Ryu: Nikon D4, review by a sports photographer (part 3)

Focus pocus to you, BLFS legion of doom.

It’s been a while since I wrote a post, but I just haven’t had much to talk about. But now I do. During the world swimming (aquatic, your choice) championship in Barcelona which lasted for 2 weeks, but felt like 2 years, Nikon happened to be one of the official sponsors. Which meant that we had a NPS (Nikon Professional Services) booth inside the media centre and we had access to a troth of Nikon gear including the kind-of-brand-new 800mm f5.6. I did take the black long baby for a spin and the only thing I got out of it was that it was very light. It’s made out of a new material making the lens as heavy as the 400mm f2.8. But it’s way too long and way too long. Making it too long for my everyday use.

Anyhow, there were two Nikon engineers from Japan who were conducting field tests on their current and future gear. Sorry, no D6 on the horizon people. They were collecting data for new firmwares, especially the D4. Apparently the latest firmware gave a better exposure reading on conditions where there are hard shadows on a surface like a football match in the early afternoon. I got talking to them got lots of good info on the D4 and mainly on focusing which I wanted to share with you guys.

(Before we start. The 800mm f5.6 comes is paired with a custom teleconverter which is calibrated to use only with that lens. Therefore you couldn’t use this particular teleconverter with another 800mm f5.6. I asked if they would consider making a new 300mm f2.8 with a custom 1.4 teleconverter to make it a 420mm f4 with a focusing distance much closer than the 400mm f2.8 and almost no loss in focusing accuracy and speed. To that they said they did try that with their 200mm or 300m in the past, but wasn’t wildly successful. Damn them. for not making a boy’s dream come true)

I like to keep my focus and release separately and therefore I’m an AF-ON button guy. They said that the longer you hold down the AF-ON button to focus on a subject, the better focusing accuracy you will get. This is because the fairy inside the D4 is continuously calculating whilst the buttons is held down and the more samples it has, the better the focus. Once you let go of the AF-ON button and press it down again, it will start another calculation. Therefore they advised that it’s better to start focusing on a moving subject earlier than immediately before releasing the shutter. Which means if you are still using the shutter release to focus and take the picture, you better get your ass on the AF-ON band wagon.

Apparently less is better. You may already know this, but the D4 does not do continuous focus with 11fps. Which means you’ll need to use 10fps. They said the accuracy of the focus will even be better at 9fps. This is because of some troll is hindering the focusing when there are too many fps. I did ask will the focusing be even better with 8fps or 2fps to that they said beyond 9fps it makes no difference. So set it at 9fps and forget about it. By the way, 9fps can only be set with CL and not CH on the dial.

3D v Dynamic
Use 3D when there is nothing but the subject and a very very plain background. Like figure skating and blank white ice as a background. Dynamic is better on more complex situations such as rugby and billboards, people, cars, etc. in the background. They told me that it’s better to use 9 points for dynamic focusing as 21 or 51 is way too many for most sports. Here’s how dynamic focusing works. When you select a focus point in your finder, it comes with 9 more sub focus points that surrounds the main one. These sub focus points help achieve better focus points by gathering info around the main focus point. I bet you didn’t know that. Neither did I. Wizard!

Focus lock
Unlike what I heard from the Nikon rep, it’s better to have at least 1 and not none. Apparently This is 0 (none) is way too sensitive and as a result gives you inaccurate focusing. I’m trying it on 1 at the moment, but I might go back to 0 depending on results. Sometimes with 1, I feel that the camera cannot keep up with me. I need my Nikon D4 to be magnet coated (obligatory Gundam reference).

Stick with release priority if you are a sports photographer. Apparently the Release + Focus was made to mimic Canon’s focusing philosophy. I guess they were trying to convert Canonites to Nikonians.

Auto ISO
Use it when you have a situation like the hard shadow + hard light = hard contrast on a mid day football pitch situation. Set the ISO to auto and set the shutter speed and fstop on manual. Haven’t tried this but in theory it should work.

These sizzling D4 tips can be used with other Nikon DSLR as well. What I learned is that one focusing method is not an end all to all the sport shooting situations. Especially the 3D focusing v dynamic. Needless to say I was treated like a princess by the Nikon engineers which shows that they are desperate to keep their customers. NPS was even giving out goodie bags which included a 32GB XQD card and a reader. XQD? 143234 times better than any CF card. You won’t believe how fast this thing is. But I don’t know of any CF XQD card reader in existence, which means you end up having two memory card readers sticking out from your laptop. They should have gone with double XQD or double CF. Oh Nikon…



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8 thoughts on “Ryu: Nikon D4, review by a sports photographer (part 3)

  1. Nice summary Ryu. I didn’t know that part about holding down the AF-On button longer.

    The one thing I would mention about using Auto ISO in bright, shadowy mixed conditions is to set your shutter speed and aperture for the brighter conditions and let the Auto ISO do it’s work when you have to quickly switch to the darker conditions. Otherwise you might shoot the brighter conditions and Auto ISO will choose ISO 100, but it will still be too bright.

    Regarding Auto ISO, it’s been my experience that I get better/faster focusing when Auto ISO is off. With Auto ISO on the camera has to do more calculations between every single frame to adjust the exposure. If you use full manual shutter speed, aperture, and ISO it has to do less calculations and can focus more quickly in my experience. I don’t have any scientific evidence to back that up, it’s just based on what I could tell from experience.

  2. Ben,

    The whole manual thing is very interesting. Thanks. That’s probably why a lot of sports photographers don’t use VR on any of their lenses as that’s another step that has to go through before taking an image.


  3. Ryu,

    Ok maybe I’m crazy but where are the other 2 parts of the D4 review? Also have you used the a10 “Store points by orientation” custom function yet? I loved this feature when I was shooting Canon and they had just introduced it in the 7D. I love the fact that now you can set specific FP’s up and when you turn the camera body from landscape to portrait mode you can essentially pre-set up a specific point that you start from and then can switch back to the center FP by using the center button on the joystick.

    Are there any other features (custom or not) that you have found out in the camera that might be specific to the D4 that have really come in handy?


  4. Ross,

    Yes, there are two more parts to the D4 review. It’s a trilogy. You should be able to search for it on the search function of the site.

    As for the “store points by orientation”, I switched it off. I switch from horizontal to vertical often and I need to know where my focus points are when I switch. I also move my focus points around a lot during the shoot. So I need to know exactly where my points are and don’t want it to switch around when I switch the orientation.

    For the other custom functions, I haven’t found anything on the D4 particularly handy compared to the D3. I think it’s a bad thing that the basic functionality of the camera hasn’t evolved to make it easier for us to use. The inclusion of XQD is a disaster and Nikon is a stupid fuck nugget for not making it double XQD or double CF. They didn’t even bother making a XQD/CF card reader. LIke I said, fuck nugget.

    The point is that I want their flagship camera to do what it should do: focus fast and accurately. That’s it. That’s all I ask for. The rest, I can do it on my own because I am a professional sports photographer. All the bells and whistles are naught when the thing cannot do what it is created to do and that’s why I wanted to smash the camera into pieces when it wouldn’t focus. I still think the focusing is not as accurate as the D3, but you have to live with what you got.


  5. Yep, I found them.

    Considering maybe when I’m hopped up on pain meds because of a root canal I should slow down and search a little better that way I would have found them.

    I am also curious about the XQD cards. They seem to be blazing fast but with that also comes a pretty hefty price for their storage.

    Just like you were referring to Apple It’s kinda like the new Thunderbolt port. Yea it screams speed but not too many external devices use the technology (at the moment) and the ones that do are expensive.

    I am also an NPS member and I didn’t get the card/reader combo with my D4 I just recently purchased just like the original early bird purchasers of the camera did. I wonder if a nice note to them might not have them sending me a card/reader considering?

    I’m just diving into setting up my D4 similar to my D3s (yes I did do the card copy over from the D3s to the D4). But considering the new features that weren’t in the D3s I know there is some curves I will have to adapt too.


  6. Ryu:

    I have a D4 and I read your “reviews” of the focusing issues you encountered.

    One thing I’m a bit confused about – when you say “Focus Lock: Unlike what I heard from the Nikon rep, it’s better to have at least 1 and not none. Apparently This is 0 (none) is way too sensitive and as a result gives you inaccurate focusing. I’m trying it on 1 at the moment, but I might go back to 0 depending on results. Sometimes with 1, I feel that the camera cannot keep up with me. I need my Nikon D4 to be magnet coated (obligatory Gundam reference).”

    Where is that adjustment made (what menu?)



    1. Jerry,

      Even with a bit of a lock, I feel that it delays my game. Well it does and therefore I switched it off. It really does depend on how you use the camera and I have to admit that the D4 didn’t sing well for me. That’s alright as it is now gone. :)


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