Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nikon D4: First Thoughts...

Our former rental manager Kathy, happy to have handled the awesome D4!

Sorry for the delay regarding my first thoughts on the brief time I had with the new D4 prototype. I am currently feeling really under the weather, having gotten sick with a bad cold, and since the weekend, I have just not felt up to writing much. So, what I'll do is just mention a few tidbits that jumped out at me while playing with the D4...

  • For me anyway, the best ergonomics yet of any Nikon DSLR. Clarification follows...
  • Dual focus "joysticks", more or less like those found on all higher end Canon DSLRs these days. I find them way more intuitive to use than the old style D-pad that previous Nikons used for focus point selection. However, bettering Canon's design, there are actually two of them for seamless operation when using the excellent built-in vertical grip.
  • Brightly lit red focusing points in the viewfinder which I found far more visible than what I remember previous Nikon's being.
  • Exposure compensation now works naturally for me: positive compensation (overexposure) is a deflection to the right on the compensation scale and negative compensation (underexposure) is a deflection to the left. As long as I can remember, Nikon DSLRs were the reverse of this and I could never get used to it. Yes, I could reverse the control direction, but then the indicator would move the wrong way in relation to the control! Dyed-in-the-wool Nikon shooters may actually come to hate that change though and may dislike it as much as I did the other method. Hopefully people will be able to adapt. Canon shooters switching will feel right at home though!
  • Live-view and switching between movie mode and stills is easy and intuitive, very much like my EOS-7D.
  • Live View in low light levels (think dimly lit bar) was remarkably good. The D4 boasted a very fluid refresh rate and virtually no visible noise at all, much better than Live-View on any previous Nikon that I can remember. It would be dead-easy to manually focus when zoomed in in super low light and I'm sure that this will assist with manual focus-pulling when doing low-light video too.
  • New single button zoom-in/out option is nice on playback.
  • Backlit control buttons are totally awesome! Absolutely great for low-light work and it helped me navigate around the unfamiliar camera in the bar too.
  • Focus acquisition in low-light seemed very very good and, on the rear LCD anyway, ISO 12,800 shots looked clean. Auto white balance in the terrible lighting was quite acceptable too, better than average in any case.
  • The built-in vertical grip ergonomics were excellent and while it still feels different than holding it horizontally, at least you get all the same focus and exposure adjustment/lock controls so you are not giving up one iota of functionality when shooting vertically. You can even set up the focusing system to automatically orient an off-centre focus point in roughly the same compositional spot when the camera is flipped between shooting in portrait or landscape mode. Yes, Canon cameras have had this feature for a while too...

So you might be detecting a theme here. Since I am a Canon shooter, all these little tweaks that make the camera feel just a little more familiar are very welcome. Most of the improvements will actually be welcomed by all I'd think, whereas maybe the change in the exposure compensation scale could throw some long-term Nikon shooters off. Still, for me anyway, the D4 is the nicest feeling, smoothest operating Nikon DSLR ever. Not that previous models weren't excellent cameras (they were!) but now it seems as though Nikon has made a real effort to clean up the camera's control ergonomics a final little bit, smooth off the few remaining rough edges and for my short time using the camera, I really feel they hit nearly everything totally spot-on. All of Nikon's excellent customization options seemed to still be present too, and really, there is almost nothing I found to fault with the camera's operation. Really impressive!

With the D4, of course you now have Full HD video as well as audio in and out, to allow you to use headphones to monitor the audio that is being recorded by the camera. There is a raw uncompressed video stream that you can feed out the HDMI port and potentially record to an external drive and the video recording codecs have been tweaked for optimal quality from the in-camera recorded video too. This is finally Nikon's big push into the "pro-video-DSLR" segment and it is a very convincing push indeed.

Stills shooters might also appreciate the new "silent-release" mode when in Live-View since it might just allow them to shoot without a blimp when on a quiet movie set. The bar was way too noisy for me to test this out though, so I did not bother. During my next hands-on with the D4, I will be sure to test that feature out thoroughly.

Lastly, regular photographers will likely appreciate the huge raw buffer, up to 100 frames with a fast XQD memory card, and still 76 frames with a fast CF card. Yes, the D4 is the first camera to support the new high-speed XQD card standard. They'll also appreciate the new 91,000 pixel colour-sensitive light meter that can even assist with focus tracking and face detection! Anyway, I could go on and on with all the new features and tweaks, but all the detailed specifications can be found on various other websites.

Keep in mind that I did not spend a huge amount of time with the camera and indeed some of my first impressions may change a little once I actually use the camera on a real shoot. In any case, hopefully you'll find my (what turned out to be no-so-brief) first thoughts to be of some interest!

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