Camera Field Review: Nikon D4

Based in Anchorage, Alaska Matt and Agnes Hage ( work together to produce high-caliber active lifestyle and adventure travel photography for clients worldwide.  While they shoot plenty of work in the Chugach Mountains out their back door, they have been known to haul an obscene amount of gear to far away places.  The couple looks forward to collaborating with clients that will push them creatively.  HagePhoto has been recognized for outstanding work by ASMP and Photo District News. They are currently represented by Aurora Photos Novus Select and Wonderful Machine. They were kind enough to give some hints on off-camera lighting, using an image they produced in the foothills of some of the world's most famous mountains.


It was about five years ago that I was eagerly waiting for Nikon to release a digital camera that could match the performance of my venerable F5: quick, durable, precise.  It’s safe to say that we were all pretty psyched to get the D3 and various models when they came out.  Something about that robust magnesium alloy body finally felt right in the hands, like you were using a real tool made for serious work and that could take some abuse.  It’s exciting now to see that series was a rough draft for the new D4 camera released earlier this year.  We received one through Nikon Professional Services the first week of April and have spent the last three months getting to know this new flagship camera on a variety of projects.  We’ve been able to test it out on some fast action and low light work recently as well put the new 1080p HD video to use.  Here’s what we found.

On the surface, the D4 is not as drastic of an upgrade to the D3 as that camera was to previous models (anyone remember the D2H and X?).  It’s a bit faster than the D3 (11 fps compared to 9 fps), a slightly bigger LCD display at 3.2 inches, and even better performance at high ISO’s and low light situations.  The new flagship has thankfully been upgraded to a more respectable resolution for both still imagery and HD video.  Two noticeable changes in the controls might take some getting used to.  Auto focus modes are now changed with a new button on the AF selector switch.  I would count this as an improvement, but has taken some getting used to.  Another positive change is the easy Live View switch on the back that makes it easy to go from still to video.  Lastly, the camera still feels like a serious tool that you could hammer nails with (figuratively speaking, of course), but that’s where the similarities with previous models ends.  When you get into the details of this new camera is when you realize how much of a game changer the D4 really is.


First off, the upgrade in audio and video features make Nikon a serious contender for small footprint multimedia projects.  The camera now shoots industry standard 1080p HD video not only at cinematic 24 fps, but also at 30 and 60 fps.  And you can shoot this at ISO 12,800 with decent results.  This opens up a wide range of creative options for DSLR filmmakers and those of us beginning to test the waters of motion work.  Another big change is the way the D4 handles audio.  Sound can be monitored right on the camera’s LCD display as well as jacked into a headset.  I’ve been told horror stories about trying to get quality audio with other cameras, and the set-up on the D4 is the way to go,  especially since sound is often the most challenging aspect of doing multimedia work.


Even though Nikon touts the D4’s ISO as up to 204,800, a full stop above the D3s, that doesn’t mean much to me.  I’m not one to venture into the ‘HI’ regions of ISO.  But what does score points is the one-stop lower native ISO of 100.  For our type of work, we often try to get the shutter speed down to show motion or get a better flash sync.  You can still crank the dial to ISO 12,800 before going into Hi range.  The D4 produces a noticeably cleaner image at ISO 6,400 or 12,800 than the D3.  This is just looking at what’s on the monitor; I don’t have any science to back this up. Regardless, with a Nikon f/1.4 lens, you can pretty much shoot in the dark.


Probably my favorite overall feature about the new D4 is its speed.  I’m talking about how fast it snaps a lens into focus and how quick it is on tracking that subject.  We don’t make many photographs that don’t have people in them and usually those people are in action.  I was always happy with how quickly the D3 reacted, but its successor seems to want to jump out of its rubberized skin.  The D4 is almost too fast: I cranked it up to 11 (fps that is) on a recent shoot and nearly doubled my time at the editing desk with the amount of photographs that produces.  I’ve since learned to save the high speed setting for only the fastest of action shoots.  The new EXPEED 3 processor is also fast, keeping the buffer clear for all but the longest action sequences.  I’ve successfully shot about 200 images in short, quick bursts without any hang ups from a full buffer, whereas with the D3, I could shoot half that.


My one big gripe about the new Nikon flagship is the swapping out a CF card slot to fit a Sony XQD card.  XQD? What?  I’m a big fan of the dual card slots.  On some jobs there is peace of mind in backing up your work immediately in the camera or designating separate cards for RAW and JPG files.  This is still the case with the D4; right now we’re configured to run video to the XQD card and still images to the CF card.  But it’s curious that Nikon would designate one of its two card slots to a brand new format that may or may not stand the test of time (anyone remember Iomega Zip disks?).  It’s a hassle to need a separate card reader to one XQD card, and I’m not so sure about purchasing more at $128 a pop (one 16GB XQD comes in the box).  As of yet, I don’t see any advantage in using the XQD cards over SanDisk 90MB/s CompactFlash cards.  It looks like nobody else does either as the D4 is the only camera to use it.  Hopefully, we’ll soon see the wisdom in this decision and lavish praise on the poor Nikon executive whose brother works across the hall at Sony.

Overall, the new D4 is what we expected it to be, a next generation D3s.  We’re very happy here at HagePhoto that Nikon kept the focus on speed with its new flagship camera instead of sacrificing quickness for megapixels.  For most of our work, 16MP is perfect and it helps keep our postproduction workflow from getting bogged down.  The $6000 price tag is right at what we justify for a camera of this resolution, but we feel it’s going to be state of the art for a while.

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D3sD4 for videoDownsides of d4HagephotoJoel addamsJuly 2012Matt and agnesMatt hageNikonNikon d4 review