21 October 2013

Review: The Nikon D4 after more than a year of usage

I've been using the D4 for over a year now, so it is high time I evaluated it and gave it a practical review (as compared to my earlier, more theoretical, review based on pre-production models).

When the D4 was introduced, I was happy about many of its improvements. But there was also slight disappointment; not all I would have wanted to see in the new camera was done. And when I compared the new specs to Canon's 1Dx, I was almost tempted to switch (not really, but it goes to show how much I appreciated the improvements Canon put in their flagship camera). No wonder it took me 8 months to decide to finally buy the D4 as my primary camera, making the D3 a good second body for added flexibility (and backup). Great e.g., when shooting wildlife when having different focal lengths at the ready can be very helpful.

In the past year I have been using the D4 (and D3) in a wide range of shoots, from interior and architecture to wildlife. Both in good an (very) bad light. So how did the D4 hold up?

Noise

Hazel Grouse (Tetrastes bonasia)
Shot at ISO 6400, click to see crop at 100%
Though the D3 was no slouch at low light/high ISO photography, I had higher expectations of the D4 (certainly as the D3s already showed there was room for improvement here). I was not disappointed: with the D4 I am happily shooting up to ISO 6400 without bothering about noise, where with the D3 I was reluctant to go beyond ISO 3200. Sure there is visible noise at pixel level, but not only can you get rid of that by applying some mild noise reduction, it won't really show up in print anyway. I am picky by the way, and strive for optimal quality and resolution. If you're not too fussed about losing a bit of resolution, you can apply some more noise reduction and have adequate shots up to ISO 12800 for sure! Not bad.

An interesting note here is that from more than one Nikon / Canon switcher I have heard the story that they find their 1Dx to best the Nikon in the noise department. To be honest, I don't think this to be true though; it is a well known fact that where Nikon takes a very mild approach to in-camera processing, Canon is much more aggressive. I find it therefore very likely that Canon's results have had much more noise reduction applied than Nikon's and if you would apply the same noise reduction to both, Nikon's results should look at least as good. In this respect I trust the purely technical and objective measurements as done by DxO labs.

Verdict: Positive

Video

With the D4 I now finally have a camera capable of video. I'm not much of a videographer (yet?), but I have shot a couple of video's with it and all I can say is that I'm quite happy. Especially the 2.7x crop mode where 1 video pixel is exactly one sensor pixel is very nice as it allows you to massively zoom in to your subject. Below video was shot in Denmark with a 600mm/f4 lens using the 2.7x crop mode, making it effectively a 1620mm lens, quite impressive…



Verdict: Positive

Handling

Here I can basically repeat what I wrote in my earlier report: I've always liked the handling of Nikon cameras, the new D4 has improved this even more. Especially the minor changes to the layout of the D4 as compared to the D3/D3s are very nice. Buttons are even better positioned and, the D4 held vertically now handles (almost) exactly as when held horizontally. The extra knob for changing the focus point took a bit of getting used to, but now I can no longer envision working without it! It's position and the fact that one is present in both horizontal and vertical orientation of the camera make this a really great addition.

On the handling side of things, the D4 now is finally capable of taking a series of bracketed shots in one go when using the self timer. Something Canon has had implemented for a long time already. Coupled with the exposure delay mode (minimising blur due to mirror-slap), you basically don't need to use a cable release any longer when taking bracketed shots for e.g., HDR photography. Nice.

Verdict: Positive

Memory Cards and Speed

Ok, it took an extra investment of a couple of new XQD cards and a card reader, but man, these new cards really fly! Shooting at ten frames a second for 7.5 seconds before your buffer runs out is really something. So much better than the just two seconds I had with the D3 (sure I could have invested in the buffer upgrade, but I thought €500 a bit much for it). The fast (and big) cards are also a boon for videographers. It is therefore surprising to see no other camera is yet using the new XQD format. Ah well, at least we now have a choice in cards from either Sony or Lexar which has brought down prices slightly.

Verdict: Neutral to Positive

Batteries

Due to regulation changes in Japan, Nikon was forced to downgrade their very high capacity batteries to lower capacities. This has led to much aggravation amongst photographers as you ended up with yet another charger and set of spare batteries to buy (and they are not cheap!). The stupid thing was that even though the form factor stayed the same, there was no way to charge your old (e.g., D3) batteries with the new D4 charger. A big mistake. Interestingly there now seems to be an accessory available from Nikon to allow this, trouble is this BT-A10 adapter only works with a new MH-26a charger, not with the original D4 charger (MH-26). Sigh.

Verdict: Negative

Auto Focus

The specifications promised us better autofocus. And in one respect they certainly did deliver: I can use the autofocus under much worse lighting conditions than I could before. In this respect, the new AF system is definitely, and welcome so, improved.

What matters for me most though is the ability to follow a moving subject and keeping that in focus. Nikon was always well respected in this area, especially compared to Canon who were struggling here a bit sometimes. My hopes where therefore quite high.

I can't say I'm overwhelmed though. In fact, I have the feeling the D4 might actually be slightly worse than the D3 in this respect. The D4 does seem to focus faster, but it doesn't seem to follow as well as the D3. This is just a feeling though and I haven't done any scientific testing here. It is probably also the case that I am pushing my gear a bit more than before, but still. It kinda makes me jealous of the Canon 1Dx which I hear really shines in this area…

Verdict: Negative to Neutral

Conclusion

I do like the D4, and it certainly was a great upgrade to my D3, but I still think Nikon could (should) have done better in a lot of respects.

End verdict: Neutral to positive

Here's a (non-exhaustive) list of remarks/findings:

Positive

  • Two axis virtual horizon – no more need for a separate bubble level
  • Self timer multi shot – mostly gets rid of the requirement of a cable release
  • Buffer size – being able to shoot for 7.5 seconds at 10fps is awesome
  • Video – Full HD and a very versatile 2.7x crop mode
  • Noise – The ability to shoot up to ISO 6400 without too much noise is awesome
  • Auto ISO – Very easy to switch between auto and non-auto ISO
  • Ergonomics – Improved over the D3 (which was already good), the extra button for changing the focus point is also welcome

Neutral

  • Megapixels – 16 is adequate, would have liked around 20 better though
  • Frame rate – 10fps is nice
  • Battery life – even though the battery is of lower capacity, I still get about the same number of shots as with my D3
  • Memory cards – XQD is really nice and fast but its a new format and only one slot is XQD, the other is still CF

Negative

  • Auto focus – doesn't seem to be as good as hoped
  • Saving settings – the use of memory banks for saving common settings is still a mess (luckily you don't really need them much as all frequently changed settings are at the press of a button anyway)
  • Battery – while I can sort of live with the fact that Nikon had to introduce a new battery, I can not live with the fact that you can't charge your old batteries in the new charger
  • Auto ISO – Why oh why do they still not allow you to configure you auto ISO settings from the “my menu”?

Wishes

  • Fix all the negative points (some should even be doable in a firmware update, I think)
  • More megapixels so DX crop is still usable
  • A separate shooting menu for video and photography (so you can have e.g., different white balance settings, colour space, picture control, etc. for video an photo)

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