Monday, June 9, 2014

Nikon’s DF-initely retro DSLR Review

Nikon’s DF-initely retro DSLR Review

Nikon Df

Nikon’s DF-initely retro DSLR

Nikon’s first retro DSLR has retro styling, but inside, it’s all modern. 

AS I’VE mentioned before numerous times, I’m a big fan of retro-styled cameras and while companies like Fuji and Olympus have been riding high on retro-styled cameras, neither Nikon nor Canon have produced a retro-styled digital camera. Until now. 

With the Df (or Digital Fusion as it apparently stands for), Nikon is making its first foray into retro cameras and has produced a camera which brings to mind classic SLRs in the company’s proud history, namely the Nikon FE2 and Nikon FM2. 

Styling aside, the Nikon Df is actually a DSLR through and through, with a full-frame 16-megapixel image sensor taken right from the Nikon D4 professional DSLR, mixed with the innards of cameras like the Nikon D600 and D7000. 

Since so much of the Nikon Df is all about emotional response, this review will inevitably stray towards how it feels to use the Df as opposed to its performance (which is actually really good). 

Partial retro 

The Df is available in a choice of two colours — the basic black, and a silver and black version. 

Now while I generally like my retro cameras in silver and black leatherette, to my eyes, the Df actually looks better in black. Most users may find the silver version nicer. 

Anyway, the whole intent of the Nikon Df is bring back the classic control scheme found in film SLRs and in this camera, it’s successful — up to a point. 

In terms of weight, the Nikon Df is apparently lighter than most DSLRs in the company’s range and in size, it’s actually smaller than the D600. 
BIGGER: The Nikon Df (top) is quite a bit fatter than its ancestor, the Nikon FM2.
BIGGER: The Nikon Df (top) is quite a bit fatter than its ancestor, the Nikon FM2.

When compared to its film ancestor the Nikon FM2, however, the Df is a lot larger in every dimension — it’s taller, fatter and wider. 

On the top of the camera is where most of the retro controls go — you get a full shutter speed dial with all the speeds you’d expect in full stops as well as Bulb (shutter opens as long as shutter button is held down), Timed (shutter opens on first press and closes on second press of shutter release) and X-sync (flash sync) options. 

Additionally, if you’d prefer to have a modern control system, the shutter dial has a “1/3 increments” option — when set to this position, you can use the command dial on the back of the camera to adjust your shutter speeds, the same as a modern Nikon DSLR. 
SHOOTING MODES: The tiny MASP shooting mode dial on the Nikon Df has to be lifted up before you can change modes.

SHOOTING MODES: The tiny MASP shooting mode dial on the Nikon Df has to be lifted up before you can change modes.

On the other side of the top plate are two dials stacked on top of each other — the larger dial at the bottom is the ISO setting dial while the smaller one on top is an exposure compensation dial. 

Both dials have separate locks to prevent accidental switching, but I personally would have preferred the dials without locks — I feel they’re already stiff enough to prevent accidental switching. 

Presentation is key 

One rather weird concession to modern DSLR design is that the Df has a tiny LCD display on the top and a P,S,A,M mode dial. 

Now I feel that the tiny LCD — which shows shutter, aperture, battery life and exposure count — is completely unnecessary since you can get that same information in the viewfinder and on the back LCD.
ALL DIGITAL: The Nikon Df back plate should be familiar to most modern Nikon DSLR users.

As for the P,S,A,M mode dial, while I can understand why Nikon put it there, a more elegant solution would have been to simply put an “Auto” on the shutter dial and a switch near the lens bayonet mount with an “A” similar to how Fuji does it in the X100S. 

The way Fuji has set up the X100S is how old cameras used to work — with both switches set to “A” you get full Programmed auto, while moving the shutter dial out of A will give you shutter priority auto, while moving both switches out of A would give you full manual control. 

Nevertheless Nikon’s P,S,A,M mode dial on the Df works alright — you just have to lift it and twist the tiny dial to change modes. 

One interesting feature of the Df is that it’s compatible with modern as well as old manual focus Nikon lenses made before 1977, making it the first Nikon DSLR to support such a wide variety of lenses in the Nikon range. 

AWKWARD PLACEMENT: The front command dial of the Nikon Df is too awkwardly located for comfortable use.

Most modern Nikon DSLRs have some compatibility with older non-autofocus Nikon lenses but the Df goes further and offers compatibility with non-AIS lenses made between 1959 and 1977. 

However, using these non-AIS lenses — which have no aperture couplings to tell the camera what aperture is set on the lens — you get metering, but you need to manually set the aperture based on the camera’s recommendation obtained from the exposure meter.  

On the back of the Nikon Df, it’s all modern DSLR — you get a control scheme that should be familiar to any modern Nikon DSLR user, including a Live View button on the back and a 3.2in LCD screen. 

What you don’t get is video recording — that’s right, the Df doesn’t have a video recording option and does not have a built in microphone nor a port to add an external microphone. 

Oh yes, my one real gripe with the Nikon Df is that Nikon has relocated the front command dial to an area that actually makes it a little hard to use — I found the positioning of the front dial awkward and a little hard to spin with my forefinger.  

In use 

After a couple of weeks using the Nikon Df, I found that despite not being as retro as I would have liked it to be, it was still a joy to shoot with it. 

The camera feels good in the hands and is reasonably speedy. 

Some people may object to Nikon’s choice of integrating a 16-megapixel image sensor into the Df instead of the 24-megapixel one from the D600/610, but in use, the Df’s sensor performed very well — coupled with a good lens, images were pin sharp and ISO performance was simply amazing. 

If anything, the Df’s image sensor outperforms the professional D4 in terms of noise and produced perfectly usable results from ISO100 to ISO6400. 

Although there is obvious noise reduction at ISO12,800, the results were actually quite usable at a pinch. 

All in all, very impressive ISO performance from the Nikon Df. 

Also particularly notable is that the white balance on the Df is nearly perfect — producing correctly colour-balanced shots in almost every type of lighting condition that I could throw at it. 

Despite having a smaller 1,230 mAh lithium ion battery than professional and semi-professional siblings, the Df actually had very good battery life — I charged it once and went through many days of reasonably heavy shooting before I had to recharge again. 

Unfortunately the single SD card slot is also located inside the battery compartment — if you have the camera mounted on a larger tripod plate, the door may not be accessible while the camera is mounted on the tripod. 

That said, I personally didn’t have any problems with this as my tripod mounting plate is pretty small.  


All in all, I really liked the Nikon Df as a camera — where it matters most, i.e. in image quality, the camera produced consistently accurately exposed and sharp images. 

ISO performance is also top notch — this camera will really allow you to shoot handheld in lower lighting than ever before and still produce usable images. 

In terms of handling, while it doesn’t hold you back when shooting, I feel Nikon could have gone even more retro with the Df — the whole point of a retro camera is to minimise the number of buttons and yet retain the control that advanced users need. 

With the Df, there’s still a plethora of buttons and dials, some of which I could have done without.  

That being said, the Df is a nice camera to use — I really did enjoy shooting with it and certainly used my test unit long after I was done with the review. 

Pros: Relatively light for a Nikon DSLR; retro styling is quite nice, especially in black; excellent image quality and ISO performance. 

Cons: Nikon needs to go more retro with the design; front command dial a little hard to use. 

(Nikon Corp)
Sensor: 16-megapixel (4928 x 280-pixels) full-frame CMOS
Viewfinder: Optical and 3.2in 921k-dot LCD
Lens: None
Shutter speed: 30sec — 1/4000sec
ISO range: 100 — 25,600 (up to ISO 204,800 in ISO boost mode)
Shooting modes: P, S, A, M
Video format: None
Battery: EN-EL14a 1,230mAh lithium-ion
Storage: single SDXC card slot
Interface: USB 2.0
Other features: Compatible with Nikon SLR lenses made before 1977
Dimensions (W X H X D): 144 x 110 x 67 mm
Weight: 760g
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Quick Spec

Class : DSLR
Manufacturer : (Nikon Corp)
Other Features : Compatible with Nikon SLR lenses made before 1977
Dimensions : (W x H x D): 144 x 110 x 67 mm Weight
Weight : 760g
Sensor : 16-megapixel (4928 x 280-pixels) full-frame CMOS
Lens : None
Shutter Speed : 30sec — 1/4000sec
ISO range : 100 — 25,600 (up to ISO 204,800 in ISO boost mode)
Shooting Modes : P, S, A, M
Video Formats : None
View Finder : Optical and 3.2in 921k-dot LCD
Battery : EN-EL14a 1,230mAh lithium-ion
Storage : Single SDXC card slot
Interface : USB 2.0
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