Nikon D4 DSLR review
Full-frame flagship finesse
If you thought the Nikon D3s was the ultimate DSLR for photojournalism, sport and low light photography, then think again. The Nikon D4 is not only the D3’s obvious upgrade and replacement but also Nikon’s attempt to redefine, yet again, professional imaging standards.
Top shot: Nikon's D4 full-frame 16Mp DSLR
When I reviewed the D3s, I thought there was little space left for major improvements but experiencing the D4 showed me just how I underestimated Nikon’s ambitions and resources. The D4 betters the D3s not only on every single spec but also in design and performance.
Indeed, I took the D4 along when holidaying in Ibiza and carried it with me most of the time. I had long shooting sessions, including a fashion show and a drum party on the beach – see sample stills and video – and at the end of the day I was less tired than I remember when lugging the D3s around.
As for those specs, the Nikon D4 boasts a 16.2Mp FX format (full-frame) CMOS sensor coupled with a newly designed EXPEED 3 processing engine. This notches up a native sensitivity range between ISO 100-12,800 expandable to an equivalent of ISO 204,800 – see in the dark shooting anyone? This is matched by a 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor.
FX format sensor avoids any crop factor multiplier issues on F mount lens focal lengths
With continuous shooting speed of up to 11fps, you’re able to shoot Charlie Chaplin style at full frame. Video heads get 1080p full HD movie capabilities at 24/25/30fps and all media is stored on dual CF and XQD memory card slots. Capturing the moment is a new Kevlar/carbon fibre-composite shutter tested up to 400,000 releases – an Ethernet port as well as a WT-5 WiFi transmitter enable remote operation from an iPad, iPhone or laptop.
Oh and if you were in any doubt about the purely professional status of this camera, the £5290 body-only price may well help convince you.
Like its predecessor the D4 is a big and heavy beast but a few design tweaks over the D3s make the weather-sealed magnesium alloy body of the D4 feel somehow smaller, lighter and more comfortable in the hand.
First of all, the position of the shutter release in both landscape and portrait mode has been further angled to create a more ergonomic position for long periods of shooting. This significantly improves the overall handling of the camera with the index finger now resting in exactly the position you would like it to be, in a natural extension of the front and rear grips.
Professional touch: mag alloy body with weather sealing
The portrait grip has also seen changes that make it more functional with the addition of a raised thumb rest and the slight repositioning of the AF-ON button now easier to reach in vertical handling. Another a design novelty is the provision of two joysticks, one for each grip, to make AF selection easier and more accurate. They work really well and are much faster to operate than the controller used in the D3s, which, by the way, can still be utilised, if you prefer.
Take in the view
The Live View button has also changed and is now surrounded by a lever that makes you select either ‘photography’ or ‘movie’ live view mode. The Live View itself has been re-designed and it now offers two modes – Quite and Silent – for reducing noise while shooting. Simultaneous mode enables viewing images on the LCD screen and on an external monitor using the HDMI port – a handy addition to allow clients and art directors to follow the action. It also makes sense that the D4 now sports a dedicated video recording button.
Numerous enhancements minimise the fiddle factor
For me, one of the most welcome additions must be the zoom in/out button that avoids having to use a dial to zoom in and out of images in playback – what a relief. Finally, all the buttons are mildly backlit for use in the dark. These are just some of the modifications and, if they seem minor in writing, I can vouch that they certainly make handling and operating the D4 much more comfortable and less demanding compared to its predecessor.
The Nikon D4 features a 3.2in 921k dots LCD display which maintains the same resolution of the D3s, but it is now slightly larger and includes a special anti-reflection and anti-fog gel, along with a light sensor for automatic brightness adjustment and a dual-axis virtual horizon. Most of the shooting in sunny Ibiza was in high contrast and very bright conditions, but surprisingly I never once had any trouble reading the screen.
Field work operative
The optical viewfinder remains the same great tool it was on the D3s, with 100 per cent coverage and magnificent brightness, but now has a new and better focusing screen and the option to use grid-lines in the menu. The intelligence, subtlety and usefulness of the changes are evidence of Nikon’s commendable efforts to listen and learn from customer feedback.
If anyone expected Nikon to arm the D4 with a massive sensor resolution in D800-style, then they will be disappointed. Yes, it is true that at very low ISO sensitivities the low-ish resolution can be noticeable, but let’s not forget that this camera was made to perform on the field, where higher sensitivities are the norm, rather than in the studio where controlled lighting minimises the need for ISO ratings above the low hundreds. With this in mind, a 16MP resolution seems the perfect choice. Avoiding over-packing the sensor with pixels helps retain impressive image quality and noise control all the way up to ISO 12800.
Sample Stills and Video
Nikkor lenses used: 24-70mm f/2.8G AF-S, 70-200mm f/2.8G AF-S and 85mm f/1.4 prime
HD video footage – captured at 1080p
Sample Stills and ISO Tests
Like its older brother this camera is king of low light photography but whilst the image quality is essentially the same between the two models, the D4 definitely steps up performance. Not only is the EXPEED 3 image-processing engine is able to deliver increased continuous shooting speed, but the RGB metering sensor serving the camera’s scene recognition system makes the D4 one of the fastest and more accurate professional DSLRs on the market.
Invaluable at-a-glance information up top
Every other function regulated by the metering system, such as white balance, performs exceedingly well in all light conditions. The system is so advanced that it is virtually flawless and for the first time, a pro could think of relying on automatic modes in fast-paced situations. That is not to say that the D4 lacks user-defined controls. In fact, the camera is designed to give the pro user fine-tuned control of every possible setting they can dream of.
In line with the camera’s overall speedy performance the 51-point autofocus system is notably swift and razor-sharp precise, even in dim light conditions. The only disappointment is that the D4 inherits the same highly complex menu of the D3s. For instance, fine tuning the AF settings needs an in-depth read of the manual at the very least.
Things can get a bit technical...
In-camera image editing gets broader too, with a number of new filters added such as Colour Outline; Colour Sketch; Selective Colour; Fisheye; Distortion Control; Perspective Control; Straighten; Quick Retouch; Image overlay and Miniature Effect. A feature I did not expect in this class of camera but nonetheless improves its fun factor and ease of use is HDR capture, which works reasonable well even without tripod.
If all the above seem good improvements that would not necessarily grant an upgrade from the D3s, the D4’s radically enhanced video capture might prove to be the real deal breaker. With just 720p video recording at 24fps on the D3s, this was just a little extra of no real professional use. The Nikon D4 is in a completely different league offering Full HD video capabilities at 24/25/30fps with a plethora of settings options and manual control.
Mono on-board mic, but at least you get a stereo external option
The same outstanding image quality of the still output applies to video footage. Videos are smooth and detailed with natural and consistent colours. The built-in microphone is quite good, although unfortunately mono only, and there is also an output for headphones monitoring and one for HMDI. Input levels for both mic and headphones can be adjusted to several levels and there is always the option to attach an external mic.
One thing that might give current Nikon owners pause for thought when considering adding a D4 to their kit is that you won’t be able to use your old battery packs with it. The D4 uses a completely new battery, the EN-EL18, which also needs its own charger. More surprising too, is the fact that this new battery pack is far less powerful than the EN-EL4 mounted on the D3s, delivering roughly 1600 fewer shots per charge. However, Nikon engineer Toshiaki Akagi has a different take on this which calls into question CIPA's battery testing methods, compared to real world usage.
Play your cards right: the latest XQD format rubs shoulders with the aging CompactFlash storage option
Moving with the times, the Nikon D4 replaces one of the two CompactFlash card slots of the D3s with an XQD card slot – a high speed storage format headed by Sony and Nikon, and backed by Canon among others. Shooting with the D4 using a Sony XQD card is truly a remarkable experience, such is its speed, although you will have to source a compatible card reader for the downloading. And there’s already an XQD 2.0 spec waiting in the wings for CompactFlash Association approval later this year.
The D4 shoots in a variety of file formats including NEF (RAW) 12 or 14 bit, lossless compressed, compressed or uncompressed, TIFF (RGB), JPEG and NEF (RAW)+JPEG. My software of choice for converting the D4’s NEF files is the Adobe's recently updated Photoshop Lightroom 4.1. Although at the time of writing Lightroom does not yet support tethered shooting for the D4, it does an excellent job on the conversion side of things.
An excellent all-rounder, what's not to like?
However you look at the Nikon D4, both as an upgrade of the D3s or a new release in its own right, it is undoubtedly an outstanding and powerful camera. It might not be the game-changer the D3s was when first released over a couple of years ago but it doesn’t have to be. As with the D3s I remain very impressed with the way the camera performed in the poor lighting conditions of the fashion shoot, especially the truthfulness of the colours. The speed and accuracy of the AF system in low light was also a real pleasure to use allowing assured shooting in all conditions.
Sometimes making a great camera a better one is more difficult than just making a great camera. The D4 fixes every little complaint pro users had over the previous model and adds some unexpected but well-received features. My final take on the D4 is that if you are a pro working in sports, photojournalism, stage or wildlife photography the only thing stopping you from getting one should be lack of cash. For those with less exacting needs, the value for money factor might not be so obvious. ®
Catherine Monfils is a professional photographer specialising in portraiture, lifestyle and fashion.
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