Nikon D4: Thoughts for Outdoor Photographers

The Nikon D4 Flagship DSLR (Image Courtesy of Nikon USA)

You’ve probably heard that Nikon officially unveiled the D4 flagship DSLR last night. If you’ve been away or under a rock, the official press announcement is here. Since I’m not a reviewing agency or Joe McNally, I haven’t seen, held, or smelled a D4 yet. But like you, I’ve looked at the specs and asked myself if a D4 is worth upgrading to, considering that I love my D3s.

The D4, like the D3/D3s before it, is built as a sports/PJ workhorse. These are the cameras designed for guys out there in remote places, taking gunfire, and working to meet deadlines from sidelines. A lot of the features of the D4 are also geared around advanced video (1080p) capabilities. While I think having video in my DSLR is nice, it’s not the reason I go out and plunk down serious cash for a camera. So I’m going to look at some of the features that make the D4 attractive from my point of view, which is outdoor and wildlife photography.

Improved ergonomics, especially in portrait orientation

The Nikon engineers have tweaked the dials and buttons on the D4 to make them more comfortable to use, and to make other controls harder to accidentally move. From my use with the D3s, the think I like the best about the D4 layout is that they’ve added a second mini D-pad for controlling AF points when shooting in portrait orientation.

One reason I prefer the larger form-factor of the Nikon flagships (F5/D2x/D3) is that its much easier to shoot portrait orientation with the integrated vertical grip and dedicated controls. But up until now, changing AF points in portrait orientation has been a bit of a kludge, requiring finger gymnastics with command dials. The D4 should fix this, and as someone who doesn’t have particularly large hands, that’s helpful.

Another nice touch that impressed me is the backlit control buttons. That feature ill make for an easier time in early mornings or on lightpainting excursions!

Improved AF Performance with Teleconverters

Although I have the full range of Nikon teleconverters (TC-14E, TC-17E, TC-20EIII), they reduce the light entering your camera and effectively reduce the lens’ maximum aperture. For as long as I can remember, Nikon’s autofocus system was only guaranteed to work with effective apertures of f/5.6 or faster. While I usually got my AF to work at f/6.3, performance definitely slowed down and with combinations yielding f/8 (like a 2x TC on an f/4 lens), AF was sketchy at best, even in bright light.

The new MultiCAM 3500FX AF module offers 51 AF points (like the D3), but 15 of those points retain function through f/8, with the 9 central points being cross-type (better performance). Moreover, the center AF point is retained as a cross-type sensor above f/8, with the outer points still offering AF assist. What that means to me is that with the D4, I can theoretically use my TC-17E and my TC-20EIII and still get reasonable AF performance. This lessens the trade-off between reach and image quality that I have to make when shooting with big glass, as I prefer the image quality of my D3s to that of the D300s, but use DX bodies for extra reach and better AF performance with my longer lenses when TC’s compromise performance.

ISO Performance: How Low Can You Go?

We can talk about how the upper end of the D4’s ISO performance really hasn’t changed from the D3s (although there is a new Hi-3 option for ISO 204,800 for those once in a lifetime sasquatch photos). The top in-spec ISO is 12,800, and with 16 megapixels, that’s nice. While I can certainly print big, I don’t make my living that way, so the added resolution is nice but not an absolute must for me. What is nice, however, is that the base ISO on the D4 has returned to ISO 100, and there’s a Lo-1 option for shooting at ISO 50. For action and wildlife, there is nothing like being able to shoot clean images at ISO 1600 and up. But for landscapes, especially where you’re trying to get motion blur in streams and waterfalls, the question is more “how low can you go.” Having a base ISO of 100 means I’ll be able to get slower shutter speeds with less reliance on my Vari-N-Duo filter, and being able to drop to ISO 50 will help out even more in those situations. I don’t recommend shooting full-time at ISOs outside the “in-spec” range, as the image quality won’t be quite as good (color shifts, etc.), but in occasional circumstances, it’s a real help.

Battery Life: 2000 shots or more

Nikon claims that the new EN-EL18 battery that powers the D4 is good for up to 2600 shots. Of course, that’s usually a best-case scenario, but face it… if you get 2000 shots on a single charge, that’s going to cover most people for 2-3 days of shooting. That means I can go on some trips with two batteries and not have to pack a charger. Since accessories (GPS, WiFi transmitters) and VR lenses all drain the battery, too, more capacity is always welcome.

Other goodies

The buffer on the D4 is so large as to not be an issue at all. You get 74 14-bit NEFs or 92 12-bit NEFs (lossless compressed). That’s more than I can imagine ever needing, as I never filled the 34-shot buffer on the D3s.

The D4 also lets you add IPTC data to your images during shooting. That will help to streamline workflow, especially for PJs uploading in the field on tight deadlines.

The D4 is the first DSLR to support the new XQD card format, which is based on PCI Express and should prove to be very fast. With the price of traditional CF cards falling fast, I’ll wait on the new technology. However, it’s always good to be future-proof.

The D4 offers an in-camera HDR mode, in which it blends three successive frames taken 3-stops apart. Although it probably won’t do what traditional tone-mapping software, like HDR Efex Pro can do, it should be fun to try out. If it delivers clean images with smooth tones, it could be an alternative to exposure blending for natural landscape shots.

The full D4 spec sheet is available online from Nikon.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, a camera is just a tool to help you craft your creative vision (or do your job). While experienced photographers will be able to produce good images with just about any camera, the feature sets of the flagship models do offer things that just aren’t possible in the lower-end models. With the Nikon D4, the D3s has been refined even further. With 10 fps shooting, better AF performance and smooth 16 MP images, this camera should prove ideal for all-purpose outdoor and nature photography. The refinements are worth upgrading, in my opinion, assuming you can justify the $6000 price tag.

The Nikon D4 will be available for order at B&H on February 16th, 2012.

19 thoughts on “Nikon D4: Thoughts for Outdoor Photographers”

  1. I didn’t know that the D3s didn’t have a second mini D-pad. the battery grip on my D300s does. I would miss that a lot if I upgraded to a used D3 or D3s.

  2. I think it can be set by customizing a button from the menus… I’d have to look it up. I will say that AE-L is one of the least frequently used functions for me, but I certainly have used it on occasion.

  3. Well it is a tough call for me. I guess it is based on “want and need” I want one, but do I need it? Well no, I probably don’t, it would be best for me to see how the D800 performs. I figure this will be my last digital body since the shutter is rated at 400,000 clicks and I figure I barely take 10,000 to 12,000 a year and gee I am 60 years old, so…do the math. Yikes!! that’s kinda scary!

    But anyway this is a serious PJ camera and if I were in a position to actually NEED one it would be on my list. The specs look good, but the big kick is the video and honestly I am not thrilled about video in the first place.

    I did get a V1 however and can see that technology replacing the mirror in another generation or so of the DLSR family, I mean seriously … WHY do we still need that mechanical mirror? So few of today’s high tech items have serious moving parts and the V1 sorta proves that we really don’t need one. In the future better sensors and larger should make that mirror a thing of the past. But then with a new camera that will probably outlive me I may just miss out on that! lol

  4. First, your chickadee is amazing, particularly the reflection in his/her eye; and second, and not directly on-topic, as the D-4 and D800 are quite out of range (trying to make the most of my D90 and your workshops and literature), what is your take on the out-of-spec low ISO settings? The googlable forum material is difficult to read, much less assess, but it seems to be the case that the ‘Low’ setting – 100 on the D90 – is the ISO equivalent of digital zoom on P&S cameras, a software trick of some kind. On the other hand, isnt all ISO on digital cameras software manipulation as opposed to the physical properties involved in film ISO? It’s fun to pretend I’m shooting in ISO 100, but what am I actually doing? I’d appreciate any opinion, even one shorter than the question itself.

  5. I have the D4 on order and shoot now with a D700 and D300s. I understand that on the D4 you can choose a 1.5 dx crop or a 2.7 cx crop factor. Does this mean I can mount my 600 f/4 vr or other FX lens on the D4 and choose the 2.7 crop factor and I have a 1600mm f/4 with less pixels?? If so, do you know how many pixels. My recollection is that with the D700 mounting a dx lens directs the image to 5mp. If I have this right, it could mean that using a cropped dx body is no longer necessary to get the longer reach like I get from my D300s with FX Nikon lenses.

  6. The BEST image quality will always be at the camera’s “base” or lowest “in-spec” ISO. For the D3s, that’s ISO 200. For the D4, it’s ISO 100. Anytime you use an “out of spec” ISO (Hi-x or Lo-x), you reduce dynamic range and potentially introduce color shifts.

    While I always try to shoot at one of the “in-spec” ISOs, there are times, like shooting moving water, where you want to go lower. In my experience, I haven’t seen that much image degradation shooting ISO 100 (Lo-1) on the D3s, although I’m sure there’s a gearhead somewhere that will show a tech chart to say why you should never use that setting.

  7. Ralph-

    I think you’re confusing crop-factor and resolution.
    The D4 is a 16 megapixel camera, with the pixels spread out on a 24x36mm sensor (FX). The D4 offers crop modes, but the price is resolution. When you shoot with the D4 in “DX” (1.5x) crop, you’re doing the same thing as shooting normally but cropping the image in post. In other words, you’re throwing away pixels.

    Typically there are two main reasons to use a camera in a crop mode:
    1) You get faster frame advance rates (as was the case with the D2x)
    2) You are using DX lenses on an FX body (which won’t cover the full sensor area with the image).

    Alternatively, you might wish to use the built-in crop mode for another use:
    1) Creating smaller files (useful for JPEG shooters where full-resolution doesn’t matter)
    2) Getting different aspect ratios (i.e., 5:4) for portraits

    The D4 is only a 16 megapixel camera when you use it in FX (full-frame) mode.
    With the other crop modes the resolution is reduced accordingly:

    FX: 4,928 x 3,280 (16.1MP)
    1.2x: 4,096 x 2,720 (11.1MP)
    1.5x (DX): 3,200 x 2,128 (6.8MP)
    5:4 4,096 x 3,280 (13.4MP)

    The D4 does not have a CX (2.7x) crop mode.
    So, in the current configuration, Nikon’s FX sensor in DX mode has about half the megapixels as a D300s. If you want DX and enough resolution to get larger prints, a true DX body is still the way to go.

    -Jason

  8. Since I stuck with the D3 (despite your attempt to sway me to the D3s on the arches worshop, Jason :-)) this is a must have upgrade for me. Pre-ordered. Hoping that it has both sensor cleaning and quite release mode.

  9. I’m with James. I didn’t upgrade from D3 to D3s but this upgrade is too good to pass up. Good time to be a nikon photographer.

  10. Thanks, Jason — re the out-of-spec ISO — pretty much what I figured, and the most succinct and direct answer to the question. So the idea is to take pictures _of_ gear heads, not _for_ them…

  11. @Bill Hammer: ik snap er geen snars van wat je allemaal hebt opgekrabbelt en jij waarschijnlijk niet wat ik nu schrijf 🙂

  12. @Tim Z: Het spijt me, maar ik niet helemaal zien wat het is dat u het niet eens met. Ik heb een vraag gesteld en Jason de reactie was snel en zeer behulpzaam. Mijn antwoord aan hem was dankbaar en boertig.

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