Nikon Df Review
Review based on a production Nikon Df
The Nikon Df is, at first appearance, the camera that many people have been asking for, for years - a classically styled DSLR with traditional external controls. But, for all Nikon's talk of a return to 'Pure Photography,' an awful lot of what's under the Df's confidently retro skin is pretty familiar. The Df is built around the 16MP full frame sensor from the company's flagship D4 with the processor and AF system borrowed from the comparatively affordable D610.
The camera's appearance is inspired by a much earlier generation of film cameras. In fact, from the front the Df looks like an oversized Nikon FM (and not dissimilar to Canon's F1N). And, as well as the styling and dedicated external controls, the Df's other nod to the company's history is the inclusion of a retractable meter coupling tab, allowing the use of pre-1977 non-AI lenses.
For those of us raised on film SLRs the effect is rather intriguing. We understand that the Df has been at least four years in the making, and the glee of its creators is almost palpable in the many specific design cues obviously taken from earlier SLRs including the FM/2 and the long-lived professional-targeted Nikon F3.
Nikon Df key features
- 16 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor (same as D4)
- ISO 100-25,600 (expandable to ISO 50 - 204,800 equiv)
- Maximum 5.5 fps continuous shooting
- 39-point AF system with 9 cross-type AF points (same as D610)
- 3.2-inch, 921k-dot LCD screen
- Physical shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation dials
- Compatible with virtually all Nikon F-mount lenses (including pre-Ai standard)
- Single SD card slot
- EN-EL14a battery (quoted endurance of ~1400 exposures)
According to Nikon, the 'F' in Df stands for 'fusion' - specifically, fusion of the old and the new. We know all about the old - the 'retro' styling - which leaves us with the 'D'. This of course stands for 'Digital'. The Nikon Df boasts a full-frame sensor, 39-point AF system and a maximum shooting rate of 5.5 fps. The LCD on the rear of the camera is a 3.2", 921k-dot display and, despite its 'fully manual' pretensions, the Df boasts front and rear electronic control dials alongside the dedicated physical dials on the top-plate. It's a thoroughly modern DSLR for the most part, but with one major difference.
What, no video?
That major difference is video - the Df cannot shoot it (making it one of only two current DSLRs which don't - the other being the Sigma SD1 Merrill). In conversation with Nikon engineers, we were told that video was never on the table as an option for the Df, apparently as much a philosophical point as anything else. This is a serious camera for serious people which is to be used for 'pure photography', not videos (oddly though, the Df still boasts a full complement of retouch options including the decidedly lightweight fisheye and miniature effects).
While it's true that many potential Df owners might not care about video, if you can add a function, why not do so? Since it's based around a video-capable sensor and shares its image processor with a camera that can shoot video, it's reasonable to assume it could be added via firmware, but the question is probably academic, since the Df has no built-in microphone nor a jack for adding one. Equally, the Df's relatively low-capacity EN-EL14a battery wouldn't last terribly long, even if such a feature were enabled.
Df - a D4 in F3 clothing?
If you look beyond the Df's outward appearance, another aspect of its appeal is the relatively inexpensive access it gives to the image sensor used in the company's flagship DSLR, the D4. And while that's true, the omission of video and high-speed frame rates mean you don't get to take full advantage of its capabilities. Even without those aspects, the well-respected low-light capabilities of the D4's sensor should lend some appeal to the Df.
The Df's optical viewfinder is very large - the same size as the D800. The magnification is 0.70x and, naturally, coverage is 100%. We've also shown the viewfinder of the film-era F3 here for reference. As you can see, the F3 offered an impressively large finder, and even the high eye-point viewfinder that glasses wearers tended to prefer was still larger than the Df's. When a DX lens is attached to the Df, the viewfinder shows frame-lines indicating the DX image area.
One real shame (although perhaps not a surprise) is the fact that the Df's focusing screen is fixed. We had hoped for an accessory split-prism focusing screen for manual focus, but it's likely that the additional cost and incompatibility with modern pattern metering modes ruled that out at the design stage. Instead the Df has Nikon's standard 'rangefinder' display in the viewfinder, which uses the autofocus sensor to indicate when it thinks the lens is correctly focused.
Kit options and pricing
The Nikon Df comes in two color options - silver and all-black, and in the USA, both will be available for $2749 body only. Nikon has created a special edition of its AF-S Nikkor 50mm F1.8G to match the 'retro' look and feel of the Df (optically it's identical to the standard version) and this is available separately for $279, or bundled with the Df for $2999.95.
In the UK, the Df is available only as a kit with the 50mm lens, at a suggested price of £2749.99 - only £50 less than the recommended price of the 36MP D800 and revamped 50mm F1.8. Unlike the US figure, this includes 20% VAT, but that still works out as around the equivalent of $3660, even if you take this into account. That said, prices change at different rates in different markets so, once the initial rush of customers has subsided, the prices might begin to look less unreasonable.
> No infrared remote trigger option
Interesting that you should mention this. It's something I was surprised by when I moved from a D50 to a D300S. I would have thought that the IR sensor should be present in higher models, but it never has been.
Looking back, I don't see it listed as a "con" in the D300S, D600 or D800 reviews.
More surprising, you didn't mention the lack of 10-pin connector or the poor positioning of the accessory port for those who use an L-bracket.
And as a Df owner, I mostly agree with the conclusions.
However, I don't have a problem with my battery door falling off. And the position doesn't seem to be a problem when I use a tripod. But time will tell on that one.
I haven't noticed a problem with AF, it outperforms my D300S in terms of speed. But perhaps my expectations are lower having not used a wide variety of cameras? The poor coverage is the biggest drawback, IMO.
Body & Design
Of the two color options, silver will be the 'main' version available in the USA - that's why we're using product photographs from this version more prominently throughout this review. Initially there was a split in the office between the black and silver versions but, upon seeing the silver version (with its interesting variety of silver finishes and tones), most concluded that black was the better-looking option.
Color aside, the Df inherits a lot of DNA from Nikon's earlier film SLRs, most noticeably the FM2 and F3. There's the same angular, leatherette-clad pentaprism housing, the high, ridged (and locking) dials on the top plate, the gentle, not quite full-height grip from the F3, and a folding Ai tab on the lens throat which allows for the safe attachment of pre-Ai lenses - something we've haven't seen since the film era of Nikon SLRs.
Despite its 1970s styling, the Df is an autofocus camera. Unlike entry-level Nikon bodies, but in common with its other full-frame peers, the Df has a built-in AF drive motor, and as such it will focus automatically with Nikon's AF and AF-D lenses (and equivalent third-party options), as well as more modern AF-S designs with built-in focus motors.
Like other modern high-end Nikon DSLRs, up to nine 'non-CPU' lenses can be programmed in for use with the Df. When one of these is attached, aperture is adjusted using the dedicated ring on the lens. Importantly, you can also attach very old, pre-Ai (automatic indexing) lenses to the Df, which opens up a lot of creative opportunities.
The interesting thing about the Df's design is that while it has the Ai indexing tab around the lens throat, it can be folded out of the way, to allow older non-Ai lenses to mount without jamming. The professional F5 (1996-2004) was Nikon's last SLR to include it.
The Nikon Df uses Nikon's F-mount, which was first introduced in the late 1950s. Uniquely among Nikon's DSLRs, the Df can be used with practically any F-mount Nikkor lens, even optics which predate the Ai (automatic indexing) standard.
For a camera aimed so squarely at lovers of 'traditional' photography, it is a shame though that the Df's focusing screen is fixed and cannot be replaced by a split prism for manual focusing.
Here's how the Df maintains compatibility with pre-Ai lenses - its Ai tab (indicated here) can be flipped backwards, out of the way of the lens mount, preventing older pre-Ai lenses from jamming.
The Nikon Df is built around a 16MP full-frame CMOS sensor. The sensor and imaging pipeline are borrowed from Nikon's flagship D4 professional DSLR.
||As we'd expect from a high-end Nikon body the Df features a high quality pentaprism viewfinder with 100% coverage. Here's the actual prism itself.|
||A usefully 'retro' touch is the Df's compatibility with screw-thread cable releases. A release like this can be picked up for small change from camera stores and online auctions.|
||Nikon claims that the Df is weather-sealed to the same extent as the D800 and D800E. Here, the camera's body seams are indicated in yellow on the front...|
||...and on the rear.|
||Here you can see the fairly standard front control points. The front command dial is placed vertically on the front plate, and while it's styled differently, it's functionally identical to the conventional front dials on other Nikon DSLRs. |
Below it are two customizable buttons: 'Pv' (which by default activates depth-of-field preview) and 'Fn'.
||The Df's autofocus switch operates in the same way as on other recent Nikon DSLRs. You can use the switch to change between automatic and manual focus, and the button at its hub allows you to switch between single and continuous focus, as well as setting AF area mode.|
||This image shows the black version of the Df, focusing on the exposure compensation and ISO sensitivity dials. Both are individually lockable - the exposure compensation dial is unlocked by depressing the silver button at its hub, and the similar button at the far left rear corner of the top plate unlocks the ISO dial. As such, both are rather awkward to operate with your eye to the finder.|
||Back to the silver version of the Df again, looking at its right-hand controls. Shutter speed is set using a dedicated dial (or the rear command dial if you have it set to '1/3 STEP' as shown here), and drive mode is set using a switch around its outside edge. To the right of this is the combined on/off shutter button, a 'lift and rotate' exposure mode dial, and LCD with illumination button.|
||On the rear of the Df you'll find a fairly standard set of buttons, including one for live view. Please note though that although the Df offers live view in multiple aspect ratios, including 16:9, it cannot record video.|
||The Df's rear 4-way controller serves to adjust the active AF point and navigate the camera's menu system. A 3-way switch above it is where you can select metering mode - center-weighted, pattern, or spot.|
||The Df's I/O ports are housed on the left side of the body (with the lens pointed away from you) underneath a hinged rubber door. From top to bottom, they are micro-USB, mini-HDMI, and remote release connector.|
The Df is compatible with Nikon's GP1A GPS adapter and WR-T10/WR-R10 wireless remote receiver and trigger, as well as the WR-1 wireless remote controller and Speedlight flashguns.
|The Df is powered by the relatively small EN-EL14a battery, which despite its modest 8.9Wh capacity, should be enough for ~1400 exposures, according to Nikon.|
Note: the lack of flash helps the Df score well in CIPA standard testing, since any flash has to be fired every alternate shot.
The simpler battery is presumably also the reason the Df doesn't offer any info on battery life (as other high-end Nikons do).
||Even the battery/card door is self-consciously 'retro' - the lock on the bottom of the Df is extremely similar to that of the Nikon F and F2 film cameras. |
In use, we've found it's somewhat prone to falling off (odd, since there's no battery grip available to justify the need to remove it).
We're also disappointed to see the SD card share the battery compartment in such an expensive camera.
The Df is Nikon's smallest full-frame DSLR, but it still feels chunky. It offers the same level of weather-sealing as the D800 but the mixture of materials, combined with an attempt to keep weight down means it doesn't offer the same sense of quality and solidity.
Ergonomically, the Df will probably divide photographers. In the past, cameras were slabby, flat-sided things but not necessarily because manufacturers wanted them to be, but because accurately molding custom curves wasn't economical until the late 1980s. The result is a camera with a rather stubby grip, but one that's much heavier than those cameras that were historically designed that way, which means you really will want it on a neck strap if you're carrying it for long periods.
Arguably then, there is no sensible ergonomic reason to go 'back in time' when it comes to control design and positioning. The obvious counter-argument is that a lot of people will feel immediately comfortable (at least philosophically) with the unashamedly 'traditional' button-and-dial approach. There are those that will claim that physical dials for shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation dials let them see their exposure parameters 'at a glance.' The counter-argument is that LCD screens do that too.
We've already highlighted two potential (and literal) pain-points relating to the Df's design - the relatively small grip (with no option for an additional one) and the positioning of the shutter release button high on the camera's top-plate. Both take some getting used to for a seasoned DSLR user. As explained earlier, the shutter speed and ISO dials are essentially optional (especially if you're using Auto ISO), but exposure compensation and exposure mode can only be set from the dedicated dials and not everyone will appreciate having to press the lock tab to turn them.
We've come to enjoy using external exposure compensation dials in the Sony's RX models and the Fujifilm X-series, but they work well because they can be operated comfortably by your right hand with your eye to the viewfinder. The 'press and rotate' logic of the dials on the Df makes this rather fiddly, and the left-side positioning of the ISO and exposure compensation dials also requires a change of grip from using your left hand to support the lens. The 'lift to unlock' PASM selector dial is especially awkward to operate if you wanted to do so with the camera to your eye, but at least it requires your right hand, rather than your left.
Our biggest disappointment, though, is how the camera feels. The body is rather larger than you might expect and pretty heavy - certainly given how small the grip is. Almost paradoxically, Nikon's attempts to keep weight down by using fairly thin grades of magnesium alloy left a couple of us wondering whether it really was made of metal. And we wouldn't rule out the possibility that some external surfaces are plastic. The front dial also exhibits enough movement to prevent it feeling very sturdy. Add to this the distinct difference between the rubber grip on the back and the not-quite-matching faux leather covering on the front and, despite the apparent use of good quality materials, the Df doesn't feel as expensive as it's price tag would suggest it should.
Shooting with the Df
Our first concerns, when we were told about the Nikon Df, all hinged around how well Nikon would manage to integrate its traditional control dials with the modern camera that lies underneath. After some firmware tweaks, Fujifilm's X100 and X-Pro1 have shown it's perfectly possible to build a modern camera with traditional controls that's still enjoyable to shoot with. However, whereas these cameras and their lenses were built with a single operational philosophy, the Nikon has to accommodate a family of lenses with a variety of different capabilities and controls. Thankfully, for the most part, we needn't have been too worried.
Most of our concerns about the Df were somewhat assuaged once we'd spent time actually shooting with it. If you don't like using the slightly awkward front dial to change aperture, you can push that function onto the rear dial (with the option to do so only in Aperture Priority mode). You also get to choose whether or not to use the lens aperture ring - meaning you can use it if you want, or continue to use a command dial, giving a pleasant consistency if you're switching between AF lenses with and without aperture rings. We've looked in more detail at shooting with older lenses on the next page, but this ability to choose is at the heart of most of what the Df gets right.
We're less convinced by the shutter speed dial, which falls into the same trap as Fujifilm's retro cameras - it's only marked in whole stops, so you need to use the command dial to make changes with any greater precision. At which point, it's probably quicker to just set the shutter speed dial to '1/3 STEP' and use the command dial full-time.
ISO and Auto ISO seem pretty well handled - especially if you're familiar with current Nikons. You can set one of the front buttons on the camera to engage and disengage Auto ISO, so there's only a need to go into menus if you want to change the upper ISO limit or the minimum shutter speed (minimum ISO is always taken from the physical dial on the camera's shoulder). Those people wanting to specify their shutter speed and aperture, then let Auto ISO do all the work will be pleased to find that Auto ISO is available in 'M' mode, and exposure compensation is available to select the image brightness.
The one major shooting annoyance we've found is that the only way of changing exposure compensation is with the locking dial on the top left shoulder of the camera. There's no option to move the function to a command dial, so you have to find and press the central locking nub and simultaneously rotate the dial. It's no more awkward than on a Nikon F3, but anyone who arrived in photography within the last twenty years may find it less fluid than they're used to. The problem is made worse if you're shooting with a big lens - you need to move the hand that's supporting the whole setup, transferring all the weight to your right hand, clutched round the small grip, just so that you can press and turn the dial, before shifting everything back again.
Live View woes
While the dedicated controls of the Df have been pretty well integrated, we were a little disappointed to find that the camera's live view system still feels bolted-on. We don't expect many people buying into the Df's 'Pure Photography' ethos to be using live view but, given its effectiveness for fine focusing, it's something that deserves to be implemented better.
The Df can't control the lens's aperture mechanism while in live view mode, if you're setting the aperture using the camera's control dial. Instead (as with most Nikon DSLRs) the aperture diaphragm stays fixed at the setting specified when you first engage live view. Why is this a problem? Because it means that any attempts to fine-focus aren't necessarily being conducted at the right aperture (usually wide open, although with some lenses you'll get better results slightly stopped down).
For example, if the camera is set to F8 when you enter live view, then the lens will remain at that aperture, even if you then decide to shoot at F2. So if you attempt to set focus in live view, the image you're actually looking at will have much more depth of field than your final shot, meaning you can't focus the lens accurately enough. For proper focusing you therefore have to remember to engage live view every time with the lens set to its maximum aperture (or at least, a larger aperture than you're going to shoot at).
This isn't a problem if you're manually focusing older lenses, since rotating the aperture ring forces the lens to your chosen F-number, but this means there's another inconsistency of behavior between different types of lenses to be aware of.
The thing that will affect users of older lens, though, is the lack of an exposure scale in live view mode. Instead you'll need to look through the viewfinder to set exposure and then jump to live view to set the best focus. The problem is less acute in aperture priority mode, because you can see how much exposure compensation you've applied by looking at the dial - just as long as the camera is in a position where you can see it easily, which may not be the case when using a tripod. (The amount of exposure compensation you have set is only shown onscreen in live view while you're changing it).