Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Nikon Df Hands On First Impressions (Pre-Production)

This week I had a chance to see pre-production samples of the Nikon Df. In the weeks since its announcement, the Df has been something of a contentious topic in the Nikon community, with some praising it for its return-to-basics aesthetic while others have derided it for being an expensive nostalgia trip.  The truth is that its a little bit of both, but even more so, the Df is its own camera, There is a lot about this camera that feels familiar, yet distinct from the rest of the Nikon lineup, and what is hard to convey in words is this tactile sensation of familar, yet different that the camera gives the user once placed in his/her hands.

In your hands, the Nikon Df feels just shy of being the take-anywhere camera that many people would want it to be, but its far smaller and lighter than the D800, and more svelt than the D610. Even though it's not a small camera, the Df operates like a smaller camera, at least by full frame standards. It's bigger than the Sony A7r, but it's also more comfortable to hold and operate. The overall impression that you get between the A7r and the Df is that the Nikon is the more sorted and thought-out product. The A7r is blazing a new trail for Sony, and though competent and in many ways exciting, it does feel like a first-generation product. The Df, even though it is a new camera, obviously wasn't designed to feel like one, and as such, seems to have the benefit of a few decades of institutional knowledge in how a film-era camera should feel like.

The familiarity extends to how the camera sits in the palm of your hand. The rear portion of the grip is generous, and even though the front protuberance is narrower than on other Nikon's, the overall reduced heft of the camera reduces the need for an oversized grip. However, reaching around with your index finger is where the unfamiliar aspect of the camera creeps in. The rear control dial is in the same place as always, but the front control dial is now a vertical disc. Operationally, it is the the same as with a D610 or D800, but the tactile feel is different, making the camera slower to adjust if you are shooting in a hurry. It takes some getting used to to reach up to the top of the camera to set ISO and EV comp, but the advantage is that you can always see your settings just by looking at the top of the camera.

In fact, the manual dial aesthetic of the Df virtually encourages a slower and more measured pace of shooting. There's a plethora of controls on the top plate... familiar to film shooters, but people accustomed to digital Nikons will probably find that the change in operation to require a bit of a head shake. The physical controls on the top plate of the camera have a high quality feel to them and a fair bit of resistance to accidental movement. The film-era aesthetic extends to how the camera operates as well. When you are shooting with it, it most definitely is evocative of the F3... how it sits in your hands, the brightness of the viewfinder... the sound of the shutter. If you had followed Nikon's teaser videos, you might have noticed that the sound of the Df shutter has a pleasing pre-digital timber to it. Shooting for a few minutes with the Df, I can confirm that is the case and that it wasn't just the post-production of the promotional video that you were hearing. Even though the Df is largely a cosmetic exercise for Nikon, it's a scrupulously rigorous one. They really did pay attention to all of the physical cues that they could to evoke memories of shooting with film. Whoever was on the design team is the real deal; they loved film cameras and with the Df, it shows.

In your hands, the Df "handles lightly." It's not a small or light camera, but not having the deep grip of the D610 or D800 cuts down on the perceived bulk of the camera. The silver body Df wouldn't be complete without the specially designed 50mm f/1.8 G lens to go with it. The lens looks the part, but when mounted, it makes the camera feel back-heavy, which is an unfamiliar sensation if you are used to how heavy most modern zoom lenses are. If you have older AI and AI-s lenses, they will look at home on the silver body version. The all-black Df looks a bit sharper mounting modern lenses. You can even mount and use non-AI lenses. However, ff you mount a 24-70 f/2.8 on it, you will destroy the nostalgic look and be taken out of the zen-like retro moment straight into the modern era.

As for the image quality... let me put it this way. Yes, it's the D4 sensor, probably with some tweaks accounting for the ensuing time since the D4 launch. Same old same old? Not if you've never used a D4, which is about 99% of the population... including me. This is the first time that I've ever gotten to use this sensor, and the amount of ISO leeway that is available is insane. Like the D4, base ISO extends to 12,800, and if you take it to the HI.4 setting, you are shooting at the equivalent of 204,00. Remember, the D4 needs that much ISO power because it's usually shooting high speed subjects, often in low light. The Df will most often be paired with primes like the 50mm or the 35mm f/1.4, and at more sedate shutter speeds. There will be few problems shooting in available light with a setup like this.

Perhaps the reason why the initial reaction to the Df has been so polarized is because this is a different tact that Nikon is taking with the Df. Nikon's marketing has always been about taking great pictures, but this is the first time in a while that they've taken such an emotional route to go about it. In fact, there really isn't anything rational about the Df. A D800 body on sale is the same price as the Df. There will probably be many people who look at it, like it, and end up not buying it because of the price. However, consider how many people overbought because they acquired a D800 simply because it was full-frame and the best... they would have been served much better with the Df. It doesn't have the design aesthetic for maximal professional shooting... but that's not the point. This isn't a camera that appeals to the head, it's one that deliberates evokes the senses. This might be a case of remembering the quality after you forget the price, because the Df is definitely something different, and so far it seems well done at that.

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