Equipment Review: Nikon Df

It seems like looking old is the new trend and we have to thank Fujifilm and Olympus for starting the trend of cameras looking old using new tech. The premise is simple – remind the good ole days of yore and people would love to have their cameras that look trendy old and people will flock to you and see what is it all about. Nikon is now doing what’s necessary to get on the bandwagon as well with the Df or Digital Fusion DSLR.

Digital fusion as it is aptly called is to fuse the old with the new or in other words, take an old body and fuse the digital components into it. The best example would be Fujifilm using shutter speed dial and aperture ring on their lenses to provide a very compelling photography experience. Can the Nikon Df actually achieve this by using their new lenses that do not have the aperture ring?

First off the Nikon Df is a very handsome camera indeed. I very much prefer the full black version instead of the silver as the later looked more plasticky (in other words – toyish). The size is very close to the D300s and the weight is definitely lighter which is helped by a very light weight special edition Nikkor AF-S 50mm f1.8 G kit lens.

By now the Df has been around for a few weeks coming to a month. Most of the comments before anyone has touched the camera is based on the image above.  The very first reaction would be the shutter speed dial and the leather touch on the prism box that harks back to the old Nikon SLRs especially the FM2.

See the similarities? The film rewinder is now replaced by the ISO and Exposure Value (EV) dial and then the camera modes are now on the right which is exactly opposite to what the modern Nikons have.

There lies the problems associated with the Df. After years of DSLRs where Nikon has trained us to look for certain things on the top plate to control the digital settings, they have seem it fit to place these settings in other places.

My very first beef would be the EV dial. Out of the 4 Modes, 3 of them – Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Program would necessitate the use of the EV far more often and it is on the left side of the top plate thereby creating unnecessary two handed operation.

And the two handed operation would also leads to other settings because of one thing – the locks. I wonder if this is Nikon’s way of subjecting their customers to undue finger torture. All the major settings have locks. Even the camera mode dial has a lock where one has to pull the knob and turn to set the mode one would like to use.

As for the rest, one has to press and turn and I basically thank the heavens that the shutter speed dial need only to unlock once out of the 1/3 Step settings and then is free turning.

The other switch that do not have a lock but was still a pain to use is the On/Off switch. I have to use both my index finger and thumb to switch it on. Really? Must it be such a pain?

Imagine doing all the above if you are wearing gloves or you only have one hand free (your right) to do the shooting. Not a very enticing thought at all.

There are also other weird design decisions that needed to have a rethink such as the Flash Sync Terminal cover that is reminiscence of those screw covers that is nice looking but is an additional excuse for Nikon to charge users for losing it. The other design boo-boo is the camera strap lug hole that is placed just beside the front wheel that is used to control the aperture settings.

I get it that the old camera can have the lug there but when photography has gone digital, the aperture wheel has become indispensable. Putting the lug just next to the wheel made it a very uncomfortable for the index finger to change the aperture settings. The solution? I will just use the blackrapid strap instead.

And there is the lack of a double SD card slot and the SD card slot is sharing the same space with the battery compartment. Come on! This is a S$4K camera that is basically a pro-level camera with a 16.2 MegaPixel D4 sensor and it is made to look like a entry level consumer camera. Seriously?!?!

In short the Df’s control mechanism is an ergonomic disaster and I have finger cramps to prove it.

I understand that Nikon wants to make it old school but when going old school means to go retrograde (read: going backwards) alarm bells should have started to ring. Nikon has more than a decade’s experience of going digital in the SLR body and the improvements shouldn’t be neglected for the sake of looking old.

There lies the difference between what Fujifilm has done and the Nikon Df. They have made dials work in a digital body. For instance putting both aperture and shutter into ‘A’ means ‘Program’. Set any of the settings to any other than ‘A’ and leaving the other in the same position would mean either Aperture or Shutter priority. Change both out of ‘A’ and it becomes ‘M’ mode. Usually the most elegant way is the simplest and Fujifilm has done a lot of thinking in this regard. In contrast, Nikon didn’t or choose not to follow Fujifilm.

This is where companies made decision in the past and it came back to haunt them. It was not so long ago when Nikon old lens all have aperture rings. It is fast, effective and efficient and when everyone go electronic, they feel that it is much faster and slowly all the lens have lost the aperture ring like the Df kit lens.

The Nikkor AF-S 50mm f1.8 G Kit Lens Special Edition matches especially for the Df. The silver ring is just that….a ring. Nope it can’t move.

The Nikkor 50mm f1.4 AIS lens. That, my friends, is the REAL aperture ring.

And when Nikon tried to go back to the old way of doing things, they are hampered by the new lens they sell to their customers. They have no choice but to come out with such a weird control mechanism that aims to appeal to both the photographers who has experience with old cameras and those who just got on digital photography and in the end, did not satisfy both.

Why not the younger set?

Because the dials scared them shitless. And even if they do get the camera, they will revert back to the new control mechanism using only the front and rear dials and totally disregard whatever is on the dials but they still have to contend with the EV and ISO dials. I even have retailers telling me that people looked at the camera and then put it back because it just looked so intimidating.

Honestly, after going through finger gymnastics, I gave up as well and revert back to the ‘normal’ way of doing things.

There are of course other complaints including the marketing spin prior to the launch that the Df will follow the FM2. Never did we know Nikon meant it looks like one but is not the same size. Yes, the Df is lighter but what we want is the size and weight of the FM2. Whatever we have is so huge that the grip is seen as anorexic to the point that it didn’t provide enough grip.

Now comes the shooting part.  The ‘special edition’ 50mm f1.8 G lens is neither special nor was it necessary to be part of a kit lens. The focusing from the lens feels oddly slow. I snapped on my own 50mm f1.4 D lens and the familiar ‘snap-to-attention’ focusing gave me greater satisfaction.

As expected the D4 Sensor in the Df performs remarkably well. Somehow I experience worse Auto White Balance (AWB) performance during day time either with the picture turning cool or go awfully yellow hued. The AWB did well however during night shoots though and I can say the Df is basically designed to shoot at night.

Here are some samples:

The Df grew cold with this shot in AWB.

When I changed the WB to match the environment (cloudy skies, overcast day) it turned a wee bit too yellow.

Shot with the kit lens. The clarity and sharpness is all there for all to see. The skin tone however is again wee bit too yellow.

Bokehlicious! Though I must say the kit lens focusing is left much to be desired as I am not used to the soft and slow approach of getting the focus. In the end I shot a few more times to make sure the focus is right.

The night is where the Df shines as the AWB and Sensor presents a very pleasing effect with shallow depth of field and good colour rendition generally.

Shot with Df’s HDR function. Seriously…a Pro-Level camera with Consumer level features? Isn’t this supposed to be ‘Pure Photography’?  Nope it doesn’t look that natural.

The rich brown hue of the Hibiki Japanese Whisky is well represented here. Superb!

Skin tone under artificial light. Superb too!

Shot with Nikon 50mm f1.4 D lens. A much better lens to go with the Df.

Shot by Nazuriah Jamadi. Superb Clarity. Again with the 50mm f1.4D.

Studio Shot using preset White Balance. Not bad at all but towards yellow hue.

This shot is post edited smoothing it out the skin a tad and do black and white conversion using Photoshop. Sharpened it to bring the contrast in. What do you think?

More shots can be seen here.

Conclusion

With the retro wind blowing, the camera manufacturers have two choices. Either they just get lazy and smack a retro looking body with modern controls or do what Fujifilm did where the form follows function and churned out a control mechanism that mimics the controls of a Rangefinder camera for the digital age and is a joy to use.

For Nikon, they opted to have both and it turns to be a two minded affair that won’t convince the old timers (like me) or the new timers. What’s left is to let the D4 sensor to do all the selling.

I believe the above shots from the sensor gave a good indication on how the images turn out without much tweaking. Of course if one shoot in NEF then there are a lot of leeway to change and correct the hue, sharpness, contrast etc etc. However those who followed me would know I try to get the shot I want to close to what I see and so the Df’s AWB during day shots was kinda disappointing for me.

The saving grace is the absolutely fabulous shots from the night shoots. Somehow the AWB worked wonders under artificial lights.

Another thing I would want to say is how sharp the images are even when there are ‘only’ 16.2MP of resolution to work with. I am certainly happy with 16MP from my Fujifilm X-E1/X100 and with the D4 FF sensor at 16MP, it certainly hit the sweet spot in my opinion. Makes you wonder if you really need the D800’s 36MP in the first place.

If Nikon wants to do a Dfs (yeah Nikon don’t follow Canon in ‘marking’ their cameras as in Mark 1/2/3), here’s my idea what is to be changed:

  • Get rid of all the needless locks. REALLY!! Follow the style if you want to but when it becomes to practicality, the locks are really not necessary.
  • Put the camera modes to where the frame forwarding modes are
  • Push the frame forwarding modes to where the EV dial is
  • Replace the camera modes to EV dial and make it bigger so that we can change it with the index finger. Grove the dial while you are at it.
  • Replace the screw cover with the rubber covers as seen on the modern DSLRs so we won’t lose it. Doesn’t look old school enough? Again I opt for practicality.
  • Shift the camera strap lug to the side so the index finger need not have sex with the lug every time the aperture wheel needed a massage.
  • Change the AF modes to those found on Pro bodies (instead of AF/M change to Continuous/Single/Manual)
  • Let us have a choice of grips like what the old cameras used to have. Even my old Canon A1 has a detachable grip that can be changed out to match bigger hands.
  • The placement of the aperture wheel is not helping matters in changing settings because it doesn’t have positive leverage for the finger to move the wheel easily. The solution?  Look at where the Nikon P7800 aperture wheel is.
  • Last but not least, give the On/Off switch a lever for goodness sake.

The thing about photography equipment is really about how the picture turns out and how the camera is controlled. The Df’s controls do give you a tough time while shooting – and this coming from someone who enjoys using older cameras- but the result of the image’s quality speaks for itself.

That said, would it better that I just get the D610 that is devoid of all the pretentiousness of being old looking and yet is able to give a higher resolution images that has the potential to match the D4’s?

I probably would because I won’t pay S$3999 to torture myself needlessly and save a bundle of cash along the way.

Honestly Nikon. After the D600 fiasco, getting the first version of any model is starting to become a hit and miss affair and the Df is not helping either to build consumer confidence.

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