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Playing with Nikon’s Big Guns.

Gear Talk
Nikon D4

Nikon D4

Not so long ago, I did a post about Canon’s new “Big Guns”, the 600mm f/4 II and the 1Dx. We’re now waiting for Nikon’s newest super-tele, the 800mm f/5.6, to ship, but I thought I’d take the newest flagship camera from Nikon out for a spin with the venerable 600mm f/4 that they’ve had out for a while.

 

Nikon 600mm f/4

Nikon 600mm f/4

Initial impressions

Shooting with the Nikon D4, with regards to ergonomics and handling, was a substantial change from the D3s. It’s not as angular as that body, something I think Nikon’s been changing lately. The buttons have more feedback to them, and don’t feel soft. The body itself is more bulbous and contoured (dare I say, more Canon-like?), and feels way better in my hands than the D3s.

The shutter button is angled down a bit, allowing my finger to lie on it in a more natural fashion. One annoyance is that the AE-L button has been replaced with a little joystick, and I miss that.

There’s also a live-view button inset into a rocker switch that lets you move it between photo and video modes, as well as the 8-way d-pad that’s carried over from the D3s.

All in all, I liked the changes to body. It’s a more pleasant camera to shoot.

In the field

My experience didn’t start off well – which was my own dang fault. I’d set the Nikon’s CH (Continuous High) mode to 11 frames per second. Why this wasn’t set to the max by default puzzled me, but I shrugged it off and went out to the Coyote Hills Regional Park in nearby Newark, CA to shoot some birds.

It was a dismal shoot. I had perhaps two in every 10 frames in focus, a far cry from my experience with the Canon 1Dx. The AF-C mode, I thought, was pretty sorry compared to that.

Yet experts like Moose Peterson and Andy Biggs use the D4 and extol its virtues all the time. So I must have been doing something wrong. I downloaded the manual from Nikon’s site and started going through it, bit by bit.

That’s when I found my error. The D4 can shoot at a max of 10fps with continuous autofocus and exposure. Ratchet that up to 11, and it locks in AF and exposure on the first frame of the burst.

Yeah, I felt like a moron.

That issue fixed, I went back out, this time to a park in San Mateo, and gave it another go.

And boy, did it sing then.

Mounted on a Wimberley Gimbal II head, the D4/600mm f/4 combo was a dream to shoot with. I moved the autofocus to the AF/ON button, and used the cluster of 9 AF points around the center to shoot with. Shooting in CH-mode, my ration of hits to misses was substantially higher that it was with the older D3s I’d shot with — though not as high as I got with the 1Dx and the Canon 600mm f/4L IS II. The Canon 600mm is a much newer lens, however, and I suspect that once Nikon gets around to updating their super-tele (or we get our hands on the longer 800mm), things will even out just fine.

The Nikon D4 is capable of producing images of startling quality, every bit as good to my eye as the 1Dx. The detail and color fidelity are nothing short of astonishing. In my experience, an underexposure of 2/3 of a stop is probably a good idea, as with bright, white birds, the camera tends to slightly overexpose the highlights. Though the dynamic range on this body is good enough that you can pull those highlights back in post if you shoot raw, that 2/3 underexposure renders a very nice image, holding on to highlight detail perfectly.

Great Egret, shot at 2/3 underexposure

Great Egret, shot at 2/3 underexposure

The amount of detail this body captures is, as I just mentioned, nothing short of remarkable. I’m used to a good amount of sharpness and detail, since I shoot with a 36MP Nikon D800E as my primary body, but I didn’t expect the 16MP to surprise me all that much. I should, perhaps, have known better, because the D4 was an honest surprise. Even relatively dull-lookimg shots out of the D4 retain enough information to make them shine in post-production.

Below is a shot out of the camera, no adjustments.

D4 shot, straight out of camera.

D4 shot, straight out of camera.

And here’s a 100% crop, with some Lightroom adjustments:

D4 shot, 100% crop with Lightroom adjustments.

D4 shot, 100% crop with Lightroom adjustments.

Conclusion

In every possible way, the D4 represents a first-rate generational leap over the D3s. Nikon’s former flagship is still no slouch, but the D4 brings enough refinements and improvements in image quality that, if you’re in the market and have the budget for it, buying one is a no-brainer. Or you could just rent one from us. Either way, you’re not going to go wrong with this body; it’s hands-down the second-best Nikon Fx body out there.

Yes. Second-best.

What? I’m a D800E shooter. I’m biased.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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  • [...] by one of the big manufacturers. The longest lens on the Nikon side has been the 600mm f/4, which I took out for a spin not too long [...]

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