Nikon Df – the retro camera with the sensor that’s sublime

If there has ever been a digital SLR camera that has set the photo world buzzing with both excitement and controversy, then the new Nikon Df is it. Instead of focusing on technical innovation like most new high-end cameras, the Df is a retro-styled camera that harks back to the classic Nikon F3 of the 1980s and comes in black or silver. No video, no WiFi, no GPs, no dual card slots, no articulating screen and definitely no art filters. Yet it’s no dinosaur as it’s fitted with the top-of-the-range full-frame sensor from the D4.

Nikon claim it’s all about getting back to the raw emotion of pure stills photography, complete with a teaser advertising campaign that hammered home the old-school, feel-good factor of a photographer alone with his no-frills camera.

Many herald it as the “digital FM2” that lots of old-school photographers have been calling for years. That’s a basic, small camera with mechanical dials to change all the key parameters, but fitted with a digital sensor, LCD screen and autofocus.

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You’d think the prayers of lots of traditional photographers had been answered. But as soon as it was announced, there were cries that it was too big, too bulky, too old-school or not traditional enough and, of course, way overpriced. There was a knee-jerk reaction that at £2749, it was just a piece of expensive retro nonsense aimed at the hipster set with more money than sense. Even if that price did include a special-edition 50mm f/1.8 retro lens with a silver line around the lens barrel like the Nikkors of old.

But to see it as a trinket for the fashion-conscious is way off the mark. It’s a uniquely capable camera that is being targeted at pro users as well as well-funded amateurs. And it has a unique advantage that could make it the ideal camera for photojournalists, travel photographers and unobtrustive wedding pros.

That massive advantage is its sensor which is straight out of the flagship D4. Simply put, this is the best low-light sensor available at any price today. And until now, it’s only been available in the big-and-bulky D4 which nowadays can be had for around £4200 – still significantly more than the Df in a far bigger body.

The sensor may only have 16.2MP – less than half of the D800 which now costs less than the Df. But the D4 sensor is the king of low light, and 16.2MP is more than enough for most users. As a photojournalism camera, or in low light of a church interior or foreign temple, the D4 and now the Df offers the perfect solution. Super low noise, great dynamic range and not too may pixels to clog up hard drives. If you want the ultimate low-light camera at the cheapest price, the Df is it. No question.

Although Nikon simply says it uses the same sensor as the D4, there has been suggestion that the Df may actually outperform the D4 at low ISO settings. As the Df frame rate is 5.5fs – half of the D4 – there is talk that the processor can be more efficient at processing the signal and hence give cleaner results at lower ISO. Our test of a D4 versus a Df in identical conditions at all ISO settings proved this not to be the case. Up to 12,800 ISO, the sensors were virtually identical. It was only at 25,600 ISO that the D4 was clearly ahead. And shooting at ISO settings like these is very, very rare.

The only difference was that the D4 sensor actually seemed around a tenth of a stop more sensitive at all ISO settings. This may be down to the different processing algorithms in Nikon’s View NX software which we used to convert the RAW files. At the time of our test, no other RAW processing software could convert Df files so there was no other way of checking. In any case, the difference between the Df sensor output and the D4 is negligible. You really are getting the best low-light sensor in the world at around £1700 less (if you factor in the cost of the 50mm lens that comes in the kit with the Df). In real-world use, you can crank the ISO up to 6400 or even more and still get printable results, especially if you expose correctly. And getting the exposure right is easy with Nikon’s advanced metering systems, offering spot, centre weighted and matrix. Of course, very dark or bright backgrounds fool every camera and the Df is no different. The metering seemed as accurate as any top pro Nikon camera, which is to say not foolproof. And with a fantastic 3.2-inch screen that uses the D4’s intuitive menu system and live view, it’s easy to see what you are taking, then review your results and check the histogram.

Of course, it doesn’t match the performance of the D4 in certain others ways. There’s no video and it doesn’t have dual card slots for a start, which could be a deal-breaker for multimedia photojournalists or wedding photographers who may want to offer video clips and who love the twin slots for instant backup. The battery is also smaller and good enough for 1200 exposures, say Nikon, which is far less than a D4. We shot more than 1200 shots on a single charge and the battery meter still showed 75% full, but we didn’t use the LCD screen excessively. But for most pro users, a spare battery or two would be essential.

The frame rate, at 5.5fps, is perfectly speedy and the buffer seems to keep up well when fast SD cards are used, although it does slow if long bursts are used. The biggest difference from Nikon’s D4 and D800 pro cameras is in the autofocus system which essentially is the 39-point system of the D610 camera rather than the 51-points of the D4 and D800. In practice, the Df autofocus is very capable. We shot motorcycles at speed on the road and also riding off-road and it had no problem locking on and tracking well, although it wasn’t as fast at the D4 and did hunt occasionally. But it’s still excellent, and realistically if you want a super-fast camera for sports then the Df isn’t it. It is still very capable though. Where it did excel was using prime lenses in candid street photography. It nailed focus every time, even when shooting primes wide open. Its speed of use and relatively unobtrusive form factor make it a fantastic street shooting camera. Nikon’s fast primes, the amazing sensor, great autofocus and relatively quiet operation – especially when using the camera’s quiet shutter mode – mean it’s hard to beat as a serious photojournalist’s camera.

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Other retro-styled cameras like the Fuji X-series may hark back to the 1950s tool of choice – a Leica rangefinder – but offer a more modern solution with autofocus and rangefinder-like viewing. But the Df is more like using a modern version of the Vietnam war camera of choice, a Nikon F. Complete with its reflex viewing, more intuitive controls and far bigger lens choice. All the advantages of an SLR, in other words.

The only slight issue about the Df’s focusing is the lack of an AF assist beam for low light. Like the D4 which also doesn’t have pop-up flash, the Df needs either a dedicated flashgun or SU800 wireless commander on top to give it an AF assist beam. The flash sync speed is also a slightly disappoint 1/200sec, too. That’s marginally slower than the 1/250sec of the D4 which could make a difference if you are trying to freeze action.

Nikon have also trumpeted that the Df is the first Nikon for decades to offer full compatibility with every Nikon lens since 1959 – apart from a very few special lenses like ageing tilt and shift oddities. This is because the Df has a little indexing lever that can be folded in or out to make it compatible with even very old pre-auto indexing Nikon lenses. If you have a bagful of older Nikkor glass but no digital camera to use them on, the Df could be the only camera for you. But for working professionals, that’s hardly a real reason to snap one up.

Disappointingly for some users who wanted a split-image viewfinder screen to make the camera easier to focus manually, the viewfinder screen is a typical modern DSLR screen. It’s really meant for AF and modern lenses, which is a sensible idea. However, the biggest gripe is that the AF points aren’t in a very wide spread but are quite close together. The finder is also smaller than the roomy view through a D4, but very similar to the D800.

While the performance and image quality of the Df are not in question, the big issue for a working pro is the style, handling and form factor. This is very much a retro styled camera with chunky, knurled aluminium knobs for changing things such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation and exposure modes. If you came from film cameras of the 1980s and earlier, you’ll feel right at home pushing done a locking button and twisting an old-school mechanical dial. It does have an indescribably nice feeling to the action of setting proper knobs.

As modern AF lenses don’t have an aperture ring, the f-stop is set using a knurled wheel on the front of the camera. The shutter speed is set using the dial on the top plate, but this is only in full stop increments. If you set the dial to 1/3 stop then you use the thumbwheel which allows you to alter speeds in more modern third of a stop increments.

Changing from manual to aperture–priority, shutter-priority or program is on a small and frankly a bit fiddly knob on the top plate. It’s right next to the shutter button, complete with threaded hole to use an old-school mechanical cable release. There’s no standard Nikon 10-pin connector, so using it remotely or hooking it up to advanced shutter release controls is not possible. Something had to give in Nikon’s quest for retro-authenticity, and this is it.

It’s actually in Nikon’s retro styling that the camera falls down slightly for serious professional use. The Df’s controls are all in the same place as cameras used to have in the 1980s, which was partly down to where they had to be to mechanically operate the camera’s systems. But times have moved on, and the vast majority of photographers are far more comfortable using modern DSLR cameras which have evolved into far more ergonomically-designed tools. The old-school Df does take you back in time, it’s fun to use and after a couple of days of shooting you soon get used to where the ISO dial and aperture dials are. But they are still not quite as fast to use as a modern DSLR. And if you are using the Df alongside a modern camera like a D4 or D800 in a real-world shoot, then the quaint old-school controls can feel a bit of a faff.

Also a slight issue is the small size of the Df. With a small prime lens on, it feels great. But as soon as you bayonet on any of the pro lenses that many serious Nikonians own – like the holy trinity of f/2.8 zooms, the 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200 – the balance is all out of kilter. The camera feels small and its lack of big grip is quite disconcerting. And on a 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8 which we also tried, it looks distinctly odd and feels well out of balance. And with no battery grip available, there’s little you can do to redress the balance.

VERDICT

As a thing of beauty that’s a joy to use, a real retro camera that packs an awesome performance, the Nikon Df is without a rival. You definitely feel more connected to the photographic process twisting old-school mechanical dials to set your ISO and shutter speed. All the nice old-world feeling of a mechanical Nikon F, but with all the advantages of digital including fast AF and that amazing D4 sensor.

For some photographers, it could be the perfect camera. For pros who need a small, light camera that doesn’t attract too much attention, is great at low-light and works best with fast primes, the Df could be nirvana. Travel photographers, photojournalists and reportage wedding photographers – this could be the camera you have been waiting for. It’s even claimed to have the weatherproof qualities of the slightly larger D800, too.

But as an all-round workhorse camera for a typical professional, it is the old-school retro nature and smaller form factor that actually gets in the way. No dual card slots, no video, no battery grip, no 10-pin connector, odd position of the shutter release and no built-in AF assist could be deal-breakers for some.

However, knowing its limitations it could still be an ideal low-light second camera for pros who already have a D800.When light levels drop, or you are travelling, grab the Df and put on a fast prime.

For D4 users who want something lighter and far less obtrusive, it could be an ideal companion, too. And one that provides identical results at the vast majority of ISO settings.

Of course, Nikon is keen to point out that the emotion of taking pictures is what has driven the design of the Df, and it’s hard to argue against that. It’s a pleasure to use and it can delivery identical results to the range-topping D4 at a lot lower price.

Ah yes, that price. Nikon has history of launching a new full frame camera at a premium price, which drops in subsequent months. Whether this happens with the Df is open to speculation, but there certainly aren’t the huge waiting lists like when the D800 was launched. There is also the fact that the Df is only available with the special-edition kit 50mm lens in the UK – a lens that’s optically identical to the normal 50mm f/1.8 lens but has an old-school silver ring on it. With the almost inevitable price drop and perhaps if the camera were to become available as body only, it could be even an even more attractive proposition.

Nikon Df Specs

Contact www.nikon.co.uk

Price £2749 with special edition 50mm f/1.8 lens

Resolution 16.2 million pixels

Sensor 36.0 x 23.9mm CMOS

Lens mount Nikon F

Exposure modes Programme automatic, aperture-priority, shutter-piority, manual, bulb, time.

Image stabilisation None

Manual focus Yes

Number of focus points 39 with 9 cross-type sensors

ISO range 100-12,800 (expandable to ISO 50-204,800)

LCD screen 3.2in 921k dots

Shutter speed range 30s – 1/4000sec

Flash X-speed 1/200 sec

Storage media SD, SDHC, SDXC, UHS-I compatible

Dimensions (WxHxD) 143.5mm x 110mm x 66.5mm

Weight 765g (including battery and memory card).

  • First published in Photo Professional, 2013