USER REPORT: The Nikon Df
by Benjamin Schaefer – His blog is HERE
Almost a year ago, I sold much of Nikon gear, including my D800 and many of my zoom lenses to busier – and better – photographers who would give them more than a “shelf life”. Since our son was born in December 2012, I had lacked the time to continue the few gigs I was shooting, this never having been a full-time occupation. In the past few months I have been shooting my Olympus OM-D E-M5, and more recently an E-M1, which covered 90% of what I do and are compact enough to be brought along almost anywhere. For full frames, I used a Leica M9, with its excellent optics. However I could not quite divest myself completely from Nikon, and so I kept not only a UV-IR modified (and pretty much unsellable) Nikon D7000, but also a few of my favorite Nikkor primes, as well as a 17-35mm AF-S, the latter to be used with the D7000 (and I do not shoot a lot of IR). To be honest, the D800 was probably too much camera and a bit of a headache – it went back to Nikon twice for focus adjustments and the massive files were clogging up my iMac.
As it turns out, however, I missed my Nikon FX. I was looking over a few images I shot with the D800 in the past 1.5 years and started reminiscing of the creamy quality of my favorite portrait lenses, the 85 mm f1.4 and 105 f2.5… I can use them on the D7000, but only with a IR-UV cut filter (which isn’t perfect) and giving me less flexibility in terms of depth of field.
When Nikon announced the Df (Digital fusion, which I think is a misnomer I think F-D, as in digital F, would have been more fitting), I was intrigued, but first skeptical at first. With the OM-D and the M9, you know I am a retro-style, shoot in Manual, dedicated control wheel kind of guy (OK, I admit I shoot a lot in Aperture priority, too, but I never had much use for Program mode and “Custom” settings).
If you are reading this you probably know already, but the Nikon Df is a very well made, “retro styled” full frame camera, kind of “leicaesque” DSLR (with a leicaesque price to boot). Retro in this case means the top of the camera is reminiscent of the FE and F3 of yonder, with dedicated dials for shutter speed, exposure compensation and ISO, as well as a shutter button that accepts – nice but somewhat useless though IMO – a mechanical shutter release cable. The back, and – more important – the innards – of the camera are pretty modern DSLR material built around the excellent 16 MP sensor of Nikon’s flagship D4, which is the best low light sensor available in any camera today (I am not alone in this opinion). DxO ratings for ISO performance even put the performance above any other DSLR, including the D4 and the D3s.
Heading West, 28 mm f2, af f2, 1/60, ISO 8000, processed in camera (before LR5 came out with RAW converter)
After debating with myself for quite a while and reviewing the vibrant online discussion with opinions usually on both extremes, but seemingly more in the “anti-Df” camp, I pulled the trigger (or rather, I did not cancel my pre-order).
The camera arrived in a very nicely packaged, classy looking black cardboard box – taking queues from the lie of Apple and Leica. The first impression once I got the camera out was that slight disappointment: it feels somewhat flimsy, just because it is so light. It is almost hard to believe that the body is weather sealed (and I am not in the mood to test it like others have done for say the E-M1).
The camera certainly looks unique, no doubt. I like it but that is obviously a matter of taste. It has been compared to the FE, F3 and others. I think it borrows from various cameras, the back looks definitely like a modern DSLR, the top is the most “retro” and the front is somewhat mixed. Many people seem to prefer the silver version, however I have always had black cameras (with the exception of a used M8, sold long ago) and I feel the Df looks classic that way. Some people have commented on the silver coming in different shades, which makes for a weird appearance (and seems somewhat odd for a camera of this caliber). I have not seen the silver version yet.
If you follow the online discussion, many have condemned the camera before it came out. I love to looks and most of the operation, but there are also some things that I think could have been solved better.
Bellagio, 10.5 modified Fisheye, f5.0, 1/30, ISO 3200
First the pros:
- The camera is light (though first you feel that this is gives it a ‘cheapo feel’, it actually quickly grows on you
- The viewfinder is great, bright, easy to see. Manual focusing is easy and the green indicator light is spot on.
– The buttons feel solid, well made. If you have used Nikon DSLRs before, they are where you expect them to be.
– Despite what other say, I like the fact that the manual controls are lockable. They feel sold, well made and sturdy. The rear wheel is easy to reach with the right hand. See below for the front wheel.
Performer at Sinterklaas, 50mm f1.8 at f1.8, 1/1000, ISO 400
Now for the cons:
- The power switch is hard to turn. I get why it was done this way, a ‘modern’ switch would have been hard to integrate into the design concept, but for me it requires I take the camera away from the eye. However you may like this feature, Certainly, it is hard to switch it off or on accidentally, and with the battery life being quite impressive, you may as well keep it on when out shooting.
- The grip is too small. The height is not so much of a problem as the depth. Comparing it to my Olympus OM-D E-M1, the latter actually is better due to maybe half an inch more depth.
- The battery/SD card door may be sealed, but it is cumbersome to open and close. It is also easy for the battery door to become unhinged – I have some doubts that the weather seal is very good.
- The selector for the metering mode is small and close to the back LCD – not my favorite configuration.
- The front control wheel is easily reached but not really comfortable to turn. If you have lenses with aperture rings, you probably won’t use it much, anyway.
Audience, 50mm f1. at f1.8, 1/500, ISO 100
There has been made much brouhaha about the limiting shutter speed of 1/4000 (and less commonly about the max speed on the dial being 4 s). Although as with other features (autofocus module) one questions whether NIkon cut corners for cost reasons here or just wanted to “keep the Df down” in order not to cannibalize D4 sales, I rarely find that “limiting” – reviewing my images, I came up on that once in full sunlight, wide open at f1.8. The M9 is the same, and I shoot it with f1.4 and f1.2 lenses all the time. As a bonus feature, however, the Df gives us a “T” setting on the shutter wheel, which think is great for long exposures and (at least for Nikon DSLR) a first, AFAIK. It does not quite beat the OM-D’s Live bulb and TIme modes, but it pretty neat!
The first opportunity to try out the Df came at the Sinterklaas festival in Rhinebeck, NY, for which I used the 50 mm AF-S f1.8 “Special Edition” (this is a local festival just like the Sinterklaas in the Netherlands always at the beginning of December). Then, I took it on a business trip to Las Vegas as my main camera, with an assortment of lenses. In Rhinebeck, the temperature was close to freezing and the only person appropriately dressed was our son, so mostly stiff fingers limited the shooting. Ironically Las Vegas was even colder (note to self: pack some gloves!).
Cool Grandpa, 50mm f1.8 at f2, 1/1600, ISO 100
Handling the camera feels intuitive when one is used to a Nikon DSLR. To Vegas, I took with me to 50 mm, as well we a Fisheye (modified for full frame), a 28 mm Ai-S, my 85 mm AF-S f1.4 and a 105 (the f2.5 Ai-S). The Df just feels like it is made for primes.
What is it like shooting the Df? First, I really love the shutter – particularly the Q mode. It is “Leica quiet” – although unlike the Leica, the mirror obviously stays up and the viewfinder is blacked out until the shutter button is released. IT is no speed monster, but for me, 5.5 fps is plenty as I am not shooting any action/sports (and it will be a while till our son is ready for soccer).
Autofocus is as expected – the fact that the focus points are clustered in the middle of the viewfinder is not much of a problem for me, as I often focus and recompose (a rangefinder habit), but not putting in the D4/D800 autofocus module is somewhat annoying at that price. I must admit that comparing it to the OM-D E-M1, the speed is similar, maybe with the OM-D sometimes having the edge. I guess that speaks volumes what mirrorless cameras have come to be. So far, focus has been spot on.
I found that when adjusting the settings, the best procedure is to take the camera away from the eye – the wheels are hard to adjust when having the camera is raised. Some seem to find that unacceptable, but again, this is not a pro-action camera like the D4, it is meant to be shot more deliberately. There is still one “classic” easily accessible control wheel in the back, which can control the aperture in A and M mode (if set up that way via Menu item f7) and can control the shutter speed in S mode, provided the shutter speed wheel is set at “1/3 STEPS”. This maybe all you need, though it would be nice to change the exposure compensation with ease, too. However there is one neat feature – when you are in Shutter priority or Manual mode, and you have activated the “Easy Shutter Speed Shift” (f11), you can change the Shutter speed by 1/3 and 2/3 up and down. This helps when shooting in Manual mode in particular, to account for changes in light etc. This adjustment resets when the shutter wheel is turned.
Laugh, Fisheye, ISO 1600, exposure pulled 3.3 stops in LR
The viewfinder is bright and despite much online furor about the 15mm eye point, I can see fine with glasses on. Manual focus works well with the lenses tested (28mm, 50 mm AF-S, 85 mm AF-S and 105 mm Ai-S). I am not a fan of manually focusing AF-S lenses, but the Special Edition 50mm focus ring may have been purposefully “stiffened” – I do not have a comparison with the original AF-S 50 mm f1.8, but comparing it to my 85 mm, it definitely feels that way.
While holding the camera with one had is not all that comfortable, using it with two hands feels much more natural to me – that I is how I shoot mostly. Let’s face it, the Df is NOT a point and shoot. The OM-D may be better if you are ‘shooting from the hip’ or overhead etc.
I have not yet used the camera with zoom lenses. As stated, it sort of demands to be shot with primes, as larger zooms certainly would feel unbalanced (but if you put it on a tripod, who cares).
Image quality is amazing, It may not be the right camera for fine art photographers, that need to print big, but it is a good companion for travel and I think it makes for a great portrait camera for anything less than billboard sized photos (let’s keep in mind that before the D800, you had to pay good money to get a full frame Nikon over 12 MP and all those 12 MP cameras did fine in the professional arena).
The Df’s low ISO performance is truly outstanding, I have never shot the D3s or D4 but it blows any other digital I have used out of the water. Chroma noise seems extremely well controlled and while dynamic range at base ISO is average, it deteriorates much less than with other cameras. I found I can shoot the Df at ISO 6400 in near darkness and pull a couple more stops out of it for some decent (though not great) images.
Overall I like the camera – a lot – though that may be partly an emotional response for this older wannabe hipster. As all others, it is a mass-produced tool, and thus not perfect for anybody. I prefer the smaller size and actually like the manual dials. They do make you pause and think a bit more rather than just firing away. Ergonomically the camera is not perfect. It costs a lot, though keeping in mind that it is made in Japan and made very well and probably in smaller numbers than the D600 or D800, I am not surprised. I would be astonished f the price dropped a lot in the next few months to years.
Give it’s narrow target audience and slow sales (at least in the US, it seems to sell out in Japan), there may never be a Df2…. in which case this one may just become a cult camera :)
At Caesar’s, 28mm f2 at f2, 1/320, ISO 6400 – it was this dark!
exposure pulled 4 stops in LR (almost usable), LR luminance noise reduction a 54, color at 25