Nikon Df Review

Nikon Df with the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G Special Edition

Nikon Df with the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G Special Edition

Introduction

The Nikon Df was introduced last year to a host of fanfare and hype, with the initial rumours going as far out as claiming to be a “full-frame” mirrorless camera which it is not; it is a standard F-mount SLR. The two biggest standout features of the camera are the much talked about and much hyped manual film SLR design and user interface, and the less discussed, but still noteworthy, D4 sensor, in what is probably the only way to get it at an affordable price point without having to wait for the D4 itself to be obsolete and on sale in the secondary for three pieces of toast and a cup of coffee.

We have looked at the Df before, but now that we have handled it and shot with it for a longer period, what did we think?

Design and Hardware

The Nikon Df looks pretty much like a Nikon film SLR at first glance, especially so if said first glance was from online promotional photos. It has the black texture of old SLRs, and a prism housing that does not look too different from the one on the FM2, and a tiny little grip sticking out that reminds me of the removable grip on the FA.

Once you see it in person however, you realise that the resemblance is only at skin deep, and the grip is there for a reason: As we have mentioned before, the Df is fat.

CK: Indeed. From some angles, particularly from the top, it reminded me of my first SLR, a Nikon FE. A somewhat obese one at that. Like the classic Nikon SLRs of the good old days, dials control every aspect of the camera from the shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, etc. Similar to the FE I used to use, the shutter speed dial on the Df has a lock in the “⅓ stop” position (the FE locks in the “A” position) and the ISO dial required pulling a ring upwards in order to unlock and set to the desired ISO setting. This camera is full of these unnecessary (to me) locks!

It is clear Nikon housed it in a modern DSLR’s chassis, with much of the spec sheet and parts of the design serve to remind me that underneath all that styling, sits what is essentially a D600, which while it is not considered a large DSLR, is still larger than the FM/FE/FA cameras the Df is trying to emulate.

MRT Track At Night

YS: I think what happened was that Nikon wanted to create a retro-styled camera, but were also reminded of the need to make it commercially viable. That meant supporting all the modern things we’re all used to, like autofocus, while also keeping costs down by not creating an entire new chassis from scratch.

As for the locks, they stem from a time when photography moved at a slower pace and with different technical operations. For instance, changing the ISO mid-roll would be bad, hence the now totally superfluous lock. Today the ISO setting is pretty much the third pillar in exposure settings, and quick easy access to it is desirable.

Operation and Handling

CK: The way the controls are laid out is a little confusing. In addition to the shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation dials, there’s also a mode dial with its own locking mechanism. This lets you set whether you want to operate the camera in full manual, aperture priority, shutter priority or program modes. But as I mentioned in our first look, it kind of conflicts with the shutter speed dial’s setting. If you are set to aperture priority for example, and the shutter speed dial is set to 1/125, the camera simply ignores that.

The shutter speed dial also has a position labelled “⅓ stop” which delegates control to the rear command dial (default). As the name suggests, you are now able to set the shutter speed in ⅓ stop increments as opposed to full-stops using the shutter speed dial.

In terms of controls, I think the Fujifilm X-T1 does it better, and also does away with the redundant mode dial. The lock in the “A” position is unfortunately still present. In the X-T1, the “A” setting on the shutter speed dial sets the camera to the aperture priority mode. If you also set the lens aperture to “A”, the camera will be set to the program (P) mode. Setting the lens on the “A” position and selecting any shutter speed sets shutter priority, and selecting a non “A” position on both the aperture ring and shutter dials gives you full manual control. The front command dial of the X-T1 lets you move +/- ⅔ stops from the selected shutter speed. This I feel, is a lot easier to use.

YS: This is one area where everyone is jumping on Nikon, but there is where I will not criticise. The F system was not designed for auto exposure modes in mind, unlike the Fujifilm cameras. My FA, which is just about the only manual focus Nikon with all four exposure modes, suffers from the same fate: Outside of manual and shutter priority exposure modes, the shutter speed dial setting will conflict with the actual shutter speed, which is set by the camera.

Nikon Df vs Nikon FA

Nikon Df on the top, FA at the bottom. Both cameras have mode dials or switches that results in the shutter dial not reporting the actual shutter speed once in S or P modes.

CK: I see. I never used/owned an Nikon with all the 4 modes. The first camera with Shutter Priority and Program modes is the Canon AE-1 Program which did not have the redundant mode dial. The Nikon F3 didn’t either.

YS: Ah, but the Canon FD lenses have an A setting, like the Fujifilm X lenses, which Nikon F lenses lack. The F3 only has Aperture priority, so again it has no mode dial.

As someone who has adopted the modern style of camera design with its modal command dials, going back to the old style is actually a slower, and far more frustrating experience. Being able to see and adjust settings from the viewfinder is far better than looking at the settings from the camera’s top plate, adjusting them, then going back to the viewfinder. Again, this shows how cameras have advanced: Simple manual film cameras really only needed aperture and shutter speed information and adjustments during shooting, with the ISO setting used only when loading the film. Today a modern digital camera at the very least needs ISO and autofocus information, not to mention white balance, continuous frame advance, exposure metering mode and even picture styles (for JPEG shooters) to be shown and adjusted. Doing so with the old style is just inefficient and unnecessary, especially with interlocks present. The Df can almost be used as a modern DSLR, since it has two command dials, except that exposure compensation and ISO setting is confined to those two dials at the top left end of the camera, which then makes the modern method harder to use.

To digress a little: For those of you younger photographers wondering why electronic SLRs and DSLRs had the status LCD on the top of the camera, which is not an intuitive place for an eye-level style of shooting, now you know why. It is to allow manual film SLR uses to transition to the new electronic autofocus SLR era, as many were trained  to look at the dials of the camera’s top plate to determine the current settings.

Back to the Df: Using it was also shows off its dual nature. The kit lens that ships with a modern AF-S lens styled to look like an older lens. Being a modern lens, that also means it is a G-type lens, lacking an aperture ring. Thus, to control the aperture with the kit, it also means using one of the command dials, including the not very well-placed front command dial. It does strike me as a bit of lost opportunity if Nikon really wanted the retro experience. A more expensive 50/1.8 with the aperture ring would have been the way to go. It would at least make it a proper special edition lens.

DSC_9901

CK: Oh yes, that front command dial is in such a weird position! I guess that’s a design compromise as the Df’s grip is nowhere as deep as a typical Nikon DSLR and thus can’t accommodate the same front command dial the same way.

Totally agree on the limited edition AI-S style 50mm f/1.8 or even f/1.4. I am sure there’d be a big market for that among the retro lovers. On a related note, Nikon could also have produced a FM3a-style digital camera without AF, that might keep the size closer to those classic manual bodies.

YS: I think that would be a nice to have, but with profits and revenue at risk here, Nikon are not going to be creating any cameras like that any time soon. Which is a shame, because the risk might well be worth it. It has worked for Leica, right? Though I know I definitely would have hated to use it, and this review would be definitely be completely negative.

Another issue I had was with the camera’s grip. Many have complained that the grip of the Df is too small. To a certain extent, I agree, but I also would say that the Df is too thick. Basically, there are two ways to hold a camera. Most common with a modern chunky camera is to use it like a pistol, wrapping all your fingers around the hand grip. The other way is with smaller grips on smaller cameras, and that is to orientate your hand horizontally and prop the middle finger  perpendicularly against the front of the camera, curl it around the small grip, and use the other fingers to support. The Df does not work very well with either style, so I had some trouble holding on to it. Maybe reducing the height of the grip would have allowed for the latter holding style to work for me.

CK: I didn’t have much issues holding it despite having a rather large hand. It felt better in my hands than my old FE, which had totally no grip. Same goes to my V1, which had a little strip of plastic for a “grip”. Nikon (or another maker) could perhaps take out of Fujifilm’s book and make a little hand grip like the Fujifilm MHG-XT1, which improves the handling AND provide an Arcaswiss-compatible tripod plate.

YS: On to using the camera as an actual manual camera with manual lenses. I tried it with an AI-S 50mm f/1.8, as well as my Cosina Voigtlander 125mm f/2.8 Macro. It works not too differently from my FA, except in one area: Focusing via the viewfinder. One thing the Df lacks is the ability to change the focus screen to something with a split focusing circle with microprisms, which really helps in manual focusing. The other thing is that the LCD overlay, which allows for features like on-demand grid lines and highlighting of active focus points, robs some light in the viewfinder. My FA still feels like it has the brighter viewfinder, despite its age.

Nikon Df with Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 Macro

Nikon Df with Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 Macro

I still did enjoy using the Df as a manual camera a lot more with my Voigtlander. Maybe it was the lens itself; the focusing action on it is smooth and very well damped. Maybe not having to struggle with the dual nature of the camera helped as well, since it had to be more or less operated like a manual focus camera, thus ending the conflicting nature of using it in the modern way with contemporary AF-S lenses.

One last nitpick: Because the camera uses the smaller and less sophisticated EN-EL14a, there is no battery readout level like the EN-EL3e and EN-EL15. It was nice to see both percentage level and battery wear level.

YS’s Shutter Release Button Rating

If there is one thing that Nikon got right, it is the feel of the shutter button. Perfect and just about the same as that on my FA.

Good - The way it should be.

Hotspring Shed

Performance

When actually shooting with the camera after adjusting the settings, the camera performs like any modern Nikon DSLR. Specifically, it performs rather like a D600. The same 39 point autofocus system is present, along with a similar shutter and mirror mechanism. This means that while the Df is no speed demon, it is still fairly fast for most uses, and can even do some autofocus tracking with more predictable subjects, like moving vehicles or people running in a straight line.

My main complaint of the autofocus system has not changed: After being spoilt by having the wide coverage of the 51 point CAM3500DX on the D300, and the ability to choose just about any point in the scene on a GH3, having to go back to using the cramped layout on the Df is rather stifling.In fact I ended up using the old focus and recompose technique a lot of times, since the areas I wanted to focus on were outside of the autofocus sensor’s coverage.

CK: This is one area which I hated about the Df. The Df having the same AF module as the D600/D610 means it also has the 39 AF points all bunched up in the middle. I lost count of the number of times I cursed at not being to move the AF point nearer to the edge like I could with my D7000. When doing shots with the camera mounted on a tripod, it means that you would have to use the Live View + manual focus to get your focus where you want it to be. Or focus + recompose, which isn’t as accurate when you’re doing close-ups.

In normal use, the AF appears to be pretty quick, similar to that of the D600. Heck, they use the same AF module, so I wouldn’t expect it to be much different. The AF-S 50mm f/1.8G special edition kit lens focuses quickly, and is nice and sharp even at f/1.8. In fact, it performs better than my old AF 50mm f/1.4D!

The Nikon Df is fast enough to capture fast action like this skateboarder in action. Photo by David Teo.

The Nikon Df is fast enough to capture fast action like this skateboarder in action. Photo by David Teo.

Image Quality

In one word. Brilliant.

YS: To expand on that: If you liked the D3s or the D4, this is more or less the same performance level, in a far cheaper body. Good dynamic range across all ISOs, but especially at ISO 800 and beyond, incredible noise performance at ISO 6400, very usable images even at ISO 12800; simply phenomenal. Whatever frustration I had using the camera just about disappears when I look at the images coming out from the camera.

CK: The Df has excellent images straight out of the camera even at high ISO. Colour rendition is great, too. Then again, this is what we have come to expect from modern cameras, isn’t it? Dynamic range also appears to be very good, with the Df being able to easily handle shadows and highlights of a scene easily. Of course, if you shoot in raw, you get an even higher dynamic range by pulling back the highlights and lifting the shadows. Overall, I have nothing to nitpick against the Df’s image quality, hence the superlative compliment earlier.

Detail and tones are well captured on the Nikon Df.

Detail and tones are well captured on the Nikon Df.

YS: I personally used it as a cat photography camera during the time I spent with it, stalking the cats in the various neighbourhoods at night. Say hi kitty!

Cat.

The Df’s high ISO performance was also very handy for lazy hand-held macro photography work. No tripod? Just set the ISO to 6400 and fire away.

Rose. Another rose.

Here are some high ISO sample crops. Click on the image to see them at actual pixel level.

Nikon Df ISO Crops

Nikon Df ISO series 100% crops. Click to view full image. Images taken in RAW and converted in Adobe Camera RAW. Noise reduction settings were 0 Luminance and 25 Chroma with 50 in Detail and Smoothness.

As you can see, the D4, err, Df sensor here holds it’s own really well up to ISO 6400. Even 12800 is usable after some care with noise reduction in post. Deep shadow noise was not really a problem till ISO 12800. If you have a problem with this sensor… you probably need to wait quite a while more for your perfect camera!

CK: That’s lovely. I’d happily accept that ISO 12800 image!

Conclusion

This is actually not that easy to pass judgement on. A camera’s ultimate goal is to take photos, and the images that come out of the Df are excellent. On the other hand, in the name of vanity, the design has been made to look like a camera of yesteryear, which makes it a little harder to use. Ultimately the Df  is a modern DSLR with some old-school controls that produces great images at a premium price.

That premium and style of control is what I believe will ultimately judge whether the Df is a buy for you. To show two examples: In Singapore the camera debuted in stores at about S$3,300 for the body, or just slightly below the price of the far more capable and usable D800. In the UK however, it is actually more than a D800 at £2500. In the latter case, I feel it is definitely not worth the premium! Some will feel differently, and may not want to consider the camera at all till it is deeply discounted. Then there will be those who stand by the controls and will consider the excellent image quality a bonus. Still others will think it is an abomination of a camera and absolutely think it should be placed in some kind of camera hell.

On the last part: That definitely belongs to any Leica in the SLR-era.

I still feel there is some merit to the Df, if nothing else, that D4 sensor is really nice to use, and really, 16 megapixels is plenty for a lot of work. There are some issues, mostly with the grip and the autofocus, that I think I will struggle the most if I use it as my main camera, but I might just give it a go just for the sensor alone. To me It is really the Df’s biggest selling point.

Nikon, why did you not make a D800H instead?

CK: Yeah, think of it like a D4 at the D800 price. People who want the D4’s image quality and high ISO prowess will find the solution in the Df. Well, almost anyway, in that at least the image quality bit is more than sufficiently covered. Also, some may balk at the D800/E’s massive 36 megapixel files and find it overly excessive for their needs and I think this is where the Df fits in. Nonetheless, I still think it’s an overpriced piece of retro gear.

If this were to be priced at the same level of say, the D600, even with the D600 sensor, there’ll be many people who will flock to buy one. And yes, a D800H would be cool!

One thought on “Nikon Df Review

  1. Your discussion is full of holes. It is a shame that there was no one on your panel who regularly uses manual cameras and prefers that methodology. Like so many other reviewers of this camera you end your discussion basically wishing for just another DSLR – well what is the point then? Why even do a review of a camera where you are oblivious to its concept and are not interested in what it offers? That you bring up one manual lens and an FA does not save you from looking like idiots to anyone who is the customer to something like the FM3a, a Leica or the Df. The camera design in the last decade has been so ridiculously single tracked that people don’t even remember how to hold these cameras. Holding your FA, Df or F3 with your right hand? It would be hilarious to see you use an RB67 or Hasselblad. To anyone actually interested in the advantages of manual photography, ignore this review. It’s the same old F5/F100 people that are caught up with functions and speed and don’t get it. When you start comparing the Df to the F5 school of camera you reveal your ignorance. The latter school of design is simply not an option for many. At any price.
    Personally I couldn’t be more happy with the Df. Coming from FM2, F3 and a variety of medium format and large format cameras it’s a delight to be able to embrace the digital medium with proper controls and manual focus, aperture ring lenses. The price is high but not strange considering its a niche camera with a nicer contrastier viewfinder than any other DSLR, great dials with proper locks and audible clicks (unlike the dials of the XT1 which are silent and therefore requires you to look at the camera). The Df is made in Japan and has fantastic build quality once you get used to that it is in fact a new design, it’s own thing and not a copy of the past. I hope we see more of this development, a further embrace of this methodology and the perhaps the automation, pistol grip people above will realise it’s not about “retro” but a different way of working.
    Holding the camera with right hand? Looking at your camera? Really? Really?!
    At first I was a little dissapointed that this camera had autofocus, a grip and wasn’t made of brass. But as the months went by I realised that this is much better. Why build a digital replica? Isn’t that just tacky? The Df is designed by the same guy who did the F3, F4 and the F5 – the premier design group within Nikon and after months of use it was clear that they hadn’t built just a homage to designs of old but instead taken design further resulting in a camera that allows for more modes of use than any other camera on the planet. As a fully manual guy I can leave the very discrete mode dial in M and then the camera functions just like my FM2 but with a better viewfinder. The existence of control wheels and auto modes are completely invisible to me now. I’m barely aware those things exist anymore. Those that have waited for a manual camera fully understand the importance of the Df. The automatic photographers don’t.
    If the Df was the D800H you couldn’t pay me to use it. Open your eyes to that we all work differently and your way is not better than any other. At least now there is choice and that should only be celebrated.

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