45mm f/2.8 PC-E, ISO 100, 1/1000th
The Nikon Df is sort of a strange camera to review … or at least a strange Nikon. In the DLSR era, Nikon has succeeded by trying to make their cameras as functional and simple as possible … but no simpler. Leave it to weirdoes like Fuji to make quirky cameras with non-standard sensor arrays, or let fresh-and-hungry Sony take huge chances like releasing a $3K camera with no viewfinder and a fixed lens — Nikon would keep making solid, efficient cameras. And, in the words of Henry Ford, pros you can have any color they want, as long as it’s black.
But 2014 is a very different world for camera makers than 2004 or even 2009, and Nikon is waking up to that. Few people need decent point-and-shoot cameras any more than they need to walk around with a compass, map and pocket calculator — our phones have them all. The only way forward to profit for camera makers is to do the things that phones cannot do. The most obvious is to harness the power of a big sensor. But from a marketing perspective, there’s something else: we want to stand out. Thanks in large part to cell phones, more photos are now taken each year than in the entire history of photography before 2010, a DSLR is a conscious choice to say “There’s more to me than selfies.”
No wonder, then, that cameras have turned to a brand that these disruptive, futuristic devices cannot do at all: Retro. The Fuji X100 blew the doors off, shocking any executive that just thought about specs. Cameras like the OM-D and X-Pro1 followed, and their popularity showed that photographers wanted more than just good pictures, they wanted the act of photography to be an experience.
The Df is Nikon’s entry into this space, and everything about the release materials shows how much they are emphasizing the experience of photography over simple, numerical specs. For instance, here is the environmental picture from the Nikon press room for the Df next to the environmental shot for the similar-specced D610:
The D610 photo shows the same sleek, modern image that Nikon tries to impart with all of its cameras, while the gorgeously styled image of the Df implies that this is a camera Indiana Jones would pack right next to his bullwhip. The Df is about how it looks and feels as much as the images that it takes.
All of this makes it something of a strange camera to review. You can look at the image above and already know if it speaks to you or not. If the retro styling and dials grafted onto a modern dSLR makes your soul sing, if it would revive your love of photography, if it would make you get out there and take pictures you weren’t taking, then this is a valuable camera for you.
But as a constantly working professional, I’m entirely unsentimental. I’ve owned two gorgeous Noct-Nikkors … and promptly sold them because they made me nervous. I need gear that does its job well, gets out of the way, and can be bashed against a rock or two and keep going. But because I carry two cameras for thousands of hours each year, I join many pros in aching (literally) for something smaller and lighter, a D700 for the new decade. And so the idea of having a sensor like the D4’s — with beautiful color, low noise, and high dynamic range even at high ISOs — in a smaller body is deeply appealing.
So, for the market, the Df is caught between two worlds: Is it a camera just for the nostalgic manual-focus users or is it something that could be a pro’s main camera? As a modern Nikon dSLR with a fantastic sensor and perfectly good specs it can serve both roles well, but it also falls a bit short in either direction.
28mm f/1.8G, ISO 3600, 1/125th
The Nikon Df really is nice and light and (compared to my D4’s,) quiet and small. It is very well-balanced with smaller, lighter lenses (like manual focus lenses), and I really liked pairing it with the light, awesome-for-the-price 28mm f/1.8G. Its less obtrusive profile and shutter made it just a bit easier to get closer, to capture moments of people as they really are, not how they react to having a camera around. And the fantastic sensor made it easy to freeze action in all sorts of light. The room above was not nearly as bright as the photo makes it look, and the Df is shooting at ISO 3600 with nary a spec of noise and lots of fine detail. I could have left my 28mm glued onto it and been happy, but it also works well with large lenses that don’t truly balance with any camera, like the 70-200. It’s the mid-range lenses like the 24-70, heavy but tempting for one-hand use, where the small grip causes ergonomic trouble.
Despite the styling, this has everything you expect from a modern Nikon … other than video capabilities, which were deliberately left off. It has reasonably fast operation, feeling less sluggish in basic operation and buffering than the D800 but not as effortlessly speedy as the D4. I was able to shoot large “Brenizer method” panoramas without getting into the sort of annoying buffering problems that the D800 would bring:
105mm f/2, ISO 100, 1/2000th, 65 images
The relatively small size made it a fun camera for personal use, although the bag you’d need for this wouldn’t be much smaller than for a D4 set-up, especially once you pack the same lenses and flashes. Still, Tatiana and I had fun just messing around with it:
Again, the sensor is as good as anything with dynamic range, color, and low-light performance. The photo on the left was taken in light you could barely see in, while the one on the right mixes full sun with shadow, and the Df can handle them both admirably:
The Almost (For the retro-friendly user)
The image on the right above is from the manual-focus 50mm f/1.2, another lens that not only balances well with the camera, but looks darn good. Clearly one of the perceived user bases for this camera are older photographers pining for the feeling of a Nikon F, and with a closet full of manual-focus glass collecting dust. The Df exposure dials are clearly designed to work best with cameras that have aperture rings, just like the ones in the promotional image. Nikon has an long history of incredible lenses, and the Df pays homage to them, including some retooling to allow older, pre-AI Nikkors. But there are two problems, one that I don’t care about and one that I do:
1) The market base that cares most about the way cameras and lenses look and feel are the ones most offended by the existence of plastic. They remember the days when plastic in a lens or camera meant “Danger, Will Robinson!” This doesn’t bother me much, but it is noticeable when paired with older lenses.
2) More importantly, the Df makes no special effort to be the manual-focus lens user’s friend. There is no focus peaking in live view, no easily swappable viewfinder screen, just the same iffy green focus dot we’ve had for more than a decade. This is something that is conceivably improvable in firmware, though I imagine these days a firmware tweak that in-depth would just mean releasing a “Dfs.”
The Almost (For the modern-minded photographer)
This one will be a bit nit-picky, and I apologize. For a better explanation, let us also call this section: “Hey Nikon! What we really need is a new D700 with current tech!”
First, Tatiana pointed out something ironic — with modern, aperture ring-less lenses, the control make it harder to work in old-school, complete manual mode. If I’m shooting ambient, I’m a heavy auto-ISO user, allowing me to follow the moment into whatever light it takes me, but she had more trouble with the camera simply because she embodies the sort of purism the marketing campaign plays to.
The camera only goes up to 1/4000th, but this doesn’t bother me much — I shot just fine for five years with the D3 and D3s, which may have done 1/8000th but only went down to ISO 200, amounting to pretty much the same thing. A bit worse is that it shares the AF system of the cheaper D610, instead of the high-end AF of the D800 and the D4 lines. I never had too much trouble with the AF, but it didn’t wow me either — the AF points are so tightly packed that you end up focusing and recomposing quite a bit.
But for me, all it took was one thing to rule it out for me as a backbone of a pro system in 2014: The Df only has one memory card slot.
“No problem,” you say. “I’ve shot many times and never had a memory card problem,” you say.
You’re lucky. Shoot some more. Anything that has a non-zero chance of happening WILL happen if you shoot enough, and in weddings I do everything I can to reduce to chance of image loss to as close to zero as possible. Because it does happen. Just last year I had a memory card failure so total that if I hadn’t been shooting to two cards more than a third of a wedding would have been lost to the ether. Any one-card camera I’ve used on weddings, like the Canon 6D, Olympus EM-5, or the Df, has to merely be one of many cameras on the job or my well-earned paranoia kicks in. To add insult to injury, the cheaper D610 has two card slots.
Sadly, one feature the Df does share with the D610 is the crippled live view exposure mode. Again, it is ALMOST there — the back LCD is clear and sharp, and it has far less lag than the D800, but you cannot preview exposure like you can with the D4, D800, D3s, and others. Live View exposure preview is a godsend in many situations, allowing you to work more quickly, focus in the sorts of insane low-light that the Df sensor is capable of shooting in, and in particular when using the manual-focus lenses that this camera is styled for.
This camera was a huge risk for Nikon, and I admire their willingness to make the move. But risks don’t always pay off perfectly. I imagine we’ll get a Dfs some day, but I’d be shocked if it had top-of-the-line AF. Maybe, hopefully, it will have multiple card slots. But I could easily see them making the manual focus experience even better, putting it in line with the best-in-class. Ironically, though, along the way they may realize that the people most crazy about acquiring and shooting with old lenses these days are the video shooters, so we’ll see if they give them a nod as well.
I had a great time shooting with this camera, and it is the right camera for some people out there, just not quite for me. It’s not a D700 update with modern sensor and dual-cards, but sadly nothing is.
More Photos with the Df