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When I first learned about the Nikon Df, I have to admit, I was pretty excited. Still primarily a film-based shooter, and a relatively recent new owner of a digital camera, I thought the Df would satisfy my desire to remain simplicity oriented while still offering me the digital capabilities required by the photographic world of today. The real question is: as a D800 owner, would the Df win me over?
Backtracking some, I am most familiar and comfortable working with cameras such as the Mamiya 7II, Mamiya RB67, and 4 x 5 large format cameras. While the Nikon Df is obviously not a replacement for these, I was still delighted to have a somewhat familiar control set and basic form factor with which to work. In the summer of 2012, I acquired my very first digital camera, the Nikon D800. I saw this as the best gateway for me into a completely digital workflow, as it had the highest resolution of any camera in its class and was already well known for its ability to render a wide dynamic range. For me, this seemed like the only logical means for relieving my film gear for the time being. The one drawback, in a sense, was that there was just so much to the camera. So much video, so much autofocus, so much metering. It was somewhat counterintuitive for me to have to learn everything I could about the camera, simply so I could find the best way to ignore most of it.
A year later, my Luddite attitude had subsided and I championed the all-around abilities of the D800. But when the Df was released, a bit of recently subsided nostalgia came creeping back when I saw analog dials, the ability to accept nearly any Nikon F-mount lens, and even the most negligible of features such as a threaded shutter button to accept a conventional cable release.
So here I was, facing a personal dilemma for the first time since entering the digital marketplace. I knew in my heart that my D800 was a better camera, but that's hardly the reason for picking and choosing a camera anymore—if ever. Even going back to my other cameras, the RZ67 was always a better camera than the RB67, but it just never felt or looked right to me. And besides, the Df is certainly no slouch when it comes to the imagery it produces.
To resolve this melodrama, I was offered the chance to review the two cameras side-by-side; my D800 versus the new Df. Before even getting into the cameras themselves, the first point to address was their cost. Nikon's hypothesis, apparently, is that value does not directly translate to raw technology and specs. In this case, there appears to be some kind of pecuniary based value attached to emotion. The difficulty with this, coming from a consumer's standpoint, is how much are my emotions worth? Both cameras are priced roughly the same, but on paper, the Nikon D800 outperforms the Df in most regards, with the notable exceptions being low-light sensitivity, speed, and size.
From here I developed a fairly non-scientific approach to reviewing these two cameras since, ultimately, their differences and benefits cannot be measured by simple specs. I tested in two distinct ways: first, I shot in a controlled manner and worked with each camera, duplicating the settings between the Df and D800; second, since I am already familiar with the D800 and have shot numerous images with it, I felt it only necessary to give some undivided attention to the Df and use it solely in a real-world setting, with no D800 to bog me down. The latter half of testing, I felt, would address the position in which the Df is poised to sit in the marketplace, and I could write more about the way it is being marketed.
The first portion of working with these two cameras had me sitting in my studio in an all-night-into-the-morning shooting marathon. Here, I was working with both of the camera bodies, as well as a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens and a Zeiss Planar T* 50mm f/1.4 ZF.2 lens. Each shot had me working from a tripod and duplicating the exposure and lens settings between the two cameras. I bracketed my exposures across the entire ISO range, including Lo and Hi settings of each camera, giving me 10 separate exposures per image for the D800 and 13 for the Df, and maintained a consistent middle aperture. Beyond these settings, I also worked with the Neutral Picture Control setting and kept other camera features, such as D-Lighting, to their normal base settings. What I was looking to test here was the usable sensitivity range of each camera, as well as just the sheer rendering abilities as they relate to dynamic range and color and tonal qualities.
As expected, the two cameras were pretty much level throughout the base exposures up to about ISO 3200, which is where the D800's image quality began to break down in the nighttime shot. Some color noise and blotchiness developed, which became more noticeable through to Hi-2 (ISO 25600), where the image completely evaporated into a red blur of noise. On the other hand, the Df remained relatively color-neutral, even into its own expanded sensitivities (Hi-1 and Hi-2, or ISO 25600 and ISO 51200), but at the expense of some general increasing noise and blotchiness. By Hi-3/ISO 102400, the Df began to break down into unusable-image-quality territory.
By sunrise, I chose a fitting new subject—a 4 x 5 camera—to test sensitivity and image quality in a more well-lit situation. The same test was run, and the results remained relatively the same. However, when working with subjects in daylight settings, the appearance of noise didn't begin to affect the image quality nearly as much as it did during the nighttime shot. The black areas of the camera, notably the lens board and the bellows, are the main regions where noise is more apparent and is the clear distinguisher between the D800 and Df.
Looking back at these two tests, they pretty much told me what I had already expected, but obviously in a much more visually representative manner. The Df, with the same 16.2MP sensor in the D4, held up against high sensitivities better than the 36.3MP sensor of the D800. Both cameras, however, went toe-to-toe throughout the native ISO settings and, in my opinion, the D800 takes the edge with greater detail and higher resolution. To each his own, though—both cameras were capable of delivering excellent image quality.
After becoming acquainted with how the Df performed at the studio, and how the imaging attributes of the two cameras compared, I set out to test what, to me, was ultimately the whole purpose for comparing these two cameras. The results of the side-by-side shoot-off were predictable, but these tests hardly play into the one feature that the Df Nikon is banking on: how it handles during a normal photo session. In order to accurately test this, I felt it necessary to use the Df on its own, uncoupled to the D800 so I could, as Nikon puts it, "rediscover the joy of photography."
When working in a testing methodology, you are hardly reaping the supposed benefits or experiencing the nuances around which the Df is designed. The mechanical dials and forced slow pace that the Df is meant to instill cannot truly be seen when working with the camera atop a tripod, making sequential exposures. So I left the city with just the Df and its kit lens, the AF-S 50mm f/1.8G Special Edition, to simply use the camera and experience handling it on its own.
This is where the Df differentiated itself from any other digital camera I had ever used. The ergonomics felt familiar, but still did take some getting used to and, unfortunately, weren't as instantly intuitive as I had hoped. After the initial learning curve of only an hour or so, I felt like I had the control set down with some minor tweaks to the preset configuration.
“…it must be reinforced that the imaging capabilities of the Df are second to none.”
My first point of contention with the physical design of the camera was the front-most dial, the sub-command dial, which is programmed as the aperture selector by default. Compared to the D800, on which the sub-command dial is set within easy reach of the right index finger when shooting, the Df's front-mounted sub-command dial was much less accessible. It is tightly tuned, making it somewhat difficult to adjust with just the tip of the finger, and was also harder to manipulate when the camera was held to my eye. In order to resolve this issue, it was easy enough to swap the functions of both the sub-command and main command dials so I had aperture control via the rear, thumb-accessible, main command dial. Since I most often work in aperture-priority mode, this seemed like a more natural fit. The one caveat to this is, if working with a lens with an aperture ring, you can set a custom option to have the aperture setting controlled manually via the lens ring, leaving the main command dial available for shutter-speed selection when working in manual modes. In either case, I found myself gravitating toward working in ways in which I could avoid using the sub-command dial whenever possible.
The second aspect of handling I felt was particularly unintuitive at first was the switching of ISO sensitivities, mostly related to how the ISO sensitivity dial and its respective lock button functioned together. Unlike the exposure compensation dial, which is mounted atop the ISO sensitivity dial, and features a centrally positioned locking button, the ISO sensitivity dial's lock button is set off to the side and must be held down when switching between sensitivities. In this configuration it was more difficult than necessary to switch between sensitivities without using two hands or a slightly cumbersome one-handed action. Regardless, after becoming accustomed to this, it didn't bother me so much, since I rarely switch ISO speeds that frequently. Furthermore, there is also the option available to use the Auto ISO function, via the menu system, which often negates the setting of sensitivities with the dial altogether.
f/13, 1/15, ISO 50
These two physical design nuances seem to be the result of trying to fit a digital camera into film camera's clothing. On film cameras, on which the Df is based, there was no need for sub- and main command dials, and as such, the location of the sub-command dial feels especially out of place. And in regard to the ISO dial, it is set to lock into place just as one would want when working with a film camera. This difference here is that you are not confined to a single ISO for the duration of a 36-exposure roll of film, so it would have made more sense to make the dials a bit more friendly to the more contemporary, more digital way of shooting, where ISO can be variable from shot to shot.
Beyond these initial hurdles of configuring the camera to function more intuitively for me, there were numerous assets the Df afforded that outshone a few of its shortcomings. In physical design alone, besides the initial drawbacks previously mentioned, the feel of the dials when they are turned is a welcome change to functioning only on the command and sub-command dials of the D800; especially in regard to the mode selector dial, where you pull up and turn the dial to switch between PASM modes, as well as the drive mode switch that offered an especially satisfying "click."
One of the other main design elements that harks back to the film era in a truly positive way is the incorporation of a folding Ai indexing tab in the lens mount. Not seen on Nikon cameras since the F5, this selectable tab permits the use of older, non-Ai lenses without the worry of damaging your equipment. I didn't have an old enough lens to test this feature, but was excited enough by the ability to make use of legacy equipment that all other Nikon DSLRs have effectively rendered obsolete.
One point worth noting in regard to this feature, however, is one downside to almost all DSLRs in comparison to their film SLR brethren: the Df does not afford one the opportunity to (easily) switch focusing screens. As someone who prefers to work with manual focus lenses, this has been one of my gripes from my early days of working with DSLRs. It is something that one must come to accept with a camera like the D800, but with the Df, it seemed to signal an oversight by Nikon. They went out of their way to incorporate a feature that enables the use of a wide array of manual-focus-only legacy lenses, yet didn't see this implementation all the way through by also permitting the switching of focusing screens, or even better, including a split-prism focusing screen as standard for the Df. It is somewhat aggravating that they would invite and encourage you to use legacy lenses, but limit your manual-focusing abilities by something as plain as a their Type B BriteView Clear Matte Mark VIII screen. To truly reap the benefits of working with a manual focus lens, and to reinforce the entire physical design of the camera itself, there should have been at least the option to insert a split prism focusing screen in order to gain a more comparative method for focusing.
f/2, 1/250, ISO 800
On the other side of the focusing coin is the autofocus performance. For my own purposes, I felt the 39-point system, with nine cross-type points, was adequate for the subject matter and pace at which I shoot (and the pace the Df seems to force upon you). It would hunt for focus at times in less than ideal light, but never to an extent with which I'd be concerned. When locked-on, too, focus was sharp and accurate. When working with moving subject matter, the focus would miss more frequently. Interestingly enough, when compared to the D800, which is not designed for low-light shooting or action shooting, the Df's AF system is lesser in both regards, where its imaging performance excels in comparison.
On the positive side of shooting with the Df, in short, it is just fun to work with. Even though some of the control designs took a little getting used to at first, the Df is certainly a tool designed for tinkering. Unlike something more automated, this camera embraces the fact that you must be cognizant of everything you are doing. In turn, this leads to being able to produce photographs with a greater feeling of confidence and definition. As a tool, it isn't the most efficient for accomplishing tasks in a speedy manner. But when you want to photograph for the sake of enjoyment, the Df holds its own as one of the more pleasurable shooting experiences I have had in some time. It broke up my working process and injected it with a good dose of technical reasoning, which in some nostalgic-related ways, was comforting. To call this "pure photography," though; I'm not sure. That description would almost fall more in line with a fully automated point-and-shoot in many ways. Rather, after use, I feel like a better tagline for the Df could be something more along the lines of "make photography your own" or "for those who wish to toil." And as another analogy for many, this camera is the equivalent to Legos in the age of Nintendo. It is fascinating, frustrating, and rewards those with patience, in spite of other more technologically advanced options around.
f/2, 1/800, ISO 3200
Beyond any tagline or attempt to equate this camera to something, it must be reinforced that the imaging capabilities of the Df are second to none. By employing the same image sensor as the D4, one would expect this to be the result, and it is somewhat unfortunate that the sensor, in many ways, takes a backseat to the more controversial attributes of the camera's design and performance. In the end, image quality is all that really matters from a camera; it doesn't matter what it took to get the shot if the results are still there.
After using the Df on its own for a weekend, it was time for me to relinquish the camera and spend some time evaluating exactly how it felt to use and how it performed in light of the D800. The following are the main points I took away:
One of the main reasons I initially chose the D800 was for its ability to produce a file size similar to that of a normal scan of film, and for this reason alone the Df is not suitable for my needs. For most, though, the 16.2MP resolution is suitable for general needs and the 36.3MP resolution of the D800 is much higher than needed.
Certain aspects I learned to love (the handling in most regards, the looks, the slower pace it demands) and certain aspects, I realized, were just not designed with me in mind (the sub-command dial, the focus screen, and the somewhat mixed and matched feature set in general).
Not that I would use it, though. With the chance of sounding a bit hypocritical, I wish the opportunity were available despite the fact I have only recorded video twice in more than a year with my D800.
Even with as much criticism one can dispense on the Df, it must be highlighted, reinforced, and stated constantly: the Df is an excellent camera. It really is. What it is designed to do, it does very well. It is just difficult and cumbersome at times to realize this. In my own ideal world, I would love to see a meshing of the D800 and the Df: a high-resolution, high-performance, stripped-down model that helps to arrive at the final destination in the most simple, straightforward path. This simple path is ultimately what Nikon was searching for when designing the Df, and while the path is there, it is not quite as simple or accessible as its designers may have intended.