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Monday, August 27, 2012

Nikon D4 Review | Wedding photographer's best friend

It was Tuesday, the day my Nikon D4 was finally scheduled to arrive. After months of waiting to find one in stock I nearly tackled the UPS driver at the end of my driveway. So why write another Nikon D4 review? At this point you have probably already read a quite a few. So how will this be different? While a lot of the reviews I've read of this camera have lots of great technical data, not many are written from the perspective of a wedding photographer. They don't go in depth into what is really useful to people who use this tool day in and day out. No, I didn't get paid to write this and I'm not working for some company that has a hidden agenda to sell cameras. I wrote this to help other photographers. More specifically, wedding photographers who are trying to decide on a camera.




Nikon D4 Review | A Wedding Photographer's Best Friend


First a little background: At the very beginning of this year I was still shooting with a crop sensor D300. Don't ask me why. Maybe I just didn't know how good cameras had gotten. When the shutter finally went out I desperately looked to see if I could find a Nikon D4 in stock. And as many of you know back around March of 2012, that was pretty much impossible. So instead I bought a gently used Nikon D700 and sent my D300 off to Nikon for some open heart surgery. While the Nikon D700 was a huge upgrade to the D300, I still felt like it was still holding me back at times. A lot less times than before, but still holding me back. I wanted the pro-construction body of the D3/D3s/D4 line, wanted just a little bit more resolution, 100% viewfinder, faster AF, and dual card slots. In short, I still had my eye on that D4. And about a month ago, that became reality. In the past month I've shot a little over 7000 images with my Nikon D4 in a variety of situations, but mostly weddings. I'll be comparing it to the D700 and D300 throughout this review. I'll also give my thoughts on this vs. the Nikon D800, since some people cross shop between the two.

Ergonomics: 


While the D300 and D700 were about the same in terms of ergonomics the D4 is definitely a step up in most areas. Looks like Nikon took some feedback from actual users of the D3/D3s and incorporated it into the camera. For some odd reason I always held off on getting the vertical grip for my D300/700, and now that I have a built in grip in the D4, it would definitely be hard to go back.  Now that I've used the D4 for a bit, I don't think I would like the Nikon D3/D3s either because while these have the vertical grip, they don't have a autofocus adjustment nob for the vertical grip on the cameras, meaning you need to reach way over to the multiselector while shooting vertical. Problem solved with the D4.  That extra nob really comes in handy when shooting in vertical mode, especially when someone walks in front of me while I'm trying to capture the first dance.

Another notable tweak: Nikon adjusted the D4/D800 shutter button angle from the previous models. It's now quite a bit more slanted and feels a lot more natural. For a button I end up pushing several thousand times a day, this is definitely appreciated. My right middle finger still aches a bit after a full day of shooting (I'm guessing because its doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to supporting the weight) but my index finger feels a lot better now. I love the bigger, deeper grip of the D4, but it could bit a bit overwhelming if you have small hands.


Nikon D4 Review

Weight:


So on paper the D4 is roughly 20% heavier than the D700, but I honestly really don't notice much of a difference. Maybe it's because its a lot bigger than the D700 and therefore I expect it to be heavier than it is? Anyways, it feels great in the hands and really balances well with larger lenses like the 70-200 f2.8. Nikon went though a lot of work to make this lighter than the D3/D3s, and it seems to have been worth it. The camera feels great. Although its probably not something you would want to bring around all day if your not getting paid for it, it's definitely not a brick.

Controls:


When I switched from the D300 to the D700, it was about as seamless as you could get. Pretty much exactly the same layout. Not so much with the Nikon D4. One of the biggest differences I found was the addition of the new dedicated autofocus knobs. At first I didn't really know what to think about them. I always just reached for the multi-selector knob like on my past cameras. I've been slowly training myself to use the autofocus knobs since they make for a seamless transition from horizontal to vertical shooting. They work great though and have some magically grippy surface to them that instantly bonds with my thumb.

The metering button is now over on the left side control, which has definitely taken some time to get used to. Instead of just clicking it from spot to matrix metering I have to hold the button and scroll the control wheels with the other hand. Same story for the autofocus settings now as well. I guess Nikon wanted everything to be adjustable with your eye to the viewfinder, but I miss the old, mechanical, one handed controls. 

I'm also getting used to the placement of the ISO and WB controls being way down low near the little back LCD. Still not intuitive to me, but I'm sure people coming from a D3/D3s won't have any issue with this. One thing I do like though is that there is an easy way to switch to auto ISO now. Just hold the ISO button and rotate the front control wheel. An "A" will show up next to the ISO value on the viewfinder and now your in auto ISO mode (more on this later!). Very handy!

Oh yea, and the lighted buttons on the back are pretty cool. I haven't ever really needed them in the past but it's one of those things that is nice to have. It would be nice is they lit up ALL the buttons though...

Nikon D4 Review

Autofocus:


Fantastic. That's the only way I can describe it. Autofocus is was probably one of the biggest reasons I miss shots. Simply put, the Nikon D4's autofocus is probably the fastest I've ever used on any camera, ever. I can focus even under moonlight, which is great for those night shots of the bride and groom. The speed and accuracy are both excellent, clearly a step up from the D700 and a massive step up from the D300. 

What's disappointing though is that Nikon continues to use the same 51 point layout as on the previous camera. That means (in FX mode) that the AF points still only cover a small portion of the center of the viewfinder. Listen up Nikon: If there is a single most frustrating thing about this camera this is it. Having to focus, press the AF lock button, and then recompose and fire gets pretty old pretty fast. Really makes me miss my D300 where the focus points pretty much covered the entire viewfinder. I understand that it would be an issue to use DX (crop sensor) lenses if some of the autofocus points extended outside of that imaging circle, but really... how many people using D4's are using DX lenses? 

I also talked about the new AF controls in the previous section. Still not a fan of those, but maybe I will if I get more used to it. It's not the biggest deal since I leave the camera on continuous autofocus for 95% of my work anyways.

High ISO & Dynamic Range Performance:


Wow. Having gone from a D300 at the beginning of the year to this camera is like racing a Ferrari against a Prius. I used to not really shoot much over ISO 1600 on the D300. On the D700 I upped that limit to ISO 6400. And now with the D4 I can shoot at ISO 16000 in a pinch and still have pretty good results! I know people say the Nikon D3s is still the champion of ISO performance but I would argue that with the additional 25% detail I can pull from the D4's sensor and the extra increase of dynamic range, I would take a D4 over the D3s anyday.

In terms of dynamic range the D700 was a huge step up on the D300. Likewise, the D4 is a pretty big step up on the D700/D3. Together with the RAW processing of Lightroom 4 it pretty much eliminates the need for filters anymore. The amount of detail you can pull from the highlights and shadows in the 14-bit RAW files is pretty ridiculous. I've (mistakenly) underexposed shots a full three stops before and can make them look just about as good as the shot I nailed the exposure on. Cheating? Sorta. I'd still much rather nail the shot in the camera and not have to edit it at all. But it's good to know the safety cushion is now just a little bit wider.

Nikon D4 ReviewISO 16000, 1/160th Second, 200mm, f3.2

Color & Detail:


Again, noticeable improvements from the D700 here, and huge improvements from the D300. The way the colors are handled within the D4 are definitely pretty impressive. I always had a slight tendency to blow out certain RGB channels with my D700 and especially the D300 but with the D4, there it definitely some more room. Chalk it up to the new metering system in the D4. I'm guessing its a lot more accurate than the one in the previous cameras especially in complex lighting situations. 

I also really appreciate the small increase from 12 to 16 megapixels on the D4. While 12 megapixels is enough for 95% of what I do, its nice to have a little extra detail for those really big canvas prints or if I need to crop in on the image. Perfect balance of usable detail and file size for a wedding photographer's camera if you ask me.

Nikon D4 Review

Auto White Balance / Exposure:


Another welcome improvement over the D300/D700 is the more accurate auto white balance and exposure metering. While they are both not exactly where I want them to be, the improvements mean that I have less to edit after the wedding. I've found that I need to adjust the WB a bit cooler (use the WB finetune to b1 or b2) on the D4, since it seems to meter slightly warmer than my previous cameras. But once I get it set there, it does a pretty good job of getting the color right. The only place Nikon hasn't been able to master is under florescent lighting. In my experience, the red and green values are all over the place, and vary quite a bit from picture to picture. Confession though, I was using auto white balance. I'm sure it would be much better if I switched it over to the florescent setting. But still, after making these cameras for years and years you would think they would be able to come up with something more accurate.

Live View / Video:


To be honest, I haven't even pressed the video button on my D4 yet. Maybe I will someday though. I can say that the Live View works a WHOLE lot better than on any other camera I've used before. Do I prefer it to that big, gorgeous viewfinder? No. But I do find it pretty useful in situations where people get self conscious of the camera, or if you are shooting from some super funky angle. The autofocus is reasonably fast, and it fixes the biggest issue with the camera: you can focus anywhere in the image. 

XQD Cards?


After reading the other reviews it seems like the world is out to kill XQD cards before they even take off. And I kinda had to agree, especially after dropping over $500 for a XQD card reader and two 32gb cards. But now that I have them, wow. These guys absolutely blow away CF cards. Before my XQD cards came in, I put in an old Sandisc Ultra II 8gb CF card to test the camera out. Seemed fairly responsive, there was a slight lag flipping from image to image, but it was acceptable. Then my XQD cards came in the mail. Everything was instant. Zooming into images, flipping from shot to shot, all way faster than I ever knew was possible. And downloading over USB 3.0? This seriously cut my download time in half (which is very much appreciated after getting home from a 10 hour wedding).

Not only are these guys fast, they are about 30% smaller than CF cards, and with no stupid pins to bend. If you've ever bent a pin on a CF card reader, you know how frustrating this is, especially if that card reader is internal to your new computer and is a pain to switch out (yea, this might have happened to me). Honestly, I hope these XQD cards take off, and it sounds like they are with sony announcing even faster ones, and lexar getting on board.

Nikon D4 Review

CF & XQD Slots?


I might actually be the only person in the world who likes that they put 1 CF card slot and 1 XQD card slot. Before you count me out as crazy, hear me out.

I, like you, probably have several CF cards laying around. This means that your already ready to go as far as the CF card slot goes. In order to fill your backup slot you need get an XQD card. Now you can take advantage of the super fast frame rates and awesome in-camera performance and download times, without the cost of doubling up on XQD cards! Best of both worlds in my opinion.

Think of the alternatives... Having two CF card slots. Sure, then you wouldn't have to go out and buy new cards, but chances are, you probably needed to anyway like I did. With the Dual CF slot route you wouldn't be able to take advantage of the much faster and more robust XQD cards.

The other option... Having two XQD card slots. I don't like this option either because then I would have needed to go out and buy twice as many XQD cards (and at the current price, I'm not too excited about that) when I already had the performance of them to begin with. Now this logic only makes sense when you shoot on backup mode, like me (and like you should be if your a wedding photographer). This way your making two copies of the photos as you shoot, one on the CF card and one on the XQD. This way, if you have an issue with a card not downloading, you have a backup. Seeing as I primarily use my XQD card slot to shoot to and download from, I can take advantage of that speed without having to pay for it twice. Then in the very small chance I ever had an issue with the XQD card, I have a backup on CF. In that case I can deal with the slower download performance. Another benefit, I have a D700 as a backup camera, so I'm all good to go in the situation I need to pull that out of my bag.

Nikon D4 Review

Auto ISO:


The auto-ISO feature has been made a whole lot smarter this time around. In the past with auto ISO you needed to set a minimum shutter speed, now you can set auto-ISO to auto mode! So what's this double auto ISO mode all about? Basically it takes the current focal length of the lens you are using and uses the classic formula of minimum shutter speed = 1/focal length to set the minimum shutter speed for you! You can go into more detail too, dragging the auto mode to err on the side of faster speeds or slower speeds. For example, if I put on my Nikon 50mm f1.4 Lens. The camera will automatically default to a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second with auto ISO mode. If I turn the auto ISO mode up one notch to faster it will set the minimum shutter speed to 1/100th of a second, making it a lot harder to get motion blur. If your shooting in an area where you have lots of support and really need the slower shutter you can set the auto ISO mode down one notch on the slower side an it will cut that shutter speed in half (1/25th in this case).

Where this gets really helpful is on zoom lenses, like my 70-200mm f2.8. At 70mm it will set a minimum shutter speed of 1/80th of a second and as I zoom in it will ramp that up all the way to 1/200th of a second if I'm in all the way at 200mm. Pretty handy. Unfortunately Nikon dropped the ball and this feature has no clue if the lens you are shooting with has VR or not. When I run into this problem I just go into the menu and put the auto ISO mode down to the slower side, because the VR will take up the slack. Or just take the auto ISO off by pressing the ISO button and turning the front control wheel. Problem solved.

This enhancement has been very helpful when I'm shooting quick candid moments where I don't have time to change my ISO based on my current focal length. It really frees me up to concentrate on nailing the focus and timing the shot, all while shooting at the lowest possible ISO needed to freeze action.

Nikon D4 Review

Battery Life:


So why did the rated battery life go down verses the D3/D3s? Nikon blames the new regulations and testing methods. I won't go really in depth into this, mainly because there are other great articles about it

So how long does it last me? Apparently a full wedding and a full bridal portrait shoot, and then some. Here's a photo of how long mine lasted last week:


Nikon D4 Review


It's awesome to be able to go an entire wedding and not worry about having to swap a battery at a bad time.  And I like the new dual battery charger that comes with the camera (although its huge). Like the camera, the batteries definitely aren't cheap, but with battery life like this I only need 1 spare, not a 2-3 like with my D300/700. 

Other little awesome Stuff:


While not a big improvement, I've really enjoyed having a slightly bigger screen than the D700/D300. While unfortunately the number of pixels hasn't gone up, the new screen does have better contrast. They also put some type of funky gel in between the glass cover and the LCD so there is no possiblity for fog to form on the inside of the glass (like it did on my previous cameras). Good thinking Nikon.

Another thing I enjoy is the upgraded focusing glass within the D4. Gone are those annoying boxes all over the viewfinder screen, allowing me to focus more clearly on what I'm shooting. They only pop up if I'm moving the points around. Perfect! You Nikon D3/D3s people are already used to this, but it's a nice little improvement from the non-pro Nikon bodies!

A lot of people complain about the lack of flash on the pro Nikon SLR's. I actually like it. Not only is it more durable in terms of moisture and dust resistance, I found that on my past cameras it would pop up when I didn't want it. I can't tell you the number of times I almost broke the dang thing because it popped up while I was trying to get it out of my camera bag.

Shutter life tested to 400,000 cycles is definitely pretty awesome. Being someone who uses their camera a LOT, I love having the peace of mind that this thing will be around for the long haul. After my D300 shutter went out around 150,000 cycles, I started paying more attention to how long shutters were rated for. It sounds like Nikon went all out to build this camera like a beast. Kevlar/Carbon Fiber Shutter, the whole nine yards. With 400,000 actuation's in front of me (double the D800), I should definitely be able to get many years out of this thing without worrying that the shutter will go out. 

One more added feature I really enjoy is that the camera has a native base ISO of 100. For those times when I'm shooting ultra-bright destination weddings on the beach, it would have been really nice to be able to shoot more wide open. Because of the huge amount of light on those bright sandy beaches, if you shoot wide open, its very easy to bump up against the max shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second and start blowing out the highlights. Having the option of ISO 100 effectively doubled the max shutter speed. Sure I could have used a ND filter to get the same effect, but if I can do it in camera and not have to mess with filters, that makes a lot more sense. Bravo Nikon!


Nikon D4 Review

Conclusion:


This is arguably the best camera you can buy today for wedding photography. The combination of robust controls, lightning fast autofocus and burst modes, enhanced ISO performance, long battery life, XQD card performance, and great ergonomics make it an excellent tool for capturing those fleeting moments. 

But do you need a camera like this? That depends on a lot of things. First at $6,000, this camera is out of the price range of most newer photographers, and I think its for a good reason. When I was just starting out, I wouldn't have been able to take advantage of half the things this camera can do. I'm a firm believer that you shouldn't upgrade equipment until it is holding you back. Be honest with yourself, are you really missing shots because of your lack of technique or is the camera the weaker link? If you have the funds (and the business!), and have the experience a camera like this just might make sense. 

As wedding photographers we have the awesome privilege to document some of the most important moments of people's lives. If I can spend a little bit more on a camera that will help improve the quality of those photos, I'll do it in a heartbeat.

For me, this camera has allowed me to capture shots that would have just not been possible with my D300 or my D700. It allows me to get things even closer to perfect in camera and definitely saves me some serious time editing because of that. To me, that's worth the price alone. Combine that with the sheer awesomeness of getting to use such a well-built, precision piece of camera, and I'm absolutely thrilled with the camera.

Nikon D4 Review

Compared to:


Compared to a Nikon D3s:

Although I've never really used one of these, I can see how it might be tempting to skip the D4 and wait for the D4s (or whatever they call the next gen one). And I would generally agree. Most of the features and performance are the same. I looked into getting a used D3s but in the end I really liked the enhanced dynamic range, extra megapixels, XQD card capability, vertical AF controls, enhanced auto-iso, and ergonomics that the D4 brought. If your a gear junky, or simply just have the best, it might be worth the upgrade, but if it were me. I'd probably stick with the D3s if I had one.

Compared to a Nikon D800:

This one is a sensitive subject for me. I almost fell into the trap of just getting a D800 instead of the D4. The D800 is just the updated version of the D700 right? And the D700 was a great camera for wedding photography! This is where Nikon tricked so many people. But what do you mean! The D800 has the same upgraded metering system, pretty much the same high-iso performance, fast 51-point AF system, over double the megapixels and at HALF the price of the Nikon D4! Bargain right? Maybe if your a landscape photographer or advanced hobbyist. Lets do the math here. The D800's 36mp RAW files are on average 75mb a piece. Lets say I shoot 2000 shots at a wedding. That's 150 GB of images I just took. Can you imagine going out and doing that 30+ times a year like I do? Absolutely not. And its not just about the hard drive space, its about the editing/download/backup time. Editing in Lightroom 4 is slow enough with 16mp files (although I did just write a tutorial on how to make Lighroom 4 faster). Can you imagine downloading/culling/editing and outputing/backing up 2000 36mp RAW files? No thank you, I like having a life outside of wedding photography. 

But won't your clients care? I can't think of one time I was turned down for a wedding photography job because my camera didn't have enough megapixels. And honestly, when I can print a gorgeous 30x40" canvas out of 12mp (let alone 16mp) why on earth would I want 36! I'm not a landscape or commercial photographer, I'm a wedding photographer. 

Huge files aside, there are other things that you miss out with compared to the D4. Mainly being the excellent controls and robustness of the camera body. I don't need to go into detail here, but going from a semi-pro body like the D300/D700 to a D4 is worth a lot of the price right there. Mechanical controls at your finger tips, excellent durability. The shutter life of the D800 is also half the D4's. While that might not matter if your not doing this much, for people that shoot a lot of weddings, this means they can use the same camera for several years without worrying about the shutter (or paying for it when it goes out). You also miss out on the amazing speed of the XQD cards, better dynamic range, double the shutter life, and the fantastic battery life (although you can get the aftermarket grip, but then you just made the camera even heavier than a D4). 

Better dynamic range in the D4? Wait the D800 is supposed to be better right? Yes and no. When things are nice and easy with lots of light, the D800 (at least on paper) does have slightly better dynamic range at ISO 100 and 200. I don't know about you, but I don't have that privilege very often in wedding photography. I'm ususally stuck in a dark church/reception hall where I'm shooting at 1600-12800 ISO. This is where the D4 has nearly a full stop more dynamic range than the D800. And let me tell you, this makes a big difference, especially because these are typically when that extra range is really needed. How come no one talks about that during any of the reviews? Maybe because the D800 is NOT a camera for professional wedding photographers. It's for landscape, architecture, studio, commercial photographers, and advanced hobbyists, who aren't churning out thousands of photos a week and have a lot more predictable/controllable lighting conditions. Sure you can use this camera for weddings if you want, but I don't recommend it.

Compared to a D3/D700:

It's definitely a solid step up from these cameras. I've already gone into a lot of depth comparing the D4 to the D700 throughout this review, and a lot of those things hold true in comparison to the D3. The D3 does have the better viewfinder, pro-body construction, and dual slots that the D700 doesn't have though. Don't get me wrong, these are still fantastic cameras for wedding photography, but things have improved quite a bit since then. My take: If you have the money to upgrade, go ahead and do it.

Compared to a D300 and below:

This is a huge step up from one of these types of cameras. Seriously if your still shooting weddings on one of these cameras its time to upgrade. You owe it to your clients. Sell any DX lenses you have and upgrade to at least a D700/D3 or D3s. The difference is huge on just about all counts. Trust me, you will be happy you did!


Alright, hope this was helpful! I'll be updating this review periodically with new findings, but if you have any other questions feel free to contact me or leave a comment below! 

13 comments:

  1. *Sigh*, I should have never read this post. Now you made me want to upgrade! I have 3 D700's myself, and while I love them it would be great to have all the upgraded features of the D4 that you mentioned. Dang that $6k price tag:/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Three tina!?! Sell two of them and keep the 3rd as a backup!

      Delete
  2. I just sold my D300 and currently shopping around for a full frame. As you know, my only choice is either the D800 or D4. The extra megapixel and ISO turns me off. The D4 is way more than I want to spend but most likely will be my choice. Great review!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for an excellent review. I currently have a D300 and D700; looking for a upgrade. Your comments were 100% on target for my situation. Regards Dave

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  6. Well written blog post! It's like you wrote this from my own thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. I have been considering the D4 for a while and this is a great review! It makes me that much closer to getting one. Thanks!

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  8. Nice review on a great camera. I love my D4!!

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