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Nikon D4 Review -- First Impressions and Test Results

by Shawn Barnett, , Dave Etchells, and Zig Weidelich
Hands-on Preview:

Nikon's professional workhorse digital SLR camera gets more than a single-digit upgrade to its model number in the new D4. Though encased in a body of similar size and shape to its predecessors, the Nikon D4 now uses a 16.2-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor backed up by a new EXPEED 3 image processor. Nikon expects the combination to deliver very high dynamic range and low noise across a wide range of ISO settings.

But the improvements don't stop there. Largely eliminating the need for a flashlight in low-light situations, many of the Nikon D4's buttons are illuminated; a great idea for a high-end camera whose key feature is excellent performance in low light. Indeed, while standard ISO settings range from 100 to 12,800, that can be extended to 50 on the low end and 204,800 on the high side. Pretty impressive.

Other new items on the Nikon D4 include a 3.2-inch LCD with VGA resolution, the ability to enlarge images up to 46x, and an ambient light sensor to automatically brighten or dim the screen based on lighting conditions. The 51-point AF array improves sensitivity to -2 EV, and can accommodate lenses up to f/8. Video is also upgraded from the D3S's 720p to 1080p at 30fps. There's a whole lot more to the Nikon D4, which we'll cover in the Technical section below.

Nearly the same size as the D3S, the Nikon D4 is only a fraction of an inch shorter, measuring 6.3 x 6.2 x 3.6 inches (160 x 156.5 x 90.5mm), and it weighs 47.3 ounces (2.95 pounds; 1,340g) body-only with battery and XQD memory card. Overall feel in the hand is similar to the D3S, but there are many cosmetic and ergonomic differences to the Nikon D4 worthy of note.

We won't go over every contour that's changed, because nearly every one has changed, at least on the front. Overall, the Nikon D4's body itself is more contoured, with fewer flat surfaces; still, most items are placed similarly enough that seasoned D3S users will still feel at home.

Though they've moved a little, the monaural microphone, Self-timer lamp, Function button, Depth of Field preview button, and lens release buttons are in the same positions on the Nikon D4. The AF switch has changed a bit, though. The old CSM arrangement goes away in favor of the D7000's AF switch. A two-position collar switch selects between AF and MF, and the button in the middle works in conjunction with the Nikon D4's rear Command dial to set AF mode and AF area.

Nikon D4
Nikon D3S

One of the key changes we noticed was the relationship between the Shutter button and the Sub-Command dial. Not only have they more aggressively sloped the Nikon D4's Shutter release, and canted the front dial upward a bit, they moved it back toward the center of the body, making it less of a stretch to move your index finger between the dial and Shutter button. Indeed, we noted no stretching when moving between the two controls on the Nikon D4, while the Sub-Command dial on the D3S requires more movement. We even have to reposition our other fingers downward to make room for our index finger to access the dial, and the new grip shape pushes the fingers down just enough. Less effort means faster adjustments on the Nikon D4. We like that.


Two of the buttons on the left of the Nikon D4 remain the same, but the Command Lock button is replaced by the Metering mode button; note the lack of a Metering Mode dial on the right of the pentaprism housing. The Drive mode dial is also shielded in the front, whereas it was open on past models. This makes changes more deliberate, requiring two fingers instead of just one. With the D3S you can press the button and rotate the Drive mode dial accidentally with just one finger. Top right you'll note a new button with a red dot, just behind the Nikon D4's Shutter release: the dedicated Movie Record button.


In addition to the Multi-Selector found on the D3S, the Nikon D4 now includes not one but two Sub-Multi-Selectors, or joysticks, used primarily to quickly select autofocus points. The second Sub-Multi-Selector is positioned for quick access while holding the Nikon D4 vertically. Long a feature on Canon pro and prosumer digital SLRs, these joysticks are nice to have (Canon's 1Dx also features two of these nifty joysticks).

Let it be. Flipping the illumination switch now lights more than the top and rear LCDs: several of the main buttons are also backlit.

The upper Sub-Multi-Selector can also be programmed to function as AE/AF Lock buttons (note the absence of a dedicated AE/AF Lock button), and their function can be locked with the Lock switch.

Vertical thumb grip.

Live view mode also has its own collar switch with a button in the center. The switch selects between Movie and Still Record modes, and the center Lv button activates Live view mode.

Most other buttons and controls work the same as the D3S, as does the Rear Status LCD and Memory Card access door. The vertical thumbgrip has been shored up noticeably, and a new Function button appears behind the vertical grip's shutter release (not pictured here).

Just beneath the left strap lug is a new circular port for the new WT-5A 802.11n Wireless Transmitter, which draws its power from the camera. Also new and much anticipated by videographers is a headphone jack for monitoring recordings.

Nikon D4 Q&A

Eager for more information on Nikon's latest professional SLR? Got a question left unanswered after reading our hands-on preview? We've conducted a Q&A session with Steve Heiner, Senior Technical Manager, and Lindsay Silverman, Senior Product Manager, both at Nikon USA, live from the show floor at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. The session took place on Monday, January 9th 2012, so unfortunately it's too late to ask your own questions, but read on--somebody else may have already asked for you!


 

Nikon D4 Technical Information

Sensor. The Nikon D4 is based around a newly-developed FX-format CMOS image sensor with an effective resolution of 16.2 megapixels, up from the 12.1 megapixel chips used in the earlier D3 and D3S models. Total resolution of the Nikon-developed sensor, which has dimensions of 36.0 x 23.9 millimeters, is 16.6 megapixels. The design features gapless microlenses and an anti-reflective coating, and has a pixel size of 7.3 microns, down from 8.45 microns in the D3 and D3S.

In the sensor's native 3:2 aspect ratio, the Nikon D4 outputs images at resolutions up to 4,928 x 3,280 pixels. There are also two cropped 3:2 aspect ratio modes which yield an effective 1.2x or 1.5x focal length crop, and a 5:4 aspect ratio mode which uses the full height of the image sensor, but trims the sides. In all modes, there are three resolution options available.

Processor. Output from the D4's new image sensor is handled by the company's latest-generation EXPEED 3 image processor, quite a step forward from the EXPEED processors of the D3 and D3S. This allows an improvement in performance versus the earlier models, even though sensor resolution has been increased. The D4 has a 16-bit imaging pipeline.

Sensitivity. The Nikon D4 offers a standard ISO sensitivity range of 100 to 12,800 equivalents, unchanged at the top end from the D3S' maximum sensitivity, but returning to the ISO 100 base sensitivity of the original D3. It's also possible to extend the ISO sensitivity range to an impressively wide ISO 50 - 204,800 equivalents. ISO sensitivity step sizes of 1/3, 1/2, or 1 EV are available across the entire range from 50 to 25,600 equivalents, with 1 EV steps above this point.

The D4 also offers an Auto ISO function, which now takes into account the mounted lens type, automatically selecting higher shutter speeds when the attached lens has a longer focal length. It's possible to manually skew the Auto ISO function towards faster or slower shutter speeds, with five step control.

Performance. As well as providing the processing power to extend the camera's sensitivity range despite the higher sensor resolution, the D4's EXPEED 3 image processor enables an increase in burst shooting performance. It's now possible to shoot full-resolution raw or JPEG images at up to ten frames per second with autofocus and autoexposure. By locking the AF and AE from the first shot, this can be increased still further to 11 full-res frames per second. Burst depth is 200 frames when using JPEG Basic quality, 182 for Normal and 170 for Fine.

The Nikon D4 starts up in approximately 0.12 seconds, and has a claimed shutter release lag of 0.042 seconds.

Optics. The Nikon D4 provides a Nikon F-mount with autofocus coupling and contacts. As you'd expect, the Nikon D4 is compatible with almost every F-mount lens made since 1977, although some lens types will have a few limitations.

Displays. On the rear panel of the Nikon D4 is a new 3.2-inch diagonal LCD panel that's just slightly larger than the 3.0-inch panel of the D3 and D3S. Total resolution of the scratch-resistant panel is unchanged from the earlier unit at 921,600 dots, which equates to 307,200 pixels in a 640 x 480 (VGA) array. Also unchanged is the wide 170-degree viewing angle both horizontally and vertically and 100% frame coverage.

The D4's LCD now includes an auto brightness adjustment using an ambient brightness sensor, saving the user needing to adjust LCD brightness manually as ambient conditions change. It's possible to zoom in up to 46x on the monitor, to check critical focus.

Of course, the D4 also has both top-panel and rear-panel monochrome status displays, just as found in its predecessors.

Viewfinder. There's also a new eye-level pentaprism viewfinder whose coverage is 100% when used in uncropped FX 3:2 aspect ratio mode, and 97% when in the 1.2x or DX cropped modes. For the cropped FX 5:4 aspect ratio mode, coverage is 100% vertically, but only 97% horizontally. When shooting in modes other than the native FX-format 3:2 aspect ratio, a translucent LCD in the viewfinder of Nikon's D4 partially masks the inactive portions of the frame. The viewfinder has 0.7x magnification at 50mm and -1 diopter, an 18mm eyepoint, and a diopter adjustment range of -3 to +1m-1, all unchanged from the D3 and D3S. The only significant difference from the earlier viewfinder design is that this one is quite a bit less tall, reducing the size of the viewfinder prism hump, and is coated with a new thermal shield finish.

Illuminated controls. Photographers who do a lot of low-light shooting will be pleased to find that key controls on the rear of the Nikon D4 are now backlit, making it much easier to tell which buttons you're pressing, even in total darkness.

Focusing. The Nikon D4 debuts the next-generation version of Nikon's 51-point autofocus module, now dubbed Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX. The new sensor has an improved working range of -2 to +19 EV (ISO 100, 20°C/68°F), and adds a Focus Release mode which uses focus priority for the first frame, and then release priority for subsequent frames.

Of the 51 points arrayed across the sensor, 15 points located at the center are cross-type, sensitive to both horizontal and vertical detail, and nine of these work at apertures up to f/8 with compatible Nikkor lenses mounted on the TC14E or TC17E teleconverters, while the centermost point works at up to f/8 with compatible Nikkor lenses and the TC20E teleconverter. (The remainder work as cross-type sensors to f/5.6 or lower.)

Thanks to the new color matrix metering sensor, which is also used for scene detection, the D4 is said to offer dramatically improved 3D tracking performance, able to track much smaller subjects with reduced tracking error. Other improvements include the ability to see which supporting autofocus points are being used in Dynamic AF mode at the touch of a button, and to have the camera retain the orientation of selected AF points when the camera is rotated.

As well as using the full 51 points of the AF array, it's also possible to select single-point, 9-point, or 21-point modes. Again thanks to the increased resolution of the matrix metering sensor, the D4 now offers face detection autofocus even when shooting through the viewfinder.

Another improvement related to AF is the addition of a quick AF mode selector on the front panel near the lens mount, like that on the D7000, whose outer collar rotates to select auto or manual focus, and selects the AF mode when the center of the selector is pressed while the command dial is rotated. There are also two new joystick-style sub-selectors on the rear panel used to select autofocus points in either landscape or portrait orientations.

Shutter / Mirror. The Nikon D4 offers shutter speeds ranging from 1/8,000 to 30 seconds, in steps of 1/3, 1/2, or 1 EV, as well as a bulb position. Flash x-sync is at 1/250 second. The self diagnostic shutter unit is said to have a rated life of 400,000 cycles, and includes a mirror balancer that reduces bounce, improving autofocus performance and reducing mirror blackout.

Exposure. As mentioned previously, the Nikon D4 has a new metering sensor with 91,000 pixel resolution. The 3D Color Matrix Metering III metering mode compares metered scenes to a large in-camera database of scene types, before determining exposure variables, and it can now take account of the positions of up to 16 human faces in the image frame even when shooting using the optical viewfinder. (Previously, face detection required use of live view.)

Other metering modes include center-weighted (which either gives a 75% weight to an area of 8, 12, 15, or 20mm at the center of the frame or averages the entire frame), and spot (which meters on a 4mm / 1.5% circle at the center of the frame.)

The Nikon D4 provides an exposure compensation range of -5 to +5 EV, set in increments of 1/3, 1/2, or 1 EV. Additionally, it's possible to bracket anywhere from two to nine frames, in steps of 1/3, 1/2, 2/3, or 1 EV, both for flash and available-light exposures.

White balance. Nikon has also improved white balance performance in the D4, which should now yield more reliable results in general, and also includes an option to retain the warmth of incandescent lighting in Auto mode, something we've seen from quite a few other manufacturers, following on from Pentax's Color Temperature Enhancement feature in the K-7 prosumer SLR. Direct Kelvin white balance has also been improved, and now offers finer-grained 10-Kelvin steps.

As well as Auto, four Custom positions, and Kelvin, there are a selection of twelve preset modes. White balance presets include incandescent, fluorescent (7 types), direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, and shade. White balance can also be bracketed with the D4 saving two to nine copies of each image with varied white balance.

Flash. The Nikon D4 includes both an ISO 518 standard flash hot shoe with sync and data contacts and a safety lock, and an ISO 519 standard sync terminal with locking thread. i-TTL flash exposures are metered using the new 91,000 pixel metering sensor. As you'd expect, the D4 supports Nikon's Creative Lighting System. The SB-910, SB-900, SB-800, or SB-700 Speedlights can be used as a master flash, the SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander as commander, and the SB-600 or SB-R200 Speedlights function as remotes.

Creative. Although it's clearly a camera aimed at professionals, the Nikon D4 adds a feature that is more common on consumer SLRs: high dynamic range photography. Although some will doubtless still prefer to do their HDR merges on a computer for the ultimate control, there's no question that in certain situations HDR can be a great tool in-camera as well. The Nikon D4's HDR mode captures two exposures with 3EV difference in exposures, and combines them into a single image. It's not clear if this includes microalignment capability, but three smoothing levels are available: low, medium, or high.

As you'd expect, there's also Nikon's Active D-Lighting function, which tweaks the tone curve for more balanced exposures. The D4's Active D-Lighting function includes one additional strength level beyond those in the D3S, which is Extra High. Active D-Lighting can be bracketed, with anywhere from two to five frames saved with the ADL strength varying between frames.

The D4 also includes Nikon's Picture Controls function, which offers six presets--Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape--and the ability for the user to customize these and port settings between camera bodies. There's now a dedicated button on the camera for access to picture controls, making it easier to change modes to suit your subject.

Tilt sensor. As with its predecessors, the Nikon D4 includes a dual-axis level sensor, used to provide a Virtual Horizon function that helps ensure level horizons and parallel verticals. The rear-panel LCD can show a gauge similar to an aircraft attitude indicator, while the viewfinder and top-panel LCDs can be used to show side-to-side roll.

Mic and monitor. Now you can hear what you're recording thanks to the headphone jack on the Nikon D4.

Video. Nikon has clearly put a lot of work into making the D4 a more attractive proposition for videographers, and there are a raft of changes in this area. The Nikon D4 can now capture Full HD (1080p; 1,920 x 1,080 pixel) video at either 24 or 30 frames per second (25fps for PAL), where its predecessor was limited to 720p at 24 fps. At 720p (1,280 x 720 pixel) resolution, a rate of 60 frames per second is possible (50fps for PAL). Video can either be shot using data from pixels across the entire width of the image sensor in FX mode, or with either a 1.5x (DX-format) / 2.7x focal length crop, taking data from the center of the imager, without affecting the video resolution.

The Nikon D4 allows shutter speed, aperture, and ISO sensitivity to be changed during recording, as required to adapt to changes in ambient lighting or yield the desired cinematic effect. There's also full-time contrast detection autofocus capability, operating either in face detection, wide area, normal, or subject tracking modes, as well as the ability to focus manually. Nikon notes that the D4's fast readout has reduced the likelihood of rolling shutter (aka jello effect.)

Videos are recorded using H.264 / MPEG-4 AVC format compression with B-frame macroblocks and linear PCM audio, a combination that's said to allow more accurate storage with lighter-weight file sizes. Maximum clip length is 20 minutes at high quality, 29 minutes 59 seconds at normal quality. Although there's a dedicated Movie record button, it's possible to configure the D4 to use the Shutter button to start and stop recording, allowing a greater range of accessories to control recording.

Audio levels for the built-in monaural microphone can be adjusted automatically or manually in a 30-step range, while external stereo mics have a 20-step adjustment range, and the levels for either can be monitored on the camera's LCD display. Additionally, the Nikon D4 includes a standard 3.5mm stereo audio output, allowing headphones to be connected to the camera for live monitoring of captured audio.

Even more unusually, it's possible to have the live feed piped to the D4's HDMI port as an uncompressed full HD signal, allowing it to be recorded using an external device and/or routed to an external monitor. If desired, this signal can be mirrored on the camera's own LCD display at the same time. Note that when streaming to the HDMI port, the D4 doesn't write to the CF or XQD card slots, however.

One last video feature of note is the ability to select a frame rate and shooting interval for time-lapse photography, and then have the results saved as a video that plays back at speeds ranging from 24x to 36,000x.

Environmental sealing. As you'd expect for a pro-level Nikon body, the Nikon D4's tank-like magnesium alloy body is fully sealed and gasketed throughout, to protect against moisture, dust and dirt, and electromagnetic interference.

Dust reduction. Of course, as an interchangeable-lens camera, the lens mount itself is a potential entry-point for dust, and the D4 includes a dust removal function achieved using vibration of the optical low-pass filter. The Nikon D4 can also capture a reference image which determines the location of dust on the image sensor, and can be used to retouch photos to remove this dust, using Nikon's optional Capture NX 2 software.

Ports. Upper left is the new port for the wireless transmitter, then USB, headphone jack, mic, Ethernet, and HDMI.

Connectivity. The Nikon D4 has an uncommonly wide range of external connectivity, even by pro SLR standards. Connections include USB High-Speed data, a Type-C mini HDMI high definition video output, an RJ-45 wired Ethernet port (100Base-T), a ten-pin remote terminal (also used to attached compatible GPS devices), a 3.5mm stereo microphone jack (with support for plug-in power), and a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack (for monitoring audio during video capture). All the new ports on the side of the Nikon D4 leave no room for the older composite A/V output, however.

Wireless file transmitter. The Nikon D4 is also compatible with a new wireless file transmitter, the WT-5A. This allows images to be transferred directly from the camera to an FTP server or computer on the wireless network, and transfer can be initiated automatically or manually. The WT-5A draws its power from the camera body via a new port beneath the strap lug on the left side of the camera body, and compared to the WT-4A, offers higher-speed 802.11n compatibility, linked release of up to ten cameras from a single camera body, and remote operation using Nikon Camera Control Pro 2 software.

Nikon notes that it is also developing a mobile application to control the camera using the WT-5A, including the ability to trip the shutter and record video remotely.

Note that the Nikon D4 also supports the older WT-4A file transmitter, for photographers who don't need the new features and would rather keep their existing transmitter.

GPS. As mentioned previously, the Nikon D4 can be connected to a GPS receiver, allowing geotagging of images as they're captured. As well as Nikon's own GP-1 hotshoe-mounted GPS receiver, the D4 is also compatible with NMEA0183 version 2.01 or 3.01-compliant GPS receivers, which can be connected to the camera using an optional MC-35 GPS adapter cord and the receiver's own connector cable with 9-pin D-sub connector.

Storage. The Nikon D4 has dual flash card slots, and can be configured to write images simultaneously to both cards, write raws to one card and JPEGs to the other, or use one card as primary and the second as an overflow when the first card is filled up. Unlike its predecessors, though, only one of the slots accepts CompactFlash cards (Type-I only, including UDMA-7 cards). The other slot accepts the just-announced XQD-format memory cards, which are a next-gen format introduced by the CompactFlash Association in early December 2011.

XQD cards are based on the PCI Express interface, and offer significant speed advantages over standard CompactFlash. (They're also a bit smaller in terms of width and height, although they're a little thicker than a Type-I CF card.) Using XQD cards, the D4 should be able to write about a third more frames in a burst than with standard CF.

The D4 can write either 12-bit or 14-bit raw images with lossless or lossy compression, or completely uncompressed. It can also save images as RGB TIFF files, Baseline-compliant JPEGs at 1:4, 1:8 or 1:16 compression levels, or as both raw and JPEG formats at the same time. A nice plus for wire service photographers is that the D4 can generate IPTC data in-camera, instead of at download time, streamlining the tagging process.

Power. The Nikon D4 draws power from a rechargeable EN-EL18 lithium-ion battery, rather than the EN-EL4 / EN-EL4a pack of its predecessors. The new battery is rated at about 22Wh (2,000mAh at 10.8v). CIPA testing shows that the EN-EL18 battery will deliver up to 2,600 shots per charge. The D4's battery is charged via the Quick Charger MH-26, and an EH-6b AC Adapter can be used to power the D4, requiring the EP-6 Power Supply Connector.

Pricing and availability. US-market availability for the Nikon D4 is currently slated for late February 2012. Suggested retail pricing should be approximately US$6,000.

 

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