Preview

Nikon Df hands on review

While most people are focused on the recent Sony A7 and A7r, I decided to do a hands on review of the new Nikon Df. Since the leaked images emerged regarding Nikon Df, this particular Nikon model has created so much buzz (and controversy) within the photography community. Here are my honest thoughts.

What is the Nikon Df?

The Nikon Df is essentially a retro styled camera with the performance and capability with D4 sensor married with the focusing system of the D610. The Nikon Df allows one to use their old Nikon lenses (Ai/Ai-s) but does not have the ability to record video.

Build and Construction

The Nikon Df is well built and constructed. It is built out of top and rear magnesium alloy, making it sturdy yet light enough to carry around. The shutter sound crunches nicely and quietly (louder than the Leica M, definitely softer than the Sony A7/A7r). It feels good ergonomically and there is enough space for averaged to larger sized hands to hold it well. The weight balance ratio feels right. I would say it is the perfect sized DSLR for you to bring on your travel bag without feeling the heat of a good prime lens or mid range zoom attached. The rear display LCD screen is better than my Leica M and the viewfinder is pleasant to look through.

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The Sensor

By today’s standard, 16mp might be too low. Megapixel peepers would argue that Nikon is a sitting duck when compared to the 24mp of the LEICA M and 36mp of the D800 or Sony A7 the D800 or newer sensors that will come. In theory, the lower your MP count, the larger your photosites and this means that they receive more light and generate a stronger signal which requires less amplification resulting in lower noise that is generated, leaving cleaner images. So this camera is basically for those who don’t mind a lower mp count but want excellent ISO performance, this camera will perform well under pretty much any lighting condition.

Button And Menu Mayham!

Yes, the Nikon Df has a lot of buttons. So much buttons that you require the time and attention to play around with the menu and figure out the configuration that suits you (took me 10-15 minutes to have something decent)! This is not something you want to take out of box and try to guru it! Kindly read the MENU if you want it to be painless/faster!

Less than 3 days in, I’m still figuring what suits my style but I love the array of options thrown into this camera. Just a quick rundown, I had the aperture set to my main command dial (since I shoot aperture priority 90% of the time) and my AF points set to area (by pressing a button where the AF/MF switch is and turning the sub-command dial). I also set my focus to be on the AF-on button instead of half pressing the shutter (this was the easiest of the lot to customise).

Authors note: I’ve seem to forget how to setup my Nikon cameras properly and miss the simplicity of my LEICA M menu. I wished the AF-on button was slightly large because my thumb seems to press the AE-L button quite often.

Peripherals (Battery, SD card slot).

The battery is surprisingly small (when compared to my fat LEICA M Leica BP-SCL2 Battery) but can shoot the full monty on my SD card (RAW + JPEG fine) with LV used occasionally (makes me wonder why my LEICA M doesn’t last as long). Charging a full battery is fast (faster than my LEICA M). It has a single card memory card slot (not that it matters to me because my LEICA M only has one as well).

Focusing Manually

Honestly, focusing manually isn’t as scary as it seems. After using the LEICA M, this feels like an easier walk to begin with. Although I had a few hit and misses initially, getting the diopter adjusted correctly helped nail my focusing after.  I had the chance to attach on a few Ai-S lenses and they worked perfectly. I must mention that you need to push up a little notch on the ring in order for your lenses to work. In my heart, I did wish I had some sort of focus peaking system (like the LEICA M and Sony NEX/A family).

Image Quality.

Disclaimer: Unfortunately at the point of this write up, Adobe LR does not support the RAW files of the Nikon Df. This is absolutely ridiculous given the fact Adobe could have put the D4 profile for the Df on the Adobe LR 5.3 RC. I had to make my settings on the Nikon Vivid, Blue +1, Sharpness +2. I will reevalute the difference in IQ when I have my NEFs supported. For now, please bear with the OOC JPEGs.

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Where this camera is king, is the ability to be triumphant in high ISO situations (it bosses my M expectedly). Do give it a few more days and I will show you high ISO images at a department party. Meanwhile, you can google other articles to see what the high ISO is like (here and here).

Closing thoughts

Why did Nikon step into this? Like LEICA’s decision with the new M, the Df is a refreshing direction for Nikon. This camera felt a lot like the D700 to me when I first handled it. It had that small form factor yet the performance of the bigger brother (which was the D3 at that point of time). Where Nikon got smart was not make it a D4 replacement (I believed they removed pro features such as no HDMI, super high FPS, video, etc so it doesn’t eat into the D4 sales). In this world of consumerism, this is a logical yet timely response by Nikon. What they could have done was made two versions (one with the D800 sensor).

Why it be hard to get this (for some)?  In thought and concept, some will argue that Nikon Df is heavily based on the D610. There is very little degree of separation between both models and logically the D610 is a much better choice for less money on the consumer end (if having higher MP count, memory card slots, FX format mattered). The lack of video will be a deal breaker for those with the need to record their child play activity, holiday scenes, etc. The lack of a better autofocus system with more than 39 focus points might be an issue to some.

Why would I want this? Essentially, it is a camera for those who appreciated the lighter weight, the retro style. It is something that they can rely on as a mainstay for travel and a backup to their main rig (for me the LEICA M). The reason why I choose this over the A7/A7r is the quieter shutter (which allows me to use it for street photography, weddings, events), the ergonomics (sorry the lack of space is just pushing the line) and lens ecosystem. I don’t need another gas guzzler in terms of megapixel. Back in the days, I remembered a lot of M9 users had a D700 body as their backup. In similar fashion, the Nikon Df is the boss I need in low light situations that complements my LEICA M.  Expectedly, the Nikon Df performs better the Nikon D610. For those who’ve been waiting to replace their D700, pay the premium and go for the Df (with the same mentality and use). It is the D4 at almost half the price (less the functions).

Pure photography? The Nikon Df is really pure photography. This was a marketing gimmick that made sense. Just like how LEICA heralded the new M as a Milestone. It has that similar experience to me with my M or film camera. Where one has to focus on building the photo (from composition to feeling the environment around me) then worry about post processing. Like my LEICA M, the Nikon Df is a camera that constantly engages. It reminds me why making an image that tells a story is more important. Until the day it gets battle torn, this is a keeper like the D700

*Jonathan Liew (aka Jono) is the writer of jonathanliewys.com. He is an emerging international photographer. His loves include landscape and street photography. He hails from Singapore and resides in Melbourne, Victoria. He is represented by Stephen Bartel’s Gallery London and has photos selected by PhotoVogue (subsidiary of Vogue Italia). 

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