professional job.

I see you used the same picture settings on all cameras, but what are the exact settings? I´d like to see samples compared where the in camera noise reduction is set to OFF. (Yes i know it kicks in wether you like it or not at high iso´s) But I still would like a noisy image with detalis. I can always do NR later in post.

Otherwise, very informative test. Keep up the good work:)

Lee Morris's picture

I can't remember all of the settings and that is why I am allowing you guys to download all of the high res JPG and RAW files at the bottom of the post for ISO 200, 6400, and 25,600

look at face colour! It's awfull, it's like a peach, not a human skin-like.Like i said, it came with invention of EXSPEED 2. (d90 and above)

Lee Morris's picture

FYI all cameras were set to vivid for the JPGs and that is why they are bright. The final image is a neutral RAW render. 

I think that guy just said you were peachy and un-human-like.  lol.  

No,its about colours that camers show =)!I think Lee's skin is okay, because i know this cameras issue always leed to similar result.  Lee, RAW files are closer to real colors,ofcourse you right! I have d7000,and always have to shoot raw and fix this orange skin-tones an yellowish-orangish tint and i have to say, this issue shows itself  significantly lower in RAWs! JPG's are awful.

The most important thing (for me) that this test shows is the extreme similarity in image detail despite the increase in MP.  I shoot with a d700 and a 5d2.  It seems as though all of my older equipment is still very valid.  There will be no replacements, just additions.  

Great test, I'm sure sitting like that for 45 minutes was not easy. Thanks for sharing.

Interesting tests.
I totally understand that you'd like to tests those cameras in a real environment.
While the 24-70 is a great lens that is sharp enough for almost any situation, I don't think it's the best lens to test sensor sharpness.
For example, f/8 might not be the best aperture at 70mm, and it could be softer at 46mm than it is  at 70mm. I suppose the 40mm DX and 60mm FX macro lenses are sharp enough that you could do meaningful comparisons of sensors. If you don't have those lenses, 50mm and 85mm are close enough to a factor 1.5

Also, the lack of contrast from the D4 could be a result of an increased dynamic range. Playing with curves or sliders in Lightroom, it might be possible to get a similar histogram as with the D3s.
McNally said the files coming out of the D4 were "smooth". I guess this could be a synonym for soft :D

Finally, it really doesn't matter. The biggest difference in quality would come from the lighting and your expression, not the fact that you could count how many hair you have on your face.
When the D3S came out, I knew I wouldn't need anything better. The D4 and D800 came out, but the D3S is and always will be a helluva camera.

That's about right. Sacrificing pixel size (in micron) for higher total mp count will not compensate in resolution. 
D4: 7.3 microns vs. D3s: 8.45 microns.
In my opinion, for one to achieve a higher resolution at a physically larger size, one would need to develop a larger than full frame sensor using pixels larger than 8.45, which would result in a totally new camera and lense line as well as a higher cost for this product. Can you image a 12+ micron sensor that is 16-20 megapixels?

I have a D3X and a D3S, upgraded from a D700 and a D300.  The D3X has all the pixels and all the noise, so I am not surprised at all to hear that the D4 cannot really out perform the D3S.  But pixels are pixels and the more the better, especially if you shoot wildlife, landscapes and sport.  So if I can get more pixels than the D3S and better NR than the D3X, then for me it is worth the upgrade.

Lee Morris, you really shouldn't be posting misinformation like this just to get hits on your site. Publishing a rushed, inaccurate and misleading "test" is just a quick way to lose credibility. For a proper review this is probably better for the time being :