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Nikon D4 Review: Feature-Packed Flagship
by Theano Nikitas -  7/25/2012

The past year may be known as the year of the full-frame camera and Nikon has a nicely balanced selection with the D4 for speed and low light, the D800 for its whopping 36 megapixel sensor and the D600 for price. Photographers with a need for speed and/or high ISO will, of course, flock to the 16 megapixel D4 with its up to 11 frames per second continuous shooting and an ISO expandable to 204,800. And since many photographers are also tasked with shooting video, Nikon has expanded the video options of its top-of-the-line DSLR, making the D4 the first to offer a number of features including a headphone jack for audio monitoring and uncompressed output via its HDMI port, among others. This is a well-rounded, full-frame option for pros as well as discerning and deep-pocketed enthusiasts.

Overview

As the successor to the Nikon D3s, the D4 is built around a new 16 megapixel sensor, a welcome step up for those who complained about the D3s having "only" a 12 megapixel sensor. At the same time, the jump in megapixels isn't so radical that it seriously impacts the camera's high ISO performance.

Some of the more notable improvements include increased ISO sensitivity, which is expandable to 204,800, a direct movie button and full HD 1080p video. A stereo headphone jack has been added and, like the Nikon D800, uncompressed video can be output via the HDMI port. A slightly larger LCD and an unimpressive 2-shot HDR feature, which shoots and combines a duet of exposures at up to +/- 3EV bracketing, an XQD slot and a wired LAN port are among some of the main changes. Other improvements range from a slightly re-designed control layout, illuminated controls and under-the-hood performance updates.

The Nikon D4 is available for around $6000 (body only).

Build and Design

Built for hard core use, the Nikon D4's magnesium alloy body is not only physically strong but is weather-sealed for protection against the elements as well as electromagnetic interference. At 41.6 ounces (body only), the D4 is a little lighter than the D3s but not by much. It's pretty hefty in weight and size (6.3 x 6.2 x 3.6 inches) but is well balanced, especially when paired with a longer piece of glass like Nikon's 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

The handgrip has been improved and is now even more substantial, providing a more solid hold. For those of us whose hands are slightly smaller, there's an extra bit of stretch involved when reaching for certain controls but the D4 is still comfortable to operate. In portrait (vertical) orientation, a thumb rest is a welcome addition for a better grip.

Like the D3s, the D4 is equipped with dual card slots. Users can determine what function the second card plays, e.g., overflow, back-up, etc. Unlike the D3s, however, the D4 has one CompactFlash slot and one XQD slot. The latter is a new type of flash memory with faster read and write speeds and an estimated transfer rate of up to 168MB/s. I tested the D4 with an XQD card, transferring images with an XQD card reader and, yes, the transfer rate was incredibly fast. Nikon may be ahead of the curve by using the XQD and, in the future, this format may become more widely accepted. However, so far the D4 is the only camera using this type of card and only Sony brand XQD cards are available, with a maximum capacity of 64GB and a heart-stopping price tag of almost $500. Earlier in 2012, Lexar announced support for the XQD and said it would be releasing its version in Q3 of 2012. So far, there's been no sign of a Lexar-branded XQD card. ** (And don't expect one from SanDisk unless something radical happens since they said, early on, that they would not be adding XQD to their line of flash memory.)

Last we checked, B&H offered a bundle with a free XQD card, among other accessories, so you'll be better off with this type of deal. Frankly, I wish the D4 had dual CompactFlash slots. Although that's not necessarily a deal breaker, the availability and price of XQD cards should be taken into consideration.

**Lexar premiered its 32GB and 64GB XQD cards along with a USB 3.0 XQD reader at CES this January with MSRPs of $300 (32GB), $580 (64GB) and $45 (dedicated card reader).  The cards and reader should be available this month at Lexar.com and various retailers.

Ergonomics and Controls

Overall, the D4 is well-designed for quick operation but because of its size, smaller-handed photographers may have to make slight adjustments to reach some of the controls. And D3s users should make note of some of the changed positions of some of the buttons.

One of the most notable additions is the direct movie button atop the D4's grip. While some cameras position the button on the rear panel, I happen to like having the movie button under my forefinger since it's easier to hold the camera steady when pressing the control.

As someone who shoots New York Fashion Week, where it's almost pitch black in the photographer's pit, having the rear panel controls illuminated is a welcome addition. The second AF-On button has been repositioned so that it's more readily accessible when shooting vertically -- another welcome change, especially for those of use with smaller hands. Two new programmable joysticks (or subselectors) are available, each positioned to be within reach when shooting horizontally or vertically. These subselectors can be used to move manually selectable AF points, while the center button can be programmed as well. Essentially, all controls are positioned for easy access to pretty much everything you need.

Menus and Modes

As expected, the D4 offers Program, Manual, Aperture-priority and Shutter-priority exposure modes. Rather than a mode dial, the D4 has a mode button that, in combination with the rear thumbwheel, cycles through each option. A separate dial on the left shoulder provides access to single, continuous, Quiet, self-timer and mirror up options, with access to bracketing, flash and metering modes.

The menu system may look intimidating at first, but it's well organized into playback, shooting, custom, setup, retouching, and a custom user setting section entitled My Menu. There are several pages to some of the menu tabs, so be sure to scroll through to find all the options.

The Custom Setting menu is potentially the most confusing of all because of the many different ways the camera can be fine-tuned. But this is one of the D4's strong points, so why not make use of everything this camera offers. The Custom Setting menu is broken down into 7 sections: Autofocus, Metering/exposure, Timers/AE lock, Bracketing/flash, Controls, and Movie. Autofocus, for example, has ten sub-sections but is well worth exploring, as are all the custom menus.

Display/Viewfinder

The large and bright eye-level pentaprism viewfinder is a pleasure to use. When shooting in full frame, it provides 100% coverage, both vertically and horizontally. You'll lose a little when shooting in other formats -- the DX cropped format, for example, cuts coverage to 97%. A diopter allows you to adjust the viewfinder for individual eyesight although it's a little difficult to pull out the dial to make the adjustments. The focusing screen, however, is not interchangeable.

At 3.2 inches, the LCD is slightly larger than the D3s' monitor but it retains its predecessor's 921,000 dot high resolution. The LCD works well under almost all conditions and automatically adjusts brightness depending on lighting. A small switch on the lower right ratchets between still and video for Live View, but you have to press the center button to fully activate LV.

The camera's dual-axis virtual horizon level is visible in both the viewfinder and on the LCD in Live View, making it easy to help align straight edges.

Performance

As expected, the D4's performance is stellar. From start-up to capturing an image, the camera's response is almost instantaneous. There's virtually no shutter lag and the D4 makes almost every other camera seem a little sluggish. Okay, that's an overstatement and the Canon EOS 1DX is a powerhouse, too, but I think you get my drift.

Shooting Performance

In continuous shooting mode, the D4 isn't much faster than the D3s -- 10fps versus 9 fps -- but considering that the D4 is pushing more pixels than its predecessor, the speed increase is pretty impressive and is possible, in part, because of the D4's updated Expeed 3 processor. While up to 10fps (JPEG, NEF/RAW, TIFF) can be captured with full autofocus and autoexposure enabled, the D4 can also capture up to 11fps, albeit with focus and exposure locked at the first shot.

AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)

Camera Time (seconds)
Canon 5D Mark III 0.10
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 0.16
Nikon D4 0.18
Pentax K-7 0.29

Continuous Shooting

Camera Frames Framerate*
Sony Alpha SLT-A55V 17 10.8 fps
Nikon D4 10.4 fps
Canon 5D Mark III 6.1 fps
Pentax K-7 19 5.3 fps

lcd:
peak brightness 456 nits
dark 0.49
overall contrast ratio 930:1

The camera is equipped with a new 91,000 pixel 3D color matrix meter and a revamped autofocus system. Since the D4 maintains the 51 AF points of the D3s, you may not notice a change in its already responsive and accurate autofocus. But there is an improvement in how the AF responds when using slower lenses since the implementation of cross-type sensors is no longer restricted to f/5.6 or faster lenses. While you still need f/5.6 or faster lenses to take advantage of all 15 cross-type sensors, 9 of those sensors are available with lenses and converters up to f/8.

Video Quality

Nikon made a lot of improvements to the D4's video functionality. Not only does the camera now shoot full HD video at 1920 x 1080 at 30/24fps (the D3s maxed out at 720p), but like the D800, offers uncompressed output via HDMI with simultaneous viewing on an external monitor and Live View. A wired LAN port is available for Ethernet connections and the camera is compatible with the WT-5A for wireless. There's also an HTTP mode where you can operate the camera (and start/stop video capture) from an iPhone or iPad, among other options.

While the camera records monaural sound, a stereo microphone jack is available with up to 20 levels of sensitivity. A stereo headphone jack has been added for monitoring audio levels with output adjustable in up to 30 steps.

Nikon is, as far as we know, the only manufacturer to consistently provide an interval timer function on its cameras. Now, with the D4, images captured with the built-in intervalometer can be automatically combined into a 1080 stop motion video in-camera.

Video quality is excellent, especially when compared with the D3s' 720p output. Full manual controls, autofocus, the ability to use the camera's high ISO and the new features mentioned above shows Nikon's dedication to DSLR video.

Image Quality

Still image quality is excellent and while I can't say that the D4's images trump those of the D3s (for the most part, the two are pretty similar), but the jump from 12 megapixels to 16 megapixels may appeal to a broad section of D3s users.

While some may complain that they'd prefer 21 megapixels but considering the camera's exceptional low light/high ISO capabilities, which can now be expanded to a low of ISO 50 and a maximum equivalent of 204,800, 16 megapixels seems to be a solid compromise. I tend to depend on RAW files and post-processing in Adobe Camera Raw, especially for higher ISOs and I think it really pays off. Otherwise I tend to keep the in-camera noise reduction turned to off or low for the best JPEG results. But test images were relatively clean up to about 12,800 with only a little softening and can be pushed up to about 25,600 without a huge loss in quality. However, how far you push the ISO is dependent on conditions and, more importantly, output. It's not a problem to shoot in almost total darkness but there will certainly be a point beyond which you may not be willing to compromise image quality.

Nikon D4 Sample Image

Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light

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Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 100
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 100, 100% crop
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 200
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 400
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 800
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 800, 100% crop
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 1600
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 1600, 100% crop
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 3200
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 3200, 100% crop
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 6400
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 6400, 100% crop
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 12800
Nikon D4 Sample Image
ISO 12800, 100% crop

Exposure accuracy and color reproduction are generally spot on, with colors rendered naturally but nicely saturated. Because the D4 has so many fine-tuning options, image parameters can be tweaked to your personal aesthetics.

Additional Sample Images?

The full-frame DSLR market is highly competitive with solid options from several manufacturers including Nikon, Canon and Sony. And while Canon has had a grasp on those shooting DSLR video since the introduction of the 5D Mark II, Nikon has definitely moved forward with the D4's video features.

But this powerhouse of a camera isn't just for shooting video. Exceptional still images, a feature set that is far too long and complex to cover in a single review and excellent performance more than justify its price tag (which is, at last count, about $800 less expensive than the Canon 1DX, its main competitor).