Naive reactions on the D4 (long rant)

Started Jan 15, 2012 | Discussions thread
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Naive reactions on the D4 (long rant)
Jan 15, 2012

Nikon just released the D4 which seem to have upset a lot of people. Or rather, its specifications did. More then anything, its improved video capabilities seem to send a surprisning amount of people into a rage.

Basically the negative reactions can be divided into two loose groups, the video haters and the video doubters. The first and fairly small group just plain hate video in DSLR cameras, cannot stand it, and does not pay any attention to arguments. I guess we just have to get used to their anger and frustration and hope they will lose steam eventually.

The second group, the video doubters, is larger and seem to consist of more or less level-headed people who think Nikon messed up their priorites with the D4 - spending to much time and effort on video and leaving the rest of the camera underdeveloped. I can understand this reaction, but genuinely think they got the cause and effect a bit backwards: Nikon did not underdevelop the sensor or AF performance becuase they spent to much time on video. They spent effort on video because there is a lot less which can realistically be done with sensor and AF then many people seem to think.

Lets look at those two main things quite a few people seem to think Nikon should have developed instead of video: the sensor performance and the AF performance.

The sensor

We do need to realise something here: Without drastic changes in sensor technology, we will probably only see incremental increases in DR and high iso performance for the forseeable future. Look, already the D3s sensor has a quantum efficiency of 57%. Meaning, in simple terms, it manages to turn 57% of the light into signal. No other DSLR sensor has higher QE, a few compact camera sensors get to 60%. Many DSLR sensors still have a QE of 30-45%.

Very likely around 60% is where we will be at for quite a while. Maybe we can reach 65-70% some day, but that's probably about it. And lets say they somehow managed to get it to 75%, that means converting a quarter of a stop more light into signal. A quarter of a stop is less then you get when increasing the aperture from 2 to 1.8 or from 2.8 to 2.5.

There will be improvements: due to better signal processing, smarter algorithms, more efficient color filters ... But not the big increases we did see up until the D3s sensor. Not without either inventing a new kind of sensor or increasing the sensor area.

In short: Expect only incremental increases in sensor performance. A little more resolution, a little more DR and potentially a little more high iso performance.

The autofocus

Many people ask for better frame coverage of the AF points. Seem like a reasonable request, right? But it is a lot more difficult then most people seem to realise.

AF points are limited vertically by the height of the submirror, and it just can't get any bigger without increasing the distance between sensor and lens mount. Which in turn would make all current lenses useless.

Possibly the AF point coverage could be marginally increased horisontally with a wider sub-mirror and AF sensor. But then it would probably only work with very fast lenses, like f2. Keep in mind phase detect AF uses geometry (angles) to deduct distance, and there is a limit to how wide we can put AF sensor points without having to increase the image circle of the lenses quite a bit. Which would mean redesigning most current lenses.

There are solid technical reasons why AF point coverage has not increased since the D3 (Nikons first 24x36 DSLR) or for that matter since the first Canon Eos 1D with 24x36 sensor. It just can't be done without a completely different AF setup, for example one without a mirror. And even then the frame coverage can only be marginally increased without redesigning the lenses.

How about low light AF performance? Well, it is not all that easy to increase drastically either, but this is one area where Nikon claim D4 to be better. We will see improvements: from better AF algorithms, speedier processors and much more advanced measurements (the new 91k pixel exposure meter) will probably improve tracking capabilities.

But as with sensor performance, we can realistically only expect incremental AF improvements unless we toss the mirror (and thus the optical viewfinder) and go wholesale for something like the technology in the Nikon 1 cameras.


Aside from sensor performance and AF, Nikon could of course improve the camera body and handling. But also here we will only get incremental changes. After all, the design of the previous body (D3s) was not entirely accidental. Camera bodies have evolved over many years by now. Nikon did improve, or at least change, quite a long laundry list of things in the camera body and handling (see separate post after this one).

So with the D4 we seem to have gotten

  • a incrementally improved sensor (slightly higher resolution, and potentially some small improvements in DR and more remotely possibly in high iso).

  • a incrementally improved AF (1 EV step better in low light, supports f8 lenses, supposedly better tracking)

  • incrementally improved body and handling.

Looking at the limitations of technology (which I know some people will happily ignore) this is probably as good as it gets in 2012. The only remaining area where it really is ample room for drastic and obvious improvements ... Well, there we are: video. If we accept the notion of having video in a DSLR, then it should be useful right? And as good as the D3s is in most ways, its video capabilities really are not that exciting. So its the video which got the most obvious updates.

With all this in mind, to me it seem Nikon has done a fairly good job with th D4. Not perfect, but not nearly as bad as many, in my eyes, rather naive forum dwellers has made it out to be. Nikon has improved what they can improve and seem to have left most of what worked well in the D3s as is.

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