The Nikon D4 might be old news now that the D4s has been around for a couple of months, but given the diminishingly incremental improvements between each cycle, there’s less of a penalty for opting for an older camera than you might think. And even less again once we consider that for most applications, the point of sufficiency was passed a long time ago. A nearly-new D4 made its way into my hands a couple of months ago during the Melbourne workshop. At a shade over US$3,800, it was just too good a deal to pass up. Read on for my summarised thoughts after spending a couple of months taming the beast.
I said in part two of my Olympus E-M1 review that the camera really competed with the 1DX and D4 class of cameras – I think that’s still mostly true. At base ISOs, image quality between the three is nearly indistinguishable. Frame rates are pretty much the same, for all intents and purposes. The DSLRs win out on AF tracking – and I seem to have lucked out with one appears to have perfectly calibrated AF, because it lacks the left-focus problem, required almost no micro adjustment for most of my lenses, and can track moving objects just fine at 10fps. Having spent a solid year and a half with a D3 as my primary (and at that time, only) camera, the D4 seems to respond just that little bit sharper than the D3 ever did.
Ergonomically, the D4 is a brick. It’s lighter than it looks, but that isn’t light at all. The tradeoff is that I think it probably has the best grip shape and button configuration (and configurability) out of all of the current Nikons. Why they have not yet put the D800E’s sensor inside one of these bodies boggles the mind; I’d buy one in a heartbeat. (When you spend that much time with something in your hands, it’d better feel perfect.) There are a few gotchas, though: firstly, the vertical set of controls can’t be made to exactly duplicate the horizontal set (namely around the sub-joystick and the AF-ON button behaviour) and it appears that one of the consequences of nice sticky/ grippy sculpted rubber is that it appears to be impossible to make it stay on; every single Nikon pro camera I’ve had has had its grips replaced after two years or so. The D4 is no different: I replaced them after I got the camera because the CF door and front main grip were already peeling, to the tune of ~$130. Surely making an adequate adhesive cannot be rocket science.
Those backlit buttons are very cool in a geeky sort of way, but admittedly less useful than you’d think in the real world – there simply aren’t that many situations in which it’s so dark that you can’t even make out a glimmer of the white-on-matte-black text. Vertical grip ergonomics still don’t match the main grip, however, and there are some things you still can’t do in vertical mode – like change exposure mode. From a pure ergonomic standpoint, the add-on grips are better – but the extra layers of metal make say a D800E+grip body heavier than a D4. All that said, I still think a bit of mass is required to damp shutter vibration and keep things stable, especially when you’re blazing away at 10/11fps.
Everything about this camera is fast: AF, menu navigation, startup, shooting, and of course frame rate – 10fps with AF/AE, 11fps with AF/AE locked on the first frame (the D4s will AF/AE at 11fps too, thanks to a new mirror system). With a fast CF card (Lexar 1066x) – I couldn’t bring myself to invest into XQD – you get ~70-80 raw files in a burst, which is more than enough for any practical purposes I can think of. That’s significantly more than my D3 had, or the D800E, or even the D3s. The D4s is supposed to be even larger, but if you have to shoot that much…I’m questioning your technique more than anything. There are cameras that appear to have higher throughput rates – oddly, a lot of these are compacts (RX100II: 200MP/s, 14bit; Nikon’s own 1 V3, 360MP/s, unknown bits) – but I doubt any of them can write as fast, or do as many things simultaneously, which still makes the D4 feel faster in practice.
Hindsight has proven that the XQD/CF decision was a stupid one – the cards are still hideously expensive, readers nearly impossible to find, and thus the second slot is rendered effectively useless. I’d still rather have dual CF or CF/SD to match the other cameras in the lineup. (Dual SD would be pointless unless they were the new, faster, SDXC type.) I suppose power management falls into this category too: 2000+ shots per charge on an EN-EL18 is routine; 3000 is doable, and perhaps even more than that if you’re shooting bursts and not chimping much. The charger packs larger than a D800E body, but will charge two batteries simultaneously and quickly.
The D4’s sensor is now going on two years old; it’s been superseded for low light by the one in the Df, and more recently by the D4s. Though the DXO numbers might be higher, there isn’t a lot of difference in practice – at least not that I could see. I wouldn’t hesitate to use any of these cameras up to ISO 12800; beyond that, it gets a bit ropey. For practical intents and purposes, we’ve gained a stop to a stop and a half on the D3/D700 generation, and a bit less on the D3s – all whilst upping the pixel count slightly. I still remember not that long ago – at least in the D200 era or thereabouts – 1600 was about the limit. The best part of all of this is that color fidelity and dynamic range stay reasonably intact even at the higher sensitivities. Overall dynamic range isn’t as high as the D800E at low ISOs, however, and it seems to lack that camera’s ability to make extremely fine tonal gradations. Interestingly, I feel the native response of the sensor is closer to the CCDs of old than the newer CMOSes though.
One decision I do find somewhat odd is retention of the AA filter in the D4s; Nikon was in transition at the time of the D4 (and D800/E) release over whether to remove AA filters or not; it’s pretty clear since then which decision was taken. The D4 predates that, but everything that came since – the D800E, the Coolpix A, even the D7100 – have gone without, with a noticeable acuity bump. That said, the D4 seems to have very high pixel acuity; probably about the best I’ve seen for any camera with an AA filter.
Initially, I considered buying a D4s; it would serve as my reportage and teaching camera, and for general applications where AF would be preferable and larger file sizes were not needed by my clients. The price, however, was a little difficult to swallow for a body that would not be primary by any stretch – and enough to buy two more D800Es. I honestly could not find a commercial justification for it, but the want factor was high; I ultimately let it pass. Serendipity sent a low mileage used D4 my way a bit over half the price of a new D4s; that was a no brainer. Ultimately, I find it a frustrating camera to use. Not because of any fault of the camera or files – it’s frustrating because I wish my primary D800Es had ergonomics this good; the files are excellent for their pixel count, but aren’t quite large enough to Ultraprint with, and basically: I want to use it more than I have the ability to. I suppose that’s a good kind of frustration, if there’s such a thing.
There is one important caveat in the whole thing: buying a D4 for high ISO use if you already have a D800E is pointless: you can shoot at the same ISOs with the D800E, downsize to D4 native output size, and get very comparable results noise-wise, and with slightly better acuity (especially since you’re downsizing 36MP non-AA to compare against 16MP with AA). There is, however, a noticeable difference in AF tracking ability even in good light; file handling is a lot easier, the buffer is many times larger, and the ergonomics are better. Plus I feel the camera is overall slightly better built – and presumably better sealed, too. Like I said: it’s frustrating, because you want one – I think few people really need one. But that’s not what photography is about for most people, I think; and given the D4s has pushed prices of both new and used cameras significantly downwards, it actually makes a used D4 a very good buy indeed. MT
Update: mine didn’t stick in the wake of the 645Z…I just couldn’t justify keeping it knowing that I wouldn’t use it that much because of the print limitations, and me not taking many of those reportage jobs in the future.
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