Nikon D4 £5289
30th Mar 2012 | 17:45
This DSLR may be big, but boy is it fast
The Nikon D4 is the camera that Nikon is hoping will be the camera of choice for professional sports photographers and photo journalists shooting the Olympic games this summer.
Consequently, it is designed as an all-purpose, go anywhere, shoot anything camera with improved low-light shooting capability and enhanced video technology.
While the Nikon D4 has plenty to get excited about, its pixel count is arguably not one of them. However, with 'just' 16.2 million effective pixels on its full-frame (36 x 23.9mm or FX format) CMOS sensor, the Nikon D4 should be capable of producing relatively clean images at high sensitivities.
This is just as well, given that it has a maximum native sensitivity setting of ISO 12800 and extension settings up to the equivalent of ISO 204,800.
Nikon D3s owners, however, may be a little more excited about the Nikon D4's pixel count, since it represents a big jump from 12.1MP to 16.2MP.
Despite the increase in the resolution of the sensor, and thanks to its EXPEED 3 image processing engine, the Nikon D4 is capable of shooting continuously at 10fps with full autofocus function. The D3s can only achieve 9fps at full resolution, or 11fps lower resolution images in DX mode.
If you are prepared to lose AF and exposure control, the Nikon D4's full resolution continuous shooting rate can also be pushed up to 11fps.
The EXPEED 3 engine also enables 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit processing for better colours and smoother tonal gradations.
Another key upgrade from the D3s is the move from a 1,005 pixel metering system to a 91,000 pixel system. As before, this is linked to Nikon's Advanced Scene Recognition System to help inform the white balance, flash exposure, face detection and AF system.
Although Nikon has stuck with the Multi-CAM3500FX AF system that first emerged in the D3 and was continued into the D3s, it has given it something of a tune-up for the Nikon D4.
There are still 51 AF points, but the central 15 cross-type points are sensitive down to f/8. This means that the Nikon D4's AF system will continue to work with long telephoto lens and teleconverter arrangements that have an effective maximum aperture of f/8.
This is great news for wildlife photographers, because it enables more affordable and lighter weight optics to be used. It is also something that the Canon EOS-1DX cannot match.
Nikon has given the D4's video system a substantial upgrade compared with the D3s's. Full HD (1080p) movies may be recorded in FX- and DX- formats, as well as in a native Full HD (1920 x 1080) with a 2.7x crop factor.
It is also possible to have an uncompressed, full resolution HDMI feed to external devices.
When the included new Nikon WT-5 Wi-Fi transmitter is connected to the Nikon D4, the Live View image can be seen on an iPad. The iPad can also be used to control the shooting mode, select the AF point and trigger the shutter.
This is something else that is likely to appeal to wildlife photographers who may want to sit remotely from their camera.
In summary, the Nikon D4 has just about everything that a jobbing photo journalist and sports photographer could hope for. We're told that Nikon plumped for a 16MP sensor because this strikes a good balance between a high pixel count, for greater cropping or shooting in DX format, and good high sensitivity performance.
With a UK price of around £5,290 and US price of $5,999.95, The Nikon D4 costs marginally less than the D3S did when first launched.
Build and handling
In many ways the Nikon D4 feels very solid and likely to stop a bullet, should the need arise. However, the overall feel of quality for the sample we have is let down a little by slight movement in the door over the memory card compartment.
This door falls under the fleshy base of the right thumb when the camera is held for use, and it feels like there may be some movement at the hinge. It's only a small point, but it is disconcerting in a camera that costs around £5,000/$6,000.
The door and its seal look the same as those on the Nikon D3S, yet while the D3S sample we have has a motionless door, our Nikon D4 sample's was prone to slight movement. We have reported this issue to Nikon and have seen and used other samples that don't have the same issue, so this may be just a one-off.
Continuing in the critique of the memory card port area, the cover over the door lock also seems a little flimsy, and it feels like it could be wrenched off fairly easily by over-enthusiastic use.
In a major change from the D3S, the Nikon D4 has two mini-joystick controls for selecting the AF point. They are arranged so that one or the other is within easy reach of the right thumb when the camera is held for shooting in landscape or portrait format.
Each of these controllers is paired with an AF-on button to activate the AF system without using the shutter release button. There's also a customisable function button just to the side of the vertical shooting shutter release button, reducing the need for the camera to be taken away from the eye or re-orientated in use.
Another nice touch is that the buttons on the top, back and side of the camera can be illuminated slightly when the camera is in use. This isn't noticeable in normal daylight, but in the dark the button icons are just bright enough to be legible. It makes shooting in the dark much easier, and given the low-light credentials of the Nikon D4, it seems likely that it will be a popular feature.
Video recording capability is now a much more important consideration for prospective Nikon D4 buyers, and the new camera has a dedicated Stills/Video switch around the Live View button on its rear. This makes switching between stills and video recording very quick and easy.
Another noticeable change from the D3s is that the Nikon D4's metering switch on the pentaprism has gone and there's now a button on the top plate, alongside the bracketing and flash buttons in the place previously taken up by the aperture/shutter speed lock button.
AF point selection
Like the D3s, the Nikon D4 has an array of AF point selection modes, including Single-point AF, auto-area AF and 9-, 21- or 51-point Dynamic-area AF as well as 3D-tracking AF.
However, rather than having a switch on the back of the camera to change between the modes like the D3s, the Nikon D4 uses the same approach as the D7000 and has a switch and button arrangement next to the lens mount.
The switch is used to set the Nikon D4 to auto or manual focus. When autofocus is selected, pressing the central button while rotating the rear command dial switches between single and continuous AF mode.
In continuous AF mode, pressing the button while rotating the front command dial toggles through Single-point, Auto-area, 9-, 21- 51-point and Dynamic-area AF modes.
This approach makes it easier to keep the camera to the eye while making adjustments.
Nikon has filled the gap between the glass and the crystal section of the LCD screen with an optical gel to reduce reflections, improve the viewing angle and boost brightness. We found that the screen provides a clear view in most shooting conditions, and reflections aren't a major issue even in bright sunlight.
This will be important for professional photographers shooting in the bright sun that is hoped to shine over the Olympics this summer.
To sum up, there are no major surprises in the build of the Nikon D4, and it feels solid and made to withstand some serious use. There are seals around all the joints and controls to ensure that it can cope with the usual rigours of life as a professional photographer's tool.
Images look good straight from the Nikon D4 - on the whole they are well exposed when the general purpose matrix metering system is used, and the colours and contrast look natural.
There is also an impressive amount of detail visible in images taken throughout the native sensitivity range. As we might expect, however, the 16MP Nikon D4 can't quite match the 24MP Nikon D800 for detail resolution at the lower sensitivity settings.
Nikon's decision to restrict the Nikon D4's effective pixel count to 16.2 million appears to be a wise one, since noise is extremely well controlled throughout the native sensitivity range. Even images captured at ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 look great when sized to make A3 prints.
The dynamic range is also impressive and shadows can be lightened significantly without fear of revealing noise or missing detail.
The expansion settings are probably best reserved for emergency situations, but they too can produce reasonable results. In images taken at the very highest expansion setting (equivalent to ISO 204,800), the noise takes on a linear pattern, which is visible in all the channels (red, green and blue) and at normal viewing sizes.
Meanwhile, the automatic white balance (AWB) system does an excellent job in most situations. There's an alternative automatic white balance option to preserve some of the colour when shooting in warm lighting conditions, but we preferred the results using the standard AWB setting when shooting indoors under mixed light.
Since the AF system is a tweaked version of the one in the D3S, it's not a major revelation to discover that it is incredibly fast and effective. However, as before it is also fairly complex, and getting the best from it demands some understanding of the subject as well as how to tailor the AF system.
On some occasions, for example, it may be sensible to set the camera to respond quickly to changes in the subject distance, but when following a moving subject around an area where objects such as pillars or posts may momentarily obscure the subject, some delay is recommended to prevent the lens from focusing on the construction and then having to refocus on the subject.
The 3D-tracking AF system can be extremely useful, but it relies on a clear difference in colour between the subject and its background.
If there is a strong difference, AF points light up across the frame as the subject moves. However, if the camera struggles to differentiate between the subject and the background colours, or there are other objects in the frame that are of the same colour as the subject, the system fails to track the main target and the active AF point jumps from one point to another.
The Nikon D3s's AF system has a strong reputation among professional sports photographers and the Nikon D4's proves to be just as good, if not better in some situations.
However, Nikon's claims for its low light capability had perhaps raised our expectations a little higher than they should have been. While the Nikon D4 can certainly cope with low light, it isn't perfect and can struggle a little in atmospheric restaurant-type lighting.
Nikon was the first manufacturer to really push the number of AF points in an SLR, and while 51 is still a high number, it's disappointing that they are restricted to the central portion of the imaging frame.
In fact, they all fit within the DX crop. It would be nice to be able to select a few AF points outside of this area, a bit closer to the edge of the frame.
Like the still images from the Nikon D4, its videos have good colour and exposure. The footage is also smooth and detailed. However, manual focus is still recommended during recording, because the contrast detection AF system often performs a little forwards and backwards adjustment.
The stereo audio input volume can be adjusted via the menu, although perhaps it may be more logical to assign access to these controls via the Voice Memo button (with a mic icon) on the back of the camera.
Audio in and out ports are provided to enable an external mic and earphones to be connected for better sound recording and monitoring.
Like the D5100, the Nikon D4 has an HDR mode that combines two images taken at different exposures into one with a greater tonal range. Also like the D5100, this mode can only be selected when the camera is set to shoot JPEGs.
The exposure differential can be set to 1,2 or 3EV or automatic and the Smoothing (or blending) to Normal, High or Low. While this is useful on occasion, the camera only saves the final image, so there's no scope for reworking.
The Canon 5D Mark III is much more useful in this respect, since three exposures (raw and JPEG) can be saved in addition to the combined final image.
As well as the virtual horizon that can be displayed on the LCD screen, the Nikon D4 can use the AF points in the viewfinder to indicate the level of the camera.
This proves very useful, since it operates and illuminates right up to the point that the shutter release button is fully depressed, while the focus remains at the now hidden active AF point.
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.
JPEG Signal to noise ratio
TIFF images (after conversion from raw) show that the Nikon D4, has better signal to noise ratio than all but the Canon EOS 5D MK II between ISO 1600 and 6400. The Nikon D700 also just betters the D4 in this test at ISO 6400.
JPEG Dynamic range
This chart indicates that the Nikon D4's JPEGs have at least a 1EV higher dynamic range than the comparison cameras across the greater part of the sensitivity range.
Raw Dynamic range
TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Nikon D4 have a greater dynamic range than the Canon EOS 1D MK IV, Nikon D700 and Canon EOS 5D MK II with only the Nikon D3x gaining a similar result at ISO 100.
The first six images here were shot at 10fps using the Nikon D4's continuous focus set to the 9-point dynamic option. The AF system managed to stay with the cyclist's face when the active AF point group was in the right position. However, when 3D-Dynamic mode was used, the camera could not distinguish between the skin tone and the background.
Including so much sky in the frame has fooled the matrix metering into underexposing this scene, but there's plenty of information to work with.
This is the same image after brightening using Photoshop's Levels and Curves control.
The full frame sensor enables depth of field to be very restricted.
Using the in-camera sepia toning.
This image was deliberately underexposed, but look below to see how much detail can be revealed in the shadows.
The shadows have been brightened using Photoshop's Levels control. They could be brightened further if necessary, so there's plenty of scope for creating single shot HDR images.
The D4 has coped extremely well with fine textures, capturing an impressive amount of detail.
This portrait was shot at ISO 2000, but still retains a fantastic amount of detail. Shot on Auto White Balance 2, the image has slightly warm tones.
This image was shot on the Tungsten (Incandescent) setting in an effort to try and compensate for shooting under artificial light, however it is has struggled to produce accurate whites.
This is the same image as the one above, but it has been corrected in Photoshop Elements using the Remove Colour Cast tool - as you can see the colours are represented more accurately and the whites appear whiter.
Again shot at ISO 2000, take a look at the high res version of the image to see the fine detail captured in the table cloth.
This image was also shot on the Tungsten setting, with the colours appearing a little off.
Shot using the Auto White Balance (1) setting, colours have been rendered far more accurately, although with a tendency towards the warm.
This shot shows the very restricted depth of field effects that are possible when using a full-frame camera, such as the Nikon D4.
Colours straight from the camera are represented well, being bright and punchy without being overly saturated.
Focus points on the D4 can be altered using the mini joystick on the back of the camera, which is easy to reach when holding the camera up to the eye.
The Nikon D4 has 51 autofocus points, with the system being enhanced especially for the new release.
This image was shot at 58mm, with an f/2.8 aperture at ISO 200. Take a look at the high res version of the image to see how well the camera has rendered the out of focus areas.
Nikon claims that the D4 boasts faster focus acquisition than the D3S, during our testing we have found that it locks on to a subject quickly and easily.
Sensitivity and noise
Full ISO 50 image. See the cropped (zoomed to 100%) versions below.
Nikon has succeeded in building upon the D3s to produce a versatile camera that is suitable for use by professional photographers in a wide range of situations.
The Nikon D4 may not have the highest resolution, but it has lightening-quick responses, a fantastically high maximum shooting rate and is capable of capturing an impressive amount of detail across a huge sensitivity range.
The Nikon D4 is the first of the recently announced high-end cameras to go through our testing procedure, and consequently we are so far unable to compare it with its main rival, the Canon EOS-1DX. However, we will do this as soon as we get our hands on a 1DX.
A great AF system, good noise control and huge sensitivity range are contained in an ergonomically arranged body
Slight movement in the memory card bay is a little disconcerting. The AF system is complex, and its various options could be made clearer in the menu for the uninitiated. There may be 51 AF points, but they are all clustered around the centre of the frame and within the DX crop.
The design changes made since the D3s make a significant and positive impact on the handling of the Nikon D4.
Those upgrading may find it takes a while to get used to using the mini-joystick controllers to set the AF point, but they make it quicker and easier in the long run - especially when shooting in portrait format.
Nikon has produced a solid workhorse of a DSLR that professionals can depend upon to deliver good results even in low lighting conditions. Image quality is high and results look great straight from the camera.