Nikon D4 Field review by Johann Grobbelaar
20 May 2012
I always find the launch of a new pro camera body very exciting but for the first time all my expectations were met and some surpassed... and this after being blown away by the combination of a Nikon D3s (12MP) and D3x (24.5MP) ... what more could a nature photographer want? Well maybe both cameras in one? How about high ISO with low noise, high frame rate, even better autofocus and a higher resolution than the 12MP of the D3s. Many pros argue that at 12 MP the D3s had enough pixels and that it is more about the quality of the pixels but as a bird photographer one needs more pixels to allow a degree of cropping and still have enough pixels to publish.
The new Nikon D4 (16MP) has left me with real keepers from the first two outings I took it with me! Both times I attempted shots under conditions I have tried before.. only to walk away with soft or noisy, useless images in the past. Not this time..
I have spent many hours at waterholes in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the northern Cape, South Africa, photographing birds coming to quench their thirst. This is harsh, arrid country and the seedeaters need to drink daily. The patient photographer is normally rewarded with great close up opportunities and many have great photographs of Sandgrouse coming in to land or taking off. The most common shots are of birds against the blue sky where many of the modern cameras tend to handle the autofocus with acceptable accuracy. The problem comes as soon as the incoming bird dips below the tree line and the background changes. This is actually the much more desired shot for two reasons: firstly a soft, smooth out of focus background in natural colours helps to 'lift' the subject out of the frame and secondly the bird is now lower and can be photographed at eye-level. Unfortunately, since the subject is travelling fast and coming closer it is much more difficult to accurately track it with the active autofocus sensor and even when you think you have done this quite well the camera would tend to jump to the background before hunting back to the subject leaving you with a missed opportunity. There could be more than one reason for this and I assume it is mostly due to the panning tecnique of the photographer, however I have found that since switching to the Nikon D3s and D3x bodies that my number of keepers below the horizon went up. And so up went my expectations!
The Sandgrouse were no longer the challenge..how about the Lanner falcons hunting them! Here the action is even faster and the challenge is that the falcons tend to come in low (with a busy background) and they use all available cover to try and ambush their prey at the waterhole. This makes tracking them inbound very difficult but the new D4 left me with some keepers on my first attempt! The camera tends to acquire AF quicker than the already fast D3s and then tends to stick to the subject even better.
Juvenile Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus approaching the waterhole. Nikon D4 with Nikkor 500mm f/4.0G AF-S VR IF-ED lens, 1/6400 sec at f/7.1, ISO 1000 (both images) Please note all of these are cropped for the article. Autofocus easily managed with the blue sky as background.
Sharp focus maintained as the bird dips below the horizon and gathers speed. Both images exposed at 1/3200 sec at f/7.1, ISO 1000. Do I need to add a comment on the noise performance...? Have a look at the KTP Gallery for larger, higher resolution versions of these photos.
A second attempt with the focus locked despite the Camelthorn tree in the background.
Another attempt on the left with a lovely out of focus background. On the right I included a missed attempt.. both on my part and for the hunter! This is obviously over sharpened but I included it just for fun! I will just have to keep trying.. for now the female Namaqua dove Oena capensis was the winner of the day!
To end off the examples from the first outing I include a tight crop shown as actual pixels for better evaluation. Bear in mind that this was saved for web with jpeg compression. Approaching head on in a dive the focussing performed flawlessly. Exposed at 1/5000 sec at f/7.1, ISO 1000
The second outing was to Magoebaskloof (featured below). What impressed me here was the focus acquisition in very low light conditions after the sun had already disappeared below the horizon. This lead to a very secretive forest bird, Orange Ground Thrush hopping towards us in an open footpath - totally out of character but probably since it knew we could not see it clearly in the poor light! All I could discern was a dark blob but the autofocus was spot on!