Three Guys First Thoughts: Nikon Df

Nikon Df

The Nikon Df has attracted a lot of attention, given the buzz on the Internet. Given a giant in camera makers has elected to things a little differently, it’s a no wonder. We spent some time yesterday at the media event hosted by Nikon Singapore, so what did we think of it?

Update (30/05/2014): Our review of the Nikon Df is now live!

YS: Firstly, I need to clarify something: The wankfest and terribly illogical thinking that retro controls make a camera “better” to use is starting to really annoy me. You know what was old-school but a real pain to use? A Rollei 35. So I am feeling less charitable towards the Df than I really should be, despite its positive points.

Anyway, my first impression upon seeing the camera was that it is fat. Yes, I mentioned this before. but it bears emphasising, I feel. This is not your (or your dad’s or your grandfather’s) FM. It is hard to tell in product photos, since there is relatively little frame of reference, but it stands out once you see it in the flesh and hold it in your hand. It really feels fat. It is more of a D600 clad in FM clothing, with a mix of modern and traditional controls. So yes. Fat.

CK: My first Nikon SLR was a Nikon FE. And during my secondary school where I picked up photography, I actually lusted for a FM2 and F3. That retro look of the Df does bring back some memories. Unfortunately, as YS mentioned, it’s rather fat. Here’s it compared to the FM2.

Nikon Df next to Nikon FM2
Nikon Df (Left) and Nikon FM2 (Right)

See how fat that is? In fact, it’s very close to the size of my D7000.

Nikon Df next to Nikon D7000
Nikon Df with AF-S 50mm f/1.8G (left) and Nikon D7000 with AF-S 17-55mm f/2.8G ED-IF (right)

CK: Despite being fat, the camera itself is actually pretty nice to hold. Though it’s not very deep, the grip also makes it nicer to hold than the flatter cameras like the FM2, Leica M series, etc.

Nikon Df, Nikon FM2, and Leica M9
Nikon Df, Leica M9 and Nikon FM2

YS: Really? I found it harder to hold for some reason. The fatness of it was not particularly pleasant without the deep grips that are common nowadays. Not helping is the lack of the film advance lever. I used to use that as a thumb hook to hold the camera with, given the flatness of old cameras.

CK: Yes, I find the flat cameras like the M9, FM2, V1 etc to be a it harder to hold than one with even a shallow grip. Though shallower than that of my D7000 for example, it is still reasonably comfortable to hold and certainly nicer to hold than the aforementioned cameras.

David: My M9 looks diminutive next to the new Nikon Df. Yes, this is most definitely NOT the digital FM2 everyone is pining for. Despite that fact, I love the retro looking design, with design cues taken from Nikon cameras of old. In particular I love the sexy looking dials (more on that later). Size wise, yes it’s a little big, but it feels comfortable in the hand, and the big viewfinder is a homage to what photography is really about – seeing images with your eyes (not an electronic screen). I have no issue with the size, and it probably balances better with the bigger primes (and even zooms, though zooms don’t really fit with the gestalt of this camera) that Nikon makes.

CK: Speaking of the viewfinder, I found that the viewfinder for the FM2 to be bigger than that of the Df though the latter covers a 100% view. I am not sure if this is due to the higher magnification of the FM2 viewfinder.

In keeping with the retro theme, Nikon has implemented a shutter release which takes the old-style plunger-type releases like the Nikon AR-3. To complement the camera, Nikon has also released a special edition AF-S 50mm f/1.8G with a styling reminiscent of the old AI-S 50mm f/1.8, complete with the silver ring around its body.

Nikon Df with an old school mechanical cable release and the 45mm f/2.8P pancake lens.

YS: For those of you wondering, yes, the electronic port that the D610/D7100 uses is still around, so you can still hook up your intervalometers and what not to it. I wonder if anyone in the target market cares though.

David: Certainly I don’t care about the electronic port. This old school cable release floats my boat. I guess I am in the target market that Nikon was aiming for!

CK: You are certainly living in the dark ages! The only advantage of these mechanical cable releases is probably that they are tougher than their electronic counterparts, particularly the cheaper 3rd party ones.

Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8 and Special Edition version.
“Regular” AF-S 50mm f/1.8G vs. Special Edition of the same to complement the Nikon Df

Controls

CK: Just like the early manual Nikon F-series cameras, NIkon has implemented mechanical controls for settings such as ISO, exposure compensation, shutter speed and the mode dial. The controls are very well built, with very tactile feels for each dial position. The dials all have their own locking mechanisms, and annoyingly they are all different. The mode dials use a “pull up to unlock” mechanism, the ISO dial has an unlock button next to it, and both the shutter speed and exposure compensation dials have a centre button to unlock it from the “⅓ stop” position. More on that later.

These are actually identical to that of my old FE, but having used modern SLRs and DSLRs for so long, I’ve long gotten used to the more intuitive controls the newer bodies offer.

YS: Indeed they are. I loved how fast I could work with the D300, even as modern cameras become more powerful and give us even more options to make us more productive with.

David: I love those dials – they allow me to change settings by feel even if the camera is off. This is invaluable for street photography where I might want to preset the aperture and shutter speed before lifting up the camera to my face. With my M9 I can preset the focus too, though with the new retro 50mm with the simple DOF scale, I guess I can do the same with the Df.

CK: One can always go full-retro and buy a 50mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 AI-S. Or a 35mm if you prefer.

David: You might think modern cameras do allow you to set these settings by dials too, and you can also view the top LCD panel on most enthusiast class DSLRs. However, try spinning the thumb wheel or front control dial when the camera is at your waist – I guarantee you sprained wrists.

YS: Not sure how you do it, but I don’t have a problem with it. You just need to not hold the camera like you do at eye-level.

David: I do agree, however, that not all the dials need to be locked. Especially since the dials are all on the top plate, and from the pre-production unit we handled, seem to be rather stiff, I would think the locking mechanism is not strictly needed, especially for the shutter speed dial and the exposure compensation dial. As a point of reference, Leica Ms never have locks on the shutter speed dials.

CK: The shutter speed dial isn’t really totally locked down. As long as you don’t lock it in the “⅓ stop” position, you are free to spin the dial to change the shutter speed, just like your M9 and just like my old Nikon FE.

YS: Indeed. My FA does not have a lock for the mode lever, and the only reason why ISO has a lock is because in the days of film, nudging a ISO dial will pretty much ruin the rest of the roll of film.

CK: I was wondering why there was a need for a dedicated mode dial on the Df. Older Nikon SLRs had A and P modes integrated into the shutter dial. You simply turned the shutter speed dial to “A” to get aperture priority and adjusted the aperture via the aperture ring on the lens. For cameras with a “P” mode, you set the shutter speed dial to “P” and the aperture ring to the minimum aperture (e.g. f/16). The presence of an extra mode dial appeared redundant.

David: This is to appeal to those who love the look of the Df but still want to use the mode dial because they have never in their life experienced mechanical shutter speed dials.

CK: Having the mode dial and a shutter speed dial also meant that there’s potential for conflicting settings. E.g. what if you set the mode dial to Aperture Priority and then set the shutter speed dial to 1/125? Turns out that the mode dial has priority (pardon the pun) over the shutter speed dial, so if you really do set it to “A”, the shutter speed setting on the shutter speed dial is ignored. You then choose the aperture via the front command dial (default) or the aperture ring on your lens (if it has one).

For those who find full shutter speed stops not granular enough, there’s a setting on the dial labelled “⅓ stop”. This locks the shutter speed dial and delegates shutter speed control to the rear command dial which lets you change shutter speed in ⅓-stop increments like you would on modern DSLRs.

YS: There is also a setting that lets you tweak the shutter speed in ⅓ stops with the command dial while using the shutter speed dial, like the Fujifilm X cameras.

CK: This might be recipe for confusion. Shutter speed dial physically at 1/250 but actual shutter speed is 1/180? So which one do you trust?

YS: The value in the viewfinder, of course.

CK: Another puzzling thing on the shutter speed dial. Do people still use X and T shutter speeds these days? I suppose T can be useful as an alternative to B, letting you open the shutter with one press, and close it with another. But X can be easily replaced with the desired flash sync speed. Removing the T, X, 2s and 4s will let us have “A” and “P” on the shutter speed dial and a less cluttered/confusing top plate.

David: You guys have covered everything there is about the foibles of the dials. I think Nikon is trying to pander to too many people with this camera – they could have just implemented the ISO dial, exposure comp dial and shutter speed dial, and leave out the silly mode dial plus the rear and front command dial completely – there is simply no need for these 3 extra controls with the beautifully implemented dials. If you want the modern controls, you can buy the D610 or D800. Instead Nikon wanted to cover everybody, and made the camera unnecessarily complicated. They should take a leaf from Leica regarding simplicity of controls if they really want to talk about “pure photography”.

CK: I agree. They could have, as I mentioned, combined the shutter and mode dials together, and omit the front command dial. With this, you can control the shutter speed using the physical shutter speed dial and aperture via the rear command dial. No need for the superfluous dials. This will be more inline with the “pure photography” theme and keeping the camera minimalistic like the old Nikons.

YS: Shooting the camera turned out to be… like any Nikon DSLR for me. I just was not sufficiently moved to use it in the traditional mode, given the lens that came with it is a cosmetically-changed AF-S 50mm f/1.8G that, as its name suggests, is an autofocus lens with no aperture ring. When using the Df this way, the first thing I found was that I did not like the front command dial. Its position requires me to use my index finger, unlike with the other Nikon SLRs, where you can use the middle finger. It is a much better arrangement, and superior to the Canons.

David: YS just proved my point that Nikon tried to cater to everyone and made the camera unnecessarily unwieldy. If one sticks to the traditional dials, the camera handles beautifully.

CK: I have always used my index finger to turn the front command dial ever since I got the F100 and learnt to use that instead of the lens’s aperture ring.

YS: Using your index finger means taking it off the shutter release button! There is a reason why Nikon did their command dials in that way, CK. Don’t use your Nikon like a Canon!

David: As a former Canon user, I’ve never used my middle finger (pun intended) in any way for photography.

 (YS: This is also where Canon finally decides to hate us forever and not loan us any cameras for review)

YS: There were a few Ai-s lenses on hand, so using those on the Df made the more traditional control system made better sense. It felt closer to using a film camera, but then I realised – it is just not something I am dying to get back to. As I mentioned before, in our three-way shootout between the Fujifilm X100S, the Nikon Coolpix A, and the Ricoh GR, I simply find that a modern control scheme (like the one in the Ricoh GR) much better to use.

Focusing

YS: Somewhat disappointing is the use of the 39 point MultiCAM 4800 autofocus module. It is not the fact it has less points, but the module was designed first for the D7000, a DX camera, and on FX it is just crowded too deeply in the centre. Given this is not a cheap camera, surely the use of the 51 point MultiCAM 3500 would have been justified? Or even the MultiCAM 2000 that is used in the F6.

CK: This is one of my bugbears of the D600. Thirty-nine AF points bunched up in the middle? That’s ridiculous and makes them less useful. For such a pricey camera, it’s indeed disappointing to see this carried over to the Df. Despite all that, the autofocus speed of the Df is excellent. With the special edition AF-S 50mm f/1.8G, the camera snaps to focus instantly.

David: Disappointing yes, as the D700 does have the 51 points and I view this camera as the spiritual successor to the D700. Having said that, I have shot countless weddings with the D600 using only the centre AF point with the MultiCAM 4800 AF system with no problem at all, even with moving subjects.

YS: I suppose with the lower density sensor of the Df, focus and recompose issues might not be so prominent, and thus is a valid technique to use.

Now, word on the Internet says that the Df has a fixed focusing screen. We were told otherwise, and are seeking clarification on this. I remember both the D300 and D700’s focusing screens can be removed, though a lot less easily than the earlier film cameras that the Df seeks to emulate. We will update this bit once we get some news. Changing focusing screens is important, because we are sure many photographers will want a split-circle focusing screen from Catz Eye to use with their MF Nikkors!

Update: We’ve confirmed that the focusing screen is not removable, alas.

A quick word on image quality

YS: While Nikon allowed us to take some images from the Df, Nikon warned us that this was only a pre-production camera (albeit with version 1.0 firmware), and that the image quality would not be final. Even then, looking at the few images we took, the D4 sensor still shines, especially at high ISO settings. This is what really drew me to the Df when the rumours first started – a camera with the D4 sensor at a lower price point than the D4.

CK: I did a few high ISO test shots, and my initial impression is that they are quite good. Even ISO 6400 is very usable. Hey, this is a D4 sensor after all.

First Impressions Summary

YS: Nikon tells us the camera has been in development for four years already, with the Tohoku earthquake partly to blame for the longer development cycle. Still, with the Df coming on the heels of a number of cameras that place a large emphasis on looking like 1970s film cameras, it does feel like they are joining the party late. So Nikon faces competition on two fronts – an array of other retro-styled cameras, and from Nikon’s own excellent FX DSLRs, with the D800 and D610 at either the same price level or cheaper. The question then is, how badly do you want the D4 sensor and how badly do you want to use pre-Ai lenses to pay the premium for its looks? The USA price is US$2750, which makes it priced just below the excellent D800, but with less-than-D800 specifications in a few places.

CK: Nikon could have made a very nice retro-ish camera but I guess they lost focus somewhere and made a frankenstein-esque hybrid of a D600 and a FA. This is not the “Digital FM2” that people are lusting after, but overall, I think it’s still a nice camera to use, with reasonably good looks to boot (I personally prefer the black version.) However, at this price point, I’d rather pay for a D800.

I get the “Pure Photography” tagline, but after Nikon has put in a Live View mode, video is only small step away. So, Nikon could have video enabled the Df!

YS: So, wait for sales in at the end of 2014? While I am not totally sold on the idea of traditional controls, the D4 sensor certainly has its appeal. The camera is not exactly ugly either… if a little fat.

David: To sum up, the camera does appeal to a certain demographic who prefer control dials, retro looks and good image quality in a traditional DSLR, and that means the Df is still going to be sold to folks like me, no matter what the price is. It may make no sense to those who compare feature for feature and price, but falling in love makes no sense too!

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