Tech articles My thoughts on the gear I use for photography


Camera Review: Nikon D4

I've had the D4 for around a year now, and feel I've had enough time with it to write a reasonable review. As with most of my reviews this won't be exhaustive or a regurgitation of facts - it will deal with features that are important to me in my type of shooting.

Nikon D4

Body & Handling
Overall, I think the ergonomics have been improved over theD3S and D3X bodies that it replaced. Here are some of the major changes and how they affect my shooting:

1. Dedicated video recording button - this is not really a big deal for me. Call me old fashioned, but I found that fumbling for yet another button to start recording a video was too much for me.I simply reprogrammed the shutter button to start and stop video recording while I'm in video mode, and therefore hardly use the video button now.

2. Thumb selector for portrait - this is a HUGE ergonomic improvement! When shooting in portrait mode I used to have to reach over to the main selector button whenever I wanted to change the active focus point, but not with the D4. Honestly, I don't know why Nikon couldn't do this on the D3/D3X series - they had this selector button on the D300/D700 grips when they were launched.

Thumb selector on the D4 (above the "mic" label)

3. New AF selector - there's a separate AF selector button just above the main selector button. Don't use this much.

4. Vertical grip 'thumb' nub - when shooting and carrying a camera for extended periods of time, your thumb's going to get a serious workout holding on to a heavy pro body. Nikon's previous generations of pro bodies had a small channel you could stick your thumb into, but the D4 has added a small rubber nub that's extremely useful when carrying the camera around using the portrait grip.

d4-1-3_med d4-1-4_med
"Old" thumb channel on D3S (left) and "New" thumb nub on D4 (right)

5. Placement of AF-On buttons - there are two button AF-On buttons on the body, and both have been moved on the D4. The horizontal button has been moved to the left and farther away from your thumb. Those with small hands (like me!) now have to stretch their thumbs a little more to reach the AF-On button. Not a huge deal, but annoying after a couple of hours' shooting. The AF-On button in vertical mode (see image above) is inconsistent compared to the position of the horizontal button - in vertical mode you need to reach across and lower, with the result that you have to consciously remember whether you're shooting portrait or landscape when you reach over for the AF-On button. Once again, not a big deal, but ergonomics are one of the primary reasons we buy these expensive bodies and for a $6,000 camera I think Nikon should have paid a little more attention. That said, it's an improvement over the D3-series bodies that had the AF button ABOVE the dial!

6. Focus mode / AF area mode buttons - previous generations of Nikon bodies had an AF area mode selector to switch between the different AF area modes that looked like this:

Nikon D3S AF Area Mode Selector

AF modes (Continuous, Single, Manual) were selected using this:

Nikon D3S AF Mode Selector

Both these functions have now been replaced by a single button (see image below), which when used with the front and rear dials allow you to spin through the AF modes and AF area modes. In practice, it's a little easier to use after you get used to it so I'll call this an improvement.

Nikon D4 AF Mode & Area Mode Selector

7. Live View Selector - the D4 has a selector that you can use to switch whether the LiveView is launched for video or stills. A little more intuitive, so another small win here.

8. Shutter button angle - Nikon mad a big deal about this at launch, stating that the D4 and D800 had more steeply raked shutter buttons that make it more comfortable to use. To be honest, I can't really see a big difference.

Overall, I think the body ergonomics have been improved in small but significant ways, and this makes the D4 easier to use on long, multi-hour shoots.

The ability to autofocus with the central 9 sensors at down to f/8 is a pretty useful feature for me. When shooting songbirds you generally need all the magnification you can get, and I occasionally even use the 600mm f/4 lens with a 2X teleconverter. In good light, AF is usable with the D4 as long as the bird isn't in brush or moving too fast. See my article here evaluating the optical performance of the Nikon 600mm f/4 VR / TC-20EIII combo.
AF speed seems to be slightly better than the D3S, but strangely enough I seem to have a few more AF misses in flight photography than before. I haven't conducted a back to back scientific test (sold the D3S last year) and my strategy for flight photography has changed (moved from single AF sensor to Dynamic Area) so this is not a definitive opinion. I'll update this article as I learn more.

Frame Rate & Buffer
The improved frame rate (9>10FPS) over the D3S is no big deal. The larger buffer is. The D4 has more than double the RAW buffer of the D3S, and all I can say is that I've never hit the buffer on the D4. Did manage to hit the D3S buffer a few times though.

Nikon D4

Video features are much improved over the D3S. I'm not a heavy video user, but I've started shooting a decent amount of video this year and can appreciate the improvements. The obvious improvement is the 1080p mode along with the choice of 24, 30 and 60FPS frame rates (though you can only get to 60FPS by reducing resolution to 720p). An equally important addition however is the ability to change crop mode. The D4 allows you to shoot in 1x, 1.5X and 2.7X crop modes. I use prime lenses 90% of the time, and the crop mode means that I can change the crop mode to get different perspectives of the same scene, allowing me to mix these in post processing and make the videos look more varied while maintaining consistent quality.
I'd also like to comment on the audio features along with the video as that's where the audio is used. The addition of a microphone jack is important because the standard microphone picks up a lot of autofocus, electrical and general vibration and handling noises. I use a Zoom H4N recorder as a mic, and pass a heavily amped signal into the D4. More on the H4N in a separate post.

Card slots
Dual card slots are par for the course in the D4. The addition of the XQD slot is not a big deal to me - I just bought a large XQD card and called it a day. It seems comparable to or faster than the Lexar 1000X CF cards I use, so it's a win.

Image Quality
The high ISO performance and dynamic range of this camera are spectacular! However, I wouldn't say it has made a giant leap in this category over the D3S - it seems to be the same per pixel ISO performance or a little better, with the added benefit of more megapixels.
I'm going to make a pretty controversial statement here - I wish the D4 had more megapixels! Before you start lighting up the torches and polishing the pitchforks, let me explain why. I really don't need more than 16 megapixels in a given image most of the time, but what I do wish for are the same megapixels more densely packed into the middle of the frame whenever I shoot smaller birds (songbirds, etc.) I find myself turning to the D800 whenever the light is reasonable and I'm shooting these kind of subjects and using the in-camera crop to get that extra reach. For the D4 to be my perfect wildlife body, I guess I'm asking for a 1.2-1.3x crop factor with 16 megapixels or so.
Apart from that, I'm pretty happy with the image quality of the D4 - it seems to have that perfect blend of fantastic any-light performance, good image quality and a reasonably sized raw file that doesn't try to drown my computer.

Auto ISO
You'll probably wonder why I'm devoting a whole section to this seemingly inconsequential feature, but believe me this feature has changed how I set exposure 90% of the time. In the old days (pre-D300/D700/D3) we had no auto ISO and I used Aperture Priority mode, setting the aperture to achieve the desired depth of field and then manually setting the ISO to get a shutter speed I was comfortable with. The advent of auto ISO allowed us to set the range for ISO and minimum shutter speed and let the camera decide what to set the ISO at in Aperture Priority mode, but I didn't use this feature much as the maximum ISO settings were in stops and the jumps were too high. In addition, a single minimum shutter speed wouldn't work on zoom lenses where you need a different shutter speed at 70mm compared to 200mm for example. I therefore ended up using the D300/D700/D3 generation of cameras with manual ISO. The auto ISO function in the D4 and D800 has addressed these problems, though not perfectly.
Maximum ISO can now be set in thirds of a stop, which completely solves that issue. The minimum shutter speed can be set as an inverse of focal length - for example if I set it to 0 and shoot with a 200mm lens, the ISO is automatically increased until it achieves a shutter peed of 1/200th of a second. If I set it to +1 and shoot with the same lens, it raises the ISO until a shutter speed of 1/400 is achieved. So this feature now works well with zooms lenses too.
However, all is not perfect yet with this feature. Let's take an example of a shooting session that includes multiple types of birds. When shooting songbirds sitting in trees, I'm comfortable going down to 1/300 with a 600mm lens and will set the minimum shutter speed at -1. Suddenly, if I see a heron coming in for a landing I need a much faster shutter speed and the auto ISO feature is buried 3 levels into the Nikon menu system. The result? A heron with blurry wings, or a missed shot as I fiddle with settings. What I'd really like is to be able to set the shutter speed just like the exposure compensation using a small dedicated dial that has a range from -2 to +2. For that, I would buy the Nikon D5! Nikon, are you listening?!!!

I'm very happy with my purchase of the D4. It's my wildlife camera of choice for low light and action photography, and despite it's size and weight has become the camera we carry with us to take family pictures and videos. It's build like a tank (though it also weighs as much as one!) and can pretty much take any shooting situation in stride. The ergonomics are mostly better, as are the video and image quality. It's an evolution of the D3S rather than a revolutionary camera, and I for one am not disappointed by the fact that Nikon took the safe approach of not fixing what wasn't broken. Please post your thoughts and comment below, or let me know if there are any other aspects of the camera you'd like me to comment on...


Nikon Df: Quick Thoughts

I've been following the Nikon Df teaser videos for the last couple of weeks now, and was intrigued by the possibilities. Nikon made the official announcement this morning, so we now have a clearer picture (pardon the pun) of what this camera offers. The headline specs are:

  • 16.2MP FX CMOS sensor from the D4
  • Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait, Landscape and user definable picture modes
  • NEF, TIFF and JPEG file formats
  • A single SD card slot
  • 0.7x magnification viewfinder
  • Type B BriteView Clear Matte Mark VIII screen with AF area brackets (framing grid can be displayed)
  • 39-point AF
  • Max frame rate of 5.5 FPS
  • 2,016-pixel RGB metering sensor
  • Collapsible metering coupling lever for use with non-CPU lenses
  • Exposure modes include Programmed auto with flexible program (P); shutter-priority auto (S); aperture-priority auto (A); manual (M)
  • ISO 100 to 12800, with the special "Hi" function taking it up to ISO 204,800
  • NO video
  • 710g weight (lighter even than the D610, the previously the lightest Nikon FX DSLR)

I think this is a beautiful camera, and I'll take mine in silver, thank you. The dedicated manual dials and buttons are exactly the direction that I believe pro DSLR's should move in (more on that in a later post), and the Df somehow manages to incorporate most of the ergonomic improvements of the last 30 years in a sleek, retro-style body.


Looks like the same magnification (0.7x) and coverage (100%) as most of the new Nikon FX bodies. One disappointing feature is that the eye point is 15mm (the D4 is 18mm and the D610 is 21mm). What does this mean? This is how far your can take your eye off the viewfinder and still see the full image. A short eye point means you have to squash your eye against the viewfinder, which I personally find fatiguing and annoying.
Nikon seems to imply in their Df literature that manual focusing is a more fun. Why then this they stick this body with the hard-to-manual-focus focusing screen from all their other DSLR's? Nikon had an opportunity to re-introduce a new version of one of their classic focusing screens OR make the focusing screens interchangeable and make manual focus actually USABLE. I view this as a major failing of the new camera.

It's the sensor from the D4. I own the D4 so I have only good things to say about this sensor. Being able to get it in a body that's half the price and size of the D4 can only be a good thing. However, I still feel that a sensor with a few more pixels (like the 24MP D600/610 sensor) may have been a better choice, as I'm sure a lot of potential buyers would shoot landscapes with this camera. That said, maybe Nikon's line of thinking was that packing in more megapixels wasn't in keeping with the 'less is more' ethos of the Df. I'll buy that!


AF & Metering
From the non-news department, the Df has an AF sensor with 39 points - likely lifted straight from the D600/610. The 2,016 pixel metering sensor is also most probably from the D600/610.

Use of non-Ai lenses
I don't use a lot of old lenses, so I'll hae to reserve comments on this one until I've had a chance to use the Df with some older lenses. However, people who'll dish out $3,000 for a camera don't seem to me to be the type of users who'll try to save a few dollars by skimping on lenses. Or maybe that's just me...

I think the Df is an interesting product, and the first retro-styled DSLR from one of the big SLR players (i.e. Nikon & Canon). It has a beautiful design and is mostly likely solidly engineered. Nikon took a brave decision to drop video from the specification list, and it remains to be seen whether this decision will hamper sales of the Df. While I'm not a big video user, I'd still like to have it for the times I will need it.
My chief worry about the Df is in the value for money department. The Df body will sell for $2,749.95. The D610 sells for 1,999.95 and has video, a second card slot and arguably a better all-round sensor. Is looking good while taking photographs worth giving up video, image backup and an additional $750? Let me know what you think...

Life at the long end

Late last year, I switched from a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 VR II to a Nikon 600mm f/4 VR II as my primary long lens. It was an agonizing decision, and I knew both options had their advantages and limitations. I thought I'd write this post to give some insight into my reasons behind the switch, as there may be others out there trying to make this same decision that may benefit from it.

The case for the 400mm
  • Amazing sharpness even wide open
  • Greak bokeh and ability to isolate the subject with shallow depth of field
  • Works well paired with the TC-20EIII teleconverter for an 800mm f/5.6 lens
  • A little lighter and shorter

  • The case for the 600mm
  • Holds its own in the sharpness department
  • Autofocuses with the TC-17 and TC-20 teleconverters on both the D800 and D4. 

I used the 400mm for over 3 years, mostly at 800mm with the TC-20 teleconverter (version III - all the other versions are junk!). This amazing lens produced stellar image after stellar image, and if you asked me a year ago I would never have dreamed of parting with it. However, when the D800 and D4 bodies came out sporting autofocus at f/8 I started reconsidering my position. I ultimately went with the 600 because not being able to shoot at 400mm wasn't a big deal, but being able to shoot at 1200mm was (to me) a game changer.

D4 vs D800: Quick Thoughts

I sold my D3S a few months ago and upgraded to a D4. While I haven't used the new body enough to write a full review on it, I've started noticing patterns of when I like to use it compared to my D800. Here are some of my photography situations and how they affect my choice of cameras:
General photography
For most general photography situations (family gatherings, pictures of kids, etc.) I prefer the D4. In addition to the high ISO performance, the smaller file size is a big plus as I'm never going to print these pictures at poster sizes and I like the faster workflow the 16MP files of the D4 give me. True, it's a significantly bulkier camera than the D800, but I almost never use smaller bodies without a battery grip. With the battery grip in the equation, the size differences between the two cameras effectively disappears.

Event Photography
The D4's high ISO capabilities make it a little better than the D800 here - but there's not much in it.

Landscape photography
This is where the D800 comes into its own and pretty much leaves every other DSLR in the dust. Couple it with a sturdy tripod and a stellar lens, and it'll deliver image quality that can only be exceeded by moving up to a medium format camera. All in a small, rugged form factor - what's not to love?!


Macro photography
I use both cameras in macro photography situations, but lean more towards the D800 when I carry my own lighting and the D4 when I don't. If I had to pick one, the D800's superior resolution does it for me.

I'm not a video expert by any stretch of the imagination, and my use of video is mostly to capture memories of our young son. I've read some reports (including the Nikon D4 manual!!) about the D4 video being soft in all but the smallest crop mode, and that the D800's videos are sharper. To be honest, I can't see any difference and I almost always use the D4 for video since it's already lying somewhere around the house :) 

Wildlife (small birds)
When photographing small birds, you can never get close enough. I mostly use the 600mm lens with either the 1.7X or the 2X teleconverter, and I still usually want more reach! This is one area where the D800 clearly trumps the D4 -  I use it in DX crop mode (1.5X) and it still enables me to get 15 megapixels on the subject. As long as the light levels are reasonable and I don't need more than 6FPS, the D800 stays on the tripod and the D4 stays in the bag.

Wildlife (action)
This is a whole different story - action photography requires fast shutter speeds (which means higher ISO) and a high frame rate and the D4 is the clear winner here.


You may have noticed that I didn't mention ergonomics or discuss image quality in detail here. That's because I wanted to give just my first impressions from a couple of months of use, and reserve any detailed analysis for a later blog post. These are both absolutely fantastic cameras and I'm privileged to own and use them both. However, I find that the D4 is a better camera for everyday use. Yes, yes, I know - it's a giant hunk of rubber and metal that sticks out anywhere you take it, and will break your foot it you are unlucky enough to drop it on it! But I positively hate using DSLR bodies without a portrait grip, and with the portrait grip added to the D800 the cameras are pretty much the same size. The D800 comes out of the bag for songbird and landscape photography, and does those two things better than I could have hoped for before this amazing camera was launched.
Overall, I guess I'm saying that the D4 is jack of all trades for MY USE, while the D800 is the master of one (or two) that it does brilliantly. I hope this information has been usefulto you, but keep in mind that any purchase decision has to be based on YOUR usage and not just my thoughts.    

Nikon D4 vs. Nikon D800 - Resolution Test

I've seen a lot of people agonize over whether to buy a D800 or D4 for wildlife photography. While it's not an easy decision, one of the most important questions is that of resolution. Does the D800 really have that much more image data compared to the D4? The image below shows the same subject shot by the D800 (left) and D4 (right). I used the the Nikon 600mm VR (version 2) for this test, mounted on a tripod and shooting at speeds fast enough to eliminate any vibration-related blur. I didn't have a chance to do a focus calibration before this test, so please ignore the slight back focus on the D800 image...

Nikon D800 (left) and Nikon D4 (right) sample images side by side 

As you can see above, the D800 image contains significantly more data. In good light and with good technique, the D800 offers a significant cropping advantage over the D4, and this can't be disregarded for wildlife. Of course, occasions where a wildlife photographer finds good light and perfect conditions are few and far between, so the D800 won't win this fight that easily even in terms of image quality! I'll be posting more comparison articles over the next few weeks, dealing with areas like noise and ergonomics.
Links to the original images are below; I've exported them directly from the RAW files using Lightroom with no sharpening or any other changes. Please feel free to check them out and share your own thoughts at the bottom of this page. Thanks!

Sample image from Nikon D4

Sample image from Nikon D800