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Nikon Df Review: Love It or Hate It?
by Theano Nikitas -  2/7/2014

With its retro styling and mechanical dials, the Nikon Df is likely a love-it-or-hate-it proposition for most photographers. A blend of Nikon's F-series SLR heritage and today's technology puts this full-frame camera in a class of its own--reaching back into history even more than other manufacturers' homage to the good ol' days of film, SLRs and rangefinder cameras. Even those who are intrigued by the camera's styling and functionality may suffer sticker shock with its body-only $2,750 price tag. We took the Df for a spin and think you may be pleasantly surprised at some of our findings. Read on to find out if we think the Df is worth the price.

Nikon threw us for a loop when we saw the Df behind closed doors at the PhotoPlus Expo in New York last fall. My first thought when I saw the black-and-silver version of this full-frame camera was "Steampunk!"--a style that I love. And, right in line with its retro styling, Nikon has reached back and made the Df compatible with a wide range of lenses. Of course, that includes AF, AF-S, DX, AF-D, but photographers with a stash of older glass lenses can use their Ai and non-Ai Nikkor lenses thanks to a special switchable Ai tab on the camera. I tested the camera with the special edition kit 50mm f/1.8G, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G and the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G lenses. 

The Df is built around the same 16 megapixel, FX-format CMOS sensor as the Nikon D4, which in and of itself takes the appeal of the camera up a notch especially given the flagship D4's excellent high ISO performance. Other under-the-hood specifications include an EXPEED 3 image processor, 39-point AF system with nine cross-type sensors as well as a 2016-pixel matrix metering and scene recognition system. 

Oddly, even though the Nikon Df offers Live View shooting, the camera does not support video capture. Personally, I don't have an issue with that and my guess is that many--or, perhaps, most--photographers who find the Df appealing won't miss that feature. This camera is all about the still image and that's okay with me. 

I was slightly disappointed, however, that the Df has only a single SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot. 

Not surprisingly, the Df has a hotshoe and supports Nikon's Creative Lighting System (CLS). But, also not surprisingly, the camera does not have an on-board flash. 

Build and Design
The smallest and lightest full-frame DSLR on the market to date, the Df measures 5.8 x 4.3 x 2.6 inches and weighs about 25 ounces (body only). It's a little bulkier and heavier than I'd like, but certainly manageable. Some photographers with larger hands might find the grip a little too shallow but the Df felt comfortable in my smaller hands. 

Available clad in all black or the more F-series look-alike silver and black, the Df's main body surface is wrapped with lightly-textured leatherette. The top cover is constructed of magnesium alloy and while the camera may not feel as well-built as the Nikon D4 or the D800, it's well-balanced enough to handle long lenses. But does its build reflect the camera's price tag? Not really even though the DF is sealed and gasketed since the battery/SD card cover is a little wobbly, so I'd be cautious about exposing it to extreme weather conditions. 

Ergonomics and Controls
It took me a little while to get acclimated to the Df's physical design and controls but once I got into the groove, I (mostly) enjoyed using the camera. Because of its physical controls, I found that shooting with the Df was a slower, more thoughtful experience than working with a DSLR or CSC and that, I think, is the point of shooting with a camera like the Df. 

There's no lack of external controls on this camera with dedicated and customizable dials and buttons scattered across the entire body. Some controls are typical of those found on Nikon DSLRs including the rear panel's Playback, Delete, AE/AF lock, AF-On, Menu, White Balance, Quality, Zoom, Info and Live View buttons. Other rear external controls include a Metering Selection switch, a 4-way controller with a center OK button and the Main Command Dial. 

On the front of the camera, you'll have the forward Command Dial and, to the right of the lens, two programmable buttons (PV and Fn). On the other side of the lens, there's a focus switch (AF and MF), as well as a convenient Bracket button and Flash Sync Terminal. 

But it's the top deck that's really interesting. In addition to a small, pull-up-and-turn mode dial (Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, Manual); the top right shoulder is home to the round power/shutter button (which is threaded to accommodate a manual shutter release cable or soft shutter button accessory). There's also a small LCD and LCD illuminator button, although the LCD panel is so small, there's room for very little information; it's easier to see your settings through the viewfinder or on the large LCD monitor on the back of the camera. 

The most prominent controls on the right shoulder, however, are the oversized shutter speed dial and its surrounding release mode dial with single, continuous (low speed or high speed), quiet, self-timer and mirror up options. On the left shoulder, the Df's exposure compensation and ISO dials are stacked. 

All the elements are there for easy access to almost every setting a photographer wants quick access to. However, as I alluded to earlier, it's because of these physical controls that you're forced to slow down when you're shooting.

I like having so many external controls but I found that, in addition to the camera's learning curve (which may not affect everyone), some of the controls were difficult to operate. For example, my hands are smaller so it was a bit of a stretch to press the PV and Fn buttons on the front of the camera. The on/off and forward command dials were difficult to turn. Physically, the shutter speed dial is probably the easiest to turn but ratchets solidly enough that your setting won't be accidentally changed. And, if you don't want to physically turn the shutter speed dial--or don't want to be limited by full-stop adjustments--you can lock it into a special 1/3 step setting and use the rear command dial to adjust shutter speed. 

It took a short while to get used to turning the forward command dial for adjusting aperture since it sits vertically and flush to the front of the camera and is stiff to the touch. If you shoot mostly in aperture-priority mode, you might want to customize the camera to adjust the aperture via the more convenient rear command dial. 

Perhaps my biggest issue with the Df's usability are the EV (exposure compensation) and ISO dials on the camera's left shoulder. Besides being right-handed, which makes any left-handed operation a bit challenging, both dials are locked. The EV dial's small, protruding center lock release button has to be pressed and held in order to change the exposure compensation. Likewise, a small button at the top edge of the top panel has to be pressed and held while turning the ISO dial. Sure, I understand that locking a dial prevents inadvertent changes to the settings and, to be fair, the EV dial was less inconvenient to operate than the ISO dial. But there was no way I could change ISO settings without balancing the camera in my right hand. It was a struggle for me, but others may not find it quite as difficult. Alternatively, you can set your optimal ISO on the dial, then go into the menu (internally or on the info screen) and set the ISO to Auto. If/when the ISO setting on the dial cannot be utilized for current lighting conditions, the camera will automatically adjust the ISO.

 

Menus and Modes
Anyone familiar with newer Nikon DSLRs will automatically be at home with the Df's menus. They're logically arranged and easy to navigate. Arranged in five categories, which run vertically down the left of the screen, menus include: playback, shooting, custom settings, setup and recent settings. There's also built-in help--just press the "?" button to get a description of the various menu items.

It's in the menu system that you'll customize buttons and dials, set image quality and image size, select AF and metering options, choose and adjust picture styles, activate vignette and auto distortion control and much, much more. The custom settings aren't quite as extensive as they are on the D4 but the camera can easily be set up to meet photographers' needs. 

Shooting modes are relatively streamlined with basic exposure modes available on the mode dial: Program AE, Shutter-priority, Aperture-priority and Manual. You won't find scene modes but, of course, you can tweak the preset Standard, neutral, vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape Picture Control options. You can also shoot on Bulb for long exposures, create time lapses with interval shooting and utilize the Df's multiple exposure option. There are plenty of shooting parameters to mix and match. The biggest omission may be the lack of video capture but, as I mentioned earlier, this may not be a huge deal for those who are attracted to the Df's focus on a classic still photography experience. 

Display/Viewfinder
The Df features a large, 3.2-inch high resolution fixed LCD on the back panel. An information panel is easy to read on the LCD in all lighting conditions. The monitor is also bright and clear enough to use Live View when outdoors. 

Likewise, the pentaprism viewfinder is large and (relatively) bright as well, providing a 100% view (in FX; 97% in DX mode). Dioptric adjustment is available and shooting information is easy to read. When customized, a virtual level and/or a grid overlay can be enabled at the press of a button. The level resembles the exposure metering bar at the bottom of the frame, which leaves the rest of the viewfinder free for viewing and composing your shot. I wasn't thrilled with the grid overlay, though since it was barely visible in the viewfinder. The focusing screen is not interchangeable although www.focusingscreen.com recently announced a series of screens for the Df. I've never tried them and my guess is that if you try to install a new screen, you probably will void your warranty, so proceed with caution.

 

Shooting Performance
While the Df is built around the same sensor as the D4, the smaller camera isn't the speed demon like its higher end sibling. Continuous shooting maxes out at about 5.5 frames per second, which is fine but is about half the fps of the D4. Again, I keep reminding myself that the Df is a whole different type of camera and that I (and you) need to keep that in mind when looking at the specs and working with the camera. 

Overall, the camera is very responsive with a quick start-up time and good shot-to-shot times; the latter is generally limited by the time it takes for the AF to lock focus. And, speaking of AF. In bright light, the Df focuses quickly and accurately. Get into low light situations, however, and the Df's AF isn't quite as responsive. 

The Df, while capable of stopping action, I think it's best for slower movement (e.g., street photography) or static shots such as landscapes, still life and portraits, to name just a few. Shutter speed is capped at 1/4000th second vs. the D4's 1/8000th of a second, which limits the camera in certain situations. And, the Df is also better suited to these types of shots because of how long it sometimes takes to change settings such as ISO. 

One of the really bright spots of its performance is battery life. Based on CIPA standards, the Df's battery lasts for 1400 shots. I never got to that point during testing but the battery indicator showed very little movement even after a full couple of days of shooting. 

Image Quality
In short, the Df's image quality is outstanding. Let's just say that it's pretty much on par with the image quality you can get out of the D4. Color renditions are accurate and pleasing with above average dynamic range (with and without the camera's Active D-Lighting enabled). Metering is generally accurate and, with only a few exceptions, even automatic white balance is usually spot on. 

Given its 16 megapixel D4 sensor, the Df handles high ISO exceptionally well. The Df's native ISO ranges from 100 to 12,800 and is expandable to a low of 50 and a high of 204,800. While I always recommend shooting in RAW at higher ISOs so you have the most control over the compromise between detail and image noise, the Df did a good job of containing image noise and maintaining detail even with JPEGs. I would, however, try not to go above ISO 6400 unless necessary. And while the Df can output good images at ISO 6400, my target high ISOs were 3200 or under. 

Image sharpness is, of course, highly dependent on the lens used. The fast 50mm kit lens often delivered nice details and crisp images, there was a big difference between the sub-$300 lens' sharpness and my 85mm f/1.4G  lens. That's not to say that the 50mm lens isn't good; it is (and is part of Nikon's effort to deliver quality, fast prime lenses at affordable prices). But I found myself defaulting to the 85mm lens whenever possible but since most of us started out on 35mm cameras with a 50mm or 55mm lens, there's something about the kit lens' 50mm focal length that's very comfortable to work with. 

Sample Images


Conclusion

With its retro, steam punk-like styling and multiple manual controls, the Nikon Df is one of those cameras that polarizes photographers. Not everyone is going to like or even feel comfortable with the camera's design and the need to depend on sometimes difficult-to-use dials and buttons to adjust settings. Some photographers--by preference or necessity--are used to that run-and-gun type of shooting referenced earlier and don't want (or don't know how) to slow down and enjoy the experience of creating an image. 

Although I can't confess unwavering adoration for the Df, I fall on the positive side of the love-it-or-hate-it divide. I like the Df a lot. I like the amount of physical control over shooting those sometimes-annoying dials provide. Image quality is outstanding and is the camera's strong suit--as it should be with any camera. Add good dynamic range and excellent high ISO performance and I find it's easier than I anticipated to overlook some of this camera's quirks.  

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