Camera review: Nikon Df – the steampunk Nikon D4
The anachronistically retro styling of the Nikon Df (B&H / Amazon), along with the digital trappings, really makes this the steampunk D4. Especially so since it has the same top-notch sensor as the Nikon D4 (affiliate)
If you have used a film camera, and specifically one of the F-series cameras, this camera will catch your eye. It’s obvious that Nikon is aiming at the same sector of photographers who found the Fuji X100s (affiliate) so appealing. That vintage look and styling definitely brings a certain cool factor into play. I bought the original Fuji X100, and then the Fuji X100s partly because it looked sexy. It looked like a fun and eye-catching camera, that also happens to be a serious machine.
Now we have the Nikon Df, and it takes all your Nikon lenses and accessories. Perfect for those photographers who would find this styling interesting, and already have an array of gear. I really think this camera is meant for the connoisseur – someone who wants a camera that is stylish looking, and a superb image-making tool.
Yup, it’s all quite interesting. But let’s have a look at how the Nikon Df (affiliate) performs and handles in actual use. At the same time we’ll see how it stacks up against the bigger super-awesome Nikon D4 (affiliate)
Nikon Df controls, dials and knobs
When you look at the rear of the camera, it should look very familiar to any Nikon DLSR owner. The controls and buttons are placed in a consistent manner. This means that anyone who tries the Nikon Df for the first time, should have an easy time figuring the camera out.
Nothing there that you can see on the back needs explanation. As you may notice, the metering modes have moved to the back. I would guess that that is because it is a relatively modern addition to cameras, and wouldn’t fit or make sense on the top deck.
The view of the top deck is where the basic settings are revealed.
On the left-hand side, you have the ISO setting (via a dial that locks into place), and the Exposure Compensation dial (which also locks into place.) Both these dials are easily adjusted. They have a soft ratchety sound when you change settings. The ISO can be changes from L1 (50 ISO) all the way to crazy-high ISO settings, past 12,800 ISO. (No, I haven’t ventured there yet with my D4.)
One negative for me about the ISO there, is that you can’t see the ISO setting from the exterior of the camera when you’re shooting in the dark. You have to change custom function d3 so that the display in the viewfinder shows your ISO (instead of Frames Remaining), and then you can see your ISO in your viewfinder. This makes most sense to me, especially since the frame counter is visible on the top LCD display.
That brings us to the right-hand side of the top deck.
There is the obvious shutter speed dial. Typical of the older generation film cameras, the shutter speed is in full stop indents. If you need 1/3-rd stop indents (and this really does make sense with digital), then you can lock the shutter dial to the 1/3 Step setting. Now you can adjust your shutter speed via the rear dial, just like any other Nikon DSLR. The shutter dial has a loud ratchety sound. Sadly, nowhere near as slick as the Fuji X100s controls.
The large knurled knob on the front of the camera (right next to the Df logo), is the aperture dial. This dial is not as smooth as it might be, or as I would’ve preferred it. It too makes a loud ratchety sound, unless you use two fingertips on it to rotate the dial.
As an aside, I never quite did adapt back to Nikon’s layout after shooting with Canon cameras for several years, so I use custom function f7 to change main & sub dials’ function around. Now the shutter speed is adjusted with the large knurled knob on the front, and the rear dial is the aperture dial. This is just preference, and is typical of how everyone can customize modern cameras to their own taste.
There is also the Drive settings, with the usual selection of options from Single to Continuous High, Mirror Up and Self-Timer. There is also the Q setting, where the camera is quieter with the mirror return being delayed. To my ear, this setting doesn’t help all that much to dampen the impact of the sound in quiet surroundings.
On that topic – the Nikon Df shutter is quieter than the gatling-gun loudness of the Nikon D4. That’s a bonus.
The exposure mode dial needs to be lifted and locked into place to change exposure modes. That’s fine by me, since I rarely stray from Manual Exposure Mode.
Then there is the small info panel, showing you the shutter speed and aperture and frame counter.
That’s pretty much it, and it all makes sense.
Specifications of the Nikon Df
- 16.3 Mp sensor, same as the Nikon D4 sensor
- EXPEED 3 image processor, same as the D610; D800 and D4 (and related cameras)
- native ISO range: 100 – 12,800, which is further expandable to ISO 204800
- Multi-CAM 4800 Autofocus Sensor, with 39 AF points. (Similar to D610)
- exposure metering via the intelligent Scene Recognition System with 3D Color Matrix Metering II
- Viewfinder Magnification Approx. 0.7x
- Diopter Adjustment – 3 to +1 m
- Display Screen 3.2″ Rear Screen LCD (921,000) – similar to Nikon D4
- ISO range: 100-12800 (Extended Mode: 50-204800)
- Shutter speed range: 30 – 1/4000 sec
- external flash is connected via hot-shoe or PC Terminal
- max flash sync speed is 1/200
Note that even though the max flash sync speed is a 1/3rd stop slower than that of the D4 and D800 cameras, this doesn’t have as much effect on flash range as you’d expect. More about that in this related article:
The Nikon Df – what’s missing?
- No video. Yup, no video mode at all. This will tie in well with photographers who insist they don’t want or need video, and just want a more pure picture-making machine. But there is a Live-View mode, so I suppose it might be technically possible for some enterprising photographers to record the Live-View feed via the HDMI cable? Even then, using a DSLR with video capability would be easier.
- With no video mode, this also means no Time-lapse mode.
- There is no Battery Info in the Set-Up Menu.
- No second card slot. This could be a serious omission for professional use.
- A dedicated Flash Exposure Compensation button is missing from the exterior of the camera. I found this one of the flaws of the D2x / D3 / D3s cameras – you couldn’t adjust FEC from the camera body. You could with the D700 and other bodies. It was only with the D4 that the FEC could be controlled directly from the body, instead of reaching for the back of the speedlight. [ correction / clarification – You can actually adjust the FEC with a button on the back of the camera. It’s more clumsy than a dedicated button on the front of the body of the camera where fingers can easily reach it by feel.]
The Nikon Df – what’s new? (aside from the obvious)
The Retouch Menu has some extra effects – Fisheye; Color Outline; Color Sketch; Miniature effect; Selective Color.
That’s it really. Not much new was added. With the camera being a stripped down, more lean stills-only camera, it wouldn’t make sense to swing the other way and add a host of other features.
Initial reaction (from others) to the Nikon Df
The strikingly handsome look of this camera (for this day and age), set off unprecedented reaction amongst photographers on the internet. There was immediate interest in this camera which looks so
unique sexy. News about the sensor quality obviously meant this was a serious camera.
Yet, there was also the (expected) negative reaction somehow. Without the camera even hitting the streets, there were howls of outrage. “Worst camera that Nikon ever made.” “This camera is a joke.” “Over-priced.” Even F-stoppers got in on the act with the hyperbolic, “the Nikon Df represents everything wrong with photography.” Wanting to own a (very capable) camera because it looks interesting, is seen as a negative? Somehow you can’t be a capable photographer and a camera enthusiast.
So much abuse even before anyone as much as held the camera. But that is what is wrong with photographers (on the internet) – it has somehow become cool to be critical and cold. But enough of this little soapbox – back to the camera. It is beautiful. But how does it handle?
Ergonomics – how does the Nikon Df handle?
This section could also be called: the Nikon Df vs Nikon D4. My main system is based around the D4 bodies, and I am very used to them, and love their ergonomics for the most part. The one thing that is a major flaw with the D4 (and previous versions), is that the Quality and WB buttons are right next to each other. Yes, you think you’re adjusting the WB, but instead, with a slip of the thumb, you’re changing from RAW to Small JPG. But I digress .. back to the Nikon Df.
Right off, I have to admit to being ambivalent about the ergonomics of the Nikon Df. Nikon cameras have rapidly developed from the F3 to the F4 and the fantastic F5 … which then became the basis for the D1x; D2x; D3; D4 progression. Each incarnation improved in some ways on the previous generation … right up to the point now where we have the very sleek Nikon D4 (affiliate) as their top camera.
Similarly, the top Nikon bodies such as the Nikon D810 (affiliate) and Nikon D610 (affiliate) have excellent ergonomics, shaping the box-with-a-lens structure as best possible to the human hand. Controls fall just right under your finger-tips.
And now we have the Nikon Df (affiliate) a throwback to a previous era. It looks great, but the handling is clunky. You have to reach with your fingers for the shutter dial at the top … unless of course you wisely settled for the 1/3 Step setting, and use the front and rear dials. Being so accustomed to modern cameras, I found the Nikon Df slightly awkward to use when shooting.
The Auto-Focus is solid. No complaints there. For everyday photography, you wouldn’t notice a difference compared to the D4. You certainly have enough AF modes to choose from.
One thing I should note – I have large hands. And as they say about men with large hands – we need large cameras. With a smaller camera, most of the weight of the camera and lens is borne by my fore- and middle-fingers. So the (smaller) camera hinges against the center of the palm of my hand. This means my camera-holding hand quickly starts to cramp. I really do need a larger camera like the D3 / D4 / Canon 1D series, because then the grip of the camera hinges against the edge of my hand, and there’s less torque that 4 fingers now have to deal with. This is a huge factor for me in choosing a larger camera, or a grip for a smaller camera.
The Nikon Df is a small camera. (5.6 x 4.3 x 2.6″) It is smaller than the Nikon D610 (affiliate). So for me, it would be an uncomfortable camera to use for extended periods. For professional work, I need the size of the Nikon D4 (affiliate) or similar sized cameras.
The Nikon Df as picture making tool
I took numerous photos with the Nikon Df, getting a feel for the camera, and testing it out. The image quality is superb. Just as good as my Nikon D4. Stellar!
Since no one really wants to see series of test shots of my garden and random objects in and around my house, I met up with Elle for a late afternoon photo session. This and the photo at the top were taken about an hour before the sun went down. Shooting towards the sun, we had this lovely open available light. This next image and the top image were taken in the same place.
Aside from slight skin retouching, these are the out-of-camera JPGs.
And here is the pull-back shot. Trees and a car-park and a road. But by using the tight compression of a 70-200mm lens at 200mm focal length, you can be very selective about the background. You can also shift slightly and change the lighting, by letting the sun just barely peek past the person you’re photographing.
This next image was photographed in front of a convenience store where we stopped along the way. Elle is lit up by the fluorescent lights in front of the shop and the display signs and some of the lights in the car park. I shot rapid sequences here to make sure that I did get a few images where the skin tones were good and the lighting even. (Fluorescent lights tend to show a cycling variation in light, changing intensity and color.)
The background consists of cars moving past in the street behind us, as well as lights from the cars being parked in the parking lot. The red light to her left, is my own car, where I had the emergency lights switched on to help give color to the background. The pull-back shot is revealing.
Elle holding the Nikon Df that I used to photograph her. (I took this shot with a D4 I had with me, specifically for pull-back shots.) Yes, she really stood there for the image above. With an 85mm lens used wide-open, the background will melt away into a lovely blur. You can make pretty much any place be an awesome background with this lens.
If you’d like a less expensive option, the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.8G (affiliate) is a superb lens too. You’d get a very similar effect at f/1.8
Custom function settings of the Df – my preferences
- custom function c2 – Standby Timer
Change the camera to not switch the display off in an annoyingly short time. 1 Minute should be better.
- custom function c4 – Monitor off delay
Similary, set longer times for the camera to keep the image up on the LCD, and the various displays up.
- custom function d3 – ISO display
Let the display in the viewfinder show your ISO (instead of Frames Remaining)
- custom function d9 – LCD illumination.
This setting is very handy on the other Nikon bodies. When you touch any button, the LCD displays light up so you can see your settings. With the Nikon Df, it is less crucial, but still nice not to have to reach for the button that lights up the top LCD display.
- custom function f2 – OK button
Change the Playback mode to show the enlarged image when you hit the OK button.
- custom function f4 – Assign Fn button
I like this button to disable the flash.
Whether I would heartily recommend this camera, really depends on your intention with the camera, and what you expect from this camera. In a sense I am ambivalent about this camera. The image quality is truly first-class. Best of the DSLR herd, along with the Nikon D4 and Canon 1Dx. That in itself sets it apart from the vast majority of cameras.
In terms of handling, I do think the vintage styling makes the camera more clunky to handle and control than it needed to be.
The smaller body would be difficult for me to use for extended periods. Conversely though, this means it would be a great walk-about camera.
On a side-note, this camera shows again that there’s a gap in Nikon’s line-up – I do believe there’s a need (and a market) for a true successor to the D700, and a direct competitor to the Canon 5D mark III. A D700x with a D4 sensor. That would please a lot of people.
As it is, Nikon Df (affiliate) is priced on a similar level as the 36 megapixel Nikon D810 (affiliate). Different cameras for different needs and tastes. Ultimately though,the Nikon Df doesn’t touch the Nikon D4 when it comes to being a responsive camera where the controls fall right under your fingers and everything is easily accessible. But then, you can buy two Nikon Df bodies for less than the price of a single Nikon D4 (affiliate).
Since the Nikon Df brings such excellent image quality at a relatively reasonable price, this might make a great back-up camera to the D4. The completely different layout to the controls would slow me down thought, since I like working with cameras which are exactly the same – then I don’t have to think about placement of controls.
As mentioned at the start, I do believe this camera is meant to appeal to the connoisseur – someone who would love to use and own a beautiful retro-styled camera, with a top-class sensor. This camera is meant to look good! And why shouldn’t we proudly show and use the cameras we are using. And no, I have never taped up my camera to be all ninja-stealth. I don’t intend to ever.
So would I recommend this camera? Yes, maybe, perhaps. There’s that ambivalence again. This really is a camera that you’d best try out in a camera store and see if it appeals to you, and feels good in your hands. It will certainly look great in your hands – and your images too.