The Nikon D4, the company's update to its D3S pro body, kicks it up a notch in all respects -- higher-resolution sensor, faster continuous-shooting performance, better and more flexible video quality, and a host of attractive new features.
Without question the D4's photo quality is excellent, with a great noise profile. Its JPEGs look clean as high as ISO 1600, and are decent at ISO 3200 -- there you start to see some detail degradation -- and usable at ISO 6400, depending upon content. I compared the in-camera NR off to the normal at ISO 1600, and didn't really see much of a difference in the JPEGs. There's a noticeable bump in artifacts between ISO 3200 and ISO 6400.
But rather disappointingly, the artifact profile for JPEGs doesn't look quite as good as the D3S' at sensitivities below ISO 12800. Although better by the numbers than the D3S's JPEGs at ISO 12800 and above, I wouldn't suggest using the JPEGs beyond ISO 6400. On the upside, shooting raw yields significantly better shots at higher sensitivities.
Color rendering looks great as well. The default Standard Picture Control boosts saturation a little, but not enough to induce hue shifts; it does increase contrast to the point where you do lose a bit of shadow detail, however. If you decide to go Neutral, it preserves some of the tonal range, but I recommend boosting sharpness a bit from the Neutral defaults. Bright, saturated colors that are heavy in the red channel can end up with clipped highlights, but raw files retain all the detail, and in general the camera preserves enough highlight and shadow detail in the raw for good recovery in really high-contrast images without introducing noise in the shadows or too much contouring in the highlights.
|Click to view||ISO 100
I'm not thrilled with the video quality: It's very good, but for $6,000 I expect wow. In bright light it's relatively soft, albeit with a decent tonal range, and no visible artifacts like rolling shutter or moiré. In dim light (high ISO sensitivities) it stays pretty clean without clipping too much in the shadows or highlights, but once again looks soft.
The Nikon D4 is one of the fastest cameras I've ever had the pleasure of shooting with, though it falls short of perfection. It powers on, focuses, and shoots almost instantaneously -- definitely faster than our ability to measure it confidently. It seems to perform every operation in our tests in about 0.2 second: time to focus and shoot in both bright and dim conditions, as well as two sequential shots in raw, JPEG, and even TIFF. We clocked continuous shooting at 9.8 frames per second for JPEGs, but in practice that held as well for long bursts of raw+JPEG, too.
The D4's autofocus system is mostly excellent, locking quickly and usually accurately in both single and burst shooting, for fixed subjects as well as while panning. The dynamic and tracking focus options still tend to get a little distracted by the background, but unlike some cameras the D4 maintains the display of the center point (when that's the setting) during continuous AF, which really helps. However, despite gaining a stop of sensitivity in low light, centerpoint autofocus at f2.8 remains more frustrating than I expect for a camera in this price range and with these specs -- especially one of which the single most important distinguishing characteristic should be speed. (The variations of AF point sensitivities are too complex to go into here. For a complete description, check out pages 75-76 of the PDF manual.) Also, the sluggish Live View autofocus just makes me sad.
One of the nice aspects of cameras in this class is the dual card slots; in the case of the D4, one CompactFlash and one, a new technology that thus far has no other camera adopters. I've got mixed thoughts about its inclusion here. On the upside, it's fast -- a lot faster than SD at this point. But so is the 100MBps CF, and as far as I can tell you gain no in-camera performance improvements over that from it, and you lose compatibility. However, when using a USB 3.0 XQD reader the downloads are very fast.
Design and features
Like other vertically gripped pro bodies, the D4 is big and heavy, with the same rugged and sealed construction as its predecessor. If you're a perpetual telephoto-lens schlepper, that probably won't matter to you -- most of the big glass weighs even more than the body -- but other folks should keep in mind that single-height pro bodies are pretty fast, and are lighter even equipped with an optional vertical grip, which can usually hold an extra battery as well.
The D4 deviates slightly from the D3S in control design and layout, mostly to incorporate the addition of necessary video controls, but with only one exception do I think you'll need to retrain your muscle memory. On the top left shoulder are the usual bracketing, metering and flash option buttons, accompanied by the locked dial with drive modes. Joining the information-packed status LCD, power switch/shutter, and exposure compensation and mode buttons on the top right shoulder is a tiny but physically differentiable record button. This is one of my least favorite locations for a record button; I much prefer operating it with my thumb.
As with other Nikon dSLRs, the autofocus area selector has moved to a button-dial combination, with the button on the autofocus mode switch on the left side of the body near the lens. This makes room on the back for a Live View button with a switch for toggling between still and video operation. I like the control design, but find it too far down and toward the middle of the back of the camera: it's underneath the LCD, next to the second status LCD (dedicated to ISO sensitivity, image quality, and white balance). The Nikon D7000 still has the best implementation of this.
Down the left side of the LCD sit the menu, Picture Control, zoom in, zoom out, OK, and info buttons. The info button brings up the onscreen display with direct access to some less frequently changed settings, such as choosing from the shooting and custom settings banks (four each), custom button programming, noise-reduction settings, and Active D-Lighting options. On the right side are the AF-on button, programmable joystick (the subselector), and eight-way rocker switch (multiselector) with a button in the middle and lock switch below. When you rotate to vertical orientation there's a duplicate AF-on button and subselector.