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Hands-on with the retro Nikon Df

Nov 5, 2013 at 04:00 GMT

We've had a chance to spend some time with Nikon's retro Df digital SLR. This full-frame camera, which is designed to resemble Nikon's classic manual focus film SLRs, is loaded with dials for virtually every function imaginable, and is backward compatible with nearly every Nikon F-mount lens ever made. You've seen the press release and read our preview - now, here are some hands-on photos we took at a recent Nikon event in the UK.

Hands-on with the Nikon Df

The Df is a rather handsome camera, especially in silver, and absolutely festooned in buttons and dials. Nikon has made a matching version of the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G, with a silver band round the lens barrel and 'retro' focus ring grip, which complements it rather nicely. It's a long time since we've seen a 50mm f/1.8 sold as a kit lens.

F-mount with collapsible coupling lever

Underneath all those dials, the Df is really a modern full frame autofocus SLR (in this shot, it's in live view mode with the mirror flipped up). The Df can accept almost all F-mount Nikkor lenses ever made dating back over 50 years, from old manual focus optics to modern masterpiece zooms. It's the first DSLR with a collapsible-type metering coupling lever, which allows the use of the very oldest non-AI lenses.

Top plate controls

The top right is covered in analogue controls, with a drive mode lever as well as shutter speed and exposure mode dials. Even the power switch is in the form of a rotary dial encircling the shutter button, which is threaded for a traditional cable release.

The shutter speed dial offers speeds from 1/4000-4 sec, plus Bulb, Time, and X-sync for flash. It also has a '1/3 step' position in which shutter speed control is passed to the electronic rear thumb dial; to move it off this setting, you have to press the central locking button. The PSAM dial also locks, and has to be lifted up to turn it. The vertically-mounted front dial controls the aperture when shooting with Nikon's G-type lenses that don't have aperture rings.

Exposure Compensation and ISO dials

The exposure compensation and ISO dials sit the other side of the prism, in a fashion deliberately reminiscent of cameras like the F3. Again both dials have locking pins that must be depressed before they can be turned - in the centre of the dial for exposure compensation, and on the corner of the top plate for ISO. We're not entirely convinced this will offer a fast and fluid shooting experience with the camera to your eye.

With the ISO dial in the H4 position the Df reaches a remarkable maximum of 204000, for shooting black cats in coal mines at the dead of night.

Back of camera

The back of the camera is every bit a modern Nikon SLR, with a 3.2" 921k dot LCD, and full set of 'digital' and playback controls. Note the AF-On button, which is only found on Nikon's top-end SLRs, and the lack of a video record button (this camera is 'retro', after all). The viewfinder has a circular eyepiece cup and diopter correction, but no eyepiece blind. The fixed focus screen has no manual focus aid to use with those old lenses either.

Hands-on with the Nikon Df

In your hands the Df doesn't really feel much smaller than Nikon's D600 or D610 full frame SLRs - don't be fooled by its shape into thinking it's somehow petite. That viewfinder is lovely though, large, bright and clear, in typical full frame SLR fashion. Here you can also just about see the locking lever for the baseplate compartment door.

Battery and memory card compartment

The battery and single SD card slot share a compartment in the camera's base. The battery is the same as used by the D3200, and rated for fully 1400 shots in single shot mode (by Nikon's own testing method).

Matched AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G

The Df gets its own matched version of the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens. It has a silver hoop around the barrel and a 'retro' focus ring grip. Otherwise, though, it's identical to the existing lens - the changes are purely cosmetic. In some markets, including the UK, the Df will only be sold as a kit with this lens (i.e. not body only).

Side-by-side with a bygone classic: the Nikon F3

Here's the Df side-by-side with the camera that perhaps most inspires its design - the F3. This was never particularly known as a small camera, but the Df is chunkier still, and most obviously it's much thicker due to the electronics and LCD screen that have to sit behind the sensor.

So does the 'fusion' work?

The 'f' in Df stands for 'fusion', and Nikon is clearly hoping to grab a slice of the nostalgia pie that's proved so appetizing for Fujifilm and Olympus buyers. But much as I wanted to love the Df in the way everyone at Nikon clearly does, I'm not convinced. The concept is great, but key details of its implementation are puzzling.

The choice of putting ISO and exposure compensation on the top left and adding locking buttons leaves me cold. I want a camera that makes it easy for me to change key exposure settings while looking through the viewfinder - this does anything but. (In contrast I love the Fujifilm X-Pro1, because its traditional control dials are carefully-placed for ease of use.) Likewise the choice of a tiny mode dial that has to be lifted before it can be turned - I don't fancy trying that with gloves on.

For a camera that wears its lens back-compatibility so proudly, the decision to use a fixed viewfinder screen with no split-prism manual focus aid is odd. To me this camera is crying out for interchangeable focus screens, even if it means limiting the metering to centre-weighted average. After all, that's pretty retro too.

Then there's the eye-watering price. If it cost in the same region as the D610, the Df would make perfect sense. But instead it's a huge premium for a camera that trades on looks rather than features - you can buy yourself a very nice lens or two for the difference. It seems as though Nikon is gambling on buyers letting their hearts rule their heads on this one - but in the run-up to Christmas, this might just pay off.

- Andy Westlake