Nikon D4 Field Review

Comparisons and Conclusion.

As with my previous reviews I am not interested in making detailed comparisons between Nikon and Canon cameras. The vast majority of serious photographers are so invested into lenses and other accessories that they will not switch. While it is valuable to know the particular strengths of your camera, for ideas for shots that others may not be able to replicate, I have no interest in fanning the flames of fanboyism. But for Nikon shooters I think it is useful to comment on how the D4 compares to its predecessor, the D3, and particularly its contemporary, the D800.

For Nikon D3 users the D4 is an excellent blend of familiar and new. If the D3 suited your photography, the D4 will excel.

The D4 is the D3 upgraded in almost every department. They are designed to do the same job and please the same photographers (and now videographers). The D4 simply benefits from four and a half years of the inexorable march of technology. This is not a revolutionary upgrade, as D2 to D3 was (where Nikon’s flagship went from DX to FX and from high ISO failure to high ISO king). This is evolutionary, with improvements across the board. If you shoot and love the D3, you’ll love the D4 even more. If the D3 worked with the subjects, lenses, strobes and ports you shot before, the D4 will work even better.

Should you upgrade? Naturally, you won’t regret it if you do. But a housing and camera change are not cheap. If the finances don’t add up, the D3 remains an excellent imaging machine and while 12MP won’t earn you bragging rights, it is still certainly enough for every publishing need (despite what the camera companies’ marketing departments would want you to believe).

As a professional workhorse the Nikon D4 and Nauticam NA-D4 performed perfectly throughout this test (noting that not all features of the NA-D4 were available on the pre-production unit I tested). I plunged the camera into very tough conditions and directly into assignment shooting and it produced fantastic images from dive 1, extending my capabilities, particularly in low light shooting, in both Iceland and Scotland. I am pleased with my cod images (the main aim of my Iceland trip), which I am not able to share in this review. The camera filled me with confidence that it would continue to shoot relentlessly for the next 4+ years.

The Nauticam NA-D4 should be considered seriously by anyone looking to house a D4. It is well built and packed with innovative ergonomic solutions.

The Nauticam NA-D4 represents another significant step forward in Nauticam housing design. It is a very polished product and should be seriously considered by anyone looking to house a D4, wherever their current allegiances lie. Despite this being Nauticam’s first housing for a flagship Nikon or Canon, their design approach is laudably original. Their housings really feel like clean sheet designs and not derivative of other brands. Their port and housing locking mechanisms, viewfinder options and port choice are more than a match for any brand.

The ergonomic strengths of the NA-D4 are numerous and deserve particular praise. Nauticam had already introduced a great shutter action on their previous generation of housings, and have now further improved the primary controls dials for aperture and shutter speed. These are excellent. The ISO lever is fantastic and a great example of developing a control that suits the camera inside (you wouldn’t need an ISO lever on a D2 housing!). I also like that there are two thumb paddles on each side for regularly required controls, much easier to use than push buttons. The innovative multi-selector promises good things, although not connected on the housing I tested. I like the option of optical flash synch.

Dislikes with the NA-D4? Few. I miss the top LCD window, not essential, but useful. I’d like to see more connection options offered on a pro housing (even if these are options) for flash and more. I can see pro-photographers wanting twin electronic synch sockets (and one optical), HDMI out, remote release or Ethernet and an optical synch options. I’d suggest supplying the housing with two electronic ports and one optical, and with another blanked off plug for customisation. Connectivity is a major part of the D4 design and a diverse set of photographers will use it underwater. Expect to see it everywhere from the bottom of Olympic swimming pools to polecaming polar bears. A housing with options to expand will appeal.

The D4 will be used for a wide variety of underwater assignments and housings need to be able to cope with and support this.

The D4 is much more than a workhorse - it is a thoroughbred racehorse. Its undoubted strengths are amazing autofocus, blazing frame rates and astonishing ISO. The Nikon D4 is a fantastic camera to use underwater, but much of its skill set will exceed the needs of the majority of underwater photographers, much of the time. $6000 is hard to justify if you aren’t going to use the technology and capabilities you are paying for.

That said, for some of the world’s most accomplished underwater photographers, this will be the attraction. The possibilities of benefitting from the tech to create new types of underwater images (using high ISO performance, 10 FPS, low light autofocus, full remote control etc) will be why they have already placed their orders. The marketplace for images has never been more competitive and there has never been such a requirement for photographers to continually push limits.

It is impossible to consider the 16MP $6000 D4 without also discussing the 36MP $3000 D800. Despite the D800’s revolution sensor, the D4 is the camera more equipped to push photographic limits and produce images not possible before.

As I said at the start, the real underwater competition for the D4 doesn’t come from Canon, but from its sibling the D800. The two cameras share their autofocus system and video performance (including the uncompressed HDMI feed). The D4 currently boasts world bests in frame rate and ISO sensitivity, but these are not features that all underwater photographers require.

Frame rates are the biggest difference between the D4 and D800 specs, but these areas rarely critical underwater. Pelagic action is the main place it benefits, with big creatures (whales, dolphins, sharks, mantas, sailfish) doing stuff (mainly feeding on smaller stuff) at the surface. This is not everyday underwater photography for most divers, but there are a number of professional underwater photographers for whom it is their speciality. ISO is valuable for those that dive deep or in temperate regions where light is limited. But the D800 is also very capable at high ISO and close enough to the D4 enough of the time to make difference hard to justify for those that don’t specialise in these conditions.

ISO is useful in darker places (this was shot with the D4 at ISO 1600) but in most places that people dive light is not limited. And it never is for macro. Furthermore the D800 is also good enough at high ISO to cover most photographers, most of the time.

The D800 counters the arguments for the D4 with three-thousand very persuasive ones of its own, and even ignore the money, its ground-breaking resolution. Although we are yet to see how much of the 36MP can be realised underwater, shooting through a dome and water, particularly towards the edges of the frame with non-fisheye wide angle. But the D800s main selling points against the D4 for underwater use are the smaller body (which means smaller housing too, although the D800 housings are not tiny) and built in flash, which provides optical TTL. The DX mode is entirely useable too, meaning the D800 is two underwater cameras in one. As a DX camera the D800 has comparable image quality to the D7000, worse viewfinder, but better AF and faster flash synch.

The D800 offer 20MP more resolution than the D4. Plenty of pros will tell you that the D4 already has more than enough resolution than they need for their clients. Magazines, books etc. aren’t getting higher resolution (they are actually getting lower as more migrate to iPad etc). For working photographers who shoot several 1000+ images each week, the D800’s RAW files of 47MB are an unnecessary burden for downloading, storing, backing up and delivering to clients. For those that dive less frequently this is not a big issue.

Pictures sell because of what is in the frame not the resolution. The D4 allows you to work in extremes and produce images other cameras cannot. A high ISO shot of a diver with the hydrothermal chimneys in Eyjafjordur, Iceland. A dark, deep dive illuminated. There are many places around the world where hot springs bubble up in to the ocean, but these hydrothermal chimneys are thought to be unique at diveable depths. The water that comes out is not just warmed by the volcanic activity, but under heat and pressure becomes supersaturated with minerals. When it gushes out the minerals precipitate creating new rock: about 300 tonnes per year and chimneys up to 60m high.

But I believe that the D800 offers enough resolution to be a game changer. To change the way we shoot and take photos with the intention of cropping in post. This is not so important for wide angle, where I often find myself wanting a wider lens than my fisheye and cropping is the last thing I’d do. But for macro it could change the way we shoot. Take one good frame with the standard 105mm and then have your standard portrait and crop in for your supermacro.

But before this descends into a measurebating debate, it is important to remember that the image is king. A photograph sells, wins praise, prizes and influences and resonates with people because of what has been captured in the frame, not the resolution of the frame. Eric Cheng’s screaming turtle is one of the most widely reproduced underwater images in the world, yet is less than 4MP.

Summarizing the difference between the D800 and D4, I’d say that the D800 challenges you as a photographer to be on top of your game and when you get it right it rewards you with medium format image quality. The D4 flatters you as a photographer producing excellent image quality almost irrespective of conditions. Its technology is designed to push limits, to get images other cameras cannot, a valuable skill in today’s competitive photographic market.

The D4 may be 20MP down on the D800, but it still have more than enough resolution for all publications.

The D4 is an outstanding camera. Nobody that buys a D4 will regret it, it doesn’t have 36MP, but it does have more resolution than is needed for any publication. However, for me the inescapable conclusion is that the D4 costs twice as much as the D800 and I cannot tell you that the D4 is twice the underwater camera. It looks like the D800 will be the star of the next few years.

Alex Mustard April 2012.

The format of the pages here mean that the images are very small. I have uploaded a small gallery of D4 images on my website, where you can see them a little larger.

(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) Comparison with other cameras and conclusion