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First Impressions: Using the Nikon D4

Barney Britton | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Mar 7, 2012

The Nikon D4 is a serious photographic tool at a serious price. At $6000 the D4 is twice the cost of the recently-released D800, and offers just under half of its pixel count. But it's what the D4 does with its pixels - and how quickly and reliably it does it - which makes it so potentially attractive to working professionals. The D4 is built for speed and versatility. It might not offer the highest resolution on the market, but it is designed to deliver its 16MP images at a rate of 11 per second in all winds and weathers. 

A few days ago we took delivery of a factory-fresh production D4 in our Seattle offices and it's hardly been turned off since. We've already published a detailed overview of the D4, and we've also asked a group of professional photographers what they think, but in this article, I'll be explaining what the D4 is actually like to use, as we move forward towards a full, in-depth review. 

Full disclosure here, I use a D3S regularly, and outside of my day to day shooting for dpreview, much of my personal and professional photography over the past five years has been shot using either the D3 or D3S. Like all camera reviewers I swap between different systems constantly, but I happen to know the D3 and D3S very well.

The New York Dolls, 2009, taken on a Nikon D3S at ISO 8000 (processed Raw)  Denmark Hill, 2010, taken on a Nikon D3X at ISO 320 (Processed Raw) 
Biffy Clyro, 2010, taken on a Nikon D3S at ISO 6400 (Processed Raw)  Kentish Town, 2009, taken on a Nikon D3 at ISO 400 (Processed Raw)

That said, bear in mind that this article is not a review. That's in the pipeline. Also, I don't pretend to speak for all photographers, so if you think I've got something wrong, or I haven't mentioned something that you really like (or don't like) in this article feel free to leave a comment. You'll find four pages in this article, the first three comprise a quick overview of my early impressions of the camera, both good and bad, and page four is reserved for samples - studio, real-world and video clips. 

Overview

The D4 is a heavy, chunky camera, just like the D3S which it replaces. But whereas the D3S inherited the 2007-vintage D3 chassis, the D4 brings new ergonomics as well as an updated specification. Cosmetically, the D4 is curvier and more streamlined than its predecessors, and slightly lighter, too. The D4's battery is new, and is not compatible with the older type used in the D3 and D3S. The same applies to the D4's battery compartment door, which looks like it might be interchangeable with that from the older models, but is actually a slightly different size. 

Although most of its controls are in basically the same places compared to the D3 and D3S the D4 feels subtly different in use thanks in part to the redesigned hand grip and the steeper angle of the main shutter release.

Compared to the D3S, the D4 looks slightly different when viewed from the top. A red movie shooting button is an obvious addition to the right hand side of the top plate but in this view you can also see that the 3-position metering switch has been removed and metering mode added to the cluster of controls on the upper left. Changes have been made to the D4's rear controls and control layout as well - two new 'sub-selector' joysticks have been added for horizontal and vertical format shooting and a new live view switch (the same as that used on the recently announced D800) has been added below the LCD screen. 

Key Specifications:


Click here to turn to page 2 of this article - First Impressions: Using the Nikon D4

First Impressions: The Good...

There's a lot to like about the D4, and after spending a week with the camera I'm very pleased with a lot of the improvements that Nikon has made compared to the D3S. In this time I have barely scratched the surface of the D4's feature set, but here's a quick rundown of what has impressed me so far. 

Improved vertical shooting ergonomics

The most significant impact of the D4's new body shape is a more comfortable, more effective shooting grip when the camera is held in the vertical format. A nice solid rubber nub on the base of the camera forms a comfortable thumbrest rest when the D4 is held vertically, and the new sub-selector joystick control makes AF point selection easy - something that could be cramp-inducingly awkward with the D3 and D3S.

The D4's vertical controls are more comfortable than they are on the D3S, and more effective, too. Whereas selecting AF point in the vertical shooting format on the D3S could be awkward (involving an uncomfortable stretch to the multi-controller) the D4's new sub-selector joysticks make the process much easier.

A solid rubber 'nub' below the vertical rear control dial makes holdiing the D4 in this position more comfortable, and an additional Fn button close to the front shutter release (not pictured) is very welcome. 

Speaking of vertical format shooting, I am very pleased to see that Nikon has moved the vertical AF-ON button higher up the camera body. On the D3 and D3S this control was positioned poorly, right where the palm of your shooting hand rests in horizontal-format shooting. 'Phantom' AF activation, caused by inadvertant depression of the vertical AF-ON button could be hugely disorienting and it's nice to see this issue solved on the D4. The new location is just as reachable when shooting in the portrait format but is now safely out of the way when the camera is held horizontally. 

Redesigned drive mode dial and illuminated controls

Another nice refinement concerns the D4's shooting mode dial. This dial, which sits on the top left of the camera is where you select the camera's drive mode. The dial is lockable, so once you've selected a mode it stays selected. But whereas in older cameras this dial was effectively free-rotating with the lock button held down, on the D4 there are firm detents at each mode position. It's a tiny change but it makes changing drive mode that little bit easier, and indeed means that once you've learned the positions of the various modes, you can confidently rotate the dial through its detents to your desired new position with your eye to the viewfinder. 

I would have written 'or in poor light' at the end of that last sentence but in a first for Nikon, the D4 now features illuminated controls. 

The D4's lockable drive mode dial has been slightly refined compared to earlier cameras, and now features well-defined detents at its various positions, which helps when changing drive mode with your eye to the viewfinder.

The dial is unlocked by depressing the small button visible in the upper left of this image. The drive mode dial is not backlit, but the white orientation strip which indicates the selected mode is, and it casts enough light on the dial to read the selected setting. 

Although far from essential in normal use, when shooting in extremely low light the illumination of the D4's major controls makes the camera much easier, and quicker to use. 

Control illumination probably won't be a big deal in everyday use, but every once in a while it could just be a life-saver. I was ejected once from a very dimly-lit concert for accidentally shooting a (loud) continuous burst of images on the D3S when I thought I'd rotated the drive mode dial to 'Quiet' advance mode. Illuminated controls on that occasion would have saved me the embarassment (not to mention the lost commission).  

Improved Automatic ISO Sensitivity mode

The D4's automatic ISO mode is greatly improved over the same mode in earlier Nikon DSLRs. Previously, auto ISO customization was minimal, and consisted simply of an option to set a minimum shutter speed when the camera was used in auto ISO mode. This is fine if you're shooting with a fixed focal length lens, but less useful with zoom lenses, where a 'safe' minimum shutter speed at either end of the focal range might be several stops apart.

In the D4, Nikon has (at long last) added an 'Auto' option to the minimum shutter speed options, which allows the camera to automatically set the minimum shutter speed based on its knowledge of the focal length that you're working at. This response can be biased in 5 steps, from 'slow' to 'fast' depending on whether you'd like the camera to err on the side of slower or faster shutter speeds. A small change but one that (along with the D4's extremely wide ISO sensitivity span) finally makes Auto ISO more like the 'set and forget' function that it should have been long ago. 

Improved AF sensitivity

Speaking of low light, the D4's AF system has been overhauled compared to the D3S as well, and is now sensitive down to -2EV. For those of you who don't think in exposure value, that's roughly equivalent to the light reflected from a full moon.

Under direct street lighting the D4 had no trouble achieving AF for this scene.

At the D4's maximum 'standard' ISO sensitivity setting of 12,800, detail is high and noise is very well-controlled. If you examine this image closely you'll see an American flag on the hood of this truck. Zoom in to 100% and you can count the stars. 
This shot was taken at the D4's maximum ISO sensitivity setting of 204,800 (equivalent) in light so low that I could barely see my subject (I certainly couldn't tell whether she was smiling or blinking, or what color her clothing was).

Default JPEG image quality isn't great, and what little light there was in this scene was distant, very yellow street lighting which is't very attractive, but the D4 focussed and exposed this shot accurately.  

With this change, and the backlit controls, the D4's ergonomics are much better aligned with the low-light abilities of its sensor than was the case with the D3S. I've shot a fair amount of ultra low-light samples on the D4 since it arrived in the dpreview office and the difference in AF responsiveness in these conditions compared to the D3S is plain to see (no pun intended).

The D4 achieves AF aquisition more readily in marginal light and is noticeably more capable in conditions of near-darkness. With a fast prime lens attached I have taken accurately focussed images with the D4 in light so poor that I could barely see my subject through the viewfinder. Of course these are precisely the conditions in which control illumination is invaluable, too. 

Faster in-camera NEF conversion

Another performance enhancement, but one which is much more easily overlooked, is an improved in-camera NEF (Raw) conversion interface. On the D3S, converting NEF files in camera was somewhat awkward, and required switching between navigating and setting conversion parameters with the the 4-way controller and confirming selections using the 'OK' button on the left of the LCD. The D4's NEF conversion interface is simpler (you can do everything from the 4-way controller now) and files are processed noticeably more quickly.

My original image is a little flat and uninteresting... ...a few seconds in the D4's NEF conversion dialogue and I've created a more dynamic shot by changing the Picture Control to monochrome and boosting the contrast.  

I use this feature a lot with the D3S as a quick way of previewing adjustments to contrast and white balance in preparation for more lengthy adjustments in Adobe Photoshop / Lightroom and it's nice to see that it has been streamlined in the D4. 

Improved video mode and ergonomics

Nikon has made significant enhancements to the D4's movie mode compared to the D3S, and the addition of true HD video capture, lossless recording to an external drive over HDMI and live audio monitoring have already attracted the attention of video professionals.

To those of us who capture movies only occasionally, the biggest change - and a very welcome one - is that shooting video is simply easier on the D4 than it was with the D3S. You still have to be in live view mode before you can initiate recording, but you don't need to poke at the small center button on the rear 4-way controller. Instead, a direct movie recording button is situated on the camera's top-plate within easy reach of your right index finger. At first glance this might seem is a small change but crucially it means that recording can be initiated quickly when holding the D4 in a firm shooting grip. 


Click here to turn to page 3 of this article - First Impressions: Using the Nikon D4 

The Not so Good...

Making substantive changes to an established design is risky, and although most of the differences between the D3S and D4 take the form of improvements in the newer model, the D4 isn't perfect. Here's a quick overview of some of the aspects of its operation which I'm not too keen on, after a few days of intense use. 

New 'Sub-Selectors'

In place of the 'AF/AEL' buttons of the D3 and D3S the D4 has two 'sub-selectors' on its rear, one for horizontal shooting and one for use when the camera is held in the vertical format. By default, when pressed inwards these activate AF/AEL, and when jogged they shift the active AF point. 

Two new 'sub-selectors' on the rear of the D4 serve to shift the active focussing point and (by default) activate AE/AF lock. Like the multi-controller, the sub-selectors are actually 8-way joysticks, and respond to both lateral and diagonal input.  

Although the new sub-selectors are very convenient for AF point selection (especially the lower of the two, which is used in the vertical shooting position) their tactile rubber coating is almost too 'grippy', making them easy to catch accidentally. This is true when handling the camera (changing from landscape to portrait format shooting for example) but more importantly I have found that with the camera hung around my neck and resting on my chest, one or other of the sub-selectors is almost guaranteed to get knocked - and the AF point knocked along with it. My step is no springier than normal (as far as I know) but almost every time I've raised the D4 to my eye after it's been resting around my neck I've been obliged to re-center the AF point.

Annoyingly, although the function of the sub-selectors can be re-assigned, the only other option is 'same as multi-selector'. Given that by default the multi-selector also changes AF point (as it has always done) this means that you're pretty much stuck with duplicated functionality. The sub-selectors can be deactivated using the mechanical lock switch on the D4's rear, but this locks the multi-controller, too. 

Movie Shooting Button 

Less of an issue, but potentially also confusing for experienced D3 and D3S users is the position of the D4's movie shooting button on the camera's top plate. This button is perfectly situated for easy location using the index finger of the right hand (and very easy to find by touch with your eye to the viewfinder, which is useful if you opt to customise it) but it is in a perilously similar position as the 'mode' button was on the D3/S. 

What this means is that if you're used to a D3/S and like me, you occasionally change shooting mode with the camera held to your eye, you'll find yourself hitting the movie button constantly until you get used to the new position of 'mode' (slightly further back and slightly further to the left). Fortunately the movie button only activates video recording in live view mode, so there's no risk of accidentally shooting any memory card-hogging video clips. 

Redesigned Focus Mode Switch

A deceptively minor change to the D4's ergonomics is the redesigned focus mode switch on the camera's lens throat. This switch has been almost standard on Nikon's high-end autofocus DSLRs since the feature was first introduced in the late 1980s. The old switch had three positions - manual focus, 'S' for single-shot AF and 'C' for continous tracking AF. With the D7000 (and subsequently the D4 and D800) Nikon simplified the switch, which now has only two positions and toggles between manual and automatic focus. To change the AF mode, you must depress a button at its hub and scroll through options using the cameras's front control dial. To change the AF pattern mode, you do the same thing but rotate the rear dial. 

The D4 features Nikon's 'new style' focus mode selector switch, which is a simple AF/MF toggle. To access the D4's AF modes, you have to depress the button at the hub of the control and scroll through options onscreen using the control dials. 

This is a more elegant solution, because it associates the D4's various focussing modes with a single control point, but the bottom line is that it makes switching between AF-S and AF-C, and indeed changing AF pattern mode, slower than it used to be. Whereas with the D3S a quick flick of the left thumb is all it took to go from single AF to continuous, and a quick flick of the rear thumb would switch from single-point AF to multi-pattern, with the D4 there's an extra step involved in both cases.

Whether this will be a real issue for most photographers I have no idea, but I can think of situations from my own experience in which it might be genuinely problematic. I would love to be able to customize the button at the hub of this control and turn it into an AF-S/AF-C toggle but sadly this isn't possible in the current firmware. 

First Impressions of Image Quality and Summary

We've only had the D4 for a few days, but in that time I've made an effort to explore its potential in a range of different situations and lighting conditions. My general impression, pending further testing is that at a pixel level the D4's image quality is very similar to that of the D3S.

The D3S was a pretty big leap in terms of noise and detail at high ISO sensitivities compared to the original D3, but viewed at 100% on screen, images from the D3S and D4 are very similar, even when you get up into their highest ISO sensitivity settings. Where the D4 scores, unequivocally, over the D3S is its extra resolution. An increase of 4MP might sound relatively modest, but the D4 can capture noticeably more detail than the D3S across its entire ISO span. In the table below you'll see four 100% crops, from simultaneously-captured JPEG and Raw pairs at ISO 200 and 12,800 on both the D3S and D4. Click on the crops for the full-sized originals. 

This scene was lit with two low-intensity energy-saving bulbs, one on the right and one set back a little, on the left. Both cameras were set identically, in manual mode and images were captured at default JPEG settings with a custom white balance and the same lens (AF-D Nikkor 105mm f/2 DC) attached. 
D3S ISO 200 (f/11, default JPEG, custom WB) D4 ISO 200 (f/11, default JPEG, custom WB)
D3S ISO 200 (Raw file processed for detail) D4 ISO 200 (Raw file processed for detail)
D3S ISO 12,800 (f/11, default JPEG, custom WB) D4 ISO 12800 (f/11, default JPEG, custom WB)
D3S ISO 12800 (Raw file processed for detail)  D4 ISO 12800 (Raw file processed for detail)

Set to JPEG capture mode the D4's image quality is excellent up to ISO 6400, with noise only becoming really noticeable at ISO 12,800 in areas of plain tone. We've had access to a beta version of Adobe Camera Raw 6.7 (which supports the D4 and has just been released as a public release candidate) for a little while, and our early experiments suggest that as we'd expect, better results can be squeezed out of the D4's NEF files when processed manually. Ultimately though, from first impressions, the D4 appears to all but match the D3S at a pixel level while offering more pixels, and it's hard not to be impressed by that. 

In conclusion, the D4 is an impressive camera all-round, with a lot to offer the serious enthusiast and working professional. Wisely, Nikon hasn't reinvented the wheel, but compared to the D3S the D4 appears to be a little quicker, a little smoother around the edges, and a little more versatile. I'm equivocal about some of the changes though - especially as regards ergonomics, but my opinion may change after extended use of the camera. We're working hard on a full, in-depth review so watch this space. Until then, you'll find studio and real world samples, including videos, over the page. 


Click here to turn to page 4 of this article - First Impressions: Using the Nikon D4

Image Quality Samples

In the few days we've had with the Nikon D4 we've shot a lot of sample images, both in our Seattle studio and out in the 'Real World'. I've also captured some short video clips and altogether, the samples on this page should give you a good idea of the D4's overall image quality, pending our usual in-depth analysis. Note that several of the samples in the 'real world' samples gallery (and all of the studio comparison images) were taken using the new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8.

Studio Comparison Samples

These have been shot using a production-standard D4 and, as usual, include both Raw and JPEG images with all original files available for download. Added them to our comparison tool means they can be called-upon from other reviews or the standalone comparison tool. For this test we used the recently-announced Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Click the image below to open our studio comparison tool (opens in a new window). 

'Real World' Still Image Samples

There are 40 images in this review samples gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.

Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. Because our review images are now hosted on the 'galleries' section of dpreview.com, you can enjoy all of the new galleries functionality when browsing these samples.

Nikon D4 Preview Samples - posted March 7th 2012

Video Samples

The D4 offers full HD video recording at up to 30fps with the option to record uncompressed HD footage via an HDMI output and monitor 'live' audio.

Note: to see these clips at their full quality, click the 'download original file' beneath the videos.

Nikon D4 with AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 lens (single AF)
1920x1080 30p, MOV, 23 sec, 62.4 MB Click here to download original file

Nikon D4 with AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens (single AF)
1920x1080 30p, MOV, 14 sec, 42.2 MB Click here to download original file

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