Nikon D4 Field Review

Camera And Housing Overview. Part 1

The Nikon D4.

The D4 is packed with features, options and custom settings, as you would expect from a camera designed to feel tailor made for professional photographers working in diverse disciplines around the world. The instruction manual is almost 500 pages long and an inch (2.5cm) thick (and there are separate instruction manuals for wireless networking and each accessory). Suffice to say I only have space/time to cover a few features here – the ones most relevant for underwater photography.

That said the types of underwater photographers that the D4 will appeal to will be a diverse bunch. I know that the housing manufacturer’s have orders from everyone from marine life shooters to sports snappers planning on placing the D4 on the floor of the pool in London and driving it from their iPad/iPhone with the Nikon App.

Pick up a D4 and you will be surprised by its weight. It is lighter than you would expect for a pro-body, with metal chassis and full weather sealing (it is 10% lighter than the D3). Despite being considerably larger, it is only 300 grams (10 ounces) heavier than the D800. This Giorgetto Giugiaro designed camera is a very pleasing to handle, and Nikon users will immediately notice the larger screen and different angle of the shutter release. The carbon-fibre shutter is rated to 400,000 images. It is built to perform and in my short test I obviously have not had any problems. But most of this matters little, this is a review of the UW features, so I will discuss handling below in the housing section.

I am not going to comment on the D4 ergonomics and handling outside the housing as this review is focused on underwater use.

The headline stats of the D4 for stills photography are MP, ISO and FPS. 16MP was chosen because that is what the professional shooters asked for. Prevailing opinion during the D4’s development was that the current cameras (12MP D3, D3s) actually had enough resolution for all publishing in books, magazines, newspapers and online and rather than more pixels we wanted better ones. With the D4 Nikon has delivered better pixels and also 33% more of them.

However, all that was in the world before the D800. A Nikon camera than offers 20MP more than its larger sibling, while still offering fantastic image quality at a pixel level. In the post D800 landscape many are wondering if more pixels would be better?

Nikon asked pros what they wanted from a sensor in their SLR. But did they select the right balance between MP, FPS and ISO for underwater photography?

The D4 files are very impressive indeed at 100% resolution and respond very well to interpolation (if required – my agents/clients very rarely require higher resolution) and post processing adjustments. It will be very interesting to shoot wide angle photos with the D4 and D800 side by side underwater and compare them both at say, 24 MP and see which file is preferable. Despite having shot both, I don’t know the answer – there are some big unknowns. And perhaps we shouldn’t care too much either, as all the cameras now have more than enough image quality for almost every requirement.

As I have said before, too much measurebating will make you blind - to the photograph. Images sell, win praise and prizes and influence and resonate with people because of what is in the frame, not the small differences in image quality that people.

Two advantages of the larger pixels and modest 16MP resolution of the D4 come in frames per second (FPS) and wide ISO performance. The D4 shoots in excess of 10 FPS and has incredible burst shooting capability. Come the Olympics, photographers will be able to keep their fingers down and take 100 shots of Usain Bolt as he covers the 100m in London. If they are shooting JPG, they could keep their finger in place and shoot 100 more of the Jamaican celebrations before hitting the buffer. Impressive stats, but is this of much use underwater?

High frame rates can be very helpful in capturing a moment, but flash recycling limits their use underwater.

If you do normal reef photography the honest answer is no. Most underwater photography is done with flash and flash recycling is the bottleneck for frame rates. If you shoot underwater action (baitballs, sardine run, sailfish etc) or big animals in available light, then high frame rates can be very valuable. It can also be useful for shooting people diving and jumping in the water and aquatic sports etc. The high ISO performance allied with recent advances in LED lighting systems also provides an opportunity for shooting with continuous lighting underwater and realizing benefits of these fast frame rates, while not compromising shutter speed or aperture. But high FPS is not an important feature in general for most underwater photography.

The usable ISO range of the D4 is extra-ordinary (the expanded range is ISO 50 to ISO 204800). With the D4 you use ISO as third control of exposure as you do with aperture and shutter speed. The noise control is excellent, but I feel too many people focus only on this as it is the easiest to spot and measurebate! With the latest cameras, I believe the more important impact of increasing ISO is a loss of dynamic range of the image. This is where the D4 impresses me most over the D3 series, its ability to retain highlight and shadow detail at higher ISOs while still delivering strong colors and rich blacks.

High ISO performance is about more than noise. The D4 is particularly impressive in capturing wide dynamic range, here at ISO 1000 in Iceland.

That said, I have definitely found that the usable ISO range is wider on land/in the studio conditions, than in underwater photography. I will discuss this further in the next installment where I will talk in more detail about ISO.

The final point on MP/FPS/ISO is file size and storage. Nikon reps tell me that they expect the majority of D4 owners (at least land photographers) to own both the D4 and D800 and to use the D4 as their daily workhorse and the D800 when especially high resolution is required. I have used the D4 on shoots in Iceland and Scotland, which were back to back trips. I shot over 5000 images and videos in Iceland and over 4000 in Scotland. Field time is valuable to me and I didn’t have time to edit/cull the images yet. Had I done these two trip with a D800 I would have has close to 500GB of data to transfer store and backup! The D4 also comes with a super-high speed 16GB Sony XQD card and reader, which greatly reduces file transfer times to the computer (as well as a second slot for CF cards). For more information, please see Rob Galbraith’s site.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the feature that immediately stood out for me on the D4 is not a new one. Well not new at first glance anyway. The D4 uses the Multi-CAM 3500-FX, by name the same AF unit as on the D3 series, D700 and D800. However, the algorithms and processing behind this have been significantly updated and it is very, very impressive. The AF improvement from D2 to D3 was smaller than D3 to D4.

I suspect the difference in performance owes much to have much more processing power behind it – a bit like running Photoshop on a brand new desktop and a 5 year old laptop. Same software, very different performance. I’ve not used the D800 enough to know how much of this improvement is realized in that model.

Low light AF is very impressive. I shot this shrimp with the 105mm lens and Subsee +5 in a loch in Scotland without using a focus torch. Focus is bang on.

The AF system is particularly good in low light, low contrast situations (it can honestly focus when you own eyes are struggling to see) and the improvements are particularly noticeable when using teleconverters (thus reducing the maximum aperture of the lens) or macro lenses up close (reducing the virtual aperture). For example, when diving in the dark sea lochs of Scotland, I found I was shooting macro without a focus light on and the AF just nailed everything.

I will discuss AF in detail in one of the next installments (including AF in liveview mode), but wanted to flag it up at this stage as it is one of the most exciting features for us and bodes well for the D800 too.

Flash-synch is officially 1/250th, although 1/320th works perfectly with underwater strobes. The D4 also offers a 1.2x crop mode (quite a few people like the Canon 1D series 1.3 crop with fisheye lenses) and this will synch to 1/400th. The DX crop mode (approx. 1.5) will synch to 1/500th, although the DX mode of the D4 only offers 6MP, which could be limiting for a number of applications.

The D4 has in-camera HDR processing, but it is JPG only. Fortunately the camera records excellent dynamic range in standard RAW shooting.

The camera has some neat in-camera processing. The D4 (and D800) is capable of in-camera HDR shooting, where two frames are shot with different exposures and then combined HDR-style to a final image. The output file is JPG only, which limits its value underwater, but it is likely to appeal to those who shoot in Fotosub style contests (such as the CMAS World Championship) where only JPGs can be produced. The D800 has the feature too, so use it quick before Canon users lobby to have to banned from contests!

The D4 can process timelapse movies in camera (I have previously shared a movie I shot with this feature on the D800 back in January on the Wetpixel front page). For underwater timelapses, I think most would prefer to assemble timelapse sequences the old fashioned way, using the computer to allow white balance adjustments etc (and with the correct software to add Ken Burns style pans and zooms). The D4 has an in built intervalometer for shooting series of images and also these ready made timelapse movies.

Finally, another of the D4’s party pieces – the illuminated buttons for low light shooting is sadly not of benefit inside a housing! Neither are the vertical grip and controls.

(1) Introduction.
(2) Camera and housing overview: Part 1 D4 camera.
(3) Camera and housing overview: Part 2 NA-D4 housing.
(4) ISO, image quality and shooting FX (5) Autofocus and shooting experience (macro and wide, stills and video).
(6) Comparisons with other cameras and conclusion.