by Richard Peters, July 2012
The launch of the D4 hasn’t been without it’s fair share of shock reactions from the Nikon owners of the world. Two types of memory card, same native high ISO of the D3s, release date slipping a month at the last minute and of course, a £500 price hike barely a week after it was released. It’s fair to say it’s been a roller coaster ride so far! But, has it been worth it?
This is certainly not the easiest review to write. It should be, because the D4 is an amazing camera – the best pro Nikon DSLR out there in fact. So I should be telling you to go out and buy it without hesitation. But I won’t, because the fact is you might not need it (I’ll stress the ‘might’ though). Also, I have only have limited space in which to cram in as much as I can, so instead, I’m going to talk a little about some of the main features, and then sum up my opinions based on what your upgrade path to this camera is.
The D4, like all previous Nikon DSLRs before it, it’s ergonomically fantastic. The D3 series of bodies was always great but the D4 ups the game again. It’s subtle design differences bring the look of the camera bang up to date and make the D3s look a little boxy and old. But those design changes aren’t superficial, they serve a purpose. Button layouts have been tweaked to make controls easier to change and reach, and we’ve now got some additional directional thumb pads with which to select focus points in landscape and portrait orientation, plus an improved thumb grip for extra support when shooting in portrait orientation. It all works beautifully and the D4 is easily the most comfortable camera I’ve ever used.
If you’re upgrading to a D4 from any other Nikon camera than the D3s, the image quality will be a large leap forward. If you’re doing so from a D3s you may be left feeling a little underwhelmed at first because high ISO performance is, at best, around 1/3 stop better than the previous high ISO king at the highest native ISO settings. Many have been a little let down by this, indeed even I was a little disappointed, especially after my previous hands on with the D4 back at the end of January where I had the impression we should see roughly one stop improvements over the D3s. But equally, although we are getting ’slightly’ better ISO quality, we are getting it in a higher resolution meaning for any given print size, you’ll be getting superb image quality and with a little more detail. Plus of course, we now have a lower base ISO. If you held off upgrading your D3 though, and are now making the jump to the D4 you are in for a serious treat because the D4 image quality is sublime. I didn’t really do any big side by side tests between the two cameras, instead taking the D4 on its own merits. But below you can see a quick shot I took of the same subject side by side, with the same settings on both cameras at ISO 12800.
The advertising tells us the D4 can autofocus in moonlight. Well that’s all good and well, but for my type of photography there is little need for moonlight use. However, this new ability to auto focus down to -2EV, thanks to having improved optics on the same CAM 3500 FX focus module as the D3s, is that in the real world this translates to improved autofocus down to f8. And this is a big deal to anyone who uses any of the f4 telephoto lenses, as they will now work with all three teleconverters in Nikons line up, and still retain some form of usable auto focus. In use, the advantages of this became apparent straight away. For a start, the 1.4x TC was always good on the 600 VR, but now focus is even snappier and importantly, more reliable, especially with the outer focus points.
This all equates to far better tracking of birds in flight, and on a recent trip to Belarus, I was able to sit low in a hide in a grassy field and autofocus on some Great Snipe through the blades of grass, which were taller than the birds with ease (until the birds were too far away at least, but then they were so obscured the photo wasn’t worth taking). On a trip to the Farne Islands, despite very foggy and contrast-less light, I was able to happily focus on a shag perched atop a rock against a dark background. This gave me a sharp shot, which just needed editing to regain some contrast, and the detail I could pull back from the sensor was excellent.
Even with the TC-20EIII convertor on the 600 VR, autofocus is usable, providing the target isn’t too fast of course. So yes, the marketing tells us the D4 can focus down to -2EV but in everyday use it means so much more than that.
To XQD or not to XQD?
So, here we are. A new memory card format, and one that so far is only supported by one camera in the world! Some (well, many. Actually, most!) have questioned Nikon’s use of two types of memory card in the D4. There is no denying that it’s not as convenient as having two slots of the same type. But I can appreciate why it’s here. The logical thought here is that the D4 is a bridge camera to ease us in to XQD. Giving us two XQD cards would have been a disaster, and a big one at that given the low initial availability. But by giving us our old friend the compact flash and the new generation of card it means we can carry on using the cards we have stockpiled over the years, but also start to ease in to the future of DSLR memory storage.
It’s very early days but with the blisteringly fast transfer speeds these cards can offer and the larger and larger file sizes cameras are producing, I expect it’s here to stay. Given that this first generation of card is already faster than the fastest compact flash card, it’s no surprise that it clears the D4 buffer of images faster than a lot of cameras can even take images! If you’re a wildlife or sports shooter, there is simply no better camera on the market than an XQD equipped D4 for capturing extended periods of fast paced action (of course, it remains to be seen how the Canon 1DX will compare). Here’s a quick video to compare the XQD card to one of the fastest compact flash cards on the market, the Sandisk Extreme Pro.
I’ll be honest though, if I hadn’t been lucky enough to receive a free XQD card and reader with my camera (a bundle that Nikon provided for the first 6 weeks or so of the camera’s release) I wouldn’t have jumped on board with it myself just yet. As the above video shows, the D4 buffer is so large that even with a quick compact flash card you can still shoot over 60 RAWs in a burst, which should be plenty. But now I’ve used XQD and seen the speed in which it operates, I’m quite a bit more optimistic about the future of the format and will happily welcome it as the card format of the future if that’s the way it goes. Now that Apple have adapted USB3, it also means Mac users can utilize the full potential of the Sony XQD card readers as well.
Tweaks, Pros & Cons
I can’t cover the entire D4 here as it boasts a whole range of subtle changes that make it easier and faster to use. Some of the things that stand out to me are:
The buffer. As we’ve already seen, especially when paired with an XQD card! In that scenario you can get over 70 RAW files in a single burst and that is set to improve with newer, faster S series XQD cards on the horizon.
Auto ISO can be turned on and off by holding down the ISO button and turning the front command wheel. This is a very welcome tweak. Previously, Auto ISO was turned on and off via the camera’s menu system. Even if you assigned it to the front function button, pressing that still just opened up the menu on the screen. Now you can turn it on and off with a simple button hold and wheel turn. Furthermore, you can select Auto ISO to automatically bias the ISO levels based on the lens you attach, so if you attach a telephoto it’ll give you higher ISOs allowing for higher shutter speeds.
Video. It’s vastly superior to what has come before it. So much so that it’s not even a comparison. We now get a multitude of video modes and frame rates in a completely dedicated set of menus. We even get three crop modes, meaning you can get varying effective fields of view for any given lens. The down side is that all but the 2.7x video crop mode are a little soft and lacking in detail. This makes the video mode great for wildlife shooters but less so for anyone wanting to film scenes with a wide angle.
We get a new, lower capacity, battery with the D4. This is a hassle as if you have a stockpile of batteries from your D3s, D3 or even D2x days. They won’t work here as the power terminals on the batteries have been swapped from left to right. The lower capacity is due to changes in the legislation in Japan (I won’t pretend to know the in-depth technical reasons) and the result is a battery that, despite the lower capacity, will actually give more photos on a charge than the previous higher capacity batteries. There is a clause here though, in that although you can get more shots to a charge, this is only if you shoot fairly continuously. If you leave the camera idle in standby, it’ll drain faster than the old battery. Perfect for sports photographers covering a game, less perfect for wildlife photographers who sit in a hide with no activity for hours on end. So far, I’ve seen around 1500 RAW and roughly 5 minutes of 1080p video off a single charge and that’s still with power to spare. Not as bad in practise as you’d imagine, but for me it’s a small chink in the armour.
The way the focus information is relayed back to the photographer is now improved too. Holding down the focus mode select button and rotating the rear command dial whilst looking through the viewfinder now rewards the photographer with focus points that change to indicate the mode you are in. Single Point has just a single focus point lit up, Dynamic 9 Point highlights the main point and surrounds it with 8 dots to represent the extra focus points that will assist, giving you an idea of the coverage they will give. The same happens for 21 and 51 point mode, with more dots spreading out further. 3D gives you a single focus point with a dot in the middle of it and Auto removes all focus points. It’s a superb system, as now you can tell what focus mode you are using just by looking at the way in which the focus points are lit in the viewfinder.
Built-in time lapse is a great new feature as it actually renders the shots taken in camera in to a finished video sequence, saving you from having to edit them afterwards on the computer. What is missing from this is the ability to keep the separate stills as well, but hopefully this will change in a software update. As it stands, you can either keep the stills and make the movie yourself using the interval shooter, or you can have the camera produce the rendered video but not give you the stills via the time lapse mode.
AF-On now activates VR and this cannot be toggled off. Something that hopefully a firmware update will allow you to toggle as it would be nice to only activate VR when you are preparing to fire the shutter, not just composing the shot.
Weather sealing as usual is top notch and I’ve put that to the test having shot in the rain without a cover. The D4 is also covered in thermal paint to help provide even more protection to extreme temperatures.
Should you buy one?
Unlike the jump from, say the old D2x to the D3, the jump from the D3s to the D4 isn’t as big. When you consider the quite substantial cost involved to upgrade, nobody would blame you for thinking long and hard first rather than automatically going for it. There’s no doubt it has to be a far more considered purchase, especially if the type of photography you shoot doesn’t really benefit hugely from the improvements.
There are plenty of factors to take in to account, but with the exception of the battery, the D4 improves on every single aspect of the D3s. It’s faster, it has better focus, it has better control layout and ergonomics, it has vastly superior video and of course it has higher resolution. Whilst on paper these specs may only appear to be a minor upgrade to the D3s, the truth is, in actual use it becomes apparent that it’s so much more than a minor update. I think part of the problem may be that the D4 is priced so much higher than the D3s at its introduction; it’s made all those excellent upgrades feel like they aren’t enough to reflect the price. If it had come in at a similar price point as the camera it has replaced, I don’t think reaction would have been so mixed.
So should you buy one? If you own a D3 or older, then I’d say yes, it’ll be a huge leap forward. If you own a D3s and shoot lots of wildlife or sport, then I think you’d appreciate the differences straight away. If you are a landscape, studio or wedding photographer though, the truth is a second hand D3s might well make more sense.
I’ve not regretted my own decision to upgrade from a D3s in the slightest. The D4 is absolutely the best camera to come out of the Nikon stable. It’s as simple as that. The only real question is if your type of shooting will benefit or justify the costly upgrade to use the best Nikon camera out there. And that’s a question only you can answer.
|Build||9/10||Rock solid, although I felt the battery chamber cover felt slightly loose compared to my D3s|
|Performance||10/10||Fast and reliable in all conditions|
|Picture||10/10||Incredible high ISO and bags of detail from the 16MP sensor|
|Handling||10/10||Sits very well in the hand and controls are spot on|
|Value||7/10||An incredible camera but very pricey|
About the author
Richard Peters is a wildlife photographer based in London. As well as taking his own images, Richard has been on the judging panel for photography competitions for both the BBC and Nikon Europe. He blogs at www.richardpeters.co.uk/blog and more of his work can be seen at www.500px.com/richardpeters
About WEX Photographic
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