Choosing a Night Photography Camera and the Nikon D4 Hysteria

I hope I’m not the only one shaking their head at all the hype and hysteria surrounding the Nikon D4 since it was announced a few weeks ago. I told you I’d learn as much as I could about it as a night-photography camera, but I have to tell you, seems like the main thing I’ve learned is that photographers are like sharks. Toss out a little blood and the feeding frenzy begins! I know, it has always been this way, but I swear I think it has gotten worse in in the last few years. Seems like only about 5 percent of what you read on the online forums and blog posts is good meaty info; the rest is just a lot of fluff.

I’ve never taken a good ride on the superficial bandwagon and I refuse to jump back on it now. I see no point in rehashing the same comments for and against a camera that isn’t even on the market yet, or in posting yet another list of the camera’s specifications. That said, I’m no different from anyone else in wanting to know about new equipment that might be helpful in my photography, and, as a night photographer, the D4 certainly has my attention.

I thought now might be a good time to write an article about what features to look for in a good night-photography camera. If taking pictures after dark is your primary interest, you can narrow the field right out of the gate. You can forget buying that antique Nikon D2X or D200 your friend is trying dump on you for a song. Those were (still are) great cameras for some things, but night photography isn’t one of them. Also, point and shoot cameras simply can’t compete favorably with DSLRs for night photography. Yes, you can get good shots in some situations with a P&S, but they aren’t suitable for serious night work. They don’t allow you to shoot at the high ISOs and long exposures without producing huge amounts of noise. The D4, on the other hand, appears to have the potential for being a GREAT night photography tool.

I’ll go through the features that a night photographer should look for and how the D4 stacks up. But let me go ahead and throw out this disclaimer now. Remember, we’re talking about a camera that isn’t yet on the market. We can read all the specs we want, but until we get this bad boy in our hands and expose some real-world frames, we’re just making guesses. Still, I’ll try my best to keep this article within the 5 percent!

Nikon D4 digital camera

The list a features a night photographer needs is very long, but fortunately, all pro and nearly all advanced-amateur cameras have most of the features. Things like the ability to accept a remote shutter release, bulb setting, depth of field preview, and many others should be standard on any camera that a serious photographer is likely to consider, so I’m not going to spend time talking about them. I want to talk about special features that not all cameras have, but ones that make a night photographer’s night go a lot more smoothly.

In no particular order:

Autofocus Sensitivity

Most photographers don’t give this any thought, but the ability to focus in low light is a HUGE benefit for night photography. For all you young guns out there, you might be wondering why we need autofocus at all, but trust me, you’re going to need it eventually. I haven’t been able to focus by looking through the viewfinder for the past 5 years. ALL of my night photos are focused by either autofocus, live view (see next entry), or very rarely, manually setting the focus without looking through the viewfinder. And yes, you can use autofocus for many night photography subjects. My D700 will autofocus on the brightest stars and planets even with a wide-angle lens!

The D4 specs say that the autofocus detection range is -2 to 19 EV. That’s at least a full stop better than any other camera I’m familiar with. 

Live View

Live view is a feature that most of the advanced-amateur and pro cameras currently have and I suspect all of them will have it after another generation. However, some cameras don’t have it and I recommend avoiding those if you can. Live view is useful for night photography for a couple of reasons. One benefit is that it helps you fine-tune the composition when the camera is mounted on the tripod in an awkward position. The main benefit for a night photographer, however, is for focusing. Often, there isn’t anything in the scene for autofocus to latch on to, but if there are any lights at all, live view will enable you to get the focus precise by magnifying the view and rotating the focus ring until the point of light is the smallest dot it can be. I consider live view essential for night photography.

The D4 has live view. 

Low Noise 

This is a biggee. A great big HUGE biggee! So much so that I’m going to write a separate post about the different types of noise, including how to minimize it, and what camera traits contribute to it. For now, suffice it to say that you obviously want the least amount of noise possible, both when shooting at high ISOs and with long exposures. The problem when considering the noise characteristics of a camera is that there are so many different variables and it’s impossible to make an assessment based solely on the camera’s specifications. Conventional viewpoints suggest that FX format sensors with lower resolution and therefore larger pixel size have the lowest noise, but there is more to consider than just that. If you want to know the noise characteristics of any camera, you need to take pictures with it and look at them. The current leader among low-noise cameras is the Nikon D3S. To my knowledge, no other camera comes close. 

Nikon is touting the D4 as the new high-ISO king, but until I make my own tests, I’m hesitant to make even a casual statement. I will say that based on everything I’ve learned about the camera, I’ll be surprised if isn’t at least as good as the D3S, and frankly, I’m expecting it to be even better. 

Backlit Buttons 

If you shoot mainly during the day, you just can’t appreciate how helpful this feature can be. I know, we should learn our camera well enough that we can find everything in the dark. Hey, I know my camera better than I know my wine glass, and trust me, that’s a lot of knowledge. But I can’t tell you how much I could use a little light on those buttons when I’m setting up a night photo sequence. Unfortunately, very few current cameras have this feature. 

The D4 has backlit buttons! 

Virtual Horizon Indicator 

Anyone who calls this feature a marketing gimmick has not explored its usefulness fully, especially for night photography. The arguments against it usually mention grid lines in the viewfinder, hotshoe bubble levels, and post-processing image straightening as all you need. Try composing a shot in the dark with the camera set up at ground level and see how well those grid lines work for you. Bubble level? Contrary to popular belief, they simply are not accurate. At only a half-inch or so wide, it only takes a fraction of an inch in error to throw you way off level, not to mention the fact that few hotshoes are perfectly parallel with the image sensor plane to begin with. Post processing correction? Yep, it’s a great thing, but if you aren’t reasonably close to begin with you end up sacrificing a sizable portion of the image to make the correction. As far as I’m concerned, virtual horizon is a highly useful feature for night and day photographers. 

The D4 has a virtual horizon indicator. 

Long Battery Life 

As night photographers, we’re using more power to operate long shutter speeds, live view, backlit buttons, virtual horizon, and the fact that it’s colder at night, which drains the batteries faster. So we can use all the help we can get in the battery department. Unfortunately, battery life is hard to ascertain from reading specs because there are so many variables. I run tests for every camera I get to see how long the battery will last. My D700 will shoot continuous 4-minute exposures (as when shooting star trails) for about 90 minutes, a little more in warm weather. That’s pretty good, and considering that I have a half-dozen spares, it will get through a night’s shooting. In all honesty, battery life isn’t really that critical for night photographers, as we can carry plenty of spares and for very long exposure sequences such as when shooting long star trail steaks, we can use other power sources. The ability to utilize other power sources, such as auxiliary battery packs, is a huge benefit and most pro cameras have at least a couple of options. There are aftermarket options available for most cameras as well. Unfortunately, among the best options, the ability to operate a camera on 12-volts through an adapter is not an option on any current pro camera that I am aware of. I had an electronics friend make me a custom adapter for my D700, and will do the same for any future cameras I own. 

The D4 seems at first to be step backward in battery life due to its new design, but real world shooting is going to be the only way to determine for sure. 

Summary 

If the Nikon D4 exhibits the low-noise characteristics that many expect it to, it will be the best camera available for night photography, eclipsing the current front-runner, the Nikon D3S. That’s a big IF, though. As always, we’ll just have to wait and see. 

And what about the highly anticipated Nikon D800 that’s expected to be formally announced in a couple weeks? Sorry, but I’m going to at least wait until Nikon formally announces it before I jump in with the sharks!

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