Nikon steals the show at BVE

The BVE show in London is now a regular diary fixture for anyone interested in professional video or sound. This year’s show was the last to be held at Earl’s Court – next year the event moves to the much larger Excel – but it still managed to cram more in than anyone can really view in a day.

There were, though, a few highlights for journalists producing their own audio and video content.

Chief among these was probably Nikon’s new video-capable DSLRs, the D4 and the recently announced D800. The D4 is everything a photographer would expect a top of the range pro camera to be. It is a high-speed, low-light capable stills camera based around a 16mp sensor. In the hand it has the feel of a pro SLR, with a logical layout, at least for a seasoned Nikon user.

The D4. Photo: Nikon

The real changes over the D3 series, though, lie in the camera’s video capabilities. The D3s has video capabilities, but these are rather limited, at least when set against the competition from Canon. The D4, which weighs in at just a few pennies under £4000 (ex VAT), solves this, at least on paper.

The D4 records video at 24, 25 or 30 frames per second at 1080p, in Quicktime. The upper recording limit is 29 minutes and 59 seconds: in common with other DSLR makers, Nikon limits recording on EU models to avoid the higher taxes that apply to video cameras.

The engineers have certainly listed to the feedback from professional video makers, when developing the D4. As it stands, the D4 and D800 are the only DSLRs with headphone sockets, for monitoring sound during recording. Combined with the PCM WAVE audio format, this should mean that the D4 records good enough audio to avoid the need for an external sound recorder, unless the set-up requires XLR mic connections or phantom power. Nikon has also fitted a 20-step level control to the camera’s audio.

The other feature that looks set to attract video makers is the “clean”, uncompressed HDMI output. This is great for monitoring, either on a flat-screen TV or a portable field monitor, without distracting image-setting overlays (it should be stressed that even relatively modest consumer camcorders have “clean” HDMI).

An uncompressed output is useful in a different way, though: it allows producers to record video to an external device, such as the AJA Ki Pro Mini, Atomos Ninja or Sound Devices’ PIX (this is a very clever bit of kit that is also a pro audio recorder, and was also on display at the show).

It is too early to say how well the D4 works with this type of add-on gear in a production environment (and of course, adding something along the lines of the PIX turns a D4-based rig into a £7000 investment without a lens – very close to the price of Sony’s PMW 320 and more than the EX3). But it brings much-needed versatility to the DSLR market. Speaking to a couple of news cameramen who had seen the D4, the advantages of having broadcast-quality audio on board, with monitoring, should not be underestimated. No-one wants to be messing with additional boxes, cables, or multiple record buttons whilst out filming a riot or in a war zone.

In the hand, the D4 feels exactly as it should: the video functions are there, but not so as to be in the way of the camera’s stills functions. It is robust, well-made, and reassuringly chunky. What it is not, is light or compact.

The D800 is smaller, although not as much smaller as some observers had hoped. There was only one D800 at BVE so the opportunity to try it out was more limited. From a stills perspective, the D800 is quite a different beast. It has an enormous (36mp) sensor, but also a lower maximum burst shooting rate, and less advanced low-light performance. It is, though, at about £1900 ex VAT, much cheaper than the D4.

The D800’s video capabilities are largely the same as on the D4, save for the less flexible options for high-ISO, low-light filming. The HDMI output and monitoring are there, as are all the frame rates. The camera does not have the direct video crop mode (sampling a 1920×1080 image) on the D4; on the D4’s 16mp sensor this gives a 2.7x crop factor, so scaling that up to the 36mp sensor would probably only interest the paparazzi on stakeouts, or possibly astronomers. It would certainly make wide-angle video impossible.

It is too early to say whether the D800 will be a useful videojournalist’s tool. With rumours of a D300s replacement due later this year (an APS-C format camera, which is smaller, lighter, and more affordable than a full-frame machine such as the D4 or D800) it might pay reporters buying their own kit to hold off. Certainly, a “D7000 with pro features” and improved video quality would appeal to many. After all, it’s not that video from the “prosumer” D7000 is bad, just that the video from the Canon 5D and 7D is generally regarded as rather better, especially in areas where a shot needs detail.

On that point, there have been some videos released from both the D4 and D800, and both have been criticised for an apparent lack of image quality, especially in the shadow details.

Nikon does not disclose the actual recording bitrate of its new cameras’ video mode in its literature (and without taking away footage from one of the demo cameras, there was no practical way to check this). So a proper judgement on video quality will need to wait until reviewers see production units.

But, for photographers or journalists wedded to the Nikon system, looking to upgrade their video capabilities and with the budget to match, there seems little reason not to order a D4 now. It is not cheap, but it is still cheaper than pro camcorders such as the Canon XF300 or the Sony EX3, and it shoots very, very good stills.