The Nikon D4 has some fairly big shoes to fill. Its predecessor, the 12.1-megapixel Nikon D3S was a veritable low-light killer, capable of shooting crisp images even in poor lighting without a flash.
But the D3S had one major deficiency: While its 35-millimeter “full frame” CMOS sensor took great pictures in a range of conditions, the paltry 12.1MP of resolution meant you couldn’t significantly blow those images up or crop in too deeply without losing detail.
Nikon seeks to solve that issue with the new D4 by increasing the resolution to 16.2 megapixels while, at the same time, maintaining the camera’s killer instincts when shooting in low light. That’s not easy. Adding more pixels to the D4’s 36 x 23.9-millimeter imaging chip means those individual pixels have to be smaller, which gives them less surface area to absorb light. But after shooting with the D4 in a range of tough conditions, it’s clear this camera is a master of the dark arts.
A photographer friend and I took the D4 to one of the more challenging environments we know: the shadowy depths of New York City’s Grand Central Station, where we photographed two dancers in an improvised duet. Because we didn’t have a permit for the shoot — permit? We don’t need no stinkin’ permit! — and didn’t want to attract attention, we both shot quickly, on the fly and without a flash.
To increase the sensitivity of the imaging chip to pick up the weak available light in the station, I cranked the camera’s ISO up to 12,800 and was able to capture impressively clean images of the dancers with only a few traces of digital noise in the shadow areas. Meanwhile, the D4’s quick and accurate 51-point autofocus system was tack sharp, even when capturing dancers dipping and spinning across the train platform.
Along with its impressive low-light chops, the D4 exhibited blazing speed overall, firing off 10 frames per second (or 11fps when the focus and exposure were locked on the first frame). We were able snag several winning images before the police ejected our party from Grand Central. The camera is about as quick to start up and shut down as the previous model — which is a good thing, because the D3s was fast — and exhibited no discernible shutter lag.
As a video camera, the D4 also impressed. After the escapades in the train station, we shot a gorgeous 1080p HD movie of a bartender making us some well-earned margaritas. The D4 has a one-touch video button that eases the transition to moving images. Though my hands were a little shaky from the tequila, the D4’s video mode showed minimal “rolling shutter” — the Jell-O effect that occurs when you pan too aggressively while shooting HD video with a CMOS sensor. I was disappointed in the audio quality, though. Since the D4 only has a built-in monaural mic, if you want better sound, attach a stereo microphone to the camera’s stereo mic jack to record more fully.