It has been close to three years since Nikon announced the D4 and our readers might be wondering why I am only now reviewing the camera, especially given the fact that it has already been replaced by the Nikon D4s. While testing out the D4s, I thought that it would be a good idea to revisit the older D4 – better late than never! Since the camera came out, I have used it on several occasions for both personal and business needs, and a number of our team members have owned or still own the D4. Hence, the information and images that I gathered here represent a collective effort between our team at Photography Life.
Being a top-of-the-line DSLR from Nikon, the D4 is a specialized tool that is primarily targeted at news, sports and wildlife photographers. With a 16 MP sensor that is capable of capturing images all the way to ISO 204,800, up to 11 frames per second continuous shooting speed, a huge buffer for photographing fast action, a solid all-metal construction and a high-end ergonomic design, the Nikon D4 is a serious camera for serious needs.
After owning the Nikon D3s for 4 years, I really struggled with the decision to upgrade to the D4. The thing is, back when the D3s came out, Nikon only had the D700 as the lower-end FX option, which was noticeably worse in image quality. So if one wanted to get the best image quality, the only option was to move up to the D3s. At $5,200, there was a bit more than $2K price difference between the D700 and the D3s.
When the D4 came out, Nikon pushed its price up higher to $6K, which was double the price of then newly-announced D800. And if you remember that time-frame, the D800 generated so much buzz in the industry, that it practically de-popularized the high-end line and put it in the shadows. Personally, I went for the D800 at the time and spent a considerable amount of time working with the camera. It was a great buy at $3K and I did not see much reason to move up to the twice more expensive D4, especially after seeing high resolution sensor advantages and realizing that the D4 did not offer significant image quality improvements over the D3s.
Putting $6K towards a camera that was only marginally better in image quality than my D3s and came with a few unwelcome changes such as the XQD card slot and small, Canon-like joysticks (more on this further down below) was a hard pill to swallow, so I decided to skip a generation and see if a future model would offer better value. And with Lola’s wedding business growth, I found myself shooting wildlife a lot less, shifting more towards lifestyle and landscape photography. The Nikon D800 was superb for those needs and Lola kept on using the D3s for her work and projects. It worked out great, as we had both a high ISO king and a high-resolution king in our arsenal. Eventually, Nikon released the Df, which was Lola’s dream come true, because it had similar image quality and pixel-level performance as the D4, minus the bulk and weight. That’s when we decided to get rid of the D3s…
While our story above reflects our decisions and reasoning why we chose not to get the D4, my wildlife friends were happy to move up to the D4 and they never regretted that decision. The thing is, for sports and wildlife needs, the D4 was still the best Nikon camera to get at the time. With its super fast shooting speed and a huge buffer, the D4 was the right tool for freezing those fast action moments. Had I kept my focus on wildlife photography, I would have probably either upgraded to the D4, or the latest generation D4s. Since the D300s and D700, Nikon kept its high-end line protected by intentionally crippling lower-end cameras with slower fps and smaller buffers.
1) Nikon D4 Specifications
- Sensor: 16.2 MP FX, 7.3µ pixel size
- Native ISO Sensitivity: 100-12,800
- Boost Low ISO Sensitivity: 50
- Boost High ISO Sensitivity: 25,600-204,800
- Camera Buffer: Up to 100 12-bit RAW images, 70 14-bit uncompressed RAW and up to 200 JPEG images in continuous 10 FPS mode with XQD card
- Processor: EXPEED 3
- Dust Reduction: Yes
- Shutter: Up to 1/8000 and 30 sec exposure, self-diagnostic shutter monitor
- Shutter Durability: 400,000 cycles
- Camera Lag: 0.012 seconds
- Storage: 1x Compact Flash slot and 1x XQD slot
- Viewfinder Coverage: 100%
- Speed: 10 FPS, 11 FPS with AE/AF locked
- Exposure Meter: 91,000 pixel RGB sensor
- Autofocus System: Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX with 51 focus points and 15 cross-type sensors
- AF Detection: Up to f/8 with 11 focus points (5 in the center, 3 on the left and right)
- LCD Screen: 3.2 inch diagonal with 921,000 dots
- Movie Modes: Full 1080p HD @ 30 fps max
- Movie Exposure Control: Full
- Movie Recording Limit: 30 minutes @ 30p, 20 minutes @ 24p
- Movie Output: MOV, Compressed and Uncompressed
- Two Live View Modes: One for photography and one for videography
- Camera Editing: Lots of in-camera editing options with HDR capabilities
- Wired LAN: Built-in Gigabit RJ-45 LAN port
- WiFi: Not built-in, requires WT-5a and older wireless transmitters
- GPS: Not built-in, requires GP-1 GPS unit
- Battery Type: EN-EL18
- Battery Life: 2,600 shots
- Weight: 1,180g
- MSRP Price: $5,999
Detailed camera specifications can be found at Nikon USA.
2) Camera Construction and Handling
With a full magnesium alloy and weather sealed construction, the Nikon D4 surely does not disappoint, just like all top-of-the-line Nikon DSLRs. I have seen photographers accidentally drop their high-end D3/D3s/D4 cameras (I once dropped a D3s from 3 feet high), bump them against hard surfaces or get every hole filled up with dust when photographing Burning Man and those cameras continued to work without any problems. Cameras like D4 are designed to be used heavily by professionals, so they can withstand all kinds of physical abuse. That’s why working pros prefer D4-like cameras, as they know they can rely on them in the most challenging conditions.
Ergonomics and handling-wise, the D4 went through significant changes when compared to the D3s. Some of these changes I really liked, but others not so much. The overall shape of the camera was completely changed, making the D4 appear more curvy than the D3/D3s/D3x models. The front of the camera went through the least number of changes. The biggest change in the front was the grip – Nikon redesigned the D4 grip, so it feels better and deeper when hand-holding the camera. Another subtle change was the camera on / off switch / shutter release button, which was angled lower to make shooting more comfortable.
The C/S/M focus lever (bottom left side of the camera) was modified to adapt to a more modern switch like on other Nikon DSLRs.
There were some noticeable modifications to the camera connector panels – the Nikon D4 has everything separated out by groups, while the Nikon D3s had a more consolidated look. Aside from standard ports, the Nikon D4 also came with a built-in Ethernet port (a real plus for shooting tethered in a studio), which the D3s did not have.
The top of the camera went through a few design changes:
First, the left dial was modified – the front of the dial on the D4 comes fully closed and only the rear of the dial is exposed. The dial modes remained the same, but there was a change on the top buttons – the “Lock” button on the D3/D3s/D3x was replaced with a metering mode button. I welcomed this change, because the metering mode switch on the right side was eliminated as well! After using the D4 for a few months, I started to realize how much I hated the old metering mode switch on my D3s camera. Pressing the button and then rotating the metering mode dial was never comfortable, so I was glad that this annoyance was finally taken care of. The right side of the camera was also redesigned. The shutter release button was located at a lower angle for comfort and the camera mode and exposure compensation buttons were moved up a little to make room for the new and small video recording button.
Now let’s talk about the back of the camera, which went through the most number of changes:
There are things I really like about what Nikon did with the D4 back layout/design and things I don’t. Let’s start from what I believe are good changes. Nikon adapted a similar button layout as the D700 to the left of the LCD, which is the ability to zoom in and out by pressing a button. I remember when I first held the D3s in my hands, I could not figure out how to zoom in. I then realized that I had to press the zoom button and then use the dial on the back of the camera to zoom in and out. What a pain it was! The Nikon D4 does not have this problem anymore – you just press the zoom in and zoom out buttons without having to rotate any dials! And you want to zoom in to 100% magnification instantly, you can program the middle button on the multi-selector control just like on many other high-end Nikon DSLRs. The lock/help button was moved up right under the Menu button, which I would rather have on the bottom, because I never use it. In addition, all the new buttons are back-lit, which is great news for those of us that shoot in low-light or at night.
The new LCD on the back of the camera has the same 921,000 dot resolution as the one on the D3s, but is now a little bigger in size (by 0.2 inches diagonal). The button placement under the LCD also went through some changes. While the ISO / QUAL / WB buttons are still in their respective places, the audio record button has been moved to sit together in the same group. The Live View button was moved a little to the left now and has a lever for selecting between photo and video live view modes.
The vertical grip is now a lot more comfortable, because the AF-ON button has been moved deeper into the camera body. This is great news, because the old AF-ON placement was never good to start with – I kept on accidentally pressing it while shooting horizontally and had to constantly turn it off when I was not using it.
Finally, let’s talk about the rest of the buttons to the right side of the body and LCD. The D4 introduced two new joysticks, which Nikon calls “sub-selector”, just like Canon has had on their high-end cameras (the joystick is borrowed from the MB-D10 grip) – one to use in horizontal position and one to use in vertical position. The top joystick replaced the customizable AE-L/AF-L button that was there on the D3s, but you can still program the joystick to act as the AE-L/AF-L button (Custom Settings Menu->Controls->Assign sub‐selector center). I don’t know about others, but I hate joysticks. They are too darn small and uncomfortable to use. Nikon probably added the joysticks for the Canon converts that wanted to have the same feel on Nikon cameras. The worst part about these joysticks, is that they are not built well for regular use! They are known to fall off and get lost, which is quite poor craftsmanship for a $6K camera if you ask me…
Handling of the D4 is superb, with the exception of its heavy weight and bulk for those that hand-hold the camera a lot. Although the D4 is a little lighter than the D3s, it still weighs close to 1.2 kg. Compare that to the new Nikon D750, which at 750 grams is almost 40% lighter – and those figures are without the large EN-EL18 battery that weighs way more than the twice smaller EN-EL15. While I loved the image quality of my previous Nikon D3s, neither Lola nor I were happy with its weight when shooting those all day weddings, especially when coupling the camera with something like the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II and a speedlight. My neck and my back would get sore by the end of the day with all that weight. Yes, I am comparing two different cameras with and without battery grips, but that’s the part that you have to figure out for yourself – if using a standard profile DSLR with a battery grip does not bother you, you will love the D4. I personally quit using battery grips a while ago, because I prefer the smaller and lighter cameras for my style of shooting.
At the same time, the weight and bulk of professional camera bodies balance very well with long super telephoto lenses. This goes for both hand-held and tripod shooting. When mounting the D4 on a gimbal head, it balances easier than something like the D750 and you do not have to move the tripod leg to its tip just to get the balance right. Hand-holding something like the 200-400mm f/4G with the D4 is also easier on your hands, because the setup is not very front-heavy. Although Nikon has been redesigning their super telephoto line with lightweight fluorite elements (making them comfortable to use with lighter camera bodies), the older super telephoto lenses were all front-heavy.
Just like all other top-of-the-line Nikon DSLRs, the Nikon D4 does not have a built-in camera flash. While this is done primarily for better weather-sealing, it is a definite disadvantage if you have been using a built-in flash in emergency situations or perhaps as a master to trigger an off-camera speedlight. It does not come with an AF assist lamp either, so you will have to use the IR beam of your speedlight when focusing in extremely dark environments, as explained in this article.
3) XQD Memory Slot
One big change that Nikon introduced on the D4 was the XQD memory card slot. Although XQD is much better memory compared to CF due to its ability to push insane read and write speeds and it is also easier to use (no more bent pins), in my opinion, Nikon made a mistake by incorporating one XQD slot in the D4. Why? Three reasons. First, Nikon was the only vendor to try out the XQD format in a digital camera, which made the D4 the only camera in the industry to use a different memory card format other than CF or SD. It felt like it was an experiment, rather than anything else. Because of this, the availability of XQD memory cards and their readers was very limited at launch. Nikon ended up supplying people with XQD memory cards and readers with the D4, which I am sure only caused Nikon more headaches. Second, having two different slots significantly weakens the overall workflow process. One has to find proper ways to store these XQD cards, use them and access them, together with CF cards. Nikon should have either picked two CF card slots or two XQD card slots to make the process consistent. Why should one have to carry separate memory card readers for CF and XQD? Lastly, it has been almost three years since the XQD experiment started and the D4 and the D4s are still the only digital cameras in the world that use this format. As far as I know, aside from Sony and Lexar, there are no other manufacturers that offer XQD memory cards and readers. Nikon should have either abandoned XQD after the D4, or made both slots XQD on the D4s.