Monday, November 4, 2013

Nikon Df Launch Review: Cheap(er) Full Frame, Take Two

When the D3s launched, many people were asking for the same sensor in a smaller body. That never happened; what we got was the D800. When the D4 launched, the same people were again asking for that 16mp FX sensor in a smaller body. That hasn't happened.... until now. This probably wasn't what they had in mind.

If the D600 program had gone to plan, it would be difficult to imagine that Nikon would have come up with the Df at all. Unfortunately, a year of troubled publicity set Nikon back in advancing the lower end of its full frame lineup, and in many ways the Df is a second stab at advancing this market segment. There's a feeling that this isn't business as usual, but rather, that Nikon is pushing especially hard to try to make "affordable" full frame work:

  • An extended teaser campaign, which is historically unusual for them. The D600 launch built up through word of mouth and expectation, but the Df is a bit unusual in the effort put into the slick "Pure Photography" teaser campaign
  • Consider also that Nikon does not normally do "retro." If anything, they've consistently had a "conservative but looking forward" mentality when it comes to their design language. This isn't unusual for many Japanese companies; "retro" design isn't something that is used as often as in North American or European design.  Consider how the Porsche 911 changes glacially over the years, or how the Ford Mustang recalls a bygone era. Neither Toyota nor Honda have shown much interest in maintaining retro-styling cues in their mainstream products.

What's more unusual about the Df is that it doesn't slot cleanly in Nikon's lineup. The design makes it's operation and handling different from any other device that Nikon puts out. It might have a capable sensor, but its control layout doesn't make it ideal as a backup camera to either the D4 or the D800. So how does the Df fit into Nikon's lineup?


Unusual for a Nikon of this specification is that the Df comes in two colour choices, all black and "silver", which in camera marketing means "silver and black." Both versions look handsome, but in truth, photography retailers hate cameras that come in multiple colours because it makes inventory management more complicated. Just a bit of a history lesson; modern cameras are usually sombre affairs because all-black devices don't reflect light back onto the scene that you are shooting. Silver top plates, as pretty as they are, are actually less functional in this regards. 

Retro is not always a good thing in terms of handling; sometimes newer is better. A modern Nikon is one of the easiest and quickest cameras to change settings on the fly. Old film cameras were laid out the way that they were because everything depended on mechanical actuation back in the day. The Df sits on the fence, with the top plate housing retro-themed control dials, while the grip portion contains front and back control dials as with any serious Nikon. Nearly every pertinent photographic parameter... ISO, shutter speed, EV comp, drive mode... have dedicated manual controls. Conceivably, you can go the full retro by foregoing modern G-type lenses and reverting to AF-D lenses. However, if you switch aperture control to the lens ring, you can only adjust in the 1-stop increments that the AF-D primes allowed. To be honest, the mechanical feel of the aperture rings on the AF-D lens like the 50mm's, the 35 f/2 and the 24 f/2.8 is nasty in a plastic sort of way; the novelty of using it on these lenses goes away very quickly.

One disappointing (but understandable) omission is the lack of the traditional split-prism focusing screen from the film days. Out of all the retro features that could have been thrown at this camera, a proper focusing screen would have been the most useful, as modern DSLR viewfinders actually aren't that good at manual focusing. Because they emphasize brightness over rendition, it's tough to gauge focus and depth of field accurately. However, because the exposure meter sits in the viewfinder housing, any change from the prevalent modern setup would mean an expensive ground-up redesign of the optical path from the mirror through to the eyepiece.

Size-wise, this camera isn't actually that small, though outright size is a bit of a red herring. This camera is "small enough", even though it's bulkier than the Sony A7/A7r. Neither camera is small enough to carry in a jacket pocket, and for the amount of money that you would spend, both would do well to be protected in a proper camera bag. If you only shoot with primes, then neither camera is onerously bulky. The issue is that the Sony's are rather lens-limited at the time of launch, and  to top it off, the A7 will likely sell mostly with the 28-70 variable aperture zoom, nullifying any size advantage it would have over the Nikon. The Nikon Df is arguably better off from the beginning, as the f/1.8G primes fit the price point and size of this camera. However, if you strap on the 24-70mm f/2.8, you've destroyed the whole concept of the camera.

The real benefit of the Df is that it's not a smallish FX Nikon, it's that it's a comfortable size, period. It's a shame that that the D610 form factor couldn't be shrunk to the Df size, which coming close to the portable D7100. (Albeit, the sacrifice is that the dual card slot is gone, and that the Df uses the smaller battery from the D5200.) The back controls are thankfully modern and well laid out. The separation of the AF-On and AE-Lock buttons like the pro models is a welcome addition to an ostensibly consumer model. However, one gets the sense that the D610 is a better all-around proposition; less expensive, faster to use control layout, less high ISO noise but with more image resolution and better low-ISO dynamic range. It also has a little thing called video.

Speaking of the sensor, at 16mp, the resolution isn't too demanding on older lenses, making the Df an unintentionally good pairing with older AF-D primes. It's unlikely that the type of shooter that will be drawn to this camera will be obsessive about extracting the maximum amount of detail from the sensor anyways. Notice that there isn't a built-in fill flash; again, as a generalization, hobbyists drawn to the D4 sensor will be more interested in available light shooting than in flash photography. The absurdly high ISO that you can take this sensor to is most definitely the drawing point, but with good glass you'd be hard pressed to tell pictures from a D4 and a D7000 apart below ISO 800.

The lack of video is frustrating, as this is purely a matter of the camera being retro for the sake of being retro. Certainly there are diehard photographers out there that won't shoot video no matter what, but its an inescapable fact that video is an important part of modern professional photography. Put it this way: the Nikon F3 would have made for a decent reporters camera for its day. Theoretically, the Df could do the same, but since videography is such a big part of modern reporting, the Df is missing a vital tool for professional use.

Somewhat Small Camera, Noticeably Big Price

A large problem to overcome seems to be the price. American MSRP is $2,745.95, with the special kit 50mm f/1.8G bringing the cost to $2,996.95. It's difficult to swallow that price considering how much part sharing is going on with the Df:

  • Sensor from the D4
  • Mirrorbox, AF array and exposure module from the D610/D7100
  • Battery from the D5200
  • Same EXPEED 3 processor as with its contemporary Nikons
  • Kit lens is a cosmetically changed 50mm f/1.8 AF-G

In other words, Nikon is charging the price of a next-generation camera while giving the consumer current generation parts. There is some tooling cost in producing the one-off body, but the production cost of the expensive components has already been sunk into the production of other cameras. Perhaps Nikon's marketing is thinking that they can charge the premium over the D610 because of the association of the D4 sensor; with deeper thought, that position is unjustifiable as the construction of the D4 is more than just its sensor.

At this price point, an interesting competitor is the Sony RX1 and RX1r; for the same price you are getting a very compact camera with a stellar street-photography oriented lens. Arguably, the Sony is a better value because of the quality of its lens and the fact that it can shoot video. However, what's inevitable will be comparisons to the D610. In fact, when you take into account the fact that there still isn't a D400 as of yet and the price point of the Df, you can see that Nikon is really using this camera as a means of steering well-healed consumers towards the D610. It's closer in price to the D800, but it makes no sense as a backup to that camera in terms of shooting operation and price point:

It's like how restaurant menus are designed; few people order the most expensive item, but it's there to make the second most expensive item look like a bargain in comparison. In that sense, the Df really does seem like an extension of the D6xx series. There's a big price gap between the D600 and the D800; most people will want the extra features of the D800 but few will spend the extra amount of money. There's no "flirt" factor for the D600.... until the Df, there was no camera to seriously entice D600/D610 users into spending a little bit more, not in the same way that a D7100 user might be tempted to go for the D6100, or how a D5300 buyer might reach a little bit more for the D7100.

The elephant in the room, however, will be the Sony A7 (non-R version). Much cheaper price, albeit, cripplingly sparse lens lineup. A much better value than what the Df offers, but only once all of the piecs are in place. Until then, the Nikon Df is an admittedly handsome nostalgia trip that also looks well designed for its intended purpose.

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