Nikon Df Review
Conclusion - Pros
- Classic styling
- Outstanding IQ in bright and low light
- High quality JPEG images with pleasant color at default settings
- Good blend of traditional and contemporary controls
- Works with almost all Nikon F-mount lenses ever made
- Gives sensible choice for using aperture ring or command dial
- Lots of direct-access external controls
- 100% viewfinder coverage with high magnification
- Industry-leading Auto ISO settings, can be linked to lens focal length
- Fairly accessible menu system, considering the camera's complexity
- Screw-in shutter release socket
- In-camera Raw reprocessing
Conclusion - Cons
- Disappointing AF performance drops off in moderate light
- Small coverage area of AF array
- Locking exposure comp dial is inconvenient (especially with large lenses)
- Inconsistent use of materials detracts from sense of quality
- 1/4000th sec maximum shutter speed
- No exposure scale or histogram in live view
- Viewfinder focusing screen not best suited for manual focusing
- Single SD card slot
- Battery door prone to falling off some cameras
- Combined SD/battery door under the camera awkward for tripod work
- Front command dial not terribly comfortable to use
- Body is rather large and heavy, considering small grip
- Slow AF in live view
- No two-button card format option
- No percentage battery life/info available
- No 'live' aperture control in live view mode presents inconsistencies between lens types
- No time-lapse option (available on D610)
- No infrared remote trigger option
Nikon caused quite a stir with the teaser campaign for the Df, mainly because it is a camera a lot of people have been asking for, for a long time. Sadly, the reality of using the camera doesn't always vindicate that enthusiasm. To a great extent, Nikon has done a good job of combining the control logic of one of its film-era SLRs with the underpinnings of one of its contemporary models (or, at least, as well as could be expected). The problems come with the fact that those underpinnings come from the budget full frame model, the D610, and not the D800.
The Df is a pleasure to shoot with in good light and is capable of producing image quality consistent with its looks, pedigree and price tag. Metering is generally fairly reliable and white balance is really dependable. It's also built around an excellent sensor that offers a useful balance of low-ISO dynamic range, low noise at high ISO and sufficient resolution. However, the question that presents itself is: 'is this a half-price D4 or a D610 with a 50% markup?'
Image quality is the Df's strong suit - it combines an excellent sensor with a well worked-out JPEG engine, such that it can be depended on to take really strong images. Dynamic range is impressive, particularly at low ISO, while the high ISO performance is currently unsurpassed.
The Df shares the flagship D4's image quality, making it one of the most adaptable cameras on the market. That said, its advantage over other contemporary full frame cameras is pretty subtle, and some users may find they'd rather accept a fractional loss of high ISO performance for the increased flexibility that a higher pixel count can bring.
The Df isn't designed to be an always-to-your-eye, catch-the-moment modern DSLR, it's designed to be camera that you play with and engage with the controls of. And it does a good job of integrating its external, traditional controls with its modern command dials, encouraging the use of the dedicated controls (with all the at-a-glance settings confirmation they bring), but making things optional or customizable where appropriate. For example, the ability to choose whether to use the command dial or lens aperture ring means you can tailor your shooting experience to taste, or to provide the greatest possible consistency across different lens types.
The Auto ISO system is also sophisticated enough that, other than setting one of the front buttons to engage and disengage it, you rarely have to think too much about it, but being able to look across at the shoulder dial to check the baseline setting you've chosen is handy. The spring-locked exposure compensation dial doesn't work so well - its position on the left shoulder is a clear nod to historic Nikon SLRs, but it's awkward to change with the camera to your eye, and downright impractical if you're already using your left hand to cradle a large lens.
Autofocus performance is also disappointing, as is the decision to use a non-replaceable AF-orientated focusing screen on a camera designed in part for use with manual focus lenses. The live view magnification allows for more consistent and accurate focusing than even a good viewfinder could, but it's still plagued by the niggling faults seen in other recent Nikon DSLRs. The lack of any useful exposure information in live view means you're quite likely to find yourself using the viewfinder for setting exposure and the rear screen for setting focus - hardly a fluid experience.
Sadly, on top of all of this, the body just doesn't quite feel as solid or impressive as you might expect, for so much money. Although much of the body is made of magnesium alloy, the use of so many slightly mismatched materials and finishes means it neither looks nor feels particularly special when you get up-close. Our impression wasn't helped by the needlessly-removable battery door falling off the camera most times we tried to access the memory card (and we've seen reports that suggest it's not just a problem with the example we've tested).
The Final Word
So does the Df fulfill Nikon's promise of 'Pure Photography'? Not quite, in our experience. No matter how well the controls have been integrated, that promise needed more than some traditional dials stuck on top of what is essentially an enthusiast-grade Nikon with the video mode disengaged.
In our review of the D600, we noted several shortcomings that had resulted from the need to keep the costs down. But the difference is that the Df costs considerably more, yet shares much of the same cost-cutting. With the Df, it was clear Nikon wasn't aiming to build the best camera it could (that's what the D4 is), but we think it might have benefited from a more committed approach to the 'classic' concept. A split prism focusing screen option and a lower price tag might have made more sense than combining the company's best low-light sensor with an autofocus system that starts to struggle as soon as you take the camera indoors.
The image quality is excellent, though. In terms of its output, whether in Raw and JPEG, you really are getting a D4 for around half price. But just looking at the camera, you quickly realize that you've got the shutter mechanism and AF of a D610 with a 50% 'retro tax' added. And while you may get the D4's high ISO image quality, you don't get its low-light autofocus or backlit controls, both of which contribute hugely to its shooting capability in poor light.
The Df is rather pretty, of course, and that D4 sensor is extremely capable. Add to this the ability to use classic lenses and it's still got considerable appeal. If you like the way it looks, have some Pre-AI lenses you want to use, or hanker for the chance to use traditional dedicated control dials, then it's a camera you should seriously look at. But, unless you take 'Pure Photography' to mean that only the pictures matter and the camera itself doesn't, the Df doesn't quite live up to its billing.
Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
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Category: Mid Range Full Frame Camera
Ergonomics & handling
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Movie / video mode
The Nikon Df isn't for everyone. This is a product that's as much about invoking nostalgia as it is about capturing the moment. Its control setup is slower than a modern DSLR, but should appeal to those photographers who want a camera that feels more like a camera than an electronic device, and its 16MP imaging sensor is excellent.
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