Hands-on with the retro Nikon Df DSLR: Great fun in an awkward package

Nikon Df DSLR Camera with 50mm f/1.8 Lens (Silver)I’ve been shooting almost exclusively with the Nikon Df DSLR for the last month. When I crouch behind the retro-styled body and snap off shots that will be captured on the excellent D4 sensor, I feel like it could be the ultimate street photography camera. It is quick enough (5.5 fps), has world-class image quality, and is about half the size and weight of a Nikon D4. Besides, I figure it looks cool, and I certainly get some odd glances as if to say “is that a film camera you’re using?” My euphoria lasts until I need to change a setting. That’s where the retro design gets in the way. Read on and I’ll help you decide if the Nikon Df needs to be in your camera bag or in your collection…

Image Quality

As befits a camera modeled after the classic photojournalist models, the Nikon Df aims for low-light image capture more than pixel count. The sensor is borrowed from the low-light-champion Nikon D4, providing it with 16 million large, bright pixels. Unfortunately, with excellent pro-quality 24MP and 36MP cameras like the Nikon D800 and Nikon D610 available for the same or lower cost, the Df isn’t likely to be the camera of choice for landscape or portrait photographers.

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Using a retro-styled camera to photograph a historic motel on Rt. 66 seemed appropriate.
Fortunately the wide-open spaces let me back up to get the framing I wanted.
Nikon Df, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens, f/16 @ 1/500s ISO 400.

Size and Handling

I love having a Nikon D4 sensor in the relatively small, light Nikon Df body. It is much easier to maneuver than its larger cousin, and less conspicuous for street photographers. All that is great, until you need to fiddle with the controls. As part of the “retro” design, Nikon has made many of them replicas of the dials on top of its old F-series film cameras. Unfortunately, digital demands different control systems than film. For example, the ISO setting is on a large ring with locking button. For film, where the ISO is seldom changed, that wouldn’t matter. But for digital, where the ISO could change nearly shot to shot, the retro version is much harder to change than in Nikon’s other pro DSLRs where there is a dedicated ISO button on top of the camera that can be used with the command dial.

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The huge D4 sensor makes indoor shooting a breeze even without flash.
This is a straight from the camera of Nikon’s Steve Heiner at CES.
Nikon Df, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens, f/7.1 @ 1/50s, ISO 5000.

Similarly, Exposure Compensation is moved to a dial on top with a locking button. This is slower than regular Exposure Compensation and much slower than having Easy Exposure Compensation set on other models. Shutter speed is also set on top of the camera, although in Aperture mode the entire, large shutter speed dial is completely ignored – wasting space on top of the camera that would normally be used for additional shooting data.

Price

Okay, by now some of you are probably thinking that I’m a real whiner for criticizing a retro camera for being, well, retro. Fair enough. If the Nikon Df was priced as a fun camera, at under $1000, I’d cut it a lot more slack. At $2,750 for just the body, it moves into a different realm. In order to be more than just a collectors’ item for well-heeled Nikonphiles, it needs to be good enough to be a working camera for someone. On that score, I don’t think it makes it. A D800 style body with the D4 sensor would be much more effective for that task.

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Hand-held night shots, even with motion, are also pretty simple with the Nikon Df.
This image of the LVH in Vegas was shot at amazing ISO 25,600 to freeze the sign.
Nikon Df, Nikon 24-85mm Lens @ 40mm, f/4.2 @ 1/500s, ISO 25600.

Should you buy one?

If you want a fun experience that allows you to relive your early days as a photographer, the Nikon Df is a lot of fun. Of all the devices I’ve used in the field over the last year only Google’s Glass has generated more curiousity. You’ll have to decide if your fun budget can stomach $2750. If you are looking for a lighter, smaller version of the Nikon D4, you have a tough decision. On image quality, it delivers, but the awkward controls will likely prove frustrating.

If you do decide to buy one, consider the bundle with the also new “retro” design Nikon 50mm f/1.8 Lens for $3,000. I did most of my Df shooting with the new 50mm, and loved its small size, quick focus, and razor sharp images. However if you are in tight spots a lot (like the show floor at CES), then the new Nikon 35mm f/1.8 Lens might be a better bet.

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The old Post Office at Kelso in the Mojave Desert has always intrigued me.
Nikon Df, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 Lens, f/16 @ 1/500s, ISO 400