I’ve got lots of experience with this thing now and I’m ready to review it … but the only problem is that means I have to stop shooting with it.
I am so thrilled to announce that I have joined the line-up for the Canada Photo Convention in Vancouver on April 23-24. And honestly, this is a convention I’d want to go to even if I weren’t speaking. I’ve been to a number of conventions before as a speaker and an attendee, and you tend to see the same people over and over again. Here, you have a lot of the top rising stars in the industry, including people like my buddies Jonas Peterson and the Nordica dudes, and so many people who are cranking out work that is fresh, original, and well, so hot right now. I’m honored to be among them.
I was born so close to the Quebec border that all the signs in my hometown are also in French. I absolutely can’t wait. I promise lots of new material in my presentation, and a few new moves for the dance floor afterward.
Even though the convention is a year away, it’s filling up incredibly fast. So sign up now!
Time flies. It was almost four years ago that I started playing around with panoramas not for the traditional reasons of super-wide frames or insanely high resolution, but to dance my way around a simple problem of physics: to get incredibly shallow depth-of-field, generally you need a lens with a long focal length set to a fast aperture, but that restricts you to a narrow frame of view. You could shoot medium or large format film as one way around this problem, but physics gives us another problem: there’s a good reason you don’t see f/1.4 lenses for large format cameras. They’d be ginormous. But using panorama techniques effectively increases the size of any camera’s sensor, allowing us to use super-fast and relatively compact SLR lenses to achieve incredibly shallow depth-of-field even on wide-angle frames.
I loved the look I was getting and set out to see what I could do with it. How can I shoot panoramas with people? Of candid action? How could I use flash? I was happy to share the things I was learning, and photographers seized on it, trying it for themselves and naming it the “Brenizer method.” (You can read more about it, including a tutorial video, here)
Years later, countless thousands of photographers around the world have made this technique their own, using it for everything from weddings to still lives to even George Clooney. It makes me thrilled to see people taking this and using it in ways that achieve their own vision or just make beautiful photos … and so I want to see what y’all can do with a little incentive.
To that end, I have partnered with B&H and some fantastic photographers for the first Brenizer Method contest. We want to see exactly what you can do. The basic tool is simple — it’s just a way to shoot at crazy effective apertures like f/0.4, but that alone doesn’t make a photo good, you do. And so I’ve partnered with some amazing photographic teams to help the judging:
Cole and Jacob of Nordica, and Seth and Tenielle of Feather and Stone are absolutely fantastic photographers, skilled in various techniques and brilliant in compositions. Seriously, spend some time drooling over their work. They also don’t as far as I know, use the Brenizer method. In the end, this contest isn’t about using the biggest lens or the most photos in a panorama — it’s about creating the most compelling photos — and I’m excited to have them aboard.
Honorable Mention photos will be featured on this blog and related social media sites and linked to by the B&H media mammoth. All photos will be credited with links back to your Web site (if you have one.)
The top three photos will be awarded gift cards to B&H Photo. Third place will win a $50 card, second place will win a $100 card, and first place will win a $150 card. These photos also will be given top spot in the Web feature.
First, of course, these photos must be taken with the Brenizer method. Not all panoramas count — what the method does is rely on a fast aperture and close enough subject distance to show a visibly shallow depth of field. This is not a Brenizer method photo:
But these are:
The entries do NOT have to be wedding photos, or even of people. They just have to use the method to create compelling photos.
We will be accepting entries until midnight EST on July 1, 2012.
All photos will be properly credited and you retain full copyright. Images will just be displayed in conjunction with contest results.
E-mail entries to email@example.com. No more than five entries per contestant, and use a separate e-mail for each photo. Each entry needs to contain a reference to the camera and lens that were used, and how many frames were used to make the final result. Please include how you would like to be credited, both your name and the Web site.
Resize photos to 1000 pixels on the largest side. NO WATERMARKS. My assistant will be managing the entries so that judging will be as blind and fair as possible.
I’d met Tom, a photographer himself, way back when he attended my very first workshop. I always love working with photographers of all stripes, since we can really just jump into a sort of creative collaboration. Doubly so when the couple is as kind and open as Tom and Nicole. It was a deeply emotional and beautiful day, the April weather bringing just the right coolness to get the Grandview dance floor moving — not that much convincing was needed. The ceremony was at their alma mater, Marist College, a gorgeous campus where all the ground is apparently at a 45-degree angle.
To say that Ariana and Eric are a pretty cool couple is like saying that the Metropolitan Club — pretty much what you’d expect from a place built for J.P. Morgan to hang out in — is a pretty cool place to get married.
The D800 is a very different sort of camera than the D3s or D4, but a performer in its own way. And, since this is an ISO 3200 photo in a very dark spot, it’s a surprisingly good low-light performer. Of course, the exported TIFF of this photo was 217 megagbytes, so I will never have enough hard drives from now on.
Lens: 35mm f/1.4
Camera: Nikon D800
But there’s only one real challenge it faces in my book … and it’s not easy. Can it pry my beloved D3s from my hands? I’ve taken 338,378 photos with my D3s’s. They’re worn down to the gunmetal and aren’t slowing down. The D3s is the first camera I’ve ever used that isn’t just good, but something more important … it’s not annoying in any real way. Anyone who’s worked with a lot of cameras on a wide variety of shoots know how profound this is. The things cameras can do these days is astounding, but boy can they also be annoying. The D3s just does its job and gets out of the way, even at crazy-high ISOs, so what can Nikon do to make professional users buy a pricey upgrade?
The most obvious answer is video. The D3s does video … decently. It uses the amazing night-vision chip well for video in the dark, but it’s only 720P, which is below-standard for professional usage, and most of the controls are sort of tacked on. So if you’re looking for a fast-FPS professional Nikon that does great video, you don’t really need to read the rest of the review, just buy the D4. It does 1080p, it has dedicated video controls and a much better live-view screen. Go for it.
But that’s enough of that. This is a camera review. I’ve had video-enabled DSLRs for almost three years now, and … I really don’t care. I’d rather do what I do really well then tack on something else I do decently. The question is how it performs as a photographic tool.
The answer? It is both the best workhorse camera I have ever used and one that I’m ambivalent about.
Nikon managed to add video controls and two joysticks — one for horizontal operation and one for video — without making the camera feel cluttered. There’s some additional gripping for vertical holding, a lighter but still-powerful battery — just a fantastic overall design. It’s a potential self-defense device as much as a camera.
The screen and Live View: Live View is tied to a camera’s video functioning, which means that in the D3s it works … OK. But in the D4 it’s fantastic. Sadly the D3s Live View only works up to 1/250th of a second, which can leave you hanging in bright situations. But the D4 Live View works at any shutter speed, has a fantastic refresh rate, and allows autofocus that isn’t super-speedy but is surprisingly accurate even in poor light.
You might ask why someone who doesn’t care about video is so impressed by good Live View. Sometimes you want to shoot from angles that aren’t so easy to get your eye in front of:
Or when you don’t want to stare directly into the sun, or into a very close light bulb:
Live View is also an incredibly helpful tool for advanced photography, particularly for someone who likes to manually focus fast lenses. Nikon’s fastest lenses, the 50mm f/1.2 and 58mm f/1.2, only come in manual focus varieties, but the problem is that the optical viewfinder doesn’t show anything like the true depth-of-field of an f/1.2 lens. Live View is almost a necessity to get good focus with these lenses wide-open:
It also comes in tremendously handy for freelensing and even tilt-shift, since it very accurately shows the plane of focus.
But even if you use AF lenses, perfect manual focus comes in very handy for precise situations, such as being able to zoom in on someone’s eyelashes in the dark, with the LCD being much, much more light sensitive than your still-adjusting eyes. That allowed me to know I was getting this image sharp at f/1.4, since the scene was almost completely dark:
Which brings us to:
The great sensor: Like the D3s before it, the D4 is a champ at high ISO. Sadly, while the D3s was a huge step above the D3, which was a GIANT leap over the D2X, the D4 is no better than the D3s in this space. In fact, the D3s is probably very slightly better, but at a given print size it’s pretty much a wash. They’re both fantastic, but the D4 isn’t breaking any new ground.
Of course there are other advantages. Resolution is slightly higher at 16 megapixels, and now it natively goes to ISO 100 instead of the D3s’s ISO 200. In the photo below, to bring down the sky’s exposure and sharpen the foreground I had to shoot at f/14 at ISO 100. With the D3s I’d have to shoot at a less-sharp f/20 at ISO 200.
But the big guy on the sensor block these days is the D800. And it’s true, that thing works magic at ISO 100, with unmatched resolution and dynamic range among DSLRs. But the D4 sensor is clearly designed for sports and photojournalism where ISO 100 is a rare luxury, and according to DXOMark it starts to outperform the D800 in dynamic range at higher sensitivities. As a wedding photographer in New York, I live in dark spaces, so this is worth consideration.
Unlike the 5D3, the D4 deals very well with pushed exposures or dodging.
But a light-sensitive sensor is nothing without light-sensitive…
Autofocus. Sadly the AF system doesn’t correct the one thing about the D3s that is almost annoying — the AF points are clustered too closely together on the FX frame. At first glance it looks exactly the same as the D3/D700/D3s AF system, but it’s rated to be twice as sensitive in low-light, and when you do a lot of work in poorly lit environments you can feel the improvement (even though the D3s is no slouch.) The lighting at this wedding with Sam Hurd was intensely purple, which drove the normally-great Canon 5D3 autofocus a bit bonkers, but it was hard to shake the D4 off its game:
Overall, this and the D800 seem to be the best in class for low-light autofocus. We’ll see if the 1D-X has any tricks up its sleeve.
Honestly, very few things are wrong with this camera (as long as you get one that isn’t locking up). But there are some niggling issues that affected me, and may affect you.
You Can’t Buy Just One: Most of the people in the market for D4s are professionals, and thus need backup gear. If you shoot with two cameras at the same time (like I do), then you’re probably going to want to buy two. The D3s looks and feels so similar that you’ll keep forgetting which is which — until your thumb reaches for a button and you remember that it’s not there. The fastest way to do things with the D4 are via the new joysticks, but that was another thing to remember when I had a D3s slung over the other shoulder. The AF mode switching, the metering selection, there are so many little changes that will frustrate you down the line. If you use a D800 as a second body, not only will your files randomly be vastly different sizes, but you’ll be dealing with three different memory card systems. Which brings me to:
Hybrid cards: Nikon had this right with the D3 and D3s, and now Canon has it right with the 1DX. The best way to implement a dual-card system is with two of the same kind of card. I am constantly switching cards in and out to back up as I go along, and with nothing but CF cards the chain is seamless — all cards are either in the camera or actively being downloaded at any time. But throw in a different sort of slot and it all becomes some sort of strange juggling act that is at best annoying (there’s that word!) and at worst can endanger valuable data by misplacing a card. Honestly, I can’t wait for the D4s where they figure out whether the XQD system was worth it or not. Go all-in or don’t.
This is an amazing camera, with a few quirks that will only annoy people who are very set in their D3s-shooting ways. It combines Nikon’s excellent flash system (with upgrades like remembering flash-head zoom positions after they’ve been turned off and on) with a great overall sensor and a world-class body. Is it worth the $6K when the D800 is half the price with more resolution or the D3s is still hanging around at a discount? For most Nikon sports photographers and photojournalists who increasingly live in a multimedia world, the answer should probably be yes.
For people who are counting every dollar? Perhaps, going forward, but ponder this: if I were unethical, I could have written this review without ever touching a D4. Any of these shots could have been taken with the D3s and you’d never know the difference, even with 100 percent crops (the difference between 12 and 16 megapixels isn’t huge). Only the images where I used Live View in the day time provided a clear practical advantage.
But I have loved mine to pieces, and kept turning to it, as these sample photos will show. This is a camera that is built to work:
Sometimes photography requires a good deal of trust. The coordinator from the New York Botanical Garden stood in front of me and said “We have transportation, and you have access to all the wonders and beauty of the gardens at your disposal. Where would you like to go?”
“Well … I saw a really great patch of unmowed grass. Can we go there?”
I’ve said it before: I always love weddings for fellow Fordham alumni, because they always know how to party. What I didn’t know was that Phillip is one of humanity’s nicest guys, and that Ketrin must have some sort of Red Bull-powered V8 engine in there somewhere, because she never stops moving or laughing — she beat the car back from the evening portraits because she decided it was easier to just sprint back to the wedding! Take a beautiful day at the Glen Island Harbor Club, sprinkle in some Albanian traditions, and you have a recipe for an excellent day. Sadly they weren’t allowed to light things on fire and throw them around. Funny, that.
Thanks to my buddy Zack Delaune for assisting.
It seems like just last wedding I was at Tribeca Rooftop, but I’m showing them back-to-back to make a simple point: Venues give flavor to a wedding day, and Tribeca Rooftop is a fantastic place to have one, but what gives weddings character and structure are the people involved. You could have 50 weddings in a row in a featureless room and each one would be reflections of very different stories.
Especially with a couple like Kathryn and Mark. There’s not much I can say about their personalities that isn’t amply visible in the photos, but here’s a taste: They decided to have a dry-run for the wedding on top of a volcano in Nicaragua — and then they sledded down the obsidian slopes at literally breakneck speeds. Sadly I wasn’t there for that part.
This wedding brought a lot full-circle for me. I shot my first wedding many years ago as part of a long-term documentary I was doing with the International Center for Photography under the incredible Andre Lambertson. In January I decided to do a week-long intensive refresher to kick-start my year, and we connected on a different level. To my delight and surprise, he offered to shoot some weddings alongside me. I was honored and a little bit terrified (seriously, check out the resume), but more than anything I love a challenge, and we worked together extremely well, with further assistance from Taylor Hide. I can’t wait for future collaborations.
Congratulations, Kathryn and Mark. It was a pleasure to be at this fantastic wedding, and to relive it through making this post.