Nikon D4 Pre-Production Review
by Richard Peters, January 2012
As a Nikon shooter and self confessed gadget geek, it doesn’t get much better than being asked by Wex Photographic to try out one of only a handful of pre-production units of the latest flagship DSLR out of the Nikon stable, the D4, ahead of its worldwide release. During the course of my two and half hour one-to-one with a Nikon NPS product specialist and the D4, I had the chance to play around with the camera, test out the built in wireless interface with the WT-5, connect up my 600 VR and 2x to see how the f8 auto focus performs, ask a few questions and generally talk all things D4. I wasn’t able to take any images away with me that I took with the camera, because it’s a pre-production unit and as such, it’s not running final firmware, but I did also get a brief look at the new XQD memory cards from Sony.
There has been quite a lot documented about the D4 already, and so I won’t go on about everything it has to offer. Instead below you’ll find my impressions on handling the camera, and some thoughts on a few of the features that stood out to me and the questions I asked about them, including how the high ISO compares to the D3s – which seems to be the most frequently asked question right now! It’s worth keeping in mind that because this was a pre-production camera not running final firmware, not all the specifics and detailed info has been released yet, outside of the inner depths of Nikon Japan, and as such there are some things we simply won’t know until the camera is officially released and people start testing it out for themselves.
Some little tweaks and features
- Auto-ISO users (myself included) will be happy to know you can now turn the feature on and off by holding down the ISO button on the back of the camera and turning the front control wheel.
- The menu graphics have all been enhanced. Not massively, but it’s just subtle enough to help show off that all new 3.2″ LCD screen which can now be set to auto-adjust, to help give you optimal viewing in changing light conditions.
- The D4 is now covered in thermal paint to help further protect it from extreme temperatures.
- Switching from landscape to portrait or vice versa, you can now set the camera to auto switch the focus point when you do so. For example, if you’re a wildlife shooter and are shooting a horizontal image with the third focus point up from middle resting over the subject’s eye, but then you decide to switch to vertical, the focus point will automatically jump to what is now the third one up from middle again, rather than you having to manually use the multi-selector on the back to adjust the focus point to match where it was before.
- Virtual Horizon supports two axes to detect tilt and pan.
- The majority of the buttons are all a little smaller.
- The lens align dot is now larger and raised, rather than just painted on – which matches the style of the corresponding dot on newer lenses, making reference for attachment of lenses easier in low light.
- The dial for selecting single shot, continuous low, high and timer now has a more notched feel when twisting between modes. My D3s is smooth meaning there is no tactile reference as you turn the dial.
- The new carbon shutter, rated at 400,000 actuations, has a slightly quieter sound to my ear. Where the D3s has a bit of a metallic ‘chink’, the D4 has a slightly duller ‘clunk’. Hard to describe, but definitely a difference. I’d also say it feels more responsive, and when firing off a burst of shots it feels like it just doesn’t want to stop (and with that new buffer than can handle 70+ RAWs, it doesn’t need to!).
For the video users
Given I’m a still shooter first and foremost, I didn’t go too in depth with video side as it’s not something I’m overly familiar with yet. The D4 has seen a big boost in video features, and this is apparent in the menu system where we now have a ‘G’ set of menus (before it went up to F) dedicated to just the video side of things. A few bits of info I noted down include:
- Audio gain can be adjusted independently for microphone and headphones
- You can now add index marking to video (much like chapter points on a DVD), although it appears there is no time code.
- In conjunction with the GP-1, video can have GPS coordinates and accurate time (UTC) embedded in the EXIF (as opposed to the time set in-camera). This means D4 video could be used as evidence in court.
- New crop mode on video shouldn’t impact on quality, so if you are cutting from one shot to the next between the crop modes, it should look seamless in terms of image quality.
- You can embed data in to IPTC fields now so that video clips can be catalogued straight from the camera with more ease.
Size and controls
If you already use a D3s (or D3) you’ll feel right at home with the D4. It’s like an old friend, but one that’s been to the gym. There are subtle differences in the layout and overall form factor, and in fact it was explained to me that there are only three things shared between the older D3s and the new D4; the physical sensor size, the F mount and the 100% viewfinder coverage. Everything else has been redesigned. The end result is a camera with a slightly different shaped profile, with the prism housing appearing lower and more streamlined (a result of the rest of the body being a little taller either side of it) and some tweaked button layouts.
Included in those button tweaks are the fact we have now lost the AE/F-L button, and in its place we have one of two new multi-selectors which are rubberised for easy grip. These are four way joysticks that can also be clicked down, giving you an extra button which can be customised. The second of these new multi-selectors is lower down the body, meaning there is now a way of changing auto focus points easily when in portrait orientation. And on that subject, we now also have that new thumb grip at the bottom of the camera. From looking at the images online I expected this to just be a slightly contoured piece of rubber, but in reality it’s actually a nub which protrudes out from the body. The end result, is when holding the D4 in portrait, the camera now rests far more comfortably in your hand. Picking up my D3s and then the D4 side by side really showed off just how much more comfortable this nub makes holding the D4 vertically. Portrait and wedding shooters are going to love it!
The D4 also feels a bit chunkier than it’s predecessor, and this is most noticeable (to me at least, with my small hands) on the front grip of the camera. Where as the D3s has quite a slender front grip, the D4 feels much chunkier, and indeed this was exaggerated further when I tried to press the Mode button that sits at the top, next to the Exposure Compensation button, just behind the shutter button. On the D3s my finger quite easily sits on top of the Mode button when I need to press it, but now, with Nikon’s latest flagship camera, it doesn’t and I have to actively stretch my finger across to press it down. This is because there is now a dedicated video record button near the shutter release (which my finger does fall on nicely), and this has pushed the Mode and Exposure Compensation buttons further apart.
How much better is the high ISO compared to the D3s?
Obviously the big question on everyone’s lips as it’s not widely documented yet. The answer is, ‘on paper’, one stop over the D3s in the comparable ISO ranges. However, with the new Expeed 3 processor and the way it processes and handles the sensor data, in actual use it may feel like more than that. And what does that mean? Well, simply put, it’s like the difference between the D3 and the D3s which is around 1 to 1/2 stops, but when you compare the images from both cameras, the D3s images just have a different feel to them and the noise is more aesthetically pleasing than simply being a stop or so better. I didn’t upgrade my D3 to a D3s for a year initially because I thought one stop wasn’t going to make much difference, but once I used one and realised it wasn’t just about the measurable number, but how that translated to the actual images, I switched. And so that’s what we should hopefully see here with the D4, that although it’s ‘only’ one stop better, the files it produces should have a more aesthetically appealing look to them that goes beyond a measurable ISO figure.
Certainly from my play with the camera, the images on the back LCD looked great, and ISO 12800 looked pretty impressive. But, I have to stress I was only able to view images on the back of the camera, and I was forcing the ISO up as it was quite bright, so this isn’t an accurate measure of anything. And again, I wasn’t able to take any images taken with the camera away with me because I was using a pre-production sample.
Improved focusing and a 91,000 pixel RGB meter
We’ve all heard the marketing talk that the D4 can auto focus in moonlight with its ability to focus in light levels as low as -2EV, compared to -1EV of previous cameras. And that’s because although the D4 uses the same Multi-Cam 3500 system from the previous generation cameras, it has been improved by way of far better quality glass on the front of the auto focus unit itself. What that means is it’s able to allow more light in, and more light means better focusing acquisition and speed; in fact 20% faster than the D3s (the D3s had 40% faster focus than the D3, as an added fun fact). Basically, what was already an incredible focusing system is now even more incredible. Combine this with the new 91,000 pixel metering, which is a huge advance in the 1005 pixel metering of the D3s, and you should see a far improved 3D focus mode that tracks contrasting colours far better than ever before, as well as providing far more accurate exposure for backlit scenes or ones with huge areas of dark or light.
F8 auto focus, tested with the 600 VR and 2x TC
Wildlife photographers will love this. One of the benefits of the improved focusing system is of course that we now get auto focus at f8. I took my 600 VR and 2x TC along with me to try this out, and it’s looking promising. A quick hand held test, pointing the camera up the road showed a definite improvement in the ability for this lens combo to lock on and the speed in which it does. At 1200mm my ability to hold the camera still handheld isn’t rock solid, but even still the camera had no trouble locking focus on the cars way up the road, and then switching to closer objects. I experienced virtually no focus hunting at all, but of course the real test will come with small birds and unpredictable moving animals. But, yes, I could certainly see an improvement already, and it’s one I’m looking forward to really testing out properly because of course it’s not just focus with the TC20-EIII that will improve, but the focus reliability with all the teleconverters, and those with slower lenses.
Why do the focus points not go further to the edge of the screen?
A lot of people have said they’d like to see the focus points reach further out to the edge of the viewfinder, myself included. One reason is that it would ‘chop off’ focus points when using the DX crop mode. I must admit I had almost forgotten DX mode existed as I have never used it, but if you do use it I can appreciate it might be frustrating if doing so rendered half of the focus modes of no use because not all the focus points were in the usable field of view.
Why no in built wifi?
Like many others, there was a part of me that wondered if we might start to see built-in wifi with this generation of camera, and so I asked why this didn’t happen. It comes down to the different standards for wifi channels and frequencies used for different countries. Incorporating wifi would mean creating bodies for different countries, whereas having wifi on the external WT-5 means the bodies can all be the same and the differences in standards for each country can be implemented in an add-on. Given that these pro cameras travel all over the world, and, in a worst case scenario may need to be taken to an NPS repair centre outside of the country it was purchased in when on a shoot, I can appreciate the benefit of having a ‘universal’ body under the hood.
As well as the built in intervalometer (or interval shooting mode) we also now have a time lapse mode. In this mode, the D4 will automatically render out the final time lapse in to a H264 .MOV file. Unlike the interval shooting mode (which is still available), in time lapse mode it doesn’t keep the stills as the camera effectively renders the movie as it captures the data, so it’s great for those that don’t want to have the hassle of editing later – for those that do want more control, you can still use the interval shooting mode. Either mode is limited to 999 shots, so it would be nice to see that increased to 9999 in a firmware update.
This is a fantastic optional extra, in conjunction with the D4, it allows you to create an ad-hoc wireless connection between the camera and any mobile device that has a web browser. The way this works is that the software is already built in to the D4, and the WT-5 lets your device sign in to that and view it. So, if you’re a wildlife photographer, you can be miles from anywhere and still have wireless control of your camera complete with Live View. The software gives you control over pretty much all of the major functions of the camera; aperture, shutter, ISO, shooting mode etc, plus you get an exposure meter as well. You can use the software to start and stop Live View, meaning you don’t need to leave it up constantly and can trigger it when needed, which is great for conserving battery power. You can view all the images you have taken direct from the card via the interface and if you decide you want to save one, you can, and have it sent to the phone or device you’re using. Then, once you have access to an Internet connection (or if you have a 3G one) you can email it wherever it needs to go. I imagine this will be popular with the press as it’s such a discrete and easy to use system.
Connection speeds and range are not yet confirmed on the WT-5, but for reference, the older model it replaces (the WT-4) had a line of sight range of approximately 260m (838 ft) using 802.11a and 180m (590 ft) over 802.11b/g, so you can expect similar (and hopefully improved) performance. It’s also unclear yet if you will be able to shoot in burst mode via the interface, but this is of course an option via the Camera Control Pro 2 software, so hopefully we’ll see it make an appearance via the built-in wireless software soon or in the future with a firmware update. Oh and you can also connect up to ten WT-5 enabled cameras together, to trigger them all at once.
As a final treat, I was able to have a look at a pre-production model of the new XQD memory card. This has been a sticking point with a lot of potential new owners either not wanting a camera that takes dual format storage or simply thinking it was a bad move to adopt the new technology so soon. Time will tell. But with its theoretical much higher read and write speeds, and cameras creating bigger and bigger files, I thought it was only a matter of time before something new came along. The way I see it, we had to have a camera ‘ease us in’ to the new format.
‘In the flesh’ the XQD card was actually bigger and thicker than I was expecting, which was a welcome surprise. From the images I’d seen I was worried it would be a fairly small card, not much bigger than SD. But in reality it’s quite a bit beefier and felt very solid and robust. It works the same as SD in that in order to eject it, you push down on the card and it pops up. It was certainly a nice way to round up my time with the D4.
Obviously having only spent a couple of hours with the D4, it’s impossible to give a definitive verdict on it. But during my time talking to Nikon we covered lots of questions, some could be answered and some couldn’t (understandably, the inner circles at Nikon Japan simply don’t release some info until the very last minute). I came away feeling that the D4 is certainly much more of a step up from the D3s than it appears at first glance from the on-paper specs, and I’m certainly more excited than ever about getting my hands on my own one when it’s released in a few weeks time.
About the author
Richard Peters is a professional photographer based in London, whose main interest is wildlife and nature photography. As well as taking his own images, Richard has been on the judging panel for photography competitions for both the BBC and Nikon Europe. He blogs at http://www.richardpeters.co.uk/blog/