Testing the Nikon D4: Wildlife and Teleconverters

Goose chase (Nikon D4 with 600mm VR & TC-14E)

When Nikon first announced the D4, I’ll admit that there weren’t a ton of features in the spec sheet that really made me jump up out of my chair. Most of the new features are subtle, unless you are a professional videographer (the D4 video options are top-notch). In my original post reacting to the D4 announcement, I mentioned several items that were of potentially great use to outdoor/wildlife photographers, and two of these made me want to upgrade over the D3s:

  • Better AF, and  the ability to autofocus with teleconverters up to at least f/8
  • More pixels for using 1.2x crop mode (or just cropping)

As a Nikon shooter, I have a tough decision when I want to photograph birds. Currently, the Nikon D300s is the only DX body with performance features anywhere close to the D3 or D4. Sadly, the D300s is nowhere near as good at high ISO shooting (something that you frequently need with big glass) as the D3s and D4 cameras. It’s not that the D300s is a poor-performer (it’s excellent), but the D3/D3s/D4 bodies are just that much better at high-ISO shooting. They are also slightly more responsive cameras than the D300s.

The conundrum, of course, is focal length choice. Using a DX body for bird photography is quite rewarding; the crop factor lets you get really close. With a FX body like the D3s or D4, you need to use a longer lens, a teleconverter, or both to get the same magnification as you’d get from a DX body. That’s why the D4 gains a big advantage over the D3 for wildlife; it can focus with more powerful teleconverters. Most big lenses have a maximum aperture of f/4 (200-400mm, 500mm, & 600mm Nikkors). Add a 1.4x teleconverter, and you’re at f/5.6, which is the in-spec limit for Nikon AF systems prior to the D4. Although I own the Nikon TC-17EII (1.7x) and TC-20EIII (2x) converters, I rarely used them with my f/4 glass because the light needed to be very good to get any kind of autofocus at all. Usually, the focus lock was slow, and tracking was not feasible with anything other than the TC-14E converter.

I went out to a local nature preserve with my 600mm f/4 AFS G VR Nikkor, and the TC-14E and TC-17EII converters. I was very pleased with the results. AF was very fast to lock-on, and it tracked well with both converters. Anytime you get into a situation where you have 1000+ mm of focal length, even small focus errors will be noticeable. With small birds, you’re pushing any focus system to its limits. Needless to say, I’ll be bringing the D4 down to Texas for my birding photo workshop; I expect it to perform very well.

14 thoughts on “Testing the Nikon D4: Wildlife and Teleconverters”

  1. Hey Jason:
    Love the Goose Chase!
    Is there any advantage to use the cropped setting on the D4 in lieu of (waiting for) the D400 or using the D300s or D7000? Is that just having the same effect as cropping in LR?

  2. David-
    Cropping is cropping, no matter where you do it. However, the advantage of DX cameras is that they put more pixels on the cropped part of the image than you’d get from cropping a full-frame image.

    The D4 delivers 16MP images uncropped. If you crop 1.2x, you get a roughly 11.1MP image. In DX (1.5x) crop, you get a 6.8MP image.
    Compare that with a D300s, which gives you 12MP on a DX format.

    With the D4, 1.2x crop seems useable in situations where you want a smaller file size and would be cropping the frame anyway. An 11MP image is plenty good enough in most cases.


  3. Jason – very nice photos. I’ve been playing with my D4 for a week now and was wondering about the Nikon Picture Control settings. For your bird photos, which setting did you use and did you customize the sharpening setting?

  4. I always use custom sharpening in Capture NX2. The in-camera sharpening settings are for reviewing images. I set it to +4 for image review purposes.

  5. Jason,
    Though I placed my D4 order on Jan 6th, I’m still waiting. I would love to know whether you’ve tested your TC-20EIII with the D4 and 200-400mm lens. I’m signed up for a wildlife safari in East Africa with Joe and Mary Ann McDonald this Fall, and I am really hoping that the D4 can render a good image with the long zoom. Another reviewer found good results with the TC-20EIII + 200-400mm with the D3S, but I know it’s a compromise lens. There’s no telling when I’ll receive my camera, so could you try some test shots and share them, please? Thanks so much – I really appreciate your eBook and instructional videos!

  6. Stunning pictures! Great! Which aperture did you use with the tc 1.4 and with the tc 1.7?

  7. Tricia-
    Image quality runs the same with the lens/tele combination, regardless of camera. You should be able to get better AF performance with the D4 in that situation. However, from everything I’ve seen from African Safari trips, you probably won’t need the 2x TC! In fact, you’ll probably want a second body with a 70-200 or 70-300mm attached to it.

  8. Hi Jason,
    I just hope some days I’ll be able to capture the pictures like yours.
    Looking like you had the D4+600mm+1.4EII almost a year now. I just got the 600mm. Is it possible for you to give me some tips regarding what is the right setting on the lens (e.g. VR, AF,…) when mounting on a gimble head. A lot of people suggest to replace the lens foot, is it a must for reducing the vibration? What head and tripod are you using?
    Thanks a lot!

  9. I replaced the foot on my 600mm lens so that I didn’t have to use a bolt-on Arca-Swiss type plate. I almost always use VR (on) when shooting with the 600mm unless everything is totally locked down on the tripod. If you are using very fast (1/1000s) shutter speeds, VR is not necessary. However, I do like how VR stabilizes the image in the viewfinder; something quite helpful with big glass. For my 600mm lens, I use a Wimberley gimbal head on a Gitzo 5-series mountaineer (no column) tripod.

  10. Great post Jason,

    I am planing to pick up a TC, to add some reach for my birding. My current setup includes the Nikon D3S + Nikkor 600mm FV VR. Will i retain AF with the 1.7x TC, or would I only be able to use the 1.4x TC? This would be the first time i am using a TC.


  11. You would be able to autofocus with the 1.7TC, but not as fast or as accurately as with the 1.4x TC. In good light, it should work. I’d personally stick with the TC-14EII.

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