While recovering from a jet lag (i.e.not sleeping when I should) I’ve been writing a bit more on the Nikon pro body, the D4. The rumours about this camera have quickly been replaced by previews and quick reviews by those lucky enough to hold it at one of Nikon’s press releases and those even luckier by getting some pre-release hands-on time.
Since the D4 won’t be shipped until end of February and we probably have to wait a bit longer for more thorough in-depth reviews, I’ll move on to what we have, the specs. Just remember: Although specs give a good indication of potential (lack of) quality, in the end it’s only the actual output that matters.
First off, the new Nikon D4 is not a revolutionary new model, nor was it expected to be. So, what are the differences and improvements compared to the venerable D3s?
The biggest upgrade from the D3s is the improved video capability. The D4 features 30, 24 fps HD filming at 1,920×1080 and lower resolutions, as well as an additional 60 fps at 1,280×720. Besides a port for an external stereo microphone for sound recording, users can now also plug in a headphone. Perhaps the most exciting feature for serious videographers is the addition of an HDMI-out port for direct recording onto an external device or a direct feed to an external viewfinder. With these upgrades Nikon seems to have finally closed the gap with the Canon pro models (with the video capabilities of the D7000, Nikon users have a pretty good video in an enthusiast model since 2010). To still photographers that do additional filming or videographers that need a relatively cheap or compact and light system, the Nikon D4 will be very appealing (especially when compared to the D3s, which is great for still photography, but is somewhat lackluster in terms of video). In depth video quality reviews will tell us whether the new Nikon can make a serious stab at becoming a popular (B roll) film camera, although this will be tough, considering Canon’s production of dedicated film DSLRs.
Megapixels and ISO
The D4 features a couple more megapixels (16.2 vs. 12.1). Most users that are thinking of upgrading from a D3(s) or D700 will be happy to see a somewhat higher resolution, without reducing the low light capability by going overboard on the pixel increase (with the current technology, smaller pixels means more noise at higher ISOs) – a nice upgrade, but not a game changer. Pros that need a high resolution for big prints will be using a 24MP D3x or a medium format system instead.
The D4 now has a base ISO of a 100 (down from 200), with the same 12,800 maximum, but it adds a Low 50 ISO and a Hi 204,800 ISO boost. So the night owls gain a stop on paper, but the standard 100 and the Low of 50 is more significant for those using speedlights/strobes or those that need long exposures. The increased ISO range is great, although for most it will only matter in terms of “usable” ISO values, as the boost levels and even the stop below should only be used in a pinch, with the noise kicking in. We can expect a stop or so gain in usable ISO. For those really debating whether to get a D4, this might tip the balance, otherwise it’s just another incremental improvement.
Although this isn’t so much of a major upgrade, it is quite significant: Instead of the 2 compact flash (CF) slots of the D3s, the D4 sports 1 CF slot and one XQD slot, the new type of memory card announced by Sony on the day that Nikon did their announcements. Is this good? Yes and no. I think most aren’t happy to see two different types of storage media in one camera, for obvious reasons (investment in different systems, user friendliness etc.). Also, no user has any experience with this new card and I would imagine pros being somewhat hesitant to rely on a new, unknown format.
However, the new type of card by itself looks promising, in terms of price, speed and quality. For instance the Sony QD-H16 card features a 125 MB/s write and read speed, at $129.99 for a 16GB card. Moreover, it’s supposedly a sturdier card, not as flimsy as SD cards and not needing the fragile receiving pins of the CF cards (although I personally never had any issues with SD or CF cards). Hopefully this new type of card will live up to its promises and prove to be more than a gimmick by manufactures to push new sales.
Wireless Transmitter WT-5
Finally, the new wireless transmitter WT-5 (sold separately) allows for wireless transfer of files, which will be great for press photographers. It also allows (basic) control of the camera via a computer or smart phone, a feature that will be liked by film makers and tech geeks. Personally I’m surprised that we still aren’t getting more advanced mobile options. With smartphones becoming more of a threat to the camera market as a whole, you’d think that camera manufacturers would be smart about adding smart phone solutions to their camera. However, instead of adding built-in GPS and other technology that fits even the smallest phones, they seem to stay well clear from it, as if it would mean surrender to go with the market.
Other upgrades and features
Changes in picture controls (which don’t carry over in RAW files unless they are processed in Nikon’s software), increased continuous shooting speed (10/11 frames per second vs. 9 fps), extra AF modes (including face recognition which most pros would probably never use), in camera editing, an improved LCD, in camera HDR etc. are all features that I consider minor upgrades and probably won’t encourage D3s owners to upgrade (unless they’ve got money to burn).
Of the specs I consider minor upgrades the new Expeed 3 processor and increased buffer might be the most significant. I personally also like the sound (or lack of) the new silent shutter option, and hope they will introduce it into lower end models as well. The AF is supposedly even faster than the one of the D3s, with more cross-type sensors, but perhaps more interesting is the fact that AF can be used up to F8 (for those working with converters) and up to -2EV (in very dark conditions). Still, that would be quite a-typical use and again probably not a reason to upgrade.
Nikon D4 vs. Canon-1D X
As expected, in most areas the Nikon D4 is very similar to the earlier announced Canon-1D X, at least on paper. It will be down to actual performance to see how good they really are and even then it will probably be mostly down to the extra features to really distinguish them. As far as the basic features go (the ones for which you actually buy a camera!), I think many photographers are eagerly awaiting high ISO comparisons to see if Canon has caught up.
Either way, for most thinking of buying the new pro model, the result of this comparison won’t change much. When a photographer has invested (heavily) in lenses and accessories, it’s simply too expensive to switch. Unless there will be a huge new feature in a future model that the other brand doesn’t have, I don’t expect a shift from one brand to the other in these times of incremental improvements.
Evolution, not revolution
Where the Nikon D3 was a revolutionary model, the D4 is, just like the D3s was to the D3, mostly an evolution from the D3s. For professionals that needed the improved low light capability, the D3s provided a nice upgrade from the D3. The added video was certainly a nice extra feature, but for those serious about filming (i.e. making a living with it) it wasn’t a reason to upgrade, as there were better alternatives around. Similarly, I think that the incremental changes that the D4 brings won’t have all the pros ditching their D3s. To those that need the improved video or have the cash to comfortably upgrade, or D3 owners that skipped the D3s and D700 owners looking to upgrade, the new Nikon D4 will be a compelling upgrade. All in all I am a little bit disappointed by the lack of innovation. I guess both Nikon and Canon play it safe while being the market leaders in DSLRs. Hopefully other manufacturers, fighting for a bigger market share, will push the boundaries a bit more. I think Sony for example (not as big in DSLRs yet, but huge as an electronics company as a whole) has the will and financial power to make that push. With the introduction of the translucent mirror in their latest DSLRs (A77 and A65), they already showed that they’re not afraid to innovate. Hopefully they will manage to keep the heat on Canon and Nikon, forcing them to keep releasing great new cameras.
Despite the fact that the D4 is not a revolutionary new model, Nikon seems to have managed to develop another great camera. Even though the photo specs seems to have improved only a little over the D3s, it’s another step up. And since the D3s is an awesome camera, this one must be awesome and then some (mind you, I’ve never held either myself, so it’s all hearsay…).
Will D3s owners upgrade? For still photography the improvements might not be big enough for most, but for those with enough cash, the need to replace their beaten D3s or the need for the greatly improved video capabilities the D4 must be extremely tempting. If you make a living with your camera and a new model will enable you to deliver better and faster (and thus increase your revenue), upgrading should be a no-brainer.
Will new buyers and enthusiasts buy it? If they have the money, why not. But with complete short movies being shot with smartphones these days and the mirror-less cameras becoming very able, to most of us a monster body is not what we need to get better pictures. This doesn’t prevent me from trying to convince myself that I really “need” a D4, while in the meantime eagerly awaiting the (hopefully) soon to be announced Nikon D800…