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Nikon Df: Retro Controls Meet Modern Imaging Tech
The Df is the world's first full-frame DSLR that sports a retro look and control layout, something that enthusiasts have long desired in a serious camera. It is also Nikon's smallest and lightest full-frame, even though this might not be apparent when looking at the product photos.
Above: Nikon Df with the AF-S Nikkor 35mm F1.4G
In this quick review, I will be sharing my personal impressions of the Nikon Df after testing it out and shooting with it in the field.
Introduction: Design and Highlights
The Nikon Df is a high-end DSLR that delivers not only retro looks, but also classic controls such as a mechanical shutter speed dial, an exposure compensation dial, and a sensitivity dial with click stops from ISO 50 all the way up to ISO 204,800. Photographers with lots of manual lenses will appreciate the fact that the lens mount has been de-crippled with the reinstatement of an aperture coupler, meaning that you can actually use the aperture ring the way it was meant to; this key feature further sets the Df apart from the rest of the Nikon DSLR lineup. And if you really want to go all out, you can even connect an old-fashioned cable release to the shutter button!
To maintain a focus on still photography, the Df lacks a video mode. Although the Df has been criticized for it, I don't think it's a big deal as most potential users of this camera probably don't have video in mind, though it would have been a different story if the camera didn't have live view in my opinion. There's also no built-in flash and the LCD screen on the top of the camera is tiny, as in the old days.
Despite having plethora of retro features, the Df actually does a very good job of bridging its traditional controls with a modern interface. If you take a peek at the back of the camera, you'll notice that it looks almost like the D610, with a 3" LCD screen and all the usual buttons.
Above: Nikon Df LCD and rear controls
There's one e-dial on the back of the camera and one (the small circular disc) on the front, which means that you can completely bypass the mechanical aperture ring (when using D lenses) and shutter speed dial if you so desire.
The menu system itself is just like the one found on other Nikon DSLRs, except that a handful of options specific to the Df's manual controls have been thrown in, such as how to treat the aperture ring and e-dials. Personally I find nothing wrong with the Df's menus, though I have seen better interfaces on other cameras. It would have been nice if Nikon did some out-of-the-box thinking with this aspect of the Df.
Based on what we've discussed so far, it should be clear that the Df is all about delivering an enjoyable shooting experience for passionate photographers. But it doesn't end there: on the inside, it has some of the latest-gen tech from Nikon. More on that follows in the next section.
Although the Df is a very advanced camera, almost all of its core hardware is borrowed from other current cameras in the Nikon lineup. The key innovations are in the physical controls and design which we've already discussed.
Sensor: There's a fantastic sensor at the heart of the Df: the 16-megapixel 24x36mm chip from the D4. Thanks to this sensor, the Df is able to maintain a moderate filesize and exceptional image quality all-around, even in very low light. The standard sensitivity goes from 100 to 12,800, which is expandable to 50 (L1) at the low end and 204,800 (H4) at the high end. All this is powered by the EXPEED 3 processor.
Shutter: The shutter supports bursts up to 5.5FPS, and sounds similar to the one in the D610, which means that it is much quieter than the one in the D800 but not the beast that's packed in the D4. The buffer is plenty big and can store up to 100 JPEGs. Unfortunately, the maximum shutter speed is only 1/4000s.
Viewfinder: The pentaprism viewfinder of course offers 100% frame coverage and a generous magnification of 0.7x, the same as what you get in the other current FX DSLRs (D4, D800, D610). Grid overlay, DX crop area and AF point illumination is supported.
LCD: 3.0" diagonally with 921,000 dots (VGA resolution). This is fairly standard, though the latest cameras have started getting larger screens.
Autofocus: Nikon have fitted the Df with their Multi-CAM 4800 AF module, the same one found in the D610. It had 39 AF points but doesn't quite cover as much viewfinder area as Nikon's 51-point systems.
Metering: 2016-pixel RGB sensor, also from the D610.
Body: Fully weather-sealed. Measures 143.5 x 110 x 66.5 mm, 710g.
For more detailed information, see the full Nikon Df specs in our camera database.
Construction and Handling
Next, let's talk about how the camera feels and handles. There's a lot to discuss here since the Df's interface is what makes it so unique.
The build quality is quite good overall, as one would expect. The body is fully weather-sealed and made of magnesium alloy, which has become an industry standard for high-end DSLRs. The dials on the top of the camera are made of metal and a lot of attention has been given to detail. However, the buttons on the back of the camera are flat and not machined like the ones on the Coolpix A "pro compact", which leaves something to be desired.
The tripod thread underneath the camera is surrounded by a rubber lining, and beside it you'll find an all-metal door (it looks like an oddball beside the magnesium alloy frame) which houses the EN-EL14a battery as well as the SD card slot. The placement of the card slot is a bit silly as it makes it more tedious to change cards while on a tripod, but it does make the camera's grip appear more elegant since there's no door there.
There are a few pros and cons about the mechanical controls that I'd like to mention. One of the things that I really liked on the Df is the drive mode selection dial (1, green in the diagram below), as it makes it very easy to switch between single and continuous shooting on the fly. Combine this with the convenient placement of the BKT bracketing button (2, green) and you can easily enable one-push bracketing without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. Finally, I enjoyed the physical exposure compensation dial (3, green), though it would have been even better if it were more accessible rather than being pushed over to the side.
Now, for the downsides. First of all, there are way too many lock buttons: 3 to be exact. One for the shutter speed dial, one for the exposure compensation dial, one for the ISO dial. The mode dial (1, red) also needs to be pulled up before it can be turned: so that makes 4 locking switches. This slows down operation considerably and completely discouraged me from using the shutter speed dial. Second, the main grip (2, red) is much too small, so the camera just doesn't feel that great in your hands with larger lenses. But because the camera is relatively light, when paired with small lenses it's actually quite portable and not hard to hold at all. Lastly, and probably least importantly, the on/off switch is very tough to turn with one finger and it might slow you down at times (3, reg).
Going back to the P-A-S-M mode dial, it shouldn't even be there to begin with. The Df is missing an "A" setting on the shutter speed dial (4, red), which would make the interface much more logical. But then how would you set the aperture on modern lenses, you might ask? Well, Nikon could have also added an "A" button on top of the front e-dial, and that would have taken care of everything. Because you have to pull up the mode dial before you can turn it, you really have to go out of your way to change the shooting mode. The mode dial also didn't feel like the most durable thing in the world, so be careful not to break it.
The shutter speed dial has a "1/3 stop" setting on it. When selected, it allows you to control the shutter speed via the rear e-dial like on other cameras, and in smaller increments than the full stops on the shutter speed dial itself. This button duplication isn't great from an interface design standpoint, but frankly it's necessary as otherwise it would be much more challenging to fine-tine your exposure (especially with lenses that have 1-stop aperture clicks).
The LCD screen on the top of the camera is just barely big enough to show the shutter speed and aperture. It doesn't have a battery meter or most of the other fancy indicators that we've gotten accustomed to in the digital era.
On the side of the camera you'll find a modern AF/MF switch (with a button in the middle controlling AF mode and points) as well as ports for USB, HDMI, and remote cables.
The rest of the button layout, including the Pv (optical preview) and customizable Fn button is very similar to what's on other Nikon DSLRs, so I won't elaborate on that. The viewfinder is much like what's in the D610, and it has the same 39-point AF system.
Before I move on I wanted to mention the battery life: it's excellent. You can expect well over 1000 shots per charge.
User Report / Image Quality
One of the things I quickly realized about the Df is that it's not designed for fast-paced photography. It's a camera for when you have plenty of time and you want to play around with the switches and settings, in part due to the presence of all the switch locks. But there are many great things about it despite whatever shortcomings its interface might have. Once you get over the quirks and get used to the controls, you can really start enjoying this camera.
First of all, its sensor is fantastic. I won't be including any technical tests here since many other reviews have been there and done that, but it goes without saying that the sensor from Nikon's flagship can deliver. Second, it's great that Nikon kept live view around instead of taking it out like the movie mode. Whether it be to make sure that your photo is level, to shoot macros, to fine-tune or check the focus, or to shoot into the sun, without live view the Df would have been crippled. And last but not least, the Df enables easy open-aperture metering with even Nikon's oldest lenses, something that collectors and users with lots of manual lenses will truly enjoy. No other manufacturer currently has a DSLR built for manual lenses, so this aspect of the Df is truly unique. Metering with manual lenses on the Df is a breeze, and if you choose to use the e-dial for shutter speed over the physical dial, you won't need to take your eye away from the viewfinder.
The only other issue I've found with the Df is that its auto white balance isn't the best. I'm used to shooting with the Nikon D800 and Pentax K-3, both of which have more advanced metering systems. The D4 would be in the same boat. So I found myself adjusting the colors in my Df files more often than with my other cameras.
Here are a few sample snapshots I took in the park at base ISO. Click on any thumbnail to enlarge.
If you click on this photo for a larger version, you'll notice that there's plenty of detail in the trees in the distance. Pretty impressive for a 16-megapixel sensor, and it goes to show that you don't need all those megapixels for everyday photos.
More photos can be found in my Df gallery.
To me it's clear that with the Df, Nikon tried very hard to create a camera that caters to photographers wanting simple, old-fashioned camera controls in a digital SLR. In my opinion, they could have done much better by changing a handful of small things, and so we're left with a product that's targeted at a very small niche market but lacks universal appeal to that market. Nikon could have made this camera even better for manual lenses by including a focusing screen with a split-screen/microprism, for example. If its mode dial and locking switches were redesigned, the Df would have been a much more appealing camera to me personally, and I'm sure that others would agree. And the 50mm F1.8 lens bundled with this camera should have had an aperture ring. The Df is the only "de-crippled" 35mm-format DSLR currently out there, so the fact that Nikon doesn't highlight this with the kit lens is just a little bit insulting.
All in all, the Df is a great camera. Nikon should be commended for putting out such a product, as it was a rather bold move. However, the Df isn't for everyone, especially with its high pricetag. Its low-light sensor is very nice, but unless manual lenses comprise the bulk of your kit and you're tired of crippled metering, chances are that you'd be better off with a D610 or D800.
There will of course be some users that will surely fall in love with this camera. If you just leave the camera in manual mode the whole time, the mode dial stops being a problem whatsoever. You can then enjoy using the aperture ring and shutter speed dial just like in the old days. The Df is also a great camera for learning the basics of exposure, since you don't need to look at any screens to see the exposure settings (except in 1/3 step mode).
For me, the bottom line is simple. Even though I started out with manual cameras and still collect them to this day, I've grown to appreciate the technological innovations in modern photographic gear. So I'll be sending the Df back and sticking with the D800 and K-3, as they're much better suited for my needs.
- Fantastic image quality
- De-crippled aperture coupler
- Quiet shutter with 5.5FPS
- Long battery life
- Analog dials for key exposure settings
- Small and light for a full-frame DSLR
- Seamless integration of modern menu and controls
- Locking dials slow you down
- Small main grip
- Only one SD slot
- White balance issues
- Very small top LCD
- No built-in flash