Nikon D4 overview
Like its predecessor, the Nikon D4 looks as if it’s going to be an incredibly impressive camera. Nikon has looked to its professional user-base and tried to work out what it needed to add or adjust on a camera that just a couple of years ago represented the best they were capable of. The result is a camera with few big changes but a extensive series of small improvements.
The biggest change is, of course, the improvement in video capabilities. Given the increasing demand for video footage from professional photographers, and the incredible success of Canon’s 5D Mark II in the professional video market, it was inevitable that Nikon’s pro flagship would need to offer a more compelling feature set than the existing models.
Beyond this, the changes to the stills-shooting specifications are relatively modest – there’s a higher-resolution, 16.2MP, full-frame CMOS sensor and the ability to shoot at 10 frames per second with autofocus, but that’s about it. The new chip’s capability has prompted Nikon to offer an ISO range from 100-12,800 that can then be extended to 50 – 204,800 (Hi4). The significant changes, beyond video, are a profusion of smaller tweaks, additions and improvements to what was already a well worked-out camera.
The biggest technical changes are the addition of a 91,000 pixel ‘metering’ sensor, replacing the 1005 pixel example used up until now. This sensor is used for much more than just metering, playing a key role in subject tracking, white balance and ‘Active D-lighting’ (a trick Canon seems impressed with, given the appearance of a similar system in the 1DX). The higher-resolution sensor allows the camera to offer face detection when shooting through the optical viewfinder.
Then there are the ergonomic changes to the camera’s body. Again like Canon’s 1DX, moves have been made to make the ergonomics of portrait-orientation shooting more closely resemble those of shooting in landscape format. The camera no longer features a dedicated AFL button, instead gaining push-button joysticks for both the vertical and landscape shooting orientations. An additional rubberized lump has also been added to provide a better grip in the vertical orientation and an additional function button added next to the vertical shutter button.
- 16.2 effective megapixel, full-frame sensor (16.6MP total)
- 10fps shooting with AF and AE, 11fps with focus and exposure locked, 24fps 2.5MP grabs
- 91,000 pixel sensor for metering, white balance, flash exposure, face detection and active d-lighting
- ISO Range 100-12,800 (extendable from 50 – 204,800)
- MultiCAM 3500FX Autofocus sensor works in lower light and with smaller apertures
- Two sub-selector joystick/buttons for shooting orientation
- 1080p30 HD video at up to 24Mbps with uncompressed video output
- New EN-EL18 battery (21.6Wh capacity, CIPA-rated at 2600 shots)
- Twin card slots – one Compact Flash and one XQD
The D4 has a new autofocus sensor and, while its headline improvement is that it can now focus in lower light, this isn’t the only step forward. The sensor module has also been redesigned to enable it to operate with slower lenses (and lens/teleconverter combinations that give slower effective apertures). As before, with lenses of f5.6 or faster, 15 of its 51 AF points act as cross-type: sensitive to both horizontal and vertical detail. The 9 central focus points will continue as cross type when used with lenses with a maximum aperture of between f5.6 and f8. And, in a step forward for the range, the D4’s central AF point will still operate as a cross-type point with lens or lens/converter combinations with a maximum aperture of f8. In addition 10 AF points retain horizontal sensitivity at this aperture.
Nikon has made a series of changes to the ergonomics of the D4 – representing some of the biggest changes to the body shape of this series of cameras. The first change many existing Nikon users will spot is that the D4’s shutter button now sits at a different angle, compared to previous models (apparently 35deg is more comfortable than 28deg, for long periods spent shooting).
There are a couple of changes to functions, mainly brought over from more lowly Nikon DSLRs. These include the addition of a button to the AF mode selector switch. Pressing this button and spinning a dial changes the AF area mode. The D4 also loses its metering mode selection switch from the viewfinder hump – it’s now one of the three functions controlled by the cluster on the left-hand shoulder of the camera. There’s also an additional button to the left of the camera’s LCD, with the D4 finally adopting the company’s separate zoom in/zoom out button behavior in live view and playback that has swept across the rest of the range.
The biggest changes, however, come for shooters using the camera in the portrait orientation. The ergonomics have been re-worked to better resemble the camera’s primary controls, with an extra (rubberized) lump on the camera’s back, to give more steady support. A function button has also been added, just beside the portrait shutter button, to give quick access to more functions. Most noticeably, though, the portrait orientation also gains a ‘sub-selector’ joystick to make AF point selection as convenient in portrait format shooting as it is with the camera held in landscape orientation.
Auto ISO improvements
Nikon has for a long time offered a degree of control over its Auto ISO settings, allowing the user to specify a minimum shutter speed that the camera should aim to maintain by raising the ISO. However shooters using zoom lenses, or worried about camera shake rather than freezing the action, may prefer a minimum shutter speed that relates to the focal length in use, rather than specifying an absolute figure. This has been resolved on the D4, with an Auto ISO system that detects the lens’ focal length. When this is activated by setting the minimum shutter speed to ‘Auto’, the user can then also bias the program towards using slower shutter speeds and lower ISOs, or faster shutter speeds and higher ISOs, in five steps.
The D4 gains a feature that many D3 and D3S owners are likely to have found themselves hoping for: illuminated controls. Given the D3’s popularity for low-light work, and the further capability that the D3S brought, the ability to see the controls in the extremely low light levels that these cameras could operate in risked becoming an issue. With a maximum sensitivity of ISO 204,800 equivalent, it becomes even more pressing for the D4.
All the buttons immediately around the screen are now illuminated, as are the three on the cluster on the camera’s left-hand shoulder. The white stripe above the mode dial also lights up, though it’s not obvious how well this will illuminate the mode wheel. If it prevents the accidental engagement of Continuous Hi or Self Timer modes when you’re trying to select quiet shutter mode in a theatre or live music venue, that will be extremely welcome. Illumination is activated using the ‘light’ position on the power switch and the camera can be configured so that just the buttons (rather than the buttons and the status LCD panels) light up.
The parallel advances made in sensor technology and Internet video distribution have helped create the ability to capture and broadcast video footage. In turn this has put pressure on many professional photographers to capture clips alongside their stills. In addition, the broadcast and movie industries have adopted the 5D Mark II to a degree that appears to have surprised even Canon. As a result, it’s not surprising that the 4D features more advanced, and better integrated, video capabilities than its predecessor. The immediate giveaway should probably be the inclusion not just of a mic input socket by a headphone output for monitoring the results (both of which have adjustable input/output levels).
The D4 can shoot 1080p movies at 30, 25 or 24 frames per second and at up to 24Mbps. The video is compressed using the B-frame compression section of the H.264 standard, which tries to optimize the capture of motion without hugely inflating the file sizes. It also has manually configurable volume control, including a line-level audio option. However, what may prove to be the camera’s biggest feature is the ability to export its uncompressed video footage via its HDMI port. We suspect that this feature, beyond all others, may help endear the camera to the broadcast and movie crowd. Whether using this for recording the camera’s best quality footage or to use an external monitor as viewfinder, it’s a feature we expect to become increasingly common.
A number of small details show how carefully Nikon has listened to the needs of movie shooters, giving the option to start movies either with a record button or with the shutter button (which, in turn, allows video capture to be started with the 10-pin cable release). Photojournalists meanwhile, get to pick whether pressing the shutter interrupt the video capture to take a still or to take a full-frame 3:2 aspect ratio 2.5MP frame grab.
Movies can also be shot at three different crops from the sensor, which Nikon is describing as FX, DX and 2.7X (native 1920×1080). This makes it easy to vary the field-of-view for grabbing footage, even if you’ve got a prime lens mounted. However, the ‘FX’ size is a significantly cropped version of the full sensor (it’s 91% of the sensor’s width), so the field-of-view will be a little narrower than you’d expect for any given focal length. Also the native 1920×1080 video will be higher quality than the FX and DX versions, since it hasn’t been downsized. This difference is likely to be incredibly small (almost certainly irrelevant for most users), but is a consideration for high-end video users.
The D4 gains improved aperture control in movie mode, with the addition of ‘Power aperture’. This simply means that the user can adjust the aperture while recording video in the A and M exposure modes. It’s also possible to set the aperture much more precisely in video live view mode before recording starts, in 1/8 stop incrementss using the Pv and Fn buttons on the front of the camera. In principle this should allow more exact matching of recording brightness across multiple camera / lens combinations.
The D4 becomes the first camera to make use of the new XQD cards, created by the Compact Flash Association. The XQD slot sits alongside a conventional CF slot, and the camera retains all its options for writing and backing-up to its two slots. The new format is not only smaller but also potentially faster than conventional CF cards. And, while few people are likely to be delighted by the arrival of another new format, the speed benefits (up to around 125MB/s) should be enough to persuade shooters not to just leave the slot empty.
Image processing features
With the camera’s more powerful processors, the D4 adds more processing options, including a time lapse movie creator. This builds on the camera’s existing interval timer mode, compiling all the frames together into a full HD movie at the end. However, a fixed playback rate (meaning long-interval shoots end up being super sped-up) and its failure to save the individual frames may limit its appeal.
In a feature taken from other models in the range, the D4 gains in-camera HDR processing, with a choice of the number of frames used and a parameter for how gently all that extra data is incorporated.
Upgraded LCD monitor
The D4’s LCD monitor has been upgraded compared to the D3S – it’s a slightly larger 3.2″ 921000 dot unit, but according to Nikon has a substantially expanded colour gamut that’s close to sRGB. It also has a light sensor to detect ambient light levels, and adjust not only the screen brightness, but also the saturation, contrast and gamma as well, in an attempt to give optimized output. The monitor also has a gel resin between the LCD and the cover glass to minimise any risk of fogging when the camera is exposed to rapid changes of temperature.
WT-5 Wireless Transmitter with web-browser camera control interface
With the D4 comes a new WiFi transmitter, the WT-5, which is a neat little unit that screws onto the side of the body and draws it’s power from the camera’s battery. Its real party trick, though, is a built-in web browser-based remote camera control interface that doesn’t require you to download or install a specialized app. Essentially, you can log into your camera (with a username and password) using your laptop, tablet or smartphone and its standard web browser, at which point you’re presented with a camera control panel with live view feed. You can adjust a wide range of parameters – exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, ISO, white balance and so on, and initiate remote shutter release or video recording.
The web interface also allows you to control multiple cameras simultaneously, including the ability to release their shutters simultaneously. You can even autofocus anywhere in the scene, simply by touching your iPhone or iPad’s screen. Because this is all web-based, you don’t have to physically close to the camera either – in principle you could operate it from a different continent.
Nikon has clearly paid attention to professional photographers’ workflow requirements when shooting, and has tried to set the camera up so there’s no need to use a laptop alongside it any more. To this end the D4 allows photographers to add full IPTC data to all of their image files as they shoot, and can store 10 data presets each containing 14 fields. There’s a new network setup wizard to configure the camera for use over wired LAN, or WiFi in FTP and HTTP mode. The camera can even use the GP-1 GPS receiver to automatically set its internal clock, so multiple cameras can easily be synced and specific events from a shoot identified by the time at which they occurred.
Nobody would have reasonably expected the D4 to be a radical departure from the D3S – at this ‘the best we can do without the cost becoming incredible’ end of the market, it’s unusual to see huge leaps forward. Equally it’s no great shock that movie capability would be the focus of the biggest changes to the camera. But little touches such as lit buttons and, in theory at least, improved low-light focusing suggest Nikon has tried to make an even better low-light camera than its predecessor. And, as anyone who’s ever shot with a D3S will tell you, that’s a pretty exciting prospect.
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