Right around 2.5 years after the introduction of Nikon's most recent game-changer (yeah, we're bragging about the D3S), its proper successor has emerged. Without qualification, the amount of hope and expectation surrounding the Nikon D4 was immense. In a way, most Nikonians were (perhaps foolishly) expecting the D4 to be to the D3S what the D3S was to the D3, and we'll confess that we were cautiously saving up precious pennies in the event that the game was changed yet again.
For better or worse, the actual specifications of the D4 ended up as hardly worth writing home about, with an ISO range mirroring that already seen on the D3S, a megapixel rating lower than that of the cheaper D800 and a battery rated for fewer snaps than the outgoing D3S. All at an MSRP that's starting at $800 above where the D3S started. You'll notice a lot of comparisons throughout this article with the Best Camera of 2009, but that's intentional; yours truly has spent the last 2.5 years using the D3S for business and pleasure, and it's only logical to pit the D4 against a camera that has become molded to many palms here at Engadget HQ. Is the D4 a worthy upgrade? Or even a worthy successor? Let's find out.
Nikon D4 hands-on gallerySee all photos
Non-technophiles probably wouldn't be able to distinguish the D4 from D3S at first blush, and even avid users may need more than a passing glance to tell the difference. While there are subtle changes all around the body, the D4 is still a monster. In other words, those hoping for technology to magically shrink the size of this thing will be sorely disappointed. It's worth pointing out, however, that Nikon has shaved 2.1 ounces from the weight, which is just enough to be noticeable the first time you grab it (coming from someone who has touched a D3S on a near-daily basis for over two years, anyway).
Those familiar with the D3S layout will only require a short learning period to understand the layout on the D4. The Live View button has been ever-so slightly moved, and there's now a dedicated video record button just north of the main shutter button. Not surprisingly, these are likely due to the D4's warming to HD video; this guy supports 1080p capturing (20 minute cap in 24p; 30 minute cap in 30p), while the D3S stops at 720p (and is limited to five minute clips). We honestly can't say that the repositioning of buttons on the D4 makes life any more or less beautiful; it's just... different. We do appreciate the two customizable multi-directional nubs on the rear, and we're happy to say that the infinitely useful toggle wheels are as solid and durable as ever.
While there are subtle changes all around the body, the D4 is still a monster.
The added thumb bumper along the bottom, which was implanted in order to provide a better grip when using the D4 vertically, is indeed a useful extra. Referencing back to the D4's penchant for shooting movies, there's also a very welcome microphone input (as well as a built-in mic for amateur captures). Perhaps the most jarring hardware change is the built-in Ethernet jack. We've covered the purposes of that rather extensively, but it strikes us as something that will benefit an incredibly small amount of shooters. Not that we've a problem with serving a niche, but we're assuming this is one thing that added undue cost to the overall package -- something we'll address more in a bit.
One other interesting change here is the deletion of dual CompactFlash slots as seen on the D3S. Instead, users are presented with a single CF slot alongside an XQD slot. A few years from now, perhaps XQD will look like a more intelligent option, but it seems super awkward as-is. This move will almost certainly force shooters to now carry around two card readers -- you may think that's no big deal, but a single extra thing to remember will almost certainly rub rushed professionals the wrong way. It's also impossible to buy a single XQD card over 32GB right now, while SanDisk is hawking a CompactFlash card with 128GB of room. Sure, the transfer rates can hit 125MB / sec (compared to 100MB / sec on the aforementioned SanDisk ExtremePro), but it's still tough to see the logic here. On the bright side, at least Nikon didn't shove a pair of XQD slots in here and force existing users to burn their CF cards in some sort of dark, hate-filled ritual.
We break this out mostly because of just how fantastic this feature is on Canon's own flagship, the EOS 5D Mark III. Over there, "Silent Shooting" can be used even in high-speed shooting, effectively silencing bursts of shots in an auditorium where you'd be ejected if shooting with the typical, highly audible "click." On the D4, you actually have to move the mode dial beyond High-Speed Low and High-Speed Continuous, over to a dedicated "Quiet" mode. Here, you can only fire a single shot per shutter press, and each shutter click is delayed quite noticeably. Introducing even an eighth of a second into a nighttime shot can produce enough motion blur to ruin the moment, and worse still, this "Quiet" mode is really anything but.
In fact, it's probably 80 percent as audible as the standard click, but it drags on for what feels like forever. The standard click is over and done with instantly; the Quiet click is more like a loud sloshing noise that takes two or three times as long to finally fall silent. Under no circumstance would we recommend flipping to Quiet mode; you lose valuable shutter speed time, barely gain any noise reduction and pick up a click that will likely be even more noticeable by bystanders simply because of how obnoxious the sound is. These days, most folks at a venue can easily tune out a familiar sound -- a baby crying, a camera clicking or a gentleman coughing -- but this sloshing sound is impossible to ignore. We hate to say it, but Canon has Nikon beat six ways from Sunday on this one, and it's a shame; there are untold scenarios where professional Nikon shooters could use an effective quiet mode.
Longing for a higher resolution panel over the D3S? Fuhgetaboutit. In fact, get ready for a panel with even worse pixel density. The D4 uses the same amount of pixels (91,000) in the D3S, but has a display that's 0.2-inches larger (3.2-inches versus 3.0-inches on the D3). It looks crisp and sharp, but it's hardly an upgrade. We will confess that zooming into shots up to 46x makes previewing on-the-fly a bit easier, but an increase in megapixel count means that you'll be wishing you had more dots on the rear of this thing.
ISO 25,600 and beyond
As with the EOS 5D Mark III from Canon and Nikon's own D3S, you can indeed snap usable images at ISO 25,600. You won't want to blow 'em up and toss them on a wall, but for web usage (or just capturing blur-free memories for yourself or clients), it's at least possible. Anything at 12,800 or below is completely printable, and while you'll see visible noise on dark shots using ISO 8,000 or above, it's remarkably minor in the grand scheme of things. Even shots at ISO 51,200 could probably be used on the web, and shots at ISO 102,400 to 204,800 (Hi 1.0 through 4.0) quite literally allow you to capture subjects in near-pitch darkness... handheld.
But here's the thing: this isn't nearly as spectacular as it was in late 2009. When the D3S arrived, its nighttime abilities were unprecedented in the sub-$6,000 camera market. Fast forward two and a half years, and the D4 makes no major forward leaps when snapping after dark. Yes, autofocus can find its subject in the dark (perhaps with a touch more accuracy than the D3S), but we'd argue the nighttime capabilities of the D3S are at least 98 percent as stellar as on the D4. The additional quantum leap in nighttime shooting simply isn't here. Perhaps we can be faulted for expecting too much, but that's a bullet we'll happily take in the quest for the next true game-changer.
Fast forward two and a half years, and the D4 makes no major forward leaps when snapping after dark.
That aside, the results at 25,600 and up are just as amazing as on the D3S. The shots below were captured entirely at ISO 25,600 and up, with no tripod used. It's all handheld, and it's all at night. Also, no post-production (Lightroom, Photoshop, etc.) assistance was given.
It was actually far darker outside than this shot would lead you to believe, but shooting at ISO 25,600 pulled in that last inkling of light leading to a seemingly blue sky.
Chances are fairly high you can make out the hood ornament here, despite shooting a notch into the boosted ISO range.
Interior lights can be extremely dim, and these were captured at 1/125 second in order to keep things from blurring.
This shot almost ended up overexposed, when in reality there were no overhead lights on in the building. The light here was grabbed solely from semi-nearby windows.
HD video capture
Perhaps the most significant capturing update to the D4 compared to the D3S comes on the video side. There's still no autofocus mode here when looking at video, but the ability to capture 1080p24 and 1080p30 with length caps as high as 30 minutes makes it immediately more useful than the D3S. That guy was capped at just five minutes of 720p. What's clear is that -- in the right hands -- the D4 is capable of capturing insanely beautiful content. There's practically no jelly effect (a problem that doomed the D90's ability to be taken seriously as a video machine), and the ability to affix your own external microphone will surely tempt professional still shooters who have always wondered what they'd do with a formidable video mode.
That said, we can't really envision too many people coughing up six large to use the D4 predominantly as a video rig; if we had to guess, we'd say the value proposition of spending a grand more and getting two Mark IIIs for multi-angle shooting is far greater. At any rate, there's a video below cooked up by a professional, followed by a novice clip showing what's produced straight out of the camera without any color tweaking or post-processing to speak of.
Image quality and focusing
We'll keep it short and sweet here: the image quality is truly remarkable on the D4. But here's the rub: it's just as remarkable on the D3S and EOS 5D Mark III, both of which are markedly cheaper. The color reproduction is just mind blowing at ISO levels below 8,000, and even between 8,000 and 12,800, the wash-out that emerges is applaudably minor. As with the 5D Mark III reviewed just weeks ago, we'd also trust the D4 to capture even the most vital of shots at any ISO beneath 12,800, which is hugely empowering when shooting dimly lit scenes.
But again, it's here that we'll remind you that we said the exact same thing about the (cheaper) D3S some 2.5 years ago. We'll let the images below speak for themselves, but suffice it to say, you'll be hard-pressed to blame the equipment for any lackluster shots that emerge from the D4.
Nikon D4 sample imagesSee all photos
You'll be hard-pressed to blame the equipment for any lackluster shots that emerge from the D4.
Nikon's autofocus system is improved, but only marginally. It's still a 51-point system, and while it's capable of finding objects in darker conditions, it still pales in comparison to Canon's 61-point system on the 1D X and 5D Mark III. That said, it's dead-on accurate in use and never left us wanting, but again, the 51-point system on the D3S never did either. (Perhaps you're noticing a trend.)
Here's an interesting one: the battery in the D4 is actually rated to take fewer shots on a full charge than the one in the D3S. You read that right, but there's an explanation waiting in the wings. The EN-EL4 and EL4a used in the D3 range is rated at 4,200 shots by CIPA, while the EN-EL18 (meant for the D4) is rated by the same entity for 2,600 shots. As the story goes, new battery guidelines out of Japan forced Nikon to design the EL18 differently, and CIPA estimates shots by firing a single shutter, waiting a bit and then repeating. Nikon seems to assume that most D4 users won't be using their camera in that manner, and if used in rapid-fire scenarios, the EL18 is actually estimated to last longer than the EL4 in the D3 line.
My wife and I carried both the D4 and D3S to a 10-hour wedding shoot, and both were left in the "On" position for at least 90 percent of the day. At the shoot's close, both batteries showed two bars of life left, but the D4 only captured 800 shots while the D3S captured nearly 1,800. That's real-world results, folks, and it's extremely disappointing to see a newer, more expensive Nikon DSLR ship with a battery that actually performs worse than the unit it's replacing. As if that wasn't unfortunate enough, the EL4 and EL4a are not compatible with the D4, nor the D4's charger. So, users hoping to upgrade to a D4 from a D3 will not be able to use their existing D3 battery in their new camera. Oh, and did we mention that the EL18 is currently priced around $70 more than the (more impressive) EL4a? Bah, humbug.
We wanted to adore the D4. In fact, we can vividly recall wondering weeks after the D3S' release just what on Earth Nikon would do to one-up it. Turns out, it's not exactly easy to revolutionize the photographic world twice in less than three years. The D4 is simply a refined D3S, with a smattering of features that may lure in new customers who passed over the D3S for one reason or another. Color reproduction, autofocusing and handling are practically identical to the D3S, and while the addition of an Ethernet jack, 1080p movie mode and an external microphone jack are appreciated, they won't justify the $5,999 price tag for the bulk of buyers.
Even if the EOS 5D Mark III didn't exist, we'd still recommend the $5,199 D3S over the D4 for anyone who wouldn't routinely take advantage of tethered Ethernet action or the 1080p movie mode. When looking strictly at image quality and nighttime capabilities, there just aren't $800 worth of improvements here. And even for folks who will be forking out six grand to utilize one of the few truly new features on the D4, you'll be doing so while knowing that your money really isn't buying a significant upgrade in the low-light performance arena. Another way of looking at the D4 is this: the D3S is the D4's worst enemy. Nikon created such a transformational product in the D3S, that the D4 feels more like something that was produced to meet product cycle requirements than something designed to blow the doors off of Canon, Olympus, et al. once more.
The other harsh reality here is that the full-frame EOS 5D Mark III does exist, and it's currently selling for $3,499. That's $2,500 less than the D4, folks, and the savings you'll see by opting for it is more than enough to pick up one or two high-end lenses. There's simply no way for most users to justify the enormous price delta here, and even if you're beholden to Nikon due to a substantial lens investment, most everyone looking to make the leap to full-frame -- hardcore videographers notwithstanding -- are still better off grabbing a D3S on closeout. You might argue that Canon's 1D X is a more sensible opponent, and at $6,800, it's certainly closer in terms of price, but that beast justifies its MSRP with faster burst shooting, more AF points, a native ISO ceiling of 51,200 and a far, far more flexible HD movie mode.
P.S. - For more specialized takes on the D4, be sure to give our More Coverage section below a solid look!
What's a field review, you ask? Essentially, the term serves to clarify that our analysis is based on real-world usage, and that it, however regrettably, won't include the thorough benchmarking a camera of this caliber may ordinarily require. It's a perfectly suitable assessment by a photographer that's spent many hours operating similar equipment, but given the cost and sophistication of such a piece of machinery, we would recommend that professionals also consider reviews from other sources before making a purchase.