Alright folks, we’ve put the Df through its paces and now that Adobe has finally released a Camera Raw update that allows us to check out Df images in Lightroom 5.3, we’re ready to publish a few samples as well as an initial report!
Nikon DF, Nikon 55mm pre-AI f/1.2 @ f/1.2 & ISO
Nikon DF, Nikon 35mm Ai-S f/1.4, in-camera processing
The approach we’re going to take will be as follows: First, I think there are a few key concerns that need to be addressed regarding the Df. Unfortunately on the internet speculation can quickly turn into popular opinion, which somehow turns into fact. So for those of you who have not yet tried out the Df for yourself, yet are already ranting or raving about how terrible or awesome the Df is, …pay attention!
Then we’ll get into what the Df truly excels at, and who might consider it. However we’re not even close to being done testing the Df, and we’ll reserve a “final verdict” until a later post.
How Does the Df Handle?
The number one concern everyone seems to have about the Df is that the controls, as cool and retro as they are, may limit the camera’s functionality. So how does the Df handle tough environments such as low-light action?
I like to give myself quite a few thousand clicks with a camera before I judge its controls and operation, and so I took the Df out to five different sessions / events.
I must say, the Df is fun to operate! The fact that I feel compelled to use the word “operate” instead of just “shoot with” should already give away the ending here. Yep, I’m an engineer who appreciates the mechanical feel of dials, switches, and other cold metal controls. In this respect, the Df delivers an experience like no other DSLR ever has. Some people will get this, and some people won’t. That’s fine!
If you’re not into the whole “techno-nostalgia” thing, I totally understand. But for those of us who are, a camera like the Df is very satisfying to use. For example many people are comparing the Df to the Sony a7-series of mirrorless full-frame DSLRs which also hit shelves recently. The Sony a7 and Sony A7R deliver incredible resolution and image quality, high-tech electronic viewfinders and much more in a smaller and lighter package. Does this mean that one “beats” the other? Maybe for some, however in my opinion the Df is simply aimed at a different market altogether. Admittedly a much smaller market, and one that Nikon cannot afford to serve too much before it gets back to the lab to try and come up with more cameras to better compete with what Sony is doing. ;-) However that is a different topic for another day!
Still, modern cameras like the Nikon D800 are designed the way they are for a reason: Practical use, comfort, customization, and sheer performance. Otherwise we’d still be running around with DSLR cameras that were the shape of an old Nikon FM style body!
The Df with its “throwback” controls is therefore a tad more difficult to handle. While I found it a delight to use in low-pressure situations such as detail shots, casual shooting or landscapes, fast-paced professional work definitely made me wish I had a modern DSLR in my hands again. Only for a fleeting moment, of course.
Two things in particular stood out to me: First, I immediately gave up on using the dedicated shutter speed dial in fast-paced conditions and switched back to the 1/3 increment option. (Furthermore, even in slow-paced conditions such as landscape photography, I found it to be a huge bummer that shutter speeds stopped at 4 sec, forcing me to either use “bulb” or switch back to 1/3 increments to achieve the 15-30 second exposures I often use for shooting at twilight…)
Secondly, I really didn’t like the dedicated aperture dial on the front of the camera. I only had to use this when using “G” lenses without an aperture ring, thankfully.
Of course the whole point of the Df is (in my opinion) to mostly use classic lenses, which have their own aperture ring. Or if you have older AF-D autofocus lenses, you can set up the Df to use those aperture rings too.
How Capable is the Df Autofocus?
The second biggest concern that most people have about the Df is that the autofocus is under-whelming, or even crippled. Admittedly, on paper it appears that the Df’s AF module is borrowed from the Nikon D610 or Nikon D600. Having reviewed the D600 myself, (click HERE!) it was obvious to me then that the D600 autofocus wasn’t 100% on par with the likes of the Nikon D800 or D700. Not a deal-breaker for most, but as an active pro shooter it did cause concern.
However Nikon has a history of using the same mechanical parts yet with different software or “processing power”, thus delivering (potentially) better performance from the same AF module. So, does the Df hold its own, despite only having 39 AF points that are annoyingly clumped in the center? Yes! At least, so far, so good. While it definitely is no D4 with regards to low-light autofocus, the Df is no slouch either. I can’t say definitively whether or not the Df out-performs the D600, but suffice it to say that I didn’t find the Df to be a drawback even in truly abysmal low-light conditions.
This is a good thing, considering that the Df’s high ISO quality allows me to hand-hold in far worse light than ever before! I have tested many cameras with sensors that had ISO capabilities well beyond what their AF system could reliably focus in, and that is always very annoying. (*cough*5D2*cough*)
Is the Df just a glorified D600 body?
Generally speaking, a lot of internet chatter is going something like this:
All they did was take a D4 sensor and throw it in a D610, and make it retro looking. How is this worth a thousand dollars more than a D610 when the D610 offers more megapixels, dual card slots, and video?
Well, all I can say is that I plead “no contest” to the arguments regarding dual card slots and video, however the Df is definitely not just a D610 in a different shell. For one, on paper the Df is supposed to have weather sealing on par with the D800, not the D610. Although that is probably not a noticeable difference unless you actually shoot in truly abysmal conditions often.
Mainly, the Df simply feels more like a flagship, and its “made in Japan” status would certainly indicate that it has been designed and crafted to withstand much more abuse than most other cameras in Nikon’s lineup.
If anything, the camera almost feels TOO light when paired with a lightweight lens like the new retro 50mm f/1.8 G! However when I attach an old manual focus lens like my 35mm f/1.4 Ai-S or a 55mm f/1.2 pre-Ai, the camera feels perfectly balanced.
So yes, the Df is more than just an over-priced, re-badged D600. Will most people notice this difference, let alone find $1,000 worth of value in it? Probably not. Again, for the 52nd time I’ll say: “The Df is not for everyone…” In other words, if you’re even considering the D610 or D800 in the first place then you’re probably not going to be better off with one of those cameras. Those who would truly appreciate a Df probably already know how they feel! Then again, if the lack of video and dual card slots don’t bother you, and you’re just looking for one of the best dang cameras ever built, the Df might last you till kingdom come!
Df Image Quality
I had to quadruple-check these images before posting them, because quite honestly from ISO 100 to 1600 I can barely tell them apart at all and ISO 3200-12800 look unbelievably clean and detailed, especially in the highlights. So rest assured, these sample crops are not some sort of hoax. All 100% crop images were processed in Adobe Lightroom 5.3, with zero sharpening and zero luminance noise reduction but +50 color NR applied. Because unlike other “lab” type review sites out there, to me color noise is a total non-issue thanks to Adobe’s latest RAW processing.
Of course this is a “best light” representation of the Df’s image quality in a highlight area; everybody knows that shadows fall apart much more quickly than highlights. Yet the Df does seem to hold plenty of shadow detail well up into the higher ISO’s, even at 6400 the images still look dynamic and vibrant from highlight to shadow.
In the last couple years the D800 and D600 impressed us with their base ISO dynamic range, the ability to completely rack adjustment sliders to their maximum and recover incredible amounts of shadow detail. However the high-ISO images from the Df, I must say, are the first that can be “maxed out” in Lightroom 5 even at ISO 1600-3200! (Maxed out = both shadows and blacks pushed all the way to +100, which would normally reveal horrible noise and/or banding on almost any other camera, even at their base ISO of 100-200.)
Designed For Use With Classic Lenses
To fully appreciate the Df’s classic styling and functionality, I didn’t just use my already sizable collection of random old Nikon lenses. I also went out and found a truly ancient, pre-Ai 55mm f/1.2 lens on Ebay. Such lenses have previously been incompatible with all current Nikon SLRs, however the Df offers their support for the first time in a DSLR.
Needless to say, the experience was fun and now I want a 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S for shooting details on ALL my Nikon cameras! I used to dislike the use of bokeh simply as a compositional aide, however for things like wedding details it is too pretty to ignore. The following three images are completely un-edited, straight out of the camera, shot wide open at f/1.2.
Admittedly, I found this type of lens and the wide-open, manual-focus technique to be mostly just useful for details where bokeh is everything and sharpness only needs to be truly decent in a central area. (And where my subject isn’t moving!)
When it came time to shoot important portraits or most kinds of action with the Df, I still opted to use my f/1.8 G primes and my f/2.8 G zooms. Needless to say, now I wish Nikon would re-make their 85m f/1.8 G and Nikon 28mm f/1.8 G with the classic white aluminum ring too!
Who Is the Df Made For?
In case I haven’t spelled it out yet, in case Nikon’s marketing campaign didn’t make it clear enough already, here it is: The Df is not a mainstream camera. In fact I’ll even admit that for me a lot of the allure of this camera has to do with the way it looks, and certainly the way it feels and operates. If you appreciate classic cameras and are already a “collector” of Nikon history, you’ll love the Df. If you subscribe to the notion that a passion for photography can approach zen-like harmony between an artist and their tools, then the Df will grow on you. It’s not perfect, but then again that is part of the pleasure in mastering any camera.
Is the Df a hipster camera, made just to capitalize on a retro fad? Hardly. As I mentioned in the initial discussion at the time of the Df’s release, (click HERE) …anyone who thinks that retro cameras are a hipster trend is clearly forgetting Nikon’s rich history, and their affinity for celebrating it. To be quite honest, I’m surprised the Df wasn’t gold-plated and lizard-skinned! ;-)
But that is all still a little abstract. Who, specifically, might enjoy the Df? Street and candid photographers, for one. The Df is pleasantly unassuming, yet it still “means business” and delivers the goods in low light. Adventure and travel photographers will certainly enjoy the lightweight construction that doesn’t skimp on weather sealing like other “prosumer” type cameras might. And of course, star and astro-landscape photographers will certainly find the Df to be a true champion. Portrait and wedding photographers will certainly be able to use the Df, however in my opinion it will play second-fiddle to a primary camera like the D800 or D700 even, which are more comfortable and powerful for use on long days. The same thing goes with sports / wildlife photography. The Df is certainly capable, but definitely not aimed at the average sports photographer.
The Df Could Have Been Even Better
Now after singing the praises of how the Df is a magical camera that will help you enjoy photography once again, the honest truth is that I can’t help but pick apart what the Df is missing, and how Nikon could have done a better job of “fusing” digital imaging with retro controls. Off the top of my head, here are a handful of things:
- Interchangeable Focus Screens
The Df definitely should have had this feature, in fact I would argue that the Df should have even had a classic style, split-prism viewfinder!
Indeed, I am NOT in the camp of those who believe the Df should have had an electronic viewfinder. I think this would have gone against everything Nikon was trying to achieve with the Df. Still, denying us the option of a split-prism is a slap in the face to me.
- Bigger Viewfinder
The Df’s viewfinder magnification (size) is also a bit of a letdown, as far as optical viewfinders go. I was hoping for something at least on par with my classic Nikon FM2, let alone the relatively gigantic viewfinder of the F3. (An F3HP style optional viewfinder would have been even more incredible, of course!) As it stands, the Df’s viewfinder is actually smaller than the EVF of the Olympus E-M1, a 2x crop mirrorless camera!
- Fully Unlockable Dials
While we’re mentioning the E-M1, another thing I noticed is how Olympus implemented the mode dial lock. Instead of always having to hold down an unlock button to adjust the dial, it uses a “click once to lock, click again to unlock” design that allows you to have the best of both worlds. This would have been a much better way to provide locking options for the Df’s shutter speed dial, ISO dial, and exposure mode dial.
- Modern Aperture Dial
Clearly Nikon realized that a dedicated, retro shutter speed dial couldn’t compete with the usability of a modern rear command dial. So why didn’t they put the same type of dial in front? I don’t think it would have detracted from the aesthetics of the front of the camera at all to have done the front dial this way instead of the cumbersome “faceplate dial” thingy. This would have made the camera much, much more usable in “clutch” situations for me.
- Better Grip
The Df’s grip is a clear throwback to the F3. Unfortunately it does not fit well in a medium / large hand for extended periods. I found that my fingers cramped up when using the Df in high-pressure shooting conditions for more than a few hours straight. The Df could have easily maintained the classic “F” styling while making the grip a little deeper.
- Motor-Drive Style Optional Vertical Grip
This would have been so cool to see! Nikon does have a history of boosting the FPS of a camera when using a vertical grip, although honestly I’d just want it for how awesome it would look. 5.5 FPS is already fast enough for what I do, although I suppose others who were hoping for that mythical “true D700 replacement” could use an affordable ~8 FPS FX body.
- A 36 Megapixel Sensor
Yes, I’m going to open that can of worms. I do understand that the Df is aimed at the same people who don’t care at all about the megapixel race, and the 16 megapixel sensor is almost a declaration that megapixels don’t matter for *some* people…
Still, it is possible to appreciate everything the Df stands for, yet wish for the most resolution possible. Specifically, any landscape or fine-art type of photographer.
How about this: I wish Nikon would release TWO Df style cameras; one with the D4 sensor and one with the D800 sensor. Both cameras would sell very well in my opinion!
Heck, while we’re on the subject of “I hope Nikon makes more retro style cameras!” …I’d actually be interested in a mirrorless version of the Df, and/or a crop-sensor version too! Nikon could easily take the Df concept and shrink it down to the size of a D7100 and give us a DX version of this camera. Or, they could re-work the whole thing in a package similar to the Sony a7-series.
Again, I’m not saying I wish the Df were different in these respects, (not counting the other improvements) …I’m saying that if Nikon built any of these other cameras, they would sell just as well or even much better.
- Better AF, Video, Dual Card Slots
I bunched all these together in one “shoulda-woulda-coulda” paragraph because they are all quite self-explanatory. I honestly don’t care that much about dual card slots, or video, however I know the camera would have been more widely accepted if it had included these features. And that would have inclined Nikon to continue the retro style lineup.
Personally, all I wish the Df had was the D800′s AF performance. That, plus just one or two of the above mechanical improvements, would have resulted in me frantically selling various bodies and/or lenses to fund a personal Df purchase. ;-)
What May Come Next From Nikon
In my opinion, the main reason that some people dislike the Nikon DF or are angry at Nikon in general is because they aren’t thinking about the big picture. To me, when Nikon designed the Df they were just looking for something new to do with the D4 sensor. Exclusive sensors are costly for Nikon to develop and manufacture, and they have always tried to recoup the investment by implementing the same sensor in 2-3+ cameras.
It has also been a long time since Nikon created a camera that celebrated their history; as I said before I’m actually surprised that the Df wasn’t a limited-edition camera or something!
Either way, the bottom line is that Nikon probably has 2-3 more semi-pro and pro camera bodies up their sleeves for delivery in the next ~12 months. Maybe they’ll delve into the mirrorless full-frame market, or maybe they’ll deliver an affordable pro sports camera for either DX or FX. Who knows![Rewind: Which would you rather see, a Nikon D400 or a Nikon D710?]
So if you’re upset or disappointed right now, don’t count your ship-jumping chickens just yet. Nikon probably has one or two more big announcements coming next year. Personally I’m betting we’ll see a new pro-grade FX (or DX) body in the $2-3K range.
Back in the days of film, we used to talk about how certain things had soul. Unfortunately now this is something we hardly talk about anymore, everything is cheap, disposable, mass-produced and all about value, bang-for-buck, etc… Well, the Df appears to be a camera with a soul. Somewhere along the lines of a Leica, or a Rolex, or an Apple product maybe? It is a celebration of Nikon’s long legacy made exclusively for those who appreciate such things.
I’m going to hold off on a final verdict just yet. I am about to depart on a 9-day roadtrip in the American Southwest with the Df, heavily using manual focus lenses to practice advanced nightscape and astro timelapse images. So, stay tuned for more to come!