The Nikon D4: Nikon’s New Workhorse

While shooting big-wave surfing in Tahiti last year, and in Hawaii earlier this year, I remember longing for more megapixels and a faster framing rate than I was getting with my Nikon D700. In short, I was longing for a D4-like camera. And well, Nikon did not disappoint. Without a doubt the Nikon D4 is a stellar camera. It is also a speed demon. Blasting away at 11 fps gives me confidence that I won’t miss anything when it comes to the action.

While it is nice to have four more megapixels than my old Nikon D700, at 16 MP the resolution of the D4 isn’t going to blow anyone away. I was hoping the D4 would be a 24 MP camera with a framing rate of 8 or 9 fps and the same low noise of my D700. Instead Nikon chose to keep the noise on par with the D3s, increase the framing rate slightly and only marginally increase the resolution. I will have to wait for the Nikon D5 for a 24 MP camera that fires at 10+ fps. The technology just isn’t there yet for what I wanted. Nonetheless, the D4 will meet my needs for the next few years and beyond I am sure. The reality is that 12 MP was more than many of my clients really needed, but more megapixels gives me more options on the back end—especially when it comes to cropping images. 16 MP is a great file size for the adventure sports images that I shoot.

While the specs are impressive, lets talk about the camera body itself for a moment. As usual with professional caliber camera bodies, the Nikon D4 is a tank. It has superb weather sealing, a solid metal body and it fits my hand like a glove. I really do prefer the feel of a solid pro camera body. The ergonomics of the D4 have been improved significantly, in my view, over the D3s. There have been some who have complained about the new button placements, and I will admit I am still getting used to the new focus point joysticks, but overall I find the camera a joy to use. The ergonomics, I think I can safely say, are better than any other pro Nikon Body I have ever used.

The D4 has two memory card slots. One is for the standard CompactFlash cards, and the other is for the new XQD memory cards. As the only camera on the market with the new card format, it is hard to tell whether or not the XQD format will catch on. I had to update a bunch of my memory cards because of the higher resolution sensors in the D4 and D800—and because my older cards had seen some serious abuse. I purchased an extra 32 GB Sony XQD card [to go along with the 16 GB XQD card that came with the D4] as well as a bunch of 32 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro memory cards. Since I shoot action sports and actually need the ability to shoot 40 to 50 frame bursts (or more) at 11 fps the idea of having memory cards that can shoot bursts of up to 90+ frames in one go is very appealing. In fact this capability of the D4 was one of the main selling points for my work—especially for surfing, where the surfer is sometimes on the wave for six to seven seconds. With older cameras you were assured of hitting the buffer and the camera locking up. With the D4 that is no longer an issue, even when shooting raw images.

Time will tell if the XQD format is the future. I hope it is. The cards themselves seem very robust and are easy to use. And I was very impressed that Nikon included a 16 GB Sony XQD card and an XQD card reader along with the Nikon D4 to help everyone get used to the new card format. The only downside I have found to the XQD format is the card reader. The XQD card reader, unfortunately, has a USB 3.0 connection. Because Apple laptops are not USB 3.0 compliant (at the moment), it takes forever to download a 16 GB XQD card. On my Mac Pro tower, the card reader seems to work fairly well, but on the laptop it took about an hour to download 8 GB of images off an XQD memory card with the XQD card reader. Hopefully someone comes out with a Firewire 800 or Thunderbolt XQD card reader as that would make the format much more appealing for MacBook Pro users. Because the card reader is made by Sony, not Nikon, I cannot fault the camera for this glaring frustration.

Now let’s get down to brass tacks here and talk about image quality. For stills, as you would expect the image quality is excellent. The 16 MP still images have phenomenal color fidelity and the dynamic range seems much improved as well over and above my Nikon D700. Focusing is wicked fast and dead on in my experience. The lack of noise in images shot at high ISOs is astounding—on par with the Nikon D3s. I can’t say that the D4 has less noise in images shot at high ISOs than the D3s had—it seems about the same. There is certainly a lot less noise at the higher ISOs than was the case with my D700. I am pretty sure that the Nikon D4 will still be the low-light king of all the DSLRs on the market. As far as I can tell there are no other cameras out there producing such low noise images files at high ISOs. Overall, the image quality on the D4 is stellar at all ISOs up to ISO 6400, and even test images I have shot at ISO 12,800 are phenomenal. I won’t hesitate for even a second to crank the ISO up to 6400 or even 12,800 if needed.

The new lower-capacity, lithium-ion batteries for the D4 have also been controversial. Because of the new laws in Japan, Nikon, and Canon for that matter, were forced to change their batteries. So far, I have not run out of battery power on any photo shoot so I am not that concerned about the new batteries—they seem fine. The battery charger supplied with the camera works extremely well too. It is a two bay charger, meaning you can charge two batteries at once, which is nice but the charger itself is huge and a royal pain to pack. I wish Nikon offered a single battery charger unit for traveling but they don’t. I will just have to figure out how to pack the giant two bay charger more efficiently. For heavy shooting days, like when shooting surfing, the 2-bay unit will come in handy but for everything else I could do without it.

In terms of video quality, in my limited testing, the 1080p HD video quality is phenomenal. I have heard reports online where people think the HD video quality is a bit soft, but my camera produces wicked sharp 1080p video. The new head phone jack and also the manual audio input controls are a very nice touch. The video quality from what I can tell is only matched by the video quality of the Nikon D800. It far surpasses the Canon 5D Mark II and in my view is also slightly better than the Canon 5D Mark III. Add to all of this, the ability to output uncompressed 1080p HD footage to an external recording device and it is obvious Nikon has come a long way on the video front. And as you might imagine at high ISOs the video quality is shockingly good. Nothing out there can touch it at high ISOs. I plan to do some nighttime video shoots this summer with the D4 to exploit its amazing high ISO abilities.

The only drawback to the Nikon D4 is that I have shot with and seen the images produced by the 36 MP Nikon D800. The eye-popping resolution of the D800 makes the 16 MP images produced by the D4 look rather average resolution-wise. Nonetheless, the D4 is my go-to, no holds barred, action and low light camera.

Michael Clark is an internationally published photographer specializing in adventure sports, travel, and landscape photography. He produces intense, raw images of athletes pushing their sports to the limit and has risked life and limb on a variety of assignments to bring back stunning images from remote locations around the world. A sampling of his clients include: Apple, Nikon, Red Bull, National Geographic, Outside and Outdoor Photographer.