on May 5, 2012
I pre-ordered this camera, and have now had it for about two months and taken over 10,000 shots with it. I'm upgrading from a Nikon D700. I'm not a pro, but I do occasional commercial jobs. I've updated this review several times, and will continue to do so as needed.
Vertical orientation: Nice. The vertical grip isn't nearly as contoured as the main horizontal grip -- there's just not as much stuff to grab your hands onto (no deep pockets for your fingertips). Too bad. But when holding it for any length of time, it's sure a lot easier than holding twisting my arm above my head and rotating the camera. Note that the vertical grip has a programmable button on it, which I use for Mode (A/S/M/P). I understand the D3s didn't have this, which seems crazy -- I use it all the time. I wish the vertical grip had all the buttons as the main grip does -- e.g., there's only one programmable button, so if you want to use it for Mode, then there's no way to change EV +- while vertical, or start taking a movie. Also, I wish the two function buttons (DoF preview, and the one above it) were replicated in vertical mode. They're not, which is silly -- there's room right there for them.
I shoot one-handed a lot, at events where I have a flash in one hand an a camera in the other (using a set of PocketWizards). I thought the weight of the D4 would make this harder. But no: when holding it vertically, the D4 is a lot easier to manage than the vertical D700. (I never had a vertical grip for the D700, so I can't compare.) Even holding it horizontally, the larger grip makes it easier to manage the D4 than the D700 one-handedly -- it makes the camera honestly feel substantially lighter. One gripe: the vertical joystick for adjusting the focus point is still a bit too much of a stretch to use with one hand.
Shutter: yep, it's 10 fps. Let it rip! Great for capturing faces of both kids and adults at just the right moment.
General ergonomics and build quality: Great. Totally solid.
Weight: Having never had a pro-sized body before, I feared it'd be too heavy. But no: once you throw a 70-200 2.8 on there, the difference between this and a D700 is pretty small, certainly not a big deal. I carry it around on an Op Tech slider strap bolted into the tripod port, plenty stable and strong.
Battery: 2000+ shots (including lots of live view and some movies), and it's down to half. That's plenty of capacity for me. The charger is a real monster to carry around, about 4x the size of a D700 charger, too big to just slip in a pocket. One BIG PROBLEM: after charging it the second time, I had the camera turned on and sitting out overnight. The next morning, the battery was completely dead. I have no idea what happened -- the D700 never ever did this to me. Was the camera turned so the AF was being pushed all night? Or is there a bug in the auto-off? No idea, but I'll post if it happens again. (Update: This has now happened to me three times, where the battery has gone from 100% to 0% overnight. Very frustrating. The first time I thought it was because the camera was in my bag and the AF-On button was being pressed, so it was trying to focus all night long. But that's not it, since it was on a shelf the other two times. Since I don't see others who have had this problem, I'm sending it back to Nikon for service.)
[Update: Beats me what the root cause was, but Nikon replaced the logic board and I haven't seen the issue come back.]
Lit up controls: Nikon won't point this out, but they don't *all* light up! Most do, but not the trash, or playback, or EV+-, or Mode, or Live View. Huh? All the buttons on my cell phone lit up 10 years ago. It's not that hard.
XQD card: Fast to write, fast to transfer. I love it. Being able to shoot off dozens of RAWs without stopping is great. Nice of Nikon to include the card and reader (but really, I'm not sure they had any other option here -- the market isn't exactly flooded with these cards).
Live View: Works a million times better than it did on the D700. It's kind of funny though: it now makes the pro-DSLR able to shoot as easily as a $200 point-and-shoot. But whatever: Live View is nice to have. It's fast and intuitive. One advantage that isn't obvious: you can use it to set the focus point to the far corners of the frame, well outside the small area of the sensor covered by the 51-point AF grid. How I wish Nikon would allow the main AF system to focus in the far corners too: those 51 points still only cover about 20% of the camera's full frame! More in DX mode, but come on, Nikon. This is probably my single biggest complaint about the camera (or any DSLR) -- bigger focus area please!
Focus modes: I was initially bummed to see that the three-position focus-mode switches from the D700 had been removed, replaced by 'software' settings using the main control wheels. But after using them I'm fine with the change, even in favor of it. The number of focus modes has increased (because you can change between 9-, 21-, and 51-point tracking easily now, which were hidden in a menu before), and the design works pretty fast. Disadvantage is that it requires two hands to change modes, where you used to do it with one.
The built-in AF motor is noticeably faster than on the D700. Live View mode uses contrast-detection focusing which was ultra-slow on the D700 (especially using motor-driven lenses like the AF-D's), but pretty usable now.
Face Detection (in Live View) works great. It's super easy to get low-angle shots holding the camera away from your body. If the subject moves you'll see a green box on the LCD follow the face around -- it's pretty cool to watch it track.
Believe it or not, Face Detection also works through the pentaprism viewfinder. It took me awhile to believe this, but it really does. I proved it to myself by displaying a photo of a face on my laptop's screen, and focusing the camera on it. And like magic, no matter where it was, the focus indicators would lock on to the eyes. If I panned so that one eye left the FOV, then the focus would jump to the other eye. This is really cool. However, in reality it only works moderately well... I mean, if you're shooting at 24 mm in a busy room, and there's a few people in front of you, the camera is likely to focus on the wall instead of the people. Switch to Live View and it'll lock right on to the faces. Switch back and it jumps to the wall. My thought is that when using the viewfinder, the camera is dong face-detection on the smaller 91,000-pixel metering array. When using Live View, it can use millions of pixels from the main chip. Small faces can get hidden in 91,000 pixels (that's sub-VGA resolution!), but are seen in the big chip. I'm not knocking it, since it's clearly state-of-the art... it's just not perfect.
One cool thing about face detection is that it also finds faces on playback (even if face detection wasn't used on that shot). Scroll the front control wheel and it'll zoom in to just the face on every image, so you can easily check focus on the parts you care about. Super.
Metering modes: Too bad that the three-position metering switch is now an electronic controller, set in the viewfinder. But it turns out to be no big deal, because the metering on the D4 is really an improvement from the D700. I used to have to go to spot metering a lot for faces in the shade, and the auto face-detection now catches that so much better than it used to, that I haven't been using spot metering very much. Really, the new metering is very, very good. It has its quirks though: like, let's say you're taking 10 shots in a row of someone's face. If on one shot they turn or are blocked and the face-recognition doesn't work right, then that shot is likely to be underexposed by a stop relative to the rest in the series (see my example photo of this posted on Amazon). In the end under- or over-exposure by a stop or two is no big deal on this camera if you're shooting RAW, because the files give you tons of leeway to work with to fix the exposure in post. But it's always best to get the exposure right the first time, and the D4 does a better job of that than the D700.
'Quiet' and 'Silent' modes. Quiet mode is indeed a lot quieter than the regular shutter. It seems to move all the mechanical parts slower -- so you hear it for longer, but it's definitely quieter. Limited to 1 fps or so, and it doesn't work in Continuous mode (except if you're in Live View, in which case it does). Silent mode takes 2 MP shots in Live View mode (essentially movie stills - shutter must be between 1/30 and 1/125 sec, and JPEG-only, no RAW). I could see using it occasionally, though I wish the resolution were higher. Also, in order to *enter* Silent mode, you have to be in Live View, and you have to pull up the mirror to do that, which makes the normal 'chunking' sound one time. An interesting note: in Silent mode, the exposure counter increments like normal (DSC_0101, 0102, etc.), but the EXIF value for 'Shutter Count' stays unchanged, just like it should. ** Silent mode is exclusive to the D4, and isn't on the D800.
Image quality: Beautiful... really crisp and sharp and smooth. The D700 was great too. For some reason this looks better. The number of pixels and the ISO are only slightly improved from the D700... the improvement to my image quality is dramatically better, more than the one or two stop improvement would suggest. Maybe Nikon's color processing software's improved, who knows what. But I didn't expect much improvement in image quality, and I got it.
ISO: It's a stop or two better than the D700. The ultra-high ISO's (like 200,000+ = H4.0) are there, but pretty silly. Even in bright sun, they're so full of noise so as to be useless. In low light they're even worse. (I guess you could use H4.0 if you were trying to monitor license plates of speeding vehicles under moonlight, or something crazy like that... but no normal photographic application is going to use that.) Up to ISO 10,000 or so, images are very clean. Focusing works really well in low-light, better than the D700 for sure. A nice change is that Auto ISO can now be easily turned on/off by holding ISO and rotating the front control knob -- no more going into the menus.
One big change to exposure calculation is that the shutter speed can now be set based on the focal length. In the past, you'd set it (in the Auto ISO menu) to use a minimum of say 1/30 sec, which is great at 24 mm, but not what you want at 70 mm. OK, terrific -- I was really stoked on this, since it makes a lot of sense and is more accurate in setting the shutter speed. But there's a huge problem in how it's implemented, in that it's blind to whether you're using a VR lens! So if I'm at 200 mm, it'll pick 1/400th sec for me. But I paid the big bucks for the VR lens so I don't have to shoot at 1/400th... I know I can handhold it just fine at 1/50th. The net effect here is that you'll end up shooting at a higher-than-necessary shutter speed, putting you into high-ISO territory, when you'd be otherwise safe to shoot much slower at low ISO. Alas -- maybe Nikon will get this right with the D5. I ended up turning off this focal-length sensitivity setting, and telling it to shoot at 1/100th or faster regardless.
Ethernet connection: Plug in a cable, and the camera has a built-in web server, for doing tethered shooting. Not something I'll use much, but it seems to work. No additional software needed -- just a web browser. I also used it for tethered shooting through Aperture straight out of the box, and it worked fine, no new drivers needed.
Auto white balance: as advertised, seems to work better than before. No big deal, but a nice bonus. One weirdness though is that the white balance seems to be less consistent than it was before. For instance, shooting outside in the shade, in the past I could set the right WB correction in Aperture and it'd be right-on for every shot in the series. No more -- a good number of individual shots require more hand-tweaking now. This seems like a bug, like maybe the RAW files are getting tagged with the wrong color temp. It could well also be a bug in Aperture's handling of the D4 RAWs; I haven't tried it with Lightroom yet. A bonus with
Display: Better than before. Not really a big deal to me. Minor point: the display itself is polarized such that if you're wearing your polarized Ray Bans, the screen will look dark until you turn it to vertical mode. The D700 was polarized, but at a 45 degree angle, so it was still visible in horizontal mode. The display has a really viewing angle, meaning that if you hold it overhead in Live View, you can glance up at it and at least get *some* sense of how your framing is, even viewing the display nearly edge-on. It doesn't pivot of course, but it's definitely usable for a lot of overhead shots.
[** Update: Nikon replaced the main display for me when mine failed. The new one is different, and is viewable in landscape mode while wearing polarized shades. I doubt it was an intentional change on their part, but for me it worked out as a minor bonus!]
Viewfinder: The image looks a bit bigger and fuller than on the D700. Not that big a deal -- I could always see my subject just fine before. Maybe a bit less squinting necessary now.
Extra configurability: Nikon now lets you reprogram even more of the buttons than the D700 allowed. I like one of the options in particular: I've set the Fn button (below the DoF preview button, next to the lens mount) to go to image review. Normally it takes two hands to hit the image-review button, but now I can do it quickly and using the right hand that's already on the camera anyhow. Just one more thing I miss now going back to the D700.
HDR, timelapse, multiple-exposures: they all work as advertised. Probably won't use them much.
Video: I'm not a video shooter but I tried it out outside under streetlights, where the video was super-clean. Inside with a night light it was a total failure at high ISO's -- too much noise to see anything at all. Others know a lot more about video than me, so read their reviews instead.
Minor operational change: On the D700, the control wheels went dead right after taking a shot, requiring a half-press to wake up the metering system again, if you used the control wheels to select through images. On the D4, they stay live after the shutter press. Awesome. This was always a minor annoyance before, and I'm glad it's changed. It's hidden on an obscure setting within Custom F10.
Flash: There is none. Occasionally I used CLS for remote triggers on the D700 and you obviously can't do that any more. And sometimes I don't want to carry around the PocketWizards for just a snapshot flash-fill. Oh well -- can't have it all. For what it's worth, the PocketWizards (TT5's) work perfectly, no problems at all. I called up the PW people about an unrelated issue and they confirmed to me (as of June 2012) that the PW's work great on the D4... not working yet on the D800/800E, they said.
Flash exposure: The EV+- and the Flash EV are now separated. It use to be that lowering the camera EV would also lower the flash output (so dropping the background while keeping the subject lit would require two sync'd setting changes). No more. Nikon took after Canon here, good to see. This stuff works fine with the PW's. ** This Flash EV setting (custom e5) is exclusive to the D4. It's not on the D800.
Reviewing images: You can zoom out to see 72 images at a time, and use the joystick to cruise around these. But regardless of all of the image-processing power onboard, it's still frustratingly slow to scroll backward by 500 or 1000 images. There's apparently no in-camera buffering of the thumbnails -- they're reloaded from the card every time, so it may still take you a few minutes of slow scrolling to find that cool shot from a few days ago that you want to show someone.
Manual: 456 frikkin' pages. I like camera manuals and this one's pretty well written. It's not literature but it explains the settings clearly enough.
Why not the D800? 50 MB images are too big for me, and I'm not going to be printing any banners or posters from my work anyhow. Almost everything I do goes online. Virtually any camera has enough resolution for me. I'm more interested in handling / ergonomics / ISO / dynamic range / speed, than resolution. If I was doing landscapes instead of people, I'd of course go for the D800 instead.
Is six thousand bucks too much to spend on a camera? Probably. But Nikon bodies remain in high demand, and used prices are high. I can likely sell this in a year or two for not much less than I paid for it. (My three-year-old D700 has only lost 1/3 of its value since it was new, or about a thousand dollars over three years.) Is having a camera like that worth a dollar or two a day to me? Absolutely.
P.S. I'll answer any questions below. And if you found this useful, feel free to click and tell me so!
[Update June 2013. 45,000 pics and one year later, it remains awesome. I only have a few frustrations and minor things to add:
o I wish the front buttons -- Function and Preview -- were more programmable, and I wish Nikon put a duplicate set you could reach in vertical mode.
o I prefer the analog buttons to change exposure mode on the D700, over the menu here.
o I don't use Live View very much -- it's just so much slower than viewfinder mode that even though focus on a face in the corner very nicely, I can usually do it myself faster.
o Don't mind the weight at all. Feels great in the hand. I use an OpTech slider strap into an arca-swiss knockoff plate bolted into the bottom.
o I use 10 fps *all the time*. On safari, with kids, anything. It's wonderful.
o XQD card is great, though I wish there was a good way to take advantage of its speed to download to my older Mac, which only has a USB2 and not USB3.
o Nikon replaced the main logic board after I reported problems with the battery suddenly dying overnight. No problems since then.
o I wish the 51 focus points went further across the FOV -- they're all clustered at the center.
o I'm not a big bird shooter but I have been amazed at how well the focus tracking will follow a bird who moves in & out of the frame, well away from the original focus point.
o Picture quality is just great. I get a ton of keepers, and when I don't, it's always my fault and not the camera's.
I managed to drop the camera -- 8 inches onto carpet with an 85/1.4 on -- and it knocked the camera completely out of focus, and apparently knocked the main display loose so it flickered a lot. (So much for indestructibility of a pro body...) I sent it back to Nikon explaining the situation, and they were nice enough to fix it for free, which involved replacing the front bayonet mount. But the camera spent *nearly two months at Nikon* to get fixed! It was on "parts hold" for over a month, and when they returned it, they sent to to the wrong address to boot -- an old address of mine.]