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Pushing the Limits: The Nikon D4 by Simon Stafford

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The Nikon D4 with AF-S 50mm f/1.4G
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The profile of the D4 is very similar to the D3s
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A dedicated record button has been positioned just behind the shutter release button
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The overall size and weight of the D4 is similar to the D3s
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The rear panel of the D4 has a number of significant changes in respect of control layout
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The D4 with AF-S 85mm f/1.4G
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The D4 inherits a focus mode button and switch design from the D7000
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The new camera has ports for an external stereo microphone, headphones, video-out, HDMI, a dedicated connector for the WT-5 wireless transmitter, plus a built-in Ethernet LAN port
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The D4 with Nikon ME-1 stereo microphone
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The WT-5 wireless transmitter is considerably smaller than its predecessors and draws power directly from the camera
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The D4 is the first D-SLR to support the new XQD CompactFlash (CF) standard and format; it has one XQD CF card slot and one CF card slot
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Among the many ergonomic enhancements is the ability to have the principle control buttons back-lit
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The D4 features an entirely new sensor with 16.2MP resolution
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The in-camera processing is handled by a new EXPEED 3 processing regime
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The RGB metering sensor has 91,000-pixels, providing a significant increase in the ability of the D4 to assess a scene, as well as improve aspects of AF performance
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The new shutter unit is tested to 400,000 cycles
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The D4 is powered by a new Lithiun-ion rechargeable battery the Nikon EN-EL18
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The rear panel of the D3s
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The D4 has an ambient light sensor (indicated by the red arrow) that is used to adjust monitor screen brightness, contrast and saturation
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The AF-ON button for vertical shooting has been re-located to improve camera handling, and the AF system has two new ‘sub-selector’ buttons (indicated by the green arrows) for selecting the AF point
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AF-area mode selection is displayed using illuminated AF points, so you do not have to take your eye from the viewfinder when changing modes; the AF mode is also shown in the viewfinder information display
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The full 51-point AF array, with the 15 cross type sensors shown in yellow
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AThe 15-point array used for AF with lens that have a maximum aperture between f5.6 and f/8 (cross type sensors shown in yellow)
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The 9-point array used for AF with lens that have a maximum aperture of f/8 (cross type sensor shown in yellow)
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Exposure compensation for ambient and flash exposure can be separated
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Exposure delay can be set to a variety of delay periods
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Colour temperature can be set in steps of 10K
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The D4 uses two different CompactFlash card formats, with one memory card slot for each
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The D4 offers slow-motion video capture at 50 and 60 fps at a resolution of 720p
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Audio recording has been enhanced, including an in-camera microphone levels display

Nikon has announced its latest 'flagship' professional D-SLR, the D4.

More than four years after the introduction of the original Nikon D3, a camera that redefined many photographers thinking in terms of low light photography and, a little more than two years after the introduction of its highly acclaimed successor, the D3s, the Nikon Corporation has today announced its latest 'flagship' D-SLR, the Nikon D4.

This new professional D-SLR features a 16.2-million pixel Nikon FX-format CMOS sensor, all-new 91,000-pixel RGB ambient/flash metering sensor, standard ISO range of 100-12,800 (extendable to 50-204,800), revised 51-point AF system with increased sensitivity to support auto focus when using a lens, or lens/teleconverter combination that has a maximum aperture of f/8, new shutter unit capable of 10 frames per second (or 11fps with restrictions to exposure and AF control), EXPEED 3 image processing, 1080p video capture with audio monitoring, uncompressed video output via the HDMI port, twin memory card slots (one for CompactFlash and the other for the new XQD CompactFlash format), a new battery, the EN-EL18, plus enhanced in-camera processing, including an HDR function and creation of time lapse video. The new camera replaces the D3s, but not the D3x, which will remain in production.

The D4, which is manufactured exclusively at Nikon (Sendai), Japan, boasts no less than forty-five new, or improved features compared with the D3s, and is the culmination of in-depth analysis of extensive customer feedback on the D3-series cameras that has resulted in significant changes both externally and internally.

In the D4 Nikon has addressed three key design criteria with the professional photographer in mind: image quality, speed of operation, and workflow integration, and left no stone unturned to embrace the very latest technologies in creating a photographic tool that appears to have immense potential.

Prior to the official announcement I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon taking a close look at the camera and discuss its finer points with Nikon (UK) staff. The following is a summary of the key features and functions of the D4, together with my first impressions of the camera; the full technical specifications are available from the Nikon Corporation here:


along with the official press announcement, which can be seen here:



The D4 features a new FX-format (23.9 x 36 mm) CMOS sensor developed by Nikon, with 16.2 million effective pixels, and has a pixel pitch of 7.3-microns. It provides image dimensions of 4928 x 3280 pixels at full resolution, with options for 3696 x 2456 pixels at the medium setting, and 2464 x 1640 pixels at the small setting. Nikon claim the photosites (pixels) on the sensor are more efficient at light gathering, and that the analogue-to-digital conversion circuitry embedded in the sensor reduces noise levels, so that even at the highest ISO setting there is no impact on the write time to the buffer memory. The increased readout speed of the sensor enables the camera to cycle its shutter at up to 10 frames per second (fps), while delivering very low-noise performance. The camera offers a normal ISO range of 100 to 12,800, adjustable in 1/3EV steps, plus an extended range of Lo 1 (ISO 50 equivalent) in 1/3EV steps, up to Hi-1 (ISO 25,600) in 1/3EV steps and up to hi-2 (ISO 51,200), Hi-3 (102,400) and Hi-4 (204,800) in 1EV steps.

Supporting the new sensor is Nikon's third-generation image processing regime, EXPEED 3 that handles 14-bit analogue-to-digital conversion, followed by 16-bit image processing. Data processing is claimed to be significantly faster (it is specified at 30% quicker) than the EXPEED 2 processing of the D3s, with enhanced noise reduction algorithms that produce cleaner stills and video files, even at very high ISO settings. Image files can be saved in the proprietary Nikon NEF (Raw), TIFF, and JPEG formats.


The D4 incorporates an all-new 91,000-pixel RGB sensor for its 3D Color Matrix metering III system, a far cry from the 1,005-pixel sensor used by all other professional Nikon SLR and D-SLR cameras from the F5 to the D3-series! The metering system is fully integrated with the AF and auto-exposure systems, in what Nikon called their Advanced Scene Recognition System. Unlike metering sensors used by other manufacturers that group pixels into segments, the metering sensor of the D4 uses each pixel as an individual sampling point, which not only improves scene analysis for increased exposure accuracy but also improves the abilities of the AF system, in particular it subject tracking capabilities, even with subjects that are small within the frame area. This increased sampling of the scene also enables the D4 to recognise human faces within the frame and report their location to the AF system, when it is set to Auto-area AF, plus optimise exposure accordingly, even in difficult lighting conditions.

A useful option added to the D4 is the ability to separate the effects of exposure compensation on ambient light and flash exposure; in all previous Nikon D-SLR cameras setting exposure compensation causes the ambient exposure and flash output for any Speedlight connected to the camera to be applied in equal amounts. An additional setting in the D4 enables exposure compensation to be applied to the ambient exposure only when shooting with flash.

Autofocus System

The Multi-CAM 3500 FX AF module used in the D3-series cameras has been enhanced to provide better low-light AF performance down to -2EV (effectively moonlight), which Nikon claim makes the D4 approximately 20% more light-sensitive than the D3s and, in conjunction with the enhanced Scene Recognition System, improves AF response speed and subject tracking capabilities. The AF system has a total of 51 AF points, with the central cluster of 15 being cross-type sensors sensitive to detail in horizontal and vertical orientations (same as the D3s). The user can select a single AF point or configure 9-, 21-, or all 51 AF points, with full AF operation possible with any AF Nikkor lens that has a maximum aperture of f/5.6, or wider. The enhanced sensitivity of the AF system, enables it to support AF operation down to a maximum lens aperture of f/8; however, the number of useable AF points is reduced, for example, an AF-Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens combined with a TC-20E III teleconverter, which has a maximum effective aperture of f/8, restricts AF to eleven AF points, of which only the central AF point acts as a cross-type sensor. If the maximum aperture is between f/5.6 and f/8, for example, an AF-Nikkor 500mm f/4 lens combined with the TC-17E II teleconverter (maximum effective aperture f/6.7) only fifteen AF points support AF operation, with nine of those AF points acting as cross-type sensors. Other AF points can be selected but there is no guarantee that auto focus will function properly.

AF mode and AF-area mode selection has been simplified by re-designing the AF switch on the front of the camera, so it operates in a similar way to the AF switch of the D7000. This enables the user to keep their eye to the viewfinder and change AF configuration at will; at default settings pressing the central button of the AF switch and rotating the rear command dial will select the AF mode, which is displayed in the viewfinder, while turning the front command dial will select the AF-area mode. In a new innovation in the D4 the AF-area mode is indicated by a display of illuminated AF points on the camera's focusing screen.


Video is now an accepted feature of any D-SLR and the convergence of technologies in the capture of stills and moving images has become increasingly important in professional D-SLR cameras. In the D4 Nikon have taken several large steps to move their implementation of video forward to a point where it will be able to match and probably surpass its competition. The camera offers full HD (1920 x 1080p) resolution with selectable frame rates of 30/25/24, plus HD (1280 x 720p) at 30 and 25 fps, and slow motion at 60, or 50 fps at 720p. The D4 employs H.264 compression with B-frame compression, which can use both previous and forward frames for data reference to get the highest amount of data compression. It supports full manual exposure control with the ISO setting selectable anywhere between 200 and 204,800. The maximum duration of a video clip has been extended to almost 30-minutes (approx 29.59 mins).

Other improvements include the ability to index mark specific frames in the timeline during a recording to assist in subsequent editing, remote control of video start/stop via the 10-pin remote accessory terminal (it is possible to use any of the appropriate Nikon remote release accessories, such as the MC-30, or third party options such as the Pocket Wizard radio control releases), or via a computer connection, and a live frame grab of a 2MP still image without interrupting a recording. Video recording can be performed in one of three frame sizes; full HD (1080p) in both FX and DX based formats, plus a new native full HD format, which is cropped to a pixel-matched 1920 x 1080 size. The video capabilities of the D4 offer further flexibility, since it is possible to output an uncompressed video feed to an external recorder, or monitor via the HDMI port; data is output at 1080i at the selected frame size and frame rate. Dual output is possible when recording in 1280 x 720p via both the video out and HDMI ports. Finally, in addition to the intervalometer feature of the D4 for recording time-lapse photography, it will also encode the individual images to produce a time-lapse video direct from the camera. The user sets the interval between exposures, duration of the recording period, the output resolution, plus the frame rate of the video to be created. Once the shooting sequence has begun the D4 assembles the time-lapse video as each frame is recorded to reduce processing time. The only downside to this in-camera process comes from the camera not retaining the original still pictures, so it is not possible to use them as a source to create another time-lapse video subsequently. To produce a time-lapse video in post-processing you can use the camera's intervalometer feature.

Audio has not been over looked, as there is an external microphone port, with the camera providing 20 distinct recording levels, plus an auto option, and it has a visual monitoring of the audio recording level, which is supplemented by a headphone out port, a first from any D-SLR manufacturer, with 30 selectable volume levels.


A professional D-SLR camera can expect to be used frequently, often for protracted periods, so its ergonomics are crucially important. In this respect the D4 has undergone some significant changes to its exterior control layout compared with the D3-series cameras, as well as improvements to its rear monitor screen, although the overall size and profile of the D4 and D3s are very similar, as is their weight, at 1,180 g (2 lb 9.6 oz) and 1,240 g (2 lb 12 oz) respectively, body only without battery, or memory cards. In essence Nikon has designed the D4 to be as convenient to use when shooting in a vertical format as it is in a horizontal format, by placing the relevant controls with similar locations to provide close proximity to the thumb and fingers of the user's right hand.

The first obvious and very welcome change is, the re-positioning of the AF-ON button for vertical shooting, which for several generations of professional Nikon D-SLR cameras has been located close to the bottom edge of the camera, where it is all too easy to depress it inadvertently with the heel of the right palm when using the camera in the horizontal orientation. This handling foible has finally been addressed, as the button has been moved much higher up the rear panel, but to improve AF operation even further the D4 has a separate AF control switch (Nikon refer to these as Sub-selector buttons) paired with each of the two AF-ON buttons that allow rapid selection of the AF point, regardless of whether the camera is used for horizontal, or vertical format shooting. In handling the camera you very quickly abandon the main multi-selector button for AF control, which feels rather imprecise in comparison with the Sub-selector buttons, relegating it to navigation of the menu system. Furthermore, the AF point follows automatically if the camera orientation is changed, so for example, if the top, centre AF point is selected when the camera is held horizontally and it is then swung round to the vertical orientation, the AF point moves, so it remains at the to centre position.

The front edge of the top plate has been reshaped around the shutter release button, which together with its surrounding On/Off switch collar has a flatter profile, so it slopes forward more compared with the D3s. Set just behind the shutter release is a dedicated record button for video; this location was chosen to minimise the disturbance to the camera when shooting, while nestling just behind the vertical shutter release is a duplicate Function button.

By incorporating the AF-area mode selection in the AF mode button on the front of the D4 the AF-area selector switch on the rear panel of the D3s is no longer required, which helps to make room for the new controls, such as the Sub-selector buttons. Also noticeable by its absence is an AE-L/AF-L button, this function can now be assigned to one of a number of other buttons on the D4, for example either of the two Function buttons. The metering mode dial on the right side of the viewfinder head of the D3s has been dispensed, and this function is now operated via a small button set within the cluster on the left side of the D4 top plate, replacing the Lock (L) button of the D3s. The new video record button now handles the lock function for shutter speed and aperture in stills shooting.

In Live View, when the D4 is set to either A (aperture-priority), or M (manual) exposure modes, it is possible to assign powered control of the lens aperture to the Function (Fn) and Preview (Pv) buttons located on the front of the camera for smooth, step-less adjustment of the aperture (Note this feature only works in Live View, it does not work when the camera is recording video, unless the video signal is output direct from the camera via the HDMI port).


Many branches of contemporary professional photography depend not only on the speed of initial acquisition of an image, or video file but the ability to disseminate them quickly and efficiently. Regardless of whether you are a press photographer covering a breaking news story, a sports shooter working to tight publication deadlines, or an event photographer needing to supply pictures in real time, the D4 has clearly been designed to facilitate a photographer's workflow. It is the first Nikon D-SLR to support standard IPTC metadata, offering 14 separate fields for the user to assign key information to the image file, including the nature of the subject, the shooting location, authorship/ownership of the image, copyright information, and so on. Since tens, if not hundreds of photographers cover many high profile events, the reliability and sustainability of wireless networks is often questionable, so the D4 has a built-in wired Ethernet LAN port (supports 10 Base T/100 Base TX). On those occasions where a wireless connection is feasible the D4 has a new dedicated wireless transmitter, the Nikon WT-5, which supports the 802.11 a/b/g/n standards, to work with both infrastructure and ad-hoc networks; the WT-5 can also be used for linked release of up to 10 remote cameras simultaneously. There is retrospective support for the earlier WT-4 wireless transmitter. The WT-5 is a much smaller unit than its predecessors, and connects directly to the dedicated port on the left side of the camera, from where it draws power directly from the main camera battery. In addition to the established FTP and PC control modes for use of the D4 across a wireless network, the camera also features a new, built-in HTTP connection mode, which is not only supported by the WT-5 but also offers direct compatibility with a web browser on a computer, or mobile device such as an Apple iPhone, or iPad for remote control of the camera, remote viewing of Live View and, remote image review and download functions. The D4 is also fully compatible with the Nikon GP-1 GPS unit, including the ability to set the internal camera clock from the UTC time code in the GPS signal.

Other features of the D4 that can help to save time and reduce steps in a the workflow include, four image area options for stills pictures, the traditional 3:2 36 x 24 mm) aspect ratio, plus a 5:4 (30 x 24 mm), 1.2x (30 x 20 mm) and DX-format 23.4 x 15.5 mm) options. A broad range of in-camera editing tools, a High Dynamic Range (HDR) feature that records one overexposed and one underexposed frame in a single shutter release, with a difference in exposure level of up to 3EV, and refined white balance control offering colour temperature adjustment in steps of 10-Kelvin. Finally, to assist camera operation in low light conditions the major control buttons can be backlit (this feature can be switched off if preferred).

Additional Features


The D4 features a newly designed shutter mechanism, with Kevlar/carbon fibre composite blades, which has been tested to 400,000 cycles (up from 300,000 cycles for the d3s). The unit has a shutter speed range of 1/8000 to 30-seconds, with flash sync at 1/250-second; shutter release lag is 42-milliseconds. It has a reduced power drain during Live View and video recording, plus a faster cycling operation to allow a more rapid return to Live View after taking a stills picture, due principally to a new motor that drives the unit. When shooting stills pictures from Live View, with the camera set to its Tripod mode, the D4 keeps the reflex mirror in its raised position, so when the shutter release is pressed the only movement is the operation of the shutter, which is an improvement over previous iterations of Live View operation where the mirror would drop after the shutter release was pressed, to enable metering and focusing, and be raised again before the shutter opened.

The shutter can cycle at up to 10 frames per second (fps) in the FX-format and all crop modes with full AF and auto-exposure operation, or up to 11 fps with focus and exposure locked as per the first frame in a sequence.

In respect of shutter control a couple of the Custom Settings menu items have been modified: the Exposure Delay item can be set to 1s, 2s or 3s, rather than being fixed at approximately 1s, as it is in the D3s, while the self-timer can be configured to take up to nine pictures in a sequence, at intervals of 0.5s, 1s, 2s or 3s.


The D4 features a new battery, the EN-EL18 (10.8 V, 2000 mAh), and new twin-battery charger, the MH-26; the EN-EL18 requires the BL-6 battery chamber cover. So far this is the only aspect of the D4 to disappoint. Curiously, the EN-EL18 has a lower capacity compared with the EN-EL4a (11.1V/2500mAh) battery for the D3-series cameras. According to sources at Nikon UK this is due to a change in Japanese legislation that has imposed a lower limit on the capacity of Lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, which precipitated the development of the EN-EL18 battery. Nikon claim the energy efficient design of the D4 enables the camera to record up to 2,600 exposures in single-frame mode per battery charge, compared with 4,200 exposures with the D3s and EN-EL4a (figures based on CIPA standard). Furthermore, the D4 and EN-EL18 are incompatible with the EN-EL4 /EN-EL4a batteries and the MH-21 and MH-22 chargers for the D3-series cameras, because the battery connector terminals are in different positions.

The approach Nikon has adopted in respect of powering the D4 is at odds with Canon's approach to their recently announced EOS 1Dx, which also features a new battery and charger design, again apparently due to the change in legislation; however, in Canon's case, the new battery actually has a higher capacity (11.1V/2450mAh) than the battery it replaces (11.1V/2300mAh), and both the new and previous chargers and batteries are fully compatible with each other.

Virtual Horizon

The new twin-axis virtual horizon feature operates in both Live View and in the viewfinder, to provide an indication of whether the camera is tilted up or down (pitch), in addition to whether it is tilted either to the left, or right; in Live View a horizon line is superimposed over the image shown on the monitor screen, while in the viewfinder display the analogue exposure scale indicates tilting up, or down, while a line of highlighted AF points indicates tilt to the left or right.

Card slots

The D4 is the first camera to support the new XQD specification and format CompactFlash (CF) memory card that was announced during early December 2011 by the CompactFlash Association, and which is set to replace the venerable CompactFlash (CF) memory card. This is hardly surprising, since Nikon has been instrumental in the development of XQD cards. Unlike CF cards, which are based on the aging PCMCIA standard, XQD cards are based on PCI Express, with the first generation cards expected to offer write speeds of 125MB/s, thus offering a distinct speed advantage over virtually all CF and Secure Digital (SD) cards, including the latest SDHC and SDXC variants, available currently, with the potential for significantly faster transfer rates to come as the technology matures. Although about the same thickness the XQD cards measure 38.5 x 29.8 x 3.8mm, making them about three-quarters the size of a CF card; the primary card slot of the D4 is designed to accept a single XQD CF card.

Sony has already announced plans to introduce two XQD CompactFlash cards, in 16GB and 32GB capacities from February 2012, together with dedicated cards readers. No doubt SanDisk, who along with Nikon and Sony worked on the new card format, will announce XQD cards products in the very near future.

The second card slot in the camera accepts a single CF card, with support for the latest standard (UDMA mode 7) that is designed for a maximum 167MB/s data transfer rate; co-incidentally Lexar has just announced (5th January 2012) its latest Professional 1000x CF cards with a claimed sustained read speed of 150MB/s.

Nikon claim that when recording NEF Raw (compressed) the D4 with UDMA 7 CF card has a buffer capacity of 79 frames, while using an XQD CF card the buffer capacity increases to 98 frames; by comparison the D3s with a compatible CF card has a buffer capacity of 43 frames. Shooting Large/Fine JPEGs the numbers are even larger, with the D4/UDMA 7 CF card combination providing a buffer capacity of 130 frames, and 170 frames with a XQD CF card; by comparison the D3s offers a buffer capacity of just 82 frames.

As in the D3-series cameras the second card slot can be assigned to perform a number of functions, such as acting as overflow storage from the card in slot 1, backup of image recorded to the card in slot 1, separate storage of NEF Raw and JPEG files when recording in both formats simultaneously, or recording stills to one card and video to the other. Obviously, this will require investment in new memory cards of the XQD standard and, carrying memory cards of two different formats, if the dual card slot capabilities of the D4 are to be realized.


It is very early days yet but it is quite clear that Nikon have pulled out all the stops in developing the D4; it represents a very significant reworking of its professional D-SLR 'flagship' camera, with every system in the camera having been revised or overhauled. The level to which the company has obviously embraced feedback from real world photographers is very encouraging, as this has not only guided them in the enhancement of existing features but also influenced the introduction of innovative new ones, for example, the considerable development of the video and networking capabilities.

You would expect any manufacturer to incorporate the latest technologies in a state of the art camera but unless the camera in which they are implemented can be used effectively and efficiently it will probably never realise its full potential. In this respect the close attention that has been paid to the details of ergonomic design in the D4, and its extensive configurability will undoubtedly make a significant contribution to the success of the camera.

On the negative side the instigation of yet another new dedicated battery and charger set is a disappointment, as is the lack of backwards compatibility with the current battery and charger options of the D3-series cameras. While some potential users will find the requirement for memory cards in two different formats irksome.

I look forward to testing a full production sample of the D4 as soon as they become available, which should be soon. For now, as part of their "I am" advertising campaign, Nikon has adopted the slogan "Pushing the limits" for the D4; if my first impressions of the camera prove to be right it certainly seems very apt! Wow!

Price & availability:

D4 body only:
RRP:£4,800.00 / €5,660.00 / $6,000.00

Sales start date: 16th February 2012

© Simon Stafford

Posted on: Monday 9 January 2012

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