Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lunch with the new Nikon Df DSLR...

[Update 11/21/2013]: A few people have already asked about my impressions on how suitable the viewfinder is for manual focus of older lenses. A very good question and one that I forgot to address in my writeup. Sadly, the focusing screen is not interchangeable, so there are no options for split-image or micro-prism collar screens. It seems to be pretty much the same screen as a D800 so, like virtually every other DSLR on the market, it is not particularly easy to judge sharpness when manual focusing with some slower or dimmer lenses. However the focus confirmation light does work with old MF lenses, so that might help in some situations. It may turn out that the screen is slightly better on the Df, but since I did not have the time to do any side-by-side comparisons, I cannot say for sure at this point. My gut feeling though is that it is not significantly different from a D800 screen.

[Update 11/25/2013]: One thing I realized today was that I made no mention of the shutter sound. It is far quieter and smoother sounding than other Nikon pro bodies like the the D800, D3S or D4. In fact, movie stills photographers will be all over the Df probably, since even inside a sound blimp, other Nikon pro bodies can still be loud enough to be an issue on some film sets. I also corrected my focus point comparison to D7000 instead of D7100. I had forgotten that the D7100 was upgraded to 51 points. One more note is that I really only had a scant few minutes before and after having lunch to actually handle the camera, maybe 10 or 15 minutes in total, and I had no other camera with me to compare the viewfinder to. To reiterate, my gut feeling is still that it really is no better for MF than a D800, but I certainly could be wrong. Note that there are third party companies that might be able to install an aftermarket focusing screen, but it is definitely not user replaceable and I wonder if you might lose some functionality with an aftermarket solution (grid-lines, focus points etc). There may be warranty concerns too? The only thing I did do back at the store was compare the shutter sound to a D4, just to confirm my impressions of how much quieter it was. That is why it is weird I forgot to mention it. People also have asked me about image quality, but both were preproduction units that I was not allowed to download photos from. I was assured by Nikon that it should essentially be the same as the D4.

I had an opportunity to spend my lunch break with a couple of Df bodies (and some Nikon reps), a black and a silver one (the cameras, not the reps), courtesy of Nikon Canada. The Df was announced a few weeks back and I have been hesitating to write a report until I personally had a chance to play with one. There seemed to be some contradictory info online and I didn't want to repeat any incorrect information myself. Following are my first impressions of the camera's ergonomics and how I see it fitting in Nikon's DSLR lineup...

What exactly is a Df? In short, the Df is a new Nikon DSLR that is roughly the size and weight of a D600, has pretty much all the controls and customization options of a D800 but with the superb, high-ISO capable 16 megapixel sensor of the D4. Throw in old-school mechanical controls (shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation dials) that seem to be lifted from old F3 or FE2 film bodies and you have yourself a Df. In addition, you can actually flip the metering-coupling-lever up and out of the way (on the rotating ring concentric with the lens mount), so you can attach pretty much any Nikkor manual focus lens, even pre-AI ones, no matter how old they are. That is something that no other current Nikon DSLR can do, including the D4. In fact, the last camera from Nikon that came from the factory with the ability to use all the old lenses was the F4 film SLR, introduced 25 years ago back in 1988. Having that available on the Df is one serious bit of retro functionality! Of course how many of the old pre-AI lenses will actually perform well on a modern digital body like a Df, is quite another story...

Next, let's quickly cover its video functionality. Very, very quickly in fact. As far as video, well, it has... umm, nothing. No video capabilities whatsoever. Well... unless you count recording its live view with your iPhone or something. Nikon wants this to be a photographer's camera, so no video allowed.

Before I get to the important performance details, let me cover the camera's looks first, since that will be the first thing that stands out. As you can see in the photos, the camera comes both in all-black or black & silver styling. Many of you might know, I personally like most retro-style bodies in silver. I have both a silver Fujifilm X-E1 and a silver Panasonic GX7, and I think they both look great. Initially, I was convinced that I'd like the silver version of the Df the best, but much to my surprise, in person I actually like the black one better. First off, the lettering on the knobs and dials is much easier to read on the black one (glare off the very shiny silver can reduce the contrast), and somehow the design works better overall too, at least to my eye. With the silver one, you get the sense that parts of it are from an FE2, parts are from a D800 etc. It somehow almost seems "cobbled" together, although that is too harsh a term. With the black one, and it's an interesting matte black finish too, the camera's features all blend smoothly and the design somehow flows better, for lack of a better way of describing it. So yes, I would actually buy the black one in this case!

Now onto the more important details. I am going to start right away by addressing the value question. Is this camera worth nearly as much as a D800? Well I would say that depending on your specific needs or wants, it will either be of no interest whatsoever (you'd rather spend less and get a D610), it will seem very slightly overpriced (hmm...for more or less the same price, I could buy a D800) or it will actually be one heck of a bargain... holy smoke, D4 image quality for half the price and nearly half the weight! Yep, here in Canada a Df will cost you as much as a D800, so $2,999, although that does include the subtly retro-styled AF-S 50mm f/1.8G, which is actually a superb lens, and one that would cost nearly $250 by itself. Think of the Df as being a body priced at, oh, maybe $2,760 then.

So you don't need a 50mm lens but want a Df? Tough. You want a Df? Then you're getting a 50. At least that's how Nikon Canada sees it for now, which does cut into its value proposition slightly. Nikon may rethink this strategy in the future, but for now I somehow think we might be getting a few 50mm lenses in on consignment, at least from those that already own 50mm f/1.4 primes...

How then is the Df nearly worth the price of a D800? Well from a functionality standpoint, the menus, controls and UI customization are far more like the D800 than they are like a D610 or lower end bodies. For example, you have a dedicated AF button, which I personally use a lot, and you can customize the buttons and control wheels to the same incredibly flexible extent as the D800. When I pick up a D610 or D7100 and start trying to set it up like I've set my D800, I get frustrated since there are a fair number of things that I cannot program the way I like. Not so with the Df thankfully, which I was a little surprised to see. It would take me only a minute or two to have it set up to operate exactly like my D800, well apart from the retro controls being different. Then there is the sensor...

The Df basically has the same sensor in it that the D4 has, with the same amazing low-light and high-ISO performance... yet it is only half the price of a D4! While it is not the high fps, sports shooting monster that the D4 is, it can still sustain 5.5 fps, which is a pretty respectable for anything but the most demanding action shooting situations. However, the Df is certainly not a sports camera, nor is it meant to be. So we have the controls and customization capability of a pro body like the D800, the sensor and image quality of the D4, full weather-sealing, a great viewfinder and some pretty sweet retro-controls, which I will get into shortly, and all this in a body that is more or less only the size and weight of a D610. Don't you think that is worth close to the price of the D800?

Nikon Df versus D4 comparison screenshot from

So before I get into some of the Df's unique features, what doesn't it have and why are some people questioning its value? Well the most important omission is a true pro-level AF system. Instead of the 51-point system in the D800 or D4, you get the 39 point system from the D610 or D7000, which simply doesn't have the coverage you might want in some situations and likely won't perform as well for fast action sports. However remember, the Df is definitely not targeted at that market either. So aren't 39 focus points enough? Well they probably would be, if they had a decent spread, but since they are more tightly grouped towards the centre of the frame (DX optimized), compared to a true full-frame AF system like on the D800, that may be a limitation depending on your shooting style. However it is certainly not a bad focus system and for the type of photography that the Df is targeted at, I don't think it will turn out to be much of a limitation to be honest.

The second "pro omission" is not having a 10-pin accessory port. In my view though, not a huge issue either since worst case, you might need a new Pocket Wizard cable ($50-ish) if you want to trigger the camera remotely, or a new MC-DC2 electronic remote cord, which certainly isn't all that expensive ($30). Hey, maybe you still have an old mechanical, threaded cable-release in a closet somewhere: the Df can use that one too since it has a threaded shutter release! However, if you have a variety of more exotic 10-pin compatible accessories, like third party GPS units, remote radio triggers with fixed 10-pin cables, Pocket Wizard TT1 power supply cords etc., then you might be more affected by the lack of a 10-pin port. You will have to decide how important that is.

Another point of concern for pros, at least for those using larger lenses, is that as you can see below, the camera's grip is not very substantial and currently there is no vertical grip option, and there may never be either. There are plenty of people, myself included, that couldn't care less if a vertical (battery) grip was available, but some people who are shooting portraits all day long might be put off. For smaller lenses the grip is plenty deep enough I think, but once you start trying to handhold lenses larger than a 70-200mm f/2.8, well you might start missing the deeper grip of a D800 or similar pro body.

The only other thing I can can really think of, is the lack of an eyepiece shutter, but honestly I almost never use one myself. For night shots, I am in manual exposure mode, which is not affected by light entering the eyepiece. I don't do tripod self-timer shots where I am running into the scene to be in the photo either, where light entering the VF could affect the exposure. About the only time where I would want to block the eyepiece is if doing extended time-laspe sequences where I might want to set the camera up on auto-exposure and for that, Nikon does include a little cover you can snap into place. So missing an eyepiece shutter is not a big deal as far as I can see.

So there are definitely some reasons why the Df might not be a good choice for you and why a true pro body like the D800 or D4 may be the way you should go. However for many, the relatively compact size and light weight, as well as the old-school controls and "D4 image quality" performance of the Df might indeed make it an appealing and viable choice.

So finally, what about those retro-controls then? Click on the above image for a closer look. You can see that the camera has three "traditional" mechanical dials: shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation, which is above and concentric with the ISO dial. The ISO and exposure compensation dials should generally speak for themselves. You have all ISO settings in third stops available, including Low (L1) and High (L4) extended ISOs as well. The only time you'll need to dive into the digital menus is to turn Auto-ISO on or off, presuming you haven't assigned it to an Fn button. The nice thing about these controls is that at a glance, you can see how the camera is set, without even switching it on, especially if you have an older lens mounted with an aperture ring. Things do change a bit and become a little less retro with the newer G-series lenses, like the bundled 50mm. With a G-series lens, if you want to change the aperture, you are using the front digital control wheel, also retro-styled and actually quite reminiscent of the front MF control on a Contax G2 film body. You will need to read the set f-stop from the small top-mounted LCD display or the display in the viewfinder. So for the full "retro experience" you will need an older lens with an aperture ring. If you prefer using the rear dial for aperture control with G-series lenses, you can customize this, just like on a D800 of course.

I should mention that with old, pre-AI lenses, ones that have no meter coupling lever tabs on their aperture rings, you will need to ensure that the lens' set aperture matches the f-stop indicated on the digital display to ensure accurate metering, definitely something to watch for.

Both the ISO dial and exposure compensation dials require you to push a lock button for all settings. Personally, since I almost always shoot in aperture priority and freely use exposure compensation as needed, I would prefer that dial not have a lock and just have stiff detents to prevent accidental turning. However if you grasp the dial with your thumb and middle finger to turn it, your index finger can push down on the top release button very easily. After a few tries, I found it quite quick and easy to do, even with my eye to the viewfinder. One thing I forgot to check, is whether or not you can program the body to use the rear digital dial for compensation instead of the mechanical dial, should you prefer that.

There are a few interesting features on the shutter speed dial. On of my favourites is a T mode, meant for time exposures. With this, you don't need a locking cable release since you press it once to open the shutter and again to close it, great for tripod mounted night shots! The second interesting feature is the "1/3 Step" setting. With that, you simply use the DSLR rear thumb-wheel to change your apertures in 1/3 stop increments. The 'X' setting, is simply to lock it in flash X-sync mode (1/200th) for studio strobe work, although the shutter should sync at up to 1/250th apparently. As far as locking, the shutter speed dial freely turns between all the regular shutter speeds, from 4 seconds to 1/4000, but will lock in the other settings and require you to push to top lock release button.

The other "retro-ish" controls are the (non-locking but unlikely to ever move unintentionally) lever operating the drive mode, the on/off switch concentric with the shutter release (no tab but easy to grasp with two fingers) and the spring-loaded pull-up-to-unlock PASM mode switch. That's it as far as retro controls... the full complement of other buttons and switches are pretty much like any other Nikon DSLR.

One last thing I will mention is how clean and fluid the Df's Live-View seemed in low light. My D800 is very frustrating sometimes when doing night shots, due to its sluggish and extremely grainy Live-View. When doing tripod shots after dark, rather than relying on AF I will often go to Live-View and zoom in to manually focus on street-lights or other details and that is really a pain on the D800, or pretty much any Nikon DSLR I have ever tried. I can't be 100% certain that the Df is that much better, but taking it into a darkened storeroom and checking out Live-View did leave me with the impression that the Df was substantially improved. I won't be able to verify that until I actually test a production camera though.

So what do I think? Well you can probably guess from this preview that I do like the camera, despite the fact that it turned out to be larger and slightly more expensive than I had hoped for. I do think it is a very interesting new DSLR and the retro controls are appealing to me since in the past, I have twice had Nikon systems, once with an FE2 and some years later, a system with an F3 and I loved those two film bodies. In fact, I am even having some thoughts about getting a Df for myself... maybe even replacing my D800 with it.

However if you are a pro, you will have to think very carefully if this body is right for you. As a second body, a backup to a pro DSLR, it is definitely worth considering in my view, especially if you have always wanted the low-light prowess of a D4 but either couldn't justify the price or the camera's size and weight. The Df is a small, light affordable way of getting D4 image quality! If you are a pro with big, heavy pro bodies and you want a smaller, lighter but very capable body to take on the road or just on vacation, then Df is also a viable camera. If you have a D700 and have been (im)patiently waiting for a replacement since you really didn't want to deal with the 36 megapixel raw files from a D800... well, for some of you this might finally be the solution, but for others who also want HD video or a 100% pro-level AF system, not so much.

If you do street photography, architectural work, product or portrait studio shots, landscape etc., well then this could be an excellent camera, presuming you don't require massive megapixels or a vertical grip. All in all, based on the above mentioned pros and cons, you will need to carefully weigh whether or not the Df is the best choice compared to buying a D800 or D610. If you need all the performance (not just image quality) of a D4... well then you need a D4. To help you with the decision, we have decided to put a Df into our rental department, and it should be available at the end of November. If you have any specific questions about the Df, you are welcome to call (604-734-7771) or email me and I'll try to help!

Lastly, here is a grainy iPhone shot of the lunch table with all the retro Df bodies and some retro glass too. They did seem to attract a number of curious looks from other patrons in the restaurant!


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Df. I don't see myself switching from my D800 but it's tempting!

  2. Great review - but not for me. I like my D4 & D800 both work extremely well for me. I actually prefer the size of the D4

  3. Thanks for the review Mike. Also, thanks for walking me through your thoughts today, much appreciated.



  4. Well done this review Mike!.
    One of the better observations, well balanced with function and personal preference.

    I bought last year a D600 but, no AF-ON button, no zoom in function in central button, so the D600 was soon out. I use to have a D700 and from D700 to D600 is for me not the way to go.

    Last week I had the opportunity to have a hands on at my Amsterdam dealer and I must say it's a lovely camera. I brought my old 85/1.8 type A and looks good on the Df.

    And fifing AF-ON, CEntral zoom button.. I ordered and coming Thursday it will be there..

    And 16Mp with normal 12800ISO is great...