Nikon’s New Proline, The D4 and D800
Two Cameras to Rule The World
A somewhat dry, but eerie story ran today on businessweek.com. The story, Nikon Gains After Raising Forecast on Cameras, relates the company’s intention to up profits by a huge margin. It appears the company plans to earn $939 million before March 2013. The story continues, emphasizing the new line of mirrorless cameras. Nikon is on the move, with new products up and down the cost scale. That includes, for the first time in a long while, new products of particular interest in professional photographers. In this fiscal year’s press for world dominion, what is Nikon’s plan to be the go-to pro camera maker? Read on for our analysis of two exciting product announcements from Nikon.
With the D4 and D800, Nikon is continuing the D3/D700 tradition of two full frame 35mm product lines. Nikon will, if history is any indicator, role out slightly more amped-up versions of the new pro-size D4 in the months and years to come, but in the meantime, photographers are offered two very interesting new products. Gone is the shared 12.2MP sensor, these are different cameras from one another, with some interesting new features.
Like what? For starters, the D4, having inflated in price compared to the previous model more than its D800 stablemate, will be sold at roughly twice the cost of the smaller camera. Though both are full frame, the D800 packs a massively-pixeled big-brother sensor to the Nikon D7000 crop-sensor camera (I love the vibrant images from the D7000, which bodes well for the D800). The sheer number of pixels, 36.3 to be exact, makes this the highest resolution 35mm camera on the market today and will have eyebrows arched in the sacred halls of headquarters from Leica to Phase One. The D4, meanwhile, confirms past claims by Nikon that higher resolution does not a better camera make, instead veering in the exciting direction of high frame rate and, of all things, internet connectivity.
A Ticket to Hollywood?
Both cameras pile on the movie-shooting goodies. Finally, for the love of Pete, a headphone jack on a DSLR. No more “I hope the sound is working!” Also, the cameras both capture full-frame 1080p to a slightly new B-frame H.264/MPEG-4 codec, offer clean HDMI recording or monitoring, and claim to offer some form of smooth iris control involving pushing a mysterious button (we’ll have to confirm that function when the time comes!) Also, both cameras are capable of outputting MOV files of time-lapse captures using internal intervalometers.. that sounds interesting.
While handily beating the aging 5D mark II, at least on paper, both cameras are not quite cinema-ready either. The 5DII is famous for image quality, a combo of sensor size and lens selection. It is also unique in low-light capture and small portability compared to true HD camcorders. Nikon now offers all of this. The 5DII is also, however, infamously awful for sound recording, clip length limitations, and tricky focus. So what has Nikon done? They’ve advanced each of these areas just enough to eat Canon’s lunch for a few months (until the presumed 5DII or 4K 1D “C” camera).
A real videographer (perhaps even a multimedia photographer) wants XLR inputs with real levels wheels for adjustments, not menu surfing and the plug from a Sony Walkman. Also, some form of 1080p over or under-cranking for speed adjustment would be welcome as would video-appropriate feedback like vectorscopes, live-view over/under exposure warning (aka “Zebras”) or a waveform viewer. Most pro photographers make extensive use of RAW processing, so, unlike current Canon DSLRs, Nikon is smart to offer clean HDMI-out, allowing ProRes, DNxHD, or similar less-compressed codec recording for easier, more fulfilling work in post and potential boosts in resolution and dynamic range. While certainly this is not nearly the RAW format of RED cameras, 4:2:2 recording will allow a bit more latitude than internally-recorded H.264/MPEG-4. With an SD-HDI port, the options would be wider-spread and arguably more professional, but HDMI should get the job done.
Nikon does promise to bring usable AF to the table, and smooth iris control sounds promising. In short, these two cameras appear to be the best DSLR movie shooters yet announced, and narrow the ease-of-use gap between DSLRs and camcorders. Hopefully, the magic of full frame chips and new brains will allow these to outperform the D7000 which, despite being Nikon’s first 1080p-shooter, has failed to win much image quality acclaim when compared to the 5DII, 7D, AF100, FS100, etc.
What About Actual Photography?
For still-shooting, the advances are less dramatic, less dazzling. It appears, aside from the eyebrow-arching pixel count of the D800 and it’s reportedly 75MB NEF files, that advances are incremental (with one possible exception noted in the next ‘graph). New ergonomics, especially in the case of the D4’s dual thumb joysticks, are a welcome addition. The D4 also adds bling light-up buttons and more vertical-shooting finesse. Both cameras have adopted a new generation of Nikon AF that sounds very promising. The control is lifted from the D7000 and includes a simpler AF-MF rocker and a central button for trolling options. Nikon does autofocus better than anyone and I look forward to seeing how this one plays out. Finding the correct of three clicks between AF-AFS-AFC without flipping the camera around has always been a missed beat in shooting, no more.
If any still-shooting feature is really intriguing, it’s the removal of some anti-aliasing filtration in the D800E variant (notice the “E”). From imaging.nikon.com:
Nikon engineers have developed a unique alternative for those seeking the ultimate in definition. The D800E incorporates an optical filter with all the anti-aliasing properties removed in order to facilitate the sharpest images possible.
This is an ideal tool for photographers who can control light, distance and their subjects to the degree where they can mitigate the occurrence of moiré. Aside from the optical filter, all functions and features are the same as on the D800.
Note: The D800E carries an increased possibility that moiré and false color will appear, compared to the D800. IR cut and antireflective coating properties of the optical filter remain the same with both versions.
Indeed, camera makers from Leica to Hasselblad have long pointed to AA filtering as a massive bummer for the 35mm world, so this would be another score for the little camera people (might Nikon engineers have poked around with a Leica M9 for inspiration?) Can we expect moire control to come to Adobe Lightroom now? If not, Nikon D800E shooters should strongly consider Phase One’s Capture One software which has been handily defeating the moire monster in medium format cameras for years and is certain to make quick work of 35mm moire.
The D4, meanwhile, takes its own little excurions into cutting-edge land by offering an ethernet port and optional wireless ethernet adapter. Log in with an iPad, smart phone, or laptop, and go to work. Sounds very promising for smooth studio shooting, remote cameras, and client WOW factor. It also offers the enticing, but generally premature XQD card slot. Frustratingly, both the D4 and D800 offer two slots, neither offering the same two slots. with three different card types between the two bodies, it might be more a frustrating juggle than a convenient solution for backup, uninterrupted shooting, or dual filetypes.
When testing the Leica S2 (read it here) we made the most of that camera’s CF/SD combo, and had a pretty good time of it. It is convenient to run SD cards that can go straight into a Mac Pro, or the CF cards we have all been hoarding for years. Funny Canon finally switched to two of the same slots and Nikon went off course, perhaps the eventual spread of XQD will make it all worth-while.
So Nikon is poised with a winning pair of pro tools, producing both a mighty high-resolution multimedia compact cam and a chain-gun ISO monster that will continue the D3 legacy of bullet-proof high-paced pro shooting. We can certainly expect both to be masterful in the areas in which Nikon has always excelled: autofocus, flash metering, punchy color, low noise, high ISO shooting, ergonomics, trouble-free years of shooting.. and now a few new tricks in the mix. Should be fun to see what we’re able to do with these!
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by Matt Beardsley, images provided by Nikon.