The Philosophy of Nikon Df

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Richard Murdey
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The Philosophy of Nikon Df
7 months ago

In Japan, the Asahi Camera magazine come out last month with a special issue dedicated to the Df, called "The Philosophy of Nikon Df " (Nikon Df の哲学).

It's 132 pages of very glossy propaganda, presumably bankrolled by Nikon Corp. Photo spreads with all kinds of classic vintage lenses, interviews, and long sections delineating how all the control dials and style details trace back to classic Nikon film cameras. It was in that section that I noticed something that brought the reality home: in a two page essay talking about the design of the battery flap - I kid you not - there were about 6 comparison shots of the underside of various Nikon cameras showing the development over time. While shown to scale, the photo of the Df had been carefully cropped to remove the lens mount and rear LCD sections from the frame ... to avoid calling attention to the painfully obvious fact that the Df was almost comically fat in comparison to any of the film cameras it aped.

...facepalm moment...

The marketing for this camera is so pretentious, its borderline sickening.

I guess most people have seen Kai's take on the Df by now over a digitalrevTV. It's wicked, all the more so because it so accurately skewers Nikon's ridiculous hype machine. We've covered the size problem, but Kai does a great job of taking the control layout to task: pointing out that the shutter speed dial that becomes nonfunctional when in A or P modes. That's "fail" writ large, right there...

Step back a second, bear with me here:

The SLR camera control layout started with no meter, so you had aperture and shutter speed. Add a meter, you need to set the film speed. Then, it made sense to add an "A" setting to the shutter speed dial, and that, in turn led to the necessity of an exposure compensation dial. Finally the "A" setting was also added to the lens, for shutter priority and program auto. That's the control set of a modern, minimalist "retro" camera: ISO, EV, shutter speed+A, aperture+A. It works well. Exhibit A being the Fuji X100.

A modern, professional Nikon dSLR moves away from this entirely: two control wheels, mode dial, LCD and viewfinder display of shooting info, and "button press + dial rotation" for setting changes. The "classic" controls were dropped for good reason: the number of camera functions grew too large for it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the two-dial setup. It is nice, though, to go back to "simpler times" and have just the physical aperture ring and shutter speed dial to set. Just not on the same camera! In a nutshell, that's the problem with the Df - it's built into its DNA, it's fundamental design brief to support four generations of Nikkor lenses : auto, Ai, AF, and G, straddling two different control paradigms. It is not possible to do that and at the same time have a clean, concise, straightforward, and intuitive control layout.

If the D4 sensor is so great, Nikon should put it in all the FX bodies. It's not like it costs any more than the one in the D800 of D600. (A D800x could be 36MP.) Then the D600 could be the "modern" small FX body, and the Df could have been the "retro" small FX body: no support for "G" lenses, no AF, split prism focus screen... I'm pretty tight-fisted when it comes to buying cameras, but I would have lined up for that.

 Richard Murdey's gear list:Richard Murdey's gear list
Nikon D40 Pentax K10D Nikon 1 V1 Nikon D600 Pentax smc FA 31mm F1.8 AL Limited +6 more
Fujifilm FinePix X100 Nikon D4 Nikon D600 Nikon D800 Nikon Df
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