Flagship professional DSLRs don't come along every year. As a result, they serve as milestones in the development of not only digital cameras, but also of the professionals they serve.
The $6,000 (body-only) Nikon D4 is a glimpse into the changing world of modern media. With integrated video controls, compatibility with new XQD memory cards, built-in wired networking, and video quality on par with the best cameras on the market, the D4 is an incredible machine—designed to serve the needs of an ever-evolving professional market. But Nikon hasn't neglected the fundamentals; it's a great machine for still photography, too.
An improved control scheme, integrated video controls, and smart additions like backlit buttons aid shooters of all kinds, but sometimes the new layout favors video over still.
The Nikon D4 shares many design similarities with its most immediate predecessor, the Nikon D3s. The two cameras are practically identical in size (the D4 is 0.2’’ deeper) and weight (the D4 is 2.1 ounces lighter), but the D4 has the added benefit of some spec upgrades.
In addition to a larger LCD and a higher-resolution full-frame sensor, the D4 also benefits from an XQD memory slot that sits alongside the CompactFlash slot inherited from the D3s. XQD cards are faster than CF models, with a pin design that is significantly less prone to breakage, but there's a downside: a steep entry cost ($130-$460 a pop) and the need to buy new card readers.
Two sub-selector joysticks for landscape and portrait orientations have been added. These controls can be used for focus point selection or set up to mirror the multi-selector control pad. You can also press down on them to activate a separate, customizable function. These require some setup time, but they allow for a greater degree of control that should aid professional workflows.
It’s also worth noting that many of the changes to the D4’s control and design are for the benefit of video shooters, sometimes to the detriment of still shooting. The front autofocus mode selector (which now has AF/MF positions, requiring an extra motion to switch between AF-S and AF-C), the position of the rear voice memo button, the addition of a top plate video record button, and the redesigned live view/video activation controls are all repositioned to aid video shooting. The AF switch and the mode button’s displacement are certainly the most noticeable changes.
Hands-down, our favorite additions are the back-lit buttons, something we haven't seen since the Olympus E-620. If you engage the backlight for the secondary LCD while shooting, the labels for all the controls will light up like a car's dashboard. There are some truly astounding engineering feats in the Nikon D4, but it's this simple change that we found ourselves thankful for the most. If you spend significant time shooting in the dark, the Nikon D4 is going to feel like a godsend.
Nikon's latest flagship pushes dynamic range to exciting new heights (and depths).
The Nikon D4 possesses some of the best dynamic range we've seen yet, thanks to its brand new full-frame sensor. If you go by the typically accepted standard for dynamic range, then the D4 produces around 13 stops at base ISO, which beats out the Canon 1D X by around 1.5 stops.
We hold cameras to a higher standard than most, though. The typical standard counts stops until the signal-to-noise ratio drops below 1:1. At this point, the tonal response is half signal and half noise, which makes sense from an engineering standpoint, but not for photographs. We, on the other hand, only count stops of dynamic range until SNR drops below 10:1. Using this metric, the D4 captured 7.88 stops of "high-quality" dynamic range—the 1D X, by way of comparison, recorded 7.48 stops.
We found that the D4 had very little falloff in tonal response right through ISO 800, with acceptable print-quality range through ISO 6400. Above this, ISO 12800 and 25600 are usable, but beyond that your image quality will take a pretty severe hit. That gives the D4 a wider usable ISO range than just about any other camera we've tested.
The D4 is fast—but not the fastest.
In our testing, we were able to get the Nikon D4 to shoot as quickly as as 12.1 frames per second over a five shot burst, with single-shot differentials ranging between 0.1 and 0.066 seconds between exposures. This puts the D4 among the fastest cameras that we have ever tested, especially considering these are full-resolution shots taken using a mechanical shutter. If you're shooting over a longer period or counting more exposures, that average speed will drop to around 11 fps (or 10 fps, depending on menu settings).
The most obvious comparison here is, again, the 1D X. The Canon manages to rattle off RAW+JPEG shots at a 13.1 fps clip, which is truly spectacular. The 1D X can dial that up as high as 15 fps for JPEG images alone, handily beating the Nikon. At these speeds, the difference in everyday shooting is pretty minimal, but if you're capturing a very short action sequence—think of a batter hitting a baseball—you will consistently get more usable shots with the 1D X.
Connectivity is the name of the game these days, and the D4 keeps pace with the competition.
The Nikon D4 incorporates a remarkable feature set, as you'd expect from a $6,000 professional camera. In addition to blistering shot-to-shot speed, the Nikon D4's 51-point autofocus system provides accurate focusing even in very limited light. Even so, sports and wildlife shooters should note that the D4 lacks some of the more advanced autofocus controls found on the Canon 1D X.
Professionals will definitely enjoy the D4's host of new connectivity features. The most important addition is the wired Ethernet port on the side of the camera. The Ethernet implementation lets you upload directly to an FTP, control the camera via Nikon's Camera Control Pro 2 software (optional), or use it as an HTTP server. This last option lets you browse photos directly from a mobile phone or computer. All these functions also work with the WT-5 wireless transfer unit. The WT-5 can control multiple slave cameras from a single controlling camera, allowing for some very interesting setups. The Nikon WT-4 accessory is also compatible, though with less interesting functionality.
When capturing video, the D4 employs H.264 AVCHD video compression with linear PCM audio encoding in a .MOV container. The camera has a maximum video resolution of 1080/30p, with options for 25 and 24p. It can also shoot at 720p, with frame rate options of 60, 50, 30, and 25fps. A 1920x1080 crop mode is available, with 30, 25, and 24fps frame rate options that use a 1920x1080 portion of the image sensor to record a (zoomed in) image that is slightly sharper.
Nikon uses greater compression for its video than Canon, with video that tops out at 24Mbps (12Mbps on "Normal" quality), with 12Mbps and 5Mbps, respectively, for 720p and 424p modes. Fortunately, Nikon also includes uncompressed HD output directly from the HDMI slot, letting you bypass in-camera compression altogether with a clean output signal. Footage can be recorded directly to specialized hard drives. Unfortunately, this must be done without actually recording to the camera's memory cards; pressing record on the camera drops the output signal to just 720p, eliminating the possibility of redundant recording.
These features certainly add up, and they make a compelling case for the Nikon D4 as a multimedia camera of choice. Sure, the addition of external hard drives isn't the most convenient thing in the world, but pros will probably find it to be an acceptable compromise.
The D4 pushes the boundaries of DSLR performance, and gives the Canon 1D X a run for its money.
A powerhouse of a camera, the Nikon D4 shoots incredibly fast, produces usable images even with very little light, autofocuses quickly and accurately under almost any circumstances, features remarkable dynamic range, and offers a host of custom user controls for tuning white and color balance to your heart's content.
The D4 performed incredibly well throughout our testing process, revealing expansive dynamic range, excellent low-light characteristics, and respectable color accuracy. That said, we were a little dismayed by its inconsistent white balance, especially given how annoyingly complicated the setup process is for custom white balance.
When comparing this camera and the 1D X, the biggest differences are in speed and dynamic range. Canon clearly still knows how to design an AF system, and there's no arguing that the amount of control Canon provides with their 1D X's 61-point autofocus truly dwarfs what Nikon provides on the D4. The Canon was simply more accurate, tracked subjects better, and managed a faster shot-to-shot speed for both JPEG and RAW. The D4 had a respectable 12.1fps continuous shooting speed in testing, but the Canon managed more than 13fps for RAW+JPEG shooting, and over 15fps for JPEG alone.
The Nikon D4 clearly has the edge in dynamic range, however. At base ISO, the Canon 1D X retains about 11.5 stops of dynamic range, while the Nikon D4 preserves closer to 13 stops (though that advantage drops considerably as you move up the ISO scale). The 1D X offered far more accurate colors and more consistent white balance when capturing JPEGs—which may matter if you shoot news on the go—but low light, high ISO shooting is owned by Nikon.
The Nikon D4 produces mostly accurate whites, but "green cast" issues appear under artificial lighting.
The automatic white balance on the D4 worked well in most scenarios. While out shooting, we found that it was able to replicate skin tones perfectly in a variety of conditions. In our test, we found it only struggled under tungsten lighting, as the auto white balance is only tuned to go between 3500 and 8000 kelvin, which doesn't cover the full range of tungsten lighting. Under daylight conditions we saw a marked improvement, though, with an average error of less than 100 kelvin.
Fluorescent lighting was another story, with the D4 producing both incredibly accurate (off by less than 50 kelvin) and incredibly inaccurate (off by more than 500 kelvin) results. It may be that this camera is too responsive for its own good, especially with fluorescent lighting pulsing the way it does. After running our test multiple times, we saw a green tint in several images taken under compact white fluorescent lighting, but the results were otherwise quite acceptable. It's a minor issue, to be sure, but we'd recommend shooting both RAW and JPEG under fluorescent conditions, just to be safe.
When taking a custom white balance with direct measurement, the D4 was, as you'd expect, remarkably accurate. We found that under tungsten, compact white fluorescent, and daylight conditions, the camera never produced results that were off by more than 150 kelvin. In mixed lighting, you may have slightly less reliable results, though the camera's ability to fine-tune performance on an ABGM scale allows you to make the adjustments necessary under almost any lighting condition.
A fine camera by any measure, the Nikon D4 is a multimedia machine that can handle any job quickly, efficiently, and with surprising ease.
The Nikon D4 is particularly striking evidence of the seismic shift ongoing in the world of professional photography. Reacting to a market where photographers are often asked to serve double-duty as videographers, Nikon has reluctantly moved away from its purist still-camera roots to graft on video-friendly features. The results are mostly positive, though occasionally the designers have tripped over their own feet in the rush to accommodate video shooting.
With still performance among the best we've seen to date and video that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best on the market, we have to give the D4 top marks. The more we shot with this Nikon, the more we were impressed by the ease with which it juggled priorities that only four short years ago seemed worlds apart. While there have been some sacrifices made to still control in favor of video functionality, the Nikon D4 is just the sort of speedy powerhouse that news and sports photographers crave.
At $6,000 body-only, the Nikon D4 is not going to be the first choice for dedicated videographers. For professional photographers who work in both disciplines, though, it's certainly going to look appealing. The asking price is going to put it out of reach for many, and for video alone the 5D Mark III or the Panasonic GH3 are better buys, but if you need a device that can manage stills and videos at a pro level, the D4 is matched only by the Canon EOS 1D X.
For most professionals, the choice between Canon's 1D X and Nikon's D4 isn't a choice at all—if you own $20,000 in lenses, neither camera is going to make you jump ship now. There are clear advantages for each: Canon still has the edge in AF accuracy, control, and speed, but Nikon's sensor technology has clearly advanced beyond Canon's.
It's remarkable how similar these two cameras really are; both Canon and Nikon have pointed their flagships in a direction of convergence. In the end, it's too close to definitively call a winner. The 1D X's autofocus advances will likely be too enticing for most pro sports photographers to ignore, but anyone in regular need of low light capability will find the D4's high dynamic range, high-ISO capabilities, and backlit controls truly invaluable.
The 24-70mm f/2.8 lens is very sharp, and the D4 does well with it in our lab testing.
Shooting JPEGs with the 24-70mm lens under lab conditions, we consistently got solid sharpness results. The lens struggled primarily at its widest focal length toward the edges of the frame. Optimal sharpness was found around f/8, after which diffraction started to soften shots. At the full zoom setting of 70mm, the lens did much better, extremely sharp across the frame at all apertures. The D4's sensor acquitted itself well overall, and the accurate autofocus system kept up with moving subjects easily. For a fast normal zoom, the lens produced remarkably little distortion, chromatic aberration, or vignetting—even on the D4's demanding full-frame sensor.
Sharper than we were expecting, the D4's video quality marks a huge stride forward for Nikon.
The D4 renders motion beautifully, with very little trailing or signal interference. Despite its considerably lower bitrate, the D4 produces clips that just barely outdo the Canon 5D Mark III's output in terms of sharpness. In our typical motion test, the biggest issue we saw was some marginal trailing that occurred in our recording of a rotating, monochrome pinwheel. The RGB pinwheel we use in the same rig didn't have as much trouble, though.
At 1080/30p, the D4 was able to render 700 vertical LPPH and 600 horizontal LPPH of sharpness in our test video under bright, 3000-lux shooting conditions. In the cropped 1080/30p mode, the lens produced a more narrow field of view—useful if you want to get closer to your subject, but we found that sharpness improved only slightly, still not exceeding 700 LPPH in either direction. For comparison's sake, high-end consumer camcorders in the $1000 and up range consistently produce 900+ LPPH of sharpness, though without the benefit of the narrow depth of field that full frame DSLRs offer.
Moire was significantly improved on the D4 over previous Nikon cameras. The 1080p crop mode did produce somewhat less moire than the full frame shot, though all the videos had some visible moire at frequencies between 700-1000 LPPH. We did also notice that rolling shutter is still a major problem, something we don't envision changing until global shutter CMOS sensors become prevalent.
Meet the tester
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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