The Nikon Df vs. D610
The differences between the Nikon Df and D610 are many; however, they don’t differ in capability, but rather, in their fundamental approach to photography. With these two recent releases, Nikon has produced cameras with impeccable image quality to satisfy any DSLR shooter, with specs and feature sets for professional use. Determining which is better for your needs is as much a philosophical question as a practical one.
The Df and the Beauty of Amateurism
If you get excited by the sound of a camera, consider the Df. It may not be the first choice for a modern professional shooter, nor for boring pixel counters, but for the rest of us, the Df offers a unique relationship with your digital camera. The relationship is that of a true amateur to their chosen tool—an amateur being defined purely as a lover of what they do, one who puts their heart into what they shoot. Being an amateur is not about how much you earn but about why you press the shutter release, why you strive for a unique perspective. The relationship that can develop with the Df is one that enables function to follow form, without a compromise in quality.
f/1.8 - 1/50 sec. – ISO 1600 - 50mm focal length
It seems like this is a first in the digital world, a first for a DSLR, anyway. The Df is not meant to be operated in haste, or with ultimate resolution and unnecessary fps, but it is able to match image quality, step for step, with any DSLR. The Df exists as a stylistic option, a way to slow down the conception of your digital photo, which is something any photographer, of any age, can hopefully understand. It is a camera that could make you a better photographer, if you let it.
Let’s start with basic specs. The Df has a 16.2MP full-frame CMOS sensor, and the EXPEED 3 processor. It’s the same Nikon-made sensor as in their flagship D4 and D4S, so it must be pretty good, no? Its low-light capability is exceptional, with ISO from 100-12800 and extended from 50-204800.
“…urban night scenes glowed in a warmer and brighter light than even my eye could perceive.”
In real-world use, shooting in low light was incredible. Noise was low through 12800, and urban night scenes glowed in a warmer and brighter light than even my eye could perceive. The Df produced images with buttery tones, rich colors and a bursting, saturated feel. It operated smoothly and very quietly, and is capable of shooting 5.5 fps in continuous mode, which places it behind only the D4/D4S and the D610 in terms of frame rate for contemporary Nikon FX format DSLRs.
The shutter speed of the Df maxes out at 1/4000-second, somewhat problematic when using very fast lenses but, conveniently, the Bulb and Time shutter-speed settings are located on a metal dial. The camera provides the same Multi-CAM 4800 39-point autofocus module as the D610. The D4, in contrast, offers a 51-point (15 cross-type sensors) AF system, spread around the FX sensor. The AF points on the sensor of the Df are clustered near its center, which is better when using the DX-crop mode, but could also explain the occasional focus hunting I experienced.
If you’re familiar with Nikon DSLRs, the first time you grab the Df, you will understand what I mean about form leading function. Although much has been made of the retro-ness and the dials for ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation, it’s really the smaller size, minimal grip, and shutter button placement that determined how I used the Df.
The grip and shutter placement force you to hold the camera differently; you’ll want to use your second hand on the camera to stabilize the view, then adjust autofocus and shoot. With all of the other Nikon DSLR grips, my left hand immediately goes to the base of the lens, not the camera body. Using two hands to hold the viewfinder to my eye slowed me down to take a more thoughtful shot. Also, when changing ISO, compensation, or shutter speed, I pulled my eye away from the camera, glanced at the dials, and adjusted composition again, re-evaluating and hopefully improving my shot.
The Df took me to a place where getting the better shot, not the “first-and-good-enough-shot,” was made paramount. It forced a second and third draft, so to speak. Yes, this camera is old school, but not because it enables those who never bothered to figure out a digital camera, but because it shuns the "spray and pray" attitude that is becoming a large part of modern digital shooting. Furthermore, the Df is not a digital camera for those who don’t like digital. The dials themselves may look mechanical, but they control a digital system, and despite the retro look, this is still a high-tech instrument. You utilize the menu adjustments and two customizable electronic command dials constantly.
f/7.1 - 1/2500 sec. – ISO 400 - 17mm focal length
The Df features a bright 3.2" 921k-dot LCD for menu navigation, playback, and live view shooting, which is great to have when needed. It enables 19x magnification for precise focus check, and the absence of a video mode not only unclutters the slim camera body, but does the same for your head, possibly helping you become the still shooter you really want to be. Also added to the camera’s features are a hot-shoe mount and a PC flash sync terminal, a cable release socket in the shutter button, and a unique lens mount that allows the use of both AI and non-AI lenses. With the exception of the hot shoe, these features may be fluff to most users, but for those who utilize older techniques and gear, their inclusion is a godsend.
On the downside of its design, the camera’s body feels entirely too slim and angular to handhold even with a 70-200mm lens attached, let alone large professional telephoto lenses. Shooting with the special edition 50mm f/1.8 lens (or any other small prime) seems part and parcel of the Df’s project, letting you approach your work in an amateur, almost mannered way.
f/1.8 - 1/320 sec. – ISO 2500 - 50mm focal length
You become aware that this may be part of Nikon’s plan when you realize that the Df offers no battery grip, and its single memory card slot and battery are housed together under a metal door with old-fashioned access. This camera is not designed to “go fast or go home.” Even for those who still might be more comfortable with dials than menus, as I thought I was, the dials slow down the process. The lock button on the ISO dial necessitates two hands (or a very dexterous left hand) to adjust ISO, the AF/AE lock button is hard to reach, the shutter release button—which is surrounded by the On/Off dial and not located where your finger naturally falls—can be tricky when in a hurry or with gloves on. These elements simply slow you down. Furthermore, a mode dial that needs to be lifted straight up before you can turn it, no Auto on the ISO dial, no built-in flash, a small top-plate LCD info panel, and no light for the dials almost seem like intentional hurdles.
However, these hurdles, once cleared, don’t inhibit good picture taking. They’re just something to get used to. The top-of-the-line sensor, along with impressive low-light capability, high S/N ratio, great colors, and smooth tonal gradations create straight-up gorgeous images. And of course, the Df can be used by pro shooters. I have spoken to colleagues using it for work who are happy with its silent mode, lightweight metal build, large pentaprism viewfinder, RAW options, and, of course, the light sensitivity and image tone mentioned above. Pros can reap the benefits of going amateur too!
When a camera company gives you a form that forces you to slow down, the messages are mixed, but in my opinion, they are recognizing the amateur, the artist, and saying here is a camera you can shoot your way. Separate yourself from the pixel race to the bottom, and shoot with the kind of quality your images deserve.
D610: Go Pro With It
Where the Df provides reflection, the D610 offers promise. For all those who need a more affordable full-frame camera around which they can build a system, the D610 provides the promise of that start. It really is a “backdoor” entry to a career as a photographer. It’s not the ultra-high-resolution D800, or the fast and powerful D4 or D4S, but the D610 gives you what you need to get in the game, to shoot professionally, for both still images and video.
f/2.8 - 1/80 sec. – ISO 1600 - 32mm focal length
The full-frame, high-resolution 24.3MP CMOS sensor and EXPEED 3 image processor create very sharp images with clear details, great color depth, wide dynamic range, and the 6 fps continuous shooting speed enables fast action capability. Depending on your memory card, the D610 can shoot maximum resolution without a hiccup for 57-100 shots in JPEG, and up to 16 in RAW. Full 1080p HD video, DX crop mode, and 14-bit lossless compression RAW capture are supported by the D610. It truly is a wonderful camera and, even though it’s basically the same as the D600, two of its upgrades prove worthwhile. One is the 0.5 fps increase in continuous shooting speed, and the other, Quiet Continuous mode, allows you to be discreet while rattling off multiple exposures.
f/5 - 1/100 sec. – ISO 400 - 35mm focal length
Like the Nikon Df, the D610 features a 39-point AF system, and a maximum shutter speed of 1/4,000-second. I found that it focused slightly faster than the Df, with less hunting, especially in low light. I prefer not to use the AF Assist light, which definitely has a negative impact on AF speed in low light, but the alternative—a bright beam announcing your intention to shoot a photo—is worse.
Low-light sensitivity is one area in which the D610 trails the Df. Its native ISO range is 100-6400, and it expands to 50-25600. Compared side by side, the images from the larger pixels of the Df were less noisy than those of the D610 above ISO 6400. In fact, when the settings were identical on both cameras, the low-light images of the Df were much brighter than those of the D610.
f/2.8 - 1/40 sec. – ISO 2500 - 35mm focal length
The rear LCD monitor is 3.2" with 921,000 pixels, the equal of that on the Df. The pentaprism optical viewfinder, complete with 100% coverage and diopter adjustment, is also the same as on the Df and the other pro Nikons.
The one thing that cannot be compared between the Df and D610 is video capture, the reason being, of course, the Df doesn’t offer video capture. Regardless, the video imaging of the D610 is on par with any DSLR. It features Full HD 1080p at 30 fps and 24 fps and 720p at 60 fps. Manual exposure control, continuous autofocus, and an external microphone jack are supported. For some, this could be a deal-breaker when considering the Df. First of all, the D610 is impressive in its own right because what is considered an “entry-level” full frame has such full-service video capability, but comparing it to the Df in a bang-for-the-buck sense, how could you not prefer a camera that gives you more for less?
To me, the fundamental difference between these two cameras is not their sensors, ISO, or imaging specs, but their physical form—and how that determines the type of shooting you will do. Unlike the Df, the D610 has the standard Nikon form factor and grip, which enable it to be easily controlled with one hand. The shutter button is right where your finger falls. The mode dial offers quick changes, two command dials control exposure adjustments, and the compensation and dedicated video button are all within finger’s reach. With or without its customizable controls, any adjustment can easily be made without removing your eye from the viewfinder, and while menu navigation on high-end DSLRs can be intimidating at first, there is no doubt that adjusting and shooting with the D610 is faster than with the Df.
The D610 is not the big battler that the D4 series is, it is not weather-sealed or magnesium-alloy tough; in fact, the Df has a more durable build, on paper. Compared to the D800 and even to some earlier-generation APS-C models, the relative light weight of the D610 is one of its advantages. But, having used a D600 for two years, and given the D610 an intense workout, I can say that it takes a punch. It also can benefit from a battery grip to give it vertical stability, longer shooting times, and a beefier attitude.
The D610 does lack the AF-ON button and a PC terminal, but numerous features are provided for enhanced professional use, including the two custom “U” modes on the mode dial, and its two SD card slots. A built-in flash may not be a pro feature, but it lends the camera a “do-it-all” ethos. The D610 is ergonomic and large enough to hold any lens, and feels great with a 70-200mm up to your eye. Its speedy adjustments, responsiveness, video abilities and, of course, high-resolution, full-frame sensor make it the perfect camera as your first pro DSLR, or a more compact second camera for a more seasoned pro. Frankly, considering its price, it may be one of the best DSLRs available and certainly ideal for the advanced enthusiast.
Initially, I felt that the D610 and the Df were not well-suited for a comparison piece, however, I began to see them like two overlapping circles that share many qualities, despite their distinctiveness. Thinking about it now, with what both cameras could bring to your photography, the D610 and Df make a great 1-2 combination.