Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Nikon Df Review

The Nikon Df is an odd duck in the Nikon DSLR lineup. It's certainly a premium product, at the $2,999 kit price that Nikon is asking for, but it's definitely not a professionally-oriented camera. However, there's no denying that it's a pretty camera, the silver/black version even more so than the all-black. Hence, the all-black tester; our hosts were long since out of the silver version by the time I got around to trying the new camera.

That in itself is indicative that Nikon nailed the marketing for the Df. It's aimed at the traditional high-end camera buyer... though the D4-evolution sensor at this price point is impressive, Nikon has been fairly consistent since launch about de-emphasizing the specs of this camera and selling purely on emotional appeal. Hence, why silver has been the more popular colour since launch; it's the one that creates the most emotional appeal when lined up with the rest of Nikon's basic black cameras.

Body and Design

The Df is being bundled with a special edition of the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens. The differences are only cosmetic, but mercifully they weren't just painted on. The ring is actually a raised portion of the lens that is painted silver, and has indentations around its circumference that give the lens a different tactile feel than the ordinary version of this lens. If you pay close attention, you can see that they had to move the position of the distance window to accommodate the the silver ring. The double-indent focus ring has a slightly more substantial feel than on on basic version as well. Overall, it's not hard to see that the cosmetics of this lens were meant to recall the 50mm f/1.4 AI-S that served so many people during the film-era. It's a cheap plastic imitation of a cheap-ish past lens, but it's not too shabbily-done.

The Df rests comfortably in your hands when you first use it. It's 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. Because both cameras are full-frame and launched around the same time, there will be some comparisons with the Sony A7 and A7r. However, it's not a particularly valid comparison. The Df is 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.

From the back the Df looks like any modern digital Nikon. The basic buttons are all there, (with the exception of the liveview/video switch common across all modern Nikons). The controller pad is a bit lower than on the D800, making switching between AF points to be less comfortable, but otherwise, the Df lays out the familiar Nikon controls in a way that doesn't look as busy as on the other full frame Nikons.

As with any full frame camera, the viewfinder is ample and large. The 39-point AF unit is a step down from the 51-point unit used in the D800, however, makes it a bit more difficult accurately focusing on subjects that aren't in the center of the frame. 

With a light lens, the camera is easy to grab a hold of due to the generously palm rest. This somewhat makes up for the small retro-tack-on front handgrip. When paired with a prime lens... any prime lens, the Df will feel "about right." Attach a f/2.8 zoom lens to it and not only will the retro-aesthetic be destroyed, but the less substantial anchoring that the Df grip gives compared to the D800 will be exposed. However, if you use the Df back-to-back with either the D610 or the D800, the better ergonomics of the conventional cameras will immediately become apparent.

A little out of place: The 24-70mm f/2.8 on the Nikon Df

A bit more out of place: The 70-200mm f/2.8

That last combination is a bit much. With the 70-200mm on it, you definitely notice the lack of a full grip.

The combined ISO/EV dial is a meticulous piece of craftsmanship, with a measured amount of resistance and "clicking" for both wheels, each with their respective locking pins. It's a very well done mode dial controller, and out of all of the cameras on the market at present, it's perhaps the one that gives the greatest "sense of occasion" when you use it. It's utterly slow compared to the press-and-twirl operation of other Nikons, but again, the Df, through tactile feedback, is giving the user a heightened sense of emotional pleasure.

The right hand side of the camera takes a bit of getting used to, not because it is different, but because it is reminiscent, but not the same as with other Nikons. The first issue is the front command dial, which is set as the aperture control by default (as with all dual-dial Nikons). You operate it with your index finger like you would on a D610 or a D800, but it's a bit of a longer reach than on the other cameras, and the strap eyelets get in the way. It's not an ergonomic design by any means, and to be honest, feels like it was poorly thought out. The control lay out would have made more sense with the strap lugs at the side of the camera and with the front control wheel being a slightly larger diameter.

The shutter dial is another dual control affair, incorporating the drive-mode level in its base. It's nice to set the shutter speed by the dial, but once you get into a rhythm, it's just plain easier controlling shutter speed from the rear dial. Because so much of the camera is controlled by manual switches, the top LCD display is lilliputian compared to other Nikon DSLR's. This more than anything else causes the most "homesickness," as a generation of Nikon users have grown up with the top LCD display... even though manual dials are "classic" and nostalgic, it's the top LCD that is probably the more beloved with the majority of the shooters. Switch from a D7100 to a D5300 and that will become apparent enough.

The battery door has a twist lock, which is a metal ring that you twist to unlock. Apparently, the shape of the lock recalls the bottom of the classic Nikon F film camera. The battery is the EN-EL14, the same as in the D5200 and D5300. Nikon is claiming 1400 shots by CIPA standards, but this deserves a bit of an asterisk, as the lack of an on-board fill-flash would help the Df perform better on the CIPA tests than the equivalent D800.

Unfortunately, the SD card slot is also in the battery compartment, which is annoying reminiscent of lesser consumer-oriented cameras. Quite frankly, switching memory cards is a pain in the butt with the Df because of the location of the card slot and the lock on the battery door. On a D610 or a D800, it's a two-step operation; pull the card door and fetch the card. On the Df, it's a multi-step operation: flip the lock up, twist, open the battery door, then fetch the memory card.

Image Quality

As can be expected, image quality from the Df is superb. Here's the courtyard outside of the camera store. With default settings, the camera got the white balance bang-on, but the image has the appearance of being brighter than what you would expect with other cameras. It looks like the default setting of the Df is a bit more like the consumer Nikons, and less like the D800. That is to say, the image appears "brighter" because the mid-tone response is stronger than it is in the D800. Note: As is usually the case with Nikon, the Df doesn't appear to be using the exact same sensor as the D4, but a tweaked variation of it (as reported by Thom Hogan and based on work by Iliah Borg). It looks like Nikon managed to lower the read noise, which increases the low-ISO dynamic range. Up until ISO 3200, the Df actually gives better quality than the D4. This is not surprising, consider that Nikon usually makes productive use of the time that goes by between sensor iterations/applications.

ISO 800, f/11, 1/25s, 50mm
Cropping in, the "fridge" test is an ad hoc way of testing ISO quality and dynamic range. The broad patches of colour show image noise as the ISO increases, and the reflection inside the refrigerators grow harsher as the dynamic range decreases as the ISO is increased. Needless to say, the image quality out of the Df is excellent. (Click on the image for full-sized samples.)

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200
ISO 6400

ISO 12800

Between ISO 100 and 800, there is hardly any difference in image quality, so long as you don't exceed the dynamic range. The images have good edge definition and micro-contrast, as the 16mp sensor doesn't "ask" much of the lens. This is the same phenomenon that made the D700 such a beloved camera; relatively low resolution and big pixels make your lenses look better than they should.

Like the D4, the native ISO of the Df is up to ISO 12,800. The comfort-point by which you can shoot in care-free manner without thinking too much about what you will need to do in post-processing would be roughly ISO 6400 (one stop higher than on a DX camera, naturally). ISO 12,800 can be used in a pinch, and even though HI.1 doesn't look that much worse, there does seem to be more noise reduction going on. ISO Hi.3 looks like cheap video surveillance footage and it would be a challenge to come up with a proper use for the quality that the Hi.4 setting gives you, except other than if you were truly desperate. Considering that the vast majority of users will be stepping up to a Df rather than stepping down from a D800, this is a level of image quality that will be unheard of for the typical enthusiast shooter.


Seeing the Df and using the Df are two different experiences. Seeing the Df, its not hard to see what its intended purpose is, to appeal to the legion of photographers that have grown up with SLR's over the years, and to entice them with what was previously un-obtainable sensor technology for mere mortals. However, using the Df, a different set of virtues emerges from the this camera. This is a full frame camera that's slightly smaller than the D610. They've managed to give it as much manual control as possible, with nearly all of the important shooting parameters broken out as physical switches and dials. In other words, it's not that the Df is a "small D4" that is its best selling point, it's that its a smaller full-frame DSLR period.

The vast majority of D800 shooters are non-professional. One gets the impression that they would have been better served by the Df rather than by the top model. It's a smaller, lighter camera, and despite the draw of having more pixels, the 16mp of the Df is more than enough for most non-paid photographers, especially since it comes with so much top-end ISO headroom. However, the issue of lens sets plays a factor. There's a reason why the Df is being marketed with a special edition 50mm... it's a camera body that works well with primes.  Just like in the film days, it's a camera that will work well with a set of primes... 24mm, 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. Using the Df with the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 does give the same unique selling proposition, nor does it keep the user in as nostalgic a frame of mind.

The difficult point with this camera is once again the price. As of the Df launch, the D800 on sale is actually a cheaper camera.  The D610 costs significantly less, but has the more sensible and usable modern interface. If it was purely a logical decision, the D610 is the better choice, as it costs less, is faster handling, has better battery life does video and has roughly the same building quality of the Df, minus the manual control dials. However, it's hard to say that you will go wrong using the Df, as it is the kind of camera that gives the user an immediate sense of joy, both in using the camera, and with the results that it gives.

With thanks to Broadway Camera.

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