The Nikon D4: A Pro’s Point Of View

The Nikon D4 is a large sized, 16MP, lightning fast D-SLR, with high-definition video capability good enough to satisfy an independent film producer. At first, my thought was to see how the D4 worked when used for the more mundane subjects I shoot than what it was designed for, and to see how it compared to the APS-C sized cameras I prefer. But, by the time my experience with the camera ended, I had shot a tutorial video with it ( and then click on “Anatomy of a Still Life”), found its fast framing rate more helpful than I expected, and decided I especially liked Nikon’s D4, an FX camera, when shot in the DX (APS-C) mode. Although the primary difference between the D4 and the D3 is the D4’s increased resolution and its advanced video capability, I found the whole package that represents the D4’s feature set just as important, so let’s look at those.

1. Feel The Need, The Need For Speed!
Quite frankly, I most often shoot images in the S (Single) frame advance mode. This is partially because I’m usually waiting for studio flash units to recycle and partially because I don’t want to spend hours editing my images to remove dozens of similars. So, it was no surprise to me that when I first read that the D4’s frame advance set on CH (Continuous High) could deliver a blistering 11 frames per second, I thought this would be most useful to only a limited number of users, especially sports photographers, and not to me.

But, I found that when working in available light shooting situations, when either I or my subjects were moving at the moment of exposure, or in outdoor portrait situations when I used a Nikon shoe-mounted flash dialed down to act as a slight fill, the camera rewarded me with images that I just could not have gotten at lower framing rates. During my tests, I quickly realized I could shoot a burst of images in CH mode and chances were good one of them would be framed perfectly.

This came to be a challenge, however, when working with on-camera flash. Throttled down to a minus 3-stop exposure, a Nikon SB-800 could keep up with the D4 for five to six images before it lost out in the race.

2. A Big, Strong Battery.
Not only has Nikon increased the battery capacity of the D4 (compared to previous batteries) but they’ve increased the voltage as well. My D300 bodies use a Nikon EN-EL3e 7.4 volt, 1500 mAh battery while the D4 uses a Nikon EN-EL18 10.8 volt, 2000 mAh battery. A D4 battery tips the scale at 153 grams while a D300 battery only weighs 80 grams, but that’s not the entire story.

I also have a suspicion that Nikon has made the camera’s circuitry more efficient than previous generation Nikon D-SLRs because the 1500 mAh battery in a D300 is good for approximately 400 to 550 exposures and the D4 battery will supposedly power the camera for approximately 2500 exposures. Plus, it’s good to know the Nikon battery in the D4 could probably start your car on a cold winter morning! While it should be noted that the D4 itself is bigger and heavier than Nikon’s lesser D-SLRs, part of the reason for this are things like the camera’s larger and heavier battery.

3. A Bulletproof Shutter.
While I do not know if the D4 is literally bulletproof, I do know the D4’s shutter curtains are made of a carbon-fiber sandwich, Kevlar™, which is the stuff in bulletproof vests. More importantly, especially for hard-core pros, the D4 shutter is good for 400,000 duty cycles. As a professional photographer I regularly shoot between 100,000 and 150,000 images per year pretty equally divided between two different bodies. The math behind this is simple; 100 assignments per year, and between 1000 and 1500 images per assignment. The shutters in the Nikon D-SLRs I currently use are good for about 150,000 exposures and of my three bodies, one has had its shutter replaced twice, the second one is well into its second shutter, and I expect the third one’s shutter to go any day now.

If the fact that many other pro shooters I know make the number of exposures I make each year seem paltry, and the fact that a shutter replacement costs me about $400 to $500, then a D4’s stiff price tag becomes easier to swallow when I realized that if I had purchased two D4 bodies their shutters would still be going strong four years after I purchased them.

4. A Multi-Format Machine.
The D4 offers a choice of shooting in four different formats. Three are in the 3:2 traditional 35mm proportions (36x24mm and 30x20mm), one is Nikon’s DX format (24x16mm which is also 3:2), and the last one is the 5:4 format—30x24mm, which also happens to be the 8x10” format. The DX crop will be a boon to photographers with a selection (or a preference) for DX-format lenses already in their equipment locker, but most important for me was when I found the way Nikon delineates the crop area.

A quick bit of history is in order. Eons ago, before I switched to using SLRs, my camera bag held two Leica M bodies. The best thing about Leica’s bright line framing device was that I could see past its edge in the camera’s viewfinder. This meant that before someone walked into my frame, I could see that they were going to! I can’t begin to tell you how many images this saved for me.

When set to any format other than full frame, the D4 doesn’t black out the sensor’s dead area but covers it with a transparent gray area. Just like in my Leica days of old, I could see someone (or something) before they (or it) entered my frame! The truth is I prefer the DX format for almost all of my work. The truth is I hate carrying my 80-200mm zoom because it is big, heavy, and intimidating to my subjects. This is especially so when my 24-120mm is smaller, lighter, less intimidating to my subjects, wider at the short end, and close to being the equal of my 80-200mm at the long end when used on the DX format.

The way the D4 only grays out the dead area of the frame when used in the DX format will make me seriously think about switching to an FX-format camera when it’s time for my older D-SLR bodies to be replaced. For me, this feature is important enough to be the deal clincher.

Let me end this essay by saying I really liked the new Nikon D4. The D4’s image quality, feature set, and build quality translates to this: almost anything a photographer might want to do with a camera, the D4 can do without breaking a sweat. But, while it is a stunning camera, it is not a camera for beginners, students, or even the vast majority of advanced photographers who know the difference between an f/stop and a bus stop. One would think the D4’s $6000 price tag (body only) would assure that but, in truth, it’s not even a camera for those photographers with a few extra millions burning a hole in their pockets. It is a serious photographic tool for serious practitioners of the photographic arts and even those with the knowledge to qualify will rarely use all the features the D4 offers.

Not unlike a New York City dweller who would buy a Ferrari to drive on potholed, cobblestone streets at 30 miles per hour, or a Piper Cub pilot who wants to fly a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning from a local, private airfield, buying a D4 for just taking family pictures on a sunny afternoon is disrespectful to the machine and what it can do. Besides, the results from doing any of the three things just mentioned would probably result in disaster anyway. Machines like a Ferrari, an F-35 Lightning, and a Nikon D4 do not suffer fools lightly. However, if you need one of the unique options a camera like the D4 offers, and are willing to elevate your game to match the capabilities of the camera, you couldn’t make a better choice.

The photos are courtesy of the manufacturer.

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radududu's picture

Thank you for providing this interesting and useful post.My passion is photography and through time I've changed several cameras and they were quite expensive.If you want to buy a good camera but you can't afford a new one you should visit
consignment shops Boca Raton because you should find a some nice cameras at a pretty low prices

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