$5,999.95 is a mighty large chunk of change to plunk down on a camera. That's how much Nikon's brand new flagship camera, the D4, will cost you, but for those who truly need the kind of power this monster brings to the table, money really isn't an object. In fact, while the D4 hasn't been released yet — it's slated for a mid-March debut — professionals are already committing to buying it without ever touching the camera. That might not make sense to most, but after spending just a bit of time with the D4, I don't think those buyers are going to be disappointed.
We've heard all about the D4's specs, and we even got to spend a few minutes playing with the hardware, but this time we got to shoot on our own terms and keep the photos and video we took. This preview is about what the D4 is like to shoot with and what kind of results it produces, so read on to see what you'll be getting if you're one of the lucky photographers to purchase a D4 in the coming weeks.
What's new about the D4? Well, it's got a 16.2-megapixel full-frame sensor, and you can bump up the ISO to 204,800 (the native max is 12,800). That means that you can (almost literally) see in the dark with this camera. Nikon has also put an Expeed 3 sensor in the D4, which means it's got just 0.042 seconds of shutter lag and will shoot at 11 frames per second. That's only a taste of all the changes Nikon's made from the D3S to the D4 — the company's also increased the battery life, reduced the weight by 0.13 pounds, and improved the ergonomics of the camera, just to name a few.
The D4 looks intimidating — it's huge and there are tons of knobs and switches. Once you pick up the beast, however, it's actually a joy to use. It's lighter than you'd think, and thanks to its large surface area it's supremely comfortable to hold. And while all of those switches and knobs might look scary to the uninitiated, they're all designed to make changing the camera's settings easy and fast — once you get used to what everything does. Oh, and none of this is to mention likely the most pleasurable thing about the D4: its massive viewfinder. Vlad said it best in his hands-on with the camera: "it's basically like looking through a window." The viewfinder, the ergonomics, and the rock-solid build quality of the D4 all combine to make most any camera that's not made for professionals feel pretty awful by comparison. After playing with the D4 for just a bit, my Nikon D7000 DSLR felt like a budget point-and-shoot.
The real story here is just one of the many controls on the camera: ISO. In seemingly impossible situations — handheld, very low light — you'll be able take a great photo, and you won't even need to open up to silly apertures to do so. At the native maximum ISO of 12,800 you'll see noise, especially if you zoom in and look for it, but at normal sizes things look incredible, especially considering the low light situations we pushed the camera with. Of course, things will start getting ugly the closer you get to that expanded maximum ISO of 204,800. Still, it's an incredible experience to be able to take a photograph with seemingly no light to help you.
Nikon has made a big push with the D4 to up its video abilities and convince at least some video pros to switch from Canon's video-friendly DSLRs. We spent a lot of time testing the D4's video chops, and overall we'd say that while Nikon has made a bunch of improvements, it still has a ways to go. Live autofocus while shooting video still hunts far too much; we'd never rely on the feature. In terms of video quality, we found that while highlights do roll off well, the black levels were a bit too deep for our tastes — though that may be correctable if you set up a custom profile. Additionally, CMOS skew and moire were both reduced, but they were still present. Be sure to check out the video above — which, other than the scenes of the camera itself, was shot entirely on the D4 — to see these effects in action (1080p version here).
There's no denying that the D4 is an impressive piece of kit — and it better be for $5,995.95. With the D4, it's liberating to look through that glorious viewfinder, see what I'd like to capture, and know that I'll be able to get very close to what I want in almost every situation. Yes, despite the weight savings the D4 is going to weigh you down (especially if you're using a top-tier lens), and it's massive. It also costs a fortune, and the video abilities just aren't there. Nevertheless, the people this camera is made for — Nikon devotees who take photos all day, everyday — won't care about any of that as soon as they grab hold of the D4 and peer through it. I know that's how I feel, but maybe that'll change when I get to play around with the D4's portable, full frame cousin, the D800.
Jordan Oplinger contributed to this preview.