Announcing Nikon’s Retro Full-Frame DF DSLR! – with commentary by Matthew Saville
(Yes, that’s a screw-in cable release!)
Pre-Order the Nikon Df from B&H: (live @ midnight eastern time, of course)
(Shipping on Nov 28th)
Timeless Design, with Legendary Performance
Well, after much, much, (way too much?) teasing, Nikon has finally announced their newest DSLR, the full-frame Df. At first glance, you might think that Nikon simply made a few retro-looking changes to a D600 and slapped a D4 sensor in it. So what? Why is every Nikon historian / aficionado all googley-eyed, and scrambling for their credit card? Well, to answer this question we need to go back to the 1970’s and 80’s. Film SLR camera bodies like the Nikon FM2 and the F3, it seems, are to thank for much of the new Df‘s appearance and general control layout. It has a dedicated top dial with shutter speeds actually printed on it. There’s also the iconic (and quite large) viewfinder Prism shape and edges that harken back to the old days when Nikon built SLR cameras that, well, …lasted for decades.
Indeed, the Nikon FM2 and F3 were both produced for about 20 years, two of the longest-lived camera models ever made! Many of these can still be found today, even in mint condition and ready for you to put a roll of film through. I myself own an FM2 (the original, with a titanium shutter!) and it still works flawlessly. If you have ever held and operated one, you’ll understand why the mechanics and controls still have a certain allure in their combination of simplicity and seeming indestructible-ness. The Df, apparently, is built to that same high standard.
Okay, that’s all fine and dandy if you can buy these old film cameras on Ebay for $150. However the Df is $2750. That’s quite a chunk of change to spend on a little nostalgia. Who is going to spend that much money on such a simplified camera, just because it looks cool? I’m a huge fan of encouraging creativity by restricting yourself, but this is on a whole new level. Yes, this is actually less than the original MSRP of the Nikon D700 and the Canon 5D Mk2, but considering what you get, we were hoping to see it for $2499.
On the one hand, Leica definitely has the “because we can!” market cornered with collectors who pay any price just to own a camera with the Leica name on it. But on the other hand, Nikon also takes great pride in their rich history, and their F-mount is actually over 50 years old yet still almost entirely supported by their latest DSLRs! In fact Nikon has been known to commemorate significant milestones in their history with, um, GOLD-plated cameras wrapped in lizard skin. Yeah. So regardless of whether YOU in particular think that this camera is a “good idea” in all its video-less glory, …it is safe to predict that people will be lining up to buy this puppy. Far more than those who collect gold-plated cameras, or who pay $3,000 to own a Nikon 28mm f/1.4 AF-D or $30,000 to own a Nikon 13mm f/5.6… ;-)
Okay in all seriousness folks, what’s not to love? So what, it looks different. The D4’s 16 MP sensor is already a recognized champion, in fact D700 users have been clamoring for an affordable version of the D4 for years now. (This is it, sort of…?) There are also plenty of photographers out there who don’t need 12 FPS or 36 megapixels in order to ENJOY photography.
Because at the end of the day, that is what this camera is clearly about. The enjoyment of photography, with an unapologetic affection for nostalgia, and hopefully, rugged construction that can take a beating while looking awesome and not weighing “like a brick”.
The Specs, With Commentary
- 16.2 Megapixel Sensor (from the Nikon D4)
If you’re even thinking of complaining that this camera doesn’t have 24 or 36 megapixels, then maybe you’re not getting the point of it in the first place. Then again, as a landscape photographer myself I sure would love to also see a 36 megapixel version of this camera, but ONLY for that purpose of landscape / nature photography where I actually do use the resolution to make monster prints. For casual shooting and even wedding photojournalism, (my day job) …I think that 16 MP couldn’t be more perfect!
- Large Pentaprism (optical) viewfinder
At 100% coverage and 0.7 magnification, this viewfinder will be bright but not exactly “huge” compared to the historic viewfinders such as the 0.8x F3.
Also, the Prism itself isn’t interchangeable, however you will probably be able to purchase split-Prism focusing screens such as the Katz Eye.
If you were wishing for an FX body with an EVF, sorry! Nikon may make such a camera in the future, but this one is all about tradition.
- Dedicated shutter speed dial and ISO dial
Of course Nikon has always had dedicated dials and switches for many functions and operations, and you could say that in manual mode any advanced Nikon DSLR already has “dedicated” dials for aperture and shutter speed. But this camera actually has the dial with shutter speeds physically printed on it, like classic film SLRs. Pretty cool! Then again, if I pick up my Nikon FM2 and try to work that dial with my eye to the viewfinder, it seems a bit impractical to me. So, I don’t know how easy these physical controls would be to use in real-world, active situations such as for lifestyle portraiture or wedding photojournalism. I think it will all come down to the tactile feel and the resistance of each dial; hopefully Nikon has engineered each dial perfectly. Their teaser videos sure make those dials sound LOUD, though!
I noticed two other things about the dedicated shutter speed dial, though. Firstly, it has both a “Bulb” and a “Time” mode, which is awesome. “Time” exposure mode is much much better for extended exposures! Secondly however I noticed that the shutter speeds stop at 4 sec. which is terrible. Any landscape photographer who has shot a sunrise at f/11 and ISO will tell you that longer shutter speeds are very, very common! So hopefully Nikon’s additional “1/3 stop” mode allows the usual range of shutter speeds up to 30 sec.
- Shutter mechanism similar to the D610, or D4?
It’s hard to tell if Nikon engineered the shutter just to sound a certain way, but it wouldn’t be the first time. Either way, the shutter has specs like the D610, but sounds like a flagship. Hmm…
When Nikon first announced their last film SLR, the F6, they specifically mentioned that every single aspect of the camera, including the way the shutter sounded, had been designed with professionalism and perfection in mind. It’s a slight bummer that the shutter only goes to 1/4000 sec and the flash sync only goes to 1/250 sec; a few flash geeks will probably rant about that. Personally, even after starting with the 1/500 sec. flash sync speed of the Nikon D70 in 2004, I don’t miss it much now since any time I want to shoot in bright sunlight at fast apertures, I’m using an ND filter either way. I’m just happy that this camera has a PC sync port; this means I can use it for wedding photography without adapting my current setup at all!
- 39-point AF system, similar to the Nikon D610
While not exactly flagship performance, this AF system is still a stellar performer in most shooting conditions on the D600 / D610. Low-light street photographers (who are a likely target for this camera) might wish for a better AF system when shooting wide open on f/1.4 prime lenses, but then again maybe Nikon is expecting the majority of camera users to actually be using old manual focus lenses anyways?
- Full Nikon lens compatibility – AFS-G, AF-D, AIS, AI, non-AI lenses
Again, if you don’t really appreciate this feature, then this camera might not be for you. Personally, I’m very much looking forward to using this DSLR body with the likes of the Nikon 24mm f/2.8 AIS, 35mm f/1.4 AIS, 50mm f/1.2 AIS, and such.
- ISO 100-12800, with “LO” and “HI” options for ISO 50-204800
Like the D3->D3s “update”, this sensor’s image quality should be noticeably improved compare to the D4’s sensor. Time will tell, of course.
- 5.5 FPS
More than plenty for almost any type of photography.
- NO VIDEO CAPABILITIES
Can of worms! We could debate this forever, but suffice it to say that I understand why Nikon made this decision. The addition of video in their latest DSLRs has indeed negatively (in my opinion) affected the physical operation of recent DSLRs, a fact that goes un-discussed by those who argue “If you don’t want it, don’t use it!”
- Single SD memory card slot
It might have been nice to get dual SD cards like the D610 has, but I would definitely not let this stop me from buying the camera even if I were to use it professionally!
- Size and Weight: 760g / 27 oz, 5.6″x4.3″x2.6″
Not bad, about the same weight and size as the Nikon D610. Also very similar in size and weight to the Nikon F3. By comparison, this is marginally smaller than the Nikon D800, and about 10 oz lighter. (close to a whole pound!)
- Ships with a “classic styled”50mm f/1.8 G
Probably identical in image quality to the current 50mm f/1.8 G, but that’s definitely not a bad thing considering how amazing that lens already is. Unfortunately, this re-styled lens does not have an aperture ring, you’ll have to use the on-camera controls. I feel that if Nikon was going to all the trouble to re-design an existing lens and embrace classic camera operation, they REALLY should have given us a current-generation lens with an aperture ring. I bet die-hard users will be hitting Ebay for AF-D lenses as well as AIS lenses!
Wait, No Video?
Before we wrap up, let’s beat this dead horse just one more time. The Nikon Df has no video recording capabilities, even though it is capable of live view. Why? Simply because enough Nikon users caused an uproar during the transition from the D700 to the D800 etc…
Admittedly, most users didn’t mind at all or even strongly welcomed video functionality. Most would say things like “if you don’t need it, don’t use it!” or “it barely costs anything to add the feature, so quit complaining!”
However if you look carefully at the cameras that were released between 2008 and now, you can see some pretty significant physical changes to the controls and operation of pretty much every class of DSLR from beginner to flagship. First there is the obvious addition of a dedicated “REC” button on the likes of the D800, a button that was annoyingly close to the exposure mode button, and could NOT be re-programmed to perform a custom function for those who never or barely use video. There are also a few more subtle changes though, including the loss of the dynamic AF setting switch on the rear of advanced DSLRs, (to accommodate a live view button and a “stills/movie” switch) …and the re-configuration of the AF/MF switch on the front of the camera. Lastly, live view seems to be poorer resolution on newer video-enabled cameras, compared to live view on the likes of the D300 and D700 which is very easy to use for achieving perfect focus. While some would consider all of these things minor changes that are easy to adapt to, I personally found that they permanently hamper my ability to perform certain functions.
So, we’ll see how the controls and functions are implemented on the Df. We can already tell that there is indeed a dedicated switch for dynamic AF functions and of course there is no “REC” button to get in the way, …who knows whether actually operating this camera will be as easy as, say, operating either a D700 or D800.
As usual, we’ll reserve any final judgment until we can perform a full review. However on paper, and assuming there is nothing terribly wrong with the camera and that the image quality is equal to or better than the D4, …where does the Df fit into the market? Good question.
What other options are out there?
Indeed this one important question still remains: Which cameras are people going to consider as alternatives / competition to the Nikon Df? In my opinion we can begin to ponder and even answer this question even before the camera hits shelves on November 28th. Depending on what your needs and interests are, this could be anything from the Nikon D610 to the Sony RX1. Let’s break it down really quick:
- Nikon D610
Clearly a similarly classed DSLR from Nikon, the D610 offers a few obvious advantages. More resolution, video, dual card slots, standardized control features and layout. Simply put, the D610 is going to be a better choice for 90% of people who are considering these two cameras. Or I should say, 90% of people who aren’t highly advanced users with an interest in “making a statement” by their choice of camera. (*cough*leicausers*cough*)
- Sony RX1
A similarly simplified, retro-styled full-frame camera, the RX1 is actually not an SLR camera! It is a “point and shoot” style fixed-lens camera with a 35mm f/2 Zeiss lens. It also lacks an optical viewfinder.
Simply put, I feel that any advanced user who appreciates “simplicity” will already know which of these two cameras they’d rather have. The RX1 only really embraces two things, compactness and simplicity, and it still offers all the whiz-bang advantages of a cutting-edge digital camera. The Df on the other hand is definitely much deeper into the land of “embracing nostalgia”, and the main reason to buy it is to access Nikon’s rich history of lenses plus the big, beautiful optical viewfinder.
- Mirrorless Systems (Crop Sensor)
A little bit more of a stretch, but for those who are more obsessed with simplicity and compactness than they are with shallow DOF and high ISO, a mirrorless interchangeable lens system might be a good alternative, especially considering the prices. For the extreme adventure photographer, there’s the new “faucet-proof” Olympus E-M1. For the casual enthusiast, there’s the new Panasonic GX7 that offers very professional features and overall quality in a very, very tiny package.
All in all I think that while they may attract similar users, the Df is actually more like that one camera you keep when you sell all the rest of your gear to find a mirorless system investment. The one camera you just can’t let go of, and you keep it around for its incredible low-light performance and shallow DOF even though you mostly use a smaller setup.
- Mirrorless Systems (Full-Frame)
Lest we forget, Sony did just announce the A7 and A7R, two full-frame mirrorless cameras with many of the bells and whistles of Sony’s innovative digital system. Priced at only $1700 for the 24 MP A7 and $2300 for the 36 megapixel A7R, they are going to be very, very attractive to any casual shooter who is looking for something simple and portable. (Plenty of pros will be interested too, no doubt!)
Against to these two cameras, the Df may find it hard to compete. The Sonys are smaller, lighter, and considerably more affordable. Oh and they have loads of megapixels, and of course video.
Suffice it to say, I think Nikon has their work cut out for them but the Df is simply not designed to compete directly with the needs and feature set of these new Sonys. Of course, hopefully Nikon does figure out something soon. It is entirely likely that the Df is simply the first camera in a whole new lineup, and other more compact / cutting edge models are forthcoming?
- Used Nikon D600 / Nikon D700
If you’re on an extreme budget and looking to get a full-frame Nikon for far less than $2,000 a used D600 or D700 is a great alternative. Get a used D700 if you value rock-solid construction and reliability more, (such as for wedding photojournalism or low-light action sports) …or get a used D600 for more general shooting from landscapes to (of course) video.
- Nikon D800
Since the price of a decent condition used D800 is almost exactly the same as the Df, it is definitely a good idea to consider both. A landscape or similar fine art “big print” photographer should definitely go with the D800, while a more casual shooter who simply wants to take pictures with a robust, reliable camera that isn’t as “ancient” as the D700 ought to consider the Df.
For now we’ll leave the rest of the discussion for a final review, which we will produce ASAP! As usual, the proof is in the pudding and we can only truly know about the Nikon Df‘s image quality and overall functionality once it hits shelves and starts being used in the real world. If you have yet to truly define your style and preferences as a photographer, if there ever was a time to NOT make this your first experience as an “early adopter”, this is it. Personally, well, …anybody want to buy a used D700? ;-)