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.
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.
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.