Review: Nikon Df

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They call it the Nikon Df. It’s a camera that creates lots of mixed emotions. Meant as a “pure photography” camera, there were a lot of hopes put behind the Df. At its heart is the sensor of the Nikon D4, which was an interesting decision. The Nikon Df is an attempt by Nikon to go retro as well, so its design takes from Nikon’s old F-series film cameras. While it’s not unpleasant to look at, it makes me ask, “Why?” When I was asked if I wanted to review this camera, I had to, being a long time Nikon user.

So how does the Nikon Df fare in everyday use? Let’s find out after the jump.


Pros and Cons

Pros

  • The Nikon Df works with the all current Nikon lenses back to the non-Ai ones.
  • The D4’s Sensor is amazing and gives usable images up to ISO 12,800.
  • The image quality of the Nikon Df is stunning.
  • The raw file sizes are smaller than the D800, yet retain a lot of versatility.
  • The camera is a decent size.
  • The shutter is not too loud.

Cons

  • The Nikon Df does not feel like $2,700. Also, the price is too close to the Nikon D800.
  • The Nikon Df has the same autofocusing system as the D610.
  • There is only room for one SD card.
  • The Shutter speed only goes up to 1/4000 of second.
  • The top dials seem like overkill, more retro chique than useful functionality.
  • The body seems like it has too much plastic.
  • The battery cover comes off too easy.
  • No Video capabilities.
  • The body feels like it should come with a wrist strap as the grip takes some getting used to.
  • The HDR function only works in JPEG mode, not when saving raw + JPEG.

Gear Used

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The Nikon DF was in and out of my Think Tank Urban Disguise 60 and my Lowepro Event Messenger 150. I tried to use lenses from every era. This is the only Nikon camera I have ever used that could use them all.

Lenses Used

Nikon AF-S 58mm f/1.4 G

Nikon 50mm f/1.2 Ai-S (manual focus)

Nikon 55mm f/2.8 Ai-S macro

Nikon AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 G

Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm f2.8

Nikon 80-200mm f4.5 (non-Ai)

Nikon 35-70mm f2.8D

Nikon 24mm f2.8D

Tamron 28-200mm f3.5-5.6

Nikon 28-80mm G

Tech Specs

From the B&H product listing.

  • 16.2MP FX-Format CMOS Sensor
  • EXPEED 3 Image Processor
  • 3.2″ 921k-Dot LCD Monitor
  • Optical Glass Pentaprism Viewfinder
  • Dedicated Still Image Only Camera
  • Mechanical Exposure Control Dials
  • Multi-CAM 4800 AF Sensor with 39 PointsExpandable Sensitivity: ISO 50-204800
  • Continuous Shooting up to 5.5 fps
  • Rugged Magnesium Alloy Body

Ergonomics

GServo-20131231-0003-2The front of the camera is different from previous digital Nikon models. The engineers apparently tried to make all functions available via buttons and dials, either as an afterthought or to save space on the inside of the body. The eyelets for the camera strap are located more to the front of the body. One eyelet can take the weight of the camera easily. The round dial on the front next to the Df letters is actually the sub-command dial. It takes a little getting used to but works well.

The grip is small, and takes some getting used to as well. I don’t like holding the DF without a wrist strap at least. The flash sync terminal is in the same place it is on film cameras, a nice touch. Just below it is the lens release button.

Nikon Df GServo-20131231-0021

The combined CPU and Ai notch (collapsible metering coupling lever) is the most innovative thing on the camera, as this allows you to use the old non-Ai lenses which cannot be used on other Nikon DSLRs.

Nikon Df GServo-20131231-0007

The bracketing button is easy to reach on the side of the camera. The AF mode button is similar to that of the D610 and D800, with the Focus mode selector located around it. Both are easily accessible for changes on the fly. The USB connector, HDMI connector and accessory terminal all have their own covers. They are easily accessible as well.

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The top of the camera is where most of the “retro” design comes into play. On the left, you’ll find an exposure compensation dial with an unlocking button. Exposure comp can only be controlled here. Below that you there’s the ISO control dial. The ISO setting can also be controlled in the menu.

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On the right side you’ll find the shutter speed dial, which works fine. If you set the camera to 1/3 step shutter speed increments, you can use the command dial and have greater control over your shutter speed. Truthfully, I never used the shutter speed dial. At the side of the shutter speed dial, there’s a lever for selecting the drive mode: single shot, continuous low and hi, quiet shutter, self timer and mirror-up.

The shutter release button and socket is also where the on/off switch is located. The LCD is tiny and gives just basic information such as shutter speed, aperture, remaining space on the memory card and the battery indicator. There is an LCD illuminator button as well for working at night. And finally, there’s also a dial for selecting the classic PSAM shooting modes.

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The shooting mode dial is located above the right eyelet. You have to lift it and turn it to change modes.

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The back of the camera is not retro at all–after all, there were no huge LCDs on old film cameras. Around the display, the typical control buttons and dials are arranged to the left and right. The playback button and delete button are located to the left of the viewfinder; to the right of it you’ll find a diopter adjustment button, AE/AF lock, the AF-on button and the main command dial.

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At the bottom, there’s the battery compartment as well as the (single) slot for the SD card. The Nikon Df uses a beefier version of the EN-EL14 battery called the Nikon EN-EL14a. It’s the same battery as in the Nikon D5300. You can use a EN-EL14 in the Nikon Df you will just have less shots.

Build Quality

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The Nikon Df does not feel like a $2,700 camera. In fact, it feels closer to the quality of a D600. It feels almost like plastic at some parts, specifically the dials. Compared to some of my old Nikon film cameras, specifically the later N60, N2020 and F80 SLRs, the Df feels closer to these cameras in many ways rather than the old F-series models. This is not a good thing. It’s like the Nikon Df took a step back in some aspects for the sake of nostalgia and the retro look.

I started liking Nikon for how cameras like the D90, D300, D700 felt in my hand, but the Df is defenitely a different thing.

Autofocus

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For $2,700, the autofocus performance is disappointing. The number of AF points can be set to 9, 21, 39 and 39 with 3D-tracking. These are same as on the Nikon D610. The autofocus selection area is as disappointing as well. Nikon seems to just have taken the Nikon D610’s autofocus to save some cash, instead of giving the Df an AF system that fits its premium appeal and price tag.

As with other aspects of the Nikon Df, it seems a bit limiting. We know the sensor can handle more–after all it’s from the D4. Overall though, the AF works fine.

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With the Nikon Df you have the possibility to shoot in DX mode. This shrinks your image area down to 23.4 x 15.5 mm from 36.0 x 23.9 mm the FX format. The autofocus areas tend to favor DX, as does the D610.

Ease of Use

One of my first images with the Df, Coffee with the Nikon 50mm f1.2

One of my first images with the Df, Coffee with the Nikon 50mm f1.2

The Nikon Df was a bit of a headache at first. The first thing I did was to figure out which controls to use. When I first held the camera, I thought our humor post had come true and the Nikon Df had a bunch of useless buttons. The controls could be easily streamlined. It seems that Nikon spent too much time trying to be retro, and the designers went for form over function. The only dials that I frequently used were the ISO dial and the exposure compensation. The drive mode selection lever felt to me like a novelty as best.

Once you get used to the camera, though, it’s pretty straightforward to use.

GServo-20140105-0092The menus are typical of Nikon with a with a few additions like the non-Ai lens control. Overall the menu system is easy to navigate. It’s intuitive and you can easily fine-tune the Nikon Df to your liking.

Metering

Iso 100, f5.6 , 1/100 sec on an overcast day

Iso 100, f5.6 , 1/100 sec on an overcast day

The metering on the Nikon DF works very well. To test it out I did a sunny 16 test just to see how it works without the camera making the decisions. I set the ISO to 100, and since it was an overcast day I set the camera to f5.6. The image came out properly exposed. This goes to say that the metering on the Nikon Df is pretty accurate.

80-200 4.5 Non-AI, ISO 1250, 200mm, f5, 1/800 sec

80-200 4.5 Non-AI, ISO 1250, 200mm, f5, 1/800 sec

The metering works independent from the lens with the Nikon Df. This makes using old Nikon lenses a dream. With the non-Ai lenses you set the Nikon Df to manual or aperture mode and it meters accordingly.

PC Nikkor 35mm 2.8, iso 200, f7.1, 1/50 sec

PC Nikkor 35mm 2.8, iso 200, f7.1, 1/50 sec

With a lens like a PC-Nikkor 35mm f2.8, you set the Nikon DF to manual mode, adjust the aperture on the lens and use the dials to match the settings. The camera meters accordingly. With the other current Nikon DSLRs, I would have to use a light meter or the sunny 16 rule to get a properly exposed image.

Image Quality

50 f1.2 df GServo-20131211-0005

Overall the image quality is simply amazing. Despite all my gripes, Nikon got this part right. This is one of most important parts of this camera, as it is where the love/hate issue comes in. If this camera was a bit cheaper or had an 1/8000 shutter setting, then it would be truly lovely.

High ISO

IS0 12800, 300mm, f5.6 1/100sec

IS0 12800, 300mm, f5.6 1/100sec

The ISO capabilities of the Nikon Df are truly amazing. Images are more than usable at ISO 12,800 and still usable at the highest possible ISO setting. This is where the Df shines–it truly is the king of the night. And just the night. On a bright day, the camera is limited by its shutter speed, especially if you are using a lens like the Nikon 50mm f1.2. You need an ND filter if you want to work with fast lenses wide open. (Though this is true for most cameras when paired with super-fast lenses.)

Raw File Versatility

under exposed image

under exposed image

In case you do screw up the exposure with the Nikon Df, you have a lot of information to work with in the raw files. The largest raw file size when shooting 14-bit and uncompressed is 34.3 MB. I was shooting with the camera’s default setting, which is 14-bit and lossless compressed. This created a 19.4 MB file. This was a lot of pixels as well as color and brightness information to work with. The above underexposed image was easily salvageable, see below.

edited file

The above image, edited from the raw file

Video Quality

This could have been the beginning of a nice video.

This could have been the beginning of a nice video.

A part of me asked, “Why the hell is there no video mode available on the Nikon Df?” So I picked up my Nikon D700 and thought, “All right I get it.” Technically, the Nikon Df is the successor to the Nikon D700. The Df has the sensor from the Nikon D4, and the D700 used the same sensor as the D3. Also, the Df and the D700 both spec down on features the D4 and D3 have. And finally, the Df and the D700 are both cameras meant just for photography. I think Nikon went a bit too far on the “pure photography” marketing though. Either that, or something was lost in translation.

If Nikon would have just put a shutter capable of 1/8000 second the Nikon Df could have actually been a true Nikon D700 successor and I would have thrown my money at them without question.

Additional Image Samples

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IS0 50, f1.4 1/4000 sec

IS0 50, f1.4 1/4000 sec

Taken with the Nikon 50mm 1.2

Taken with the Nikon 50mm 1.2

Conclusions

The Nikon Df has a lot going for it, so it’s not a complete disappointment. It was fun putting my classic lenses on the Nikon Df and seeing them shine. The image quality is superb, but it’s sad that Nikon decided to take the fantastic sensor from the D4 and then limit it by down-spec’ing the camera. The controls are more complicated than they should be for pure photography, which makes me question Nikon’s strategy. I understand they were trying to follow the trend with the whole retro thing, but they put too much thought into the design and not into the user experience in my opinion.

In the end though, I could see myself owning the Nikon Df at some point. It will be a used or refurbished camera one day or the price will have to come down to a more palatable level. This camera is good for event photographers and wedding photographers especially if you don’t need video capabilities, despite all its flaws.

Recommended Lenses and Accessories

If you want that true retro feel with the camera, get yourself a legacy Nikon 50mm f1.2. This lens is all manual and performs very well. It’s ultra sharp on the Nikon Df and you can do almost anything with it. If you can’t find a Nikon 50mm f1.2, try looking for the Nikon 50mm 1.8E. This lens is small on the Nikon Df and has a great look. I have recommended some other lenses for the Nikon Df in the past as well. Also, refer to the list of lenses used for this review at the beginning of the article.

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A Sigma 24-105mm  f4 is also a good pairing for the Nikon Df. Despite all my gripes it’s a decent camera for event photography because of the ISO range. The Sigma 24-105mm f4 gives you a lot of range to play with, allowing you to go a long time with having to change a lens. You can also get away with not using a flash at all.

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Gevon Servo

Gevon Servo aka @GServo is an eclectic, NJ/NY Photographer. He’s a Nikon shooter, by choice nevertheless, will always test any piece of photography equipment. He believes that like ‘Photography’, ‘Coffee’,’Beer’ and ‘Comics Books’ and other things ‘Geek’ “You must try everything once to discover what you want to try again.