Photos and Text by Andrew M. Daddio/Colgate University
Full Disclosure: for the past twelve years all of my personal photo gear has been Canon bodies and lenses. I used to diss on Nikon, quite heavily I may add, until the introduction of the Nikon D3, which really leveled the playing field, if not taking a quantum leap forward. I shoot with Nikon for work, and I still retain and shoot with my Canon gear, but I do on occasion consider jumping ship to Nikon...
A great portrait session where you are able to break through your subjects’ apprehension and genuinely capture the personality of the individual you are photographing... Gaining access to environments and situations that many people will never see... Solving a technical challenge or exploring an untried technique that produces a new body of work... The rush of excitement you receive after seeing the image in the viewfinder as you click the shutter, or when it pops up on the back of the camera, and realizing that you have just captured a great and iconic portfolio shot...
These are some of the high points that are the rewards and pleasures of our professions as professional photographers. One of the other high points that is also central to our experience, since almost all photographers are serious gadget freaks and techno geeks, is that great feeling we get from opening the packaging and taking a brand-new camera out of the box for the very first time. Ah, so factory fresh and clean.
Recently, I had that pleasure when I opened the box to a new Nikon D4 and a WT-5A wireless transmitter. And the feelings only got better and better the more I was able to learn the new camera and play with it. The Nikon D4 is without a doubt the most sophisticated camera I have ever used. Much has changed since the D3s, and whereas many of the controls have remained the same between each successive generation of Nikon film and digital cameras, I actually had to crack the instruction manual open in order to find out where some of the controls had gone on the D4.
The instruction manual weighs in at a hefty 455 poorly written pages. One classic: “Be careful not to put your fingers or fingernails in your eye when using the sub-selector.” Speaking of which, that is probably one of the very first differences from its predecessors you will notice when you pick up the D4: the addition of two rubber, knob-like button protrusions on the back of the camera; one for horizontal shooting called the Sub Selector, the other for vertical shooting, called the Multi Selector. The Multi Selector knob basically duplicates the functions of the larger Multi Selector button that we are accustomed to using, and which still remains on the D4, but this positioning adds to the beautiful ergonomic design, thus allowing for access of those functions while holding the camera in many different positions. The nifty new thumb rest for vertical shooting is also a great ergonomic improvement, as is the new, sloped shutter release. The camera really feels so incredibly good in your hands.
The Multi Selector allows you to change the positioning of the auto focus point, navigate through the menus, and navigate through images during playback on the back LCD screen. The Sub Selector has more limited functions, allowing for the selection of the auto focus point, but no playback navigation or menu navigation. Depressing the center of the Sub Selector now acts as the Auto Exposure Lock (AEL) control, which has been removed as a separate, dedicated button control. And this also locks focus while in the AF-C (Continuous servo autofocus) Mode.
One of the other most notable initial differences is the “Focus mode selector” used previously to select between AF-S (Single servo autofocus), AF-C (Continuous servo autofocus), and M (Manual focus) modes. Gone is the AF-C / Continuous focus option. Where did it go? Instead of clicking to get to that AF-C setting, now there is a button on the Focus-mode selector, which you must depress and then rotate the Main Command Dial. A visual indication appears in the viewfinder for each setting, so you can easily do this without taking the camera away from your eye. At first I didn’t like this change, but I now have really come to appreciate it, I think this simplifies the entire process of changing focusing modes. There are only two possible positions and this eliminates the question of “wait, was that one click or two? Second or third position?” Now it is either one or two, on or off. While in AF-C mode, if you rotate the Sub Command Dial while holding in the button on the Focus Mode Selector, you can then select between single-point; 9-point, 21-point, or 51-point dynamic-area; 3D-tracking or auto-area focusing modes. Again, indicators appear in the viewfinder for each setting, so again you can change between all of these modes seamlessly without ever taking the camera away from your eye.
The D4 has a 16.2 Megapixel, FX (full-frame) sensor, which is approximately one third larger than the 12.3 Megapixel D3s, and contains the new EXPEED3 image processor, allowing for a standard ISO range of 100-12,800, and an expanded ISO range of ISO 50 to an incredible 204,800. The results at the standard high ISO settings are incredible and look absolutely gorgeous when run through the noise reduction settings in Adobe Lightroom 4. Smart engineering paired the high ISO camera with backlit, illuminated control buttons, so you can now actually see them while shooting in those dark conditions in which the camera excels.
The camera has an extremely powerful processor (it is, in effect, a miniature computer complete with an Ethernet port) and one amazing advance allows for the custom processing of Camera Raw NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) files into jpegs directly in-camera, without the need for a computer. More on that cool feature later on. The shutter is a Kevlar/Carbon Fiber composite, with a rating of 400,000 actuations, capable of shooting a stunning 10/11 continuous frames per second up to 200 frame (100 Raw) bursts. The variation in the amount of FPS is due to 10 frames per second being captured in Continuous Low-Speed (CL) mode, and 11 frames per second with auto-exposure and auto-focus disabled (i.e. with AE/AF locked on first frame) in Continuous High-Speed (CH) mode.
The D4 makes use of the new Sony XQD Memory Card, as well as one Compact Flash Type I slot. The XQD format takes advantage of the new XQD specification for high-speed, high-performance digital image capture, and this specification has been approved and licensed as an open format by the CompactFlash Association. Lexar has also just recently announced that they will sup- port the XQD format. The XQD format is extremely reliable, and allows for eye-popping, unbelievably fast data transfer rates of up to 1Gbps/125MB/s write and read speeds. These write speeds are excellent for video, another area where the D4 shines.
The D4 can shoot 1080p Full HD movies at 24/25/30fps as well as 720p, with video clips lasting up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds in length. All reviews seem to say that the rolling shutter effect is very good, if not virtually eliminated. You can also now monitor sound as it is being recorded, through the 1/8” headphone jack. In addition to the headphone jack, the D4 has a 1/8” stereo microphone input, USB Port, HDMI high definition video output, as well as a new auxiliary port for the WT-5A Wireless Transmitter. This tiny wireless device has the potential for huge changes and benefits for those of us who shoot for colleges and universities, as well as sports, advertising and corporate shooters.
At a small fraction of the size, and at twice the speed its predecessor, the WT-5A Wireless Transmitter employs some breakthrough developments in high-speed wireless transmission, allowing data transfers of up to 150 Mbps. The WT-5A draws its power from the camera body, and the new Lithium-ion batteries are rated to approximately 2,600 images per charge. There is some power draw, but I have not noticed a substantial or problematic increase in battery usage from the use of the wireless transmitter.
But what the transmitter can do for you is pretty incredible, if not outright mind-blowing. With FTP Upload you can FTP files directly to a remote server. In the HTTP server mode you can control the camera settings and the live view remote shoot ing of stills and video, as well as viewing and downloading the contents of the cards all via a laptop, iPad or iPhone. Synchronized release allows for the firing of up to 10 remote D4 and WT-5A combinations from one master camera. And, just like the Ginsu Knives offer on late-night TV commercials, now is the time where I must say: “But wait, there’s more!” Remember how earlier I mentioned the custom processing of Camera Raw NEF (Nikon Electronic Format) files into jpegs, directly in-camera, without the need for a computer?
With the D4 and the WT-5A you can continue to shoot an all camera-raw workflow, while deliv ering jpegs on the fly, in record- breaking time. You can review your images on the back of the camera and find one that fits the need. Go to the new NEF (RAW) Processing menu (or better yet, put the “Network” as well as the “NEF (RAW) Processing” menus right next to each other in your new custom My Menu option, for even quicker access!), and adjust the Brightness, Contrast, Sharpness, White Balance, High ISO Noise Reduction, Image Size and Image Quality, Picture Control (Standard, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape, etc.), as well as exposure compensation up to plus or minus two stops, determine the output size and resolution, and hit the EXEcute button, and Voilà! a jpeg is generated. Open that file with the Playback Button, and while in the FTP Upload mode hit two buttons simultaneously on the back of the camera, and again Voilà! That file is now on your server.
This past May I photographed our commencement ceremony, and within two minutes of clicking the shutter I had a shot of the guest speaker up on our server. Let me say that again; within two minutes of clicking the camera’s shutter, I was able to have a processed photo up on our server. For those of us that grew up in the days of processing film, this is mind-boggling. Now also add in the ability to automatically input IPTC (International Press Telecommunications Council) data to the files as they are shot, and you’ve got a truly great workhorse of a camera that will allow you to meet the tightest of deadlines.
Two important items of note; I carry a Hoodman loupe in my bag for reviewing files on the back of the camera to be processed and transmitted, and I consider this a necessity. It speeds things up considerably and allows for you to discern subtle distinctions between images. Thus far, I’ve found this to be the fastest way to get images up on the server. The other item of note is that in this article I am referring to the version of the transmitter that is available for the U.S. and Canadian markets. There are different designations; WT-5A, WT-5B, WT-5C, WT-5D, etc., depending on your country and zone of use, and these do not necessarily work in other zones outside of the respective areas for which they are intended, so please be sure to check the specs depending on your country of origin.
Rounding out the list of features, the D4 has a new self-cleaning function that can be activated manually or programmed to activate upon startup, shutdown, or both. A Quiet Shutter Release function allows for a much quieter release of the shutter when shooting in locations where the sound would be disruptive. The Quiet Shutter Release allows for the single exposure of the shutter with a dampened sound, and the shutter only cocks when you remove your finger from the shutter release. While not completely silent, this does greatly decrease the sound generated from the shutter mechanism, providing for greater ease of use and less disruption when shooting in quieter environments.
New expanded automatic bracket ranges are a big plus for those who shoot High Dynamic Range image sequences. In addition to the ability to shoot a nine-stop range, in 1/3 stop increments up to one ƒ stop, the D4 now allows you to shoot a five-stop range in either two or three ƒ stop increments, for an expanded range of 10 or 15 stops. That is enough of an exposure range to capture the master source files for any tough HDR sequence of images.
The Nikon D4 is a major advance of the Nikon Professional line of cameras, and fully deserving of the new series designation. It seems as if every single aspect of the camera has been fully reconsidered and reevaluated from the ground up in the redesign, providing for a truly remarkable and efficient camera that effortlessly becomes an extension of your own unique and personal shooting style. The Nikon D4 is an amazing camera that will allow you to realize your vision, no matter what that may be, and will stand as a benchmark for quite some time as an example of the latest advances and developments in cutting edge digital imaging.
Andrew Daddio has been the Photographic Services Coordinator at Colgate University since June 2008, more of his work can be seen on his website.