Camera Review: Nikon D4

May 3, 2012

By Dan Havlik

After two years of no full-frame digital SLR releases from any camera manufacturer, Nikon was first out of the gate last March when it began shipping its 16.2-megapixel D4. This was no small feat.

Nikon’s factories in Sendai, Japan, were hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the country last year, while the disastrous flooding in Thailand swamped several of the company’s DSLR and lens plants. We heard from several sources that had Nikon not successfully launched and shipped its consumer/prosumer-oriented Nikon 1 compact camera system last fall, the company would have been in dire financial straights.

But here Nikon is, eight months later, with both the D4 and the 36.3-megapixel D800 (look for a review in PDN next month) professional full-frame DSLRs on store shelves and generating much interest.

It should be noted that Canon was also battered by the catastrophes in Japan and Thailand last year, and began shipping its 22.3-megapixel, full-frame 5D Mark III in March shortly after the D4 went on sale. (Look for our hands-on review of that camera next month as well.) At the time of this writing, Canon’s 18-megapixel 1D X—which was the first of this round of full-frame DSLRs to be announced last October and the D4’s direct competitor—had not started shipping but was expected to go on sale soon.

So yes, the fact that the 11-frames-per-second (fps) Nikon D4 exists at all—and in time for sports photographers to get acquainted with it for the 2012 Olympic Games in London—is noteworthy in itself. But is the camera any good?

On paper, the D4 seems close to what you might expect the long-awaited successor to the 12.1-megapixel Nikon D3S to offer: more resolution; full 1080p HD video capture; faster speed; and an array of tweaks and upgrades that would seem to fill some of the holes on the previous model.

Does it do all that while maintaining the previous camera’s vaunted low-light shooting skills? Let’s take a look.

Middle Linebacker
From a distance, the Nikon D4 looks similar to its two most recent predecessors, the D3S and the virtually identical D3. Considering those DSLRs were also designed by Italian automobile designer Giorgetto Giugiaro, who’s had a long history with Nikon cameras—he helped create the legendary F4—it’s no surprise.

Take a closer look at the D4, and you’ll notice one significant change: The camera sports a lower pentaprism and a more sloping profile overall. It’s a good look; modern and ergonomic but still serious. Though the pentaprism on the D4 is slimmer than the steeple-like top on the D3S, it still offers 100 percent viewfinder coverage.

A Nikon tech rep we spoke with when we first saw the beefy but lower slung D4 described it as looking “more like a linebacker” and that’s fair if not exactly flattering.

The D4 weighs just under three pounds with the new battery, the EN-EL18, which is rated at 2,600 shots per full charge. The camera feels solid and, ironically, with its shorter pentaprism on top and slightly more rounded profile, it looks more like Canon’s pro DSLRs, which is not necessarily a bad thing. (Though the comparison would probably not please Nikon.)

There are several small but considerable changes to the exterior controls of the Nikon D4. The shutter button is slightly more inclined and the power switch has been flattened. The sub-command dial is also more inclined and Nikon has added a small movie record button just behind the shutter button for getting the camera immediately into 1080p HD recording. Nikon’s also given the Live View switch on back two options: one for shooting still images and one for shooting video.

Nikon’s added a function (Fn) button to the D4 for vertical shooting and the multi-selector mode dial now has a protection guard around it. The vertical grip has improved too: There’s more to hold onto and shooting with the Nikon D4 in its vertical position feels comfortable and secure. The back-illuminated buttons are also a nice touch and help you get the camera set in dark conditions.

The 3.2-inch, 921,000-dot LCD screen on back of the Nikon D4 is gorgeous and offers 46x magnification for extreme zooming during image playback to make sure all your pixels are in order.

The focus selector switch on the lower front left of the D4—which lets you toggle between autofocus and manual focus—now has an AF button on the switch that lets you change modes on the fly, just as with the prosumer-oriented D7000 DSLR, which was our camera of the year in 2010.

Overall, the D4 feels like a tighter ship than the previous models, with design improvements and refinements that subtly improve the camera’s shooting experience.  And, of course, this heavy-duty pro DSLR is fully gasketed and sealed to protect against dust, moisture and accidental drops.

XQD Card?!
The most befuddling thing about the D4 is Nikon’s choice to go with dual memory card slots for a CompactFlash (CF) card and the new XQD card format. One of the biggest selling points of the D3 models over the competition was the attraction of its dual CF card slots, which photographers could configure in a number of ways: as a back-up, as overflow, or to record still image and video files onto separate cards.

Though it’s understandable that, sooner or later, the now 18-year-old CF card format will go the way of the dodo bird, it’s still used by most professional photographers who wouldn’t know an XQD card from a greeting card. The XQD card format, which is smaller than CF but bigger than SD (Secure Digital), was announced by Sony, SanDisk and Nikon back in 2010.

Earlier this year though, SanDisk dealt XQD a blow when it said it had decided not to make the cards. Lexar and Kingston, in the mean time, never got on board with the new format, which was actually developed by the CompactFlash Association as a successor to CF cards. That left Sony, which started selling the cards in January, and Nikon, with the D4 (the only camera using XQD as of this writing).

In a bid to get the early adoption of the cards off to a fast start, Nikon shipped the initial D4 cameras with a 16 gb Sony XQD card and reader included, a free combo worth approximately $185. The D4 that I tested came with this set-up. (It’s unclear how long this free XQD add-on for the D4 will continue.)

Both Nikon and Sony have said the XQD cards offer write speeds of 125 mb per second and up, and should be able to produce a third more frames in a burst than CF. Nikon has also said the cards will improve 1080p HD recording.

In my D4 testing with longtime Nikon user Jordan Matter, we didn’t notice any striking difference between the two formats. While shooting FINE JPEGs with the D4, we could hammer down the shutter and shoot with the XQD or with a SanDisk Extreme IV CF card until either filled up. I got slightly longer bursts with the XQD while shooting 14-bit, lossless raw (NEF) images—between 80 and 90 shots before the buffer filled—than with the CF card but, for me, the difference is negligible since I rarely, if ever, sustain such long raw bursts. We noticed no difference in performance or quality when shooting 1080p to either card.

On the downside for Mac users, since the XQD reader is USB 3.0, a format not supported by Apple, you won’t get the benefits of faster transfers to your computer yet. (Unless, of course, Sony comes out with a Thunderbolt version though that’s not expected any time soon.)

All of which begs the question: What was Nikon thinking? Anecdotally, many photographers we’ve spoken with find the XQD slot to be a strike against the D4 rather than a plus. That could change if the format sees more adoption but it’s unclear if or when that will happen.

Star Performer
If there was one major gripe about the two cameras that preceded the Nikon D4, it’s that 12.1 megapixels was a really limiting amount of resolution if you wanted to print bigger than 17 x 22 inches or crop in on an image without losing detail. Prior to using the D4, Matter had a client who hired him to shoot images that would eventually be displayed on large banners. Instead of risking it with his Nikon D3S, he ended up renting a 24.5-megapixel Nikon D3X.

The dilemma was that the shoot involved photographing dancers at night using only ambient light. Though the higher resolution D3X captured more detail, it wasn’t nearly as stellar as the D3S for capturing low-noise/high-ISO images in low light. The D4, with its 16.2-megapixel, FX format, 36 x 23.9 mm (full-frame) CMOS sensor and relatively large pixel size—7.3 microns—would seem to create a happy medium.

To put the camera to the test, we created a similarly challenging shoot: photographing dancers in the shadowy depths of New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. Matter chose two dancers and arranged an improvised duet. Because he didn’t want to attract too much attention (and for purposes of the test) he didn’t use flash, which is fairly typical of the way he shoots normally. (To see test images and video we shot with the Nikon D4, click here.)

In this type of situation—on the fly, in ambient light and photojournalistic in style—the D4 excelled. First off, it’s a fantastically quick performer, in all regards. The D4’s start-up time (rated at 0.012 of a second) and shutter lag (0.0042 second) are the same as the previous model, which was more than speedy enough. The same is true of the D4’s 51-point autofocus system, which is identical to the previous model but adds cross-type focusing points that are both horizontally and vertically sensitive, bringing the total to 15. We found it to be fast and spot on, with the cross-type sensors perfect for capturing the side-to-side and up-and-down movement of the dancers.

Frame rate is faster than the D3S, up from 9 fps to 10 fps in the D4 (or 11 fps, with focus and exposure locked on the first frame). The D4’s main competitor, the Canon 1D X, can shoot 12 fps or 14 fps, for JPEG-only bursts, but that camera is priced $800 higher than the D4 ($5,999). Incidentally, the D4 uses Nikon’s EXPEED 3 processor versus the EXPEED 2 in the previous camera, and it seemed a touch more responsive overall.

You’re definitely not going to be checking your watch when shooting with the D4, unless it’s to see how much time you have to make it to your next assignment.

Low Down
In terms of low-light performance at high ISOs, we both felt the D4 produced cleaner images than the already superb D3S, all the way up to ISO 12800, despite the higher resolution and slightly smaller pixel size. The full ISO range is 50 to 204800, and while those stratospherically high levels are not for the faint of heart—yes, you will see lots of noise—there are applications they could be used for, such as forensic science or war photography where a photographer would have to operate in near pitch black.

In the case of Matter’s images of dancers shot at ISO 6400 and 12800 in Grand Central Terminal, they were remarkably clean of distracting noise, even in the dim background. The higher ISOs also let him maintain faster shutter speeds to freeze dancers as they dipped and turned across the train platform.

Later, for fun, he captured a short 1080p movie of a bartender making a margarita shot at ISO 3200, and the D4 produced impressively low noise results in typically unforgiving HD. In other test videos I shot, where I aggressively panned the D4, I saw only minor wobbly rolling shutter, which is likely a testament to the camera’s EXPEED 3 processor keeping a lid on the notorious “Jell-O effect.”

If there’s one thing that gave us pause while testing the D4, it was a glitch with the first of two units we tried out. On several occasions while shooting consecutive JPEGs in single shot mode—not as a burst—the first D4 we tested would lock up and be unable to take any more photos. Even when the power switch was in the “off” position, the camera would remain on but non-functional. The only remedy was to remove the battery and start over.

We informed Nikon of the problem and they told us it was possible our early test unit had an isolated bug. Nikon said, at the time, it did not have any other reports of the same problem. We returned that D4 to Nikon and received another unit and did not experience the same problem.

As PDN went to press, some Nikon D800 owners were reporting a very similar problem with their cameras on Internet forums and blogs. The issue is also similar to a problem we experienced with a Nikon D90 we tested back in 2008. Some other D90 users have reported their cameras locking up as well. We’ll keep investigating this potential problem and report findings at a later date.

The Bottom Line
It was a long, rocky and often hazardous road but the Nikon D4 was worth the wait. Aside from the one possibly isolated glitch we experienced with our first test unit locking up, the camera was a stellar, fast-action performer. Speed is this 11-fps-shooting DSLR’s forte and the Nikon D4 delivered, allowing us to shoot and freeze action in a range of lighting conditions. Photojournalists and sports shooters will love this full-frame camera, especially since the bump up in megapixels allows for more cropping while sacrificing nothing in low-light/high-ISO performance. (As a side note, it’s interesting that neither Nikon nor Canon will have a new pro DLSR with an APS-C sensor, a format some sports photographers prefer because the smaller sensor magnifies their lenses.) And while the D4 doesn’t have the massive resolving power of its stable mate, the 36.5-megapixel D800, it’s a fantastic portrait camera, producing true-to-life images that pop from the page. Why Nikon decided to saddle this model with a slot for the unproven and, so far, unpopular XQD card format is the only questionable decision. Otherwise, this flagship pro DSLR from Nikon purrs like a speedboat.

Pros: Same tough and well-considered pro camera build with a lower pentaprism that offers 100 percent viewfinder coverage; speedier overall than the previous model (which was already speedy); higher resolution sensor than previous model allows you to print large or crop in on images; no sacrifice in image quality at high ISOs despite extra pixels; impressive results up to ISO 12800

Choice to go with new XQD card format for second card slot is dubious; our first test model experienced lock-up/freeze issue; competing camera from Canon has slightly faster frame rate

Price: $5,999;

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