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Flagship professional DSLRs don't come along every year. As a result, they serve as milestones in the development of not only digital cameras, but also of the professionals they serve.
The $6,000 (body-only) Nikon D4 is a glimpse into the changing world of modern media. With integrated video controls, compatibility with new XQD memory cards, built-in wired networking, and video quality on par with the best cameras on the market, the D4 is an incredible machine—designed to serve the needs of an ever-evolving professional market. But Nikon hasn't neglected the fundamentals; it's a great machine for still photography, too.
The Nikon D4 shares many design similarities with its most immediate predecessor, the Nikon D3s. The two cameras are practically identical in size (the D4 is 0.2’’ deeper) and weight (the D4 is 2.1 ounces lighter), but the D4 has the added benefit of some spec upgrades.
In addition to a larger LCD and a higher-resolution full-frame sensor, the D4 also benefits from an XQD memory slot that sits alongside the CompactFlash slot inherited from the D3s. XQD cards are faster than CF models, with a pin design that is significantly less prone to breakage, but there's a downside: a steep entry cost ($130-$460 a pop) and the need to buy new card readers.
Two sub-selector joysticks for landscape and portrait orientations have been added. These controls can be used for focus point selection or set up to mirror the multi-selector control pad. You can also press down on them to activate a separate, customizable function. These require some setup time, but they allow for a greater degree of control that should aid professional workflows.
It’s also worth noting that many of the changes to the D4’s control and design are for the benefit of video shooters, sometimes to the detriment of still shooting. The front autofocus mode selector (which now has AF/MF positions, requiring an extra motion to switch between AF-S and AF-C), the position of the rear voice memo button, the addition of a top plate video record button, and the redesigned live view/video activation controls are all repositioned to aid video shooting. The AF switch and the mode button’s displacement are certainly the most noticeable changes.
Hands-down, our favorite additions are the back-lit buttons, something we haven't seen since the Olympus E-620. If you engage the backlight for the secondary LCD while shooting, the labels for all the controls will light up like a car's dashboard. There are some truly astounding engineering feats in the Nikon D4, but it's this simple change that we found ourselves thankful for the most. If you spend significant time shooting in the dark, the Nikon D4 is going to feel like a godsend.
The Nikon D4 incorporates a remarkable feature set, as you'd expect from a $6,000 professional camera. In addition to blistering shot-to-shot speed, the Nikon D4's 51-point autofocus system provides accurate focusing even in very limited light. Even so, sports and wildlife shooters should note that the D4 lacks some of the more advanced autofocus controls found on the Canon 1D X.
Professionals will definitely enjoy the D4's host of new connectivity features. The most important addition is the wired Ethernet port on the side of the camera. The Ethernet implementation lets you upload directly to an FTP, control the camera via Nikon's Camera Control Pro 2 software (optional), or use it as an HTTP server. This last option lets you browse photos directly from a mobile phone or computer. All these functions also work with the WT-5 wireless transfer unit. The WT-5 can control multiple slave cameras from a single controlling camera, allowing for some very interesting setups. The Nikon WT-4 accessory is also compatible, though with less interesting functionality.
When capturing video, the D4 employs H.264 AVCHD video compression with linear PCM audio encoding in a .MOV container. The camera has a maximum video resolution of 1080/30p, with options for 25 and 24p. It can also shoot at 720p, with frame rate options of 60, 50, 30, and 25fps. A 1920x1080 crop mode is available, with 30, 25, and 24fps frame rate options that use a 1920x1080 portion of the image sensor to record a (zoomed in) image that is slightly sharper.
Nikon uses greater compression for its video than Canon, with video that tops out at 24Mbps (12Mbps on "Normal" quality), with 12Mbps and 5Mbps, respectively, for 720p and 424p modes. Fortunately, Nikon also includes uncompressed HD output directly from the HDMI slot, letting you bypass in-camera compression altogether with a clean output signal. Footage can be recorded directly to specialized hard drives. Unfortunately, this must be done without actually recording to the camera's memory cards; pressing record on the camera drops the output signal to just 720p, eliminating the possibility of redundant recording.
These features certainly add up, and they make a compelling case for the Nikon D4 as a multimedia camera of choice. Sure, the addition of external hard drives isn't the most convenient thing in the world, but pros will probably find it to be an acceptable compromise.
A powerhouse of a camera, the Nikon D4 shoots incredibly fast, produces usable images even with very little light, autofocuses quickly and accurately under almost any circumstances, features remarkable dynamic range, and offers a host of custom user controls for tuning white and color balance to your heart's content.
The D4 performed incredibly well throughout our testing process, revealing expansive dynamic range, excellent low-light characteristics, and respectable color accuracy. That said, we were a little dismayed by its inconsistent white balance, especially given how annoyingly complicated the setup process is for custom white balance.
When comparing this camera and the 1D X, the biggest differences are in speed and dynamic range. Canon clearly still knows how to design an AF system, and there's no arguing that the amount of control Canon provides with their 1D X's 61-point autofocus truly dwarfs what Nikon provides on the D4. The Canon was simply more accurate, tracked subjects better, and managed a faster shot-to-shot speed for both JPEG and RAW. The D4 had a respectable 12.1fps continuous shooting speed in testing, but the Canon managed more than 13fps for RAW+JPEG shooting, and over 15fps for JPEG alone.
The Nikon D4 clearly has the edge in dynamic range, however. At base ISO, the Canon 1D X retains about 11.5 stops of dynamic range, while the Nikon D4 preserves closer to 13 stops (though that advantage drops considerably as you move up the ISO scale). The 1D X offered far more accurate colors and more consistent white balance when capturing JPEGs—which may matter if you shoot news on the go—but low light, high ISO shooting is owned by Nikon.
The Nikon D4 is particularly striking evidence of the seismic shift ongoing in the world of professional photography. Reacting to a market where photographers are often asked to serve double-duty as videographers, Nikon has reluctantly moved away from its purist still-camera roots to graft on video-friendly features. The results are mostly positive, though occasionally the designers have tripped over their own feet in the rush to accommodate video shooting.
With still performance among the best we've seen to date and video that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best on the market, we have to give the D4 top marks. The more we shot with this Nikon, the more we were impressed by the ease with which it juggled priorities that only four short years ago seemed worlds apart. While there have been some sacrifices made to still control in favor of video functionality, the Nikon D4 is just the sort of speedy powerhouse that news and sports photographers crave.
At $6,000 body-only, the Nikon D4 is not going to be the first choice for dedicated videographers. For professional photographers who work in both disciplines, though, it's certainly going to look appealing. The asking price is going to put it out of reach for many, and for video alone the 5D Mark III or the Panasonic GH3 are better buys, but if you need a device that can manage stills and videos at a pro level, the D4 is matched only by the Canon EOS 1D X.
For most professionals, the choice between Canon's 1D X and Nikon's D4 isn't a choice at all—if you own $20,000 in lenses, neither camera is going to make you jump ship now. There are clear advantages for each: Canon still has the edge in AF accuracy, control, and speed, but Nikon's sensor technology has clearly advanced beyond Canon's.
It's remarkable how similar these two cameras really are; both Canon and Nikon have pointed their flagships in a direction of convergence. In the end, it's too close to definitively call a winner. The 1D X's autofocus advances will likely be too enticing for most pro sports photographers to ignore, but anyone in regular need of low light capability will find the D4's high dynamic range, high-ISO capabilities, and backlit controls truly invaluable.
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