More on the Nikon Df Split Personality

(commentary)

Lots of reviews have appeared now, with lots of opinions.  

As I wrote in my review of the Nikon Df, emotional response plays a large factor in how people rate the Nikon Df. It's been rare that I've seen even the most analytical and objective of the reviewers and posters not have to submit to a purely subjective opinion about an element of the camera at some point in their analysis. 

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Some of this is Nikon's fault. The teaser campaign was totally built around emotion. When you start throwing words like "pure photography" out there as the objective for the camera, you're bound to stir things up right from the get go, as no two photographers are going to agree on what that term means. 

The use of the word "fusion" didn't help, either. Did film and digital SLRs need to be fused? Did anyone really want them to be? Did Nikon actually manage that task well? 

So right from the start, Nikon has managed to provoke debate, and debate not around facts, performance, or measurable things. Thus, whatever the Df gets in press and postings in terms of the emotional side of the debate is pretty much what Nikon should have expected. And as with every debate, there will be two passionate sides to consider. 

Another of Nikon's problems is that the bar for "good camera" is easily reached these days. Name me a 16mp or higher interchangeable lens camera that's offered by anyone that isn't capable of excellent images in a wide range of conditions when used well by a serious user. There are none. Sure, we can niggle and naggle over some details, such as how it shoots at ISO 12,800, or whether the focus is adequate or good in low light, or how long the battery lasts. But personally, I can't think of a 16mp+ interchangeable lens camera I couldn't be happy with the results from in most of my shooting needs. Indeed, it's really only pure action photography in low light where I'd start to weed a lot of the entries out, but the Df might probably be one of them, despite using the D4 sensor ;~). 

I have no doubt at this point about one thing. Could Nikon have made the Df better than it was at the same price? Yes. I'm not the only one bothered by the dial choices being suboptimal in some fashion, by the fusion points showing seams, and by some of the design decisions compromised to the middle. That the camera was developed for four years—a considerable period in even the high-end camera business—means that the Nikon engineers really dropped the ball if anything is suboptimal. The integration of old and new in the Df doesn't feel like it was a thoughtful, four-year trial-and-error, fully-tested-with-users thing. 

I thought Kai Wong at Digital Rev nailed that point with a single observation: you can have a shutter speed dial that is saying one thing while the actual value being used by the camera is another. That is so wrong it doesn't even manage to get to 1970's camera design levels. 

The problem, of course, is the attempt to keep PASM coupled with Nikon's removal of aperture rings from lenses. Fujifilm got this right with the X series (for the most part; they, too, had a bit of a struggle with the consumer lenses they took the aperture ring off of). PASM is a modern concept, whereas an all dials design is a pre-Program concept. The two don't combine well. Fortunately, a lot of sophisticated shooters don't ever change exposure modes, so the Mode dial is only a nuisance, not a hassle.

Nikon simply didn't go "all in" with the retro aspects of the Df, and it shows all over the place. To me and many others this makes for a bit of a disjointed shooting experience. The Df is decidedly slower to use than the D800 is for me. I get along with my Df in two ways: (1) I try to use lenses with aperture rings on it; and (2) I shoot in manual exposure mode. This gets rid of the awkward front command dial use and it makes the shutter speed dial not lie to me. I guess that's "pure photography." Even then, however, the left-hand placement of the exposure compensation dial and the fact that the dials all require interlock presses to move, slows me down a bit. "Pure" apparently also means "Slow." 

I should make a small correction here. Yes, the shutter speed dial is unlocked from 4 seconds to 1/4000. Just don't accidentally dial too far in either direction, or else you'll need to unlock to get back to the main shutter speeds.

People seem to think I believe that the Df is a "bad" camera. That's not correct. I am just disappointed by it. Nikon had the chance to show the world how to make a truly retro camera in the modern DSLR world. They made mistakes. 

The Df tends to be an awkward blend functionally, as well: it's got the low-light sensor of choice that the spontaneous shooters want (sports, event, street), but not the focus system or frame rate they want for those situations.  

Imagine for a moment that the Df appeared with the 36mp sensor and all the little design frustrations I've pointed out dealt with or minimized, while the D800 appeared with the 16mp sensor. That's a more rationalized view of the product line than what we got. Indeed, that's part of my problem with Nikon these days: except for the consumer DX bodies the rationalized product line aspect of Nikon's DSLRs has devolved into a hodgepodge that poses strong choice dilemmas to most shooters. We went from D300, D700, D3, and D3x to D300s, D610, Df, D800, D4. One was a product line, the other is a more random set of models, none of which is likely to fully satisfy a large subset of users. I have to ask the question: is there a photographer anywhere in the management decision chain at Nikon any more? Someone who would actually have to grapple with the question of which camera to buy for various shooting needs? 

We're soon to get an update to our random line of non-consumer cameras (as well as an expected update to the rationalized consumer DX DSLR line). Any bets on whether it will present new buying dilemmas or not?  

I've seen this problem in tech companies before. Without a clear picture of what the future should look like, product management starts hedging bets and trying to slot things "in between" other things without competing with one other, yet the end result is that everything ends up competing with everything else because nothing is perfect for a consumer's need. 

Nikon's not the "leader" company they think they are, the D1 notwithstanding. Moreover, it appears that they're not leading us anywhere in particular, if they're leading at all. It's going to take more people buying something "not Nikon" from a company that has its act together with a clear product line and plan before Nikon changes its current course, I think. Who that company is, I don't know. Sony's firing random spaghetti at the wall, Canon is as confused as Nikon, and all the rest of the companies are picking small niches to try to defend while losing money seemingly faster than the US debt piles up.  

There's a lot to like about the Df. It's the smallest of our FX options and it does have most of the "good" Nikon stuff inside, after all. But if it represents the future of cameras, I don't think I need any more new cameras.   

My Df will continue to be a body I stuff into my bags on occasion, especially when I know I'm going to be in low light situations or can use a smaller and slower camera than the D4, but it's not usually going to be the first Nikon DSLR I'll pick up to go out shooting. That would be the D800E, I think. 

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