Nikon D4 Hands-On

Nikon D4

So, I hear that this new Nikon camera is a pretty big deal…

I had a few minutes to get acquainted with the new Nikon D4 at CES 2012, and I’m finally getting around to sharing my first impressions from this hands-on time.

As you probably know by now, the Nikon D4 is continuing down the same path blazed by the D3 and D3s.  It’s not a revolutionary change from the D3s, but rather a solid evolution to the next generation of DSLRs.

The Nikon D4 remains conservative on resolution, bumping it up to only 16.1MP (up from 12.1MP on the D3s).  Note that Canon’s flagship 1D X sports an 18MP sensor, which puts the cameras at what is practically the same resolution for the sake of real world comparisons.

Of course, low light ISO performance has taken the limelight in recent years when comparing cameras head-to-head.  And, if early sample images out of the gate are anything to go by, it looks like the Nikon D4 is set to carry on the tradition of the low light king amongst DSLRs.  Frankly though, I think the D4 and 1D X are going to be close to splitting hairs again (as was the case with the Nikon D3s and Canon 1D Mark IV . . . see my 3-part series: 1, 2, 3).

The Nikon D4 offers a sensitivity range of ISO 50-204,800 (with expansion enabled).  The official sample images at ISO 6400 look great.  I’m really interested to see what happens beyond that, because my first look at the 1D X showed some very impressive results at ISO 12800.  In the end, I think both Nikon and Canon’s new machines are going to give us a couple stops advantage over their respective predecessors.

While Nikon says it has advanced the D4’s AF system to the “next generation,” I’ll reserve judgment until I can comment on my actual experience in a challenging AF environment.  Of course, if it’s at least as good as the D3s, we’re in for a real treat.  In my opinion, the D3s was the AF king of the last generation.  It will be interesting to see how the advancements from the D3s AF system stacks up against the completely redesigned AF system on the Canon 1D X.

Nikon D4

When I first picked up the Canon 1D X, I was surprised by how much heavier that it was over the Canon 1D Mark IV.  When I picked up the Nikon D4 for the first time, I was blown away by how light it was.

Nikon D4 Magnesium Alloy Frame

Then, when I got ahold of the D4’s frame all by its lonesome, I realized where Nikon shaved the weight.  The camera’s magnesium alloy frame seems to weigh less than an origami recreation of the D4 would.  I’m convinced that frame must be part angel hair and part black magic to be this light.

Nikon D4 EXPEED 3

While there are many evolutionary advancements on the Nikon D4, the most notable advancements have to be the shellacking that Nikon has handed to Canon on the D4’s video capture feature set.  Just three months ago, Chuck Westfall told me that the reason the Canon 1D X couldn’t offer a clean HDMI-output signal was due to the processing power limitations.  Those limitations include a pair of Canon DIGIC 5+ processors, along with a separate DIGIC 4 processor that is solely dedicated to metering.

Nikon D4 Headphone Jack and HDMI-Out

If the 1D X is so limited with 3 processors, then how is it that the Nikon D4 spits out a clean HDMI feed with its EXPEED 3 processor?  Is Nikon really that far ahead of Canon in processor development?  Or maybe Canon is just playing coy and doesn’t want to chew into its diversified market?

Another obvious improvement that Canon missed the mark with its 1D X was the inclusion of a headphone output.  While it’s true that most serious HDSLR setups are arranged for dual-system capture, there are many times when it’s ok to record on-board audio for production use.  The improvement of small shotgun mics like the Rode VideoMic Pro and the coming Rode VideoMic HD are making it more and more feasible to use on-camera audio.

With the D4, it’s clear that Nikon gets this HDSLR thing.  That’s +2 for Nikon in the video department for those keeping score at home.  And, those aren’t little points either.  These are two big things that HDSLR shooters have been asking for since the Canon 5D Mark II busted onto the scene 3.5 years ago.  While Nikon is listening to the market in the design of its flagship HDSLR, Canon has been caught asleep at the wheel.

One thing that I was surprised to hear was that Nikon has no “cinema” style of camera presets.  I was told that the “Neutral” profile could be used, or that users could create their own.  I imagine that it won’t be long before someone cozies up to Nikon for some sort of official partnership in a fashion similar to Technicolor’s Cinestyle for Canon.  Either that, or someone will bust into an online forum with solid breakdown in presets created with Nikon’s software to be loaded onto the D4.

Another slick feature on the Nikon D4 is the stepless aperture adjustment.  I couldn’t really believe it until I saw it; however, it is sexy.  By making a selection in the menu system, you can pull the lens iris via the depth-of-field preview and function buttons on the front of the camera with your right hand.  To my eye, the adjustments were genuinely stepless. The big downside, however, is that you cannot adjust the aperture in this manner when recording to onboard memory cards.  You can only make use of it when capturing to an external HDMI recorder.  A bit of a bummer for an otherwise killer feature.

For those thinking about an external recorder, the new Blackmagic Hyperdeck Shuttle 2 looks like a great (and affordable) companion to the D4.  It runs about $350 and uses ordinary SSD drives as interchangeable storage.  Other options include the Atomos Ninja 2, which has a built-in external monitor as part of the package.

Nikon finally has a resounding answer to all the HDSLR shooters wondering when Nikon was coming to the party.

Nikon D4

That’s all I’ve got for now on the Nikon D4 until I get more time with it. Lot’s more close-up images of the D4 in the gallery below.

The Nikon D4 is available from Photography Bay’s trusted retail partner, B&H Photo, at the following links:

Nikon D4 at B&H Photo

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  1. Dan says

    I think Nikon made some huge steps at more consumer/prosumer level video by providing a headphone output and stepless aperture adjustment. But for pros, none of these features meant much. With the 1DX they got a full frame body with great high ISO performance that can record RAW footage at extreme bit rates in the body. That’s big. I’ve never seen a pro adjust aperture during recording and doubt that will ever change.

  2. Matthew says

    I think that canon not being able to do clean HDMI is a lie(on the part of canon). Why? Us Magic Lanturn users have been doing it for over a year.

  3. says

    One day when I grow up I’d like one of these. The good news is the Nikon D3 is now affordable (OK – MORE afforable.)

  4. says

    Just take a close look at the Nikon, it’s really sexy.I don’t think there is better description for
    the great camera.Believe me Canon lacks all the virtues that Nikon has in terms of easy & convenient to operate.Inspite of all the misfortunes & havoc Japan experienced,Nikon managed to produce one of the best camera of this era.Congratulations! Nikon & keep up the good work.