Photoessay-review: A rainy evening, and summary thoughts on the Nikon D4

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Comments

  1. Arthur Laurent says:

    I enjoyed your review. Thanks.

    I have both the D4 and D4s. They’re pretty close up to about ISO 6400. The D4’s 12,800 is very usable. But the D4s’s 25,600 is the D4’s 12,800 equal. And it autofocus faster in any light. If you shoot in really dark places a lot, as I do, the D4s is the camera to have. Especially if you don’t want to drag out the flashes and ruin the mood.

    By the way, the two batteries are charged sequentially, not simultaneously. Just like the D4’s charger.

    Regards,
    Arthut

  2. plevyadophy says:

    Ming,

    XQD
    ====

    Here’s some something you might try or consider.

    What you could do with your XQD slot, is what I do with CF slots (I don’t like CF cards and will be happy when the new CFast cards come to market). What I do is to treat the CF card as being akin to a computer hard drive; that is, once in the camera it stays there and is never moved. So if I want to delete, format, or add to the card I do so via the camera’s menus or by hooking up the entire camera to a computer. The SD cards, in the second slot, get treated as being akin to portable backup drives so they get moved in and out of the camera quite often; of course, I ensure that the “hard drive” is of large enough capacity that I am unlikely to ever need to remove it due it getting full on a shoot, and then I use smaller capacity SD cards to back up to.

    If you employed the same workflow then you wouldn’t lose the use of one of your slots as you’d be saving to XQD, backing up to CF and using only the CF cards in your memory card reader/computer; it would be akin to, as we often do, buying a computer hard drive, albeit a rather expensive one, sticking it into your computer and forgetting about it.

    Of course, twin CF slots present me with a bit of a problem but I have a solution for that too. ;)

    • Not practical at all, mainly because XQD cards here are very difficult to get, and so are the readers. And expensive if you can find them…

      • plevyadophy says:

        May I ask:

        What sorta price are we talking about in your region?

        Using my method of utilising the card, why would you need the reader too?

        And if you could obtain a card ( and you’d need just one card to employ my method of use ) and get it at a good price would you be interested in having one?

        • Slowness of transfer between cards, pain of having to select images, etc. I don’t remember the price exactly (or recently) but I do know that when I last asked, it was double that of CF – and I’m using the Lexar 1000x types, which are already hideously expensive.

          • plevyadophy says:

            So, if price was the same as CF would you use XQD cards, or are you against them ( in a similar to how I am anti Fruit Machines :) )?

            So I take it you are using your cam in single memory card slot fashion but would rather use a dual card setup?

            • I’d have one or two to fill the second slot, but the inconvenience of another format is unpleasant in general. All of my other cameras except the D4 and CFV have standardised on SD. Yes, D4 is in single card fashion but everything else that has dual cards has both slots filled.

              • plevyadophy says:

                And what’s the MINIMUM size you would have? Are you a “I dont trust one big card” kinda guy or are you happy to to work with high capacity cards.

                I note that these XQD cards come in two brands, Sony or Lexar. Would you care which of those two brands were sitting in your cam?

                Me, I have tried to standardise around SD too, even going so far as to use a CF-to-SD adaptor in one or two cams. I prefer the size of CF but don’t like the pins which make me nervous (I have seen a few bent pins on other folks’ devices) so I will be glad when we move over to CFast cards which have more robust contacts (similar to the flat contacts of SD cards). SD cards are about the smallest card size I can tolerate; I just can’t stand those puny microSD and smaller sized formats.

  3. plevyadophy says:

    Hi Ming,

    I love the first and last images.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Rgds

  4. jeffp3456 says:

    Ming, I have been staring at the first image for a while and can’t figure out where the reflection of the person with hands in pockets is coming from. Did you shoot this upside down?

  5. Brett Patching says:

    Just had to comment on the great photographs in this article Ming.

  6. Just bought a D4 on eBay — didn’t think I would win the auction. I have a D3 — here’s to hoping that the D4 grip is closer to the nikon F6’s grip!

  7. Great post and great images. Being an amateur, I find a great pleasure in your posts and videos, and they have really made me rethink my approach on photography, and I hope I will be able to attend one of your masterclasses or workshops once. Here a question or challenge related to Nikon equipment I want your reflections on. Until the DF came about last fall I was using a D700. A great camera for its time, and still is today. I tradet it for a DF for two reasons: the D4 sensor and its weight. I have desired a D4 since it came out, but $6000 is beyond what I can justify spending on something that is just a hobby. To me the D800 stands out as Nikon´s awkward ducking. It is a great piece of equipment, no doubt, but in many ways its a medium format camera packaged in a 35mm body, and in that respect a reasonably well priced item, but for me its not what I need.

    I see two needs for 35mm camera bodies:

    1. A lightweight body for street,travel and casual photography (DF or whatever it should have been)
    2. A ruggedised shooting machine for action, wildlife, scientific and journalistic (bad weather) documentary stuff and the big glass (D4)

    Ultraprint, to use your term, is in my world something more suited for the medium format. For me it would be very beneficial that 1 and 2 can use the same lenses. That would make the investment in quality glass simpler. It is in this landscape I think Nikon got lost in the transition from the D3s/D700 to the D4, D800 and the DF.

    What are your thoughts?

    //Einar

    • They never really replaced the D700, in my mind. DF sensor in D800 body is what’s missing…perhaps they wanted to force people to buy either Df or D4 – both of which retail higher than a true D700 replacement should.

      • Henry Zacharias says:

        That´s the point! I have a D700, D800 and a D4 and all have their area of excellence, since I only shoot RAW:
        – D800 is my choice when I need either the resolution or the DR or both or when file-size and development time does´t matter at all.
        – D4 is for speedy documentary and reporting, long, hassle-free shooting mainly with larger lenses like the 70-200 or 300 mm.
        – D700 is my lightweight choice where one lens does the job, especially a 50 mm.
        I thought about replacing the D700 with the Df but didn’t see that much of a benefit for the price difference plus, I don´t like the grip too much since I have big hands. I would definitely go for a real D700 successor like a D800 body with the D4 sensor and still hope that Nikon will bring a D700s or D710 with that footprint!

  8. Jorge Balarin says:

    Your photos are so good, that really some of them make me salivate. I think it was a good decision to buy the D4.

  9. Kristian Wannebo says:

    These photos not only picture the rain.
    They really give the atmosphere of the rainy day,
    and of the time after the rain.

  10. François Arbour says:

    I just read your article, very interesthing but what strikes me is the quality of your photography. They are beautiful, great work.

  11. Thanks for your writing and photos, I always enjoy them.
    At times I am grateful I do not have the technical expertise to critically evaluate photos and photography equipment. It allows me to look at shots like the one of the young lady with the yellow umbrella and realize, going forward, there is no real need for more advanced equipment. The photograph is a stunning representation of a moment in time; I don’t see how it could be improved.

    I think it was Mark Twain who commented, once he became a riverboat pilot, and learned the intricacies of the boats and the river, he lost his capacity to appreciate the real beauty of the river.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks – more pixels for larger, more realistic output sizes, and cleaner high ISO to give us enough shutter speed not to lose acuity in the process ;)

  12. “Sounds like it’s good for b/w?”
    I’d say quite the opposite, no? While for many a CCD’s response might be favorable over a CMOS for b&w, the 800E’s subtler tonal gradation should give better files for b&w.
    That said, I guess both will be bettered by the 645Z in regards of tone, and low ISO image quality. Really looking forward to what MT comes up with that camera.

  13. Thanks for the interesting review. I doubt that I’d ever need a D4, let alone a D4S, but I can appreciate the market niche that it fills. Am I alone in thinking that the days of huge and heavy DSLRs are effectively over, given that a lot of the recent interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras have almost overlapping functionality? Of course, they’re not entirely there yet, but the different technologies exist waiting for that one killer product from the likes of Sony or Olympus or Fuji. The metaphor of the boiling frog comes to mind here (Canon/Nikon).

    • We’re getting close though. I’d be using the E-M1 a lot more if it didn’t have the shutter shock problem – or the ability to set electronic front curtain shutter plus drive modes.

      • That’s a little advantage I see in the E-M10 + grip. It seems like only the M1 and P5 with the 1/8000s shutter have a more serious issue with it.

      • Ming,

        Are you still having problems after the previous firmware update? I thought that the “0” AS delay was supposed to handle this issue? Did it not resolve it for you?

        –Ken

        • You have no drive modes if you use the 0 AS/ EFC. Single shot only, which makes it not very useful for reportage.

          • I was not aware of that limitation to the firmware update, and do not remember Olympus saying anything about it. I primarily shoot single shot, so the issue did not present itself to me. Thank you for calling it to my attention.

            –Ken

    • Tom Liles says:

      Am I alone in thinking that the days of huge and heavy DSLRs are effectively over…

      Hi Syed, I’m an absolute amateur nobody of no note, skill or renown, but as long as I’m alive and there’s money in my bank account, here’s at least one punter that will actively go for the integrated grip body everytime, or otherwise something nice and big and chunky. I love big. I prefer it (personally I don’t find it that oppressive carrying a D3 all day, say, and I do, routinely; just my case, of course). I walk about with a Zenza Bronica SQ and a massive honking 40/4 Zenzanon on it in my lunchtime forays outside the office…. Will put a lead brick of an F2 round my neck other days, or otherwise use an F5. I LOVE the big bodies—not flatly that bigger is better (else I’d have a field camera on a wooden tripod over my shoulder) just that the bigger cameras can space out controls and not compromise or have workaround haptics so much, and of course have things like no-holds-barred (optical) finders. Big heavy DSLRs tend not to break either. It’s mainly about the grip and controls though.

      Funny thing is, I love a compact as much as the next guy—I’ve had the RX100ii, settled with CoolpixA now, and have always secretly enjoyed the iPhone. It’s either big and bold or small and pocketable for me. And I doubt I’m alone.

      Radio didn’t disappear when TV came; Cinemas didn’t dissapear with TV&video; TV didn’t disappear when the net came; Vinyl vs. tapes/CDs/mini-discs; and the example right in-front of our eyes: film and digital… and so on and so on—when it’s a divergence (new evolutionary branch) the older branch rarely dies off, but has to change, no, sorry, is changed/modified by the event… but keeps on.
      I would very much doubt the DSLR is a gonner, and big ones especially so—they are the safest I’d think—that niche market for them you mention is pretty solid. It’s the D3300s etc of this world that would have to go I think (a shame because the sensor and circuitry they put in “entry level” DSLRs now is off the chain).
      In addition to my Stone Age stuff, I also have a Sony A7 which I loved, fell out of love with, and now am in therapy with to try and save the marriage :) and it’s a fine camera—just recently I’ve begun to trust it again for things that matter… objectively there is nothing not to like there, and it all works well once you learn and bend to its ways… yet if it REALLY matters I take the D3 ten times out of ten.

      The big DSLRs, just on that psychological point alone, are here to stay I reckon.
      I hope! :)

  14. Stephan says:

    Quote: “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.”

    Sounds like it’s good for b/w? I came back from my vacation in Tuscany a few days ago and to be honest: My GR, Sigma DP2M + DP3M + Olympus E-M10/75mm solution was very good considering the picture quality/weight ratio and b/w capabilities, but it sure was an ergonomic desaster to handle 4 cameras, 3 brands and to always struggle with filter adapters, display loupe (for bright sunlight) plus the general slowness of the Sigma Merrills etc.
    Now I’m REALLY desperate! I think a DSLR with 2 good zooms (24-70/2.8 + 70-200/4) would cover 95% of my needs without going through such a hassle, but I couldn’t get such nice b/w results out of my D800E (when I owned it) than I can with the GR or the Sigma Merrills.

    So there are two options now: Either I buy a DSLR that comes as close as possible, whatever that is. D4 maybe (although I really don’t like such huge bricks of cameras)? I can’t really find reliable information about Canons considering b/w capabilities since you don’t test them and to be honest: Your reviews are usually my main source for information about b/w capabilities. OR option number 2: wait until a better choice will be released. And I fear that means a lot of waiting…

    I sure wish I was able to achieve the b/w look that you can achieve with the D800E, even if it takes more effort than with a GR for example. Your b/w pics always look great and consistent, regardless of the native response of the camera you use. I wonder if that’s even possible with Lightroom since I don’t really want to change to Photoshop as Lightroom covers 95% of my needs and for the other 5% I don’t want to work with a far more complex program.

    Sorry for the long posting. Like I said, I am desperate now ;-)

    • You’ll find that the D800E does pretty well with a bit of work. I’ve got a monochrome masterclass video in production now that deals with B&W out of CMOS cameras, but in the meantime look for the B&W epiphany article to tide you over. (Sorry, can’t post the link as I’m on mobile. )

      As for the D4 as a B&W solution – the pixel level quality will be a bit loose after your current cameras.

      • Stephan says:

        True, the pixel level quality of the Merrills is breathtaking and the GR comes surprisingly close and that really means something. And I always loved to “pixel peep” into my D800E files, too. On the other hand: I don’t want such an expensive gear again. Do you think the D610 is similar in terms of b/w usability compared to the D800E? The DXO numbers are very close, but that doesn’t say anything about the native response and tonal gradations.

        Hmm… tough decision! I guess in the masterclass video you will use Photoshop again? I’d so much love to stick with Lightroom :-/ I already gave Photoshop a serious try, but I simply can not get warm with it…

        • David Ralph says:

          Stephan, I am curious how you are assigning B&W capability to the camera. Are you talking about the B&W conversion done in camera with a button or menu choice on the too, or accomplishing something in post processing? I only convert pics to B&W occasionally, but I have never been pleased with any camera manufacturer’s generic monochrome output. Ever since I got my hands on NIK’s Silver Efex Pro, any camera’s image comes out exactly as I want it, even the odd infra red image I make. I guess I am having difficulty seeing this as a camera issue as much as a software issue. If you have a look you like in B&W, is it not possible to make an action or the like in Photoshop, and then just process the image in post?

          • Stephan says:

            Hmm, I mean the native response of the camera’s RAW output. Especially the transitions in the highlights. To simplify it: The smoother they look the less “digital” the output looks and this leas to pleasing B&W results. The Ricoh GR does a pretty good job there. I couldn’t imitate this look with Lightroom or SilverEfex and the old D800E files that I still got, Everytime I get smooth highlight transitions the image on the whole ends up being too dark.

        • D600/610 isn’t even close, sorry.

  15. Hi Ming,
    Your blog is fantastic!

    Can you print larger sizes from the D4 than EM-1 since it’s a FF-sensor?
    Thank you!

    • Thanks. No, because you’re still subject to limitations of pixel quality and total number of pixels. The D4 doesn’t exceed the E-M1 in either. However it might get you further at high ISOs because it has lower noise.

  16. So are you selling it Ming?

  17. Will you review the 645Z Ming?

  18. I have both the D800E and the D4, I’d say that the D4 does better at exposure metering and in AF speed. Surprisingly the D800E does much better than the D4 at AF accuracy for large apertures. From my experience with Sigma 35mm F1.4 lens the D800E focuses consistently after the last firmware update but the D4 simply doesn’t.

    @MingThein – the charger charges 1 battery at a time. the only good thing is you can leave 2 batteries plugged in and sleep on it and have them both charged overnight without having to swap them out.

    • I think both appear to be a bit of a step back since the D3/700 generation, which were almost psychic when it came to metering and AF tracking. The current generation of nikons has too much emphasis on what’s under the AF point used to bias matrix metering. As for AF tacking, I think the pixel density is starting to push the limits of the current system…whether it is the AF module, algorithm or resolution of the lens drive motors is another matter though.

      • Tom Liles says:

        Agree wholeheartedly with the point on recent Nikon matrix metering. I have the CoolpixA and matrix meter mode may as well be called spot in some cases. Seriously.
        I also have the D3 which I often felt metered a little hot, but — and I’m not sure if this was intentional — since the D3 sensor is most definitely highlight biased, those slightly hot meterings always turn out to be recoverable, and in fact are pretty on the nose ETTR data sets. I did buy my D3 used, however, and it may be that the previous owner set the “optimal exposure” option in the menus.

        ClpxA though, I love the little thing to death—but the metering and heavy vignetting are definite foibles that potential owners should be aware of. I wonder what Nikon’s rationale is with these new matrix decisions? Maybe they feel many users are taking backlit photos (yet are unaware of how to correctly meter—I very much doubt those’d be the facts on the ground though? Plus what we focus on often isn’t connected to the intended aesthetic end, the look, of the photo… When I ask for matrix, why not just give me matrix? I know where center weighted and spot are if I need them! [assigned to the Fn button labelled “ISO” for my A)

        • Your D3 is normal, in my experience. I’ve owned two and used several other, they all behaved the same.

        • Hi Tom, I read Ming’s comparison of the Coolpix A and GR some while ago. I went away thinking priorities and preferences might lead me to choose the A. Of course ever since then I’ve read of Ming’s satisfaction with the GR. I’m not buying either at this moment but your comments on the A really grabbed my attention… I wonder how seriously those foibles impact your own experiences with the A? In spite of loving it are the disadvantages enough that you’d consider switching, for example?

          • Another thing to consider: the GR’s continuing firmware updates have fixed many of its initial flaws, or otherwise improved the camera. Speaking of which, version 4 of the firmware was just released with the promise of faster AF …

          • Tom Liles says:

            Hi Thomas, no, not for me—I wouldn’t switch. After a couple of months heavy use now, I’d say the two things that disappoint the most are the vignetting and, not mentioned above, the close focus distance in regular AF mode. The new Nikon metering is a foible, but you learn to live with it very quickly. The GR has three major strikes against it, for me, that I’ll get onto in a mo’…

            Vignetting
            The A’s vignetting never goes away but certainly ameliorates to within 0.7EV loss when stopped down, somewhere between -0.3 and -0.7 at f/8 I’d say. I don’t really stop down much further than f/8 since the A (and the GR) have a very high density sensor and I’d venture that optimum sharpness is lost after f/8. Though perceptual sharpness remains high up to f/11 (the absence of the low-pass filter is responsible for that I think); let me qualify this with a note about output though: if we’re only printing to screen (for net display) at screen resolutions, then this isn’t really an issue… f/16 still looks OK at typical Flickr upload sizes. Wide open at 2.8, though, the A vignettes a ton, around -2EV, in the corners—that fixes fine (if you want to fix it; I like a vignette to be honest) for daylight shots and afternoon gloom, if premium quality is a concern software correcting everything upto about 1100 ISO it’s not worth having a second thought about, lens profiles will fix the vignettes and barrel distortion for little to no perceptual penalty; night shots may not fix up well though, and that’s exactly where we’re using 2.8 a lot to try and get as much physical light onto the sensor before having to resort to bumping ISOs and just gaining up the little light we get in circuitry instead of at exposure. Take a dark 1600 shot at 2.8, the automatic correction (lens profile in Lr, etc) can come off fine, but if it was really dark, i.e., not much in the frame rising above 18% grey (half full wells), lens profile correction will introduce a ton of noise. Typically amp noise as a purple fog at the bottom or corners of the frame.
            I understand that the GR doesn’t vignette as much the A, and that is definite plus for it—if this is a concern, to you, of course.

            Close Focus Distance in Regular AF
            Maybe I’ve been using too many quality wides, but the A always surprises me when it won’t find focus on a close object I’d normally assume is well within a 28mm’s close capabilities (28mm EFOV). The point-and-shoot aspect of it may play a role (with only one open eye to a finder you can’t appreciate your objective distance to a subject and getting too close, with a 28 Af-S 1.8G on a D3 say, doesn’t surprise—it just is what it is, you’re concentrating on where you get the green dot and that’s all); but I don’t think it’s really that shooting arms out both eyes open is playing tricks: the close focus distance of the A in regular AF-mode is 50cm! That is way to conservative for my taste.
            There is a macro mode and we can focus down to 10cm, but the focus environment there is a very different beast and only useable for static objects and Etta James Sunday Kinda Love level laid back, unrushed shooting. People in motion, close up, for instance (classic “street” stuff) is impossible in AF macro-mode—if sharp, in-focus photos of the subject are a consideration.
            Not being able to do people in motion at closer than 50cm is a waste since otherwise this would be about as in-the-pocket a street camera as it gets. Pun intended! Nikon’s face-ID and tracking is actually quite useable, but hamstrung by the close focus limit in regular AF and the huge focus deltas the binary search algos have to deal with in Macro… For close-in “street” I tend to put it in MF, stop down as far as I dare, and employ zone focus (reads, “point and shoot, literally!”). The biting, razor-sharpness of the A, though, works against us there; and even stopped down to f/11, that a subject isn’t in the sharpest plane of focus is often apparent. Even at net sizes… would be exactly the same for the GR though.
            Honestly a real shame though this one, of all my cameras, the A is such a breeze to unobtrusively take people close up with–I don’t try and steal a private moment from anyone, I do take though, and have found people are very non-fussed and non-defensive with a little thing like an A in hand, rather than a eye-to-finder type camera… it’s not so much physical size, shutter sound, etc., though these things matter, as much as physical shooting posture –> arms-out is definitely less antagonistic than my-face-is-a-camera eye to finder… I go arms out and play act like I’m making a video of my visit to Tokyo: shade the A’s rear screen with one hand (often necessary actually), hold it out like I’m taking a video of me walking down the street, and wait to see if something or someone interesting comes into frame, then shoot. People tend to be unfazed and comfortable with this, plus they can see you a mile off—if they don’t want in, they will make it obvious with their walking line and body language, and I either put the camera down or return body language to say “no, I’m not going to put you in the frame.” Anyway, before we get into a treatise on street shooting, suffice it to say, this is a big chance missed—a better close focus distance with regular AF would make this camera even better than it already is.

            And I’d like to underline that now—the A is absolutely, gob-smackingly good. I will keep mine, without a doubt—it is about as locked-in in my collection as it gets. I want to be using the A five, even ten years from now (assuming I haven’t shot it to death by then).

            And herein the reasons why I went for an A over the GR

            1) Loyalty. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed by this is any way—that the A is better to me is largely brand loyalty and a kind of faith. For someone who isn’t as into the Cartesian mind-matter divide as most, these psychological considerations are more than “just in the head” to me—take that with a pinch of salt! But on more relatable things—NEFs: I know what I’m doing with a NEF; previous use of a D7000: it was too much for me at the time, and looking back at photos gotten with it I’d always wanted to try again, but not perhaps with the body itself (I have a D3 now and that’s my bar for a camera body); lens: I think Ricoh have good experience and track record with the GR lens and have gotten their best ever iteration on the GRdV, but I just trust Nikon to be better…

            2) Looks. I don’t know about you, but I’m not afraid to say that if a camera doesn’t look cool to me, that’s the end of it. The A looks cooler than the GR. Yes, it does :)

            3) Build quality. Again, this is largely psychological prejudice built on anecdote, but I’ve seen enough broken GR-series (from film though to digital) to just not trust the GR-brand or Ricoh’s competence (in that area). And I’ve only been into photos a year and a half… The GR felt a little flimsy and plasticy to me—especially buttons, knobs, levers, dials; that plus the anecdotal evidence—I couldn’t bring myself to go for one. The other side of the coin—I’m not sure anyone could pick up an A and not feel the build quality. It is well put together and I really would put stock in the “made in Japan” boast Nikon decided to print on the outer-body.

            Those three really, that’s the main reason I didn’t go for a GR; and wouldn’t.

            Let me say though, while I’m a ready advocate for the A and would choose it ten times out of ten over the GR, I think this battle between the GR and A has been won, hands down, by the GR. It has more features (ND filter etc., etc), the admirable firmware update pedigree, a better price and the vaunted monochrome conversions (though, let me say, I do not find the ClpxA’s monochrome conversions hard or tonally objectionable at all—I actually think it’s quite quite good and does well at this. BUT I’m a rank beginner and am not capable of pro-grade quality photography—on these things you just have to trust voices like MT, who really do know what they are doing, and most of them say “the GR is better a mono camera,” so that settles it I think)

            Sorry for a long reply, Thomas, but it’s a Sunday and I’m supposed to be cleaning the spare room, so getting a chance to look busy at the computer is highly desirable :)

            So what priorities did you have that lead you to initially think the A was the one for you? Ultimately, I’d always go with initial gut feeling on these things: either way it’s a ton of money and either way you get a radically capable camera, so make the choice that doesn’t leave any emotional niggles to eat away at you.

            • Hi Tom,
              Thanks for your reply. I hope that I don’t disappoint as, at the moment, I’m not feeling the least bit prolific as a writer. A bit closer to drained or exhausted or gloomy enough to produce the former.
              About those nice compacts, the early questions about color accuracy of the GR was one of the strongest influences on me really. I aim to do more monochrome and the extra leg-up from the GR might be supportive of the aim but I just wasn’t willing to part with color accuracy of the A to get the GR mono advantage. Yes I did see MT’s update about the GR’s color but by then the first impression had been made.
              I’m also own Nikon gear so there was the benefit of familiarity, not there with the Ricoh, but I’d score it as a minor influence. At the end of the day I end up choosing qualities of the product first and put up with becoming acquainted with new brands.
              I was also attracted by the better low-light AF that got mention in “Battle of…”; even though I don’t come anywhere close to restricting myself to low-light shooting, I have noticed that I’ve disproportionately enjoyed some of my past lower-light images.
              The EM-1 (for its mix of weather sealing, size, and IQ) and a trip to Venice both seem to have eclipsed the A and/or GR at the moment. The human might not merit it but I’d even fancy a week-long Otus 55 rental to learn how well it would match up with me. (If I straight-away bought an ART 50 as the coolly rational solution for someone who’s not earning anything in fine-art print sales, I daresay every image probably would niggle at me wondering what if anything was missing.)
              On a good day I wouldn’t consider the A or GR to be terribly expensive, and though the person behind the gear is most important, I do like to use good tools. As a long-ingrained, broadly applied value I like to go more generous on all manner of capital assets when the “things” are productively beneficial to the humans. (Stuff made for people, rather than the other way around.)
              Then there’s context as I’ve experienced a person involved with my business affairs do something involving critical mainstream revenue that’s analogous to sawing the wing off the airplane while mid-flight, and not just any airplane but of course the one we’re riding in. I had very carefully taken pains to explain in advance, repeatedly and without a picosecond of wavering, in very clear and very certain terms, that the action in question must not under any circumstances take place and there was a conscious decision afterward to overthrow my instructions and to do it anyway. After lengthy discussions I learned that the person did not believe me and decided to do what I warned would be disastrous to livelihood of multiple people. Anyway, reminds me of a computer manufacturer I knew of that announced to customers that it would protect their investment by creating a formal system to help customers move to a competitor’s product. No way to stuff that one back into the bag and really hard to avert certain death of the company after that. They’re gone now. Trouble is I’m now living it instead of merely watching.
              On the business side I’m trying perhaps feebly to raise very significant support for a project that does stand a chance to put business on a proper footing again; not fully recovered mind you but at least a positive force strong enough to avoid reaching the bottom of the spiral-down.
              On the personal side IF I could organize a bake-sale in time to still book advance-discount tickets to Venice (and if there’s a seat left, which I don’t presume to know nor hope for), I’m very confident attending one of Ming’s workshops would be fabulous and the workshop has taken clear priority over even a very nice compact.
              But, yes, it was that color accuracy and low light that formed initial impressions that an A would be the fitting personal choice.
              The plentiful number of gorgeous GR images that MT has shown us since then, well, I find them hard to ignore.
              The only weak antidote to the flow of images is to remind myself that Ming very surely would produce equally gorgeous images with the A.

              • “person behind the gear is most important” ==> meant that the skill of the operator is of paramount importance, and in my case the skill of the operator is still assured to be “the limiting reagent.” Just thought I’d better clarify that one!

                • Tom Liles says:

                  Did I mention those as the thin end of the wedge that convinced me life wouldn’t be worth living if I didn’t get one!

                • Kristian Wannebo says:

                  Kittens? :-)
                  .. or a link problem ..

                  • I think you have to be logged in … I saw the generic Flickr cat search when I went through the link on my RSS reader. It’s a search link to all of Ming’s Coolpix A pictures on Flickr. I have the London Dawn picture, BTW. It is one of my favorite pictures (so much so that I made an homage to it except with Los Angeles as the subject), and a testament to the C-A.

                • Precisément. I recall several of those from earlier blog posts. Enjoyed them then, and now. They’re a few of roughly 20,000 reasons to join in on a workshop. :)

              • Tom Liles says:

                Hello again Thomas,

                You write just fine.
                And yes, sod the A! Get a plane ticket to Venice and a spot on MT’s class! No brainer!! :)

                I’m tied down (happily) with a wife and young kids and new house and a sadomasochistic occupation of choice (advertising), so it’ll be a while… Skynet will be online or we’ll all be living in the Matrix… before I can go off galavanting like that. Go do it for the team Thomas!

                To ease my pain I bought a Nikon D2Hs today.

                JFET LBCASTing it up from tomorrow :o :)

                • Tom! Spoiler alert! Now how will I guess which new camera you got?! OK, so why the D2H? I have no idea about any Nikon beyond the current digital line-up, and their ancient film models. As much as I hate the concept of it, I admit to having some kind of weird fascination with the Df, mainly because of its sensor.

                  BTW, I have talked myself out of getting an Xpan for the moment. The market is too hot for that camera right now, and having yet another film camera would be really irresponsible (says the person who said this 3 film cameras ago).

                  • At least in this part of the world, you’d also have to develop the film yourself because of the aspect ratio.

                    The other conclusion I came to was that it’s much easier and cheaper to cut a Hassy V negative in half (or frame for half of it) than buy an Xpan :)

                    • Hmm, good idea, and the Hasselblad is due for a workout soon … Actually, I could probably also use the GA645, and cut off 1/3 of the 4.5cm dimension to get a panoramic aspect ratio. I’d get 4 more exposures than the ‘Blad, too.

                    • Or that :)

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    I wasn’t joking when I mentioned the Exxon tanker above Andre—the D2Hs isn’t even the new camera I mentioned to you in our conversation on Flickr! :o There was/is yet another one before that! :)
                    When I go for it, I really go for it 冏/

                    I think when I post some images from the mystery camera you might guess what it is instantly by the tonality and the way I had to expose/post process the images… I have about another 300 files from a mix of wife’s D60 / GA 645 / SQ / and yet more CoolpixA to get through before tacking the mystery camera’s photographs—and then I will have cleaned up my backlog a bit (though it’s piling up again in the meantime). This cachet of pictures was from two weeks shooting but no time for p/p plus posting. Dangerous stuff.

                    My philosophy still remains: do it all asap — photo/process/post — and get onto the next images. Always the next. The minute I start worrying about things I did months ago, I’m dead I think… More pragmatically, I’m a learner so obsessing about photographs that aren’t worth much in the first place (but are fun and valuable to me, of course so) that doesn’t matter so much as putting camera time. I do view it as being like a pilot, etc., the more practical hours spent shooting, processing and shooting again, the better; and the more new situations that I’m not equipped to handle but can go try again, the better. I’d rather be out shooting than anything. I have seriously considered being a jpeg shooter, sometimes…

                    Just you wait for those files though, Andre. The choice of camera will surely bring a smile to you face :)

                    • You still need a bit of time/ space to be objective in your curation, though. But I agree there’s such a thing as TOO long, and then you forget what you envisioned at the time of shooting.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      I’d actually written a clause on this and then deleted it as I felt like I don’t have the courage of those convictions, but it went along these lines: having been forced to leave a gap between shooting and processing, I gleaned a new appreciation (by extrapolation) for the “shoot/process asap; save posting for much later” school of thought. It most certainly weeds out the weak and less dynamic images.

                      I suppose my worldview is just incompatible: I cultivate ideas of myself being different and choose to act likewise, usually in a contrarian fashion—like Don Quixote tilting at windmills; and the other part of that is that I still consider photographs to be just photographs… that’s not altogether disparaging, simply a “no more, no less” type conviction. This includes ideas about a dedication to the new—it’s worth being excited about a painting or piece of music made a hundred years ago, a photograph? I’m not aesthetically intelligent enough to make that leap. I feel like a photograph is best celebrated by being about now, figuratively. And then forgotten in favor of the next new one (the next moment of “now”)

                      As always, my favorite line, Barthes…

                      Exuberance is better than taste

                    • I use the delay to publishing as an additional filter just in case.

                      My worldview has become much simpler. I used to try to do what I thought would get me advancement or popularity or promotion. Now I just do whatever I want…

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    Andre! I realized I didn’t answer the most important question: why the D2H?

                    I got the Hs, but an H would have been almost equally agreeable—I wanted to make pictures with the wholly Nikon designed (and fabbed?) JFET LBCAST sensor, a CCD. I have a thing for CCDs of late, and started to feel like now is probably last-call on this very interesting and storied technology. The prices are very right for most cameras that have them, so now is the time to enjoy them before they 1) all die, 2) disappear from the face of the digital-imaging earth. CMOS rules the roost and I’m sure all camera makers are going to switch over; well, they already have for the smaller formats, but seeing the Pentax 645Z get a CMOS was a pretty big thing for me: I’m sure the next Leica S-series will get CMOS (they may have already, I don’t keep up with Leica so wouldn’t know) as will (do?) the next generation of PhaseOne and Leaf backs…

                    I have a CCD in the Epson R-D1s I own (Sony unit from 2005) which always rendered very pleasurably; but what really has grown on me is the color rendition of a thing as simple as the 10.2 Mpx unit in my wife’s Nikon D60. The difference is marginal and largely visible only to people into photos and cameras, those who take images more technically seriously than laymen, but I think we can see a more saturated and, for want of a better word, “curvy” output from charge-coupled imaging sensors. There is a definite threshold to get over when activating the signals from the sensor, and as Ming noted once, there just seems to be more interesting things happening in the quarter tones in CCD files. Sometimes — nearly all the time right now — I want that and find rather than faff with my other camera’s RAWs (modern and CMOS) in post, it’s just better to take a RAW with a CCD camera and go from there.

                    I would very much like to try the Kodak family of CCDs—and that may end up with me attempting to buy a Pentax 645D next year or the year after — otherwise perhaps try a much smaller sensor version in the Olympus E1 — as they seem to render very pleasanty. Another Kodak option is Leica M8series or M9series—but for that money, I can can get a 645D, and I’d rather try that. A 645D seems less insane, for what you get, to me than the Ms.

                    I read Ming’s D2H Inspirations from Older Cameras a good while back and the bird photographs always stuck with me. They were certainly products of good metering and excellent post-processing, but as Ming himself often says, all we’re upto in post is enhancing what we already started with. Flickr and general net searching on images coming out of that Nikon created CCD convinced me that it too was an interesting sensor, probably not fully appreciated and cherished in its time. Or now?

                    So of the choices: Pentax645D, Leica digital Ms, Olympus E-1, Nikon D2series; the Nikon made the most sense considering budget, my existing lens arsenal, haptics, AF performance and general shooting performance.

                    The low resolution doesn’t bother me at all and in fact I’m hoping the D2Hs will be a good metering and framing workout for me—I’ll have to learn to meter better (my modern cameras are too good: I can just reclaim a bunch of tones in post) and this will be more rewarding and in the moment, a feeling I always have when I’m shooting film. And I’ll have to improve framing discipline: the high resolution from modern cameras coupled with the powerful post-tools we have meant I’d become more and more blase about being right on the money when framing a photograph—just being more-or-less right has become enough for me, and I’ll straighten things up in post, correct small lateral or vertical misses… It’s not that I’m into perfection, you’ve seen my photostream and you know I’m not, it’s more that the newer cameras have made me lazier, and ultimately that takes a little of the fun away from shooting—the D2Hs is a good way to train and have fun at the same time.
                    (And these skills transplanted back to modern cameras will only make my output with them better)

                    But the supreme reason, the main one, why I got a D2Hs:

                    It just looks f—-in awesome.

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      oh God, forgot to close an itals tag off somewhere :(

                    • Ha! Thanks Tom. Of course, you’ve already heard my suggestion for a CCD-based imaging system: get a film scanner. :)

                      Speaking of framing, because of my recent fascination with panoramas and dissatisfaction with my results from 4:3-ratio cameras (it feels oddly constricting even with wide-angle lenses), I re-read Ming’s aspect ratio/composition essay last night. It’s interesting how revisiting an article after a few months of conscious shooting can reveal a lot of information that one doesn’t get on first reading. Anyway, I’m excited to have a few things to try out on the GA645. Maybe doing something like that might help you, too?

                    • I should do more reposts :P

                    • The 645D prices seem to be falling through the floor. And the older FA glass is pretty darn cheap – $300-350 seems to be average for the normal primes and short teles…

                    • Tom Liles says:

                      Andre, just in the interests of completeness…

                      My choice of a D2Hs was a great one for some of the wrong reasons: the JFET LBCAST is closer in architecture to CMOS and to call it a CCD is a misnomer. Really, it is a standalone technology in its own right and is neither CCD or CMOS.
                      I’m enjoying it so far though I’ve only managed a few test shots around the office—the physical feel of the camera body and buttons are just great, if it had the internal menu logic of the newer Nikons, wow. But this should be taken as a vigorous positive, Nikon is improving our controls over the cameras as they evolve. We just seem to be going backwards on the haptics.

                      Anyway, JFET LBCAST, there you have it—I’m a moron! :)

                • Ha, enjoy that D2Hs,,,

  19. I have not yet found a way justify why someone buy a D4/D4s if it is not for sports/action photography. If the price is a factor, the only advantage of the D4 over a D800 is the speed and the ergonomics. I can see why sports/action photographers buy one, insane burst with great tracking focus, but I just can’t see how this is a good deal for the ones who doesn’t use the 10/11 fps.
    Great photos!

    • Easy – reportage. A similar situation but minus the long lenses…

    • plevyadophy says:

      It’s akin to folks buying sports cars when they don’t have the skill or facility to drive them fast, or buying “urban tractors” (off-road 4 x 4 type vehicles) that never come into contact with mud.

      Sometimes we buy things because they just look or feel better and not necessarily for utilitarian reasons.

      Disclosure:
      I own the class of camera we are here discussing, and I have never shot sport, wildlife or BIF and it is unlikely that I ever will. I like the build quality, feature set and durability of this class of camera (I think Ming illustrates the issues/feeling well when he talks of the difference between buying a Japanese family saloon and a German car). And at year end, I may buy a miniature version in the form of the 0lympus OM-D EM-1.

      • You can also add hardcore photojournalism to that list. I do shoot that, but I’ve done it with the D800E in the past, and will probably do it with the 645Z in the future.

        • plevyadophy says:

          That should be interesting, shooting that with the huge Pentax. I would love to watch that as it is happening; probably the modern equivalent of 1950’s journos shooting with those big cams that let off a puff of smoke each time the flash was fired :)

Trackbacks

  1. […] there’s a little bit of something for everybody here. Enjoy! MT Shot with a Nikon D800E, D4, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus, Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar and a Ricoh […]

  2. […] need a full size file, oversampling and downsizing to 16MP – comparable to say the E-M1 and D4 – will yield some surprises: ISO 51k is very, very clean. It’s so clean I’d say it […]

  3. […] series was shot with a Nikon D800E, Nikon D4, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar. Enjoy! […]

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