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Nikon announces 16.16 million image pixel, 10fps D4 digital SLR
Thursday, January 5, 2012 | by Rob Galbraith
Nikon has announced the D4, a new pro digital SLR that features a 16.16 million image pixel full-frame CMOS image sensor, 10fps top shooting rate (or 11fps with restrictions), a standard ISO range of 100-12,800 (and an extended range of 50-204,800), a revised 51-point AF system capable of autofocusing with f/8 lenses, all-new 91,000-pixel RGB ambient/flash metering sensor, twin memory card slots (CompactFlash and the emerging XQD format), EXPEED 3 image processing, 1080p video capture with audio monitoring and optional uncompressed video output through the HDMI port, built-in Ethernet, a new EN-EL18 battery, in-camera HDR and timelapse creation, all in a dust and weather sealed magnesium alloy body.

The Nikon D4 is compatible with Wireless Transmitter WT-5 (and its WT-5A/B/C/D regional variants), an 802.11n Wi-Fi accessory that has also been unveiled today.

Nikon D4 feature summary

The D4 represents the most significant reworking of Nikon's high-performance digital SLR since the introduction of the D3 in the second half of 2007. Every system in the camera has been revised or overhauled, from autofocus to metering and everything in-between, with special attention having been given to the D4's video and networking features, as well as its ergonomics and configurability.

For example, the D4 is the first digital SLR from any maker to incorporate a headphone jack for audio monitoring while capturing video, plus it can export uncompressed 1080p video through the HDMI port to an external recorder. It's also the first Nikon digital SLR to incorporate on-board wired networking, in the form of an Ethernet jack on the side of the camera and a range of operating modes to take advantage of it. But these changes are just the tip of the iceberg. Nikon has stuffed an extensive list of refinements into their latest flagship model.

Flagships: Views of the Nikon D3S, left, and D4. Click to enlarge (Photos courtesy Nikon)

Here's the D4, at a glance:
  • Magnesium alloy body with environmental sealing and a new thermal coating on the outer surfaces meant to reduce the rate at which the camera's internal temperature rises when the D4 is under the hot sun.

  • Numerous interface refinements relative to the D3S, including two new multi-position buttons on the back that can be used to change the active AF point, a revised AF mode selector near the lens mount that allows for quick AF settings changes, a dedicated still/video and Live View control, a video start/stop button near the horizontal shutter release and more

  • 16.16 million image pixel, 36 x 23.9mm (FX Format) self-cleaning CMOS image sensor. Picture dimensions are 4928 x 3280 pixels on the [L] resolution setting, 3696 x 2456 pixels on the [M] resolution setting and 2464 x 1640 pixels on the [S] resolution setting

  • 10fps top shooting rate with full autofocus and metering; up to 11fps is also possible with the focus and exposure locked at the first frame

  • Burst depth of 52+ NEF (14-bit, uncompressed) and 130+ full-resolution JPEG Fine frames, at 10fps with a fast CompactFlash card loaded (there seems to be a reasonably wide variance in the published burst depth figures for the D4, so these numbers should be considered preliminary). The D4's buffer utilizes fast DDR3 SDRAM memory

  • A revised shutter mechanism with a durability rating of 400,000 cycles

  • A standard ISO range of 100-12,800 in 1/3 step increments, plus an extended ISO range down to ISO 50 and all the way up to ISO 204,800

  • A shutter speed range of 30s-1/8000 plus Bulb, a 1/250 x-sync shutter speed and support for Auto FP Sync, Advanced Wireless CLS and other Nikon-standard Speedlight functionality (flash features are mostly or entirely unchanged from the D3S)

  • A startup time of 0.12s and a shutter lag of 42ms

  • A revised 51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX AF system that integrates a new AF sensor module. The new AF sensor, which is 20% more light sensitive than its equivalent in the D3S, is capable of low light focus acquisition down to levels as dim as EV-2 (compared to the D3S' EV-1). The D4 is also the first Nikon digital SLR that's able to autofocus with lenses or lens + teleconverter combos whose maximum aperture is f/8. Previous Nikons, including the D3S, have been able to autofocus to f/5.6; beyond that, the AF system either works less reliably or not at all

  • Viewfinder is a pentaprism type with 100% frame coverage, 18mm eyepoint (-1.0m), 0.7x magnification, non-interchangeable focusing screen (this is different than the D3s, which does permit screen swapping), optional grid display and diopter adjustment
  • 14-bit analog-to-digital conversion and subsequent 16-bit EXPEED 3 image processing; the processing hardware in the D4 is rated to be 30% faster than EXPEED 2 in the D3S

  • 91,000-pixel RGB ambient/flash metering sensor; the algorithm processing the light and colour information from the new sensor has been revised and is now called 3D Color Matrix Metering III. This sensor is also at the heart of the D4's new face detection capabilities, which form part of the exposure calculation as well as the automatic selection of active AF point(s) when the autofocus mode is set to Auto-Area AF

  • Dual-axis Virtual Horizon level, viewable in both the viewfinder and on the rear LCD

  • HD video capture at resolutions up to 1080p/29.97fps and, for the first time in a Nikon digital SLR, 720p/59.94fps. A headphone jack enables live audio monitoring, uncompressed video can be output through the HDMI port for transcoding by an external recorder and both the rear LCD and an HDMI-connected external monitor can display simultaneously. The D4 represents the company's most serious attempt to date to woo filmmakers to Nikon

  • 100Base-T Ethernet wired networking built right into the camera and providing the same set of networking features as the WT-5 transmitter (though only over a wired link to the camera, obviously). Operating modes include a new HTTP Server mode that allows for adjustment of remote settings, and Live View, from a web browser on a computer or iPad or other mobile device

  • 3.2-inch (diagonal), 921,000-dot rear LCD with tempered cover glass and optional automatic brightness adjustment

  • Built-in voice memo mic

  • In-camera HDR (two consecutive JPEG frames) and automatic time lapse movie creation

  • Two memory card slots: CompactFlash Type I and XQD

  • The D4 is powered by the new 10.8V/2000mAh EN-EL18 Lithium battery, which is replenished by the new dual-slot Battery Charger MH-26

  • Connection options include USB 2.0, 100Base-T Ethernet, Type C Mini-HDMI, 3.5mm headphone jack, 3.5mm powered stereo mic jack, proprietary WT-5 port, PC sync and 10-pin remote socket

  • Compatible with the new WT-5 transmitter accessory (as well as the existing WT-4)
Nikon D4 feature highlights: body

The Nikon D4 has similar lines to the D3S and is very similar in size. It has the same environmental sealing as its predecessor too. It is, however, a much-improved camera to hold in the vertical orientation, thanks to a concerted effort on Nikon's part to provide the same controls, in the same proximity to your right hand fingers and thumb, whether the camera is being held horizontally or vertically. At 2.60lb/1180g (without battery and memory card), the D4 is also a bit lighter than the 2.73lb/1240g D3S, though the new camera has the typical heft of a pro SLR body.

Nikon has made numerous outwardly-visible changes to the D4, relative to the camera it replaces, particularly at the back. These changes include:
  • A new 3.2-inch (diagonal), 921,000-dot rear LCD with manual and automatic brightness adjustment. When set to automatic, a small sensor to the right of the screen reads the ambient light and sets the brightness accordingly.

  • Two new multi-position buttons at the rear, called Sub-selectors, that can be used to navigate within the AF array as well as rapidly change the active point back to the centre. One Sub-selector is positioned for horizontal shooting, the other for vertical.

  • The vertical Main and Sub-command dials, AF-ON button and Sub-selector have been positioned to closely match their horizontal counterparts. Nikon has sought to make the experience of using the camera in its vertical orientation match the horizontal orientation.

  • A small Function button has been added next to the vertical shutter release.

  • A revised AF mode selector near the lens mount, derived from the D7000, adds a button within the AF/M toggle. By holding down the button and turning the Sub-command (front) dial, it's possible to choose between single and 9, 21 and 51-point Dynamic AF groupings, enable 51-point 3D tracking or select Auto-Area AF. Turning the Main (rear) dial toggles between static (AF-S) and continuous (AF-C) modes.

    Choice: Selecting 3D tracking within the D4 viewfinder. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
    All this can be done while looking through the viewfinder (the information display below the viewfinder image, as well as the AF array itself, show the settings being selected). Or on the top LCD, or within the Info display on the rear LCD.

    (If you choose 3D tracking, while looking through the viewfinder, the AF array lights up to spell "3 D" in large AF-point letters, so an engineer at Nikon had some fun implementing this feature.)

    The streamlined access to basic AF options means it's no longer necessary to enter the camera's AF Custom Settings menus to change the number of active Dynamic AF points or flip on 3D tracking (though the Custom Settings for these things still exist in the D4).

  • A dedicated still/video switch and Live View on/off button near the lower rear LCD.

  • A video start/stop button near the horizontal shutter release. This location was determined to be optimal because it causes a minimal amount of camera disturbance at the very start or very end of a video clip as your finger moves to the button, presses it, and then moves back.

  • The playback zoom functions have now been split into separate zoom-in/zoom-out buttons. It's also possible to configure the Multi-selector's centre button to enlarge the photo during playback (this carries over from the D3S and is our favourite way to engage the zoom).

  • When the camera is not in playback mode, and not displaying menus, the Protect button pops up a Picture Control chooser overlay on the rear LCD.

  • The voice memo record button and mic have been shifted around so that the mic holes won't be obscured when pressing the button using your left hand. The D3S button and mic placement necessitated the use of your right hand thumb to start recording, which meant taking your right hand off the shooting controls while simultaneously supporting the weight of the camera with your left hand.

    The D4's tweaking of the mic and button placement means your right hand can stay poised around the shooting controls, and support the camera, while your left hand starts and stops the capturing of a voice memo.

    This is a minor thing, for sure, but one that newspaper and wire shooters who rely on the voice memo will almost certainly appreciate.

  • Backlighting has been added to most buttons with lettering on the rear of the camera, as well as the white line indicator on the top dial that illuminates the dial's markings (CH, CL, etc.). And the three buttons on the top dial too.

    In the dark, the backlighting is sufficient to see which button is which, but not so bright as to be bothersome. The backlighting comes on when the top and lower rear LCD screens are lit up, such as when flicking the power switch's lighting toggle.
To make room for some of the new controls, the AE-L/AF-L button as well as the Single/Dynamic AF/Auto-Area AF switch were removed and their functions dispersed elsewhere. The AF settings, as mentioned, are now bundled up in the AF mode selector by the lens mount, while AE-L/AF-L can be programmed into one of several buttons on the camera, including the Sub-selectors.

Also relocated is the metering mode dial. This is now a button on the bubble on the top left of the camera, replacing the Lock (L) button that resided there before. It's still possible to prevent accidental bumping of shutter speed and aperture - more on that in a moment.

In addition to adding and moving around controls, Nikon has amped up the configurability of the buttons considerably. The actions of the front Function button, Depth of Field Preview button, Sub-selectors, the vertical Function button, Bracket (BKT) button, shutter releases, AF-ON buttons and the Multi-selector can all be customized, and some can take on more than one capability depending on the state of the camera at that moment.

For instance, the record start/stop button can act as the L button when the camera is not in video mode, which makes it possible to efficiently lock down shutter speed, aperture or both. The shutter releases can be configured to start and stop video recording, which enables any triggering device that's compatible with the camera's 10-pin socket - including PocketWizards - to remotely begin and end video capture. The vertical Function button can adjust exposure compensation, while several of the buttons can be configured to jump straight to My Menu. This is an added feature in the D4. The D3S and various other Nikons provide the option to go straight to the top item in My Menu, but not to the top level of My Menu (various D4 buttons can be made to go to the top item too; that option hasn't been taken away in the new model).

These are but a few of the many configuration possibilities in the D4, which is the most usefully-customizable digital SLR we've ever seen.

So, the D4 will reward the photographer who's prepared to spend the time poring over the Controls section of the camera's Custom Settings and tweaking the buttons to their liking. Of all these body and configuration changes, the two we dig the most are:
  • Vertical control layout The D4 should make vertical shooting more comfortable, and more like horizontal shooting, than any other Nikon digital SLR, including my previous personal favourite, the D700 + Multi Power Battery Pack MB-D10.

  • The new Sub-selectors What you can't tell until you put the D4 in your hands is that both the horizontal and vertical Sub-selectors make it particularly easy to move around the AF array and settle on a new AF point. It's easier than the Multi-selector, which has, by comparison, a spongier and less-precise feel.

    If you have a D3S or other Multi-selector-equipped Nikon now, and you get a D4, don't be surprised if you end up using the Sub-selectors exclusively for AF point navigation from then on, relegating the Multi-selector to menu and playback duties only.
In short, the D4 is a sweet digital SLR to hold and, as long as you make the effort to configure it the way that suits you best, it should be equally sweet to use to make pictures. This is a seductive pro camera body, that's for certain.

Shutter and mirror

The D4 incorporates a newly-developed shutter with a 400,000-cycle durability rating, compared to 300,000 for the D3S, and a revised mirror mechanism too (the main difference being the motor that drives the mirror).

The D4 keeps the mirror locked up while shooting still pictures in Live View and the camera is set to Tripod mode. This is, to our knowledge, the first Nikon digital SLR to behave this way, and it was long overdue. Now, while in Live View and you press the shutter release to take a photo or burst of photos, the only sound you hear is the shutter actuation. Plus, at the end of the burst there isn't a pause as the mirror locks up again, since it's already up.

Sensor and image quality

The D3S contains what is, in our estimation, the finest overall image sensor ever to reside in a Nikon digital SLR, with the best high-ISO performance of any maker's digital SLR. So, the D4 has a tough act to follow. To that end, the new camera incorporates a 16.16 million image pixel CMOS sensor that's 36.0 x 23.9mm in size, has a pixel pitch of 7.3m and features an optical low pass filter over top. The sensor package has a self-cleaning mechanism as well.

Promised image quality improvements coming from the new image sensor and EXPEED 3 processing, beyond the resolution increase, are expanded dynamic range, improved skin tones and more pleasing colour when Active D-Lighting is on.

An open question is whether Nikon has been able to maintain or improve the D4's high-ISO image quality, relative to the D3S, as they bumped up the new camera's pixel count. The company is touting a pixel design that is more efficient at gathering light, as well as analog-to-digital conversion circuitry within the sensor that generates less noise, but is not providing any guidance as to how pictures shot in the ISO stratosphere will compare to the D3S.

The D4's ISO range is 100-12,800 in 1/3 step increments (the camera can be configured for 1/2 steps and full steps too). In its expanded ISO range the camera can be dialed down to ISO 50 in 1/3 steps, up to ISO 25,600 (Hi-1) in 1/3 steps and up to ISO 51,200 (Hi-2), 102,400 (Hi-3) and 204,800 (Hi-4) in full steps.

Other than the ISO range, most image-quality related settings carry over with little or no change from the D3S, including NEF options (12 or 14 bits, compressed, lossless compressed or lossy compressed), JPEG settings, the option to shoot TIFFs, Picture Controls, High ISO Noise Reduction, output colour spaces (sRGB and Adobe RGB) and more.

Some of the changes that are loosely related to image quality are:
  • The Color Temperature WB setting can now be adjusted in increments of 10 Kelvin throughout its 2500-10,000K range, rather than in varying and much larger increments, as before.

  • The Auto WB setting is now divided into Auto1, which is similar to or the same as the D3S, and Auto2, which is meant to preserve more of the warmth in warm lighting conditions.

  • Gone is the d-0 slot from the Preset WB, and with it the step of first loading the Preset into d-0 and then copying it into slots d-1 to d-4, if desired. Now, you choose the d-1 to d-4 slot at the outset, then set a Preset into that slot. This is a simpler process, though it effectively cuts down the total number of available slots from five to four.

  • An additional increment, Extra High 2, has been added to Active D-Lighting.

  • A new parameter has been put into the minimum shutter speed setting within the ISO Sensitivity Auto Control. Also called Auto, by default it sets the minimum shutter speed to at or just above the inverse of the focal length. For example, if you have a 500mm lens on the camera, Auto will select 1/500 as the minimum shutter speed. If you have a 35mm lens on, then the minimum shutter speed will be 1/40. This can be biased to choose a somewhat faster or slower shutter speed as well.

  • The D4 can capture two consecutive JPEGs, at different exposures, then blend them into a single High Dynamic Range (HDR) photo.
91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor

The ambient/i-TTL flash metering sensor is new to the D4 and is the highest-resolution sensor of its type in the Nikon lineup. With 91,000 pixels it's effectively a low-res image sensor unto itself, though it's used principally for exposure and duties related to the camera's Advanced Scene Recognition System, and not image capture per se. By far the niftiest trick it can perform is to detect faces, then send their location(s) to the AF system (while set to Auto-Area AF), which then activates the corresponding points within the AF array as you watch through the viewfinder.
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