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Nikon D4 Preview

by Shun Cheung, January 2012 (updated February 2012)


Full-35mm-Frame Nikon DSLRs

Back on August 23, 2007, Nikon announced the D3 with a lot of fanfare, inviting the press from around the world to Tokyo for the occasion. The D3 was Nikon’s first full-35mm-frame digital SLR that Nikon refers to as the FX format. Its fast AF and ground-breaking high-ISO capabilities at the time instantly made it popular among professional news and sports photographers. During the Beijing summer Olympics the following year, roughly half of the sports photographers were seen using the D3 with those black Nikon super-teles, finally putting Nikon back among the leaders for pro news and sports photography after almost two decades of dominance by Canon.

Introducing the D4

Now four years later with the London summer Olympics coming up, Nikon is introducing its next-generation sports DSLR the D4. From the angle of still-image capture, the D4 is more an evolution from the D3 and the subsequent D3S (introduced in October, 2009) with small but welcome improvements in many areas. The big difference is video-capture capability, which did not even exist on the D3 four years earlier and was very basic on the D3S. Still/video/audio multi-media capture is clearly Nikon’s marketing theme for the D4.

Primary Features and Improvements on the D4 for Still Photography

The D4 has a similar high-quality construction as the D3 with a slightly lower profile around the viewfinder. Its sensor is a 16.2MP one designed by Nikon, up slightly from 12MP on the D3/D3S. The normal ISO range is from 100 to 12800 where the high-end is the same as that for the D3S (200 – 12800), but the D4 has an extended ISO range from 50 (low 1) to 204800 (high 4). The frame rate also goes up slightly from 9 to 10 per second, 11 if the exposure is locked.

  • Sensor: 36.0×23.9mm (FX format), 16.2MP Nikon designed sensor, Exceed III image-processing engine, up from 12MP on the D3/D3S, auto sensor cleaning.
  • ISO range 100 to 12800 with extended Lo 1 (50) to Hi 4 (204800)
  • 100% viewfinder
  • 3.2" LCD, 921K dots
  • Auto Focus: 51 AF points including 15 cross type, same Multi-CAM 3500 AF module as on the D3, D700, and D300 families. However, on the D4, 9 of the AF points are sensitive to slower lenses with a maximum aperture of f8. Prior to the D4, previous Nikon DSLRs’ AF was designed to work with lenses that are f5.6 or faster.
  • Dynamic 3D tracking AF uses a 91K-dot color matrix meter, up from only 1005 on the D3.
  • New AF priority option: focus priority for the first frame and then release priority for subsequent frames
  • Frame Rate: 10 fps, 11 fps with exposure locked
  • Flash sync speed remains to be 1/250 second
  • Memory Card Slots: 1 CF (UDMA 7 compatible), 1 XQD (new card format)
  • Magnesium alloy chessis, weather sealing
  • The D4’s shutter is rated to 400K actuations, up from 300K for the D3 family.
  • Back illuminated buttons
  • Virtual Horizon: in additional to horizontal leveling, there are pitch and yaw leveling (front and back tilts)
  • In-camera HDR (High Dynamic Range): Can merge two images with 3-stop differential inside the camera.
  • Battery: new EN-EL18 Li-ion battery, 10.8V, 2000mA, and good for 2600 captures; different from EN-EL4a on D3/D3S.

Auto Focus System

The D4’s AF module continues to be the Multi-CAM 3500, as on the previous high-end Nikon DSLRs, but the sensitivity on the center AF points is extended down to f8, making it compatible with 300mm/f4, 500mm/f4 and 600mm/f4 lenses with a TC-20E teleconverter on for an effective maximum aperture of f8. Dynamic AF with 3D tracking is improved with a 3D color-matrix meter with 91K dots for better scene recognition and tracking on finer details.

The Multi-CAM 3500 is a proven performer for sports, news, and wildlife type action photography over the last four years. There is no doubt about its capability for sports. On the full FX frame, the 51 AF points are more concentrated to the center of the frame. In particular, the 15 cross-type AF points are in the center 3 columns of 5. In the portrait orientation, the lack of cross-type AF points near the top of the frame where a subject’s face and eye tend to be could become an issue under indoor dim-light conditions, such as weddings. I was hoping that Nikon would add more cross-type AF points for the portrait orientation, but it looks like the Multi-CAM 3500 with stay with us for another generation of Nikon DSLRs. When that same AF module is on a DX-format DSLR such as the D300, it provides more even coverage across the entire frame.

Camera Body and Controls

Similar to the D2 and D3 before it, the D4 has a rugged camera body with weather sealing. The shutter is rated to 400K actuations, up 33% from its predecessors. The viewfinder has a slightly lower profile so that the camera is shorter in the middle compared to the D3.

One of the obvious changes to the controls is that the matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering selector and the AE-L/AF-L button (Auto Focus and Auto Exposure Locks) are absent. Instead, the D4 has two new “joy stick” buttons that are programmable. They are at convenient locations for access while holding the camera horizontally and vertically, respectively. I am sure that we will learn more about those buttons’ capabilities when the D4 is available. The two AF-ON buttons (again for horizontal and vertical) remain.

The column of buttons to the left of the 3.2" LCD has one more button than on the D3. Similar to the D700 and D300/D300S, the D4 has separate buttons to enlarge and reduce the image on the back LCD during review. (On the D2 and D3 families, you hold down one button on the left and rotate the main command dial on the right to enlarge and reduce.) I prefer the faster one-hand operation using separate buttons, and now the D4’s control is consistent with the lower-end cameras. On the front side, the traditional Single Servo, Continuous Servo, and Manual Focus switch is now simply AF and M, just like the D7000. Occasionally there are complaints about accidentally touching that switch and therefore changing the setting unintentionally, especially on the D300. This modification should also be a good improvement.

On the D4, the control buttons are back lit, making them easier to use under dim light.

I was a bit surprised that the D4 has no built-in GPS capability. Similar to existing Nikon DSLRs, it works with the external (and optional) Nikon GP-1 and other compatible GPS units.

HD Video Capture

The one area the D4 has improved drastically from its predecessors is its video/audio capability. The D4 can capture 1080p HD video at 30 or 24 fps or 720p at 60 fps for slow-motion video for up to 20 minutes. The camera can use the full FX frame, DX (1.5x crop), or CX (2.7x crop, size of the Nikon 1 mirrorless camera sensor) to produce HD video. Nikon’s contrast-detect AF has improved drastically in the last few years as demonstrated by the recent V1 and J1 mirrorless cameras. There is little doubt that those improvements are incorporated into the D4. Exposure can be controlled manually during video capture, and raw HD video without compression can be transmitted to outside of the camera via the HDMI port, without first saving on the memory cards.

Memory Cards and Battery

The D4 uses a new EN-EL18 Lithium-ion battery and has two memory card slots. One slot fits the traditional Type 1 Compact Flash card (UDMA-7 compatible) and the other the new XQD card. The two slots have the usual overflow, backup, and RAW/JPEG options common to all Nikon DSLRs with two memory card slots such as the D3, D300S, and D7000. XQD is a brand new memory card standard just announced last month (December, 2011) and currently not yet available on the market (as of early January, 2012). Depending on card availability, this can potentially be an issue in the early days of the D4, and most likely XQD memory cards will be expensive initially. Photographers may have to settle for using just the CF card during the interim.

Conclusion

Four years ago, the D3 was revolutionary as a sports/action still-image DSLR. It was the first Nikon SLR that has more than 11 AF points, and it made a big jump to 51. The D3’s high-ISO capability was amazing compared to that from its predecessors the D2H/D2X. Concerning its still-image capture abilities, the D4 is more an evolution with slightly improved AF and essentially the same high-ISO capability as the D3S with a modest increase in pixel count, plus a lot of small refinements. While I have not tested a D4 yet, I typically discount the extended Hi ISO range, which produces very marginal results. The D4’s AF system is essentially the same as the D3’s with some small improvements for slower f8 lenses. The frame rate, again, going from 9 fps to 10 or 11 is a small gain.

While the D3 has no video capability and the D3S’ is basic, the D4 is a capable HD video camera as well with plenty of options and professional audio features. Exactly how well all of those new features perform will have to be tested, but for those pros who need to capture both still and video, the D4 is clearly a big improvement from the D3/D3s. If you are only interested in still-image capture, the D3S remains reasonably current compared to the new D4.

When Nikon introduced the first D1 back in 1999, the price tag was US$5500. It went down to $5000 for the D2X and D3 and then back up to $5200 for the D3S. The $6000 price tag for the D4 is higher but is still in the same price range; it probably reflects some of the recent surge of the Japanese yen. There should be little doubt that along with its main rival the Canon 1DX, the new Nikon D4 will shine in London during the summer games in July and August this year.

The New 85mm/f1.8 G AF-S Lens

The 85mm Nikon lenses have been popular among portrait photographers for decades. They are now adding a new f1.8 AF-S version with a very affordable price tag of $499.95. That is a fraction of the cost of the top-of-the-line 85mm/f1.4 G AF-S (about $1700). The new lens has a seven-blade aperture diaphragm, internal focusing, and Nikon’s SIG (Super Integrated Coating). Given that the pricy f1.4 version is perhaps out of reach for most amateur photographers, this new f1.8 version is a welcome addition at less than 1/3 of the cost.


Text and photos © 2012 Shun Cheung.

Article revised February 2012.

Readers' Comments


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Rob Wall , January 07, 2012; 06:25 A.M.

Looks like a great camera.  I'll probably hold on to my two D-3s for now, unless I get more brides wanting "moving pictures" of the big day.

Zulfiqar Ali , January 13, 2012; 12:26 A.M.

It is a best option if you do both Still and HD Video. But if you don't need Video then D3x is still good option to have.  

Miguel Hortiguela , January 20, 2012; 09:07 A.M.

After owning the D1H and D2X, I promised myself that I'd have to exercise some self control and skip the next generation.  I think the time has come to upgrade.  Thanks for the review.  I'm salivating.

Wim de Winter , January 20, 2012; 10:55 A.M.

This is getting non-sensical. ISO for sensitivity has become outdated now the numbers have become to long to read. Why not dropping the old habit, like ASA has been disposed of long ago, and simply state that the sensitivity ranges from 0 to 8? For that's what it means: that ugly number expands your possibilities with 8 stops. (Compared to ISO100 standard).

JOE PRETE , January 20, 2012; 10:30 P.M.

Very good, but brief review. I have spoken to Nikon reps for the past few days, and I have been questioning them on a few areas that they appear to be in the dark on. The camera has an Ethernet port, under the same cover as the HDMI. But having an ETHERNET PORT, I would assume means that the camera is a web device, it should be able to bypass a computer, have a MAC or ETHERNET ADDRESS and send photographs to their destination. It would make a stolen camera less valuable if it could be seen on the web.

The Nikon reps. assigned a number to the issue but each rep. I talk to has a different story. One insists that the ethernet port is to plug into the computer, another insists that the WT5 WIRELESS transmitter is to send the photo's to the computer. In the 2 part interview with a NIKON REP. on the"What digital camera" site it does say that it is 802.11b,g,n. compatible, it just doesn't say how! I also wonder why they chose the still unused "XQD" Media cards, still only 32GB & 64GB ($129.00 & $229.00) apparently looking to the future, but the chose "USB 2.0 instead of USB 3.0

Another issue I have is the rubber (seal) plugs that are hinged and are completely rubber. That seems a little cheap for a camera that will be closer to $8,000.00 once you buy the WT5 Transmitter, the external microphone, XQD Cards, UDMA7 CF CARDS and any misc. accessories and cables. I just don't understand coming out with half a story. photo.net did a good review considering they were not given all of the information. It's set for release FEB. 16th 2012

I don't think they've released enough information with only 1 month to decide, since you're buying into a system, not just a camera. They do boast about it being $5,999.00 For those that are quick to complain about the cost, please consider that this is a pro camera (a Hassy is $50,000.00, also a "system") For the majority of readers, you should realize that there is benefit to all of us as the trickle down effect will get to you in time. For the PRO Photographer that buys a camera like this, he will already have upwards of $20,000.00 in Lenses not to mention GEAR and other needed accessories. Oh, it is IPHONE compatible. Phone home???

There are many people who are doing fine with a $1500.00 camera body. But if you are going to the olympics you'll want to have one of these. It wouldn't be fair not to mention there's a competing marvel, the PRO CANON EOS 1 D. ... Joe Prete 

JOE PRETE , January 20, 2012; 10:56 P.M.

Sorry guys, CANON EOS 1 DX. ... Joe Prete

Cyrus Procter , January 22, 2012; 12:05 P.M.

Shun, you totally forgot to mention that the AF points are 1 stop more sensitive in low light. To me this is a very important feature because that's one issue I always took with the D3s, when shooting in low light and pushing a fast lens\shutter speed, often times the AF was "In the Dark". Having one extra stop on the AF sensors is a big deal for those who shoot in the dark!

JOE PRETE , January 22, 2012; 09:30 P.M.

SKYLER, I don't know who SHUN is but, Yes they will let in more light. NIKON'S theory has been from the start of digital, that a lower pixel count will let in more light. You said 1 stop, IT SEEMS TO BE A FEW STOPS. First, the lower pixel count means the pixels are relative to the size of the sensor( While everyone thought the more Pixels, the better, NIKON JUST WAITED, NOW THEY ARE ALL LOWERING THE PIXEL COUNT. Compacts too. I wrote here or on "whatdigitalcamera? site (just google it) it said that you could take photos on the moon, on the dark side too!(great song by PINK FLOYD) But other than TOM CRUZE, Who's going to the moon?

But yes we can take shots with much less light. Besides from the PIXEL count, THE D4 can use FX at full frame, DX at aps-c 1.5 stop factor and the new (NIKON 1) at a 2.7 stop factor (there is a NIKON name for that, but I Forget what it is right now, But it sounds a lot like just dial in your sensor setting and use the pixel size you need. Yes, at FULL SIZE, AT 1.5 CROP OR AT THE NEW 2.7 CROP FACTOR. Not a bad Idea really. The camera is also a little shorter. I warn you, if you SEARCH MY NAME WITH NIKON/DIGITAL/CAMERA/NEW/D4 /CANON EOS D 1X or any combination thereof, you are going to find many NEGATIVE POINTS ALONG WITH THE BENEFITS.

And no it's not that I change my mind a lot (only women are allowed to do that) But I have been hounding NIKON FOR THE PAST MONTH because they only released part of the story. Even with the 2 part review with NIKON UK (Who B/T/W got a lot more info than we did) If they don't come out with the full story, I'll BE PAYING THEM A VISIT THIS COMING WEEK. Now I can't explain the whole story on one comment, if you look at the other 7 or 8, you'll see what I'M TALKING ABOUT. I really just came on because photo.net sent me emails that there was questions.

I know that I'm opinionated, Im not just a photographer, but I write too. Their support line now is in the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. They make fine women over there, but there's a lot of chips on the table now, and I don't believe this c rap that they don't know yet. If they sell it, built it, put their name on it then they must have more information then they're giving us. I'm not just doing this for me, I'm trying to make us all be better informed. I'll say this again, I don't shoot CANON, BUT FROM WHAT I SEE, THESE TWO (THE CANON EOS D 1X & THE D4) LOOK LIKE THEY BOTH COULD HAVE BEEN MANUFACTURED WITH THE SAME "BUILD SHEET"

There are exceptions like the XQD and the ETHERNET PORT and the WI-FI, 802.11b,g,d,n, and many other important facts. Like I said, if you want to know, just search and you'll find them on the other sites. One more thing, at least look at the CANON EOS 1 DX AND THE PRO 1 PRINTER TO GO WITH IT. THE CANON GEAR HAS QUITE A BIT TO OFFER AS WELL. But you don't want to wake up in the morning and say "WHAT-DID-I-DO? Who is this woman NO THAT'S ANOTHER STORY, SCRATCH THAT LAST SENTENCE. ... Joe Prete 

Ford Kristo , January 23, 2012; 02:50 A.M.

Joe: Verbose, without much significant content. And we can do without the sexist remarks.

JOE PRETE , January 23, 2012; 03:14 A.M.

LIKE I OFTEN SAY, YOU DON'T HAVE TO READ IT AND B/T/W YOU CAN BUY IT FIRST, THEN LEARN ABOUT IT. THERE IS A 20% RESTOCKING FEE. ... JOE PRETE

Ford Kristo , January 24, 2012; 01:57 A.M.

I think you should get your keyboard checked, Joe. You seem to have a sticking Caps Lock key.

JOE PRETE , January 24, 2012; 04:37 A.M.

Yes I Know, I have fixed this one many times, but it is very difficult to use at times. I just blew an air can through it so, it'll work ok for a few hours. It's only about 3 years old, it's just a macbook. I use the m.b. PRO only for pictures and I have a 2 year old IMAC the 27" but it's the worst for color calibration. I keep hearing that the little one for $599 is good for photo's, but what screen? Do you know? Please tell me if you do, This ones got to go and then I can shuffle them around. Also, am I right about the little one? Thanks for the tip, but believe me I know! ,,, Joe Prete

JOE PRETE , January 24, 2012; 04:43 P.M.

SKYLER,

If you think the editor left out some of the specs, it's not his fault nikon has not provided any of with us all the information. this was my beef with them the whole time. the new message they sent me says that the information will be with the product, so i'll find out then. that's after i've spent the money. getting information from nikon is like a dentist pulling teeth. i'll have to print the cd to know all the features. I'm not here to argue with any of you, if any of us learns something, we should share it. we're all on the same team right?. ... joe prete

Ford Kristo , January 25, 2012; 02:04 A.M.

Joe, have a look at an Eizo ColourEdge CG275W 27" - its great for upper case.

Anthony Darling , January 25, 2012; 09:50 A.M.

 

My thanks to the members above who have added a good deal of interesting comment. I especially appreciate the efforts of Joe Prete who has injected a little humour (sorry that is English English-spelling) into what could be a bit dry to a non-Nikon user.

I am really surprised that the D4 is so similar on paper to the recently announced Canon 1 DX.

I am also surprised that Nikon would allow their country representatives to be so poorly informed and prepared to support the release. I suspect they have been obliged to react to the Canon release and the CES timing. But they must have known about the latter for months.

Canon appears to have put real effort into introducing the EOS1 DX at least in the UK market. They sent members of the CPS a link to a series of UK made videos describing in detail the new features of this camera.

But in the end as Joe says, you are voting for a system when you buy either the D4 or the 1 DX.

I don't expect there will be a rush to switch systems based on the technical differences or that small price differences and release dates will have any effect 6 months down the line.

Perhaps we should step back and see the releases as signs that there is still a fairly level playing field and a competitive element driving progress to our benefit. I am still a bit worried that the similarity looks like there may be some cross sharing of development.

But in a tough commercial world the weaker runners are falling away, I suspect a parallel with the auto industry with shared engines and other components amongst the survivors may be all we can expect in future.

Frank Skomial , February 05, 2012; 09:55 P.M.

"Shun, you totally forgot to mention that the AF points are 1 stop more sensitive in low light"  - actually Shun mentioned this in a more meaningful or practical  way. Just re-read the text.   

jeffery brown , February 06, 2012; 03:20 A.M.

Joe... i cant help but wonder what you shoot with?

JOE PRETE , May 02, 2012; 01:29 A.M.

Jeff Brown, Was that question for me? I shoot with Nikon D700's and a D300 for the additional focal length when I need it. I'm still using the Mamiya 645PRO W/Motor drive & TTL Meter finder (No AF, No Digital or video) But it still works fine, and believe it or not, some people still Insist on Film! Sorry, I didn't know there was a question waiting for me and I've been busy with other things. Nikon sent me Information packs several weeks ago, and yes, the D4 does use Ethernet and an IP Address can be assigned to it for communication and remote operation. This means it's a web device itself. A decent step forward. An FYI: Even in the build sheet, it does not specify that the USB is 2.0 (like they first said) or 3.0 It just says USB for fast transfer rate.

One thing that I find consistent with Nikon: They never know certain things that a builder and/or Designer must know. That leads me to believe that Outsourcing is alive and doing well in the camera business. To give you an idea, I've been told (and I've seen it in print) that over 50% of the Integrated circuits (IC) In use in the world today were stamped out on NIKON's IC STEPPERS. If you consider how many Steppers they produce, you'll see that it is possible. You can find more information on the D4 at Brian Tobey's site, PhotographyBay and whatdigitalcamera and of course dpreview. 

 

JOE PRETE , May 05, 2012; 05:39 A.M.

Just a quick follow up comment on the Nikon D4. First, the Ethernet port does means the camera can be assigned an I.P. Address, and can function as an internet Device. It is also sharing several functions with the IPHONE including firing the camera from the phone. There are apparently many more functions, but it seems the users need to discover them. Important: The XQD cards have been attainable through mail order and there are at least 3 people I know that were easily able to obtain the new media, which is in between the size of the CF & the SDHC. These cards are much more durable and all connections are internal, thereby easier to use and harder to misuse. It is a much advanced, faster and larger storage media. I predict that other cameras will be changing soon as this is now clearly the media of the future.

The USB first called 2.0 in the original Spec sheet, is now only referred to as "High Speed USB " but does not indicate if it's the new 3.0 USB.  I will keep you posted as the information becomes available. Just from these updates here, this Camera is looking much better as we go along and more information becomes available. ... Joe Prete 

JOE PRETE , May 06, 2012; 06:53 A.M.

Just one more thing...... I just read a review a couple of hours ago at photographyblog.com, of course I had to comment, they were comparing the Nikon D4 to the FUJI PRO X1 (and some respectable cameras, but clearly not in the same class at all, sans the D3) it's not just that, the fact that they're doing a review NOW, we were reviewing that camera in January! What are these people thinking? maybe they want to do the review when the camera is well into it's sales cycle, or better yet, when the new one comes out. YEAH, we can read the review when it's time to trade it in for the next model! I've been punching holes in the papers that were written, (both inside & outside reviewers) but I have a complete folder already, Dozens of papers, photos (of and by) and these people are writing about it now. And it's not due to lack of content, every time I check my "in" box, there's a new photo product to review. I don't get it. What have these people been doing? It's hardly news at this point. Just look at some of the dates above. ... Joe Prete

Brent Schmider , February 01, 2014; 04:36 P.M.

I shot with the D3s for a variety of types from Sports to weddings and even portraits. When I upgraded to the D4 I found that it is far and away a more superior camera. over the D3s. Not that the D3s is bad, I just found the image quality is so much better with the D4. When closely looking at the images up close in Lightroom4 you can see the noise difference is BIG time better in the D4. Auto focus has improved, HDR, and weight all make the D4 a much better camera. but would I upgrade from the D3s, Not unless I was working for say Sports Illustrated or making big money  with it.


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