The 10th Generation Nikon Pro camera (or is it 9 because the F6 is D2-ish?)
Back in early summer of 2011 I actually wrote a full article about what I thought the D4 would be like when it was launched in August, based upon things I was hearing out of Japan. When it became clear that the quake had disrupted Nikon's schedule, I decided not to publish the article. In retrospect, I probably should have.
Here were some of my predictions: USB 3, clean HDMI, 1080P/24/25/30, 720P/60/50/30/25/24, video under/over crank, EXPEED 3, still capture during video, full AVCHD 2, mini-XLR, headphone out, manual audio control, faster frame rate (11), more pixels (18mp), more DR, faster and improved AF but same sensor orientation, wireless camera remote, a new storage card standard.
Not a bad hit rate (Italic items). But that's not what you're reading this article for. You're trying to figure out whether you actually need or want a D4. Short answer: if you're a still shooter and you've got a D3s and/or D3x the newly announced replacement camera isn't going to immediately push any buttons for you. There are, however, a lot of incremental changes, and almost any D3 series user is going to find at least a few of those are of interest. Indeed, three of the changes are things that I requested directly of Nikon, and many of the changes do show that they were listening to users.
The main question all of you are going to ask is about the sensor. That's the tricky part. Before we get there, let's work on the basics. We'll work from differences to the D3s:
- Body: The D4 follows the long established Nikon pro DSLR style, but with lots of small tweaks.
- On the front we've got the D7000-style autofocus control (which I think is a plus, as you can now change all critical AF settings without taking your eye from the viewfinder), but not much more. The curves are different and the prism profile slightly different. The vertical grip also gets an additional function button.
- On the back, we've got lots of changes, with the usual "button moves." The zoom-with-dial method is gone, replaced by the lower models' separate zoom in, zoom out buttons. The Live View button gets surrounded by a new video/still lever. The Direction pad lock becomes a separate lever. The AF-On button on the vertical grip moves so that the hand position stays the same on both horizontal and vertical use (finally). The AE-L/AF-L button goes away. The main change is the addition of a small thumbstick above the Direction pad to change the AF point more quickly. The LCD is now 3.2", not 3", has automatic brightness capability, and has a bigger Color Space (though not quite the "near sRGB" Nikon stated, as it extends blues and doesn't hit all the greens).
- Up top the Lock button becomes the metering button and the metering control on the side of the prism goes away. We also get the ubiquitous red record movie button.
- Overall, the body drops 3 ounces (60g) of weight. Were any of these changes necessary? No. Will any of them make users happier? With the exception of the vertical grip control repositions and maybe the thumbstick, probably not. The change in AF mode controls (front and back on D3s, only D7000-style front button on D4) will be fiercely debated by a few, but I personally like the change. Once again we have mostly the issue of "who moved my cheese" in the subtle changes. This introduces the issue of a pro using both a D3s and D4: enough differences exist so you need to remember which camera you've got in your hands; it'll slow you down if you aren't 100% on top of that, especially the AF changes.
- One thing that's interesting is that Nikon finally decided that the vertical grip controls needed to have the same hand position as the horizontal. Gee, that only took 16 years to figure out. Ditto the change of AF sensor position when you switch the body from horizontal to vertical and back. Nikon seems proud of these changes, but they should have happened many generations of pro camera ago. I believe I first complained about both things publicly with the D2h design. It really shouldn't take this long to fix for conceptually simple requirements like this.
- Speed: We get 10 fps (11 fps with focus and exposure locked on first frame). Nikon is using faster buffer memory, but hasn't really changed much in the way of buffer depth. Buffer changes are mostly due to internal processing speed and bandwidth changes. The Compact Flash slot supports UDMA-7 compliant cards, which should net noticeable improvement over the original UDMA cards that the D3 supported. Nikon claims that the camera can hit 125MBs transfer speeds, though such claims usually turn out to be maximum speed, not throughput. The XQD card claims provide additional buffer depth, despite not being faster than UDMA-7 in raw specs (thus it must be efficiency in the write mechanism). Nikon's buffer claims seem scattered: as low as 92 raw 12-bit buffered images to as high as 110 raw 14-bit buffered images with the XQD card (less for UDMA-7). Suffice it to say that with the right card you'll get a deeper raw buffer, but exactly how deep and which card will get you the max is not yet known. EXPEED 3 is said to be 30% faster than the EXPEED 2 in the D3s, by the way. But that claim seems odd compared to the EXPEED 3 claims made for the Nikon 1.
- Subsystems: The 51-point autofocus module should operate better in low light (EV -2 rated), and you can now focus with maximum aperture of f/8 instead of f/5.6 (with reduced number of points). The metering is now performed by a 91k pixel sensor and 3D Color matrix metering is improved. The extra pixels in the meter give the D4 the ability to add face detection in phase detect autofocus. The virtual horizon level now operates for both horizontal and vertical operation. The shutter and mirror mechanisms are revised and rated to 400k cycles (D3s was 300k). Also, in Live View, the mirror can be locked up (Tripod mode), and the camera can be configured for silent shooting. The sensor gets an auto-cleaning feature. Almost everything in the subsystem realm is (welcome) tweaking, with the added information from the metering sensor providing much of the improvements.
- Video: The D4 is an impressive video camera. 1080P/30 and 720P/60 max may be a bit of a disappointment to some, but the rest of the changes are all basically pro-grade: headphone and audio level monitoring, HDMI outputs clean uncompressed video (and rear LCD still active during HDMI output), better interframe compression, ability to trigger video via the 10-pin remote, sophisticated noise reduction in real time during video recording, full manual control of shutter speed/aperture/ISO, smooth aperture changes, built-in time lapse movie making, index marking, simultaneous 2mp still shooting during video recording, 2.7x crop direct pixel capability, and so on. Rolling shutter is the lowest of any Nikon to date. Frankly, there's little Nikon missed on the video side.
- Connectivity: A built in Ethernet connection (100Base-T) does all the things that the old WiFi adapters did via (mostly) fast wire (yes!), plus we get a new, smaller WT-5 WiFi option that brings the wireless connections up to date (a/b/g/n, HTTP mode, fire 10 units simultaneously). But you can also use a WT-4 with your D4 if you've already got one of those. iPhone and iPad control and remote viewing are also available with the WT-5. Note that the Ethernet connection may support 100Base-T, but it doesn't support the full speed of such connections. Still, it seems "fast enough" compared to where we've been.
- New stuff: The D4 gets the D5100's two-frame JPEG HDR capability. The Protect button gets overloaded some more: if nothing is displayed on the color LCD it becomes a Picture Control button. Most of the buttons get backlighting in low light, plus we get much more configurability of button functions (including the Bracket button and Direction pad button). White balance is settable in 10 Kelvin increments, plus we get the AUTO1/AUTO2 settings pioneered in the consumer models. Nikon apparently finally heard users: Auto ISO now can be set to "automatic inverse of the focal length." IPTC data fields can be entered in camera. There's a 2mp completely silent (electronic shutter with mirror up) shooting capability, which while limited in pixels, is still 2mp more than any other pro camera can do silently ;~). The mirror delay is programmable, out to 3 seconds. In Live View, the mirror stays up in Tripod Mode. (As much as all this is good, it barely makes a dent in my User Suggestions list.) Bad news is we get a new, incompatible EN-EL18 battery of lower capacity and dual slot MH-26 charger. The strange news is the change of the first card slot to the new XQD card format.
Which brings us to the change everyone wants to know most about: the sensor. At 16mp, the pixel pitch is 7.3 microns, which keeps it in the relatively "big photosite" range. Since light acquisition is about area covered, the difference between 50+ square microns (D4) and <30 square microns (D3100, D5100, D7000, D3x) should make for substantive differences. Nikon claims that they've increased efficiency (the D3s was quite efficient), lowered read noise (the sensor has on-board ADC), and that they added dynamic range and improved skin tones. Curiously absent from Nikon's marketing materials are any comparisons to the D3s low light capabilities. That, of course, raises eyebrows.
Early output I've seen from skilled shooters with the D4 looks good, though. Is it D3s good? I don't know and won't until I get a chance to shoot with the camera myself and push it in the extremes I did with the D3s. Nothing else has managed the low light levels of the theatre group I work with as well as the D3s, so I've got a pretty good test bed for that once I get a camera to test. Given that we only have a bit over a month to wait for that, I don't see a lot of point in speculating based upon examination of other folks' photos. I will say that--for a change--Nikon supplied some very good looking sample shots at the intro. More often than not the camera makers manage to feed pretty poor sample images at introductions. That doesn't seem to be true of the D4 introduction, and it may be basically because you've got some pretty darned good pros like McNally providing the initial images.
One complaint I'm already hearing is "only 16mp?" In terms of resolution, 16mp is actually just at the threshold of visual change that would be seen by most viewers (it takes 15-20% pixel change on an axis to be visible to "most average observers"; the D4 is 15.8% different than the D3s on the horizontal axis). Having just spent almost a month in the wilds shooting with a 10mp Nikon 1 side-by-side against 12mp-18mp competitors I can absolutely state that I'm not a pixel-count snob. There's something to be said for having a smaller number of really clean pixels on a camera that is critically responsive to focus versus having more pixels on a camera that doesn't follow focus well.
Indeed, that describes the D4's audience perfectly. Remember, the D4 isn't a landscape camera. It isn't a camera designed to make huge prints of static subjects. It's a camera designed to isolate moments in time in any light, mostly of people doing things (events, sports, etc.). Indeed, a D3x user shooting landscapes or studio work probably doesn't need any of the things that Nikon added to the D4 (well, okay, the studio shooter probably would like the Ethernet connection).
Thus, I'm not going to discount the 16mp resolution. I already (mostly) had enough at 12mp with my D3s, so 16mp is a nice bump that gives me a bit more framing flexibility.
The overall scorecard is mostly positive in this update of Nikon's mainstay. Aside from the D3s/D4 incongruities (control/function changes that make shooting both simultaneously a bit of a problem), most pros are going to like the fact that Nikon has paid a lot of attention to keeping you shooting without looking away from the viewfinder and without moving your hand positions. Those that use their DSLRs for video will find a lot to like, too. Overall, though, this was not the big leap the D3 was over the D2x, but a much more evolutionary and iterative step. While all the changes/additions are nice, for me there's nothing absolutely compelling that says "dump your D3s for the D4." That said, I look forward to having a more responsive camera in my hands, and I'll probably switch from the D3s to the D4.
Three things stand out as question marks for the time being, and will need to be put to the test.
- The battery change. Why, Nikon, why? Okay, we know why: the battery conforms with Japan's new stringent regulations; the older battery's high capacity is apparently now considered "unsafe" in Japan. Still, the new battery could have been compatible with the old one (same connection, same size). One of the things pros liked about a D3 (or a D2x for that matter) was the battery. We only recently got 12-volt chargers for the EN-EL4. The drop of capacity is a step backwards, especially considering the high cost of the new battery. Those of us who are Nikon faithful already have a closet full of different batteries and chargers. The only reason we should ever have to change them is if there's a clear benefit to us. Nikon claims that you can shoot more stills with the new battery on a D4 than the old one on the D3s, but this is slightly disingenuous and hidden under the guise of slightly different "Nikon" tests (with VR off, I note). The optional WT-5 also draws power from the camera, as does the GP-1 if you use that. I can't say for sure, but it seems like we took a significant step backwards, and will spend more money doing so (the new battery is more expensive).
- Giving up matching card slots for a new card standard (and one that as of today has no shipping cards) raises my eyebrows. Again, what's the user benefit? Very curiously, Nikon doesn't mention one in their press materials other than a very generic line of "blazing fast write times and extended capacity." But UDMA-7 is no slouch in write performance. The question becomes whether I'd rather have a new card with some future extended capacity or matching cards with current capacities. Guess what? I'll bet that most of us would pick the latter. Indeed, almost every camera that's had mismatching card slots (CF and SD, for instance), has ultimately been criticized for that. The real deal breaker, I suspect, is going to be cost. A 16GB XQD card is US$130, 32GB is US$230. You'll also need a new US$45 card reader.
- Nikon's lack of specific claims and comments on the sensor sends up slight warning signals. Yes, the D3s sensor is hard to top. There's a question of "balance" here. Given Nikon's silence on the sensor specifics, I'd bet that generational improvements don't overcome the pixel increase. So we have an outstanding question at the moment of better, same, or worse than the D3s (all else equal). If the answer is worse, there's going to be a run on final production and used D3s models. If the answer is equal, most of us can happily live with that, especially given the other improvements. It seems doubtful that the answer is better, though Nikon's tweaking of skin rendering is interesting in this context. It won't be until the end of February, when the D4 is in the hands of many pros, that the answer on the sensor will start to reveal itself.
The D4 will be available in mid February for US$6000. While many dealers have been taking pre-orders, by the time you read this it's likely that those units have all been spoken for.
One final thought: we're nearing the end of the iterative process for the pro DSLRs. A D5 would be likely in 2015, and just iterating features and technologies inside the D4 won't be enough, I think, to provoke strong sales of a D5. At a minimum, the next generation of pro cameras will need to be communicating (probably through smartphones and/or tablets). But the number of features and options is now up to the point where users will want to simplify their camera to what they want (e.g. temporarily hide all the things they don't use), which implies a minimal ability to "program."
A curious aside: Nikon apparently has finally noticed how Apple does product intros. Their Powerpoint-driven presentation (especially in the UK) was more Apple-esque than usual, including starting with the usual "see how much we've accomplished" preamble prior to the product intro. In Nikon's case, that was: achieved 12% of the compact camera marketplace, launched the Nikon 1, and D3100 was the best selling DSLR in 2011. Even the product slides were tighter than before, with more product photos and (a bit) less text. There was even a "just one more thing" tease (which was iPhone and iPad compatibility with the WT-5). I suspect some of this was just having more time to prepare marketing materials due to the delayed launch, but overall there's a noticeably higher standard of marketing materials on this launch than usual, though curiously, less specific information (no 32-page brochure yet, either).