It's Olympic year, and Nikon is releasing its Olympic camera, the D4.
To understand the significance of the D4 release, we need to go back for a moment to the release of the D1, the D2X, and the D3.
The D1 transformed the world of photography for ever. It was the first true digital SLR built from scratch as a digital camera (Kodak had previously rebuilt Canon and Nikon models, but the price was high and the reliability questionable), and photojournalism was transformed for ever. The D1 gave Nikon an immediate lead in the dSLR market, but Canon was not far behind, and Canon was first to market with the 'full-frame' dSLR. Whether or not Canon's full-frame was genuinely better than Nikon's subsequent D2H and D2X was a hotly debated topic. What was certainly true, though, was that white Canon lenses were almost universal at sports events, and in the lead at news events. Sports and news are important for camera brands because they are the most frequent ways in which high-end cameras appear to consumers. Nikon may have done well in positioning their cameras in the X-files and CSI, but Canon had the mind share as well as the market lead. The question was: could Nikon produce something which could compete?
The answer, announced August 2007 to give it time to make it's way into Olympic shooters hands, was the D3. It was Nikon's first 'full-frame' or 'FX' camera. It was a direct challenge to Canon offering 12 MP at 14 bit, and it was the first camera to offer true 6400 ISO with low noise and a boost to 25,600. It was an instant hit, redefined the news and sports markets, and remains unsurpassed in its own terms. The medium-format challenging D3X followed, as well as the small format D700 boasting the same noise characteristics.
Why is that piece of history important? Because the D4 is entering the market with a very different set of challenges from the D3. With the D3, Nikon had (according to some) its final chance to prove it could leapfrog Canon and become again the leading manufacturer of 35mm format dSLRs in the world. With the D4, Nikon's challenges are completely different. The D3 delivered in many ways the perfect camera. Nikon's challenge with the D4 was to produce something which was sufficiently better to make it a compelling purchase for existing D3 shooters, as well as the now smaller pool of potential switchers from other brands.
what's it like, how good is it, and who is it for?
What it's like
The first thing you notice when you get the D4 out for the first time is that, as a D3 shooter, you instinctively know how to use it. It seems to be the same camera, only more so. There's an extra little finger grip on the vertical grip which matches the one on the horizontal, there's a button for Live View instead of fiddling around with the shutter-repeate wheel, and there's a rather better manual/auto switch — it's just M or A: the other options are set through the viewfinder.
Then you start noticing the differences. The auto-focus type is now soft selectable through the viewfinders and the command wheels, not hard-selectable with a separate dial on the back of the camera. The exposure meter pattern is now selectable by pressing the button previously marked 'L' on the D3 (I looked at my D3 today — I can no longer remember what 'L' does, and can't remember ever having used it) and rotating the command wheel. There are two tiny joysticks on the back of the camera. There's an additional red button beside the shutter release, on both vertical and main releases, there's a load of new ports to go with the HDMI and USB, and there's headphone and microphone sockets.
The real surprise, though, is when you decide to charge up the battery. If you try to put the battery into your old D3 charger, it doesn't fit. The connectors are all on the other side. Chances are that Nikon has not done this in order to be annoying. There's is something fundamentally different about the D4 battery, and it's essential that you don't mix them up.
You get the same thing when you open up the card holder. There's still one space for the same type of compact flash as the D3 and the D2X, but there's another, smaller space for a new kind of card: smaller, faster, and spring loaded. It's called XQD.
How good is it?
So much for the changes. They are all for a reason, and the principal reason is the addition of HD video recording as a standard feature on the D4. This is why there are headphone and microphone sockets, why a new, faster kind of card is necessary, why there's an ethernet connection among the other connectors, and why the well-known controls have been moved to soft controls in order to make way for the newly necessary video controls. How good is the video? Good enough to shoot broadcast quality (a lot of TV people I work with are very excited), as long as you connect some kind of pro-quality microphone. Even though — unlike the onboard microphones of video-cassette based DV cameras, which mainly record the sound of the tape going round — the microphone picks up pretty well, it is nowhere near good enough to match the quality of picture if you're aiming for a professional result.
As importantly, all the white balance, ISO, focal depth and length controls for shooting video are identical to the Nikon photographic controls. This differentiates them very sharply from the controls on, say, a Sony HDV camera. If you're a film maker looking to get a dSLR that takes stills and makes film-quality video, then this will be intensely annoying and unintuitive. If you're a photographer who wants to make films, this means that you can use all your image-perfecting skills without having to learn the arcane controls that videographers use, which have evolved from the way that video was recorded on analog tape back in the old days. It also means you don't have to live with the focal depth compromises which videographers live with.
In some ways, video is the stand-out feature of the D4, and in other ways it's just a catch up on a feature that lots of lesser priced cameras already have. On the other hand, you could buy a dedicated broadcast Sony HDV for less than the price of a D4, and you would find it much easier to use with pro-audio equipment.
The D3 and then the D3S were the undisputed kings of the high ISO world. The D4 delivers excellent ISO 6400, decent ISO 12800, and four extra stops of boost. You can do the calculation yourself: 25,600, 51,200, 102,400, 204,800. That's correct. At it's highest setting, the D4 delivers the equivalent of more than 200,000 ISO. Actually it's pretty grainy at that point, and you probably won't want to use it very often. But it means you can shoot in near darkness with a 500mm lens and not get shutter shake, you can shoot in true darkness with a wide-aperture lens, and, in effect, you will never need to use a flash-gun ever again to cope with insufficient light (though you'll still want them to control light).
The real winner is — manual focus
Video and ultra-ISO are great, but the single thing which really annoys me about the D3 is how hard it is to shoot in manual focus. The focusing screens on autofocus cameras are generally not well adapted for the tasks that old-fashioned matte and split field screens were designed for. I haven't been able to reference this anywhere, but there is something different about the D4 focusing screen. You can just about see it in some circumstances where it appears to be ridged in some way. But the result is that it is much, much easier to focus the near-impossible Nikon 500 mm reflex mirror lens. Shooting with the D4, I was able to quickly and accurately focus on moving objects and fleeting images, capturing far more than I ever could before. If you rely on manual focusing with difficult lenses, this is probably enough to sell you the D4 on its own.
Megapixels, FTP and HDR
There's more stuff, if it's stuff you want.
The images are 16 MP, unless you shoot in DX or one of the other smaller modes. To be honest I wasn't really able to evaluate the benefits, because neither Capture One nor DxO yet have D4 modules so I wasn't able to play with the RAW images. However, I'm informed that DxO labs have rated the D4 as the third most optically perfect camera ever made, after the D800 and one medium format camera. That's pretty good. 16 MP is a funny sort of size. It isn't sufficiently bigger than the previous sweet spot 12 MPs (big enough to shoot a billboard) to make a huge difference. However, it does put it head to head with the Canon stuff.
More interesting if you're shooting news, the D4 comes with an ethernet socket so you can plug it straight into a network and use it as a server or an FTP uploader. In principle this means you could plug in a third party ethernet wifi adaptor, and not have to buy the expensive Nikon ones. I'm sure it's not designed for that purpose, but it certainly opens a lot of doors.
There's built in HDR, and a more elaborate set of options for Active D-lighting. The focusing on Live View is better. You can shoot 100 RAW images in a row before the buffer fills up, and you can shoot at 10 frames per second in full frame mode. The sensor also cleans itself, if you want it to.
Who's it for?
So, who is this amazing camera aimed at?
This is a slightly difficult question. Pure news and sports shooters are probably already happy with their D3s. Studio photographers may well be more interested in the medium format challenging resolution of the D800. Videographers will still find a dedicated video camera a more attractive proposition. On the other hand,the D4 is a camera which offers more or less everything. Low-light, high(ish) resolution shooting, with 1080p HD video, perfect manual focus and network connectivity. The only issue — if you want to own the most advanced camera ever created — is the price. At more than £5,000 GB, it's more than most second-hand cars. It's a month's after-tax salary for many top 5% earners. It's two months salary for most working photographers. And it will be obsolete in four years time when Nikon produces the D5 in time for the 2016 Olympics.
On the other hand, with an optical rating by DxO labs above almost every Hasselblad ever built, top ISO in excess of 200,000 and essentially noise-free at 25,600, this may well be the last camera you will ever need to buy.
A tricky decision indeed.
More articles that might interest you