Is this the best DSLR ever seen? Find out in What Digital Camera's Nikon D4 review…
When the Nikon D3 arrived back in 2007, it heralded a new dawn for Nikon. The company’s first ever full-frame DSLR, it offered a ground-breaking native sensitivity range up to ISO 6400 and expanded to an ISO equivalent of 25,600. The photographic world hadn’t seen anything like it before, and it opened up a whole new world of low-light photography. This was backed-up by a build and performance that made it the must-have camera for many professionals.
Since then we’ve seen the updated Nikon D3s (with an even greater ISO range of 102,400), and now the D4. With pretty much every area of the specification improved on over the D3s, the D4 promises a lot. Lets find out just how good it is…
Nikon D4 review – Features
The Nikon D4 uses a new 16.2MP, full-frame CMOS sensor that improves on the 12.1MP in the D3 and D3s. This resolution may seem fairly conservative compared to even some high-end enthusiast DSLRs and CSCs, but it’s all about the light-gathering capabilities of the photosites on the sensor and how it performs under a range of lighting conditions.
Combined with the newly developed EXPEED 3 image processing engine (with 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing), the D4 has a native ISO range from 100-12,800. This can be expanded up to an ISO equivalent of ISO 204,800 – only matched by the as yet unavailable Canon EOS-1D X.
The D4 is also capable of shooting at up to 11fps at full-resolution, though for full AF and exposure control, this drops ever so slightly to 10fps. There’s also a new shutter design too – the Kevlar/carbon fibre-composite shutter unit that has a standard life cycle rating of 400,000 releases – 100,000 up on the D3s.
There’s a new 91,000 pixel metering system that replaces the 1005 pixel design used in previous top-end Nikon DSLRs. This is linked into Nikon’s Advanced Scene Recognition System to not only calculate the metering, but is also used to manage white balance, flash exposure, Active D-lighting, face detection and the AF system.
Nikon’s tinkered with the Multi-CAM3500FX AF system that was first seen in the D3. The new Advanced system retains the 51-point AF arrangement, but the central 15 cross-type AF sensors are now sensitive up to f/8 – great news for nature photographers who regularly use hefty teleconverters with long telephoto lenses. The AF system is also claimed to be faster than its predecessor and much more accurate in low-light conditions, where it should be possible to focus under moonlight, which is roughly -2EV.
The rear screen has also been overhauled, with the LCD display a bit larger at 3.2in and a resolution of 921k-dots. It’s not just the size that’s changed either as the colour gamut is now close to the sRGB colour space for more accurate representation of colours when reviewing your images, while there’s an auto brightness control anti-reflective coating. The D4’s optical viewfinder provides 100% coverage with a magnification of 0.7x.
One of the biggest updates over the D3s is the video capability, and something its rival Canon has stolen a bit of a march on in the last few years. The D4 can capture 1080p movies at 30/25/24fps using H.264 compression, or if you want to achieve slow-mo shots, 720p footage at 60/50fps, while there are three movie crop modes to choose from too: FX, DX and 2.7x (native 1920×1080). Not only is there an audio input for a microphone (with 20 adjustment levels), but an audio out, so it’s now possible to plug in some headphones to monitor the audio you’re recording. You can also output the D4’s uncompressed live feed to a suitable storage device via the HDMI connection.
The D4 also features an Ethernet port, so it’s possible to hook up the D4 and transmit images straight from the camera to clients and news desks – expect to see this used in anger at this years Olympics. The D4 also connects to the new WT-5 WiFi transmitter that screws onto the side of the body. With this device it’s possible to control the camera (controls include exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, white balance) via a iPhone, iPad or computer. Using your devices web browser, you can connect to your D4 and you’ll get a live feed of what the camera sees, select where you focus and fire the shutter.
Power comes from a new EN-EL18 battery, which features different connectors to the battery used by the D3 series of cameras. This could potentially be a bit of an issue for existing owners who might want to mix and match with their collection of batteries, while they’ll also have to lug two large chargers around with them as well.
For storage, the D4 is the first DSLR to feature a XQD card slot along with a CompactFlash slot. Seen as the natural successor to CompactFlash, XQD cards have capable write speeds quicker than the fastest UDMA 7 CompactFlash cards.
The dual card slots can be used in a variety of different ways – one as an overflow, or one for Raws while the other records JPEGs, or as a mirror, while video can be recorded on one and stills on another.
Nikon D4 review – Design
As you’d expect for a camera designed for pro use, the Nikon D4 is an incredibly well made and rugged piece of kit. It tips the scales at 1340g, but is actually a shade lighter than the D3s. You’re left in little doubt though that this camera will take a few knocks or exposure to the elements – Like the D3s before it, the D4 is constructed from tough magnesium alloy, the body has been sealed to protect against moisture, dust and electromagnetic interference.
The tactile feel of the rubberised handgrip is excellent, while the way the controls are intuitively laid out and can be easily reached when shooting make the D4 a joy to use. The overall feel of the D4 is first-class.
While not a radically change in design direction from the D3s, their have been quite a few changes and tweaks made to the D4 compared to the outgoing model.
The D3s hand dual shooting controls when shooting in either landscape or portrait format, but it was a bit of a stretch when shooting in portrait format for the thumb to reach over to the D-Pad to toggle the AF points. As well as the D-Pad, there are now two smaller multi-selectors, one for horizontal shooting, and one for vertical shooting, allowing you to select your desired AF point. So now, whether you’re shooting in either orientation, you have easy access to the main command dial, sub-command dial, AF-ON button and AF point selection. There’s also the addition of a thumb grip when shooting in portrait format for a more secure grip.
After feedback from pros, both shutter buttons have also been angled slightly differently than those on the D3s. So rather than being angled at 28° as before, both shutter buttons are positioned at 35° to make it more comfortable after long periods of shooting.
With video taking a more prominent role on the D4, there’s now a dedicated Stills/Video switch round the Live View button that’s on the rear of the camera next to the secondary LCD display. The metering mode selector switch that sat on the side of the pentaprism has gone, now being found where the Lock button used to be on the top-plate of the camera.
The AF/M switch at the front of the camera no longer offers the choice of either AF-S or AF-C. Instead, there’s now a button to press in the middle of the switch and by using the sub command dial, you can toggle between the two modes – just like you can with a D7000, while the front command dial can be used to select the dynamic area AF mode when in AF-C, or swap between single and auto in AF-S, with the setting displayed in the viewfinder and on the top-plate LCD.
When reviewing images, the D4 has also adopted separate zoom in/ zoom out buttons rather than the more fiddly single button/sub command dial dance that was a feature on previous D-series SLRs.
Another nice touch is that the buttons on the rear of the camera can now be illuminated, making it much easier to work with in low-light or dark conditions.
Nikon D4 review – Performance
The 51-point AF system in the D3s is one of the best AF systems going, if not the best, so it’s no surprise to see that the improved system in the D4 is nothing but excellent.
In AF-S mode, focus is acquired incredibly quickly and the low-light levels that it still manages to focus in is impressive. The shooting environment that the D4 will find itself in is likely to see continuous AF used regularly, and it doesn’t disappoint. Linked into the Advanced Scene Recognition System and utilising the new 91,000 pixel metering system, there’s a choice of either 9, 21 or 51-point Dynamic AF for focus tracking depending how erratically your subject will be moving. On top of that, there’s also the option to use 3D Focus Tracking – a predictive system that will track your subject across all of the 51 available AF points. In use and the focus tracking is hard to fault – in our tests, it worked very well and all round, the phase-detect AF system in the D4 is excellent.
In Live View mode, contrast-detect AF is used. Here there is a choice of either AF-S or AF-F – full-time servo AF where autofocus is being constantly adjusted if you or the subject are moving, while there’s four AF modes to choose from as well: Face-priority AF, wide-area AF, normal-area AF and subject-tracking AF. In use and while it’s not as quick at acquiring focus as some Compact System Cameras that are more suited to this type of focusing by their design, it’s still pretty good and fine if you’re going to be working with a tripod.
To match the fast AF is a rapid frame rate, though it can’t stake a claim to being the fastest DSLR out there. Shooting at 10fps and using an XQD, it’ll achieve a burst of 75 Raws before the buffer finally slows up – incredibly impressive and completely overshadows the D3s’s 33 Raw files at 9fps. As for JPEGs, if you let it, the D4 will just keep shooting – there’s no sign of any let-up after a 100 shots.
As you’d expect with a camera designed to be a professional workhorse, the D4 features a plethora of buttons on the body, allowing for quick access to a range of shooting settings. As well as a top-plate LCD that displays a range of shooting information, there’s a secondary LCD display underneath the D4’s main screen. This secondary display is used for ISO, Quality and White Balance, with corresponding buttons to make changes underneath.
The new 3.2in screen is lovely and crisp – images can be reviewed easily, especially now the zoom in/zoom out buttons have been carried over from other Nikon DSLRs. The menu interface has also been given the once over as well – the graphics have been updated, and while there’s a massive range of settings in the menu to allow you to set-up the camera exactly how you want, it’s very easy to navigate and intuitive.
The two new multi-selectors are a welcome addition, making portrait-format shooting much more pleasant and AF selection easier. Even in landscape orientation, the multi-selector sits exactly where the thumb rests, taking over from the D-Pad for AF point selection.
While it may not seem it, the new angle of the shutter-release buttons does make a difference, with your shutter finger much more comfortable over long periods of shooting. In use, the D4 is a fantastic camera to shoot with – buttons and controls fall easily to hand and it’s a camera that inspires confidence.
Nikon D4 review – Image Quality
Tone and Exposure
With the 91,000 pixel metering system, there’s the choice of either 3D Color Matrix Metering III (the latest generation of Nikon’s multi-zone metering system), Centre-weighted or Spot.
The 3D Color Matrix metering coped very well under a range of lighting conditions – the system is clever enough that when shooting a backlit portrait, it’ll balance the exposure, giving prominence to the face.
Tonal range of images is very good, with smooth graduations in colour. There’s also a dedicated HDR mode (JPEG only), with the choice of 1, 2 or 3 EV exposure differential, as well as Auto.
White Balance and Colour
The Auto White Balance delivered pleasing, neutral results. If results are too neutral however, then there’s a secondary Auto White Balance that aims to keep warm lighting colours. As well as these two Auto White Balance modes, there are a host of presets to choose from as well: Incandescent, Fluorescent (7 types), direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade and preset manual (up to 4 values can be stored).
If you want to alter the intensity of the colours, then there’s a choice of Picture Controls – as well as Standard, there’s Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape. For each Picture Control, you can adjust Sharpening, Contrast, Brightness, Saturation and Hue, as well as being able to save those changes and use later.
Sharpness and Detail
The D4 uses a new 16.2MP full-frame CMOS chip that deliver files that are 4928 x 3280px in size – this roughly equates to being able to print an A3 print at 240ppi without the need to upscale. The D4 also has 3 additional crops modes – 5:4 (4096 x 3280 – 13.4MP), 1.2x (4096 x 2720 – 11.1MP) and 1.5x DX mode (3200 x 2128 – 6.8MP).
Detail from the new sensor is excellent, especially at the lower ISOs when the resolving power of the sensor is very impressive.
The D3s set the benchmark when it came to high ISO performance. With the increase in resolution from the D4, there could be concern that this will suffer. From looking at our resolution charts, this is not the case – the D4 performs very well. Image noise is very well controlled, only really becoming noticeable at ISO 3200. Above that, and as you’d expect, image noise is more prominent, though even ISO 51,200 displays reasonable amounts of detail. Hitting the upper limits of the ISO range and it should only be used as a last resort, but no other camera offers this kind of sensitivity range at the moment.
Is it better at high ISOs than the D3s? It’s very close – the D4 just nudges it thanks to the benefit of the extra resolution provided.
The NEF Raw files from the D4 can be read in Photoshop Lightroom 4, while Nikon’s all-in-one software package ViewNX2 is bundled with the D4 to get you started if you haven’t got any alternative software.
As you’d expect, the JPEG files direct from the camera show some levels of image noise control, while there’s also a boost in the colours. Raw files, especially at higher ISOs, display greater levels of detail.
The movie mode on the D4 is quite a set-up in terms of quality and features over the D3s. The output at 1080p looks very good, at up to 24Mbps. The ability to be able to monitor audio is a real bonus, can great to see.
While it’s probably not enough to make Canon videographers make the leap over to Nikon, it will certainly wrestle away Canon’s dominance in this sector.
Value & Verdict
Nikon D4 review – Value
There’s no getting away from the fact that this is a pricey bit of kit at £5289 – over £1500 more than the price of the D3s at launch, though compared to its closest competitor, the Canon EOS-1D X, it pretty much matches it for price, coming in at £10 less.
The high price puts it out of reach for most of us, but if you’re a working pro who uses their kit day in, day out, then this is a sound investment considering the performance, build and results this camera is capable of.
Nikon D4 review – Verdict
Bettering the D3s was always going to be a hard task, but with the D4, Nikon has achieved it. While it may not be as groundbreaking as the original D3, the D4 is a better camera in every way – every element of the D3s appears to have been scrutinised and improved on. This attention to detail and listening to the feedback of photographers has delivered a wonderful DSLR.
The new sensor is even better than the 12.1MP found in the D3s, while the jump in video quality and control means the D3s’s weak point has been resolved.
In short then, the D4 is a fantastic DSLR to shoot with that delivers a mind-blowing performance, which is backed up by excellent results. The Nikon D4 has to be one of the best DSLRs we’ve seen and sets a new benchmark for a professional DSLR.
Nikon D4 review sample images gallery
100-12,800 (expandable to 50-204,800)
Auto (2 types), incandescent, fluorescent (7 types), direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, preset manual (up to 4 values can be stored)
-/+5 EV in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV steps
CompactFlash and XQD slots
Fine, Normal & Basic
Eye-level pentaprism single-lens reflex viewfinder
4928 x 3280px
3.2in wide, 921k-dot (VGA) TFT LCD
Yes, 2 to 9 frames in steps of 1, 2 or 3
51 selectable points
16.2MP full-frame CMOS
1080 (30, 25, 24p) HD video (MOV with H.264/MPEG-4 compression)
RGB sensor with approx. 91,000 pixels
Dioptre adjustment -3 to +1 m-1
P, S, A, M
Hi-Speed USB, HDMI, Stereo mini-pin jack (in), Stereo mini-pin jack (out), RJ-45 connector (Ethernet), 10-pin remote terminal
Rechargeable Li-ion EN-EL18 battery
12 or 14 bit Raw (NEF), JPEG, Raw + JPEG
30-1/8000th second, plus Bulb
160 x 156.5 x 90.5mm
Single-point AF, 9, 21 or 51-point dynamic-area AF, 3D-tracking, auto-area AF
Single, Continuous low-speed (10fps), Continuous high-speed (11fps), Q (quiet shutter-release), Self Timer (2, 5, 10 or 20sec), MUP (mirror up)
sRGB, Adobe RGB