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 page 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.
See the next page for ISO comparisons in a controlled lab environment.