Nikon D4 at a glance:

  • 16.2-million-pixel, FX-format CMOS sensor
  • Expeed 3 image processor
  • 91,000-pixel metering sensor
  • ISO 50-204,800 equivalent
  • 11fps maximum shooting rate
  • 51-point autofocus
  • New XQD card socket
  • 3.2in, 921,000-dot LCD screen
  • Street price £5,289 (body only)

When we reviewed the Nikon D3S in AP 2 January 2010, it scored an impressive 89%, making it one if the best DSLRs we have ever tested. Physically, the camera was nothing groundbreaking, based as it is on the existing Nikon D3. However, it did introduce an incredibly impressive 12.1-million-pixel CMOS sensor capable of shooting at an equivalent of ISO 102,400. What really made the D3S stand out at the time, though, was the low level of noise in images taken at between ISO 800 and 3200.

That the Nikon D3S was capable of producing images of superb quality made it a firm favourite with professional photographers the world over. With its emphasis on a fast shooting rate and great image quality in low light, the D3S soon became the preferred camera of many sports, wildlife, events and press photographers.

Wisely, with the D4, Nikon has opted for the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ philosophy. The new professional camera has evolved from the D3S, but with some significant tweaks and improvements, the most important being a new 16.2-million-pixel sensor.

There is also an improved sensitivity range of ISO 50-204,800: an increase of 1EV at either end of the sensitivity range. The AF and metering systems have been upgraded, too. In total, Nikon quotes more than 45 improvements over its predecessor, all of which should improve both the handling and image quality of the new high-end, professional DSLR.

With 2012 being an Olympic year, it is clear that Nikon hopes the D4 will prove to be the camera of choice for professional sports photographers.

Image: One overlooked advantage of the extremely low noise levels at high sensitivities is that it allows handheld macro images. This photograph of a wasp was taken with a Micro-Nikkor 55mm converted pre-Ai lens at ISO 1600 


The new 16.2-million-pixel CMOS full-frame sensor of the Nikon D4 seems to have evolved from the 12.1-million-pixel sensor used in the D3S. As well as FX full-frame lenses, DX-format lenses designed for Nikon cameras with APS-C-sized sensors can also be used on the D4, but at a reduced resolution of 7 million pixels. A 5:4 crop format is also available, regardless of the lens being used.

Running the D4 is the Expeed 3 image processor first unveiled in Nikon’s V1 and J1 compact system cameras. It is a more powerful processor than the Expeed 2 unit in the D3S and Nikon claims it will, among other things, help with noise reduction, particularly when shooting HD video.

With the D4’s shooting rate of up to 11fps without AF, or 10fps with AF, as well as HD video capture, the Expeed 3 unit is certainly going to have its work cut out when it comes to processing and saving images quickly.

As with most pro DSLRs, the Nikon D4 has two memory card sockets, one of which is for a CompactFlash card, with the other for the new XQD format cards. Created by Sony, the first XQD card was launched the day after the D4. The new format is able to read and write information at speeds of up to 125MB/s, which is around 25MB/s quicker than the current fastest CompactFlash cards, with even quicker speeds possible in the future. The capacity of the cards can theoretically increase to reach 2TB.

The need for such a highly specified card lies mainly in the huge amount of data generated when shooting video footage, and the speed at which it needs to be saved. However, with the D4 having a maximum continuous shooting rate of 11fps, the new high-speed cards obviously offer an advantage for still photographers, too.

Using a Sony 16GB XQD card, I was able to shoot 70 raw images, 62 raw+JPEG Fine images or 148 JPEG images at 11fps before the buffer was full and the camera started to lag. However, after just a few seconds it is possible to begin shooting another burst.

As a comparison, I used a Lexar 600x UDMA card and shot 60 raw, 58 raw+JPEG and 144 JPEG images, although the buffer took far longer to clear afterwards. Professionals who are going to take long bursts of images should seriously consider switching to XQD cards as there is a clear advantage.

The metering system has also been overhauled, with a new 91,000-pixel RGB sensor. This does more than merely meter the light through the lens. Similarly, the D4 uses an evolved version of the 51-point Multi-CAM 3500FX autofocus module, but more about this later in the test.

Build and Handling

At a glance, the Nikon D4’s body looks largely the same as that of its predecessor. Both are made of magnesium alloy and have built-in grips and shutter buttons for horizontal and portrait-orientation shooting. However, there are some slight changes intended to improve the overall handling.

The first is that the shutter button is now at a more inclined angle than on the D3S. Nikon claims this to be more comfortable to use, but while I did notice a difference between its position on the two cameras, I could not really say which one I preferred.

The most useful of the D4’s new build and handling features are the two directional control sticks. These allow the AF point to be quickly repositioned, and pushing the stick in acts as a button for AF-L.

The reason for two control sticks is that they can be used when shooting in either portrait or landscape orientation. As you rotate the camera to change the orientation, the relative position of the shutter button, front and rear control dials and the control stick remains the same. I found this really made a difference when switching back and forth between landscape and portrait formats, and again, it will be useful for professional photographers requiring such changes to take place quickly and smoothly.

Switching orientation is made even easier thanks to the D4’s ability to save a different default AF point, depending on whether the camera is in shooting in landscape or portrait mode. For example, without this ability, if you were shooting a portrait using an AF point close to the top so that it is over the subject’s eyes, when switching to take a landscape image the AF point would be on the far right.

However, the D4 can be set up so that its built-in accelerometers will detect the camera’s movement and then, when it is rotated, the AF point is switched to a suitable pre-selected AF point – in this case one that is at the top of a frame when in landscape format – so that focus will remain on the subject’s eyes at all times.

One of the D4’s most useful features is also one of the simplest: the buttons on the camera are now illuminated. Like other Nikon professional and enthusiast DSLRs, the on/off switch has a third setting that illuminates the camera’s LCD panels. On the D4, this also lights up all the buttons so they can be seen in the dark. This is clearly useful when shooting at night, but should also prove popular with concert photographers, who can usually be seen tilting their camera to all sorts of angles to try to find the button they need.

Control of the AF has also been changed. The three-way switch on the front of the D3S has been replaced with the simple AF/M switch with a central control button, similar to that found on the D7000. Flicking the switch between AF and manual focus, and then pressing the button allows the front and rear control dials to be used to switch between single or continuous AF, and the number of AF points in use. The reason for the switch is that it allows all the AF functions to be set through the viewfinder, with the aim of making it quicker.

As you would expect from a camera costing around £5,300, the D4 has a tough magnesium-alloy body with all the direct controls you would expect on a professional camera body. Those who have used the D3 or D3S will find that, for the most part, the bodies of the two cameras are largely the same.

As stated earlier, the D4 is physically akin to the D3S, but with a few significant new features. I quickly grew accustomed to the new changes and they made the D4  very fast to use, particularly as you can alter the AF settings without taking your eye from the viewfinder.

Noise, Resolution and Sensitivity

Image: Shot at ISO 400 with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, there is a lot of detail and no discernible image noise

For low-light situations, the D3S is one of the best DSLRs we have seen. The quantum efficiency of the sensor is very high for a full-frame model, meaning that it converts a large amount of the light photons it receives into electrical energy. This is what allows the D3S to use high equivalent ISO sensitivities with low levels of image noise.

The D4’s resolution is 4 million pixels higher than that of the D3S. Although this is a fairly conservative increase, it does mean the amount of noise can be well controlled, and at almost every sensitivity setting the two cameras seem to be on a par.

In-camera JPEGs taken on the D4 are relatively free of noise up to around ISO 1600. At this setting there is a hint of luminance noise in shadow areas, but nothing of concern. In fact, the usable sensitivity range is around ISO 100-6400. Images at ISO 6400 look like those taken at ISO 1600 settings of most DSLRs with APS-C-sized sensors.

Noise is visible at higher and extended sensitivities, although it is reasonably well controlled. Given the extremity of the settings, I would recommend shooting above ISO 128,000 only when absolutely necessary. However, what these settings do offer is the ability to take images handheld in extremely low light, just as with the D3S.

Even more detail can be recovered when editing raw files, where the amount of noise can be fine-tuned. That said, it doesn’t make the extended ISO settings much more usable, but custom sharpening and noise reduction do improve images taken at the ‘everyday’ ISO 100-6400 range.

In terms of image quality, the D4 doesn’t really do much better than the excellent D3S. Yes, it has a slightly higher resolution but there is little improvement in the amount  of image noise.

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.


Nikon’s 1,005-pixel metering system, which has been used in a number of cameras over the past few years, has been dramatically upgraded for the D4. It now features 91,000 pixels, which does beg the question of how detailed a sensor needs to be to produce a good exposure.

I can see very little difference between the exposures of the D3S and the D4 in matrix metering mode, and you may wonder why such a high-resolution sensor is needed. However, the new 91,000-pixel sensor does more than just meter the light.

Nikon uses a scene-based metering system that is capable of recognising  elements in front of the lens, such as faces, and then picking a suitable exposure. The higher the resolution of the sensor, the more likely it is to be able to see such details and adjust the exposure accordingly. So while the sensor does measure light, its real benefit with regard to exposure is recognising scenes. This sensor is also used to measure white balance, so again, the more detail and information available, the better.

Overall, the system works well, with the camera producing good exposures. When shooting landscapes, for instance, I found that the evaluative metering was generally intelligent enough to avoid blowing out highlight detail. This did sometimes lead to the foreground being slightly underexposed, and I took one sequence of images that had a +0.7EV exposure greater than the metered setting. It is, nevertheless, quite easy to predict what the metering will do and, anyway, the slight underexposure can be beneficial in preserving highlight detail that, once lost, cannot be recreated.

White Balance and Colour

The new 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor also helps provide the auto white balance settings for the camera. Again, this works well, and there is little perceivable difference between the D3S and D4.

Like the Nikon D7000, the D4 has Auto1 and Auto2 AWB settings. The first of these produces an auto white balance that will detect tungsten lighting and correct it completely, while the second will still leave a hint of the tungsten colour in the scene. This is great for wedding photographers who may wish to take neutral images to keep the bride’s dress completely white, but later prefer some of the natural colour to be left in the scene for more candid, documentary-style images.

The D4’s colour and contrast settings are unchanged from the Nikon D3S, and like other Nikon enthusiast and professional DSLRs, there is a Manage Picture Control feature, which allows the individual settings of each colour to be tweaked. New image styles can also be created using Nikon’s Capture NX2 software and then loaded to a memory card and onto the camera.


Images: When shooting at 10fps, the continuous AF had no problem keeping up with the subject

Like the metering system, the D4’s AF system has also seen some improvements. The AF module itself is an adaptation of the Multi-CAM 3500 FX unit that was previously found in the D3, D3S and D700. One of the main upgrades is its performance in low-light conditions, with Nikon claiming that the camera can now focus in as little as -2EV of light – the equivalent of shooting by the light of a full moon.

The increased sensitivity of the AF sensor isn’t just an advantage when light is in short supply. All 51 AF points of the D4 work at an aperture of f/5.6, while the 11 centre points, including a cross-type sensor, can work at f/8. This is useful for sports and wildlife photographers, as it allows an f/4 lens, such as the Nikkor 600mm f/4G ED VR AF-S or the 500mm f/4G ED VR AF-S, to autofocus when used with a 2x teleconverter, creating 1,200mm f/8 and 1,000mm f/8 lenses respectively. It will also allow photojournalists to travel light and use a 200-400mm f/4 lens and teleconverter to cover a 200-800mm range.

Using the D4 at night under streetlights, I found that the AF performs very well with a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. Even when pointing at objects that are almost entirely in shadow, the D4 still focuses quickly and accurately. The D3S is no slouch in low light, but of the two the D4 was faster and more accurate, whereas the D3S had to hunt a little more often for the focus point and occasionally just gave up. In fact, for focusing in low light, the D4 is the most efficient camera I have come across. It really is impressive.

The new AF button, taken from the D7000, makes it far easier to change the number of focus points in use, or to switch to 3D matrix metering. All of this can be done without looking away from the viewfinder. Initially, I was concerned it might take longer to use the new AF switch to change from continuous to single AF and vice versa, but once familiar with the arrangement I found it faster than the previous system used on the D3S.

As you would expect, there are many different ways in which the AF system can be set up to suit the demands of different photographers, and it is worth spending time fine-tuning these settings rather than relying on the default configurations. For example, the response time of focus tracking can be changed. Setting this to its fastest system can help when photographing the sort of sports characterised by sudden or irregular movements, such as football matches. Likewise, it can be slowed, which will be more useful for tracking subjects that move at speed in a regular direction, such as a racing car.

Overall, the AF is superb. There is a difference in speed and accuracy compared to the D3S but it is only really in low light or when photographing a very fast-moving subject that this is particularly noticeable.

Dynamic Range

There is little that is surprising about the dynamic range of the D4 and it is comparable to other cameras of a similar specification. While I found that the camera could recover a good amount of detail from the highlight and shadow areas of raw files, it isn’t quite as impressive as the D7000.

My ‘real-world’ findings are supported by the results at, which shows that at ISO 100 the D4 has a dynamic range as high as 13.1EV. This is respectable without being outstanding, especially given that it is a full-frame sensor. As a comparison, DxO rated the D7000, with its smaller APS-C-sized sensor, as having a dynamic range of 13.9EV.

Image: The dynamic range and colour of JPEG images is good, but I found that much more data can be extracted from raw images

Viewfinder, LCD, Live View and Video

As you would expect from a professional DSLR, the viewfinder of the D4 is very large, bright and offers a 100% view. The eyepiece is also interchangeable, allowing angle finders and magnifiers to be attached for more specialised uses.

When shooting video, or for very precise manual focusing, the rear monitor will be used for composition. The LCD screen retains the 921,000-dot resolution of the last generation of Nikon enthusiast and pro DSLRs. However, at 3.2in, it is slightly larger.

The new screen also has improved colour and contrast, with a colour gamut that almost matches the sRGB colour space. Usefully, the camera can also alter the brightness, contrast colour saturation and gamma of the screen, depending on the level of ambient light. This helps to ensure that the colours and contrast are a good representation of the image, regardless of the lighting.  However, I found that reviewing the images on the rear screen was still difficult in very strong sunlight.

Although Nikon introduced the first DSLR with video capture, Canon has since somewhat stolen the limelight in this area. However, Nikon has evidently spent much time working on this technology and the D4 has some excellent new features. These include a live sound meter, as well as a headphone-out socket for audio monitoring.

There is also the facility to take a live video feed from the camera through the HDMI socket. This feed contains no overlays, meaning that it is the raw footage being captured by the camera. This live raw feed can then be recorded to a separate device so it can be edited at the best possible quality. This is a very high-end feature that should appeal to many professional videographers.

Video can also be recorded in full HD in either FX or DX crop, although this obviously changes the field of view: a 50mm lens at full frame, for example, becomes the equivalent of a 75mm lens when recording in DX crop. This is extremely versatile for filmmakers, however, as it doubles the usefulness of each lens.

When the video capture is combined with the time lapse video option, and the extremely wide video capture sensitivity of ISO 200-204,800, the Nikon D4 should offer some good competition to the latest video-enabled Canon professional DSLRs.


For press photographers, it is vital to be able to send the latest images back to a picture desk almost as soon as the events have taken place. This usually means uploading the files to a newspaper or agency’s image server via a laptop computer. However, the Nikon D4 has an ethernet socket, and the software to connect to an FTP server, built in. This allows the photographer to simply plug in a network cable and upload all their images to a server straight from the camera.

There is also a new Nikon WT-5 Wi-Fi adapter. This is far smaller than previous Wi-Fi adapters, partly because it is powered by the camera’s battery. The adapter allows the D4 to be connected to a Wi-Fi network, again making it easy to send images to another computer anywhere in the world. It also allows wireless camera control.

Provided the camera has a Wi-Fi connection, a photographer can use any internet-connected computer, or a device such as a smart phone or Apple iPad, to log into the camera and see the live view display, as well as browse the images and take full control over the camera’s exposure and shooting settings, including autofocus.

The interface for controlling the camera can be accessed via a web browser using built-in software. This means additional software is not required, either for a smart phone or a computer.

It is also possible to create an ad-hoc wireless connection directly between a computer, smart phone, iPad (or similar) and the camera. This is extremely useful, as it doesn’t require a separate Wi-Fi connection. In particular, it is a boon for wildlife photographers, as being able to see the live feed from the camera and control its settings from the safe vantage point of a hide means that the animal is much less likely to be frightened away.


Both the Nikon D3 and D3S were hugely important cameras when released, and for a while they were the pinnacle of professional DSLRs. However, with the resolution of the D3S starting to look a little dated, it was perhaps due an update. The Nikon D4 has indeed updated the resolution, but not by much, and the image quality remains largely the same as its predecessor. However, this is no bad thing, as the D3S, and now the D4 are probably the best cameras to have at hand if you are shooting in low light.

Yet it is the D4’s more easily overlooked details that really make the difference. For instance, wildlife photographers will be delighted with very sensitive AF points that allow the use of autofocus in low light and with 2x teleconverters with f/4 lenses. The illuminated buttons, ethernet connection, XQA card sockets and ease of switching from landscape to portrait shooting are all superb refinements that help make the D4 an almost complete package. And this is without mentioning the excellent high-sensitivity image quality, metering and the shooting rate.

Of course, many of these features will be of no use to the average photographer and, at around £5,300, the D4 will be too expensive for all but the professional press and wildlife photographers, for whom it will be money well spent.

Nikon D4 summary of key features


Nikon states that the new shutter has been tested up to 400,000 actuations. Shooting at 11fps continuously, the shutter has been tested to last for just over ten hours. More realistically, for a professional photographer shooting around 2,000 images a week, the shutter is good for four years. For the rest of us, it will probably last a lifetime.

Virtual horizon

In the shooting menu is the virtual horizon, which uses accelerometers to tell when the camera is level. Unlike previous versions, it is now dual-axis and recognises both side-to-side and front-to-back tilt. The virtual horizon can also be displayed in the viewfinder, using the AF points to indicate whether the camera is level.

Battery life

Although they look similar, the D4 uses a different battery from the D3 and D3S. The new battery is only 2,000mAh, compared with the 2,500mAh on the older battery. However, improvements in both battery design and power consumption mean that the battery in the D4 lasts longer. Nikon quotes that up to 5,500 shots can be taken on a single charge.

Time-lapse movie

As well as interval shooting, the D4 has a time-lapse mode that takes pictures at regular intervals for a set period of time. The results are then saved as a 1080p, 30fps time-lapse video. The feature handily calculates how long the final video will be before shooting begins.

Viewfinder shutter switch

This small switch activates a shutter that prevents light entering the camera through the viewfinder, which can be an issue when shooting long exposures.

LCD screen

The 3.2in, 921,000-dot screen has been improved to reduce screen fogging


Images: The Nikon DS3 and the Canon EOS-1D X 

With a similar specification and price, the Canon EOS-1D X is sure to be the closest rival to the Nikon D4. Both cameras have full-frame sensors, although the EOS-1D X has a slightly higher 18.1-million-pixel resolution.

The Canon DSLR also has a maximum shooting speed of 12fps with AF, which is 2fps faster than the D4. One feature that the D4 does have in its favour is that its AF points work down to f/8, whereas the points in the EOS-1D X only work down to f/5.6. As to whether the

EOS-1D X is a better camera overall, I’ll reserve judgement until our test in AP 21 April.

The older Nikon D3S may still remain very popular given the relatively small increase in resolution in the D4. It can be bought new for around £1,000 less than the D4 and it may be ideal for enthusiast photographers.