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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.
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.
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.
Nikon has restyled its current 50mm f1.8 AFS-Nikkor prime to look like a period lens, but being a G-type lens it doesn’t have a manual aperture collar so it doesn’t quite look the part. Never mind, if you do have genuine vintage Nikkors, the good news is that the Df can accept the older non-Ai types via a clever arrangement whereby the Ai coupling lever can be folded up so it can’t be damaged.
While Nikon still uses the same F-mount bayonet fitting it introduced in 1959 with the original F, there have been quite a few changes over the decades to the way camera and lens communicate. The most significant came in 1977 when Nikon introduced the Ai (short for Automatic [Maximum Aperture] Indexing) mount which eliminated the need to manually ‘index’ the metering to the attached lens’s maximum aperture… a procedure Nikon SLR users had had to perform every time they put a lens on a camera body. The last of classically mechanical Nikkormats, the FT3, was the first Nikon 35mm SLR with the Ai mount, but essentially the change was made to herald in a new generation of cameras starting, appropriately, with the FM. With the introduction of autofocusing, Nikon used CPUs in its lens to communicate electronically with the camera body, although the Ai (and subsequent Ai-S spec) meter coupling ‘ridge’ is still on any current Nikkor lens which retains a manual aperture collar (i.e. any model with a ‘D’ suffix after the maximum aperture designation). However, as a general rule, non-Ai lenses can’t be fitted to later bodies – including all the digital models – unless the mount is converted which is exactly what’s ‘built into’ the Df. Incidentally, while this is a first on a Nikon D-SLR, it was also available on the FM, FE, F3 and F4 plus the last of the Nikkormats. Back then, of course, a lot more photographers still had camera bags full
of non-Ai lenses.
With the meter coupling lever folded up, a non-Ai lens can be fitted and then, in the Set Up Menu, the focal length and maximum aperture is entered into the ‘Non CPU Lens Data’ listing. Additionally, within the same sub-menu, the exposure metering coupling needs to be set to Non-Ai Lens. However, because there is no actual physical coupling, it’s necessary to manually transfer the aperture setting from the lens to the Df (dialled in via the rear input wheel), but this really isn’t such a big deal considering you’re using a lens that could be up to 55 years old and still getting TTL multi-zone metering with the choice of aperture-priority auto or manual exposure control plus an electronic rangefinder. However, if you do find this arrangement a bit clumsy, there’s always stop-down metering which is made very easy to execute thanks to the Df having live view with an exposure preview function (manual mode only though). Just for the record too, the Df retains a body-integrated autofocusing motor so it will work with any AF Nikkor lens since Nikon launched the F-501 back in late 1986. Given the lengths that lens makers – Nikon included – go to these days to optimise the performance of optics on digital sensors, will you really want to put ancient glass on the Df? Maybe not, but it’s enough that you can… and there are some pretty good classic Nikkors. With the older CPU-equipped lenses, there’s a custom setting which enables straight aperture adjustment in live view via the aperture collar.
Of course, under the skin, the Df is still a D-SLR and, as noted earlier, based around the same sensor and processor as the D4, supported by the feature set and control systems mostly from the D610. The thinking here is not so much that this 16.6 megapixels full-35mm CMOS is from Nikon’s D-SLR flagship – as opposed to the 36.8 MP device in the D800 – with the associated kudos, but that ‘less is more’ in terms of the performance benefits of bigger pixels… for the record, 7.3 microns in size.
Consequently, the Df has the same massive sensitivity range which spans ISO 100 to 12,800, but then has four stops of extension (marked as ‘H1’ to ‘H4’ on the selector dial) which corresponds to ISO 204,800. There’s also a one-stop ‘pull’ to ISO 50 (‘L1’ on the dial). The bigger pixels also give an expanded dynamic range and have an inherently higher signal-to-noise ratio which obviously works hand-in-hand with the increased sensitivity.
The effective resolution of 16.2 megapixels delivers a maximum image size of 4928x3280 pixels and the Df then offers a wide choice of capture formats and file sizes. For instance, RAW files (in the NEF format) can be in 12-bit or 14-bit RGB colour and uncompressed, lossless compressed or compressed. JPEGs can be recorded at one of three compression levels or it’s possible to select ‘optimal quality compression’. In the ‘FX’ format – Nikon’s designation for its 36.0x23.9 mm (i.e. 35mm-sized) sensor, there’s the option of two smaller image sizes, but there is also the option of using the smaller ‘DX’ image size of 24x16 mm.
The Df can be set to automatically switch between FX and DX if one of the smaller format Nikkor lenses is fitted. As with the D4, images can also be saved as RGB TIFF files. The Df has a single card slot for the SD format – presumably as it can’t record video, Nikon thinks this is sufficient – with support for the HC and XC UHS-I high-speed devices. The real curiosity here is that the card slot shares the same compartment as the battery pack so it’s in the camera’s baseplate rather than on the side like any other Nikon D-SLR.
The maximum continuous shooting speed is 5.5 fps with the option of a low speed mode that can be set to anything between 1.0 and 5.0 fps. If you’re mentally ticking off the comparisons with the D610 – which has dual memory card slots – its top speed is 6.0 fps which is slight boost over the D600’s 5.5 fps. It’s hard to see the Df being used as a sports camera, so in reality, 5.5 fps is going to be more than sufficient.
The Information Display (left) includes the ‘Shooting Menu’ and ‘Custom Settings’ banks along the lower edge (four of each can be pre-configured). These then allow direct access to functions that may be regularly used (right). The image review screens include the choice of a brightness histogram alone (left) or a full set of level graphs (right).
In The Process
In terms of its image processing functions, the Df is pure Nikon D-SLR, starting with its set of six ‘Picture Control’ presets… five for colour and one for B&W capture. The colour presets are adjustable for sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue, either individually or in groups via a ‘Quick Adjust’ control. The Monochrome preset replaces the colour-related parameters with a set of B&W contrast filter effects, and toning in one of nine colours over seven levels of density. Up to nine customised ‘Picture Control’ presets can be created and stored.
For dealing with dynamic range issues, the Df has both Nikon’s ‘Active D-Lighting’ (ADL) processing and a dual-shot HDR capture mode. As on the D4, the ADL menu has an ‘Extra High 2’ setting to fully leverage the sensor’s inherent dynamic range. This is one of five manual settings; the alternative is automatic correction which is applied according to the exposure and brightness range in the image. ADL bracketing can be applied over sequences of two, three, four or five frames.
The HDR mode offers a choice of Auto correction – which has a range of up to +/-2.0 EV – or manual settings for +/-1.0, +/-2.0 or +/-3.0 EV. Auto alignment – or ‘Smoothing’ as Nikon calls it – is available with Low, Normal or High settings.
The Df also has separate adjustments for high ISO and long exposure noise reduction, in-camera lens corrections for vignetting and distortion, a multiple exposure facility, and an intervalometer. As on the other ‘FX’ format Nikon D-SLRs, correction for lateral chromatic aberrations is performed ‘behind the scenes”. Not surprisingly, there are no special effects available for application at the point of capture, but there’s an extensive choice of editing functions available in the camera’s Retouch Menu. These include includes a number of special effects such as ‘Fish-Eye’, ‘Colour Outline’, ‘Colour Sketch’, ‘Miniature Effect’ and ‘Selective Colour’. Filter effects are provided separately and include ‘Skylight’, ‘Cross Screen’, ‘Warm’ and ‘Soft’.
There’s a ‘Quick Retouch’ setting which automatically boosts the saturation and contrast with the choice of ‘Low’, ‘Normal’ and ‘High’ settings. Many of the editing functions are adjustable and, of course, the effects can be previewed in live view.
The other offerings in the Retouch Menu include ‘D-Lighting’ (for post-capture dynamic range expansion), straightening, distortion control, perspective control, red-eye correction, adjustments to colour balance (using RGB histograms for guidance), trimming, B&W conversion (with the option of either sepia or cyanotype toning), image overlay (for two RAW files with the capacity to balance the exposures as required), resizing and in-camera RAW-to-JPEG conversion. For the in-camera conversion of RAW files, the adjustable parameters are displayed alongside the thumbnail image and include image quality/size, white balance, colour space, ‘D-Lighting’ correction and the ‘Picture Control’ preset. It’s simply a case of using the ‘Multi-Selector’ controller to navigate through them and change any settings as desired. The exposure compensation adjustment is reduced to a maximum of +/-2.0 EV.
As we noted when we reviewed the D600 – so this observation is also true of both the D601 and the Df – its camera control systems aren’t in the same league as either the D800 or the D4, but they’re still acceptably ‘high end’. Autofocusing is via a 39-point system of which nine points are cross-type arrays. The seven most central points will work with lenses as slow as f8.0 (primarily to accommodate users of Nikon’s 2.0x teleconverter). The focusing points can be selected manually or configured to nine, 21 or the full 39 points in the camera’s ‘Dynamic-Area’ mode. There’s also a ‘3D Tracking’ mode which automatically switches the active points as the subject moves. AF in live view is via contrast detection with the choice of face priority, normal area, wide area and subject tracking modes. There’s a dedicated ‘AF-On’ button adjacent to the rear input dial, and fine-tuning is available for up to 12 lenses to correct for slight shifts in their focusing. Obviously these lenses have to be the CPU-equipped types.
Exposure control is based on Nikon’s 2016-pixel, RGB-sensitive sensor which drives ‘3D Colour Matrix Metering II’ multi-zone measurement and the alternative centre-weighted average and spot modes. As on all the higher-end Nikon D-SLRs, the centre-weighted metering has a variable diameter central area or can be switched to make fully averaged measurements. In keeping with the ‘pure photography’ theme, the Df doesn’t have any subject modes so exposure control is via the standard set of ‘PASM’ modes. The manual overrides comprise an AE lock, up to +/-3.0 EV of compensation (versus +/-5.0 EV on the D610) and auto bracketing either for available light exposures, flash exposures or a combination of both. The bracketing sequences can be set to between two and five frames.
The white balance control options are the same as those available on the D610, starting with two auto correction modes – one normal and the other designed to maintain warmer tones when shooting under incandescent lighting. The standard automatic correction has a range of 3500 to 8000 degrees Kelvin. There’s a choice of 12 presets for different lighting types, including seven for the various different types of gas-ignition lamps ranging from sodium-vapour at 2700 degrees Kelvin to mercury-vapour at 7200 degrees Kelvin.
Fine-tuning of all the presets is possible in five-mired increments across the green-to-magenta and blue-to-amber colour ranges. Alternatively, the colour temperature can be set manually from 2500 to 10,000 degrees Kelvin. Up to four custom white balance measurements can be made and stored for future recall. White balance bracketing adjustments can be in five-, ten- or 15-mired increments over the amber-to-blue colour range, and over sequences of two or three frames.
Making It Work
Beyond all its dials, the Df uses a pretty standard Nikon D-SLR set of menus divided into Shooting, Playback, Custom, Set Up and Retouch plus the very handy Recent Settings which is a quick way of reviewing the last 20 adjustments.
There’s a very 21st century ‘Information Display’ – which automatically switches between black-on-white and white-on-black according to the available light levels – and Nikon’s interpretation of the quick control screen. These are called ‘Menu Banks’ and there’s four of them which can be preselected in the Shooting Menu and then allow direct access to a small selection of functions via the info display. Additionally, there’s a set of four ‘Custom Settings Banks’ which can be configured, logically, from the Custom menu.
With its proper glass pentaprism, the Df’s optical viewfinder is a beauty except that the focusing screen is fixed so there isn’t the option of fitting one with a split-image rangefinder (for use with those classic Nikkors). Neverthless, it still vindicates Nikon’s decision to make the Df a D-SLR and not a mirrorless design. There are the options of having a framing grid and a level indicator, but alternatively there’s a very flashy dual-axis ‘Virtual Horizon’ display that’s available on the monitor screen, either by itself or in conjunction with live view. The live
view screens include 3x3 or 4x6 grids and various levels of information, but quite surprisingly, no
However, the replay/review screens provide the choice of a brightness histogram or the full set of RGB channel graphs, plus the option of a highlight warning which can also be cycled through each colour channel. It’s also possible to switch between various pages of capture data which is superimposed over the image. In addition to the Retouch Menu, the replay modes include zoom, slide show with variable image display time, 4/9/72 thumbnail pages, a calendar thumbnail page, and the capacity to add comments or copyright information.
In The Hand
As Fujifilm found out, particularly with the X-Pro1, it’s quite a challenge to smoothly integrate traditional controls with digital functionality… which has necessitated quite a few firmware upgrades along the way. Nikon has faced even more difficulties
because it has had to make the Df work with a range of differently-designed lenses so, inevitably, there are some drawbacks. These mostly happen when the new is mixed with the old, such as when using live view as the guide for focusing and exposure control. Put simply, the Df works more efficiently and comfortably if you go back to doing most things the ‘old way’ which, let’s face it, is what this camera is all about anyway. Hey, live dangerously and even switch off the monitor screen.
Of course, the dial settings are essentially readable in all light levels, but some of this advantage is stunted by the fact that so many modern Nikkor lenses no longer have manual aperture rings… so you can only really see what’s what when the shutter speeds are being selected manually. This is why the little LCD read-out panel is there as it shows the apertures and the auto-set speeds, however you can still check the ISO and exposure compensation settings off their respective dials. What can be confusing though is when the dial and display show different speeds as they will in the program and aperture-priority auto modes. Fujifilm avoids this by having ‘A’ settings on the dial and lens aperture collars – eliminating the need for a mode selector in the process – but Nikon’s G-type lenses preclude such an arrangement (another example of why designing the Df must have presented quite a few headaches).
The reality is that, unless you’ve been regularly using an old 35mm SLRs, you’ll have to relearn some things with the Df… in addition to our initial stressing about not being able to find the ISO button we’d also grown out of doing so much without going near a menu display.
Whether setting a dial is any slower than scrolling through a sub-menu is debatable, but after all this time with monitor-based operations, the Df feels quite different… a bit like getting back on a bicycle after a few decades of using a car.
Speed And Performance
One aspect of the Df that may well extend its appeal beyond lovers of old 35mm SLRs is the fact that it has the D4’s hugely impressive sensor contained in a more compact (and affordable) body. Any other consideration aside, this means the Df is capable of delivering quite exceptional image performance. The level of sharpness and definition belies having ‘only’ 16 MP on tap, but this sensor is all about dynamic range, high sensitivity and low noise.
As with the D4, the dynamic range extends well into the shadow areas, but tonality in the brighter highlights is markedly enhanced with the ADL processing. Noise only starts to become apparent from ISO 1600 onwards and even then the processing does a competent job of balancing definition and suppression. Consequently, there are no real issues until beyond ISO 12,800 when saturation and sharpness both begin to suffer significantly. RAW capture reveals just how clean the Df sensor’s output really is, and the images shot at the higher ISOs hold together extremely well. If anything, on balance, the Df delivers marginally better noise control than the D4, further proof that nothing stands still in the world of digital imaging and Nikon has been able to further work on its NR processing algorithms.
The smoothness of the tonal gradations and the overall colour fidelity (using the Standard ‘Picture Control’ preset) are exceptional, but obviously there’s plenty of scope for tweaking all the image parameters… and you can do the whole period ‘Kodachrome thing’ with the Vivid preset.
Both the AF and metering systems are well proven elsewhere in the Nikon D-SLR line-up and the Df is certainly spot-on in terms of exposure accuracy, but the autofocusing can be a little hesitant in some low-light situations. This has the potential to be an issue given the sensor’s forte is low light situations, but then using manual focusing is probably more in the spirit of this camera’s philosophy (so why can’t the focusing screens be changed, eh?). In normal lighting, the 39-point AF is fast and reliable.
Loaded with our reference Lexar Professional 600x 64 GB SDXC UHS-I memory card, the Df fired off 41 JPEG/large/fine frames in 7.061 seconds. This represents a shooting speed of 5.8 fps which is a bit snappier than the quoted maximum of 5.5 fps. This sequence took just under six seconds to write to the card. We stopped at 41 frames because it seemed as good a number as any… the Df would have happily motored on until the buffer was full. For the record, the average file size was 8.9 MB. Any additional image processing – such as ADL – was switched off and the shutter speed was set to
As we noted at the start of this review, the Nikon Df is unlike any other digital camera there has ever been. Consequently, it isn’t a ‘conventional’ D-SLR. It seems that many reviewers have been tying themselves in knots trying to make the Df fit into Nikon’s mainstream D-SLR range, either by price or by features. Neither comparison is really valid. Go onto Nikon’s Website and you won’t find the Df listed between the D610 and the D800 in the D-SLR section, instead it’s entirely on its own. True, compared to the D610, the Df doesn’t look like particularly good value – even with the D4’s sensor taken into consideration – and compared to the D800 it looks a bit undercooked, but then nobody who really wants either of these cameras is going to take a second look at the Df. It isn’t designed for them. It’s designed for somebody who, above everything else, likes the idea of having a classically-styled D-SLR which has as many ‘mechanical’ controls as is practically feasible. Logically, Nikon has mated this with the best sensor in its stable and then completed the rest of the package with a keen eye on what it would all end up costing.
Does it work? Put into its proper context, it works exceedingly well and Nikon really has done its best to navigate a path through the minefield that is balancing digital functionality with analog form… especially given the way it’s been evolving its D-SLR system over the last 15 or so years. Consequently, the Df isn’t for everybody… it probably isn’t even for people who notionally like the idea of a classically-styled digital camera. It’s for people who are dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists and who enjoy the deliberation associated with using dials. In terms of the experience, the Df is really more about the camera than the picture, although it’s undoubtedly very capable as far as the latter is concerned.
In the end, it’s about putting the Df into perspective which is that it’s a high-end digital SLR with the feel and operational characteristics of a 35mm SLR from the late 1970s. That it works nearly as well as it does is actually no mean feat. Did Nikon go too far or not far enough? Well, purity is an elusive goal and there will be plenty of Nikon enthusiasts who would have liked the Df done differently, but let’s be thankful for what we’ve got. If you love the idea of the Df, you’ll truly love the camera itself… because it does achieve its design objectives, flaws and all.