Tested: the 2013 Nikon Df

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My initial thoughts on the Nikon Df (which can be found here) were not positive, mainly due to the way the camera was marketed and executed. I’ve changed my mind somewhat after using it for the last week or so. However, it is simply a camera that does not work for me, even though it should tick every single box – I love my F2 Titan, D800Es pay for most of my bills, I’ve used or owned just about every lens produced in the last ten years, and I admit to secretly coveting the D4′s sensor – but there you go. It is a camera which doesn’t quite make up the sum of its parts.

Note: This is not going to be written in the style of my past reviews. For a start, there aren’t any images. And there’s a good reason for that.

Let’s start with the long list of things Nikon did do right:

  • Put a very sensible choice of sensor in: the D4′s 16MP FX unit makes the most sense for most users. It’s more than enough resolution for most people’s output needs, providing pixel integrity is high; it’s a forgiving sensor both for camera shake/ shutter speeds and lens resolution thanks to its relatively low photosite density. It’s also capable of excellent dynamic range, great high ISO performance; the HI1 setting (25,600) is actually usable, as is HI2 (51,200). This of course means that it has the same excellent image quality as a D4, or perhaps slightly better given the intervening development time on the sensor between versions.
  • Made it back-compatible with pretty much everything: the aperture coupling lever even folds away so it can mount pre-AI lenses without damaging the body.
  • Made just about every important control an external switch or lever – ISO, exposure compensation, metering, shutter speed, aperture (with the right lenses), drive mode, exposure mode.
  • Made almost all of those controls lock: it’s a good and bad thing, though. The interlocks are small and not consistently or obviously positioned. I suppose one could get over this with time. You are also forced to use their chosen increments for ISO and exposure compensation though: 1/3 stop is overkill and slow for modern cameras; 1/2 stops are better and often whole stops are adequate. You’re probably going to do more push/pull than 1/3 stop just by manipulating the exposure curves afterwards anyway – and the sensor has far more latitude than a measly third of a stop. It’s not slide film.
  • Threaded the shutter for a good old-fashioned screw in cable release.
  • Left the autofocus in: I was initially on the fence about this, but I think it’s a good thing. Options are always a good thing.
  • There’s no video: that’s fine; DSLRs a poor choice for video use anyway simply because you have to use the LCD, and few have adequate stabilisation.

The problem is, there’s a lot of bad, too. Most of it is a comfort/ ergonomic problem: the vestigial grip is simply too small to be useful in supporting the camera, and too large to allow you a flat-fingered grip in the same way you’d use a mechanical Nikon. (Not having a film winding lever to nestle your thumb in on the back doesn’t help, either.) The camera itself is too physically large to be gripped in this way; the shutter position is too high/ flat and uncomfortable to use for any period of time except with the very smallest (think pancake, or 50/1.8) of lenses. The shape of the grip just makes my hands cramp into a claw, and various protrusions dig painfully into my digits – I may well have odd-shaped hands, but given how ‘right’ previous Nikons felt to me, I was surprised by how physically uncomfortable it was to use. On top of that, the strap lugs are poorly positioned: the right side one digs into your fingers. And here I was thinking only Olympus made this mistake.

Secondly, the feel of the body doesn’t match the price point – especially the silver version. Though the knobs and dials are metal, the top plate and lens surround look and feel like cheaply painted thin-section plastic. (If it actually is metal, why not finish it like metal?) The black (an odd design choice on a silver body, given the lines do not flow with the front ‘leatherette’) back and base plate are slightly cold to the touch, suggesting magnesium. Some switches, specifically the AF/MF selection lever, are really quite low quality. The battery door is prone to detaching and falling off when open. Other things simply don’t make any sense aesthetically: the retro-design might be beautiful in minimalism – such as the F2 – but somehow the proportions don’t quite work ergonomically, nor do they suit the thickness required by the additional electronics over a film body. It also doesn’t help that it appears a D600′s rear panel was grafted on en bloc. Finally, the Df is both larger and lighter than you’d expect, giving an impression of hollowness rather than solidity. Build quality is about the same or slightly worse than my D600, and not on the same level as the D800E (which sells for the same price in most parts of the world). It simply lacks that feeling of ‘specialness’ or the sense of occasion which the designers undoubtedly intended.

Thirdly, the control paradigm is confusingly mixed: you need to consciously pause and think for a moment to remember what’s done through the knobs/ levers, and what’s done through the menus. This will of course cost you shots. Even the mechanical control operation is not consistent: you have to lift some knobs to unlock them (exposure mode) and press and turn to unlock others (all exposure compensation and ISO settings) but some others still require unlocking only sometimes (shutter speed) or not at all (drive mode). And there is nothing preventing you from setting 1/2000s, wonder why the camera is showing a fluctuating exposure reading and then only realizing that the little mode dial is set to aperture priority – whence the camera of course ignores the shutter speed dial. But in M, the shutter speed is set from the shutter speed dial unless it’s in the 1/3 STEP position, upon which you have to use the very stiff and poorly positioned front dial. See the problem?

It would just have been easier if they’d followed the control paradigm of say the FM3A, which does a great job integrating ease of manual override with automation.

The biggest disappointment, however, is the viewfinder. Design aside, the large prism hump – without a flash – suggests that there should be an excellent finder inside. The folding AI coupling pin suggests that the focusing screen should be well suited for manual focus, since somebody took the time to engineer mount compatibility. But no: it only has the same 0.7x/ 100% specification as the D600/D610, and the focusing screen is also a standard one. It should really have a a coarser matte for easier focusing of manual focus lenses, or at least an option to interchange them. Worse still, my (new) camera arrived with a misaligned mirror straight out of the box. What the camera thinks is in focus (both by AF system and rangefinder) does not look at all in focus in the finder. Needless to say, any attempt at manual focusing yields consistently backfocused results. I tried three other samples – one store demo and two friends’ cameras – they were also similarly misaligned to varying degrees. If you can’t focus it consistently, it may well be your viewfinder*.

*I suspect the LCD viewfinder overlay doesn’t help, either: pull the battery out, and the finder never comes into focus. Only when the battery is back in and a current is being applied to the overlay does it become transparent.

This suggests one of several things to me:

  • The product was designed and specced by a marketing team who never takes pictures; they merely chucked a spec sheet at the engineers
  • It was designed to a price, but that price still landed up being high
  • After the resurgence of the digital Leica Ms, and the success of the Fujis, management thought retro was the flavour of the month and had to have something in that segment too
  • Whoever signed off on it has never used an F or even an FM3A, and as a result does not understand haptics, tactility or viewfinders

But the funny thing is, through some strange combination of fate it appears they’ve gotten the mix right for most consumers; every dealer I’ve spoken to says they’re selling well. I’m seeing them appear in the bags of people I know, too. I expect many buyers will do no more than pair it with the faux-retro AF 50/1.8 G ‘special edition’ kit lens that has an extra silver ring around the middle and wear it over their shoulder while looking cool in horn-rimmed glasses sipping lattes in trendy cafes. They might even take pictures with it occasionally, or try an old manual focus lens, but viewfinder misalignment won’t matter because they won’t use any output sizes larger than what hipstagram requires anyway. And they certainly won’t print, or have used a proper camera from the era the Df is meant to resurrect – so the difference will be lost. Perhaps it was a marketing masterstroke after all.

Call me biased, traditionalist, misogynistic, haemorrhoidal or whatever you want, but I cannot help but think that the Df was a missed opportunity. It does not feel or operate like the Digital F that Nikon no doubt intended.  If you’re going to make a retro camera, do it properly: I understand the need for controls for the digital bit, but don’t overcomplicate things – again, look at an FM3A – don’t tease with that folding AI coupling pin, a forgiving sensor and then spoil the viewfinder. Especially not when you’re charging nearly the same money as a D800E for it. If you’re sitting on the fence, I’d recommend buying a real mechanical camera and a lot of film instead. Not only will it be cheaper, you’ll be getting a far purer photographic experience. This is a camera whose initial rumor and announcement made me very excited, until I saw the final design and handled one in person. After a week of using it, that unfortunately has not changed.

This brings me to the reason why there are no images: on the occasions I’ve gone out to use it, it either rained very heavily (the Df is not at all weather sealed) or gave me cramps after holding it for half an hour. I didn’t produce anything I was happy with during those periods. The last thing I need to do is contribute to the visually mediocre rubbish already polluting the web. After a week, I admit I’ve given up. I don’t have the time to spend trying to find a new way of holding it or to realign the mirror. (It’s also not my camera, so I’d rather not take it apart). Put it this way: without some curiosity at some level, I wouldn’t have requested one to test. This is one of the very few cameras I felt really did not work for me at all – and it wasn’t because of image quality – that has never been in question. It’s not even a near miss; the simple fact is that haptics and tactility do matter, and matter a lot. Especially when the package and hype are trying to promise so much. Evidently though, I must know nothing whatsoever about cameras: the Df appears to be backordered pretty much everywhere. MT

Thanks to B&H for the loan; if you want a Df and it doesn’t give you hand cramps, they have them available to order in black and silver here.

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Comments

  1. My favorite sentence in that entire review was, believe it or not >> “The last thing I need to do is contribute to the visually mediocre rubbish already polluting the web.”

    Haha. Totally in agreement about that.

    It seems the Df has polarized most of the photographic community. Some just “get it”, while others feel Nikon missed the boat in several key respects; price being one of them. Some love the retro, while others believe it’s largely a parts-bin Frankencamera.

    I think if one has a stable of Ai or Ai-s lenses they want to shoot on a contemporary camera with a high-quality sensor, and/or want the D4 sensor in a [relatively] small, light-weight body, this camera is going to appeal. I wouldn’t underestimate the number of folks who fall into the latter category, actually.

    I shot with the Df for a few days and ― quibbles notwithstanding ― it made sense to me as I walked around and used it. Whether I could have lived with it over the long-haul, or for semi-pro work, is entirely another question, however.

    With two Nikon DSLRs in my stable already, I ended up adding an OM-D … so perhaps that’s telling.

    • Like Tom, I really cannot see – literally – how this viewfinder is adequate for critical MF work. The sensor’s lower density gives it some more leeway for critical focusing, but it’s no snappier, brighter or larger than a D600. And that’s a disaster for MF. It even has an LCD overlay – pull the battery and the whole thing always goes dark/ fuzzy – which is a no-no for clarity. Lastly, if you’re going to use it in AF mode – then why not get an AF camera that’s optimized for it and has the right controls for it? I have used it, and it really does not make any sense in the way it has been executed – but it’s also important to note that it’s actually not far off. A better grip shape and finder and we’d be there.

      • I agree that manual focus could/should have been better executed. I take it you find the green dot focus confirmation insufficient?

        Personally, I’ll also quibble about the 39 autofocus points; should have been 51 at this price point. After all, the D7100 has it.

        I have to say that when compared alongside the tech in the OM-D E-M1, the Df seems positively antediluvian. Just have to educate myself now on how to get the most out of the M4/3 sensor. btw, Ming, meant to ask: Does your PS workflow video more or less apply to processing for all sensor formats? You use the same basic techniques from M4/3 to medium format?

        • The green dot works if your lenses are f2.8 or slower. For f1.4s…no dice. You will find that there’s quite a bit of focus ring travel over which the green dot stays lit; the extremes are never in focus.

          Yes, the PS workflow applies for everything – from iPhone to medium format; the amount of latitude and correction required of course differs with each camera, but the principles remain.

  2. Sad to say, marketing savvy wins over substance, every time, these days.
    Those young ones below age of 27 are so gullible. :-)

  3. I am sorry to hear about the poor focusing screen. I have been shooting travel photos with a Sony RX100m2, using the flexible spot focusing. This lets me put an auto-focus point anywhere on the screen, and I can even tune up the focusing with focus peaking. When turn back to my D600, with its limit auto-focus area (the D800 is not much bigger) and poor focusing screen, I am constantly frustrated by having to focus and recompose. Especially when chasing a toddler.:-) In the manual focus film world, one could focus a fast lens pretty much anywhere on the screen in reasonable light. It would have been great if the DF had brought back that experience.

  4. The outrageous fact here is that your camera (and others that you also have knowledge of) came with a misaligned mirror. For a camera costing nearly £3000, that is totally unacceptable. It was not even just one camera. As far as I can tell, my EOS 650D focuses exactly as it should. Clearly a camera with a misaligned mirror will not, and the price difference is huge. How come nobody is commenting on this?? This is a basic ‘taken for granted’ requirement surely. I’ve often wondered how many cameras never achieve accurate focus because of manufacturing inadequacies. Quite unacceptable at this price point. Not what we expect from Nikon.

    • The misaligned primary mirror affects manual focusing, not AF. It still AFs properly, but when something is in focus it doesn’t show that to be the case in the viewfinder. And yes, it’s unacceptable, but guess what – almost every single Nikon I’ve bought – 15 or so – has been misaligned out of the box. Most people don’t notice because they do not attempt to manual focus, or simply assume that it’s their eyes which are off and try again.

      • So, how do you rule out that it is due to your eyes? How did you measure the misalignment?

        • Easy. Put it on a tripod and focus using live view. Put the mirror back down and look through the finder.

          • So, Ming…what do you do when it’s misaligned? Send your brand new camera right back to Nikon? Sorry if it’s a daft question, but I wonder if it’s something you do yourself.

          • Were the viewfinders such that they actually show the DOF as it appears on the sensor, you would see where the focus is. But given that the viewfinders are not even designed to show the plane of focus at large apertures, I would think that also a combination of eyeglass prescription, diopter adjustment and spherical aberrations (focus shift) could be interpreted as a misalignment.

            • True, except I was shooting with my contact lenses in (tested at 20/10) and no diopter adjustment. That leaves focus shift – but on every single lens? It doesn’t explain why I get more consistent results after adjusting the mirror, though.

      • Oh right. Very interesting. Thanks for the reply.

  5. Hi Ming
    I got a black Df with “special edition” 1.8
    Full frame, light to carry all day..
    My d800e and my F6 stay at home with my other lenses

  6. To address some of the ergonomic problems you had.

    I had all of those problems too for the first hour. I had to adjust the way I hold and operate the camera. I used to hold the camera with three fingers on the grip and used my forefinger for the front command dial and shutter release button. I adjusted my grip to use with the Df so that my forefinger is on the shutter-release at all times and my middle finger rests on the front command dial. This brings the grip up higher and makes it more comfortable as well as places the strap lug between the fingers. I find it’s way quicker to adjust settings on the fly this way. I wish I had been doing this a lot sooner.

  7. Greg Hoyle says:

    Not sure what to make of this review. I had a similar reaction to the grip and strap holder, at first, but in my first week with this camera I had the opposite experience–I ended up really liking (okay, loving) it. Once you embrace the Df, as a unique camera in its own right, and not make it some camera you have used in the past–try this: for a visual person, at one glance, you can see the settings! And it’s light(!), easy to carry, not the D800 or D4 beast. And being a center focus type shooter, the 39 vs 51 is a pretty small issue. As for video, I never likes the cumbersome DSLR videos and extraneous buttons that add clutter. Most importantly, the key reason to fall in love is the amazing images. Very usable to 12800. Those D4 folks have had a sensor worthy of the $6,000 price tag. That two stops advantage is better than my old D800. Great shots in plain old room light. The way this thing feels–I love that it is a camera, not a computer with a lens attached. Admittedly, the computer inside is a zillion times better than film. (Who wants to wait days or weeks to see a shot, when it can be there in a nanosecond and focus checked for detail with the press of one button, once!) As for the viewfinder–no problems on my copy. So, in conclusion, after reading this critical review, I am left wanting to say to the author that while I admire his well written, thoughtful comments, I think that he was fighting it, never really taking it for what it is–a new idea for a camera, not retro, but reason. Probably the simplest, easiest to use, finest IQ of any camera in years, maybe ever. (Ok, the Fuji X100s was great too, for usability, but way too limiting beyond the simplest shots.) My advice for anyone thinking of getting a Df is to consider this as a new concept. Buttons, not menus. Visual, not guessing at settings. And, IQ that let’s you set the auto ISO to a broad range and forget that low light was ever a constraint. Try this camera–it’s a refreshing experience.

    • Agree 100% with what Greg Hoyle stated. I too was on the fence with the DF until I had it in hand and used it after a few hours. I own tons of other cameras and the Nikon D4 stays at home until called upon. I got rid of the D800 (with less than 500 shutter clicks) because I didn’t enjoy using it. The only camera that has sat on my desk and played with while doing my day job tasks was the Leica M until now…. the DF is played with all the time. People just need to quit complaining. Open your mind and understand that this camera is for a specific small portion of the market. Photography to me is not only creating / capturing the image but also being able to “feel” what I am doing. I guess a good analogy to this is that the DF is like a stick shift transmission car in a world that is dominated by automatic and automatic type transmissions. You want all the modern stuff… Nikon makes D610 and D800′s for that purpose. Sorry Ming, I disagree with you on this review and surprised. By the way, take a Leica M without the grip and walk around with it in your hand all day. I bet you’ll be saying the same thing about how your hand now hurts.

      • I did say exactly the same thing about the Leica M. It’s very uncomfortable. You need the ThumbsUp to make it comfortable; the new little thumb rest on the M240 is useless.

      • Jorge Balarin says:

        For me the DF is like an auto with modern engines but ergonomics from one hundred years ago. Doesn’t make sense.

  8. I agree that the view finder is the greatest let down of this camera. I would have excused all other flaws if I could only have used my manual focus lenses properly on it. How great wouldn’t it have been with a split screen and microprism ring around it?

    This also tells a lot of how Nikon is run as a company. Obviously those in charge has no proper understanding of their products.That a mistake like this could happen unfortunately does not bode well for the future.

  9. harold1968 says:

    This sure is a polarising camera. I don’t think Nikon meant it to be a big seller, however by all accounts its flying off the shelves quite well.

    Perhaps Nikon’s aim was less dramatic then Ming suggests. Perhaps their aim was to give their best sensor for low light and easy results (i.e. a shooters camera, rather then studio), combine it with D610 guts and put it out in a new stylish body (some people love, others don’t, as is always the case when you go away from the bland norm). The dials are great if you love this sort of thing (i.e. have it all set with the camera off) which I do, but can leave them out selectively by using various auto functions.

    As the camera market is attacked by mobile phones, and given sensor technology is so good, the minutiae of improvements only of interest to nutty brick wall shooters on dpreview, manufacturers are looking more for ownership enjoyment and design. This results in a massive bifurcation of opinion on the GAS equipment forums on the internet and what people are actually buying. (e.g. Nikon and Canon are relentlessly attacked for lack of vision, yet are still the only profitable camera companies. Sony only going into the black when it starts to give photographers what they really want, not what they are told they want by review sites on the web. With the G1Xii and eos-M2 Canon show they are perfectly capable of turning on a pin head when they need to, the market obviously doesn’t want this, given the decline in CSC sales, showing that Canon and Nikon have effectively read the market correctly – and yes I love the Sony A7 and Fuji T1 but I like the Df and RX1 more …..).
    Seeing Leica’s dated X2 fly off the shelves to wealthy Chinese teens last week reminded me that Leica doesn’t care what Ken Rockwell says, they only care for their sales and target market. One is quite happy to exist without the other.

    All in all I love this camera. I have bought it and haven’t been happier with a DSLR for decades. I always had to force myself to pick up the D800E or 5Dii. With the Df I just want to keep it with me all the time, to get the picture when it comes up. That speaks volumes …

    • Harold-
      came across this site and review looking for info on an older gitzo studex tripod. Wow- funny how things lead you to places on the www. People have missed the boat completely on this camera. Most have never picked one up, don’t shoot and our a bunch of sheep following the misguided masses of camera reviewers on the internet. Once again, people who read vs people who are taking pictures. I wasn’t even thinking about a Df until I went to my local shop to check out the Fuji xt1 and there it was.

      I’ve shot Nikon since I was twelve aka 1986. I’ve been brand loyal. Later on in school I had to primarily shoot 4×5 and medium format. I focused on products and architecture and even shot portraiture with 4×5. 35mm was primarily used by those studying photojournalism, that’s it.

      Fast forward twenty years and I don’t shoot professionally or assist professionals anymore. I shoot because I want to and do the occasional job on the side when I’m called and asked if I would be interested. If I was shooting for money and I was in a studio or shooting architecture and had a choice, I would be shooting at least medium or 4×5 with digital capture. However, I’m not. For me, 35FF is the perfect compromise and the Df is the perfect body available. A) it’s compact for a FF body B) it doesn’t look like your run of the mill large chunk of molded plastic. C) it has Nikons best sensor. This isn’t even debatable. 16-24 is the sweet spot for 35FF. The 800 is fantastic in certain circumstances and flawed in others and complete overkill for most. Why you would want that resolving power in 35 is beyond me. Theres a good reason why the D4 is 16 and not 24 and certainly not 36. If you’re going large and need extreme detail for heavens sake step up to a larger format. All my friends working in fashion and shooting commercially in NYC and LA shoot medium and larger. If you’re covering sports and shooting Nikon its a D4 or D3. Not a D800. If you’re photojournalist its the same.D) It’s light for FF. I can keep going but whats really important are the fundamentals. I haven’t felt more at home with a Dslr ever. All of the complaining about focusing manually is bs. Ive got three ai manuals that work perfectly with it. Ive had no problems focusing. I still use an FE and in low light its practically impossible to focus with, split screen and all. The viewfinder is fantastic, autofocus is great, focusing points are more than adequate. I could use a second card slot but I don’t really need it. Ive never had a card fail me and if it did who cares. If I had a money job I would be shooting tethered. Otherwise I would be shooting a D4. I remember back in the film days when labs would screw up or film would be lost, etc.
      Obviously where the Df kills it is available low light, as you know. Its not even funny how this thing just shreds everything in its path. The 800 isn’t even close. Thats a big reason why pros shoot 4′s and 3′s. In fact, this sensor just kills it in every environment. However, I love shooting in dim lit interiors and on streets at night and it’s superior. This is child’s play for someone who used to shoot transparency film at night.

      “Sitting around sipping lattes with a Df and whatever glasses you’re wearing?” Please.. That would be any number digital Leicas. I shot M3′s and 6′s and the games over. I’ll take a Df over any Leica on the market. What a hypocrite. Weatherproofing is no better on the 800 as well.

      The xt1 is a beautiful little camera but, its not quite in the same league. That sensor just isn’t anywhere near as good. Nikon could learn a few things from Fuji but sorry, despite what everyone would like to believe that format cannot compete with the best sensors available in 35 FF. Is it good enough or better than most people need, absolutely. I’m not here to bash Fuji because they are doing wonderful things.

      Anyway, I could go and on. But you know, because you actually own one and use it. It’s not perfect, but its really good. Its a serious imaging tool that lets us get back to the joy of shooting. It works well, it has dials. It’s as small as it gets for a FF DSLR, people think its film so I’m not mistaken for a pro. Its capable of producing insane quality. Did I mention it had dials and no video bs?

      Take Care and enjoy your camera. I guess the jokes on everyone else.

Trackbacks

  1. Anonymous says:

    […] Pues Ming Thein la pone a bajar de un burro.Tested: the 2013 Nikon Df ? Ming Thein | Photographer […]

  2. […] neatly to the question of ergonomics, haptics and tactility. I recently conveyed my thoughts on the Nikon Df and received a lot of heavily polarized comments and emails; that is one camera that either […]

  3. […] the only card being played is the retro one; that makes no sense for reasons I detailed in the Df test. Simply put: a different machine needs different control logic, even if the output is the same. I […]

  4. […] sensor is now going on two years old; it’s been superseded for low light by the one in the Df, and more recently by the D4s. Though the DXO numbers might be higher, there isn’t a lot of […]

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