Following in the footsteps of such a successful lineage of professional SLRs isn't easy. Fortunately, the Nikon D4 offers enough important features like Ethernet and wireless connectivity, plus a huge improvement in video to make the upgrade very worthwhile.
The D3S wasn't particularly difficult or cumbersome to hold, but the D4 has received some fine-tuned ergonomic improvements to make the shooting experience even more enjoyable.
A thermal shield at the top of the camera protects the panel from heating up when used extensively outdoors — something that sports photographers will welcome. There's also an auto-dim sensor on the side of the (3.2-inch, 920,000-dot) LCD screen that detects the ambient light, and can automatically adjust screen brightness. The screen is very easy to see outdoors. There's also a new addition of a special gel layer between the plastic and the LCD itself to prevent fogging during temperature shifts.
Click through to see the Nikon D4 unboxing. (Credit: Lexy Savvides/CBSi)
There's a new rubberised focus point for vertical shooting, as well as improvements for vertical shooters where the same focus point is retained when the orientation is changed. The rubberised joysticks are precise, and give nice, tactile feedback when pressed or moved. A subtle adjustment has been made to the angle of the shutter button, moving to a 35-degree angle. It doesn't feel all that much different in regular use, but is welcomed after a long session of shooting. A small record button is located just behind the shutter button, and is very well placed, making it easy to instantly start shooting video.
Buttons at the back of the camera now glow ever so slightly in the dark when the backlight switch is triggered. Nikon has included the zoom buttons found on lower-end models of its SLRs, and the inclusion is much welcomed on the D4. We greatly prefer it to the odd method of zooming in and out using the one single button on the D3S.
The illuminated buttons on the back of the D4. (Credit: Nikon)
Two Live View modes are offered on the D4; one for video, and one for stills photography. The switch just underneath the LCD screen alternates between the two, with the centre button switching Live View on and off. You can take stills when recording video, but the recording will stop in order to take the photo. There's also two release modes available when shooting in photo Live View mode; quiet or silent. Activated from the menu, the silent photo mode snaps an image at 1920x1280, as opposed to the full-resolution shot when using the quiet option.
The D4 has an excellent time-lapse function, which allows you to set the interval at which photos are taken. Rather than just simply taking photos, though, the camera automatically puts them together in a finished movie, at a resolution of your choosing (selectable from the movie options tab).
The D4 breaks new ground in connectivity options, thanks to both a wired Ethernet and wireless transmitter (sold separately), which allow photographers to assign the D4 to its own IP address. The wireless transmitter is powered by the camera, and is a compact module that sits on the body, supporting IEEE 802.11n for fast data transfer. Unfortunately, we weren't supplied with the transmitter during our review period, so we can't comment on the wireless capabilities of the D4. We will update this review in due course when we have had access to a transmitter.
Connectivity options accessible from the D4.
We can, however, talk about the Ethernet connectivity on the D4. There are multiple ways of using the Ethernet connection, namely to view and transfer files from the memory card, FTP transfer or in HTTP server mode. HTTP mode lets you access the camera via browser or smartphone, and have basic camera control to take photos and video. The D4 doesn't have a built-in DHCP server, so in order to connect the camera directly to a laptop to interact with the camera, you need to set a static IP address on both the camera and the computer manually. Otherwise, for automatic configuration, you will need a DHCP server (such as a router) between the camera and computer.
Once the camera has been connected to your PC, you can view files on the camera's memory cards or access some basic controls (in Shooting Viewer mode) on the screen. This will show up shooting option, like full PASM and exposure control, a shutter release, metering options and autofocus options. You can activate Live View by clicking the "LV" icon at the bottom of the screen, and focus the camera by clicking anywhere in the Live View window. Live View does lag more than we would have imagined through the Ethernet connection, and the wired connection does eat away at battery life.
Depending on your shooting configuration, you may also need to configure the Wireless Transmitter Utility (download for Windows or Mac) to pair the camera with your PC.
General shooting metrics (in FPS)
- Start-up to first shot
- JPEG shot-to-shot time
- RAW shot-to-shot time
- Shutter lag
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Continuous shooting speed
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Given that the XQD format is so new, we have yet to receive a test card, and therefore have been unable to assess the D4 based on its XQD performance. At the time of writing, only one manufacturer, Sony, is producing the format. All figures above were derived from testing the D4 in conjunction with a Lexar Professional CompactFlash 16GB 1000x card. We'll also update the performance chart when the Canon 1DX is available for comparison.
The D4 can take a burst of approximately 60 frames in JPEG at fine quality, and 53 in RAW before slowing to process them. It takes 22 seconds for the buffer to clear when shooting the D4's maximum burst of RAW images.
The focusing system of the D4 is absolutely excellent. It retains the same AF points (51) as the D3S, but is incredibly responsive, achieving and locking onto focus correctly even in very dark situations. The D4 also lets you use all 15 of the cross-type points when shooting on lenses with a maximum aperture of f/5.6.
It's a small irk, but given the increasing proliferation of USB 3.0 devices, we would have liked to see a USB 3.0 interface on the D4 as well.
The battery is rated at 2600 shots (CIPA), which is significantly less than the battery on the D3S. However, in this interview with a Nikon spokesperson, Nikon claims that the performance in continuous shooting actually allows the photographer to take more shots with the new D4 battery than with the D3S.
As would be expected from a professional SLR of this calibre, the D4 delivers impeccable photographs. Let's dig a little deeper, though, particularly in regards to ISO performance. The native ISO range has improved to 100-12,800, and is expandable even farther up to extremes of 50 and 204,800 in the low and high modes, respectively.
Click through for more images from the D4, including an image taken at ISO 204,800. (Credit: Lexy Savvides/CBSi)
The D4's low ISO performance is excellent. The D4 delivers smooth, crisp and clean images all the way up to ISO 1600. In particular, the D4 does a very good job of keeping colour noise at bay as the ISO sensitivity increases. However, compared to the see-in-the-dark skills of the D3S, we didn't see a dramatic increase in the quality of images rendered by the D4 compared to the D3S at high ISO levels. Indeed, the D4's images looked just a tad softer and slightly more noisy (though without as much colour noise) as the D3S' images. It's definitely not a jump backwards in terms of image quality, but it's not enough of a step forward to warrant upgrading on this basis alone.
An example of an image taken with the D4 at ISO 4000, with 100 per cent crop at the top.
(Credit: Lexy Savvides/CBSi)
Metering, and specifically the tweaked 3D colour matrix mode, delivers spot-on, accurate exposures. The matrix mode makes exposures in tricky lighting situations particularly easy, optimised for exposing correctly for faces. Colour rendition on JPEG images is particularly pleasing, and images appear to have slightly more depth in terms of dynamic range, compared to the D3S.
The D4 excels at autofocusing in dark situations. We were able to lock onto focus in pretty much all low-light and night scenes, with little ambient light present. The camera also produces deep, rich blacks at high ISO levels, as you can see in the RAW and JPEG comparison below.
This comparison between the D4's image files at a high ISO sensitivity shows the excellent RAW photos the camera can produce. In-camera JPEG processing does appear a little less sharp than the RAW file, as you can see from the 100 per cent crop inset on each image, as the camera tries to suppress noise. This exposue was taken at 1/200, f/2.8, ISO 10,000.
(Credit: Lexy Savvides/CBSi)
Additional shooting modes, such as multiple exposures and retouch options like red-eye correction and monochrome conversion, offer a little added value. The in-camera HDR effect delivered by the D4, however, is not exceptional enough to warrant letting the camera do all the work, as opposed to manually constructing the image in post-processing.
Refinements to the video-recording capabilities of the high-end Nikon SLRs have made the entire range a viable and excellent solution for videographers. The D4 can shoot full-HD footage in three crop formats: FX (no crop), DX (1.5x crop) or the dedicated crop mode, delivering the centre portion of what the image sensor sees at full HD resolution (1920x1080 and 30, 25 or 24fps). This means that mounting a 100mm lens on the D4 and shooting using the 1920x1080 crop mode gives an image equivalent to the field of view of a 270mm lens.
At full 1080p resolution, the D4 can shoot at 30fps, 25fps or 24fps, and at 720p either 60fps, 50fps, 30fps or 25fps. When shooting video, the ISO range is limited at the bottom end to a minimum of ISO 200, and clip duration is limited to 20 minutes. More excitingly, the D4 can output a clean 1080i signal via HDMI, ideal for recording straight to an external device.
The only real issue we encountered with the video implementation was the positioning of the Live View switch. It's located in such a way that you have to physically move your hand off the shutter and record button area to switch it on. It's not a big deal, considering you can train yourself to get used to the movement, but it could have been positioned farther up on the body to minimise the strain. Video quality is very good, with hardly any moire visible on our test videos. We did notice, however, that videos shot in FX mode were not as sharp as would be expected — it was the 2.7x crop mode that provided the sharpest results.
The levels of audio sensitivity (up to 20 steps for the microphone) work brilliantly when monitoring via headphones, and the ability to fine tune audio control is very welcome. While it's no XLR input, the 3.5mm jack lets you attach any number of external microphones, not just Nikon's own ME-1, for excellent audio recording. The internal mono mic does the job with some hiss added in, but there's absolutely no comparison between it and an external stereo mic. See below for a video using the built-in mic, and directly below is another video using the Nikon ME-1 microphone.
Exposure: 1/30, f/2.8, ISO 4000
Exposure: 1/200, f/2.8, ISO 8000
Exposure: 1/50, f/2.8, ISO 160
Exposure: 1/200, f/6.3, ISO 250
Exposure: 1/3200, f/2.8, ISO 100
Exposure: 1/80, f/4.5, ISO 100
The Nikon D4 offers many significant improvements from previous professional-grade SLRs, such as the D3S, as well as excellent shooting performance, autofocusing speed and video recording. This is a serious pro tool designed for the likes of sports and editorial photographers, and its many usability tweaks will ensure that every shooting situation is catered for.