Nikon Df review

In this review I’ll tell you more about the Nikon Df. Maybe you wonder why I’m writing this review almost two years after the release of the Df. I’ve got a simple explanation: I don’t think there still isn’t another camera for sale at this moment that combines style and specifications like the Nikon Df does. Ever since the introduction of the Df I’ve been a fan of its looks, and I was wondering if the Df can live up to my expectations. De Nikon Df is more expensive than the newer Nikon D750, and looking at the specifications the D750 is miles ahead of the Df.

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Nikon Df review
The Df next to one of its predecessors the 1979 Pentax ME-super

Looks and build quality

The Nikon Df stands out because of its retro-design. That is based on the classic Nikon SLR’s from the seventies and eighties. It looks somewhat like a modernised Nikon FM. With its classic looks many people will not even notice that the Df is a modern digital SLR camera. My review Df is all black, you can also get the Nikon Df in silver with black details. That version looks even more like a classic film SLR. I really like the design of the Nikon Df. I think Nikon successfully converted the old designs to something modern with retro details without becoming tacky.

On the front of the camera the pyramid-like prism housing stands out. That is the part that looks the most like the classic Nikon FM. Besides that you’ll find the vertical adjustment dial on the left of the lensmount (looking at the front of the camera). While a horizontal dial may feel more familiar the vertical dial works almost as good. Also on the left side of the lens mount you’ll find two programmable buttons.

Nikon Df review

When you inspect the mount itself you’ll notice the small aperture-feeler tab. In contrary to other modern Nikon DSLR’s you can fold it out of the way on the Df. That makes it possible to use any Nikon F-mount lens built since 1959, even the Pre-AI lenses. A nice extra for people who want to use their classic lenses on the Df.

On the right side of the mount you’ll find some other controls. On the side of the prism housing is the BKT-button to adjust the bracketing settings. Below that is the lens-release button and just a little lower is the AF-control switch. That will look and feel familiar for Nikon-users. You have a small switch to choose AF or MF. In the middle is the small button you can use to adjust the AF-mode. The Df also has got a classic flash sync port. On the bottom right side is the small and subtle golden FX-logo, showing the Df is a full frame Nikon. What you won’t find on the front of the camera is an AF-support light. Just like the Nikon D4s it doesn’t have one. With the slower AF in dim light (more about that later on) it could have been a useful extra.

The mounts for the carrying strap are also on the front of the camera. That is great since it keeps the camera from tumbling over when you mount a heavy lens.

On the bottom of the Df there isn’t a lot going on. Besides the tripod mount you’ll only find the combined battery and SD-card compartment. The lid itself is nice as it is kept closed with a lock that looks like the ones you used to find on old SLR’s, a subtle retro hint. It is a shame the Nikon Df only has got one SD-card slot, making it less useful for professional jobs.

On the back the Nikon Df looks like a normal Nikon DSLR. There is the sharp and bright 3.2 inch screen. Unfortunately the screen doesn’t swivel. Around the screen are the ‘normal’ Nikon controls. The Df does have a dedicated switch to choose the desired metering mode, that cheaper Nikon DSLR don’t have. You can switch between centre weighted, pattern and spot with the flick of the switch. On the top right of the back is the horizontal control dial to adjust settings, conveniently located to use with you thumb. Nikon has used an 8-way controller. You use that to scroll through menus and select the desired AF-point. You have an L-setting to lock the controller to prevent accidental use.

Nikon Df review

The live view button is also on the back and while it may look similar to the normal live view buttons Nikon uses on all its DSLR’s its missing something. Normally these have two function, activate live view and switch between video- and photo mode for live view. That second function is not available on the Df, for a simple reason: the Df doesn’t have a video function. I don’t mind, I almost never shoot video with my camera. And it seems in line with Nikons statement that the Nikon Df is designed for ‘pure photography’.

The OVF has got a round eyepiece, just like the other high end Nikon full frame cameras like the D8x00-series and the D4s. Of course the OVF has got 100% coverage when using FX lenses. With a magnification of 0.71x the OVF is big and it is also bright. Since I’ve been using cameras with an EVF a lot the last years I do sometimes miss the magnification option you have for manual focusing. But because the OVF on the Df is big manual focus is still manageable, especially with the rangefinder focus conformation in the EVF.

Nikon Df review

On top of the Nikon Df you’ll find the adjustment dials you can use to adjust the settings. As you may expect all of the used buttons are metal, no cheap plastics here. The whole body of the Df is made of metal, Nikon has used a light magnesium alloy to create it. The big top-dials may make old-school SLR users feel right at home. On the left side is the dual function dial with the top one handling the exposure compensation. The bottom one sets the ISO values. Both have their own locking button to prevent accidental use. I really like that as the exposure compensation on my Sony A7 is messed up 9 of 10 times I take it out of my camera bag.

Nikon Df review

On the right of the prism housing is the dial to set the shutter speed. The dial only offers full stops, but you can use the 1/3e option. In 1/3e setting you can use the control dial on the body to set the shutter speed in smaller increments. Below the shutters speed dial is the drive mode selector. You use that to switch between single shot, continuous low speed (you can set the speed in the menu), continuous high speed, silent mode, self-timer and mirror-up. The on/off switch is below the shutter release button. That works fine, but I would have loved an extra ridge for some extra grip to switch the camera on using one hand. The shutter release has got the option to use a classic wire release to activate it. Next to the shutter release is the PASM switch. You have to lift it to use it, making it kind of hard to use when you have the camera to your eye.

Using the Nikon Df

Taking photos with the Nikon Df is a real pleasure. For me, as an previous Nikon owner, the controls felt a bit like coming home. The controls and menu structure look and feel a lot like the ones I used on my Nikon D7000 and other modern Nikon DSLR’s. If you want to use the dials on top of the Df is completely up to the photographer. If you please you can control the Df just like any modern Nikon DSLR with the two control dials on the front and back of the camera. I never used that option tough. On one hand because of the retro feeling using the top-controls gave me. But I also really liked seeing my settings by just a quick look at the dials. If you want to complete the retro feeling of the Df you should use it with an Nikkor AF-D lens with the aperture selector on the lens. Even if you mount an AF-D lens it is up to you if you use the aperture selector on the lens or if you want to set it using the dials on the camera.

The ISO-dials requires some extra explanation. If the Auto-ISO setting of the camera isn’t active the ISO-dials sets the used ISO value. That is quick, easy and you can see the chosen setting directly on the dial. If you have the Auto-ISO turned on the behaviour is a little different. The ISO-dial sets the minimum ISO value the camera will use. In the menu you set the maximum ISO value and the minimal shutter speed. You can set the minimum shutter speed by hand or choose the auto setting. That way the camera sets the minimum shutter speed in accordance with the focal length of the lens you are using. That works perfect, so I left the minimum shutter speed up to the camera all the time and never felt the need to adjust it myself.

Nikon Df review
De Df heeft een relatief kleine grip

The Df’s grip is quite small for someone with big hands. In combination with a smaller lens like the Nikkor 50mm f1.8 G kit lens that isn’t really a problem. If you use bigger and heavier lenses you may miss a little grip. You have to support the camera with you pink finger, which can start to irritate after some time. With the small grip it is  an advantage that the Nikon Df is the smallest and lightest full frame Nikon camera you can buy. It weighs just 765 grams (1.6 pounds). For comparison, my Sony A7 weighs a little under 500 grams (1 pound), so the Df isn’t that much heavier.

Nikon Df review
The Nikon Df may be small for a modern full frame DSLR, but next to the old Pentax ME-Super it does look very big

The retro design did get priority over functionality in some places. The shutter release for instance is located on the top of the body (just like on the Sony A7). That isn’t as comfortable as the location on top of the grip like with most Nikon DSLR’s. You do adjust quickly to this design choice, but I sometimes had to fight with my wrist strap as the strap can get in the way when using the shutter release.

The Nikon Df body is weather sealed, and just as protected against the elements as the Nikon D8x00-series. That means you don’t have to worry about your Df in rain or other challenging situations. But don’t forget to mount a weather sealed lens, otherwise the sealing of the body won’t work! The Df’s battery is quite small. Despite its size you should be able to shoot about 1400 photos on one charge, which I can confirm. It means you don’t have to worry about your battery most of the time, something you can’t really say about modern mirrorless cameras.

Autofocus and features

There has been a lot of talk about the focus system of the Nikon Df. The Nikon Df uses the same Multi-Cam 4800FX focus module as they used in the Nikon D600/610. Nikon also used the DX-version of this module in the Nikon D7000. So it is far from Nikons most modern auto focus module. That may not be a problem, but looking at the price of the Df a more modern AF-module would have been nice.

In daily use the auto focus of the Nikon Df is sufficient, but you have to work around the limitations of the module. The Multi-Cam 4800FX has got 39 auto focus points, and gives you advanced tracking modes (auto/ 3D tracking). In normal light the auto focus speed is good and very reliable, given you choose the focus points yourself. If it gets darker the speed and reliability take a hit. In dim light the camera can hunt a while before acquiring focus. In some situations you have to help it by aiming one of the more sensitive central focus points on a high contrast area. If you are shooting a portrait in low light for instance you have to aim the focus point on the edge where the eye and skin meet, helping the camera focus. If you set the autofocus to ‘auto / 3D’, letting the camera choose the focus point by itself and tracking subjects the speed is a little lower. In auto / 3D the Df is about as fast as the Sony A7.

Nikon Df review
Classic designs using modern engineering, Billingham Hadley Pro, 4V design strap and Nikon Df

A second disadvantage of the focus module is that the focus points are clustered in the centre of the image. If you want to focus on something on the edge of the frame you have to use the ‘focus and recompose’ trick. That isn’t a problem for stationary subjects but won’t help you with moving subjects. That means the Nikon Df is less suitable for sport photography.

Like mentioned before the Nikon Df doesn’t have a video-option, but it does have a live view mode. Live view is a little hampered because it can only be used in the aperture setting you have chosen at the time you activate live view. If you adjust the aperture while you are in live view the camera doesn’t change it until you take a photo. This makes it hard to get a proper preview of your depth of field when using live view. The only way around it is to deactivate live view, and then reactivate it again. In live view the Df does offer autofocus, but like most (Nikon) DSLR’s it can only use contrast detection to focus. That is reliable, but annoyingly slow. Live view does work great for manual focus. You can easily zoom the image and the live view offers a very high refresh rate. Using manual focus I did sometimes miss the articulating screen of my Sony A7, especially when shooting low to the ground.

Nikon Df review
Shooting low to the ground a articulating screen would have been great

While using the Nikon Df you’ll find it’s a snappy camera to work with. There are almost no delays, and after turning the camera on you can almost instantly start shooting. The autofocus is quick, using the 50mm F1.8 AFS lens it is also almost silent. The motors in the lens just make a little whirring sound when focusing. I think you would be able to hear that sound when you would shoot video. But since you can’t shoot video with the Df that certainly won’t be a problem.

In the Df Nikon has used the same menu structure they use in their other cameras. Most of the personalisation options are divided in colour coded categories. For instance, all the autofocus options are brought together in the red A-group. That makes most options easy to find. While shooting you can press the ‘info’ button on the back to use the big LCD-screen to show you your current settings and to adjust them. In playback-mode you can quickly zoom in using the +-buttons on the left of the screen. Since the images aren’t that big zooming is instant.

Because Nikon has used the same shutter mechanism, or one with similar specifications, as in the Nikon D610 making the Df a lot slower than the D4s. In burst the Nikon Df can take 5,5 photos per second. That will be enough for most applications. What can be a problem is the maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second. That will be enough for most situations, but in bright weather you’ll have to stop down so you may need to use a ND filter.

The Nikon Df can compete with professional cameras when you look at the image quality (more about that in the next part of the review). That’s why it’s a real shame that the Df doesn’t have two SD-card slots. You can’t back-up the images while shooting like you can with a camera with two slots, making it less suitable for professional work. It would be a real disaster if you have just shot a complete wedding to find you have lost all of the images because of a broken SD card.

Image quality

The most impressive feature of the Nikon Df is the 16 megapixel image sensor. It is the same sensor Nikon used in the high-end Nikon D4s (that has now been replaced by the Nikon D5). With ‘just’ 16 megapixels you may need to explain yourself sometimes, because for a normal consumer that may seem a bit low by now. Most consumer-models these days offer 24, or even more, megapixels, so 16 megapixel may seem low to them. But even with ‘just’ 16 megapixels this sensor is stunning.

The sensor offers an impressive dynamic range and low noise, even at high ISO-settings. The images I’ve taken with the Df seemed to have something ‘special’, they seem to have extra depth or 3-d look to them. I can’t really explain that, maybe it’s the dynamic range of the sensor but almost everybody saw what I meant.

Nikon Df review

Noise isn’t a problem with the Df at all. Images taken at ISO6400 are almost noise free, even if you convert a RAW images to JPEG without any noise reduction. If you don’t have a lot of light to work with you can even turn the ISO up all the way to 25600. That will give you images that will still work for larger prints when you apply a little noise reduction. At ISO51200 you could still use the images for small web-use but you will lose a lot of detail making the images less suitable for big prints. Very impressive results especially for a camera that was introduced all the way back in 2013. Compared to the (original) Sony A7 noise performance is at least one full stop better on the Df than it is on the A7, it may even be one and a half stop.

Nikon Df review

The Nikon Df’s dynamic range is very impressive. The following image was underexposed (deliberately). In post processing I’ve processed one side of the image to show how much information can be recovered. As you can see you can recover a lot of detail especially in low ISO shots. That means you can underexpose images when you have harsh light to protect your highlights and recover the darker parts in post processing.

Besides the impressive noise performance and great dynamic range the image quality of the Nikon Df is very good. Of course the difference in resolution with my Sony A7 is noticeable when cropping the images. But we shouldn’t exaggerate that, even if you crop half of the image you still have more than enough resolution left for a large print.

During the review I’ve use the Df’s kit lens, the Nikon AFS 50mm f1.8G Special edition. This lens is sold with the Df in the ‘kit’ version and it is a redesigned version of the original Nikon 50mm AFS lens. Nikon has only changed the looks of the lens, the internals haven’t changed and unfortunately they didn’t turn it in to a AF-D lens with aperture ring. That would have been an even better match to the Df with all its manual controls. Optically the 50mm AFS special edition lens is very good by the way. Because of the good coatings and the supplied lens hood you don’t have to worry about lens flares  or other problems with light. Sharpness is very good across the frame stopped down but also wide open. Aberrations aren’t a problem either. The lens is light and compact, making the Df with this lens very portable. I’d advise everyone who thinks about buying the Df to buy the kit lens with it, especially since the kit isn’t that much more expensive than just the body.

In the following gallery you’ll find a small selection of the images I’ve taken with the Nikon Df during my review.

Conclusion

I’ve had a lot fun with the Nikon Df in the past weeks. From the moment Nikon introduced the Df I’ve been fond of the design of the camera. I can be dangerous to review a camera you like, because it could be a disappointment. I’m glad to say that isn’t the case with the Df, not at all!

Nikon has shown that it is possible to build a retro-looking camera that also gives you impressive performance. Autofocus is good, it would have been nice if Nikon had used their more advanced 53-point AF-module for a camera in this price range. But I can’t say the older 39-point module was a big problem for me.

Nikon Df review

The sensor in the Df is nothing less than spectacular. Because Nikon used a low(er) end shutter and AF-module some people accuse the Nikon Df of being an overpriced Nikon D610. On the other hand you could say the Df is a smaller and half price D4s, since you get the same sensor. Which is true for you is depends on the way you use your camera. If you are looking for the best AF-performance available, the Df may disappoint and you may see it as an expensive D610. If you don’t need blazing fast autofocus the Nikon Df really is a mini-D4s.

If you compare the Nikon Df to its brothers and sisters in the Nikon line up like the D610, D750 and D800 you have to conclude that those are better cameras. They are a lot cheaper (Nikon D610) or have more megapixels and better autofocus (D750 and D800), better ergonomics and dual SD-card slots. But even still I wouldn’t trade my Sony A7 for a D610 or D750, but if I had the chance to exchange it for a Df I wouldn’t even hesitate for a second. The Nikon Df can put a smile on your face, something a normal DSLR hasn’t been able to do for me, even with their impressive specifications. That is also what makes the Nikon Df so much better for me than the other DSLR’s, and that is the reason I think there still is a place for the Df in the current Nikon line-up. If you don’t like smiling you’re probably better off with the Nikon D750.

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Nikon Df review

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