Nikon Df Review - Is the new full frame Df the Nikon purists have been waiting for? Find out in the What Digital Camera Nikon Df review
It’s perhaps thanks to the likes of Fujifilm and Olympus, with their retro-inspired models such as the beautiful X100S and OM-D E-M5, that’s tempted Nikon to have a stab at a retro-tinged DSLR after witnessing the success and excitement these rival models have generated.
And so we have the Nikon Df, the anticipated retro-styled full frame DSLR. Is it the camera Nikon aficionados have been waiting for or has Nikon left it too late?
Nikon Df Review – Features
Skipping past the design for a moment and lets take a look at what’s under the skin of the Nikon Df. The good news is that Nikon’s gone with a full frame sensor, but perhaps not the one quite few people would have opted for. Instead of using either the 24.3MP chip from the D610 or the 36.3MP sensor from the D800/E, Nikon’s opted for the 16.2MP from their flagship D4 DSLR.
Personally, I see this as a much more natural and logical fit for the Df than the other two available sensors – while the extra resolution may be desired in some situations, the extra flexibility and performance of the 16.2MP chip at higher ISOs is much more in-tune with the more spontaneous situations the Df is designed for, rather than being plonked on a sturdy tripod for hours on end. That’s not forgetting that it’ll also be a bit more forgiving with older, pre-digital optics than the ultra-critical 36.3MP sensor would be.
While the sensor’s come from the D4 the AF unit’s been transferred from the D600/D610. The Multi-CAM 4800FX module offers 39-point AF points, with the central 9 points cross-type variants, with the system capable of locking on to your subject in conditions as poor as -1EV.
That’s not forgetting the fact that the AF is hooked up to the Df’s Scene Recognition System to allow for sophisticated predictive AF tracking in continuous AF.
The Nikon Df has not just been designed with AF lenses in mind, offering a few nice touches for those looking to use old and new manual focus lenses. The standout feature is perhaps the inclusion of a collapsible metering coupling lever that enables older non-AI Nikon lenses to be attached to the Df.
So whereas on another Nikon DSLR an non-AI lens would tend to jam when mounting was attempted, the Df’s AI indexing tab can be folded out of the way, allowing you to attach one of these older optics. You’ll have to tell the Df you’re shooting with a non-AI lens via the menu and to meter you’ll have to use the command dial on the front to set the desired aperture before setting it physically on the lens as well.
A little bit of a long-winded process maybe, but if you’ve got some old non-AI lenses then it’s a welcome addition and something not possible on any other Nikon DSLR.
The optical viewfinder has been lifted directly from the D800, so there’s a 100% field of view and a excellent magnification of 0.7x, while there’s a 3.2in 921k-dot LCD display at the rear.
Interestingly, while live view is possible, the Df is the first Nikon DSLR since the D90 to go without video functionality. Whether you see this as a welcome omission or not will be down to your shooting preferences.
While its not intended for action, the Df is still capable at shooting at pretty fast 5.5fps, while the shutter has been tested for 150,000 cycles. Its a little disappointing to see a maximum shutter speed of only 1/4000sec and not 1/8000sec like the D800/E or D4, while a flash sync of 1/200sec is a little slower than the D800‘s 1/250sec.
Finally, the battery – the Df uses a relatively small EN-EL14a battery that’s also used by the D5300 and which Nikon reckon’s good for approximately 1400 shots.
While in some territories the Df will be available as a body-only option, the Df will only be available as a kit with a re-skinned AF-S 50mm f/1.8G lens in the UK, with a design more in-keeping with Nikon’s manual focus lens line-up. While I can see the appeal of this combination, I can’t help feeling that those interested in the Df will more than likely already have a 50mm in some form or other amongst their kit and as such it would be nice to see a body-only option also available in the future.
Nikon Df Review – Design
With the Df borrowing most of its internal technology from Nikon’s various parts bins, the biggest talking point about the Df is unquestionably going to be the look and feel of the thing.
There’s no question that the Df has been inspired by Nikon SLRs of old, with the same angular pentaprism and leatherette-clad finish on either side of it that we’ve seen on the likes of the F3 and FM2/FE2. Other features and design touches that link back to the Df’s heritage include the slender grip of the F3, ridged dials, the high position of the shutter button as well as reverting back to Nikon’s older upright and thinner logo on the front of the pentaprism too.
The Df’s a nice looking camera, but for me it doesn’t quite have the same instantaneous charm that Fujifilm has managed to pull off with the X100S. I think this can be attributed to a couple things, the first being its comparatively chunky proportions.
While I accept that Nikon has had to shoehorn in a host of modern DSLR technology inside the Df, it still feels just a bit too big, especially when you pop it alongside a classic Nikon that its designed in-part to emulate, being both noticeably taller and fatter than an FE2, as well as being a bit lankier than an F3.
The other issue is the finish. With the same weather-sealing as a D800 and a magnesium alloy chassis, there’s no question its a durable piece of kit that’s well made, but it just doesn’t translate somehow once in the hand. One of the boasts is that this is the lightest full frame DSLR from Nikon yet, but I think I and quite a few other photographers would have sacrificed this for something a little more dense in feel – it just feels too light for its proportions somehow.
This is underlined with the choice of lens on the front – while zooms like the 20-35mm f/2.8 I tried balanced OK, the Df is more at home with primes on the front.
The slender and squat handgrip feels a little uncomfortable at first, but over time shooting with the Df I found it quite comfortable, though the textured finish is curiously different to that employed on the rear for the thumb rest.
It’s just speculation but the material used on the front is a little more aesthetically pleasing in appearance compared to the slightly more grippy, more modern finish at the rear – it was perhaps thought this was worth the compromise for a more traditional look from the front.
The range of additional features and controls a modern DSLR brings has naturally resulted in extra buttons and switches required on the exterior of the body, but Nikon has been rather sensitive in their positioning. Those that have used a Nikon DSLR in the past should be at home with the layout, while the manual controls for ISO, exposure compensation, exposure mode (M, S, A, P) and shutter speed are obvious enough.
While shutter speeds increase in 1EV increments, if a more precise exposure is required there’s a dedicated 1/3 Step setting where shutter speed can be entered via the rear control dial – just as you would any other modern-day Nikon DSLR.
If you’re in aperture priority, you can set the aperture via your lens’ aperture ring or via the front command dial. Angled roughly 90 degrees differently compared to other Nikon DSLRs, its at first a little uncomfortable to adjust, but I found that after shooting with it like this it soon become second nature.
The Nikon Df is available in two colour schemes – silver or all-black, and out of the two I have to say that the matte black finish is the more successful. While they’ll be those who prefer the silver, it somehow manages to look a little more painted on and dare I say it, plasticky.
Nikon Df Review – Performance
The Nikon Df’s controls can be quickly and easily referenced (as an aside I’d have to say this is another advantage of opting for the all-black model as the white markings are a little easier to read than black out of silver) at waist-level. Adjustments can be made relatively quickly from this position as well, even with the slightly fiddly locking mechanisms for each dial.
When the Nikon Df’s raised to your eye it’s only then that adjusting dials becomes a little more awkward, specifically the positioning of the exposure compensation dial.
While it can still be set with limited hassle, it would have be preferential to have it positioned to the right of the viewfinder perhaps, sitting where the small LCD currently resides and the exposure mode dial shuffling over to the left-hand side.
This would make quick exposure adjustments that bit easier and quicker personally, functioning in a similar way to the exposure compensation dials found on Fujifilm’s X-series and Sony’s RX1 and Alpha 7/7R. Despite these slight niggles it has to be said there’s something very satisfying about manually adjusting settings and I have to say I enjoyed shooting with the Df for the most part.
The 39-point AF system is the same as we’ve seen in both the D600 and D610, so its performance threw-up no nasty surprises. The Multi-CAM 4800FX unit inside the Df is a solid and fast performer, delivering fast AF acquirement in both Single and Continuous AF, even in relatively poor light while the focus tracking is also very strong.
If 39 AF points seems a little too much, this can be reduced to 11 points, making it quicker to jump round the AF coverage. I would say though that the 39 AF points are grouped relatively tightly in the centre of the frame which may result in you having to focus and then recompose if your subject is off-centre.
Thanks to the large and bright viewfinder, manual focusing is relatively easy, while the rear display in live view allows you to quickly zoom in on the area you’re focusing on to assess sharpness, though there’s no focus-peaking to assist you. Speaking of the rear display, detail is razor-sharp and contrast high.
Shooting at 5.5fps and the Df is capable of shooting an impressive continuous burst of 30 Raw files with a Sandisk Class 10 card before the buffer slows up – double that of the D610, though it is having to handle the large files. If you’re intending to shoot JPEGs, the Df is also strong, rattling off 100 files before the buffer needed a breather.
Nikon Df review – Image Quality
White balance and colour
The Df produce pleasing results straight of camera, with nice and neutral looking images, while I found the Auto White Balance to perform very well too. As we’ve seen with other recent Nikon DSLRs there’s also a secondary Auto White Balance mode designed to retain the mode of the scene under artificial lighting that can sometimes look too neutral.
The Df lacks the 91,000-pixel 3D Matrix III metering sensor enjoyed by both the D4 and D800, instead employing the same 2016-pixel RGB pixel sensor used by the D610. While it would have been nice to have seen the more sophisticated sensor in the Df (particularly when it comes to portraits, where there’s a bias towards the face), it still delivers pleasing exposures.
As I’ve found with other Nikon DSLRs that use this sensor, they’ll be occasions where a little exposure compensation is necessary, with backlit scenes requiring around -0.3EV – -0.7EV to retain highlight detail and overall the Df’s metering is very strong.
With the propensity for cameras to feature higher and higher resolutions, a 16.2MP sensor may seem a little behind the times when it comes to resolving detail. While it can’t quite compete with the likes of 24 and 36MP sensors, it will still deliver pleasingly detailed images that can be printed out at A3+ without concern, with our test chart showing the Df’s sensor is capable of resolving down to 26lpmm (lines per mm) at its native base ISO of 100.
The D4 has an enviable reputation at the king of image noise, delivering possibly the best image noise control we’ve seen (with perhaps the D3S just bettering it) from a camera, and the good news is that Df users will get to experience the same impressive results.
Both Raw and JPEG files at low sensitivities display pleasingly smooth and detailed results without any signs of image noise. At higher sensitivities at even at ISO 6400, files from both JPEG and Raw files exhibit well-controlled noise levels – JPEG files show some luminance (grain-like) noise, but its not to the detriment of the image and detail is still very good despite some signs of in-camera noise processing.
Raw files show some subtle signs of chroma (colour) noise also, but detail is just that bit better, while post-processing can tone-down the chroma noise.
Even at ISO 25,600, results are more than acceptable, and while there are more signs of image noise, its not unsightly and detail is still good. Its only at 102,400 that it really becomes an issue, with chroma noise being quite pronounced and a slight shift in colour.
Nikon Df review – Verdict
There’s no getting away from the fact that the Df is a pricey piece of kit (especially here in the UK). With the retro-inspired 50mm lens it’ll set you back £2749 – while considerably cheaper than the D4, quite a considerable investment over a D610 or D800 with that same, allbeit not limited edition 50mm lens.
While a lovely camera in many ways, you’re paying a substantial premium for it.
It may seem I’ve been a little harsh on the Df in some areas – notably the build and handling, but that’s because I had such high hopes for it and feel Nikon could have been a bit braver with it. I don’t think I’m alone in wishing it was smaller, while the finish needs to feel a bit more special than it does to reflect the price.
Don’t get me wrong though, in many ways its a great camera. If you shoot predominantly handheld shots, the images are superb, but its not quite the camera many Nikon shooters were perhaps hoping for.
Nikon Df Review – Sample Image Gallery
These are just a small selection of sample images captured with the Nikon Df. For a wider selection, including a full set of ISO shots of the What Digital Camera diorama, visit the Nikon Df review sample image gallery.
Nikon Df – Hands On Preview
Despite the hordes of press at the initial launch, we managed to lay our hands on one of two early samples to gain a better understanding of the Nikon Df‘s handling and performance. The first thing we noticed when the camera was passed to us was just how lightweight it feels in the hand, and coupled to the 50mm f/1.8 lens, it feels every bit as lightweight as you’d expect from a model that claims the title of being the smallest and lightest FX-camera to date.
Although the Nikon Df has lightweight characteristics, it feels on par with Nikon’s high-end enthusiast and pro DSLRs in terms of the robustness, while no compromises feel as if they’ve been made in regard to the quality of the build either.
From the images of the Nikon Df it’s hard to get an impression of the actual size and it wasn’t until it was in our hands that we appreciated how much larger it is compared with what we’d originally expected. This is no bad news and with a bit more to wrap your hand around you can get a really solid grasp of the body.
With a Nikon D610 in our bag and currently on test we held the two side-by-side to compare the dimensions. What struck us were the straight lines of the Df’s design, suggesting the designer used a pencil and ruler to create the angular look rather than drawing it freehand to produce a smooth and curvaceous appearance – something we’ve been so used to seeing on Nikon’s range of FX-format DSLRs over the years.
Our initial concerns of the command dial at the front of the body being difficult to access were quickly put to rest. Though it did take us a few moments to familiarize ourselves with its position, we quickly got used to using it, but being a couple of millimeters higher could have possibly improved operation – something we’ll find out when it comes to fully reviewing the camera.
The mechanical noises as first demonstrated in Nikon’s pre-launch videos had us thinking it would be a noisy camera to use, but in truth it’s not. The shutter does make a reassuring mechanical clunk, but it’s not quite as loud as we’d expected. The noise of the mode dial, ISO and exposure compensation buttons turning was fairly quiet too.
As for button arrangement, it’s entirely different to any Nikon DSLR. There are buttons dotted about the body for everything you’d expect, but even for a regular Nikon DSLR user, it felt like a camera you’d really have to use in anger a few times before you’d feel comfortable with where everything is positioned.
As we’d expect from a 3in, 921k-dot screen, images on the rear display appeared sharp and vibrant, while the magnify buttons on the left of the body fall nicely to hand. Given the option of black or chrome, we’d personally settle for black. The chrome finish pays homage to the traditional design, but somehow didn’t seem to have the same premium feel of our all-black sample.
Initial impressions of the DF’s autofocus speed were as fast as we’d expect from Nikon’s Multi CAM 4800 AF module, however switched to Live View we did pick up on some early signs of hunting in relatively bright lighting conditions and a slower lock-on speed than some of the most recent DSLRs launched onto the market that feature dual pixel CMOS AF technology.
Our brief time with the camera didn’t allow us to couple the Nikon DF with different lenses, but with the 50mm f/1.8 lens attached it felt like a very well balanced combination. The magnesium alloy covers that are used to strengthen the top, rear and bottom of the camera give it the same water and drop-resistance as the D800/D800E.
We came away from the launch of the Nikon Df with mixed opinions. While there’s little to fault with its spec, features, handling and build quality, the high-price and way there are no plans for it to be sold body only were our main concerns.
Nikon Df Jeremy Walker interview
Nikon Df First Impressions
Months before it was revealed to the public, Jeremy Walker became the first person in the UK to use Nikon’s new retro-styled, full frame Df DSLR when he was asked to use it to shoot the images for the brochure. In this exclusive interview with WDC Jeremy tells us how this unique opportunity came about and shares his first impressions of the camera. Nikon Df Field Review sample image gallery
What Digital Camera: So how did you end up with the first Df in the UK?
Jeremy Walker: I was approached in June by an agency based in Tokyo asking if I could help them with a project. After replying yes and signing a non-disclosure agreement the creative director, art director and I had a Skype meeting, mainly to introduce ourselves and discuss loosely the parameters for a landscape shoot somewhere in the UK.
After some research of possible locations and so forth we had another Skype meeting and it was decided that Scotland would fit the story they were trying to tell. It was on this second meeting I was introduced to the Df.
WDC: When did you first get to see it and what were your first impressions?
JW: The first time I got a glimpse of it was through the eyes of a web cam, which probably isn’t the best way to get an idea of the looks, feel and capabilities of a camera, but just seeing those big old fashioned looking shutter speed and ISO dials really fired my interest. I was given no details of the cameras inner workings, sensor or of file sizes at that point but I had to admit I was intrigued by what I saw. I loved the retro looks, particularly the chrome version.
WDC: When did you first get your hands on one?
JW: I was sent a pre-production model in July to handle and get used to before we actually met up for the shoot. And what was the first thing that I did? I fitted one of Nikons f2.8 zooms, the 24-70mm, and I have to admit was disappointed with the feel of the camera and the weight distribution.
It felt very front heavy and my hands didn’t fit in with the ergonomics of it. However, as soon as I attached a prime lens it was a whole different story. The balance felt very good. In my opinion the Df is made for primes, and primes are what we did ninety percent of the shoot with.
WDC: Your brief was to shoot the brochure for the Df. How much planning was involved?
JW: After the initial euphoria of being asked, reality soon hit home. I had a great deal of organising to do. We needed locations and models to sort out, access to be obtained, accommodation to be booked. Have you tried to book five rooms in central Edinburgh at short notice when the Edinburgh Festival and Tattoo are on?
Nearly a week was spent in front of the computer researching, making calls and arranging meetings. I then had a six day recce around Scotland visiting the chosen locations and briefing people about what we wanted. Everyone I met was very helpful.
WDC: Tell us about the shoot itself.
JW: We did the shoot in August. Not the best time, with all the tourists, the slow moving caravans, and the midges. The Creative Director and Art Director from the Japanese ad agency, and their client from Nikon Tokyo, flew into Edinburgh with four Df’s and all the lenses I would need for the job including Nikon’s new 58mm portrait lens. And then of course there was the fifth man, my assistant Stu, who was a godsend.
Playing with a pre-production camera at home is slightly different to using it in the heat of the moment, shooting an advertising job with three clients standing over your shoulder expecting results from their new creation but we worked well together as a team despite the artistic, cultural and language barriers.
The shoot lasted eleven days. That’s eleven days of near continuous use in a variety of situations and in a variety of weather – this was after all Scotland in the summer.
WDC: Did your opinions of the Df change once you used it?
JW: Yes. I had worried unnecessarily about the handling and ergonomics. With Nikon’s prime lenses the Df feels right and works really well. Everything was where it should be, and not once did I feel uncomfortable using it.
The weather sealing on the Df is supposed to be as good as a Nikon D800 and I certainly had no problems with it in the drizzle and rain I encountered although I probably wouldn’t give it the same abuse as I give my D3x. But let’s remember, this is not a pro camera.
WDC: The EN-EL14a battery is smaller than that in the D800. How well did it last?
JW: I found the battery life to be excellent – I averaged about 1400 frames per charge. I also liked the recharging unit, as it plugged directly into the mains socket, so no need for yet another cable.
WDC: What were the qualities that you liked best about it?
JW: The layout in the viewfinder is simple and easy to see and use, as is the menu system. Those dials on the top plate are great. There is something quite tactile and pleasurable about rotating a dial rather than referring to an LED read out and it does mean you can see the information you need without putting the camera up to your eye or squinting at a reflective display.
The ISO and exposure compensation dials are easy to operate. The fact that they’re positioned to the left of the prism is unusual but was not an issue at all. And as for the video mode, well there isn’t one, and all I can say is well done to Nikon for acknowledging that not everybody wants to be the next Spielberg.
WDC: Is there anything that you would change about the Df?
JW: I would have liked Nikon to have gone a little further and dropped all the modes except manual and aperture priority. This would have eliminated the need for the mode dial. Some of the internal electronic gadgetry is also unnecessary too and clutters up the menu system. Do you really need spot white balance as well as all the other re-touch modes?
Ideally I would have liked Nikon to go much further and get rid of a whole pile of electronic clutter, but I accept that they didn’t design the camera just for me. It would also have been great to have a spilt image and microprism ring in the viewfinder, like my F3, for manual focusing with my old AIS Nikkors, though I didn’t get the opportunity to try any of my old lenses on the Df during this shoot.
WDC: What did you think of the image quality?
JW: The Nikon Df has the sensor and workings of their top of the range Nikon D4. The D4 chip is an awesome piece of engineering and although ‘only’ sixteen megapixels the results are fantastic, especially when working in low light and other high ISO situations. The remarkable high ISO capability of the Df not only allowed me to shoot at 1600 as a default much of the time with clean, noise free images but pushing the camera further to 3200 and even 6400 gave superb image quality.
I photographed Portree harbour at night at 6400 ISO and at 100% I can see fine detail in the darkly lit buildings. But it is not just a high ISO camera, as images at the lower end of the range are clean crisp and sharp. I used to use a Nikon D700 which was a 12 megapixel camera and that had good high ISO useability but the Df is another big step forward. Shooting the Northern Lights? Get a Df!
WDC: How would you summarise the Df?
JW: The Df won’t be everyone’s cup of tea either in its looks or in the specification but in my opinion is an excellent camera. It looks good, feels good when used with prime lenses, the image quality is excellent and it is by far the smallest and lightest full frame DSLR that Nikon produce.
If you want a camera for travel, for discreet street photography or anywhere where size, weight and portability matter, but you don’t want to sacrifice the qualities of full frame, this is the camera for you. I can also see a lot of pro’s buying a Df as a back up camera, sitting in the corner of the camera bag ready to save the day.
WDC: How do you feel about the pricing of the Df?
JW: I’ve read some comments that’s it’s too expensive, but I disagree. You’re basically getting what is essentially a D4, which costs over £4000, in a classically styled but less rugged body, for under £2800, which I consider to be very good value for money.
WDC: Would you buy one yourself?
JW: Absolutely. In fact I already have one on order, in chrome of course.