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The Nikon Df - My Thoughts & Quick Review

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South Jersey wedding photographer Jay Cassario blog. Writer for SLR Lounge and Shotkit.com. 

The Nikon Df - My Thoughts & Quick Review

Jay Cassario

INTRO

The Nikon Df is a very unique camera. With it's vintage look and highly praised sensor, it had a lot of photographers drooling over it before it even hit the shelves. It also had it's critics ripping it apart. Call it a hippy camera if you want, but while this camera may not be for everyone, it works for me. It can't be fairly compared to the D800, it's not meant to be a D800. It also can't be fairly compared to the D4, it's not meant to be a D4. The Df is a unique camera and one that we haven't seen up until now, but there is a lot more to it than just it's pretty retro exterior.

The Df will take you back to the film days of the 70's, and buried underneath all of those fancy dials is one of the greatest sensors ever produced by Nikon. The legendary sensor used in the Df is the same one that sits inside the flagship D4 that will cost you over double the price at a hefty $6000. While it lacks some of the features of the D4, it's the combination of the exceptional image quality, industry leading low-light capabilities, and vintage looks that make it such a special camera. A camera that isn't for everyone, but one that will surely find it's way into the camera bags and hands of those that can appreciate it for what it is. A unique and special camera that not only takes amazing photos but leaves you feeling a little more like a true photographer with every click of the shutter.

STATS

  • 16 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor (same as D4)
  • ISO 100-25,600 (expandable to ISO 50 - 204,800 equiv)
  • Maximum 5.5 fps continuous shooting
  • 39-point AF system with 9 cross-type AF points (same as D610)
  • 3.2-inch, 921k-dot LCD screen
  • Physical shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation dials
  • Compatible with virtually all Nikon F-mount lenses (including pre-Ai standard)

Before reading on, a couple things to keep in mind. I shoot both Canon and Nikon, but won't be making any comparisons to the Canon bodies I own. I actually won't be mentioning Canon at all throughout this review. As an FYI, I sold my D800 body to purchase my Df and currently still own a D800E, which I shoot alongside of a 5D MarkIII and MarkII. I will make a lot of comparisons to the D800 since it is a camera that is in the same price range, and since it is a camera that I have on-hand to use for comparisons. I also make a lot of comparisons to the flagship D4 which I don't own, but the sensor used in the Df is the same. If you haven't seen my reviews before, I try to tell you what I would want to see in a review. I stay away from charts and graphs, only giving you real world information that I think matters the most without boring you. 

You can click on any of the images to see them a little larger.

THE VINTAGE LOOK

Nikon designed the Df to resemble the FE from 1978, which was very similar looking to a lot of the 35mm film cameras of that time. I have collected a handful of them over the past few years including the FM and a couple different Nikkormat bodies, all of which currently have film in them and get shot on a regular basis. I couldn't help but start to drool a little when I first seen the leaked images of the Df, so needless to say...I dig the design. 

Along with the older Nikon film bodies that I own, I also have a nice little collection of older manual focus lenses. Some of which are pre-AI lenses and don't mount on any of my digital SLR bodies. One of the coolest things that Nikon did with the Df was give it a feature that the older FE body had, the ability to flip-up the AI aperture coupling lever. This is a tab that is on all of the current DSLR bodies, which doesn't allow for the mounting of some of Nikon's older lenses. Allowing the tab to flip up and out of the way makes it possible for the older and original F Mount lenses, which date all the way back to 1959, to mount on the Df. Now I can use some of my older Nikon lenses I previously couldn't mount on any of my digital bodies.

THE BUTTONS & DIALS

One of the coolest features of the Df is the way Nikon designed all of the dedicated external controls. There is a silver dial or button for just about everything you can think of, with dials stacked on top of dials. Each of which has the feel of solid metal, lock nicely into place, with nice ridges for grip. While these dials are a large part of the vintage look that stay true to Nikon's film SLR cameras of old, they can easily be bypassed. 

At first glance the layout of all the different dials can look extremely complicated and time consuming for anyone worried about speed, like wedding photographers. Nikon knew that while the dials have a cool vintage look, not every photographer has the time to use them. They designed the Df so that it can be used the traditional way, just like Nikon's current DSLRs with the front and rear command dials. The only dial that is different from what previous Nikon shooters are used to is the ISO dial, which needs to be manually turned. I have customized mine so that it's pretty close to the same setup I'm used to on my D800, the only difference being the ISO dial which isn't a big deal at all. I had no problem making adjustments during the wedding I shot with it.

THE TRAP DOOR

At the bottom of the Df, there is a trap door, with a little twisting metal latch to lock it in place. The door strangely pops off pretty easily when open, which oddly enough happened the very first time I opened it. It's not a big deal, it pops right back into place. Inside the door is the battery compartment and single SD card slot. 

THE BUILD & SIZE

One of the biggest complaints I've been seeing with the Df has to do with it's small size. It's too small, it's awkward, and it can't be comfortable to hold...just to name a few. I find it funny that there are so many complaints about it's smaller size when all the hype lately has been around the emergence of full frame mirrorless camera bodies. One of the biggest selling points for the mirrorless outbreak is the smaller body size compared to the larger DSLR bodies, yet Nikon released the Df at a size just slightly smaller than their current professional DSLRs and the complaints start flying about it being too small. 

The mirrorless cameras haven't held much interest for me because I personally don't mind the size of a professional DSLR. I prefer the size of my D800 to even the slightly smaller sized D600, and it was one of the reasons I didn't purchase the D600 when it came out. With that being said, the weight is something that does bother me, which is why I was willing to give the Df a try. 

Yes, the Df is smaller than the average DSLR but when compared to the D800 there's not a big difference. It has a different feel to it and sits differently in your hand when holding it. It's honestly not as comfortable as holding my D800, or my 5D MarkIII, but it is much lighter. It weighs 765g which is 20% lighter than the D800, and 40% lighter than the beastly D4. 

I shot a wedding just days after receiving my Df, so I was able to quickly put it to the test. Handling the Df took a little getting used to since I have slightly large hands, and there's not much to grip onto. If it was as heavy as the D800, this would have been a problem. Since it is pretty light, once I got used to holding it, it quickly grew on me and shooting with it the entire day was a delight. I usually shoot with two DSLR bodies, either two D800s or my D800 and a 5D MarkIII, with the one I'm not shooting attached to my hip with a Spyder holster. The biggest benefit I noticed throughout the long day was when I had the Df hanging at my hip, I would almost forget that it was there.

SIZE COMPARISON TO THE D800E

HIGH ISO - LOW LIGHT CAPABILITIES 

When I made the decision to upgrade from my D700 to a D800, it had a lot to do with the higher megapixel count and dynamic range, but I was immediately impressed by it's high ISO performance. As good as the D800 is, one of the major selling points for Nikon's flagship D4 and it's $6k price tag is it's high ISO performance. When the Df was released with the same sensor as the D4, at the same price tag as the D800, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. 

After a week of shooting, the Df is noticeably better at handling noise starting at ISO 400, and has no problem producing useable images at ISO 12800. When comparing the ISO sensitivity side by side to the D800E, it's honestly pretty close, and you have to look carefully at the shadows and details to see the additional noise that the D800E produces. It's not until you hit ISO 6400 that it becomes easier to notice. I never shoot my D800 at anything higher than ISO 6400, so I was surprised to see how well the Df performed at ISO 12800. I wouldn't normally shoot either camera at ISO 25600, so I didn't bother to show samples. 

The image below is shot at ISO 12800 SOOC.

ISO 12800 - Straight out of the camera 

High ISO Noise - 800 - 12,800

Full Image

Full Image

100% Crop shot at ISO 800 - F/2

100% Crop shot at ISO 1600 - F/2

100% Crop shot at ISO 6400 - F/2

100% Crop shot at ISO 12800 - F/2

ISO 6400 - The Df compared to the D800E

This isn't the best comparison, but if you click on the image to make it a little bigger, you can see that the noise is slightly better with the Df at ISO 6400. Nothing surprising here, since the ISO capabilities of the Df have tested slightly better then the D4, but this does show that with all the hype this D4 sensor gets for it's low light capabilities...the D800E is no slouch.

Df on the left - D800E on the right

AUTOFOCUS

Nikon went with the smaller and more cluttered 39 point multi-CAM 4800FX AF system used on the D600 and D610, rather than the larger 51 point advanced multi-CAM 3500FX of the D800 and D4. This is another huge complaint from critics but not one that personally bothers me. While I do enjoy the wider AF area of my D800, it's not a huge difference to me. Until they come out with an AF system that covers the entire full frame of the sensor, I don't see the point of nitpicking the size difference the two AF areas. Neither of them are spread out as far as I would like, and going from the 51 point AF of my D800 to the Df doesn't bother me at all. 

My one complaint related to the AF is one that I didn't notice until the lights went out. The Df doesn't have an AF assist light and struggles to lock focus in low light. I didn't notice this until I through a flash on and went to take some shots during the reception, which was very dark, but my D800 had no problems. The D4 struggles with this same issue. 

BATTERY

Nikon went with a new battery which is smaller than the ones I have been used to using. Yes, this does kind of annoy me, but again...not a big deal. As far as performance, I was impressed. I don't have exact specs to provide for battery life, but after a 12 hour day of shooting it still had a little juice left when I got home. 

MEMORY CARD 

That's right, I said card...not cards. This is my biggest complaint about the Df, but mainly because of being used to shooting with the security blanket of dual cards. I have always preferred shooting with CF cards and have invested a good amount of money into filling my card holders with them. The only SD cards I had previously owned were 16g cards that I used in my D800s as backups. While I do like the security of a second card in case of card failure, I have never actually needed it. Although I really do wish that Nikon had went with dual cards, it's something I will get over.

THE SOUND

I'll save this for the Experience part, but it's magical.

THE EXPERIENCE

The experience is tough to sum up in a few words. It's not for everyone, but for me...it just works. Ever since I picked up my first 35mm film camera, there was something I just loved about the feel, the look, and the sound that the shutter made with each frame. The Nikon Df has that same affect on me, and it's hard to put in words exactly how much I just simply enjoy shooting with it. It's not perfect, but I personally don't need it to be. There is something special about this camera that you won't truly understand until you have used it. It has it's flaws, but the flaws are part of what makes this camera special. It's image quality is stunning, and there is something about the images it produces that have a unique look to them. Simply put, the experience is the biggest reason to buy the Df, it's different and unique. Every time I hear the soft sound of the shutter I'm reminded just how unique it is. Well done Nikon.

THE COMPLAINTS FROM CRITICS

  1. IT'S TOO SMALL - I don't think it's too small, but yes, it is smaller than your DSLR. It doesn't have a big bulky grip on it, but it's lighter weight makes it easy to hold. It does take a little getting used to, but the size and weight seem to work well for me and is a nice change.  
  2. IT MAY HAVE THE SAME SENSOR AS THE D4, BUT THERE IS A LOT MORE TO THE D4 THAN JUST IT'S SENSOR - This is true, there is a lot more to the D4, but is the D4 worth more than twice the price? That's a decision that will be different depending on your needs, but for me, it's not. The D4 is bigger and heavier, but shoots faster, has dual card slots, more AF points, and has a fast shutter speed. Oh yeah, and it shoots video, which isn't important to me. The image quality is exactly the same, but if you shoot sports or anything that moves quickly, the Df is not going to cut it. But, I love that Nikon made a camera with the same image quality as it's flagship DSLR at more than half the price for those that don't need some of the features of the D4. Like I stated in the intro, these two cameras can't be fairly compared head to head, they are two separate beasts. One costing under $3k and the other almost $6k.

  3. IT ISN'T PRACTICAL FOR FAST PACED SHOOTING LIKE WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY BECAUSE OF IT'S ERGONOMICS AND USE OF OLD SCHOOL DIALS - This isn't true, you can set the Df up to use the pretty close to the same old traditional way that your used to which won't slow you down.
  4. YOU CAN GET A D800 FOR THE SAME PRICE OR A D600 FOR CHEAPER  - This is true, and while the D800 is the same price, the file size is much larger. If you don't have the necessary storage or PC to handle the large files, the Df now becomes another option. I own both and use them differently and for different purposes, since they are the same price the decision will come down to which better suits your needs. The D600, on the other hand, is cheaper and is a also great camera. This will also come down to just personal preference and deciding which will better suit your needs. The Df is lighter, smaller, and has slightly better ISO performance. Both share the same AF system and IQ is excellent in both. 
  5. THERE IS ONLY 1 CARD SLOT - Yes, this is a problem, but one I am willing to live with.
  6. THERE IS NO BUILT IN FLASH - This is only a problem for those that use the Nikon CLS and trigger external flashes with the built-in flash. The built-in flash really shouldn't be used for anything else. I have recently gotten away from using Nikon's CLS, and moved to triggering my flashes with Pocketwizards. The PlusX models are only $99 and work great.

 CONCLUSION

The Nikon Df is something completely new and different for Nikon. It will be a great fit for a lot of Nikon shooters, and it simply just won't work for others. Just like their release of their new 58mm f/1.4 lens, it may not be perfect on paper, but when used the way Nikon intended it to be...it shines. The Df has it's flaws, but it wears them proudly. What it gives up to the other DSLRs in it's class, it makes up in size, weight, and class. I had really started to become frustrated with Nikon, but this camera is something special and has earned them some browny points. It's a camera that I enjoy shooting with and with it's exceptional image qaulity, it's hard to put down. It's too early to tell, but It's a camera we might not ever see again from Nikon. It's also one that will no doubt have Canon shooters wanting to see something similar. I know I would like to see a classy remake of the AE-1 with a flagship sensor. Until then, the Df has me proudly sporting my Nikon strap again. 

 

THE NIKON DF - IN THE FIELD

THE NIKON DF - SAMPLE IMAGES

Shot with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4

Shot with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4

Shot with the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 pre-AI

Shot with the Nikkor-S 50mm f/1.4 pre-AI