It’s not often I feel compelled to take the time to share my impressions of camera gear. In fact, as of lately I’ve been less than excited about cameras and lenses because there’s something new out every week, followed by countless positive reviews about how amazing they are, followed by many enthusiasts buying them in hope of better pictures. This never-ending cycle is something I used to be very caught up in, and luckily, I’m over it now – or maybe not.
At the heart of the Df - Sensor
Enter the Nikon Df. At first impressions, the Df gives you feelings of nostalgia, history and memories of the good times you had with your old Nikon F cameras. ‘Df’ stands for ‘Digital Fusion’, and not the more obvious ‘Digital F Camera’, so I assume Nikon doesn’t want us getting too caught up in the past. Once you get past that and find out what is at the heart of it, the excitement begins. The sensor inside the Df is the same 16MP sensor and processor found in the D4. What does this mean for photographers? Now you have access to Nikon D4 image capability in a camera half the size and half the price. THIS is what has me excited about the Nikon Df. As some background, I’ve been using the Nikon D4 since it’s arrival on the market nearly 2 years ago. Since then many sensors have come and gone, but in my opinion, the D4’s sensor is still the ‘all-round’ sensor to beat. I won’t go into the technicalities as this has been covered by professional reviewers already.
Operation and Performance
The autofocus system in the Df is the same array found in the Nikon D610, although I heard Nikon has made some algorithm changes to it, so it’s not exactly the same. So far it seems to be quite good, offering great speed and focus accuracy even in low light. It is however a little limited in how wide the focus points cover the viewfinder, which has 100% coverage. Coming from a D4 and D800e, it’s controls do take some getting used to, so I don’t use the shutter dial. The dial needs to be turned with two fingers, unlike the one fingered operation of a rangefinder. It only allows full stops of speed, so I select the ‘1/3 STEP’ setting on the dial so I can select shutter speeds with the wheel above where the thumb rests for more accurate fine tuning. In practice I also believe it is faster than turning the top dial. Unless you’re selecting manual apertures on your lens, it makes sense to select shutter speeds in this way.
When changing ISO, it can be a little slow to change on the Df, even though the dial is right in front of you. It is a little hard to read in low light, so you need to hit the (i) button and view the LCD as you press the release button next to the ISO dial and turn it. While this may sound like a hassle it’s not so bad unless you’re changing ISO often.
Everything else is pretty straight forward if you’re used to Nikon cameras. The menu is fantastic and a much simpler menu than those found on many other competing brands. The SD card sits inside the battery compartment like on many small cameras as space is very limited. I don’t mind this, but it does take some getting used to. The new battery is very small and is compatible with the Nikon P7700, P7000, D5200 and D3200.
Handling the Nikon Df will be a mixed bag for many different users, depending on what you’re used to. For many Mirrorless users, it will feel large. For professionals it will feel small. For me, it feels wonderful used with small to medium sized lenses. With larger zooms you will need to balance the camera more carefully with weight taking priority on the lens, not the body. Currently, there is no vertical grip, and no plans to make one. For professionals, a vertical grip would be very welcomed indeed. Ergonomically, the camera does handle very well for it's size and feels strong. It’s a magnesium alloy interior covered in painted plastic so don’t expect it to feel just like your old Nikon F film camera. Weigh distribution is perfect, so to cover it in metal would just add unwanted weight.
Back to the sensor…..
From my standpoint as a photographer, what makes the Df sensor so special is its ability to deliver exceptional and consistent color and noise performance across the entire ISO range, from 100 to 12,500. Of course there are the additional low and high settings available but not recommended unless in need of emergency. This performance has been a godsend for me at events like Fashion Week where I’m constantly shooting between ISO 1600 and 3200 backstage with an exposure of around 1/160sec at f/4-5.6.
Many would ask why would I do this. My answer is simple. “Because I can”. Put simply, I don’t like messing around with large apertures that leave me so little room for focus error, especially when I’m working quickly with models and my goal isn’t blurring backgrounds, and getting super fine files. My goal is to capture the feeling of the environment and the moment. To do this I need to see the background and have an exposure (often combined with flash), that captures enough light. The D4 has always allowed me to do this with ease. It's incredible high ISO grain structure is smooth and natural, allowing me to stop down my lens aperture to acquire more depth of field in low light situations such as this. I then add my flash off camera as the key light, balanced with a CTO gel to match the color temperature of the lighting in the room. Combined, the pictures look nature, without the typical ugly flash look. In this situation I don't even use soft boxes or diffusers because the flash level is so low, and range is close that the light is already quite soft and natural looking.
In terms of handling and operation, the Df, is obviously a departure from the new, but traditional digital SLR cameras. The dials represent a homage to the old ways of selecting settings on a camera, and can operation faster or slower depending on your preferences. On the top plate, there are a couple of things I’d rather not be there. Firstly, as I only shoot manual, I’d love to see the exposure compensation dial gone, as well as the mode selection dial.
These are two dials someone like myself never use, but no doubt many aperture priority users will appreciate the exposure compensation dial being there. With all the dials on the top plate competing for space, the LCD has gotten left with only the basic, displaying only picture count, exposure values and battery life. For everything else, you need to hit the (i) key on the back of the camera that brings up a display showing everything you need to know about your camera’s current settings.
Since digital cameras have taken over the consumer market, the race to win the megapixel war has been relentless and never-ending. About 4 years ago we did see a shift in focus from megapixel size to ISO performance. This shift did slow things down a bit, which is a very good thing. The Nikon D3 and D3s were game changers for Nikon using modest 12MP sensors with the sole purpose to provide the user with image quality consistent across the ISO range. Nearly 2 years ago, the D4 launched with 16MP and about 1-2 stops of improved high ISO performance with improved and more natural colors. In recent months we’ve seen another manufacturer release the first full frame mirrorless camera since the Leica M9 and Leica M (type 240) and I’m sure more will follow. It’s clear that these types of cameras have different goals to the Nikon Df.
The decision for Nikon to use the 16MP D4 sensor instead of the 36MP D800/D800e sensor was a smart one. Many amateurs don’t know much about this sensor because it’s sitting in a large expensive camera, out of reach of the masses. In my opinion, the sweet spot for 35mm photography sits between 14-24MP. If you want the ultimate resolution, sensors within this range will perform the best, in terms of per-pixel sharpness. Why? Because the more pixels you cram into a 35mm full frame sensor, the more compromises need to be made. Pixels quality does drop, and at such large resolutions require 2 main things – higher resolutions lenses, and better technique, requiring faster shutter speeds. If you’ve used medium format before you’ll know what I’m talking about. Larger sensors show camera shake like never before. Gone are the days of match shutter to focal length. Ie. 50mm requiring 1/50sec speed to be sharp. With high resolution sensors, you need to at least double your shutter speed, and this does not take into account the possibility of subject movement.
This subject brings in a very important point. Most lenses currently available are NOT good enough to resolve the full resolution of current high megapixel sensors from 24-36MP. Using my D800E, I’ve only found a handful of lenses that truly take advantage of its excellent sensor, which is capable of rivaling (not beating) many MF cameras. Even my Pro Nikon Zooms barely resolve the 36MP fully, even at apertures of f/5.6-11, where they are sharpest. In my experience, only certain fixed lenses can resolve the D800e’s sensor completely. So while many many question Nikon’s decision to use the 16MP sensor from the D4 in the new Df, it’s quite clear to me that they mad the right decision. Not only that, but even for guys like me, the 16MP resolution is more than enough, and doesn’t take too much of a toll on my hard drives.
Last thoughts on my first impressions
My first impressions of the Nikon Df in the short time I've had it are very positive. As a professional, it's got all the right features and certainly has style, depending on your taste. The mistake some would make is to dismiss this as being too large, or even too small. I nearly did myself, as it is a little small when trying to balance large zoom lenses like the AF-S 24-70mm and AF-S 70-200mm VR II. Let me make one loin very clear. This is an SLR, and with it come a few things differentiating it to it's mirror less competitors.
- The Df body needs to be larger to balance moderate SLR lenses
- The AF system is much more capable in focus tracking
- The lens selection from Nikon's SLR system is one of the largest available.
- It has a 100% coverage optical viewfinder for through the lens accurate focusing.
With that in mind, this camera makes a great companion to a mirrorless system, especially for users wanting an SLR camera to better balance the SLR lenses they're probably currently using with adapters on their small mirrorless bodies. Some traditionalists (like me) may have wished for a more old school design with less buttons but I think it is clear that Nikon's designation of 'f' for 'fusion' is understood by the way the camera blends a tradition look and form with modern functions, controls and features. So while the DF's dials are there, the newer buttons and modern controls are also available so users can feel right at home, especially professionals.