So, you wait getting on for five years for a new top-of-the-range professional flagship camera from the big two and suddenly two come along together! Yes, it really is that long since Nikon stunned photographers with the launch of the D3 (August 2007 to be precise, with the Canon 1Ds Mark III appearing at the same time), when it not only confirmed the chatterings of the rumour mill by going full-frame but then lobbed in a crazy high ISO rating for good measure just to really turn the high-end DSLR world on its head.
Obviously we've seen the D3s and the D3x since then, but both have been refinements of the original concept. The newly announced D4 is the real thing, a genuine fully fledged new camera, and given the impact its predecessor made it's obviously got a hard act to follow. The D3 single-handedly gave the advantage back to Nikon at a time when Canon was pretty much in the ascendency in the professional market, and it led to countless professionals making the painful decision to switch allegiances and to trade in their kit to jump over to the opposition. That's no easy call to make when you consider all the glass that usually backs up the body in a pro's gadget bag, but then again no professional, particularly in a highly competitive field such as news or sports photography, can risk being left behind their rivals when one manufacturer steals a march over the other, even if just for a short time.
For me one of the pivotal moments came in the men's Wimbledon tennis final of 2008, when Nadal beat Federer in a five set thriller that went on until 9.15pm. The sports pros with their Canon gear were pulling their hair out from around 8.30pm onwards as the darkness descended, while the Nikon D3 users simply upped the ISO and carried on shooting. Suddenly that ISO 102,400 didn't look quite so fanciful, and though no one at Centre Court was shooting at anything like that speed, ISOs in the region of 6400 were perfectly usable whereas, at that time, the Canon 1D Mark III could only manage ISO 6400 at its highest extremity and it wasn't really usable if the results were intended for publication.
Of course Canon fixed the situation to a point with the 1D Mark IV which, in October 2009, pushed the high end of the ISO range up to that which the D3 had by then enjoyed unopposed for two years. By then the damage had been done, and many pros had jumped ship. The new Canon 1Dx, announced at the end of last year but not available until March, has upped the ante again with a move up to ISO 204,800, but we expected a response from Nikon and now we've got it. News of the launch of the Nikon D4 may have been pre-empted by Canon but the new Nikon flagship will hit the streets a good month earlier, important in an Olympic year when so many will be wanting to get used to new gear before relying on it in a high-pressure situation. It's also around £500 cheaper, with an expected rrp of around £4799.99 set against the 1Dx's likely selling point of £5299.
Under the bonnet of the D4
Enough about the background, but what about the new camera itself; by now pretty much any pro with an interest in kit - most of us surely? - will know the basics of what the D4 is about, but is it going to offer enough to really give the Nikon shooters what they were hoping for?
To the headline features first and, not surprisingly, Nikon has matched the high end of the new 1Dx's ISO range, and the D4 now also has a 204,800 limit. Mad of course, and although it sounds like a huge increase it is just the one stop, but it's a good headline and it's also said to mean that ISO quality has been improved all round. For many the equally important news this time around is that at the lower end of the scale it's now possible to set an ISO of 50, which will please many, including wedding photographers, whose problem might be more an over-abundance of light.
One of the big advantages of the higher ISO capability now being offered is that the whole mindset of travelling to locations with kit can be altered. There will still be those who love the look of a shot taken at a wide aperture, but for working photographers who need to get a job done as efficiently as possible it's now increasingly realistic to travel on a plane with hand luggage that includes a camera body and maybe one to two telephoto zooms and a converter and even if the maximum aperture is reduced to f/8 the speed available via high ISO performance means that the set up is perfectly usable.
Alongside the hiked-up ISO speed the resolution of the camera has also been increased, from the D3s' 12.1 mp up to 16.2-megapixels. Not a huge jump, but with the news that the D3x with its 24.5 mp sensor is due to continue with the D3s being retired, it's clear that Nikon is continuing its two-camera strategy, and I was told at the launch that the press and sports photographers at whom this camera is so clearly targeted had insisted that this kind of level was just about as far as they wanted to go. Push the resolution higher and there are trade offs in terms of noise and speed, and when your target audience is concerned with moving images around as quickly as possible after capture it makes sense to keep file sizes down.
Although the resolution might not have been pushed dramatically upwards, the D4's CMOS sensor has been completely redesigned and it's this that has allowed noise reduction to be further improved while 14-bit A/D signal processing has also been built in. There's also a move up to a top shooting speed of 11fps, faster than any other Nikon camera, and although most press and sports photographers I've spoken to have suggested that they would never need this kind of speed, all of them were happy for it to be on board.
Accompanying the new sensor is a freshly designed super-charged EXPEED3 image processing engine, which is the beating heart of the new camera.
High speed 16-bit processing follows the 14-bit A/D conversion to deliver submission-ready JPEGs straight out of the camera. Again this is a nod to the primary target audience for whom speed is of the essence: many press and sports photographers never go near Raw because they don't have time to process images and they also need smaller files to send out. Working with JPEGs is commonplace and Nikon is making sure that it's easy and super-fast to do exactly that without compromising on the quality of images.
One area that is said to have been dramatically improved is the speed and quality of focusing, with an Advanced Multi-CAM3500FX AF sensor module that has been completely redesigned. You can now select anything from a single AF point through to 51, and furthermore do it all without having to look away from the viewfinder. Crucially the D4 maintains the power of the 11 central AF sensors, including one cross-type, even if the combined open aperture value is f/8. What this means is that if you decide to go down the converter route as outlined earlier - say you were to use a 600mm f/4 AF-Nikkor in combination with a doubler - you would end up with the equivalent of a 1000mm f/8 that would still offer good, usable AF.
Metering is another area to be targeted, with a new 91K-pixel sensor on board that is capable of analysing every scene to ensure accuracy of exposure. In particular 3D-subject tracking has been improved when shooting and tracking smaller subjects, while there is now an advanced form of face recognition included to help photographers latch on to the areas of the image that they are particularly interested in.
One of the big features of the Canon 1Dx was its incorporation of an Ethernet socket to allow images to be sent back to base direct from the camera without the need for a laptop. Nikon's response to this is to include a wired LAN connection into the D4's body, and also to introduce a new WT-5 wireless transmitter (£499.99), a remarkably small device that attaches to the side of the camera and which features HTTP and FTP connection modes.
Connectivity is set to be one of the great battlegrounds of the future, and the D4 can be remotely operated via an iPhone or iPad while screen resolutions have been matched, a fact that was very impressively demonstrated at the launch. These are accessories that many pros will already have, and it's a function that many will appreciate.
Nikon is further providing an opportunity for photographers to work without the restrictions of a laptop by providing a 3.2in 921k-dot wide viewing angle LCD monitor with automatic brightness control on the back of the camera, as opposed to a 3in VGA example on the D3s and D3x. The new monitor comes with a much wider colour reproduction capacity, playback that closely resembles sRGB colour space and brightness control that is automatically adjusted to suit the viewing environment. The image can also be magnified up to 46x during playback and the idea is that there is now far less need to check images on a laptop screen while out in the field.
Throughout the launch we were told that the features of the new camera had been developed in response to the requirements of working photographers, and when I enquired further I was told that most of the feedback had come through Nikon Professional Services, the organisation for qualified, full-time professional photographers who earn their living using Nikon equipment.
This has fed through into such things as ergonomics, with the positioning of buttons being subtly re-arranged to make the shooting experience identical whether you are working in portrait or landscape mode. One-handed operation has also been made easier, while the shutter release button is now angled at 35 degrees for more comfortable use. There is also provision for both CF cards and the brand new high-speed XQD cards: the latter is said to be the next format that professionals will be using and just a day after the announcement of the D4, Sony unveiled a new family of XQD cards that have the ability to accept up to approximately 100 frames in Raw format in continuous shooting mode.
One of the fundamental improvements to the D4, and the one that Nikon attaches a huge amount of importance to, is the enhanced HD video functionality that's now being offered. Full HD (1080p) movies can now be recorded in 30p, 25p and 24p, with 60p, 50p, 30p and 25p options at 720p. Meanwhile full HD (1080p) recording is possible in both FX and DX based formats as well as in native full HD (1920x1080) crop. Much to the relief of filmmakers who were so disappointed with the omission on the Canon 1Dx, the new D4 also sports an audio out socket for external headphones as well as an external stereo microphone unit.
Once again Nikon says it's listened to its end users and by using these two sockets to attach a set of headphones and Nikon's Compact Stereo Microphone ME-1 to the D4 it's possible to record acceptable video footage on the hoof.
We'll be getting the new Nikon D4 in for a full test as soon as possible and you can be sure we'll also be putting it head to head with the Canon 1Dx. Exciting times indeed for professionals and for both products to launch in an Olympic year is the icing on the cake.
Taken from the March 2012 issue of Photo Professional magazine