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What Does the Nikon D4 Announcement Mean for Nature Photographers?

In case you somehow avoided the onslaught of blog postings and emails the last couple of days covering Nikon's announcement of the new D4 SLR, Nikon announced the new D4 DSLR. Ta-da. It's an amazing camera, but what does it mean for those of us who primarily shoot nature?

The D4 is the new top-of-the line digital SLR from Nikon. As such, it's natural to compare it against the Nikon D3s that it effectively replaces.

As a still photography camera the D4 is a much more modest advance over its predecessor. Announced in October 2009, the D3s had a resolution of 12.1 megapixels while the new D4 comes in at 16.2 megapixels. Not bad, but also nothing like the 20 MP some had been hoping for. The Cannon EOS 1Dx has an effective 18.1 megapixel sensor. But Nikon has long proven that simple pixel counting is not a good measure of image quality. If it were, you could make an outstanding image by enlarging a cell phone image after the fact. The true test is how good of a job the pixels do at recording useful information rather than mere file size bloat. The sample images I've seen so far look quite good but it's still too early to pass any true judgment on image quality. I doubt that Nikon will disappoint.

The days when ISO 800 was considered fast are long gone but the D4 pushes things up another notch by providing up to ISO 204,800. Yes, ISO two hundred thousand. Just as with hard drive space, CPU speeds and so much else we'll probably have to start talking about sensitivity in terms of kilo-ISO I guess. Yes, the D4 is rated at 204.8 KISO. Nikon has also given the D4 a new autofocus sensor that can retain cross-type detection in the center at apertures down to f/8. Together, these open up a whole new range of possibilities for low light and nearly no-light photography. In total, the new metering sensor has 91,000 pixel sensors, up from 1005 on the D3s.

Nikon has continued to enhance their in-camera image processing. The 91,000 pixel sensor has been coupled with the Advanced Scene Recognition System and active D-Lighting, light source detection for auto white balance calculation, face detection, better auto exposure and more to render what so far appears to be excellent image quality from the samples that are available. This interests me a lot. Shooting outdoors means working under highly variable, complex lighting conditions and Nikon's continued advances in these areas can only mean good things for all of us Nikon users, even those who don't spring for a new $6,000 D4 body. You can bet that this technology will find its way into more affordable bodies in the future.

As Nikon has done far too often in the past, the D4 utilizes a different battery than earlier models, the new EN-EL18. As you might expect, it costs more than the EN-EL4a did. What you probably won't expect though is that it can power far fewer shots than did the EN-EL4a. Why Nikon did this stumps me. You'll need to change batteries a lot more often on your way to the 400,000 shots the newly improved Kevlar/carbon-fiber shutter is rated for.

Rather than the dual compact-flash slots of previous top-of-the-line Nikons, the new D4 has only a single CF slot, replacing the other with a new fangled XQD slot. If you've never heard of XQD before, you're not alone. This is definitely more of a stepping stone to the future than it is a practical convenience at least when the camera first ships. I really don't know of any XQD cards, card readers or other devices on the market yet, but they are coming. The format was first announced by Sony and yes, Nikon, back in November of 2010 but it's now a standard adopted by the CompactFlash association. It promises faster read/write times and will support capacities beyond two terabytes. Someday, XQD will be mainstream, but not yet.

Other enhancements include a slightly faster frame rate, a slightly larger LCD display, two really cool mini-joystick controls, and backlights for the major buttons and controls on the camera back. There are indeed countless little enhancements throughout that show Nikon truly cares about making their cameras easy to use. The camera is roughly the same size as its predecessor, but is actually three ounces lighter. I'm sure this comes in part from the smaller battery, but they have definitely trimmed some weight elsewhere too to achieve this.

For those that need it, there's no question that the Nikon D4 represents a revolutionary improvement for video shooting. Indeed, this seems to be the area Nikon focused on most in the design of the new camera in order to compete with the Canon 5D Mark II and EOS 1Dx. But if you primarily want a camera for shooting still images, it's a tad frustrating to be asked to pay for such a great video camera, and to carry the added weight of one around. Strip down a D4 and you could make a lean, mean, affordable digital SLR.

If you look at the images used in the D4 sales brochure, you might notice that most are sports photos. Joe McNally's shot from the Florida swamps is in part a nature shot, but it's really just the backdrop for a fashion shot. The durability of the D4 would indeed be welcome, but lighter weight models seem more targeted to those of us who have to lug our gear around on our backs. The D4 market will likely consist mainly of sports, action and professional news photographers plus those needing the professional video capability bundled with the new body. The existing D7000 already offers 16 megapixels for a lot less money and weight.

If you do want to get a D4, you'd better pre-order now. The waiting list will sure to be long. Availability is scheduled to begin in February.

Date posted: January 8, 2012


Copyright © 2012 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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