Friday

Nikon D4 review


The Nikon D4, the company's update to its D3S pro body, kicks it up a notch in all respects -- higher-resolution sensor, faster continuous-shooting performance, better and more flexible video quality, and a host of attractive new features.








Design and features
Like other vertically gripped pro bodies, the D4 is big and heavy, with the same rugged and sealed construction as its predecessor. If you're a perpetual telephoto-lens schlepper, that probably won't matter to you -- most of the big glass weighs even more than the body -- but other folks should keep in mind that single-height pro bodies are pretty fast, and are lighter even equipped with an optional vertical grip, which can usually hold an extra battery as well.
The D4 deviates slightly from the D3S in control design and layout, mostly to incorporate the addition of necessary video controls, but with only one exception do I think you'll need to retrain your muscle memory. On the top left shoulder are the usual bracketing, metering and flash option buttons, accompanied by the locked dial with drive modes. Joining the information-packed status LCD, power switch/shutter, and exposure compensation and mode buttons on the top right shoulder is a tiny but physically differentiable record button. This is one of my least favorite locations for a record button; I much prefer operating it with my thumb.
As with other Nikon dSLRs, the autofocus area selector has moved to a button-dial combination, with the button on the autofocus mode switch on the left side of the body near the lens. This makes room on the back for a Live View button with a switch for toggling between still and video operation. I like the control design, but find it too far down and toward the middle of the back of the camera: it's underneath the LCD, next to the second status LCD (dedicated to ISO sensitivity, image quality, and white balance). The Nikon D7000 still has the best implementation of this.
Down the left side of the LCD sit the menu, Picture Control, zoom in, zoom out, OK, and info buttons. The info button brings up the onscreen display with direct access to some less frequently changed settings, such as choosing from the shooting and custom settings banks (four each), custom button programming, noise-reduction settings, and Active D-Lighting options. On the right side are the AF-on button, programmable joystick (the subselector), and eight-way rocker switch (multiselector) with a button in the middle and lock switch below. When you rotate to vertical orientation there's a duplicate AF-on button and subselector.
Nikon doesn't deliver as consistent a horizontal and vertical experience as some. You've got the two programmable buttons between the lens and the grip while shooting horizontally but not vertically, and instead have a tiny button by the shutter that feels just slightly in the wrong place for using in conjunction with one of the command dials. Because of the new location of the autofocus-area control, it's hard to operate while vertically oriented. And some of the seemingly duplicate controls operate differently in the different orientations. For instance, the horizontal subselector can be programmed as an AE lock, but the vertical one can't -- because it's not a subselector! It just looks like the same control, when in fact it's a duplicate multiselector. Are these deal killers? No. But this is an expensive camera and you have the right to be cranky about small design issues.
On the other hand, there are two subtle design tweaks that are really nice. When you touch the shutter button (or any of the other controls, for that matter), all the buttons and display backlights illuminate. And the new battery design separates the battery-cover latch from the battery itself.
As with other Nikon pro models, I love the viewfinder: it's big and bright, with a nice grid overlay and the appropriate information displayed. But the display LCD has a slight greenish tint that makes light colors look washed-out when they're not and white balance incorrect when it's not. You can manually adjust the display hue, however.
Under rubber covers on the left side of the body live various connectors: peripheral (such as wireless transmitters), USB, headphone jack, mic input, HDMI, and Ethernet.
Canon EOS-1D XCanon EOS-1Ds Mark IIINikon D3SNikon D4Nikon D3X
Sensor (effective resolution)18mp CMOS
(2-line, 16-channel readout)

14-bit
21.1mp CMOS
14-bit
8-channel readout 
14-bit
12.1mp CMOS
12-channel readout 
14-bit
16.2mp CMOS
n/a
14-bit
24.5mp CMOS
12-channel readout 
14-bit 
36mm x 24mm36mm x 24mm36mm x 23.9mm36mm x 24mm35.9mm x 24mm
Focal-length multiplier1.0x1.0x1.0x1.0x1.0x
Sensitivity rangeISO 50 (exp)/ 100 - ISO 51,200/204,800 (exp)ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 1600/3200 (exp)ISO 100 (exp)/200 - ISO 12800/ 102400 (exp)ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 102400/ 204800 (exp)ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 1600/6400 (exp)
Continuous shooting12fps
38 raw/180 JPEG
5fps
12 raw/56 JPEG
9fps
n/a
10fps
n/a
5fps
n/a
Viewfinder
magnification/ effective magnification
100% coverage
0.76x/0.76x
100% coverage
0.76x/ 0.76x
100% coverage
0.70x/ 0.70x
100% coverage
0.70x/ 0.70x
100% coverage
0.70x/ 0.70x
Autofocus61-pt High Density Reticular
21 center diagonal to f5.6
5 center to f2.8
20 outer to f4
45-pt
19 cross type
51-pt
15 cross type
51-pt
5 cross type to f2.8 
9 cross type to f8
51-pt
15 cross type
AF exposure range-2 - 20 EV-1 - 18 EV-1 - 19 EV-2 - 19 EV-1 - 19 EV
Shutter speed1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Shutter durability400,000 cycles300,000 cycles300,000 cycles400,000 cycles300,000 cycles
Metering252-zone RGB63-zone TTL1,005-pixel RGB sensor 3D Color Matrix Metering II91,000-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II1,005-pixel RGB sensor 3D Color Matrix Metering II
Metering exposure range0 - 20 EV (est)0 - 20 EV0 - 20 EV-1 - 20 EV0 - 20 EV
Image stabilizationOpticalOpticalOpticalOpticalOptical
VideoH.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/50p
NoneH.264 AVI
720/24p
H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/30p/ 25p/24p
None
Rated estimated max HD video length4GB
(29m59s)
n/a2GB4GB
(29m59s)
n/a
LCD size3.2 inches fixed
1.04 megadot
3 inches fixed
230,000 pixels
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3.2 inches
921,000 dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
Memory slots2 x CF 
(UMDA mode 7)
1 x CF (UDMA mode 6),
1 x SDHC
2 x CF (UMDA mode 6)1 x CF (UDMA mode 7),
1 x XQD
2 x CF (UMDA mode 6)
Wireless flashNoNoNoNoNo
Battery life (CIPA rating)1,120 shots
(2,450mAh)
1,800 shots
(2,300mAh)
4,200 shots
(1,900mAh)
2,600 shots
(2,000mAh)
4,400 shots
(1,900mAh)
Dimensions (inches, WHD)6.4 x 6.2 x 3.36.1 x 6.3 x 3.16.3 x 6.2 x 3.46.3 x 6.2 x 3.66.3 x 6.2 x 3.4
Body operating weight (ounces)54 (est)45 (est)43.7 (est)48.343 (est)
Mfr. price$6,800 (body only)$6,999 (body only)$5,199.95 (body only)$5,999 (body only)$7,999.95 (body only)
Ship dateJune 2012November 2007November 2009January 2012December 2008
As for features, it's probably easier to say the D4 isn't missing much I can think of -- support for time code in video is one of the few things that spring to mind -- than to enumerate what it does have. Unlike the 1D X it does support simultaneous HDMI out and Live View display, with a suppressed information display. It uses H.264 B-frame compression for video, though that's not nearly as interesting as Canon's support of I-frames; bipredictive compression reduces file sizes, but intraframe-only compression delivers better quality. It supports 1.5x and 2.7x crop modes in movie capture, for extended zoom with a given lens, though it doesn't have a direct 1,920x1,080 mode for pixel-for-pixel video capture.
Its unique Live View Silent mode bursts 12fps or 24fps for 5 seconds at a low-resolution 1,920x1,080 with what I'm presuming is electronic rather than mechanical shutter, since it really is silent -- although I could hear what I think was the aperture clicking.
Other features it has that the 1D X lacks (as far as I can tell) are a time-lapse mode and TIFF output. Like the 1D X it introduces silent power aperture shooting -- you can program the two buttons on the front for widening and narrowing it -- as well as multiple exposures. Plus, there's an exposure delay mode, which postpones the shutter release for up to 3 seconds after the mirror lifts in order to minimize vibration. Wireless connectivity, flash, and GPS remain add-ons, as is common for this class.
For an exhaustive rundown of the D4's features and operation, you'll have to download the PDF manual.
Image quality
Without question the D4's photo quality is excellent, with a great noise profile. Its JPEGs look clean as high as ISO 1600, and are decent at ISO 3200 -- there you start to see some detail degradation -- and usable at ISO 6400, depending upon content. I compared the in-camera NR off to the normal at ISO 1600, and didn't really see much of a difference in the JPEGs. There's a noticeable bump in artifacts between ISO 3200 and ISO 6400.
But rather disappointingly, the artifact profile for JPEGs doesn't look quite as good as the D3S' at sensitivities below ISO 12800. Although better by the numbers than the D3S's JPEGs at ISO 12800 and above, I wouldn't suggest using the JPEGs beyond ISO 6400. On the upside, shooting raw yields significantly better shots at higher sensitivities.
Color rendering looks great as well. The default Standard Picture 
Control boosts saturation a little, but not enough to induce hue shifts; it does increase contrast to the point where you do lose a bit of shadow detail, however. If you decide to go Neutral, it preserves some of the tonal range, but I recommend boosting sharpness a bit from the Neutral defaults. Bright, saturated colors that are heavy in the red channel can end up with clipped highlights, but raw files retain all the detail, and in general the camera preserves enough highlight and shadow detail in the raw for good recovery in really high-contrast images without introducing noise in the shadows or too much contouring in the highlights.
I'm not thrilled with the video quality: It's very good, but for $6,000 I expect wow. In bright light it's relatively soft, albeit with a decent tonal range, and no visible artifacts like rolling shutter or moirĂ©. In dim light (high ISO sensitivities) it stays pretty clean without clipping too much in the shadows or highlights, but once again looks soft.
Performance
The Nikon D4 is one of the fastest cameras I've ever had the pleasure of shooting with, though it falls short of perfection. It powers on, focuses, and shoots almost instantaneously -- definitely faster than our ability to measure it confidently. It seems to perform every operation in our tests in about 0.2 second: time to focus and shoot in both bright and dim conditions, as well as two sequential shots in raw, JPEG, and even TIFF. We clocked continuous shooting at 9.8 frames per second for JPEGs, but in practice that held as well for long bursts of raw+JPEG, too.
The D4's autofocus system is mostly excellent, locking quickly and usually accurately in both single and burst shooting, for fixed subjects as well as while panning. The dynamic and tracking focus options still tend to get a little distracted by the background, but unlike some cameras the D4 maintains the display of the center point (when that's the setting) during continuous AF, which really helps. However, despite gaining a stop of sensitivity in low light, centerpoint autofocus at f2.8 remains more frustrating than I expect for a camera in this price range and with these specs -- especially one of which the single most important distinguishing characteristic should be speed. (The variations of AF point sensitivities are too complex to go into here. For a complete description, check out pages 75-76 of the PDF manual.) Also, the sluggish Live View autofocus just makes me sad.
One of the nice aspects of cameras in this class is the dual card slots; in the case of the D4, one CompactFlash and one XQD, a new technology that thus far has no other camera adopters. I've got mixed thoughts about its inclusion here. On the upside, it's fast -- a lot faster than SD at this point. But so is the 100MBps CF, and as far as I can tell you gain no in-camera performance improvements over that from it, and you lose compatibility. However, when using a USB 3.0 XQD reader the downloads are very fast.


Wrap-Up
As I haven't tested the Canon EOS-1D X yet, I can't really draw any comparative conclusions, but I doubt it's so much better that it's worth tossing all your Nikon lenses and changing systems. Similarly, it's unlikely the D4 is worth putting all your Canon gear on eBay and jumping the fence. But those are pretty mundane conclusions.
Unless you really need the speed and resolution boost, improved video, or better connectivity, I don't think the D4 is a must-have replacement for the D3S. And the D800 delivers equally good or better photos at low ISO sensitivities and better video quality for a lot less money, even when equipped with a battery grip, though the D4 remains seriously faster. But overall, the D4 is a well-executed update to Nikon's professional camera line that's worth the admittedly hefty investment if you need its talents.