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our readers might be wondering why I am only now reviewing the camera, especially given the fact that it has already been replaced by the Nikon D4s.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 working on the D4s review, 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 for this review 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 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.
4) Image Sensor
Although the resolution of the camera at 16 MP might not sound as impressive as 36 MP by today’s standards, the sensor of the D4 (designed and manufactured by Nikon) has amazing pixel-level quality with very little noise – something that higher resolution sensors can only achieve when down-sampled / resized. Thanks to the low noise levels, the D4’s native ISO sensitivity goes from ISO 100 to 12,800 and can be “boosted” all the way to ISO 204,800. The smaller 16 MP resolution also allows the Nikon D4 to process images insanely fast, enabling continuous shooting speeds up to 11 frames per second.
Smaller files are easier and faster to post-process and can look great right out of the camera, something many sports shooters want when photographing live matches and submitting images during games. Because of this, many photographers like and prefer working with 16 MP images compared to 24 MP or 36 MP. At the same time, 16 MP cameras do not give as much room for cropping as higher resolution ones, so that’s the biggest disadvantage.
When it comes to noise levels / SNR, Nikon’s sensors perform very similarly, as long as images are normalized to the same resolution (which is the proper way to compare sensor performance). Despite the increase of resolution from 12 MP to 16 MP, the D4 is not much better than the D3s when it comes to handling of noise, especially between ISO 100 and 12800. As I have written in other reviews and articles, we have pretty much hit the innovation wall in current CMOS sensor technology, so Nikon has been mostly optimizing the sensor output with better noise suppression algorithms. Once you read the Camera Comparisons section of this review, you will see exactly what I mean here.
5) Autofocus Performance
Compared to the Nikon D3s, the D4 comes with a more advanced version version of the 51-point focus system. The “Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX” autofocus module was made to be more sensitive to light (with the focus detection increasing from -1 EV to -2 EV) and the D4 is the first Nikon DSLR to be able to autofocus with slower lens + teleconverter combinations at smaller apertures than f/5.6. With a total of 11 functional focus points at apertures up to f/8, the D4 gives the ability to use f/4 lenses with longer teleconverters like 1.7x and 2x. The biggest change, however, is not simply the ability to use longer lens + teleconverter combinations. At -2EV focus detection, the Nikon D4 actually focuses better in low light situations than the D3s with any lens, even fast prime lenses. Although I loved my D3s, it definitely struggled with focusing in low light indoor environments and the D4 is much better in comparison in that regard.
The newer EXPEED 3 processor also allowed for better tracking abilities and the AF performance boost is noticeable when compared to the D3s for those that shoot fast action. Previously, I would rarely ever shoot in 3D or Auto modes, but with the D4, shooting a flock of birds flying towards me has gotten much easier and yields pretty impressive results.
6) Metering and Exposure
What about metering and exposure accuracy? With the newer autofocus system, Nikon also upgraded the RGB metering sensor on the D4 – it went from an older 1,005 pixel RGB metering sensor to the much more advanced 91,000 pixel RGB sensor. The new metering sensor comes with a lot more built-in presets and face-recognition patterns that make the D4 more accurate than the D3s for determining the optimal exposure. When shooting portraits and weddings in 3D Matrix mode, I noticed that the D4 does a much better job prioritizing skin tones, giving more accurate exposures in different lighting conditions. As a result, I found myself using the exposure compensation button less on the D4 compared to the D3s.
7) Shooting Speed (FPS) and Battery Life
Despite the 4 MP increase in resolution, Nikon was able to push the continuous shooting speed on the D4 even higher, jumping from 9 fps to 10 fps with full time autofocus and 11 fps with AE/AF locked. If you have never heard what 11 fps sounds like, take a look at the below video that was made by folks at BorrowLenses, which shows the mirror and shutter mechanisms working in slow motion:
Yes, that’s pretty insane. That’s what you buy the Nikon D4 for. Actually wait, you also buy it for the practically unlimited buffer! The Nikon D3s was a huge step up from the original D3 (which you had to upgrade if you wanted more buffer memory) with a twice bigger buffer. In 14-bit Lossless RAW format, the Nikon D3s could fit a total of 36 images before the buffer filled up. When Nikon released the D4, the buffer size on the camera was doubled again, allowing a total of 75 RAW images in the buffer when using the fast XQD memory. At 10 fps speed with full time autofocus, we are talking about 7 seconds of continuous shooting time! Once the buffer fills up, you don’t get to crawling speeds like on some cameras – the camera will still shoot reasonably fast at several frames per second and if you wait just a second or two in between bursts, you can literally fill up the card at 10 fps. If you shoot to JPEG, the buffer will never run out and the camera will shoot until the card is full. In short, you will never need more buffer than what the D4 offers.
To see a complete listing of Nikon DSLR camera buffers, see my Nikon DSLR buffer comparison article, where I list all current DSLR models with their shooting speed and buffer sizes for different image formats.
8) Movie Recording
The faster EXPEED 3 processor also allowed for much better video features on the D4. Instead of 720p, the camera can shoot full HD (1080p) at up to 30 frames per second. Nikon has been pushing more video features into their cameras to compete with Canon, so the D4 offers plenty of new video recording features. Aside from full exposure control and different Live View focusing options, the Nikon D4 came with the ability to output uncompressed video through its HDMI port, allowing high-quality videos to be recorded to external devices. This made the D4 an attractive choice for serious video production work, not just occasional movie snaps.
9) Dynamic Range
With the D4, Nikon decreased the native ISO sensitivity from 200 to 100. The newer Nikon-designed sensor is much better in dynamic range compared to the one found on the D3s (also designed and manufactured by Nikon). If you look at DxOMark sensor ratings, the D3s was measured at 12 EVs of dynamic range, putting the camera in the same range as the Nikon D300 and Canon 1Ds Mark III cameras, while the Nikon D4 was measured much higher at 13.1 EVs. So if you need to heavily recover highlights and shadows in images, the D4 would give more options than the D3s. Keep in mind that dynamic range drops rapidly as ISO is increased, so your best options for recovery will be at the ISO 100-800 range – anything beyond ISO 800 will decrease dynamic range dramatically, especially above ISO 1600.
10) ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 100-800)
- White Balance: Custom
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect
- Long exposure NR: Off
- High ISO NR: Off
- Active D-Lighting: Off
- Image Format: RAW, 14-bit Uncompressed
- Converted RAW images to TIFF using Nikon Capture NX-D 1.0.3 then imported into Lightroom 5.6 for cropping
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
- Cameras were mounted on the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II
Let’s take a look at how the Nikon D4 performs at low ISOs. Here are some crops at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800:
As expected, the Nikon D4 produces very clean images at low ISOs – there is no visible difference in noise between ISO 100 and 800.
11) High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-204800)
ISO 1600 introduces a hint of noise, but the image is still very clean. At ISO 3200, we see much more noise being added in the image, especially in the shadows. Both are perfectly usable, since there is no loss of color or details.
As we push to ISO 6400, things start to look much noisier. Shadow areas lose some details and the amount of noise easily doubles. ISO 12800 is where things start to get somewhat noisy though – the camera now adds some artifacts in the shadow areas.
Past the native ISO range, where the image is “boosted”, we get a heavy loss of shadow details and lots of artifacts appear all over the image. Chroma noise is visible throughout the image. ISO 51200 makes things look pretty bad and now the shadow areas look like utter mess with all the noise and artifacts. There is a heavy loss of color and details.
The last two boosted ISO values of 102400 and 204800 are only there as a marketing hype more than anything else. As you can see, both are completely unusable.
12) ISO Performance Summary
As expected from a high-quality 16 MP sensor, the pixel-level noise performance of the D4 is amazing. There is practically no visible noise between ISO 100 and 1600 and images are perfectly usable all the way to ISO 12800, especially once noise reduction is applied. Above ISO 12800 is where things look pretty bad, with a heavy loss of colors, details and dynamic range. The “boosted” ISO numbers are only somewhat usable below ISO 51200, if down-sampled and cleaned up. Anything higher than that is plain unusable. Personally, I would not hesitate to shoot from ISO 100 to 12800, but anything above that is outside of my comfort zone. When shooting with the D4, I usually have it set to either ISO 6400 or 12800 as “Maximum ISO sensitivity” under Auto ISO.
It is hard to judge the performance of the Nikon D4 without direct comparison against other cameras, which is why you should definitely check out the articles below.
13) Nikon D4 vs D3s vs D3 Comparison
Since I have already written an article that showed ISO performance between the Nikon D4, D3s and D3, I would recommend to see that article instead. In short, the Nikon D4 performs similarly to the D3s at most ISO levels, including very high ISO – the main difference between the two sensors is resolution.
14) Nikon D4 vs D600, D800E, Df and D4s
If you would like to see how the D4 compares to other cameras like D600, D800E, Df and the newer D4s, I have also previously provided a detailed article that shows noise performance differences between all these cameras.
As I have stated in the beginning of this review, the Nikon D4 is a specialized tool targeted at news, sports and wildlife photographers. Thanks to its fast autofocus system, practically unlimited buffer capacity, insanely fast shooting speeds, superb image quality and a solid construction that will withstand pretty much any kind of physical abuse, the Nikon D4 was and is a machine of choice for many enthusiasts and working pros. It really does excel in its category – aside from the Canon 1D X, it has had no other competitors. Since the D700 / D3 days, Nikon has not allowed its lower-end lines to compete directly with the top-of-the-line cameras, so there is no high-speed Nikon alternative to it either. It is a highly capable workhorse camera that is designed to deliver consistent, superb results.
It does come with a couple of annoyances, however. As I have pointed out earlier in the review, I really dislike the joystick navigation buttons that Nikon “borrowed” from Canon cameras. The joysticks are too small, uncomfortable to use and worst of all, are known to break and fall off overtime. That’s just poor craftsmanship for a $6K camera. In my opinion, joysticks were a bad idea to begin with, since the D4 already has the multi-selector navigation for choosing a focus point. There was no need to replace the AE-L/AF-L button with this poorly designed knob. Another problem is Nikon’s experimental push towards the XQD format, which in the last 3 years since the camera came out never gained support by other manufacturers. As of today, the only two digital cameras in the world to use XQD cameras are Nikon’s. Only two manufacturers make XQD cards and readers – Sony and Lexar. Without a doubt, the XQD is a much better and faster format than CF, but why only provide one slot on the D4? If Nikon wanted to push heavily towards XQD, it should have provided two identical XQD slots to keep the workflow process simple and it should have introduced XQD in other cameras too. Personally, I would not mind swapping the SD slot on my D810, or swapping the two SD card slots on the D750 to XQD!
Overall, the D4 is an amazing workhorse camera. It allowed our team at PL create beautiful images that we are proud to showcase today.
16) Where to buy and availability
Since the Nikon D4 was discontinued after the D4s came out, you can no longer purchase it new from authorized Nikon dealers. However, you can find plenty of used D4 cameras on sites like Craigslist and eBay.
17) More image samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, Thomas Redd and Robert Andersen. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission.
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Quality
- High ISO Performance
- Size and Weight
- Metering and Exposure
- Movie Recording Features
- Dynamic Range
- Weather Sealing
Photography Life Overall Rating