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