No camera will make you a professional photographer. Never the less we have been waiting to see the D4 for a long time, was it worth the wait? In a word: No, not on your nelly.* (*London slang for no never!)
Shooter 1 got his hands on the new Nikon D4, the latest incarnation of “top of the range” the flagship in Nikon’s professional Camera line, (we got the camera via an old friend who was given one to evaluate by the company and who may be “killed” by Nikon if they figure out who he/she is after they read this review). Our man, pushed even button, tried every feature and ran a few hundred test shots across a wide range of subjects and lighting, all in comparison with some other top professional cameras. When he got back at Photography-Factory’s London HQ, we all sat about looked at the results in obsessive detail and finally talked long into the night about what a real top of the top professional camera should have, today in 2012. After that we had a look online at what people have been saying about this new camera and… Wow! The hype and the spin around this very unexciting offering was gut churning, so we thought we would immediately publish a full review on the Nikon D4; coming as a group of working professional photographers and not as journalists, or tech writers. These are strait talking views, with a few suggestions and ideas for you to consider, if you like and…. if any camera makers would like to talk to us, feel free to call, we are happy to share patents ideas guys, no stealing though ; ). 8th Jan 2012.
What is it? It is big, solid, ruggedised, state of the art, professional tool that can make the most precise calculations and then act instantly, sort of the “action hero” of the camera world. When you cannot fail, you will reach for the D4. It will hardly ever mess up your shot, it is tough, drilled and it is disciplined. If an out of focus shot is not an option D4! It almost loves the situations that make other cameras give up squealing for their mama. Low light, sand, rain, extreme cold or humidity, “difficult” changing lighting, super fast moving low contrast subject, into the sun, even the odd explosion, smash and grab hyaena press pack, it can handle a n y t h i n g – it feels a pity to take it out of the box for less. Though it “only” has 16 MPs, we will review it for all-around use and studio, as we all know that this will be the exact basis for the D4x, that will have 25+ megapixels, (a little bird told us). So what is wrong with it?
1. Ergonomics. The D4 is the camera that sets the standard for handling… i.e. it is almost exactly the same as the D3x… which is to say they could still be a lot better. We have always found the D1/2/3/4 shape is a little clumsy for people with big or small hands but the important stuff is where you can find it: a little easier than Canon or Sony. Modern digital SLR camera shape is a legacy feature handed down from a time when film had to go into cameras and wind across the back and be wound up again, this is not needed anymore! So the shape could change around the real needs of a DSLR and the people that use one every day: comfort, balance and ease of control. You will get comfortable with the classic layout in time, millions have. The button size, feel and pattern is fair. Menus: there is a lot to pack in here, there is little typical user consideration in the menus structure (the general way that people navigate to a feature) is not based on the way photographers think or common access need order, but just grouped by importance priority and by section within in the menu trees. At least if the menu hierarchy were fully customisable it would be a start, we (the users) could just make our best custom menu profile available on line or download someone else’s if it were better, that would be letting the public do the work, but I bet the guys and girls at Nikon might learn a thing or two. Once again as with Nikons latest offerings, in the D4 you can only set up custom modes. Canon is a lot better here. It does have a new joystick controller that is way better than the old one, but joysticks are quite 90’s tech. Nikon have back lit the buttons (AT LAST!!!) and you can link your iPad etc with an HTTP mode with the wireless controller WT5 accessory; that should have been included and built in to a slot in the body. The iPad software looked pants to us, but we have not seen it up close (pants is more british slang meaning – crap)
2. LCD Screen. The screen is also a slight improvement on the D3 about 6% bigger and a bit more res @ and it has very good anti refection coatings (alas often pointless as most macho D4 type pros I see, put an anti scratch-film on the LCD) The back screen has a thermal break gel between the glass layers, instead of just air, to prevent fogging in super cold or humid locations (i.e. england and japan). So, why oh why is the whole back of the camera not a lovely big LCD? We are photographers BTW and generally we like to see the super high quality images we shoot, properly, at a glance with out zooming too much. There is a ton of space, when you look at the back of the camera all you see is the button areas on the back that could just be touch screen, when needed as input and screen when you are reviewing images (like an iPhone guys). Touch screens are a little dead but the camera could just have a little clicker or vibrate: so you know when you have actually pressed something. If a bigger screen sucks too much battery: it could be dim until a face looks at it, (i.e. put a little low res/consumption back facing camera that has face recognition, when it sees you looking at the screen it can turn up the brightness and try and guess what you would like to see next from you expression!) Hell while you are at it how about speech recognition for the most important 30 hi-speed situation commands? “full auto on!” “AE lock” “lighter” “burst mode”….. Also a live-view monitor feature is badly compromised, if the screen can’t tilt a little, and the D4 can’t tilt at all: you are almost never sitting or standing with your face at the same hight as the camera back for a perfect 90 degree head on view, of course it should tilt up a bit and maybe down a bit at the very least, especially when the camera is on a tripod and you can’t get down to the viewfinder. come on Nikon this one is so easy and it could be done so as to be almost just as flat when not in use and would add 12 grams. Also if you think the moving screen is not macho enough, you could always have it flip all the way over and become just tough plastic back with a few buttons for real rough stuff. The D4 view finder is brilliant, as it should be at that price, it makes almost every other DSLR camera look claustrophobic.
3. Low light performance. The C moss sensor and the processing engine work together to make this the best Camera in low light out there today. The scene/Af/meter now has 91,000 pixel sensor of it’s own and really never misses even when it is too dark to see! It is fast and locks on every time – probably the single real best reason to buy this camera. Nikon have missed a few tricks, but it would take half the night to explain why the camera needs a built in scatter burst laser pointer to evaluate reflectivity at distance in the dark, but what the hell, I just shoot a second bracket shot like everybody else. I think, owl photographers, paparazzi hiding in bushes at 3am and night club photographers will be pretty much overjoyed in this area. Video at night is surreal, and starlight stuff photography almost possible. Win!
4. Video. Full HD uncompressed – nice, the results look slightly better than the Canon 5DmkII especially if the detail is complex, the skin tones are brilliant by comparison and as good as RED or PANASONICs $50k offerings (actually the skin tones are much better in stills performance too) But where the hell is a slow motion Mode??, Nikon have one of the best and fastest processing engines in the world on this camera it would have taken just a firm wear tweak to get real 500+ fps Slow motion vIdeo at a decent resolution. possibly by bust dumping though the cache, maybe just for few seconds of slow mo, (but hey, how much SM do you need?) Oh Nikon, if Casio can do this on a $200 camera… We love slo mo just look at some of our SM tests on this website. http://www.photography-factory.co.uk/photographyreviews/gallery/slow-motion-films/we-dont-shoot-weddings/ It does however have a very usable time laps mode, this is menu driven and can shoot an image sequence that will be saved as a Video file. The range goes from 1 frame per second all the way up to something like 1 frame every 25 minuets or 36,000 faster than real life (at 24fps playback), the possibilities are endless: maybe you could film the almost inevitable fall of western civilisation over the summer and watch it back over a coffee and bagel?
5. Picture quality. Super duper, let me just say film is now finally dead. The latitudes are HDR like at the lower end of the curve, the shadow detail is amazing, the skin tones the best of any SLR, I just have to say the image quality was a knock out. We shot back to back with a H4 Hassleblad, a D3x and a Canon 5dII and it has the best of them all: in terms of the basics of image quality. The new sensor / processing engine just ate up everything we could think of (low light large colour areas, bands and gratings, tiny hazy blue-green detail that always messes with the algorithms. But the differences are very slight, between all good cameras and the previous models, if quality matters to you it matters a lot. All the standard cmos “big chip” woes are significantly reduced, ringing, fringing, pit to pit light spill, local contrast retention effects are below 25 millisecond. It is a great setup form the ground up, but hell what do we expect it is Nikon’s best and most expensive camera bar none? It should be sorted. If I had a complaint it might be that they could incorporate a sort of “one frame HDR type latitude boost” feature in the camera with out a second shutter actuation, a double burst frame?, sort of a Raw+, hell it is almost there anyway with the existing HDR, just that it is no use if the subject is in movement and that the kind of what this Camera is all about? Maybe the question is why has it taken this long to make a chip that feels like you are getting most of the colour detail that film cameras were getting 30 years ago?
6. Auto focus. The Nikon D4 has the best AF in the world, bar none; The “Multi-CAM 3500FX, with 51 Af points” . This is THE deal breaker when choosing Nikon over Canon. This camera never seems to mess up focus, even in candle light, it is like a stealth helicopter gun system, god help those it has locked on to. Canon’s always seem to miss a few shots in the AF department, it might be a low as 1 in 50 but it is always THE one fame I like the most that is soft for some murphyistic reason. The D4 has facial recognition that works well, and finally, the face area is used as the basis for the focus, AND exposure and tone control (something Shooter One suggested in a coffee bar Brainstorm to the guy who heads up the Aperture team at Apple about 12 years ago!) There are so many variants of this basic tech, that could be taken in hundreds of Professional directions it is a bit disappointing that the camera can ONLY do face recognition, like a little $100 compact only a lot faster and dependably… there are a ton of “low lying fruit” modes here for the taking, that could be really great for Professional Photographers needs (and we are not talking just nipple recognition for the Britney paps (probably an idea worth about $500,000 a year to the right paparazzi)).
7. Resolution. 16.2 MP full frame cmos sensor – Ok we are not fools, anything over 10 mp is “enough”, but a 40mp camera blows away any 16mp SLR in certain common situations, thats just pixel horse power for ya. The D4 has about the best 16 megapixels I have ever seen, it is that good. But why not 32? the tech is there on the shelf, the chips exist as do the buffer and processing. We all wanted it yesterday….D4x? We shot most of our tests as 12 and 14 bit raw uncompressed to try and get the most direct information from the sensor, but we experimented with tiff and jpeg and to be honest unless you are in a colour critical situation jpeg at 1 to 4 compression is great. We found that this setting gave us a 180 frame burst into the buffer at full 11fps speed (an actual 10.7 frames per second by my stopwatch). If you look at some of the more detailed areas of the frame one thing is slightly strange, and that is the massive amounts of processing that are going on before the image is written even as a 14bit uncompressed raw, the work path id is full 16bit then the image processor does “stuff” to the image, this is all back room stuff and each brand has it’s own secret recipe for these unseen image adjustments. If you blow up shots with a lot of fine detail and look at these at 1 to 1 you will see that “identical shots” can be made to change how they handle the fine detail and colour just by turning the camera on and off, and recomposing very very slightly, this can occasionally fool the processor into thinking the scene needs a different algorithm and so the result in particular areas is suddenly very different. I guess there is always going to be a lot of black box tech that we must just accept, but I am slightly unsettled that I can’t know how rubbish those “cheaper” cmos chips actually might be, without all the hidden state of the art digital magic!
8. Connectivity. Ok the Nikon D4 has all the usual suspects and an ethernet connection; as they like to stream Video that way, in Japan. Not putting the new super super super fast thunderbolt in, for these big video files, and because we are professionals and our time is money, that omission seems stupid to me (not even USB3!). Thunderbolt makes the simple things faster too and supports an external monitor better than HDMI. Maybe it was the extra $8 who knows. Just buy the thunderbolt or USB3 card reader I guess. “best camera in the world? hmmm” Nikon added a XQD memory card slot. This is a new format card, but the read speeds are not all that much faster than the best CF cards, so why? So we buy a lot of new cards? Who has a XQD reader? I guess we will find out if this is a smart move at the same time Nikon do. Having a backup CF slot was a nice feeling, I guess you will have to buy at least one XQD card now; in case you bend a pin pushing a CF card in! Finally there is no Bluetooth (good for wireless headphones when shooting Video) and no GPS, the later seems a little ” Target market insensitive” when this camera is aimed at news, sports and wildlife shooters all of whom have a real need for GPS metadata in every image they take and sell.
9. Exposure. Does a great job 99.7% of the time and I am convinced that Nikon have the best exposure set up of any Camera maker, though the Canon EOS1 mkIII is superb here too. The Nikon can mess up, but lets face it, it is only a little computer trying to please all the people all the time… Still it is funny how the ambient meter on my 1963 Rolleiflex 2.8f is only about 1 or 2% worse in almost every situation and the meter on an old Nikon F4 is a probable halfway between the two and just as quick as the D4. There is a lot of progress in the scene recognition, but all that is achieved, is you need to think less…. I have a feeling all that computer power could be put to a lot cleverer ways of sorting out the trickier but common light situations, there is room for improvement. This camera, like every other I have ever tried, still messes up when the sun is in the frame, and just like my Rolleiflex.
10. Battery Life. The D4 uses a new bigger battery pack, the EN-EL18 is a nice Li ion unit. It slots along the bottom of the unit and snaps into place in a reassuring sort of VW golf kind of way. We got over 3k shots out of it, so you could probably get away with just 2 batteries even between two bodies. It uses a quick charger, and we stupidly did not time the recharge, it was about 40 mins ( a lot shorter than you could ever realistically burn though 3000 shots before the spare was dry)
Buying Advice. In a word there is no point buying this camera at this price, unless your daddy or boss is buying it. It should be half the price or a lot better than the D3x in major ways. The improvements over the D3 are Ok but there is no inovation at all. So what should you buy? For almost everyone, inc video heads: probably a pair of Canon 5DmkII (or the MKIII ; )) unless you are going to loose a low light money shot that might be worth the difference in price, i.e. in that “can’t do it again ever” situation were you need the best AF and exposure that there is: the Nikon D4. If you are the kind of professional photographer that would like something to take the ultimate picture, then a device with more MP res is what you need: (you might try a D3x or wait for the D4x but this is our suggestion) there are some brilliant digital medium format cameras out there now, and coming soon, that have serious pixel power and great lenses, people do not buy them in very great numbers because they are expensive, but if you have D4 money you would be in the running and your images would love you. However you might have to do some thinking on your feet compared to a D4, as they will almost certainly not have the state of the art focus and metering. We think the Pentax 645D is a tremendous camera for value v resolution, the big Blad (Hasselblad 200MP H4D to you and me) is better but it is quite big write when you are putting down six figures for the whole kit.
So, hang on a minute, we love Nikon here, no? Why are we bagging on the D4 when it seems pretty decent? Especially while a lot of other people are blowing gold plated trumpets for the D4 from their roof tops?
Because in a few words,we are ashamed of the D4, and we are professionals that do not wish to waste our money buying last years ideas, it is only a lot of tiny advances on the D3 in real terms there are no game changing ideas in this camera, and yet we managed to think of about 70 real features that a could easily have been a part of “the latest best camera from the Pros best company” All our ideas were just hybridising existing technologies, we are not engineers, just looking and thinking outside the box for a second. If we can do this with no formal training in camera design, why can’t Nikon? What is this Vanilla with low fat update all about?
As great fans of Nikon for most of our lives, we have been holding out for at least some REAL technical, ergonomic or video advance from Nikon for some years now. The D4 was their last chance to keep us from buying a serious amount of Canon stuff next time we upgrade…. True, we will not be selling our 40 odd Nikon lenses on ebay just this week (the primes do come in handy on the RED I must say), but basically Nikon have blown it with this new Camera for us and I dare say a lot of other people. There are no excuses for this camera in 2012! This is mostly the camera you should have brought out 4 moths after Canon put out the 5DmkII in 2008 not a few weeks before they relase the MkIII in 2012. We think that the reason the guys at Nikon think they can dust off a few improvements on their old camera as something exciting is because the guys running the company are accountants and the engineers were sent home early when they finalised the D4. (Photographers have obviously been nowhere in the building for several years) Well screw you Nikon, I am buying something else, we might hire a D4 from time to time if we need infallible or bullet proof. I guess the Nikon guys will be laughing to themselves when my Canon breaks down, but what the hell… I shall just go out and buy another, with the money I saved!