Bailing on the Nikon D4

UPDATE: I answered many of your questions about the post below, here.


Apologies for slightly off-topic post. But given my gear path to date, this is not exactly one I was gonna slip under the rug. I think every long-term photographer has an interesting and very personal journey leading to their current gear bag. Here's mine.

It was almost 30 years ago, but still remember the first day I stepped into the Nikon pro flagship line. At the time I owned a Nikkormat FTN, a 50/2 and a 200/4. And then I saw the ad in the classifieds of the Eustis News. Some guy was selling a Nikon F, with a full bag of pro lenses, for like $600. I couldn't afford it.

But my friend and fellow photographer John Ashley was also a young Nikon shooter, having gotten a job at the local Leesburg Daily Commercial right out of high school. And he was looking for some gear, too.

As luck would have it our needs were almost complimentary. So we pooled our money (mine from mowing lawns) and bought the bag together, divvying up the spoils. I forget all of the split details, but I think I walked away with a 24/2.8, a 105/2.5, a 300/4.5 -- and a Nikon F body. It was the happiest day of my life up to that point. I now owned a Nikon flagship camera and bag of lenses -- if only the 13-year-old versions.

Since then I have worked as a photojournalist with the F2, F3, F4 and F5 before switching to digital. Then it was the D1, the D2 and D3. So the decision to switch horses rather than go with the D4 was a big deal for me.

I was almost asleep last night when the news dropped on the new D4 around midnight. Caught up in the vortex of posts and tweets about the amazing array of new features, photographers around the world were in a frenzy. Of course, McNally had an early one. (Actually, two.) Sleep would have to wait.

Part of me had been dreading this day for the last few months. For the first time since the original Nikon F, I knew I would not be progressing along to the next full iteration of the Nikon flagship camera. Tonight I'd either be happy and content, or very pissed off. Because less than a month ago, I had committed to a new platform.

Ditching the Machine Gun for a Big Chip

Even with the swirl of rumors, it's a fool's errand to try to predict the features on a new Nikon flagship a few months out. But specifics aside, I was pretty comfy with this much: The Nikon D4 would be better, faster, more pixels, more tech, great in low light, high-end video-capable and probably go for around $6,000.00.

It was the last part that was critical for me, because my goal was to see what else was possible if I was gonna shell out that kind of scratch. You can do a lot of things for $6,000 -- swap cars, take a great vacation, or eat for a long time. So if I was going to commit to something not so far from 5 digits, what were my options?

So after months of research, and lots of talking with respected colleagues who had made the jump before me, I decided on a used Phase One camera, a P25+ back and a basic lens kit. And as I watched (and participated in) the nerdgasm on the web last night, I began to realize I am not going to miss the D4 one tiny bit.

Here's why.

1. No Need for Speed

Don't get me wrong. If I were still shooting daily sports, I'd probably be lining up to preorder this camera just like everyone else. It's a machine gun that can see in the dark. But I don't need that any more. And truth be told, the best argument against the D4 is how pretty damn good the D3 still is at that sort of thing. But I no longer shoot pro and college sports, nor prep sports in ungodly dark venues. So I don't need an Uzi.

In fact, I am trying to slow things down. More conscious thought, less spray and pray. The Nikon chip looks great. But rather than also paying for speed and ancillary tech that I will never use, I want to put all of my dollars into the chip.

2. Image Quality

About that chip. The Phase One P25+ essentially a 645 medium format piece of digital film. Yeah, it is a few years old. But size matters.

I own three concurrently made cameras -- a D3, a D300 and a Canon G9. They are all ~12MP cameras. But the quality is miles apart, as is the depth of field each camera offers. At the same resolution, the D3 absolutely kills the G9 in large part because of the size of the chip. The focal length "feel" of the D3 is also miles away from the G9, because of the size of the chip.

So rather than more pixels and more light sensitivity, I wanted more real estate.

I have shot a few jobs on the Phase One, but mostly I am still getting to know it. I have dropped a couple of messing around test photos into Flickr, after rezzing down the 25MP files and pasting that smaller jpeg version onto a D3 image file to hide the EXIF data. (This is just to stay ahead of the pixel peepers when I am not ready to talk about something yet.)

The bigger individual pixels offer twelve friggin' stops of dynamic range, and suffice to say noise it not an issue. This is not a high ISO camera, at all. But it shines in the types of conditions in which I want to use it. You can even make a one-hour night exposure without noise.

I wasn't totally convinced that a 645 chip would be worth the pain and expense until I went to London last October serve as a lighting designer on a shoot for my good friend Drew Gardner. I got to play with a Phase One body during the day, a talked to him about it at length. And I was still on the bubble, because they are not cheap.

Then he sent me a straight file of one of the images he had shot that day. From that instant, resistance was pretty much futile. It's like that moment when you first hear a favorite recording on an amazing stereo system for the first time and you think, wait, you mean ALL of my music could sound this good?

(Drew's photo has not been published yet, but, well, you'll see it soon enough.)

3. Modular to a Fault

To get that new Nikon chip, I'd have to buy the Uzi, buy the ethernet capabilities, buy the video tech, etc. But I want the chip, not the smorgasbord. And medium format digital backs allow you to separate the chip decision from the camera as well as from the lens. I would be buying all at once initially, but this has a strong effect on upgrade paths.

I chose the P25+ chip. It is a few years old now, and now readily available used for under $5,000.00. I could have simply married this to my old mechanical Hassy body and been out the door for less than the D4 price. But I decided to bite the bullet and start out with a more logical system.

In the end, I decided on a Mamiya mount for the P25+ back. I bought it with a used Phase One 645DF body and a Schnieder leaf-shutter 80mm lens. I don't have to tell you what being able to sync at an 800th of a sec does for your flashes. If I upgrade the back in a few years to the now-current version, I'll be synching at 1/1600th. (The back itself is the limiting factor.)

The 80/2.8 LS will be my bread and butter lens. It is scary sharp. But I also picked up a couple of used Mamiya (focal plane shutter, sync at 1/125th) lenses for when the 80mm will not suffice. They are quite sharp, and were available used in AF mount for under $300 each. An auto extension ring rounded out the kit to allow close focusing at every focal length.

I may well stay married to this chip for many years. But if I decide to upgrade it at some point, (more on my cost rationalizations in a minute) I do not even have to buy a new camera.

4. Speaking of That Chip

I can get to it for oh-so-easy cleanings. Just pop off the back and there it is. This, ironically, was the very first thing that got me thinking of medium format.

It may be a little thing to some. But I am so, so happy about it.

5. Under the Hood

The last reason for my switching is a little circumspect. I had picked up a copy of Capture One Express a few months back. It is Phase One's imaging software, and it is by far the best raw converter I have ever used. I am just now scratching the surface of the other features, but the more I explore the more I love it. The amazing black and white conversions are my current playground.

I have not yet figured out the way it archives, and it likes to create a lot of support files that I do not understand yet. So I am using it in a very cave-man way until I get time to figure out the ecosystem. I edit in Photo Mechanic and then pull my selects into a folder for Capture One. Problem avoided, for now. I'll learn the file management stuff when I have time.

But if you are looking for a new camera right about now and shoot raw (or TIFFs) I would totally recommend trying Capture One Express. The full version is $129.00. But you can also try it free for 30 days, here.

How Can I Rationalize The Cost?

Simple. I can't. Not straight, at least.

I don't shoot enough high-end jobs to rationalize what was in total a $10k+ purchase. But what the hell, I probably could not rationalize a $6k D4 either -- much like most of the people who will end up purchasing it.

But I am all about water finding downhill when it comes to finding a financial path to something. So here is my solution. If you'll remember, there was a post awhile back about setting up a co-op for expensive gear. I decided against that, mostly because I wanted to be able to buy exactly the gear I wanted. But I do plan to rent out the full kit to local colleagues in the Baltimore/Washington area as a way for them to experiment with the platform.

It will be for people I already know and trust, and at below market rates. The idea is to give them time to experiment, and/or to use it on a couple of jobs to see if this is for them. The rental would usually get billed to a client.

I am not turning into a rental house anytime soon. But for this particular piece of gear I needed to have a revenue stream attached that would partially offset the expense. And I like the idea of other photogs being able to explore the system at a below-market rate that they can bill out to a client.

Being a photographer (and true to form all the way back to my high school days) I'll also be delaying my next car purchase for a little while to rationalize a piece of camera gear.

The Nikons will still get plenty of use. But, especially considering two big projects I have in the on-deck circle, I could not be happier with the switch to Phase One for the big gun stuff.

And on D4 Day, it feels good to come out of the closet.


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