Ryu: Nikon D4, review by a sports photographer (part 2)

Hello and welcome back, me. I am currently on the train from Elgin back to Glasgow. My journalist friend and I were supposed to cover the Elgin v Rangers match, but for reason only a Elgin City FC’s gold member can explain, they called the whole thing off. But life must go on and I wanted to do the round 2 of my Nikon D4 review.

It’s been about 6 months since my initial review of the D4. It would not have been fair to you had I shot for another month and gave you a very shallow not-in-depth-at-all 2nd review So I waited until the time was right and I believe the time has come.

The most infuriating feature (problem?) of the D4 was its focus. Not good when you are shooting something that cannot be recreated. Perhaps this is not a big deal for the wedding photographers out there (not dissing them specifically as I do shoot weddings myself quite often), but the AF system is most important feature in a sports photographer’s camera.

Nikon has “upgraded” their AF on the D4 from the ones used in the D3 and the D3s. This “upgrade” didn’t have its intended effect on making my life easier. In fact my life ended in shambles and I begged the Nikon service person in the UK to exchange my D4 for a D3s. Yes, that bad.

Let’s rewind a bit here. Since my first review of the Nikon D4, I felt that the AF didn’t work as well as the one from my D3. I know I’m being very scientific and technical in saying that it “just didn’t feel right”, but that’s what it was. It was different. I would have gladly taken this “different” if there was an improvement. But sadly, there was none.

I activate my AF with the AF-ON button and not with the shutter release. This is has been my style since the D2X. Yes, we go while back, Nikon and I. With the D4, I would start the focusing by pressing the AF-ON button and one of the sensors will lock onto the subject and I fire away. At least that is what I wanted it to do. Unfortunately, that is not what happened. With the D4, if I shot 6 frames, the 1st and the last will be in focus and the 4 between will be slightly out of focus. This happened to subjects moving east west (left and right in the frame) and north south (towards and away from me). Luckily, I was in touch with the Nikon technician in the UK and he recommended that I do the following:

– Change the max per second frame from 11 to 10
– Fiddle with the AF priority.

Once I changed the max frames per second down to 10, there was a marked difference on the AF accuracy. It acquired focus a lot faster. But the problem still remained that it won’t lock on to the subject and I was left with gigabytes of useless photos.

Then I changed the AF priority. I have no idea if you have this function on the non single digit D Nikon cameras, but you can set the focus priority for specific focus style (AF-C and AF-S). With AF-C, the camera will continue to acquire focus as long as you hold down the AF-ON button.

On the D3 and the D3s, these were the options.

-Release priority
-Focus priority

Release priority means that once you hit the shutter release it will start firing and then attempt to acquire focus later. Focus priority is the exact opposite in that once you hit the shutter release, it won’t start firing until it had acquired focus.

On the D4, the options have expanded:

-Release priority
-Focus priority

To be honestly with you, I have no idea what the “+” do, but I did try all these focusing methods and things didn’t improve much. At this juncture, I have resigned to the fact that I have to be the one who will need to readjust to the D4, because obviously I’m the one who’s doing something wrong.

Then came “the day I wanted to go home and put all my Nikon gears on ebay”. Basically, I missed a very big shot because of this crap AF system.

On the same day, I wrote a panicky email to the Nikon engineer in the UK telling him that I have had enough. That this is unacceptable from a 5000 Euro camera and that I want to trade this crap for a D3s. For those who don’t know me well, I shoot sports to put food on the table and this is a matter of life and death.

I received a prompt reply from him and he was very apologetic. He recommended that I should visit the NPS in Berlin to get my cameras (both cameras have the same problem) looked at. The next day, I was at Berlin NPS spilling my guts. I even brought the photos as proof that there is something wrong with my D4.

Since I am not a hypochondriac when it comes to technology, bringing my cameras to NPS was a big deal for me. I have NEVER in the past gone to NPS, not having tried every conceivable solution under the sun for the problem I had. In most cases, I was the problem and not the camera.

NPS Berlin was very helpful and I had the NPS HQ in Dusseldorf on the phone in matter of minutes. They arranged for me 2 loaner D4 and a loaner 70-200 2.8. Since the “f-you Nikon” shots I took with the D4 was attached to my 70-200 2.8, they wanted to check that out as well.

I brought the loaner cameras and the lens home, packed my bag and left for Amsterdam to shoot Netherlands v Germany. By this time, another photographer informed me that the dynamic field points should be set at 9 and not 21 or 51. Low and behold, the loaner cameras performed much better at the football match. So much so that I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t, but I felt as if I had some human emotions left inside me.

Improvements, yes. As good as the D3, no. Came back home and the following day I was in Paris for the Eric Bompard Trophy. There a fellow Nikon photographer told me that I should set the shutter priority to Release priority and NOT Focus + Release or Release + Focus. He also advised me that the AF lock on should be disabled.

Well, that was it. If this didn’t work, I would have gone home and called Canon that I will trade in my entire fleet for the Canon 1Dx and the white lens. As we all love a happy ending, these setting worked like a charm. Focus acquiring speed was faster than the D3 and it locked on without the help of focus lock on. All in all, a success.

The next day, NPS HQ in Dusseldorf wrote me an email to set the camera on all the settings I mentioned before. The one setting they recommended was that I increase the length of the standby mode from the default 6 seconds to 5 minutes. This is to help the camera be ready to shoot right away compared to having to wake up from a deep slumber.

She told me that there is even a link for these settings and then some, which I have never heard of until now. http://nps.nikonimaging.com/technical_solutions/d4_tips/

Just to summarize, these are the settings you will need to put your D4 if you are shooting sports.

1. AF
-9 dynamic points
-Custom settings menu: Aa1: Release priority
-Custom settings menu: Aa3: Disable focus tracking with lock-on.
-Custom settings menu: Aa7: 51 focus points

2. Standby Time
– Custom settings menu:Cc2: Standby timer 5 minutes.

3. Shooting Speed
– Custom settings menu: Dd2: 10 frames per second.

4. Miscellaneous
– Set lens focus to A/M and not M/A

I do applaud Nikon for taking care of me, but I do not applaud them for not informing us pros how the AF system has changed from the D3 series. I would be hard pressed to acknowledge that they expected us to figure these things out on our own. If they had all these information when these camera went on sale, how could they not include these information in the user manual? If they found out later that the D4’s new AF needs to be set up differently to the D3 series in order to shoot sports, why didn’t they inform us about it via mail?

These are very expensive tools. We buy them for different reasons, but we all expect that these perform better than their predecessor. I sincerely do hope that Nikon learned from this mistaken and that they will be much more thorough in providing photographers with appropriate information.

As for my D4, they are in the capable hands of the Nikon engineers in NPS HQ Dusseldorf as we speak and should hopefully be back soon. Although, I wouldn’t mind keeping my loaner D4 as these are getting it done. The niggling problem I have is that my D4 didn’t work as well as the loaner D4 before I made the final setting changes with the Release priority and the focus lock on. Therefore, I still believe that there is a problem or problems with my D4.

Coming up: D4, misrepresented or misunderstood?


*Please Read Below*
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6 thoughts on “Ryu: Nikon D4, review by a sports photographer (part 2)

  1. I haven’t used a D3 before, so I don’t know how much it changed to the D3s. The D3s is almost identical to the D4 in terms of setting up the AF. I have to say the D4 is better than the D3s though when it comes to AF. It’s not a huge difference, both are great, but I prefer the D4 (except I don’t like that they got rid of the exposure mode dial on the prism housing). I’m glad you got it figured out because the D4 really is a great tool.

  2. Ben,

    I agree. I don’t like some of the stuff they did, like what are those weird joy stick buttons at the back? I have yet to find a solution for these buttons and I would like to have an option to disable them. Hopefully this will be the end of the AF saga for me and that in my final review, I will be able to assess it fairly.


  3. Yeah, the joysticks are kind of redundant. I assigned one of them to AE-L for those times I want to expose for something other than the main subject. The joystick for the vertical position is a nice addition though. It was always a pain on the D3s to reposition the focus point while in the vertical position because it was a stretch to reach the multi-selector. I love that the D4 remembers the focus point position based on camera orientation too.

  4. Ben,

    I wasn’t too crazy about it remembering my focus points on the both horizontal and vertical positions. I used to use the vertical shutter release, but then realised that it’s much faster if I just use the normal one as it takes a fraction of a second to reposition your hand onto the vertical release. Yup, I’m anal like that. :)


  5. I got a new D4 last week, and clicked 2 events following all your instructions as shared by you , but unfortunately I missed most of the actions due to focus problem, only 10% of the image got sharp focus. This may be due to my little field knowledge and about the camera handling while on location.Hopefully I will get the current focus after doing more experiments as suggested by you. Thank you so much.

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