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