Anytime you get a new camera, it’s always a good idea to put it through its paces before taking it out on a critical shot. In this post, I’ll compare the Nikon D4 light meter with that of the D700.
The Nikon D4 and D800 DSLRs use Nikon’s 3D Color Matrix Metering III, an upgrade from the previous 3D Color Matrix Metering II found in the D3/D700/D300 DSLRs. While the MkII version of Nikon’s 3D Color Matrix meter uses a 1,005 pixel RGB sensor, the new meter uses an RGB sensor with 91,000 pixels.
What does all this mean in terms of image quality? Hard to say, but in theory the new meter should be more accurate, all things being equal. I did a very simple backyard test, comparing different subjects with the same lens.
- Lens: 70-200mm f/2.8 AFS VRII G zoom Nikkor
- Exposure Mode: Aperture Priority Auto
- ISO: 200 (lowest common ISO between the D700 and D4)
- Image Quality: RAW (NEF) 14-bit lossless compressed
Comparison #1: Outdoor scene in diffuse sun
In this test, the D4 delivered 1/500s @f/8, while the D700 produced 1/400s @f/8. Both exposures look good, but the D700 exposes 1/3EV to the right of the D4.
Comparison #2: Teddy Bear Test
In this test, the D4 metered 1/800s @f/5.6, while the D700 produced 1/640s @f/5.6. Again, the D4 was about 1/3EV darker than the D700. The differences here are subtle, and both images have specular highlights.
Comparison #3: Strong Contrast Test
For this test, I deliberately put the focus point on a back-lit subject to see what the meter would do. In this case, I got a 2/3EV difference between the two cameras, with the D4 exposing at 1/1600s @f/5.6 and the D700 producing 1/1000 @f/5.6. The D4 image is noticeably darker.
While I don’t have the equipment to do full-scale testing, the bottom line is that in most conditions, the new 3D Color Matrix III meter in the Nikon D4/D800 appears to expose for highlights in the scene more so than the D700’s meter does. When the D3/D300/D700 cameras first came out, photographers commented that they seemed to expose more to the right, i.e., over-expose. This may have been a deliberate attempt on Nikon’s part to help mitigate shadow noise. The D4 meter appears to underexpose by 1/3 to 2/3EV compared to the previous model.
Should this concern you? In general, blown highlights are the bane of digital photographers, as they are generally unrecoverable (especially if you shoot JPEG). Underexposed images can be a problem, too, especially at high ISOs. As shadow recovery is applied, noise can become more apparent. Most of the time, I prefer images that hold highlight detail, so the metering behavior of the D4 seems good to me. It’s still easier to recover shadow detail than blown highlights, even if you shoot RAW. Where things might get interesting is if you are switching between two cameras; you’ll need to understand that they might not meter the same scene identically. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal preference. The D4’s custom setting b6 (Exposure Fine Tuning) allows you to change the default metering behavior by ±1EV in 1/6EV increments.