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Fujifilm has built its revival in high-end cameras on classically styled designs, starting with the X100, carrying on with the X-Pro1 and now the X-T1. Olympus has tapped into a rich vein of nostalgia with its OM-D Series of compact system cameras (CSCs) and it’s tilting at the pro-market with its SLR-like E-M1. Although both brands have been somewhat forced by circumstances to do something different, both have subsequently enjoyed enormous success by ‘going retro’. Leica, of course, has never been anything else, so its latest M model (the Typ 240) is just doing what comes naturally.

Nikon is in a very different boat. Its D-SLR business is still exceptionally healthy and it has carefully pitched its CSC system to compliment it rather than cannibalise it. Nikon is selling lots of cameras to lots of people. Nikon does not need to ‘go retro’ in order to be noticed so this imperative is missing from the Df… perhaps the most unusual digital camera ever. Unlike the Fujifilm and Olympus models, it’s a D-SLR and, what’s more, a D-SLR with a full-35mm sensor. It uses the same sensor as the D4 and has pretty much the same control systems as the D610 so it’s also a high-end D-SLR… something that’s reflected in the price tag. In fact, it’s quite a bit more expensive than the D610 which means Nikon doesn’t appear to be anxious to sell vast numbers of the Df. If you can take or leave the whole idea of going back to using dials, you’re going to buy a D610… or a D800… or a D4.

So the Df comes from a different direction to Fujifilm X and Olympus OM-D… it’s design brief is entirely based on paying homage to Nikon’s classic 35mm SLRs so, consequently, it’s more about making a statement than making sales (although there are no doubt targets for the latter). This makes it even more interesting in terms of its potential as a professional camera. That said, making the Df work in the hands of any photographer would still have been quite a challenge. Getting the balance of nostalgia and practicality just right can’t have been easy, especially as because, unlike any other retro-design digital camera we’ve seen so far, the former needed to take precedence over the latter. Yet the latter was still critical in achieving the stated objective of ‘photographic purity’ which dictated the use of the D4’s ‘big pixel’ sensor and, controversially, the omission of video recording capabilities. It’s undoubtedly a sign of how things have changed if we’re commenting about video not being included on a high-end D-SLR when, not so long ago, its inclusion caused consternation.

Sized Up
First up, the Df is a bit of an eyeful because it’s substantially bigger than the camera that essentially inspired its styling… the legendary FM. This was a 35mm SLR tough enough that you could hammer nails in with it, but by D-SLR standards it’s pretty compact. So, looking like an FM on steroids, the Df has a fairly commanding presence… and that’s before you get to grips with all its ‘dialness’. It’s not as big as a Pentax 67… more like a Pentacon Six for those of you who can remember that East German beast. For the record though, it’s actually the smallest of Nikon’s ‘FX’ format D-SLRs.

The pentaprism housing carries the same leatherette inserts as the FM – actually, this was a cosmetic feature Nikon introduced on the original F – and the faceplate and logo are similar in shape and typography. Nikon has located the Df’s PC flash terminal and lens release button in pretty much the same positions as they are on the FM, plus the shutter speed dial and the shutter release which has the same concentric on/off switch arrangement (although on the FM it’s a shutter lock)… it even retains a cable release socket.

But as the Df does so much more than the mechanical FM, it needs more controls so the top plate is dial central and they’re employed to set the exposure mode, shutter speeds, exposure compensation and the aforementioned ISO. The last three all have locking buttons while the mode selector employs the old lift-and-turn routine to change the settings which are subsequently locked in. A selector switch below the shutter speed dial sets the ‘drive’ modes (including mirror lock-up) while the front input wheel also takes the form of stand-alone dial located on the front panel adjacent to the ‘Df’ logo. In keeping with 35mm SLR design from slightly after the FM, there’s a small LCD read-out panel on the top deck, just astern of the shutter release.

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The flash PC socket and lens release are pretty well in the same locations they occupied on the FM and FM2.Front input wheel takes the form of a dial on the front panel adjacent to the handgrip.As the shutter speed dial only has full-stop adjustments, it can be set to ‘1/3 STEP’ and changing speeds is then done by the rear input wheel.The exposure compensation dial and ISO selector both have locks.

Looking The Part
Viewed from directly above, then, the Df could well be a film camera; the only clue that it isn’t being that the ISO dial is marked up to 12,800 which was a sensitivity speed never attained with conventional photographic emulsions. From the front-on too, the Df does an equally convincing impersonation of a 35mm SLR (size aside, of course).
At the back, though, it’s pure Nikon D-SLR with a fixed 8.1 cm LCD monitor screen, navigator pad – the “Multi-Selector” in Nikon parlance – and the various buttons relating to displays, playback and menus. Given just about everything to do with capture is tied to a dial or selector somewhere else, all that’s left to do on the back panel is selection of the image quality, white balance settings and metering modes. Incidentally, although the Df doesn’t have video, it still retains live view which is activated by pressing the ‘Lv’ button. It also retains an HDMI connector. The monitor screen has a toughened, tempered glass faceplate so there’s no need for the clip-on protector which Nikon supplies with some of its higher-end D-SLRs.

There are a couple of neat touches in the control layout, most notably the ‘1/3 STEP’ setting on the shutter speed dial which switches the adjustment to one-third stop increments. Speed setting is now performed via the rear input wheel (and displayed in the small LCD panel). The shutter speed dial also has ‘B’, ‘T’ and ‘X’ positions which is really old school. ‘B’ you all know about, and ‘T’ does the same thing except the shutter doesn’t need to be locked open (of course, much simpler to do with the common-or-garden cable release) – one press of the shutter button starts the exposure and a second press concludes it. The ‘X’ setting engages the maximum flash sync speed of 1/200 second. In keeping with its design philosophy, the Df doesn’t have a built-in flash, but it retains full compatibility with Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS), including on-camera control of accessory flash units.