Nikon D4 & D800: What do the Professionals Think?

Barney Britton | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Feb 23, 2012

It's been a busy couple of months for Nikon, during which the Japanese camera maker has announced two new models, the D4, a 16MP professional workhorse intended for hard use in a wide range of shooting environments, and the 36.3MP D800 - the long-awaited successor to the 12MP D700. With these two models Nikon has introduced some significant new technology to its high-end DSLR lineup, perhaps the most significant of which is a very impressive-looking video specification. Both cameras offer full HD video with live audio monitoring and the option to record uncompressed footage to a harddrive via the built-in HDMI port.

As far as the D4 is concerned, the improved video specification is arguably the most significant change to the spec sheet compared to the D3S. It gets a small resolution boost, from 12MP to 16, and improved high ISO performance but other refinements are relatively subtle. The D800 on the other hand (and it's near-twin the D800E) breaks through a major barrier, offering a currently unmatched pixel count of 36.3MP for $3000 - half the cost of the D4. Despite the cost and resolution disparity though, the two cameras have a lot in common. 

Click here for our detailed first impressions (including samples) of using the D4
And here for our  overview of the Nikon D4
And here for our  in-depth preview of the Nikon D800

Following our announcement and preview content of these cameras, we wanted to get a feel for what professional Nikon shooters think. We asked four photographers, whose work and expertise spans a wide variety of genres to tell us what they think of the D800 and D4. Our own in-depth reviews will follow in the coming weeks.

The Sports and News Photographer: Leon Neal

I've been waiting for the D4 for some time but, unlike previous product refreshes, the D3s had never really left me crying out for anything apart from improved video. I was pretty sure that full HD video would be included in the D4,and handling a pre-production camera it was a real pleasure to finally see "1080p" displayed on the screen while shooting video.

August 2011. The morning after serious violence in central London which resulted in the destruction of several homes and businesses. Shot with a Nikon D3S and AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8

In my normal stills shooting though it's the little things that make a difference. The D4's screen, for example now has a resin coating between the plates which, Nikon claims, will eliminate fogging when the cameras have got wet. This might not sound significant but I have two D3 bodies that have never recovered from shooting one particularly wet job, so I'm pleased to see that changes have been made. 

Likewise, the D4's time-lapse feature takes the maths out of the process, simply asking you how often you want to shoot and then displaying how long the finalised clip will be, depending on the interval that you currently have set. Not only that, but on completion, the D4 stitches the sequence together and outputs a high-quality movie file. No more messing around in Quicktime Pro...

I haven't been able to shoot any images on a production camera yet but just from looking at pictures on the LCD screen I could see that the noise levels produced in the higher ISO ranges were definitely improved, even compared to the D3s. Having shot quite a bit of low-light sport recently, I'm impressed with what the D3s can produce but with the D4 I'm looking forward to shooting at ISO 12,800 hopefully without needing to worry about noise affecting detail.

I honestly can't wait to use the D4 in anger at the London Olympics later this year if it's as good as it looks so far. The D4 has come along at a good time for me because I'll be shooting swimming and several other indoor events so I'll need the best image quality possible at high ISO settings. The 2012 Olympics will also be 'wired' so I'm really pleased that Nikon has added an Ethernet port to the D4. Also, as a regular user of the WT-4 wireless transmitter, it's great to hear about the new smaller-form WT-5 unit. Less gear to carry is always a plus point, no matter what other features it has!'

After six months' planning Leon got only a few minutes at an effective focal length of 850mm to get this shot of Prince William and Kate Middleton's kiss after the Royal Wedding in April 2011.

This image was shot using a Nikon D3X with 600mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter.  
This image of the World Short-track Speed Scating Championships was shot in March 2011 using a Nikon D3s and 14-24mm f2.8 lens.

As for video, I regularly shoot 'webclips' for my employer Agence France-Presse which involve creating short 1-2 minute clips that can be used online to support text and photo stories. I've also shot footage for broadcast though, at last year's riots in inner London, for example. I like the fact that video is more tightly integrated into the D4 than the D3S and I'm really pleased to see that as well as full HD output, a headphone output has now been added for live audio monitoring. It's such a simple thing but the video teams at AFP were always astounded that the D3S didn't allow me to monitor my audio in any way. As well as 24, 25 and 30 frames per second, the D4 also allows 60 frames per second at the reduced 720p quality, which will allow me to capture slow-motion footage in camera - potentially very useful.

As for the D800, I'm really looking forward to getting my hands on one. A more compact form factor, incredible pixel count and full HD video makes it very very appealing for general-purpose stills and video work. I've always loved the size of the D700 and if the D800 can maintain D3-like image quality with three times the pixel count, it could feasibly end up being the more exciting of the two cameras. Bring it on!

Leon Neal is a staff photographer for international news agency Agence France-Presse. Leon shoots everything that comes his way including news, sport, features, fashion and live music. Although mainly based in the UK, foreign assignments include the revolution in Libya and the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

To see more of his work visit www.leonneal.com 

The Multimedia Photojournalist: Dan Chung

The Nikon D4 and D800 are very interesting to me. I was running both Canon and Nikon systems side by side for ages - Nikon for stills and Canon for stills and video, but a couple of months ago I finally got rid of my Nikon bodies, mainly because I just wasn’t really shooting on them. I kept all my Nikon glass though, so if I decide to get another Nikon body I’ll be ready to start shooting again immediately. 

One of the main things I liked about the D700 for stills was it's faster frame rate compared to the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. The D800 is a slower camera than the D700, but the biggest draw compared to the 5D Mark II is the more advanced video specification.  

Canon EOS5DmkII, One night in Beijing (shot with Nikon lenses). from Dan Chung on Vimeo.

Both Canon and Nikon are producing great cameras now that you can shoot excellent video footage with. The difference obviously is that Canon is better established in that field. The D4 and D800 are still unknown quantities for now, but I know I could go on a broadcast shoot with a Canon EOS C300 tomorrow, and mix the footage in with video from the 1 DX or 5D Mark II and it would work.

This is why right now I would consider myself a Canon shooter. Until to the launch of the D4 and D800 there’s been no other choice for DSLR video really. Sony’s DSLR video stuff doesn’t quite cut it, and the Nikon D3S didn’t really cut it either - it didn’t have enough video resolution, the frame rates weren’t there, and frankly the image quality in video mode just wasn’t up to the same level as the Canon EOS 5D Mark II. As a stills camera the D3S is lovely but right now I need a video camera that shoots stills, not a stills camera that shoots video.

Shot on the Nikon D700 and AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, this image is part of a 2009 case study of Hasina Begum, Char Atra, Bangladesh, taken by Dan for Oxfam. 

That's why I think the new Nikons look really interesting. I will definitely be looking at the D4 and D800 in more detail because I can’t afford not to. But I’d say the same thing about the Canon EOS-1 DX as well. There are a couple of key features missing from the Canon EOS-1 DX though that the Nikons have got - a headphone jack, and clean HDMI output. The headphone jack is something that I’ve been asking both Canon and Nikon to put on their DSLRs for a long time, and I hope that it’ll become a standard feature.

I think we’re getting to the stage now where the video functionality isn’t something that a multimedia photojournalist would switch systems for, as I've been forced to do in the past. So if you’re a Nikon shooter and you’re deeply invested in Nikon then there’s probably no need any more to go to Canon purely for video. Whatever system you use, video is definitely here to stay in DSLRs. Even for broadcast and movie professionals using RED or Cinema EOS equipment, cameras like the D4, D800 or EOS-1 DX could potentially be really interesting as B units or C units. The form factor is nice and compared to the pro video equipment they're attractively priced, too.

I need to see more footage though - only when I'm confident that video quality from the D800 and D4 is comparable to what I've seen from the EOS-1D X and whatever replaces the 5D Mark II will I really be able to decide which works for me. I've got some tough decisions to make but I'll definitely be spending some money soon! 

Award-winning photojournalist and videomaker Dan Chung made his name as a photographer for The Guardian and Reuters news agency, and has since pioneered the use of DSLRs in filmmaking, particularly in news coverage. Dan lives and works in China, but travels the world on assignment.

Dan also runs the industry blog www.dslrnewsshooter.com 

Click here to read page 2 of this article, Nikon D4 & D800: What do the Professionals Think?

The Music Photographers: Neil Lupin and Andy Sheppard

Music photography is a very specialised, very challenging genre. A combination of unpredictable, often very poor lighting and tight restrictions on what you can shoot makes capturing images of live bands one of the most difficult - and rewarding - types of photography out there.

For music photography, speed, AF accuracy and high ISO performance are critical. We asked two professional Nikon shooters what they think of the new D4 and D800, and whether either camera might tempt them away from their current equipment. 

Neil Lupin:

As a concert photographer, the ability to shoot at high ISOs wide open at f/2.8 with as little noise as possible is the be all and end all. On my old Nikon D2X I never shot over ISO 800 - noise levels were just too high and it meant shutter speeds often dropped too low to freeze the action. When I upgraded to the D3 and D3S I found myself starting at ISO 1600 and working up from there depending on light levels. Bad light is par for the course when shooting concerts, and with my D3S, provided my shots are correctly exposed, I rarely need to do any post-capture noise reduction below ISO 3200.

U2 perform at Croke Park in Dublin, in 2009. Neil used a Nikon D3 for this shot, with a 15mm fisheye lens.

I'm very excited by the D4 for a few reasons - not least the bump in maximum ISO compared to the D3/D3S. ISO 6400 is useable on the D3 but requires careful exposure to avoid too much noise, but if it's true that ISO 6400 on the D4 will be as good as ISO 1600 was on the D3/D3S, then I'll be at the front of the queue when they start shipping. Also, the backlit controls are a long overdue addition for anyone working in low light situations - very handy indeed. Even though the D800 doesn't have the same low-light performance as the D4, it does have the same AF improvements, which include sensitivity down to -2EV. This could make a meaningful difference to AF accuracy in really poor light.

This shot, of Rage Against the Machine performing at the Download Festival in the UK in 2010, was shot using a Nikon D3 and AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

I can't say that I am at all enthusiastic about the video options on the D800 and D4 though - video is a feature I have no interest in, so even though their video specification looks phenomenal, I doubt I'd ever use it. 

In a perfect world, I would have loved to have seen the 24.5MP of the D3X harnessed with the speed and low light capabilities of the D3S. Neither the D4 nor D800 are that camera, but both are interesting. The huge resolution (and relatively) low cost of the D800 are pretty appealing, but as a D3S user I'm focussed on the D4, and I'm both excited and nervous. Excited because of the potential for a big leap in image quality. Nervous because it will mean a difficult conversation with my bank manager!  

Neil has been photographing musicians for as long as he can remember but he turned professional in 2003. He shoots for Redferns Music Pictures / Getty Images in the UK and during the course of his career he's photographed some of the biggest names in the industry. 

You can see more of his work at www.neillupin.com 

Andy Sheppard:

When I chose my D700 over the D3 a few years ago, the differences between the two cameras were so subtle that I didn't hesitate to save myself some money and go with the D700. I have never regretted that decision - the D700 is a great camera, although there are times when I wish it had the speed of the D3 and D3S. My camera gear upgrade path in the last four years has been from D80 to D300 and then up again to D700. The leap in image quality from the D300 to the D700 was massive - I still remember taking my first frames with it and how incredible they looked compared to what I was used to. 

The biggest change in the D800 is the increased pixel count, obviously, but the additional resolution wouldn't really affect me in everyday use. I don't even shoot in Raw mode. Twelve megapixels is fine for news, book and magazine print. My images are a manageable size and I have seen them enlarged to life-size prints and they look great. 

The Prodigy perform at Wembley Arena in London in 2009. Shot with a Nikon D700 and AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8.

An increase in high ISO image quality would sway me, but from what I've seen and heard I'm not expecting a massive leap in 'real world' low light performance from the D700 to the D800. High ISO image quality is essential for my work, especially in smaller venues where lighting is a complete afterthought, and you're usually forbidden from using flash. If I had the money and the room in my camera bag I'd go straight out and buy a couple of D4s for this reason, but I can't justify the expense.

Skunk Anansie perform at UK's Sonisphere Festival in 2010. Andy took this shot with a Nikon D700 and AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8.

I'm especially pleased to see the introduction of a second card slot in the D800. And particularly as one is an SD card which will make it much easier to work in the field without carrying a compact flash card reader around all the time. It's great to see Nikon finally challenging Canon's dominance in the HD video arena but for me video is not a priority. On the rare occasions that I need to capture video I'll do it with my phone.

Andy is a freelance photographer specialising in Live Music. He works with Redferns Music Pictures / Getty images in London and as well as dealing with bands and artists directly, Andy also works with BBC Radio 1, 2, 3 and 6Music, Festival Republic, UKTI, The Guardian, NME and Rolling Stone.

You can see more of his work at his website, www.lowlightphoto.co.uk 

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