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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
1/500 second.

The Verdict
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.

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