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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