Every so often a top-of -the-range DSLR rears its head with the promise of the ultimate in design, performance and image quality. The Nikon D4 – the DSLR that sits atop the company’s DSLR hierarchy – is one such camera.
Some four years back the Nikon D3 passed through our hands. And boy, were we impressed. Not to rest on already impressive laurels though, the D4 takes what the D3 was all about and refines, tweaks and improves upon it.
Is the Nikon D4 the ultimate professional DSLR?
Under the hood: Full-frame FX sensor
When it comes to DSLRs there's a variety of sensor sizes out there. The holy grail of these, so to speak, is the full-frame or "35mm" sensor – called such because of its 24x36mm size, which roughly mimics a 35mm film frame. Nikon dubs this the FX sensor, which differentiates it from the smaller 1.5x crop DX sensor.
Under the D4’s hood is a 16.2-megapixel chip, that delivers a high – yet an ultimately "safe" – resolution for demanding users. We say safe as it is some 20-megapixels fewer than the Nikon D800’s sensor.
Why shy away from such resolution? In short the more sensor diodes, or pixels in final image terms, that are crammed on to a surface area the more the camera will "struggle" to obtain decent light to process into a clean signal. The cleaner a signal the better quality the shots - particularly at higher ISO settings - will be after the signal is amplified and cleaned up via in-camera noise reduction processing.
But then most people contemplating a D4 purchase will already know that. This isn't a camera with a consumer audience in mind. Its £5289 body-only price is testament to that.
So whereas the D800 is a great low ISO, high-resolution landscape photographer's camera, the D4 is the machine that's ideal for high-ISO, fast performance sports and action shots. It's a true professional's tool. And with the London 2012 Olympics just around the corner, its launch is no coincidence.
The D4's sensor is backed up with the EXPEED 3 image processing engine that’s capable of capturing shots from ISO 100-12,800 natively and 50-204,800 extended, yep, that's two hundred and four thousand eight hundred! It's also able to burst-shoot up to 11 frames per second.
A lot of lower-spec cameras offer astronomically high ISO settings these days. The idea of ISO 12,800 being any good is often lost on many models. Here’s where the D4’s full-frame sensor and medium megapixel count come into great effect: not only are images mighty impressive – better than the D3, D3X and D3S models in one way or another – but the highest native ISO setting is of genuine use.
From ISO 100-12,800 the D4’s images are crisp and sharp despite an increase in subtle colour noise that starts to impact shots from ISO 3200 and above. That it’s possible to shoot at ISO 3200-6400 with little worry will be an essential to those shooting at concerts, events, fast-moving sports matches and the like.
At the other end of the spectrum shots at ISO 100 are very clean and clear, while the inclusion of an ISO 50 (equivalent) setting will be good news for those looking to get the most out of wider apertures in bright conditions. Many competitor cameras have begun using ISO 200 as the staple lowest standard – a sensitivity that is, to be frank, too high for a number of shooting situations – so Nikon's made the right move by implementing a new ultra-low ISO setting.
Overall the D4 offers great image quality. However, compared to the three-year-old D3S we’re not talking about a massive step forward in terms of image noise performance. What the D4 does offer is those extra four-megapixels of resolution, but side-by-side the results from both cameras are rather similar to one another. If you’re a D3S user and want better high ISO performance then the D4 may not necessarily be worth the upgrade. But if you’re looking for improvements in other areas then that’s where the camera comes to show additional promise.
Brand new design
That age-old saying: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Well, age-old from the point in time when such colloquialism became almost acceptable. The D3S’s design was - and still is - strong, but this is one area where the D4 makes subtle changes that make all the difference in use.
Among the biggest of those is the way the D4 mirrors most of the button layout for both portrait and landscape use. Flip the camera around by 90 degrees and the position of the AF-ON and mini-joystick controls feel much the same. An extra rear thumb grip for the portrait-orientation hold has also been added for extra comfort.
A number of design adjustments came in response to professional Nikon users’ feedback. The main shutter button, for example, is angled at a slightly steeper angle than the previous model to, again, make for more comfortable use when shooting for long periods.
A new AF switch design also means you'll never need to take your eye away from the viewfinder while switching between focus options. The old CSM arrangement of the D3S has gone, and in steps a D7000-style AF switch-and-button arrangement to toggle between autofocus and manual focus options, while the button controls the focus area/type in conjunction with the rear mode dial. The selected mode displays prominently in the viewfinder by lighting up the associated AF-points, or showing as "3D" when the tracking mode is selected. There’s no fiddly corner-of-viewfinder stuff here, it all happens right before your eyes.
The D4’s rear LCD screen in 3.2-inches in size, a whisker larger than the D3S’s 3-inch screen, yet both carry the same 921k-dot (or VGA) resolution. It’s a decent screen, but with other models out there including the Fujifilm X-Pro1’s 1.2 million dot 3-inch LCD, there is still room for improvement.
Many high-end photographers won't use a computer to review images before sending to the necessary picture desks or other locations, hence a higher-resolution screen would play a potential advantage for hyper-critical image review.
However, the D4 is set up well to cater for image distribution. The camera’s built-in Ethernet port can use Wired LAN with 10 BaseT and 100 Base TX support and comes with a wizard to simplify the setup process. Not only that but the IPTC core information can be pre-set prior to shooting. An optional GP-1 unit is capable of wireless transmission, though is an additional cost.
The D4 is also the first camera to use the latest XQD format. The Sony-designed card is capable of up to 125MB/s read and write speeds. In other words it’s bloomin’ fast. Using a USB 3 reader it was possible to copy a gigabyte of data in a matter of seconds. Literally, no more than 10 seconds in our tests. The drawback? The D4 body doesn’t have a mini USB 3 output like the D800; it’s USB 2 only. Which is just stupid.
Ignoring that minor glitch and the D4 is quite the performer. The Multi-CAM 3500 autofocus system has been improved to operate in conditions as dark as -2EV, while the 15 cross-type sensors nestled among the total 51-points are now sensitive to f/8. As Nikon pointed out at the D4’s introductory conference, this means greater sensitivity when using teleconverters. Ideal for pro use where it’s possible to get the very most out of kit.
As per the Nikon D800, even in low light the D4’s performance is one of the most impressive things we’ve seen. Set to single autofocus (AF-S) and focus is acquired so quickly that you’ll barely notice. The 16-35mm lens used for the bulk of this test is also a quiet piece of glass, far quieter than the satisfying shutter clatter that the camera itself makes.
A new factor to performance is that the D4’s advanced scene recognition system - which uses the new 91,000-pixel metering system to identify subject and scene types - can recognise how to focus and expose for a scene, dependent on what that scene is. A face, for example, can be identified and exposed for even if the light source is coming from behind the subject. Although the camera is never going to do all the work for you, it’s these subtle tools – that are more similar to entry-level camera models of late – that can help in some situations. But they’re not compulsory: the D4 offers oodles of control to ensure you’re always in charge. So much control that there's not even the space to cover it all here. But subtle controls such as how sensitive the AF is, whether shots need to be focused prior to the shutter releasing, focus point wrap-around, the severity of noise reduction, and so forth, are all embedded within the camera's menu system.
Switch to continuous autofocus (AF-S) and the focus system continues to show its strength. Whether using 3D focus tracking, 51-point auto, 21 or nine point selections, the camera is one step ahead at following and locking on to even fast moving subjects. It’s impressive stuff.
But it’s not just the focus that’s fast. The 11fps burst mode can clatter off a huge number of images – no less than 70 frames in raw & JPEG with no let-up in speed. However, the burst speed does dip to 10fps if continuous autofocus and exposure adjustment are required. Good though this is, it is a smidgen slower than the Canon 1D X.
Despite launching the Nikon D90 – the first DSLR with a movie mode – back in 2008, it wasn’t long before Canon was at the top of its game and producing excellent movie-capable cameras. The Canon EOS 5D Mk II, for example, is staggeringly good when it comes to movie-making. In fact even Hollywood movies and made-for-TV shows such as medical drama House got in on the action, the latter recorded a whole episode using nothing but 5D Mk II bodies.
The point being that it’s taken a long while to get up to speed again, but both the D4 and D800 are back on form when it comes to dealing with moving images.
The D4’s 1080p movie mode can capture at 30, 25 or 24fps (at true 29.97 and 23.976 rates) using H.264 compression, or there's the option of 720p files at 60 or 50fps (59.94) which is great for half-speed slow motion.
It's possible to use the full span of the full-frame sensor, or there’s a pixel-for-pixel 1920x1080 mode that provides a 2.7x magnification and doesn't need to bin any pixels in processing. Using just a 35mm lens, for example, it's possible to shoot a 1080p movie at 35mm and 95mm without quality loss just by adjusting the menu settings.
So far so good. But the inclusion of a microphone input with 20 adjustment levels, a headphone monitor output with 30 adjustment levels, and a clean HDMI output take things to the next level. These will really appeal to aspiring movie-makers.
Like other DSLR cameras the D4 does fall into the usual pitfalls though: "sensor wobble" from the CMOS sensor; so-so autofocus speed and ability; difficulty when using manual focus on lenses without adding third-party focus pulls; and no warning when using an excessive shutter speed that’s out of sync with the capture frame rate.
Use the camera in manual and some issues can be resolved, of course, or there are higher-end models, such as the Canon EOS C300, designed for an even more demanding pro market. If that’s beyond budget though then rest assured the D4 is among the best movie-capable DSLR cameras out there.
The D4 is a camera to get excited about. In fact it’s phenomenal and there’s no doubt some of the images that will be seen around the world from this camera will be stunning.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not without issues. The incredible image quality is, well, incredible, but it’s not a big step forward compared to the D3S. The extra resolution is there but, in truth, the extra quality isn’t. That does mean it's achieving a high level, but this may deter some prospective buyers from upgrading.
There is also the price to consider. Although announced at £4800 in the UK, an adjustment hiked the body-only price to a whopping £5289. It’s a lot of cash, though either price point make this very much a pro-only DSLR.
But where the D4 is right it’s exceptional. The autofocus system is among the best, if not the best, available in the world; the design is bang on the money; the burst mode and huge buffer make continuous shooting effortless; and the new movie capabilities are up there with the best too.
Make no bones about it: the Nikon D4 is an epic camera. But for your average consumer it’s the Ferrari of cameras: out of reach in both price and realistic use. For the pros out there it may be a priceless tool, and in this case what’s on offer is, without doubt, a new bar of excellence.
What we do wonder, however, is whether the forthcoming Canon EOS 1D X will be of a similar or significantly better ilk...