Friday, December 6, 2013

Nikon Df - a hands-on review

First thing I did when the Nikon Df arrived for testing was to open a case I have filled with some of my favorite older Nikon lenses, and mounted a 58mm f/1.2 Noct-Nikkor on the camera. The camera just seemed to be begging for a lens like that.  It looked just right, and I knew immediately this was going to be a fun review.

The Df (where "f" supposedly stands for fusion of old and new, "D") is a full-frame DSLR with 16mp sensor and processing engine of the Nikon D4, coupled with a 39 point AF system taken from the D610. It is housed in a retro style, weather sealed body with a design hearkening back to the earlier film era. To emphasize this point it also comes with an AI (Auto-indexing) lever to sync the camera with older lenses.

A Nikon Df camera mounted with an original Noct-Nikkor f/1.2 lens. Behind is a Nikon F2 and several older lenses: Nikon 80-200mm f/4 zoom, Nikon 105mm f/4 macro lens, Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom, and on the F2 a 105mm f/2 defocus Nikkor.
If anything, the Df seems like a replacement for the D700, but with a rugged, retro look and feel that adds an extended experience to the package. Many photographers, me included, loved the D700 as a smaller backup camera to the D3. It had the same innards, same results, but in a more compact, less expensive body. The Df has a similar relationship to the D4 but adds in the retro feel as a bonus. If you were a D700 aficionado, you are probably going to like the Df.

That said, this is not the camera I expected and hoped Nikon would build when the first rumors of a retro design surfaced. I had expected more of a 24mp D610 sensor but with some added enhancements, like the 51 autofocus point viewfinder of the D800. I think I am still disappointed that Nikon opted for 16mp and a smaller focus array instead, especially when we consider the high price of this model relative to the rest of their lineup. But it is what it is, and I will judge on that.


The Df has the same sensor and processing engine asNikon's workhorse D4 camera. I do the majority of my professional work with a Nikon D4 so it was easy for me to make comparisons between the two. Aside from image quality, there are some substantial differences. A D4 can shoot at 10fps for what seems an unlimited amount of time in RAW.  The Df is going to cap out at 23 RAW images shot at 5.5fps. For normal usage, this is probably sufficient, but it is no D4.  The D4 has 51 AF points spread out in a large array making it easier to place one on a point far away from the center of the frame. I spend a lot of my professional time photographing models and like to put the main focus point on one of the model's eyes. Rarely are the eyes anywhere near the center of the frame.

The review of this camera's image performance is going to be a non-review. Why? Because this camera delivers the exact same image results as a Nikon D4, and things don't get much better than that in the realm of high performance digital cameras.

The Df controls are primarily made up of levers, dials, and knobs -- just the way it used to be when analog film cameras still ruled the world. The camera works like a fine Swiss chronograph. Once you know where the dials are and know what each one does -- all of which is intuitive and easy -- operating this camera is a piece of cake, and a lot of fun to boot. 
Normally I include a large number of images taken by the camera I am testing. In this case, the image results are a foregone conclusion. So I only included a few along with the high ISO test results. Suffice it to say the images are exactly the same as those coming from a Nikon D4, and that is saying a lot. Instead, for this review I found myself concentrating more on views of the camera itself as I realized the actual experience of using and handling the camera is what the Df adds to the mix -- something that other cameras simply do not have.

The Df has enough dials and knobs on it to make a fine Swiss watchmaker envious. Dials and their placement has been well thought out, and after a short while the photographer is able to make rapid changes with them and not have to look away from the viewfinder to do it. There is only one small digital window on the top surface of the camera body, but it is sufficient to display essential information such as images remaining, battery condition, shutter speed, aperture, and a few other settings.

Although bristling with knobs and dials, the Df is a true digital camera and can be operated with two control wheels like most Nikon DSLR's. The front wheel has been disguised to blend in with the retro look of the body, but it works similarly to what you would find on other Nikon cameras.

A new menu option of the Custom Setting Menu allows for command dial override of the manual shutter speed dial setting in 1/3 stop increments.

The manual shutter speed dial works only in full stops, but can be set to a 1/3 stop setting where it comes under digital control. There is also a special feature under the Custom Setting Menu that allows on/off of "Easy shutter-speed shift". Turning this feature "ON" allows the front command dial to select intermediate shutter settings in 1/3 increment even though the top dial is being used manually. This is very handy for those of us who would like to use the intuitive dial to select shutter speed, but occasionally want to fine tune the speed adjustment. A feature such as this illustrates that a great deal of thought went into the design of this camera. Nikon didn't just slap a shutter dial on top of the camera body for the retro look. They also supplied three methods of adjusting it -- manual only, manual with command dial adjustment, and command dial only.

the Df has built-in accommodation for older Nikon lenses. Lenses that cannot be read directly by the camera can have their data entered manually, as I did here with my Noct-Nikkor 58mm. Once done, the lens data will be displayed in the viewfinder and EXIF metadata. 

Similar to earlier Nikon cameras, the Df has an indexing tab for AI and Pre-AI lenses. In the down position (left) the lens syncs with the lever and transmits the aperture setting to the camera. When up (right) the lever is out of the way of very early non-AI lenses so they, too, can be used.   
The Df is a true retro camera in that it can accommodate very early Nikon lenses back to 1959 via an AI (automatic maximum aperture-indexing) lever that flips down over the lens mount to synchronize the lens with the camera. The index lever only transmits aperture info to the camera. To gain full EXIF data the lens data needs to be entered into the Non-CPU lens data menu option on the camera. I entered custom data on several of my older lenses this way and programmed a function button to display the lenses so I could select whatever one was mounted on the camera. This way I was able to see the actual selected aperture in the viewfinder and the EXIF data recorded the aperture and focal length.

The body finish is very different than that of other pro Nikon camera bodies. The Df comes in both a silver and black version. Silver is probably more fitting for the retro look, but I prefer the black. The black finish is very flat with a rough texture giving the camera a more rugged, practical, almost military appearance. Obvious care was taken in how this camera looks. Even the shutter sound is completely different.

Even the DF access door (on right) to the battery and memory card has a latch that hearkens back to earlier Nikon camera models, like that of the F2 on the left.
Leica could learn a lesson on how to install a retro type battery and card access. The hinged trap door of the Df is both retro and functional.

The NEF RAW converter was not available for Photoshop when I was preparing this review. So, whenever necessary, I used Nikon's Capture NX2 to process the NEF images. Although I regularly use Photoshop and Bridge for my daily workflow, I have always found that NX2 is the best processing engine for Nikon NEF files, particularly when the images were taken under adverse circumstances of excessive contrast and/or low light where you can deploy Nikon's dynamic range feature.

This still life setup was photographed with varying ISO's from 100-12800. The most pertinent are listed below along with their links for downloading the high res image.  All were shot in jpg with no post-processing.

Normally, I do not include an ISO as high as 12800 because I have always found it to be an unusable file. This camera can, however, present a usable file at that high an ISO. However, it will take considerable post processing to massage the image into a usable form. When I processed the noise reduction with in Nikon's Capture NX2 I found that I could obtain a decent, usable file at that high an ISO.  (Note I said "usable" not "good".)  Of course, noise and noise control is not only a product of pushing the ISO. It is very dependent upon the lighting situation of the original scene. Unfortunately, when noise reduction is usually necessary is with scenes that have terrible lighting, thus making it doubly difficult to deal with the image results.

One set of buttons that are missing is the double button press to format a memory card. You're going to have to use the menu for this. The camera also uses the smaller EN-14a battery, which is rated to 1400 shots. I obtained far more than that in my tests, but rarely used live view. There is also no built-in flash to drain the batteries.

The Df is the smallest full frame camera Nikon makes. It has the same sensor and processor as the flagship D4, but in a  very compact package. 
A unique lens mount system has also been developed and integrates a metering coupling lever to enable the use of both AI (automatic maximum Aperture Indexing) and non-AI lenses. This means that in addition to supporting current AF-S, AF-D, and AF NIKKOR lenses, past manual focus, non-AI lenses can also be used without any modification necessary. The only caveat is that the focusing screen is fixed and the same as the D610, meaning no focus-assist, like split image or focus peaking, is available. You pretty much have to manually focus using only the current screen and the accuracy of that is going to depend largely on your abilities and eyesight. This can be problematic for some. It was for me, especially with longer lenses. Keep in mind also that the focus of newer telephoto lenses usually turn past infinity so you cannot even rely on manual infinity focus for really distant subjects.

Along with the camera Nikon has introduced a special edition of its AF-S Nikkor 50mm F1.8G lens to be sold in kit form with the Df and match its retro looks. The camera with lens lists for $2996.95.

Personally, I love the reversion to the original, simple, screw-in cable release. It is so much easier to use than the newer electronic models found on modern DSLR's today.
More than just the handling and image results, the user experience with the Df  is visual, tactile -- even aural. Yes, "aural". The shutter has a noticeably different sound than the rest of Nikon's pro lineup. I suppose it's intended to have the sound of an older film camera. Maybe it does. One thing I can say is that it is definitely unique.

This studio setup shot was taken with very bright tungsten lamps placed behind the model to completely back light her with only a small amount of fill from a foreground reflector. A scene such as this presents an extremely difficult auto-focus situation for any camera, and with the lens aperture set to f/2.2 there is no room for error. I always place the focus on the models foreground eye, but due to the very low contrast and flare light shining directly into the lens I can barely see any detail in her face through the viewfinder. My lenses often have to hunt for focus in these situations and as often as not miss the auto-focus point. The Df came through better than any camera I have ever used in this situation with a very high percentage of in-focus shots. 


Conclusion:

I have to admit to being prejudiced against this camera before I received one to test for this review. I was disappointed by the specifications and put off by what I thought was an unjustifiably high price. My attitude changed somewhat once I had the camera for awhile and began putting it to use. Nonetheless, I still have mixed reservations about it.

This camera is not for everyone in the same way a retro Fuji X camera is. At such a high price point you are going to have to be very serious about having a use for it. It doesn't quite fill the gap of a D700, and doesn't add any advancements over a D610 or D800 that would make it ideal for travel, scenics, weddings, or fashion. I am not exactly sure where it fits in with the needs of a professional photographer. Its nostalgic experience is something else entirely. You will be buying this camera as much for the experience of using it as for what it can deliver in terms of image quality, and you won't be disappointed with either.

One thing this camera can do better than any other I have tested is shoot in low light. Nikon did something to the sensor or software because this camera even edges out the D4 and D800 -- and that is saying something.

Nothing like photographing a retro car with a retro camera and Noct-Nikkor lens.
The biggest stumbling block to purchasing this camera is going to be its price. For about the same amount, you can buy a D800. For a lot less, you could buy a D610, which, let's face it, will do pretty much the same thing with even higher resolution. You are going to have to really like the retro controls and looks to spring for the higher priced Df. For some of us, they may be worth the extra price. For others, not. In other words, this camera is not for everyone, and that alone may add to its mystique. I, for one, happen to like using dials as opposed to digital screens -- much more intuitive, much more by touch without moving the eye from the finder, and as a result much faster. I'm sure not everyone will agree with this. It's as much a matter of taste and style as anything.

Long time Nikon users, like me, who have saved many of their old lenses from the film era may find that this camera is for them. Time to dust off that old glass and put it to use again. Mount those lenses on a Df and take it out for a spin around the block, while 50's and 60's music blares from an old AM radio. That, and excellent imagery, is what this camera is all about.

The Df looks equally at home on the counter of a diner as it does sitting next to a fine Swiss watch.
I am a professional photographer making my entire living from commercial photography, and I write these reviews from that viewpoint. As I sit here now looking at the Df on my desk, I dream of what it would be like if I were not looking at this from a professional standpoint. From the viewpoint of a non-professional but serious photographer I could easily see myself making this the only camera I own and be very happy with it. It is really excellent, well built, beautiful to look at and a joy to use -- pretty much everything I could want, if I had the luxury of not having to earn a living with my cameras.

What can I say, this camera even put me in a mood to shoot retro.


Old pier girders along the Hudson River, New York. Nikon Df with 24-120mm f/4 zoom. 

Part of the appeal of the Df is its accommodation of older Nikon optics. Here it is fit with the older 80-200mm f/4 zoom, which I always found to be a comfortable long lens for walking around. Honestly, I never thought I would be using this lens again, but on the Df it just seems a perfect fit.

If you are planning on purchasing this camera, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.


Nikon Df DSLR Camera (Silver) can be ordered from:  BH-Photo  Amazon
Nikon Df DSLR Camera (Black) can be ordered from:  BH-Photo  Amazon   




18 comments :

  1. I will read others, but unless I miss my guess, this very well done user-review says it all and says it well. Thanks for taking the time (and spending the money?) to write it.

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  2. Very helpful review, thank you!
    If the price were lower, I would buy this camera straight away……. but at close to a D800E it's a tough call.

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  3. The price is what's really bugging about this camera, $2200 would make more sense. Great Review thank you.

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    1. Agreed, too high, if the dials for the chrome is in black, should be perfect for the retro look.

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  4. one of the best reviews I have read, no bragging or bashing, just a good down to earth honest review .

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  5. Thanks for the wonderful review and images. A new Df owner myself and a serious hobbiest, I fully agree with your observations and support your conclusions.
    Warren

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  6. Seeing it makes me want to shoot with it, until the paint's worn down to brass.

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    1. No brass... magnesium.

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  7. I would be buying this already if only it had video. I don't "need" video and rarely use it, but to buy a camera that can't do it just feels like rewarding bad behavior.

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  8. If you hold a real Nikon FM/FE FM2/FE2, you realize what beautiful jewels of cameras they were. Slim pieces of mechanical perfection. I think they rival Leicas. The chunkiness of the Df (and all DSLRs) is anathema to what the great classics were. I think the Df concept, executed in a full frame mirrorless body like the Sony A7, would be more true to the original greats.

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  9. Are you sure this will meter mount pre-AI lenses? I don't see the external manual coupling connection to the 'rabbit ears.'

    "The Df has enough dials and knobs on it to make a fine Swiss watchmaker envious." I suspect that these controls are really electronic fly-by-wire switches and not mechanical linkages to the shutter clockwork, film advance, meter readout. If true, this is more of a Chinese battery-operated watch in fine Swiss watchmaker drag (albeit a nice one).

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    1. What Chinese, could you use other wordings, mannn.......

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  10. I love my D610 got everything I need. No need for the Df.

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  11. Thank you Tom, this is really the best review so far and i agree totally. I've seen the Df today the first time personally and I WANT TO HAVE IT :-) Ok, it was totally unreasonable to spend so much money to get the IQ of the D610 and less features. But i love the styling (black version) and is the perfect body for my AIs and AF-D lenses, i use every second day. Who will buy this camera? Guys who love other unreasonable products like convertibles, mechanical watches or fountain pens with 585 gold feather :-) Photographers who want to be different. There will be enough,,,

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  12. Thanks also for your review Tom.

    The nitpicking by many at the NikonRumors site was frankly pathetic, and I'm appreciative of your effort, as are most people here.

    Before I handled a Df I was intrigued about its form factor, thinking it looked, sorta, like the Canon G16 and its predecesors. So I went to my local camera shop with a Nikkormat FT-3 from the archive, and took a quick grab of the Df alongside the FT-3, purely for size comparison purposes.

    May be of interest.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/68039985@N08/11213892414/

    Regards,

    Michael

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  13. Every time I read a review of the Df, I get the urge to go out and shoot my D-90 alone with no one else. Even though I don't own the darned thing, the Df has made me take a look at my shooting and go back to basics. I'd love to have one, but the price. Hard to justify something like if you aren't going to use it professionally, or at least sell your photos.

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  14. Visit the Site to Win Nikon Digital Camera
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  15. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

    ReplyDelete