Back on August 23, 2007, Nikon announced the D3 with a lot of fanfare, inviting the press from around the world to Tokyo for the occasion. The D3 was Nikon’s first full-35mm-frame digital SLR that Nikon refers to as the FX format. Its fast AF and ground-breaking high-ISO capabilities at the time instantly made it popular among professional news and sports photographers. During the Beijing summer Olympics the following year, roughly half of the sports photographers were seen using the D3 with those black Nikon super-teles, finally putting Nikon back among the leaders for pro news and sports photography after almost two decades of dominance by Canon.
Now four years later with the London summer Olympics coming up, Nikon is introducing its next-generation sports DSLR the D4. From the angle of still-image capture, the D4 is more an evolution from the D3 and the subsequent D3S (introduced in October, 2009) with small but welcome improvements in many areas. The big difference is video-capture capability, which did not even exist on the D3 four years earlier and was very basic on the D3S. Still/video/audio multi-media capture is clearly Nikon’s marketing theme for the D4.
The D4 has a similar high-quality construction as the D3 with a slightly lower profile around the viewfinder. Its sensor is a 16.2MP one designed by Nikon, up slightly from 12MP on the D3/D3S. The normal ISO range is from 100 to 12800 where the high-end is the same as that for the D3S (200 – 12800), but the D4 has an extended ISO range from 50 (low 1) to 204800 (high 4). The frame rate also goes up slightly from 9 to 10 per second, 11 if the exposure is locked.
The D4’s AF module continues to be the Multi-CAM 3500, as on the previous high-end Nikon DSLRs, but the sensitivity on the center AF points is extended down to f8, making it compatible with 300mm/f4, 500mm/f4 and 600mm/f4 lenses with a TC-20E teleconverter on for an effective maximum aperture of f8. Dynamic AF with 3D tracking is improved with a 3D color-matrix meter with 91K dots for better scene recognition and tracking on finer details.
The Multi-CAM 3500 is a proven performer for sports, news, and wildlife type action photography over the last four years. There is no doubt about its capability for sports. On the full FX frame, the 51 AF points are more concentrated to the center of the frame. In particular, the 15 cross-type AF points are in the center 3 columns of 5. In the portrait orientation, the lack of cross-type AF points near the top of the frame where a subject’s face and eye tend to be could become an issue under indoor dim-light conditions, such as weddings. I was hoping that Nikon would add more cross-type AF points for the portrait orientation, but it looks like the Multi-CAM 3500 with stay with us for another generation of Nikon DSLRs. When that same AF module is on a DX-format DSLR such as the D300, it provides more even coverage across the entire frame.
Similar to the D2 and D3 before it, the D4 has a rugged camera body with weather sealing. The shutter is rated to 400K actuations, up 33% from its predecessors. The viewfinder has a slightly lower profile so that the camera is shorter in the middle compared to the D3.
One of the obvious changes to the controls is that the matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering selector and the AE-L/AF-L button (Auto Focus and Auto Exposure Locks) are absent. Instead, the D4 has two new “joy stick” buttons that are programmable. They are at convenient locations for access while holding the camera horizontally and vertically, respectively. I am sure that we will learn more about those buttons’ capabilities when the D4 is available. The two AF-ON buttons (again for horizontal and vertical) remain.
The column of buttons to the left of the 3.2" LCD has one more button than on the D3. Similar to the D700 and D300/D300S, the D4 has separate buttons to enlarge and reduce the image on the back LCD during review. (On the D2 and D3 families, you hold down one button on the left and rotate the main command dial on the right to enlarge and reduce.) I prefer the faster one-hand operation using separate buttons, and now the D4’s control is consistent with the lower-end cameras. On the front side, the traditional Single Servo, Continuous Servo, and Manual Focus switch is now simply AF and M, just like the D7000. Occasionally there are complaints about accidentally touching that switch and therefore changing the setting unintentionally, especially on the D300. This modification should also be a good improvement.
On the D4, the control buttons are back lit, making them easier to use under dim light.
I was a bit surprised that the D4 has no built-in GPS capability. Similar to existing Nikon DSLRs, it works with the external (and optional) Nikon GP-1 and other compatible GPS units.
The one area the D4 has improved drastically from its predecessors is its video/audio capability. The D4 can capture 1080p HD video at 30 or 24 fps or 720p at 60 fps for slow-motion video for up to 20 minutes. The camera can use the full FX frame, DX (1.5x crop), or CX (2.7x crop, size of the Nikon 1 mirrorless camera sensor) to produce HD video. Nikon’s contrast-detect AF has improved drastically in the last few years as demonstrated by the recent V1 and J1 mirrorless cameras. There is little doubt that those improvements are incorporated into the D4. Exposure can be controlled manually during video capture, and raw HD video without compression can be transmitted to outside of the camera via the HDMI port, without first saving on the memory cards.
The D4 uses a new EN-EL18 Lithium-ion battery and has two memory card slots. One slot fits the traditional Type 1 Compact Flash card (UDMA-7 compatible) and the other the new XQD card. The two slots have the usual overflow, backup, and RAW/JPEG options common to all Nikon DSLRs with two memory card slots such as the D3, D300S, and D7000. XQD is a brand new memory card standard just announced last month (December, 2011) and currently not yet available on the market (as of early January, 2012). Depending on card availability, this can potentially be an issue in the early days of the D4, and most likely XQD memory cards will be expensive initially. Photographers may have to settle for using just the CF card during the interim.
Four years ago, the D3 was revolutionary as a sports/action still-image DSLR. It was the first Nikon SLR that has more than 11 AF points, and it made a big jump to 51. The D3’s high-ISO capability was amazing compared to that from its predecessors the D2H/D2X. Concerning its still-image capture abilities, the D4 is more an evolution with slightly improved AF and essentially the same high-ISO capability as the D3S with a modest increase in pixel count, plus a lot of small refinements. While I have not tested a D4 yet, I typically discount the extended Hi ISO range, which produces very marginal results. The D4’s AF system is essentially the same as the D3’s with some small improvements for slower f8 lenses. The frame rate, again, going from 9 fps to 10 or 11 is a small gain.
While the D3 has no video capability and the D3S’ is basic, the D4 is a capable HD video camera as well with plenty of options and professional audio features. Exactly how well all of those new features perform will have to be tested, but for those pros who need to capture both still and video, the D4 is clearly a big improvement from the D3/D3s. If you are only interested in still-image capture, the D3S remains reasonably current compared to the new D4.
When Nikon introduced the first D1 back in 1999, the price tag was US$5500. It went down to $5000 for the D2X and D3 and then back up to $5200 for the D3S. The $6000 price tag for the D4 is higher but is still in the same price range; it probably reflects some of the recent surge of the Japanese yen. There should be little doubt that along with its main rival the Canon 1DX, the new Nikon D4 will shine in London during the summer games in July and August this year.
The 85mm Nikon lenses have been popular among portrait photographers for decades. They are now adding a new f1.8 AF-S version with a very affordable price tag of $499.95. That is a fraction of the cost of the top-of-the-line 85mm/f1.4 G AF-S (about $1700). The new lens has a seven-blade aperture diaphragm, internal focusing, and Nikon’s SIG (Super Integrated Coating). Given that the pricy f1.4 version is perhaps out of reach for most amateur photographers, this new f1.8 version is a welcome addition at less than 1/3 of the cost.