With its newly developed 16.2-megapixel sensor, XQD memory card slot and 1080p video capture, Nikon believes it has answered the needs of the modern, multimedia professional with the D4. David Kilpatrick puts that claim to the test.
Built to the same body shape and size as the D3s and earlier single-figure series models, Nikon's new flagship camera is a rugged and substantial professional DSLR with advanced HD video functions. It is the first camera to use the new XQD memory card slot, offering read and write speeds of 125MB/s, and also the first to have built-in Ethernet and an embedded HTML5 web server control interface.
If you have bought a medium priced office inkjet or laser printer in the last few years, or installed a wifi router, control through an embedded web server will be familiar. These devices allow you to log on for administrative functions, like set up and troubleshooting, instead of trying to handle it all through a small touch screen or their printer utility. Nikon's logic is the same. Whether connected using a wifi module (WT-5) or a standard Ethernet cable, your PC, Mac or wireless iOS/Android tablet can take over from the rear LCD monitor and add either cursor-controlled or touch-screen functions.
Through a combination of the camera's USB-3 socket, Ethernet, wifi and the new feature of HDMI uncompressed video data streaming a range of control, previewing, in-camera and off-camera storage configurations is possible. It is no longer necessary to have the camera control module of a program like Phase One Capture One Pro, or Nikon's own software, for tethered shooting. Using any web browser, such as Safari, as recommended by Nikon on Mac OSX, a connection is very quickly up and running with a smooth live view of reasonable size in the HTML5 window. I was able to configure the camera and a Macbook Pro Ethernet to do so very quickly and easily, without losing my main wireless connection. The IP address of the Ethernet link was kept separate from the wireless IP address, and could match the auto set address of the camera.
When the image appears after shooting it, in the browser window, it's resident on the camera only. Clicking on this image to download will save it in your normal designated folder for web downloads, or you can open it in an image-editing program. If you take more pictures controlled through the browser, they will be saved on the camera, but you can browse them later with the view function and save or open as required.
The Nikon D4 connected to a MacBook Pro with control through HTTP5 embedded server.
The D4 retains Nikon's remote socket (the cover also seals the PC flash terminal). You don't need an external intervalometer to connect to this, as the D4 includes its own still or video intervalometer for time lapse photography.
An array of connections - Peripheral Connector for wifi or GPS, USB, HDMI, microphone in, headphones out, and the first Ethernet to appear in a pro DSLR.
The XQD card slot is designated Slot 1 and the Compactflash card slot Slot 2.
A similar set-up applies to shooting from the camera, not controlled by the computer, with an FTP upload triggered the moment the shot is taken. You can upload raw+JPEG or either file type only, and then either keep or discard copies kept organised between the camera's two card slots. Working this way, every image is saved on the computer. You may designate Lightroom's watched folder as the FTP destination (for example) and see the new shots pop up in your open browser. New network configurations can be saved and recalled to suit your studio, sports stadium, event photography rig or whatever.
Completely silent shooting
Canon has offered a silent live-view shooting mode for some time; it's a single quiet shutter click, but Nikon's equivalent has never really lived up to its name. A physical shutter was involved, despite Nikon's introduction of a purely electronic shutter function many years ago, on the D70 for example, where electronic flash could be gated to 1/500s. The D4 introduces true silent shooting - electronic shutter only, and 2.4 megapixel Fine JPEG 1920 x 1280 frame size only. There is no audio beep to tell you the capture is successful, for obvious reasons. In live view mode, with silent selected through the menu rather than quiet, the mechanical shutter never moves.
The quality is slightly better than can be achieved by assigning the shutter button to capture a still frame during movie shooting, or by extracting a frame in retouch editing of a movie; these are 1920 x 1080, and appear slightly softer and with more visible noise. But 2.4 megapixels is not big enough to be useful where it could count, as in church weddings, where a true silent camera could be valuable. The way to get that, still, is to buy a high-end compact offering raw and an interlens or silent shutter.
There is a menu-set quiet mode in live view, just as there is in normal shooting (dial-set). It breaks up the sequence of operating noises, but it is not all that quiet. If you assign the shutter release to capture still frames during a movie, as opposed to shooting a full resolution still, which will interrupt the filming anyway, you must be sure to have shutter-activated AF turned off and exposure set to manual. Otherwise, there will a visible change in the movie at the point you grab a still frame.
Apart from these innovations, the D4 takes the base resolution of the series from 12 megapixels up to 16. This relatively small increase isn't critical for those who never need to crop an image, even if it improves double-page-spread reproduction. The shooting rate is improved from 9fps to 11fps, with continous AF at 10fps full frame.
Above, a frame captured during video shooting at ISO 12,800 according to the camera data, and slightly brightened as the video was dark. This is a small clip from the image to show the noise level. Below, a very much better result obtained using the silent shooting mode, which captures a still shot at 1920 x 1280 resolution, the same as HD video lengthways. ISO 10,000 was shown as used, only one-third stop slower than the frame grab, but the noise level is completely different and the sharpness of the shot is excellent.
The D3s offered a DX crop option to achieve its fastest 11fps claim. Cropping 12 megapixels by a 1.5x factor leaves a 5.1 megapixel file, which is on the edge of being a bit too small for some uses. You can get away with full-page repro as long as the subject is not too demanding. The D4 produces a 6.6 megapixel DX crop, which is just that little bit more versatile. The different ratio crops introduced in the D3s are retained in the D4, including the 20 x 30mm 1.2x crop, and the 5:4 ratio "portrait and studio" crop. Both of these benefit from the extra resolution.
In HD video mode, the D4 betters the D3 by moving from 720p to 1080p. This was inevitable as countless lesser consumer range cameras now produce excellent 1080p, and the era of TV sets labelled "HD Ready" to fool buyers into thinking they were other than 720p is gone, and Canon has offered this since the 5D Mk II arrived nearly four years ago.
The D4 finally adds level-controllable audio input in place of a basic auto or low/medium/high gain, and completes the job with headphone monitoring output.
The crop modes for video include the 1.5x DX format, but Nikon warns users video will be equivalent in quality to 720p (they just interpolate up). To this is added a true 1:1 pixel 1920 x 1080 crop from the sensor, which happens to be 2.7x magnification and an exact match for the sensor size of the Nikon J1 and V1 series pocket mirrorless cameras. No need to buy a V1 and a lens adaptor to get those extreme telephoto videos, just switch the D4 into 2.7x crop mode. My tests also showed that this true 1:1 pixel cropped HD mode produces by far the sharpest and best quality videos. I would use it in preference to the full-frame FX option, given suitable lenses.
Just as the still image wireless and cabled connections are enhanced, so are the HD video connections. Using the HDMI port it is possible to stream continuous high quality video to a recording device, avoiding the compression that happens in-camera and extending the length of takes from 20 minutes for the best quality to a full hour. This does not disable the information display on the rear LCD, and of course the video itself is recorded free of all overlays.
Using the WT-5 wireless transmitter, one D4 can trigger a complete group of further D4s simultaneously. This may seem on odd function but it's purpose made for "suspended motion" stills and walkthrough video. It can be used for CGI master background scenes with moving items present. Those producing such masters won't be put off by the cost of ten D4s and lenses.
Finally - though not all will consider this a welcome advance - the D4 replaces the secondary memory card with a new XQD slot. This newly developed high speed serial format is simply not present in existing card readers, computer or laptop memory slots, or most trade and supplier stock. We are told that Sony has provided a certain number of USB 3.0 readers and 16GB 125x speed cards, to be bundled with the first delivery of D4 bodies. Sony adds that a Thunderbolt reader for Macs may be on the way. But readers looking for XQD cards report little luck.
The XQD card is smaller and less prone to pin damage than Compactflash, which the D4 accepts in Slot 2. Rated at around the same speed as Compactflash UDMA 600x cards, the XQD may prove faster in practice, and promises to keep up with 100 raw files in a single burst from the D4 at the camera's maximum AF-capable shooting speed, 10fps (compared to less than half that at 9fps on the D3s with a 600x Compactflash). Given the reasonable initial pricing (about the same RRP as the fastest SD cards, and less than the equivalent Compactflash) XQD looks very attractive, not as fiddly and fragile as SD. It will mean that D4 users choosing XQD must carry the camera's USB cable, WT-5 transmitter, Ethernet cable or the provided XQD reader with them to be sure of getting to the images when on the road.
Some users will miss the security given by having two Compactflash card slots. In practice, I suspect the Compactflash slot will end up as a backup permanently occupied by a card for occasional overflow or emergencies.
The battery looks the same as for previous models, but the latest ones have lower capacity, due to changes in regulations. There's also a new shutter unit, rated for 400,000 actuations (up from 300,000); and maybe this uses more power, or maybe the sensor does, but the D4 is good for 2600 shots only per charge compared to a rated 4200 on the D3s (CIPA standards) - and that's a big drop.
Not having a D3s right next to a D4 makes it difficult to assess whether the apparent ISO sensitivity gain with the new sensor is just push processing. Once you have got beyond ISO 12,800, no camera yet made yields anything except an image of last resort. From H0.3 to H4 settings, the 16,000 to 204,800 range on the D4 is a progressively more colourful snowstorm of noise, and that's why Nikon places these setting beyond the limit of normal ISO.
What you can certainly say is that lower ISO settings display the same clean quality associated with the 12-megapixel sensor, and typical settings for news and sports in the 800 to 6400 range can - with the correct handling - be sharp, noise-free and have normal colour. The Nikon sensor has a good RGB response and produces well-separated, saturated colours; as my low light test of this camera and the Canon 5D Mk III show (published in last month's BJP), Nikon retains more saturation at high ISO and in low light for stills and video alike.
White balance is closely linked to overall sensor response, and here Nikon retains an advantage. Conditions that gave colour casts on other systems often auto white balanced perfectly on the D4.
A straight shot (above, using a 105mm VR Micro Nikkor) taken by diffused tungsten flood light on a grey canvas background, which is fairly light, but exposed for the light reflected from the wood. Below, the same shot with no post processing - just a JPEG out of the camera, but this time shot using the HDR mode, 3EV range, with low smoothing. The difference in both the mid-tone and dark areas is considerable.
I didn't find any negative points like corner softness, increased Moiré, colour vignetting, or storms of sensor dust during the test period. Like most new cameras, the D4 had a couple of dust spots that showed at very small apertures. It uses the same quite powerful sensor vibration sensor cleaning that was introduced with the D3s.
The D4 is much the same as its predecessors in most ways, but there are two extra joystick controllers on the back - one above the main control pad, one below ideally placed for use with the camera held vertically. These have a positive feel and made menu navigation faster.
The new live view button has a switch collar moving between normal and movie functions. This is nearly identical to Canon's new dedicated movie/live view button. The red function button next to the shutter release starts and ends movies (default). This works well.
Buttons on the camera have illuminated markings and the LCD displays light up with a single extra travel of the on-off switch. This makes the D4 very easy to use in the dark, without invoking a glowing LCD screen. I used the camera with the rear screen switched off all the time except when needed.
The safety features of the camera include the usual two-operation card door, involving a release button protected by its own spring loaded cover, and a lock lever that prevents accidental adjustment of settings. I found it possible to insert the XQD card and think it was pressed home, close the main door and find it was not. It uses a spring-push action like SD to lock and eject.
A newly positioned function button, placed so it falls under the right-hand fingers next to the lens mount, can be assigned a wide range of uses, and the same applies to many other buttons on the camera and on lenses. It's possible to customise the camera in depth, or just use it out of box with the default functions. I test cameras using the setup out of the box; with hundreds of possible variations in the overall setup, it's hard to say what any one user might prefer.
Focus and metering
Though metering is improved and used to aid face tracking even when live view is not utilised, the focus module remains much the same as previous models. The usual setup caveats apply, especially to setting the correct sensitivity (time delay) to objects briefly crossing the focus field. It works in conjunction with the 91,000-pixel metering sensor, adding scene recognition. Because the D4 has several cropped options, metering may vary depending on the crop. Focus is sited within the DX (1.5x) format area, occupying most of it (like Canon's latest module). It's still very much a centred patch for all 51 AF sensors.
Focus from the sensor, AF before live shots or video or manual as needed, is surprisingly good. Even with the 105mm macro lens fitted and no limiter range set, the contrast-detect AF locked on subjects near and far in room light. Micro AF adjustment is provided to correct front or back focusing lenses with the phase detect module. Canon has now stepped ahead of Nikon, adding wide and tele zoom setting registration; Nikon still has just a single correction available for any lens, zoom or not.
The D4 has many other functions, including HDR in-camera, multi-exposure, raw processing with retouch-edit abilities - some are familiar, some new or enhanced. With many new professional DSLRs now incorporating what used to be functions found on advanced consumer models, it's something I intend to look at in future.
The Nikon D4 had a street price around £5000 shortly after launch, around £1000 more than the D3s and £500 more than the 24-megapixel, stills-only D3x. This seems entirely reasonable given general increases in equipment prices recently. It is a significant upgrade and marks the entry of Nikon into the mainstream HD video market alongside Canon.
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