Earlier this year we received the new Nikon DF camera – the first Nikon retro DSLR and its first attempt ever to create a modern digital classic – but did it meet the expectations?
The retro look is coming back to the world of photography. Fujifilm and Olympus spearhead this “back to origins” move with their lines of mirrorless cameras in recent years but the Nikon DF is the first DSLR to bring this look (Canon had commented several times in the past regarding this trend, saying it has no interest in going “retro”). Nikon has a long history to draw upon when coming to design the DF. There are several classics which might have influenced the design but the old Nikon F3 was probably partially responsible for the look of the DF.
Nikon DF – a modern classic? As for the place of the DF in the Nikon line – it looks to us a bit out of place. As it stands right now, Nikon’s FX line of cameras (its full frame line in case you do not speak Nikonian), is comprised of 3 main cameras (or actually lines) – the entry level D610, the main pro camera – D800/D800E and the top of the line flagship D4S. When you look at this line there seems to be no room for the DF which looks like an outsider.
Build, ergonomics and functionality
As we have mentioned with the DF Nikon choose a retro look – however this is only true for the front and top parts of the camera, the back of the camera looks more or less like any other digital Nikon camera (not a bad thing, but just not really inline with the rest of the camera).
Tiny upper screen and strange mode dial
On the front of the camera you can find a pretty strange dial (its a bit hard to turn and not comfortable to use – we much rather have the normal front Nikon dial which is great) below it there are two very useful buttons which you can program (we set one of the to go directly to the ISO sensitivity settings). Another good thing about the DF front design are the two triangle strap connectors on the front top of the camera – unlike other Nikon cameras (the D7100 for example) the DF doesn’t have the strap holders sticking from the side and preventing us from putting the camera on its side for shooting vertical images.
The top part of the camera is probably the most interesting design-wise. On the right you can find the P/S/AM mode dial – this one is really strange – it took us a couple of minutes just to realize how to use it (you actually need to lift it and turn – really strange concept and maybe something that came from one of Nikon older cameras).
Below the dial mode you can find a really tiny screen – there is mostly just the bare minimum info on this screen – its good that its there and Nikon couldn’t squeeze anything larger with the current design but we still miss our larger screen from the rest of the Nikon line. The on/off button has a retro design which we don’t really care for but the most horrible thing is that it doesn’t have a front part which forces you to use two fingers instead of one to use it – a big no no in terms of ergonomics.
Next to the power you have the shutter dial (which goes from 4-1/4000 second plus a few other options) as well as a sub dial for shooting modes – single, continuous, timer etc.). This second dial is really cool and does have a front part for changing the modes (which should have existed in the power button as well) – we wish this kind of sub dial will find itself to all Nikon cameras – its really useful and easy to use.
On the other side of the viewfinder you can find the ISO and exposure compensation dials. the exposure compensation dial is very easy to use – the ISO is a bit harder since you need to press a small button on the side to release it.
The ISO dial lock button isn’t very comfortable
On the button of the camera you can find the battery compartment which is also used for the only SD card slot of the camera. This is pretty disappointing – we already mentioned on our Fujifilm X-T1 how important a 2 SD card setup is and for a camera at this a price point – there is really no excuse.
The back of the camera is very conventional (as we have mentioned), you have all the regular button here (play, delete, LV, focus lock etc.) and in this respect the DF is basically not different than the Nikon D610.
The DF is a bit on the hefty side (710 grams body only) and it is also not particularly small. The viewfinder is the most dominant feature in the camera and it is quite comfortable to hold although the grip is not very big. We did find the shutter button location a bit too far for our rather small hands, but we guess you can get used to it over time.
The general responsiveness of the camera was very good (true for all Nikon DSLRs from recent years). Continuous shooting speed is about 5 fps – not super fast but decent (the D4 with the same sensor can push 11 fps). The DF has a buffer that can hold up to 23 RAW images (from our test) – very reasonable (we find that for most uses – the size of the buffer is actually more important than the shooting speed).
The DF uses the new EN-EL14a (which is also used in the D5300) with 1230mAh. The official CIPA rating is 1400 images. In our testing we didn’t even come close to that (honestly – we have no idea how Nikon tested this). On our testing the DF actually performed worse than our D7100 in terms of battery life (the D7100 has a CIPA of less than a 1000). We would estimate that the DF has an actual battery life of about 700~ images per charge (we do use the screen quite a bit to view images – but we do the same with the D7100 as well).
At the end of the day even 700 images per charge is enough for almost any shooter for a full day (in many cases it will even last you two full days), but we don’t like to see such a huge gap between the official number and real world use – Nikon should revise this number.
Sensitivity – Now we are getting into what might be the strongest point of the DF – the sensitivity test. We compared the DF to our usual test camera – the Nikon D7100, which makes for a very interesting comparison since they are both Nikon cameras but one has an APS-C sensor and the other a full frame one.
The testing was done with NR off, the D7100 used the 35mm f/1.8 DX lens and the DF used its 50mm f/1.8 kit lens, aperture was f/8 in both cases – the D7100 images were reduced in size to be comparable to the 16MP images of the DF.
Nikon D7100 on the left, Nikon DF on the right – ISO100 (click to enlarge)
Nikon D7100 on the left, Nikon DF on the right – ISO400 (click to enlarge)
Nikon D7100 on the left, Nikon DF on the right – ISO800 (click to enlarge)
Nikon D7100 on the left, Nikon DF on the right – ISO1600 (click to enlarge)
Nikon D7100 on the left, Nikon DF on the right – ISO3200 (click to enlarge)
Nikon D7100 on the left, Nikon DF on the right – ISO6400 (click to enlarge)
Nikon D7100 on the left, Nikon DF on the right – ISO12,800 (click to enlarge)
Nikon DF – ISO 25,600 (click to enlarge)
Nikon DF – ISO 51,200 (click to enlarge)
Quad comparison – upper images – Nikon D7100 ISO 1600-3200, lower images – Nikon DF ISO 3200-6400 (click to enlarge)
Looking at the above images made us reach the following conclusions:
- The D7100 shoes slight noise even in ISO 800 and slight drop in detail – the DF doesn’t show this at all.
- The D7100 is very usable up to ISO 1600 and O.K. up to ISO 3200. The DF is usable up to ISO 3200 and quite O.K. up to ISO 6400 (much less so at ISO 12,800).
- On the quad comparison you can see that the difference between the D7100 and the DF is just under 2 stops (i.e. The D7100 is slightly better in ISO 1600 than the DF in ISO 6400 – very impressive).
One last remark – for photographers who feel that low light performance and detail level are the most important things – the Nikon DF offers spectacular IQ (the best – or very close to the best – that you can find on the market today from any camera). However, we have to say that the IQ of cameras such as the D7100 is already excellent, and despite the clear difference between the two cameras – keeping in mind the difference in size, weight and price (not just the camera but the lenses as well), we would think twice before considering any full frame camera these days unless we have a real need which can justify the extra cost/size/weight.
Viewfinder, LCD and focusing system
The Nikon DF has a 3.2 inch high res LCD (921k dots) – we found it to be pretty decent. The viewfinder is large (just like the D800/D4 and unlike the shape of the one on the D610), it has a magnification of 0.7x and a 100% coverage. The viewfinder is pretty bright but we did find something strange about it – when you look at the viewfinder from an angle (even just a bit more than straight 90 degree angle, the text above or below the image gets cut – we tried the viewfinder on our D7100 and this doesn’t happen – strange and a bit annoying.
The Nikon DF large viewfinder
The focusing system of the Nikon DF is based on the same one that you can find on the D610 with 39 AF points 9 of them crossed. Its an O.K. system but we would really like to see the much more advanced AF system of the D800/D4 being used here. We found the DF lacking when trying to focus in low light conditions (this was especially true using the 50mm f/1.8 kit lens – with other lenses results seem to be better). Another weakness of this AF system is its frame coverage – full frame cameras in general have very small AF point frame coverage – the DF (and the D610 for that matter) have really small coverage – this could be a problem – especially for someone like us who is used to the D7100 with AF coverage of most of the frame.
The Nikon DF doesn’t have video capability (and for that matter nor does it have a built in flash).
At the end of the day what do we think about the Nikon DF and was Nikon able to create a modern classic? well, as a first attempt by Nikon to create a retro digital camera, the DF is quite a good product – the image quality is superb, it has a large viewfinder, the use of (some) of the dials is quite effective especially if you plan to use it manually and of course there is the look – which, like it or not – is probably the main attraction of this camera. So what did we liked less about the the DF? well, first of all for a camera at its level we would have liked to see a better AF system (the same as the one on the D4/D800) and not the basic system it got from the D610 (although if you are going to use manual focus).
DF – A modern retro camera
Another point has to do with the dials. Nikon has done some choices that we think are not very practical – a few examples – you need two fingers to turn the camera on or off (typically with a DSLR you only need one), the ISO lock isn’t comfortable to use, the top screen is way too small (not that there is really a room for a larger one), but the thing that bugged us the most with the dials is the front one – its simply not comfortable to use. A few other things we would like to see changed in the DF are the shutter mechanism (again – similar to the D610 and not the 1/8000 of the D4/D800) as well as the lack of a second SD card. However all these issues won’t really deter a great deal of the potential buyers of the camera who loves the look and look at it as a modern digital version of their old classic analog camera. What will certainly do deter quite a few potential buyers is the price. For around $3000, the DF is much more expensive than the D610 (a camera which shares almost all of its components with apart from the sensor), what is worst is that it is also more expensive than the professional D800 which is a more advanced camera in almost any respect (maybe apart from the sensitivity aspect). So can we justify the price based on its looks alone? well, we can’t – but if you love retro, shoot mostly manual and have deep pockets – maybe you can.
What we liked
- Classic design (except from the back).
- Superb image quality.
- Works with most Nikon F-mount lenses (even some very old ones).
- Lots of direct-access with many customizable buttons.
- Large viewfinder with 100% coverage with high magnification.
- Screw-in shutter release socket.
What we liked less
- Disappointing AF performance especially in low light.
- Small coverage area of AF array.
- Only 1/4000th sec maximum shutter speed.
- Viewfinder data not seen from any angle.
- Single SD card slot.
- Front command dial not terribly comfortable to use.
- HDR only in JPEG (true for all Nikon DSLRs).
- No Video capabilities (no built in flash).
A few images we shot with the Nikon DF using the AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED, AF-S DX NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8G (yes we know its a DX – we shall a have something on this soon) and of course the DF 50mm kit lens.