Nikon Df Camera Review

D4 sensor, F3 user interface, D600 digital bits

Before we get to the review proper we have something to discuss. If you look at almost any post about or early review of the Df you'll see that emotion plays a huge part of it. People have an emotional response—positive or negative—to this camera. It won't really matter what I write in my review, there will be folk who immediately jump on my words from their emotional position. My position has always been one of pragmatism: cameras are tools, so how well does the tool work? Could the tool have been better? Without giving away anything, my overall conclusion is that there is plenty about the Df that could have been better. Those things don't seem to be swaying people from their original emotional response, though. Still, I think that it's important that you try to separate your emotional response before you try to read a thorough, pragmatic review such as this one. Remember that emotion is one of the traits that marketing preys upon, too. Nikon wants you to have an emotional response to the Df. 

More so than any review I've ever written I can see that some people will buy the Df despite what I write, while others will avoid it because of what I write, and both could be wrong in doing so! I really hope Nikon reads this review, because they absolutely didn't nail the merging of old dial-style film SLRs with modern DSLRs. The glue points are easily visible, and one of the things I've always valued Nikon on—the optimization of ergonomics and user control—has many pain points in the Df. Fix those things and I think the emotional and pragmatic viewpoints would merge. 

Thus, it's possible to have two conflicting reactions to the camera. For me, it's one of disappointment in not fully achieving the fusion Nikon said they sought, coupled with the joy of shooting with the D4 sensor in a small body. 

bythom dfangle.jpg

What is It?

The Nikon Df was a surprise November 2013 launch for Nikon, though Nikon did make an attempt at creating a short viral marketing campaign teasing the camera for the two weeks before the launch, which lessened the actual surprise. 

The surprise mostly centers around the design. Here we have a fourth body design in the FX lineup, this time one that attempts to remind you of the old Nikon film SLRs, with no real curved lines on the prism, lots of retro-style dials on the top plate, the disappearance of the big hand grip and the Nikon swoosh, and the return of the "panda" silver-on-black style of body (the Df is also available in all black, though Nikon has said that they expect to make and sell more of the panda style).

You either like or don't like the looks of the Df. It certainly isn't anything like the modern curvaceous Nikon DSLR body designs and much more an amalgamation of designs such as the F3 and FM models. A lot of people haven't noticed it, but this loyalty to the film designs is almost anal. On the black models, for example, the Fn and Depth of Field Preview buttons have the same silver outer ring and black inset that dates back to the F2. The PC Sync socket is covered with one of those little screw-in pieces that we kept losing back in the film era and were always asking the NPS guys for replacements for.

However, the nostalgic design really only applies to the front and top of the camera. The left side and back are clearly current "Nikon DSLR." If anything, this gives the camera just a touch of a frankencamera look, as there clearly is a graft point: front/top film SLR, back/side DSLR. 

bythom dffront.jpg

The front shutter release side of the camera has a shallow hand grip, shaped much like the old removable ones on the FA, though the Df's isn't removable. Also on the front is a strange vertically oriented dial below the shutter release that turns out to be the Front Command dial. Hey, Nikon made vertical Front Command dials on some Coolpix bodies, why not the Df? ;~) Also on the front is a self timer lamp, but no autofocus assist lamp. The Df doesn't have any video abilities, so there are no holes for sound access for a microphone on the front.

It actually took me a while to notice it amongst all the new things to catch one's attention, but there's a BKT button tucked in just above the lens alignment marker, just as on most high-end Nikon DSLRs. Only here the button's bigger and sits alone, because there's also no built-in flash on the Df.

One other thing to note on the front of the Df: it has a lens indexing tab that flips out of the way when necessary to use pre-AI lenses. As I noted, the front of the camera is very film SLRish. 

Up top we have most of the things that people notice about the Df: exposure compensation, ISO, shutter speed, and Mode dials, all of which have interlocks on them. The shutter release is threaded for a traditional cable release. The On/Off switch is the knurled knob around the shutter release (no lever, though), and the frame advance method lever is hidden under the back of the shutter speed dial with the actual choices being shown under the front of the shutter speed dial.

Nikon included a very small top LCD that shows only minimal information (essentially shutter speed, aperture, battery condition, shots remaining). That LCD can be backlit by pressing a button just to the right of it, a button that also serves as one of the two "reset camera" buttons. 

bythom dftop.jpg

Out back we have what looks like a slightly redesigned Nikon DSLR back. We've got a 3.2" LCD behind tempered glass (which explains the absence of a plastic protector), and all the usual button suspects from a Nikon consumer style body with the addition of one button from the pro bodies: the AF-On button. Why do I say "consumer style"? Because the WB and QUAL buttons are "overloads" on the Help and Zoom In buttons, and we've got a metering method button switch back here, too. Curiously, there is no two-button "format card" capability, a seriously missing function, in my opinion. 

The eyepiece is the circular type used on the pro cameras, but without the eyepiece shutter. The shallow eye point (15mm) seems to preclude that. Fortunately, Nikon made the eye cup very thin, so eyeglass wearers can probably still see the full image area and control display underneath (I can, but I also have thin glasses). 

On the left side (when holding the camera for shooting) we have three door flaps, one each for USB, HDMI, and the MC-DC2 style remote. No card door slot on the right side, though: the single SD card slot is in the battery compartment, and the battery compartment is closed and locked with the kind of pull out and twist lock you find on the high-end pro body battery doors.

Inside the battery chamber sits a new EN-EL14a battery. This is a variation of the battery used in recent consumer Nikon DSLRs, with a bit more oomph but the same size, shape, and pinouts. You can use EN-EL14 or EN-14a batteries in the Df (the D5300 also comes with EN-EL14a batteries).

Yes, the Df has Live View (still only), but if you change the aperture on modern lenses using the camera's dials during live view the aperture doesn't actually physically change until you take the shot. Bummer. Why Nikon thinks this is the right design for an expensive camera, I have no idea. But it's probably the "bin of parts" problem. If you have an aperture ring on the lens, you can of course change the aperture during live view (remember to set F7 in the Custom Settings to the correct value); the issue with modern lenses, e.g. G lenses, is the motor that drives the aperture activation arm in the camera: the Df has the simpler D600/D7100 motor, not the D800/D4 motor that can do live adjustments.

What do I mean by bin of parts? While the Df clearly has some new parts (body, top dials), it also seems to be all over the place in terms of other parts used. The inclusion of an AF On button is "pro." The overloaded WB and QUAL buttons are "consumer." The AF and exposure system are D610, not D800 (e.g. consumer), as is the wired remote (not a 10-pin). The sensor is from Nikon's top end camera. Wait, what? 

Yes, the Df uses the same basic sensor as the D4, Nikon's own 16mp FX sensor that does quite well in low light situations. The sensor actually performs a bit better on the Df than the D4, and I'll get to that in the performance section. Overall, it appears that Nikon was trying to push some levels of performance, but trying to do so with cost cutting in many places. That Live View aperture limitation is one of those places where the two come into conflict, but there are others (battery is one, 5.5 fps frame rate yet another). 

The deeper you get into studying the Df, the more you tend to scratch your head at some of the design decisions. Many of those come back to cost decisions, I think. I'll get to it in other places in the review, but the Df also feels just a little bit rushed to market, and in a way to absolutely maximize Nikon's profit on it. I don't begrudge Nikon that, but it does make for some compromises that potential purchasers need to be aware of. I've already outlined some. I'll try to highlight others as we get deeper into the review. 

The Df sells for US$2750 (body only), which places it near the D800 and between the D600 and D800 in the lineup. If you're trying to rationalize the sensor and feature set between the three models, it gets difficult. 24mp, 16mp, 36mp, with the 16mp and 36mp bodies being relatively close in price (actually the same price at street levels in the US, since the D800 is discounted these days). Yet the feature set (no video, no flash, lower-end AF system, etc.) feels more like the camera ought to be priced closer to the D600. The price/performance/feature continuum makes the Df feel a bit like it was shoe-horned into the lineup. I'll have more to say about that in my wrap-up. 

Along with the Df, Nikon released a new version of the 50mm f/1.8G AF-S lens as the kit lens. The "new" lens sports only two real changes, neither of them useful: you get some trim that is nostalgic (but not a totally nostalgic aperture ring ;~), and the focus ring has been adjusted to be a little more manual focus friendly. Huh? Why not just bundle the 50mm f/1.4 AI lens Nikon is still selling if you want real nostalgia?

The Df is made in Sendai, Japan. Initial production runs were targeted at only 15,000 units a month (about half that of the D800), and as I publish this review, the camera is getting in short supply around the world.

Source of the review camera: purchased (later sold)

Hows it Handle?

This is where the Df is going to create the most discussion, I think. It was designed to handle differently, and it does. The question is whether you'll enjoy that or not. Or more properly: whether you'd prefer that slower, more methodic film body style handling to the optimized current DSLR body style handling. Putting a D610 or D800 next to a Df is highly illustrative of the differences.

So let's start with the commonalities. 

bythom dfback2.jpg

One thing that didn't change is the menu system. The Df uses…wait for it…the D800 and pro style menu, complete with settings banks for SHOOTING and CUSTOM SETTING menus. As usual, though, some cheese gets moved, or in one bizarre case, renamed.

Renamed? Yep. The GPS menu is always active and titled Location Data. Set Clock from Satellite is defaulted to On. Huh? This is bizarro land, even for Nikon. The camera can't talk to a satellite without a GPS receiver attached, so having this option available and set to On is misleading, at best. To me this shows that there is no one in product management at Nikon who's herding all the cattle. Someone in the Df design group thought this was the right thing to do and did it, and no one responsible for all the DSLRs caught it and had them fix it to keep things compatible across cameras. It's little things like this that give me the impression that the camera was a bit rushed to market, though why it needed to be rushed is unclear.

Like the pro bodies, the Df also has a dedicated AF On button. What it doesn't have that we expect in the pro line is dedicated buttons for WB, ISO, and QUAL. We can forgive the missing ISO button, since it is replaced by a dial, but the Df uses the "overloaded" button style of the D600 to get you to WB and QUAL: if nothing is showing on the LCD those buttons do one thing, if something is, then they perform a different function. 

Autofocus options are handled as with all Nikon DSLRs now, with the button/switch on the front of the camera. But there's a twist: pressing the button not only puts the options up in the viewfinder for setting with the two Command dials, but the rear LCD activates and shows you the faux top LCD so that you can see what you're setting. This is annoying in low light as under the defaults you'll often get a bright light just under your eyes when this happens. There's no way to turn this function off, though you can reverse the colors of the rear LCD information display so that it's less annoying at night. This is another thing that feels "not thought through." Because the viewfinder display replaces shutter speed and aperture with the focus setting values, why Nikon's designers couldn't have turned on the backlight on the top LCD and replaced those same values with the focus system settings instead of turning on the rear LCD escapes me. 

In image review and playback, the buttons, their positions and functions, should all be familiar to any Nikon user.

So let's bring ourselves to the things that absolutely changed in handling with the Df. The list is long, and there are nuances that need discussing:

  • On/Off switch. It's still around the shutter release, but surprise, there's no small lever sticking out to switch positions. Instead you have to grab the small dial around the shutter release with your fingers and turn. This is not glove friendly, and those with big fat fingers are going to feel cramped turning the camera on.
  • Mode dial. The mode dial is tiny and immediately to the right of the shutter release. To change between PASM you have to lift the dial and turn. It's also not a glove friendly thing. Moreover, the top of the camera just feels crowded, and the Mode dial seems like it is misplaced. Trying to slam that small top information LCD on the right side didn't help, but I'd argue that the Mode dial should have been in a different position (which I'll get to in a bit).
  • Shutter speeds. We have a dedicated shutter speed dial now, this to the left of the shutter release and tucked in tight to the prism housing. One nice touch is that we've got T back (for Time) as distinct from B (Bulb). T is press once to start an exposure and press the shutter release again to end it, where B is hold the shutter release for the entire exposure. Of course we've got a threaded shutter release that can accept those old cable releases that lock, so T is just a nice touch, not a necessity. There's also a 1/3 Stop position on the shutter speed dial (which also locks the dial and requires a center button push to unlock). When the camera is set there, we're back to the old Rear Command dial doing all the shutter adjustment work. There's even an odd new Custom Setting (#F11) that allows you to use the shutter speed dial for full stops and the Rear Command dial to move those 1/3 or 1/2 stop. This is one of the places where the Jekyl and Hyde nature of the retro design is clearly felt: two dials to do the job one dial used to do. 
  • Frame Advance options. These moved from the left top of the camera to the right on the Df: there's a lever that sticks out the back of the shutter speed dial's bottom that controls the options, which are labeled on the front underneath the shutter speed dial. It seems clear that the designer of the dial system really thinks you'll take the camera away from your eye and tilt the top plate of the camera towards your eye when making settings via the dials. That is old school. Deliberate shooters will like that, those of us who are more frenetic control freaks won't. 
  • Exposure compensation. The locking exposure compensation dial sits up top on the left side of the camera. This is a only slightly glove unfriendly control; it'll probably depend upon how thick your gloves are. The dial goes from +3 to -3 and locks at every setting, so you always have to press the center button to release the dial for setting to another value.
  • ISO value. Nikon got this wrong. First, it's another locking dial, but with the unlock button being off to the side of the dial. That makes it a two-fingered operation. With my eye at the viewfinder the natural thing is to use my thumb to unlock the dial and my index finger to twirl it. When I do that, the knuckle of my thumb hits my glasses. Note that there's also no Auto position on the dial. So what happens if you set ISO 1600 on the dial and then turn on Auto ISO in the menu system and set a maximum sensitivity of 1000? You get one of those displays of what I call "you're an idiot messages": "The maximum value for auto ISO sensitivity will be set to the value selected for ISO sensitivity." This message is just wrong. Dead wrong. The obvious solution would have been to put an Auto ISO position onto the dial and let the menus still define the parameters of Auto ISO. While the current solution does make the top value for Auto ISO the dial value if it is higher than the menu set value, the message is confusing and you're forced to remember what you set the camera to via menus. Nikon's approach was basically a "we don't really know how to present this" solution, and the wording of the idiot message will, I'm sure, confuse some people. Also: there's no Easy Exposure Adjustment option in the Df, so you can't assign ISO to a Command dial. 
  • Metering method. This switch got moved from any previous position Nikon has ever put it at (cheese in motion) to a new switch just above the Direction pad. Why it isn't just the "around AE-L button" option they've used in the past (including film cameras ;~), I don't know. 
  • Front Command dial. It's a vertical dial on the front of the camera, extremely stiff, not glove friendly, and requires a motion that anyone using any Nikon camera since the F5 will need to learn. Sure, the Df has far less hand grip than the other Nikon DSLRs, so there's not an easy "out front" position to put the usual horizontally aligned Front Command dial, but we probably all would have been happy with one just below the shutter release. Oh, and one other thing: the strap hook position moving towards the front of the camera means that some types of neck straps get in the way of you're comfortably getting to the Front Command dial.

If you're getting the impression that I'm not in love with the controls on the Df, you're correct. After nearly 20 years of using and only occasionally refining the button+dial system, suddenly we have a camera that's, well, just different to use and takes us back to where we were before Nikon hired someone to improve their ergonomics. For the eye-at-the-viewfinder-finger-on-the-shutter-release fanatic like me, I'm forced to go from my usual lightning fast settings changes to a very deliberate shooting style with controls moved from their usual positions (Front Command dial, exposure compensation, mode, and frame advance). That's probably okay if the Df is your only Nikon camera and you don't mind being retrained or you work deliberately and slowly. It's definitely a problem for those of us with multiple Nikon bodies we use simultaneously that have trained our fingers to find and set things, though. 

So what's going to happen is that people will buy the Df and either love or hate the controls. If they love the Df controls and use another Nikon body, they'll hate the controls on that other body. If they love the current Nikon DSLR controls as I do, they'll dislike the Df controls. That's not a deal killer, but I really wish Nikon had thought the top plate controls out a bit more. My choice would have been exposure compensation next to the shutter release (near where mode dial is), mode underneath the shutter speed ring (mode is usually on the top right plate of modern pro Nikon's), ISO on the top dial of the left side, and frame advance underneath it where it is on most Nikons. Add a lever to the On/Off switch, make the Front Command dial its usual horizontal self, add an Auto position to the ISO dial and I think we have a far, far better set of choices than Nikon made, and ones that are more consistent with their other cameras. 

That said, it's not the end of the world. It's just cognitive dissonance. The masochists amongst you readers will probably enjoy the new design ;~). 

We should discuss the hand grip, too. This is another decision I'm not sure I fully understand. I have a feeling the shallow grip and all the things it caused are solely a visual choice by Nikon to imitate the old FA grips. Without much of a grip, the Df looks much more like those old film SLRs Nikon made, especially with the pronounced top housing shape that mimics the prism inside. Are we really designing US$2700 DSLRs solely for looks, though? I sure hope not. Had Nikon put the D610's more forward hand grip on the Df it wouldn't have looked quite so retro, but it also would have given a bit more space on the top right plate and allowed them to use the usual On/Off and Front Command dial. What we really have here is a compromise design centered around looks, not function. 

Since I shoot in aperture priority or manual exposure mode most of the time, the Df is the first body where I've taken advantage of the Change Main/Sub option in the Custom Settings. I change my apertures via the Rear Command dial on the Df, thank you. Not optimal, as I have to remember what camera I've got in my hand, but you know, the Df tends to remind you that you've got it in your hand. It just feels different than the Giurgiaro designs we're used to. (Note to Nikon: there was a reason you hired an expensive Italian designer and he quickly focused on hand and finger positions. You might want to remember that next time.)

We're not through, believe it or not.

Where's the card slot? Hmm. No side card door. Could it be…? Yes, there it is in the battery compartment on the bottom of the camera. The good news is that the plastic battery compartment door now has a metal pull and turn knob to open. The bad news is that it's still a fairly flimsy plastic engagement tab that the knob controls. But here's the thing: I suspect that no designer at Nikon has ever put an Arca Style plate on his camera or used a large head on their tripod. Because those who do all now have to find smaller plates to allow quick access to the battery and card slot. Not a huge deal, as both Kirk Enterprises and Really Right Stuff have this figured out these days. Still, getting to the knob to turn it up and twist will likely require you stick your fingers through a fairly narrow chunk of aluminum on the plate. Again, not particularly glove friendly. 

Surprisingly, the changes to the viewfinder (shorter eye point, for one) don't really have much impact to eyeglass wearers. I can still see the full frame and display underneath it with my glasses on. That's probably because there's now near zero relief sticking out from the eyepiece (just a very thin circle of rubber). The bad news is that this design doesn't include an eyepiece shutter. If you want to block the eyepiece from light—and you will because metering is impacted if your eye isn't blocking the light—you'll just have to use your hand (I'm tempted to say "gloved hand" ;~) or a piece of cardboard or whatever else you have handy. 

You're probably wondering about all those "better for manual focusing" comments you've seen elsewhere. Here's the 411: the Df appears to have a different focus screen (and perhaps more) than the D610, despite no indication of that in the Nikon literature. The Dfs viewfinder provides a slightly less coarse display of the focus plane, though it does so at a slightly dimmer output. When I say "slight," I mean slight in both cases. 

If your eyesight isn't 20/20 and properly dialed in at the diopter, or if you've got even a little bit of macular degeneration or other hazing to your sight, you just might not notice the difference. I had to test many different situations and lenses to be convinced that the difference was there and repeatable. At one point, I even tried to blind AB test the two without knowing which body I was looking through (far harder to do than you might think, as there are too many giveaways).

In the end, I'm convinced that there is a small benefit to using the Df to manually focus lenses through the viewfinder. The faster the lens, the more noticeable this is. On an f/2.8 lens I'm doubtful most people would see a difference, let alone a meaningful one. But with the f/1.4 and f/1.8 lenses I felt slightly more confident I was getting the focus point right visually. This was a pleasant surprise amongst a number of handling disappointments. 

Overall, handling is the worst aspect of the Df, and by a long margin. It just doesn't feel fully thought out and carefully designed to meld the old and current Nikon UIs. It's one thing to be nostalgic for the look of a much older camera style, it's another thing to experience the seemingly random decisions that the early camera designs often foisted on us. 

That said, it's not the end of the world. There will be plenty of you who will just learn to live with the design, a few who actually enjoy revisiting the 70's, and an even smaller group that won't know what the heck I'm writing about because they've never used a well designed camera before and thus don't know how attention to detail makes it handle better. 

Sure, I'm progressive (I'm not using the word here politically, but in terms of how I react to and use modern devices). Thus, I don't like going backwards. Maybe I'm being harsh here, but I think if you're completely honest with yourself, you'll at least agree that Nikon could have done a better job with the retro stuff. A job that didn't throw away things they learned in the last 50 years or had those strange not-thought-thru bits like the Auto ISO capability. For US$2700 we deserve better, I think. 

That said, it's not the end of the world and plenty of folk, including myself, will be shooting with the Df. But I'd hazard a guess that the reason why the majority are doing so isn't because of inclusion of locking dials or the appearance of squared off prisms, it's because of the performance of the camera, in particular the sensor. So here's a challenge: imagine the Df sensor in the old D700 body. Which would you prefer? If you said Df, then everything I just wrote about handling you can ignore (at your own peril ;~). If you said the D700 body, you get what I just wrote. 

Here's another test: what if the Df had the same sensor as the D610? Which would you choose, D610 or Df? Yeah, I thought so. Locking dials that aren't perfectly thought out aren't worth the price difference, are they? 

I'm worried that if the Df sells as well as Nikon hopes that Nikon will get the wrong message on the handling front. I personally will use the Df despite the handling, not because of it. I suspect I'm not alone. 

That said, it's still not the end of the world. Even so I'll bet that the number one discussion topic about whether to buy a Df or not will continue to center around the handling versus sensor performance axis, though. The Df is going to have a life of some controversy, I think. I'm sure there will be those that like the handling. But that won't include me. 

Subnote: from the interviews on DCWatch in Japan, we learn a few things. One being that the Df design came from a sketch made in 2009. The only thing that changed from that sketch of significance was the position of the top LCD and mode dial (they swapped), and the type and position of the Front Command dial. One wonders how much outside testing the control positions actually got. Note the comment from the product lead that he felt the concept was almost perfected at the point of that original sketch. Note also that the initial reaction to the Fujifilm X100 was noted by Nikon and factored into their decision to move forward. Full development started about the time of the X100's debut, and it appears that the Df was actually destined for a 2011 launch, likely with the D4. The March 2011 quake shook all that up, though. It's possible that we'd look at the Df differently had it launched in 2011 with a D4, though it would still raise the question of whether the Df truly was a D700 followup or not. Note also that one of the early names was FD2, which is very close to the name I originally proposed for such a camera (FMD2) back in 2006. 

How's it Perform?

Battery: I was surprised when I saw the 1400 shots CIPA spec for the battery in the Df. The D5300 was only 600 shots CIPA with the same battery. What's with that?

CIPA testing, that's what. CIPA requires you to fire every other shot with the flash if the camera has one. The Df doesn't have one. Ah, things are coming more into focus. The Df has a few other things that make it a bit more miserly with power, as well, like a simpler digital board (none of those video and audio things to draw any power). 

So, sure enough, the darned little EN-EL14a battery lasts one heck of a long time. Enough so that I'm still trying to get a handle on how many shots that is, as I don't tend to shoot that 1400 images in one session (just rattling off a bunch of images via something like the Intervalometer doesn't quite give you the same statistics as regular shooting, so I can't just do an automated test. I'm pretty comfortable that you can easily attain those 1400 images a charge with the Df if you're not using Live View, though. 

Write Speed: If you're going to push the buffer (which is difficult, as it'll manage 100 JPEGs or 25 of the largest NEF you can record), I'd definitely recommend that you make sure you're using a 90Mbps or faster UHS-I card. As you might expect, I've got cards from the Middle Ages and a couple from the Renaissance, and those can produce waits you won't like if you stick them into the Df, but why would you? 

The nice thing about the 16mp sensor is that file sizes don't quite get into the stratosphere as they do with the D800's 36mp. Think 8Mb for a JPEG, and 17Mb for a compressed 14-bit raw file. That makes even 16GB cards look a bit spacious (that's almost 1500 JPEGs or over 600 raw files). Thus, we can just deal with write speed for US$16 to US$38 (that's B&H's prices for the 90Mbs PNY and SanDisk Extreme Pro cards, respectively). In other words, there's no reason why you should have to complain about card speed with this camera: you can just max it out by buying a couple of very fast cards. 

Still, I'm finding that the SD cards at full speed aren't quite as fast at clearing buffer as the very fastest CompactFlash cards in state-of-the-art cameras, and don't even come close to XQD cards in the Nikon D4. All I'm saying here is that you can just max the camera out to a very respectable write speed by spending a few bucks, and you're done. 

Autofocus: A lot of folk are agonizing over the 39-point AF sensor Nikon chose for the Df. Heck, even the D7100 has the 51-point AF sensor, right? I've never quite gotten excited over this subject. There's really nothing wrong with the 39-point sensor, it's just a bit different. The cross sensors tend to be a little bigger (though fewer in number), a very different shape than the indicators in the viewfinder, and yes the frame coverage is a wee bit smaller, but frame coverage for either AF sensor on an FX body isn't going to set the world on fire. Is the 39-point sensor system slower? Not really. Focus performance tends to be determined more by the CPU horsepower and the internal bandwidth of the camera and other things like frame blackout time when you're shooting continuously. 

It's night, my big office is lit mostly by my monitor, there are deep shadows everywhere and I point the Df at something black over in one of those shadows that has no contrast and…the camera just focuses (I'm at ISO 1600, f/1.8 and 1/15 if you must know). Pretty much like I expect from my D800, actually. Yes, if I try I can find things in the office where the camera struggles to find focus, but frankly, I'm surprised at the things that it can focus on. I really think that people put too much into the 39 versus 51 thing and aren't looking at the trees in the forest. To some degree, navigating 39 sensors is actually easier than finding the right one of 51 (though as in all the Nikons with these AF sensors, you can choose to simplify to 11 points to chose from if you don't like punching the Direction pad a lot to get from side to side.

Yes, the outer (line) sensors don't perform as well as the inner crossed ones, and there are more of those crossed sensors on the 51-point part. Still, I took the Df to basketball and shot with letting the camera choose the sensor and didn't see any substantive difference over what my other Nikon DSLRs do in that situation. Sometimes they miss, most of the time they nail it. Take this sequence of shots, all under the camera's control:

PROD SHOT 12-2013-NikonDf 33779.jpg
PROD SHOT 12-2013-NikonDf 33783.jpg
PROD SHOT 12-2013-NikonDf 33785.jpg

All reasonably good focus choices by the camera. In a word, autofocus performance is as you'd expect in a US$2750 camera. Yes, left on its own devices it'll miss focus sometimes in congested frames like I get shooting basketball, but it did pretty well here on its own (8 of 9 shots in good focus, though I had a couple of sequences where it dropped to 50/50). Learn its nuances and you can get shot sequences that work nearly perfectly. I actually switched to my usual focus methods later to verify that they still work, but what I wanted to here is show here is that the 39-segment sensor is not exactly a slouch when left to its own devices (all auto). 

Image Quality: Here we have a pleasant surprise. Nikon has changed something in the D4 sensor, but the meaningful changes don't seem to progress above ISO 1600, so we have a head scratcher. It's not read noise (at least I don't think it is, as I'm measuring those about the same, close enough for sample variation).  

Here's the scoop: from base ISO to about ISO 1600, the noise tendencies of the Df are clearly better than the D4. Above ISO 1600, the cameras seem to perform very similarly. My friend Iliah Borg was the first to document this, but since then we've seen repeated verification, including in my own testing. This doesn't seem to be sample variation: it's a change somewhere in the sensor that shows that Nikon was able to extract a bit more performance out of their sensor. 

As in many other things I've written about the Df, the operative word is "slight" or "bit." Theres' no dramatic change in how the Df renders vis-a-vis the D4, just a subtle but positive step in the right direction as far as sensor characteristics go. The little bit of banding we saw in the D4 when the sensor was really pushed is down slightly, too. Simply put, if you liked the D4's image quality, you'll like the Df's image quality, and you might even find a little boost under the covers if you pixel peep hard enough.

So let's push things a bit and see what we come up with. Rather than my usual basketball settings, I used ISO 3200 and underexposed by well at least a stop-and-a-half. Decidedly worst case in my dim gym. Let's see what we get:

PROD SHOT 12-2013-NikonDf 33776.jpg

Solid colors, controlled noise, strong edges, and a fair amount of detail. 

Technically, I'd still say the D3s has the best behaved pixels at high ISO of any Nikon DSLR. The D4 stepped slightly backwards, but gave us more pixels, so technically when you compare apples to apples, it wins slightly. Now the Df wins over the D4 slightly. I would say, however, that at the pixel level there just isn't enough differential to choose one over the other. Yes, I know that DxOMark anointed the Df the low light king over the D3s (which in turn beats the D4 in their testing). We're talking small gains here, though. Very small gains. Still, who amongst won't take a gain that's linked to image quality? 

Final Words

The Df is a tough camera to get a solid opinion on. It's living in a crowded neighborhood (D610, D800, even used D700's and D3's). It doesn't represent a linear progression in features, performance, or controls when you compare the D610, Df, and D800 line up, but more a jumble you have to make sense of. Consider these things:

  • 24, 16, 36
  • 39, 39, 51
  • 6, 5.5, 5
  • modern, traditional, modern
  • EN-15, EN-14a, EN-15
  • MC-DC2, MC-DC2, 10-pin
  • no AF On, AF On, AF On
  • video, no video, video
  • flash, no flash, flash
  • 2000, 2750, 3000

Are you getting crazy yet trying to figure out the pattern? There isn't any real pattern other than the middle thing (Df) is more often than not different. I actually don't know how to help you through the process of picking one of these three cameras on the usual scales we work from (price/performance, price/features, features/performance). Things get even more confusing if you throw in Canon's 6D and 5DIII cameras for consideration.

I keep coming back to a couple of different possible camera scenarios to try to judge how the Df fits in. Consider if Nikon had put the 16mp sensor into the D800 body with no other changes to the D800 other than upping the frame rate to 8 fps. Would you pay US$3000 for that? I believe quite a few of you would, and quite a few of you would prefer that over the Df we got. Alternatively, put the 24mp sensor from the D610 into the Df. Would you buy the Df? Probably not, as the retro controls are costing you US$750 in that scenario. 

Nikon's forcing you to make a more emotional choice than a practical one with the Df. If you really wanted the 16mp sensor in a more affordable body, you're emotionally attached to the sensor and will put up with any of the other changes Nikon made in the Df. If you really wanted a film SLR style body, then you're emotionally attached to all those dials and the rest of the design decisions just need to be "good." 

Unfortunately, you're paying for the Df in real cash. A lot of it. At current street prices in the US, the same number of dollars as for a D800. In parts of Europe, more money than you can get a D800 for. Nikon went just a little overboard on the greed factor, uh, excuse me, gross profit margin, with the Df. Not only have they priced the Df probably towards the high end of where it should be (especially in Europe), but they've limited the number of body-only boxes they're selling, emphasizing instead the kit with the not-really-updated 50mm f/1.8G AF-S lens. So if you want a Df in the short term, you may end up with the kit, siphoning a few more dollars off to Nikon and making the decision emotional in a couple of ways ;~). 

I always look at what could have been, what should have been, as well as what we received. I don't think Nikon got the Df right, frankly. That doesn't make it a bad camera, it just makes it a disappointing camera to what it could have been. There's plenty to like with the Df: the sensor is fantastic, the build quality is very good, the viewfinder has a nice (though subtle) improvement for manual focusers, it's got all the controls you'll probably ever need at the fingertips, and in no way is it a performance slouch (though in a few aspects the performance is just very good, not superb). 

I think the Df decision boils down to one of two things: (1) you want to shoot with this great sensor at a cost and size lower than the expensive and big D4; and/or (2) you just love the film SLR controls and don't mind that they dictate a slower, more controlled shooting approach (in fact, you probably welcome that). 

For me it's #1 and only #1. Even at the reduced frame rate the Df makes for a great indoor sports camera. But I shoot with my Df set pretty much to be controlled like I do with my other Nikon DSLRs. In other words, I'm generally not using those retro controls when I can avoid them. As I've noted before, this sensor is one I'm comfortable setting Auto ISO 800 with. That gets rid of the ISO dial in many situations. I'll shoot in manual exposure mode (that gets rid of the locking exposure compensation dial in the wrong spot for me). I dial in CH for the frame advance method and control my autofocus as I do on any other modern Nikon. Bingo, I've avoided most of the Df's retroness. Sure, I've either got to use the shutter speed dial with apertures assigned to the Rear Command dial, or I have to use that awful Front Command dial, but that's just a small pain to be able to have this great sensor in a smaller body that doesn't strain my neck. 

The Df is the odd duckling in Nikon's flock. I really hope that abandoning all the ergonomic advances we've gotten in 50 years isn't a new trend for Nikon. I don't want a 54mp D800 followup in the Df body, for example, though I suspect there are some that would. 

Finally, I need to point out that the D700 folk still haven't gotten the camera they wanted as an update, and the truly nostalgic still haven't gotten the small, light, more FM-type body they wanted. While Nikon has served up a camera that will be attractive to some, I don't think they actually made the camera that would have sold the most copies or made them the most profit. That is really strange to me. I suspect that they worried too much about D610 and D800 overlap. 

All in all, the Df reminds me a bit of Kenneth Boulding's quip about Marshall McLuhan: the Df hits a very big nail not quite squarely on the head. It doesn't feel quite refined to the design center it attempts. 

The question, of course, is whether or not you want to consider owning a Df. If you want the old film UI back and have pre-AI or AI lenses, it's a no-brainer: the Df is mostly going to be everything you wanted, plus it's really your only choice without going modern ;~). Don't expect miracles from the viewfinder changes, but do expect to be unlocking dials a lot.  

The rest of us have a tougher decision, but frankly, that decision really has to be mostly about whether you want or need the 16mp FX sensor. As I noted, even with the slower frame rate, the lower-specified AF system, etc., I find the Df a pretty nice indoor sports camera. Back when I was doing a lot of that kind of shooting, I would have killed for image quality this good in those gyms that always seem to have prehistoric lighting. Heck with higher frame rates, just getting clean pixels at high ISO values would have made me happy. Very happy. (I should note that I once had to shoot a basketball game with a left-handed release Exacta with a knob winder that was slow and stiff; against that experience, the Df looks like "alien magic.") 

Finally, one last comment about the Df: because Nikon tried the viral video thing and this came hot on the heels of Sony's A7 and A7r announcements which went viral on their own, a lot of folk seem to be trying to put these cameras into some sort of broad category where they compete against each other (the Df and the A7's are both full frame sensors, after all). That would be one heck of a broad category. Sony and Nikon went diametrically opposed directions here. The Sony A7's are extremely modern designs (mirrorless, WiFi enabled, programmable, needing new lenses) while the Nikon Df is an absolute homage to the past (film like design, lots of dials, any configurability is mostly hidden, and it can directly use lenses that date back to the Eisenhower administration).

Thus, the Df and A7 don't really don't belong in the same category or need to be compared. If you like small and modern, then follow Sony. If you like traditional follow Nikon. They really are two very different tools, and it's difficult to imagine how they could be any more different. Sure, you can get an adapter and use legacy lenses on the Sony. I'm not sure the payoff is large enough for that to be compelling, but at least until Sony gets its act together on lenses, lots of folk might be doing just that. So I have to answer one question here: is the Df or one of the A7 twins the better choice for using old AI and even pre-AI Nikkors? I'd say the Df. Adapters add another mount tolerance and way for alignment to go wrong, and as much as some people swear by focus peaking, I've found it to be rather difficult to narrow in exactly where the focus plane is with Sony's focus peaking. I say stick with the camera that was designed for those lenses in the first place if those are your primary optics.

I'm going to give the Df a Recommended rating (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). It was a useful arrow in my quiver for a short time, despite all my complaints about small things here and there. Many people won't be bothered nearly as much as I am about those things. However, the Df is probably a camera that you really want to handle before making a purchase decision. For me, I eventually decided that the frustrations of the camera weren't worth the benefits, and thus quickly sold it.

When the Df first came out I wrote that it wasn't a sellout. It certainly wasn't an instant sellout, but it's also not produced in huge quantities, and as people have come to grips with what it is and isn't it's continuing to move off dealer shelves at a reasonable clip. I expect it to be in short supply through the end of December, and maybe well into early 2014, as well.  

Support this site by purchasing from this advertiser:

Looking for gear-specific information? Check out our other Web sites:
mirrorless: | general:| Z System: | film SLR:

dslrbodies: all text and original images © 2023 Thom Hogan
portions Copyright 1999-2022 Thom Hogan—All Rights Reserved