It's been a long time coming, but now Nikon has released a DSLR in the style of its F-series film cameras. Can Nikon's 16.2-million-pixel, full-frame Df really live up to the hype? Read the Nikon Df review...
Nikon Df at a glance:
- 16.2-million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor
- Manual exposure control dials
- 3in, 921,000-dot LCD screen
- ISO 50-204,800 (extended)
- 5.5fps shooting rate
- 2016-pixel RGB metering sensor
- 39 AF points, with nine cross-type points
- Street price around £2,749, including 50mm f/1.8G lens
- See sample images shot with the Nikon Df
Nikon Df review – Introduction
One of the most common complaints I hear about DSLRs comes from enthusiast photographers who want a camera that operates in the same way that their old film SLR did. This is usually followed with a plea for a DSLR that doesn’t shoot video. And it is exactly this photographer at which Nikon has targeted the Nikon Df.
The Nikon Df bears more than a striking resemblance to some of the iconic Nikon F-mount SLRs of years past, notably the FM. Nikon has even adopted the older, non-italicised version of its branding, positioned on the camera’s prism. However, it isn’t just the design that nods to the past, as on the top-plate is a range of dials intended to replicate the experience of shooting on a film SLR. Should you want to change the shutter speed, sensitivity or exposure compensation, there’s no need to scroll through on-screen settings – simply use the dials on top of the camera.
At this stage it would be easy to dismiss the Df as something of a gimmick, designed to tug at the heartstrings of those yearning for the past. Yet beneath the retro exterior is one of the best full-frame sensors we have seen in a digital camera – the same 16.2-million-pixel unit that is used in Nikon’s flagship DSLR, the D4.
While some of the initial reviews of the Df that have appeared online have been critical of the camera’s price, it should be remembered that, in theory, the Df is capable of the same image quality as the D4, which at £4,250 body only is £1,500 more than the Df. With those figures in mind, the Df actually appears to be reasonably priced.
Nikon Df review – Features
However, it wasn’t just the price tag that raised a few eyebrows at the Df’s launch, as there was also some discussion over Nikon’s decision to use its 16.2 million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor. The company has two other full-frame sensors that it currently employs in its cameras – the 24.3-million-pixel unit in the Nikon D610, and the 36.3-million-pixel sensor in the D800, both of which are made by Sony. While the 16.2-million-pixel sensor is arguably one of the best on the market in terms of low-light and high-sensitivity performance, the Sony 24.3 and 36.3-million-pixel units offer excellent dynamic range and obviously higher-resolution images.
The Nikon Df could arguably have been a little cheaper, as the D610, with its 24.3-million-pixel sensor, is around £1,500 body only – a saving of over £1,000 over the Df kit, which includes a redesigned Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens that complements the Df’s design. And while using the 36.3-million-pixel sensor would have created far larger files, and possibly have needed increased processing power, it would have allowed the Df to resolve a class-leading amount of detail. The argument that the 16.2-million-pixel sensor performs better in low light falls a little flat when you consider that downsizing 36.3-million-pixel images to 16.2 million pixels helps to significantly reduce any noise associated with high ISO images.
Given that the Nikon Df uses the same sensor as that found in the Nikon D4, the sensitivity range is also exactly the same, with an extended range of ISO 50-204,800. However, the metering system of the Df differs from both the Nikon D4 and D800. Instead of the 91,000-pixel RGB metering sensor used in the latter two cameras, the Df features a 2016-pixel RGB metering sensor, which is the same as that used in the Nikon D610. While this may seem to be a dramatic difference in metering specification, I have often found that it makes little difference in practice – but more on this later.
The Nikon Df also shares its autofocus system with the D610, offering 39 AF points, including nine-cross type sensors, seven of which are still available when used with lenses that have effective apertures of f/8 or larger. This is good news for photographers who like to use 2x teleconverters to give their lenses extra reach.
Just as interesting as what is included in the Df is what has been omitted. To emphasise the Df’s status as a camera purely for photography, it has no video-capture function. Wi-Fi is also absent, although it is of course available via the standard Nikon WU-1a wireless mobile adapter, which simply plugs into the side of the camera. However, as the WU-1a sticks out of the side of the camera when in use, I think a better solution is to use an Eye-Fi card to transfer images from the Df to a smartphone. During this test I used an 8GB Eye-Fi Mobi card and found that it worked very well. At around £42 for the 8GB card and £52 for the 16GB version, these cards should be considered serious alternatives to the WU-1a adapter, which costs around £50
Nikon Df review – Old F-mount lenses
Nikon has been keen to promote the fact that the Df can be used with the vast majority of Nikkor F-mount lenses, including pre-Ai versions. ‘Ai’ stands for ‘auto indexing’, and Ai lenses have a notch on the rear of the lens that rests against a sprung indexing post around the edge of some Nikon F-mount cameras.
The notch on the rear of the lens pushes against the post, which communicates to the camera the current aperture that the lens is set to. This has now largely been replaced with electronic communication between modern cameras and lenses, but for older manual-focus lenses it allows the camera to know the aperture of the lens being used so the camera can meter correctly.
Cameras lower in the Nikon range than the D7000 don’t have the auto indexing post, so older manual-focus lenses can only be used in manual-exposure mode. However, with no auto-indexing post, these entry-level DSLR cameras do have an advantage. Without the Ai cutaway, the rear of
pre-Ai lenses can cause damage to cameras that have an auto-indexing post as the post can get bent or become jammed when trying to mount a pre-Ai lens. Nikon had a service to convert pre-Ai lenses by simply replacing the aperture ring with one that featured the Ai cutaway, and many users actually made the conversion themselves by filing down the aperture ring. Doing this enabled the lenses to be used on Ai cameras.
There are still many unconverted pre-Ai lenses around, and their use is limited to entry-level Nikon DSLRs or older film SLRs.
Nikon has come up with a simple solution for this problem in the Nikon Df – the auto-indexing post on the camera can be folded down out of the way so it won’t be damaged by pre-Ai optics.
Nikon Df review – Build and handling
The body of the Nikon Df is made of magnesium alloy, and while this material is typically used to make a camera strong yet lightweight, the Df is deceptively heavy. To ensure that the camera is capable of meeting the demands of everything an enthusiast photographer can throw at it, the Df’s body is weather-sealed to the same standard as the Nikon D800, so it is fine to use if you are caught in the rain.
From both an aesthetic and handling point of view, it is the dials on the top of the camera that dominate the design. These control the shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation and exposure mode, while the top-plate also provides a home for the shutter button, power switch and a very small monochrome LCD panel.
Each of the dials on the top of the camera has a lock button that must be pressed before the setting can be changed, and while this prevents the dials from being altered when knocked, it also makes it very difficult to change the settings without removing the camera from your eye. That said, the dials are easy to use and logical in their design and layout.
The tiny LCD panel on the top-plate is a very nice touch, and is reminiscent of the frame counters on film SLRs. Indeed, the small screen displays the number of images remaining on the card and the current battery life.
With so much manual control, the Df feels very tactile to use – although it isn’t perfect. Rather than an actual handgrip, there is only a small mound on the front. Aesthetically, this helps to give the Df the look of a vintage SLR, but there was a reason that SLRs evolved to incorporate these grips – they allow the camera to be carried and supported more easily than a flush surface. As a result, the lack of a grip leaves the camera feeling somewhat unbalanced, and it is awkward to hold comfortably with one hand.
Furthermore, in terms of size, the Df simply isn’t the small, understated SLR that we would have had when we all shot regularly on film. It is a large camera in comparison, and is practically the same size as the Nikon D610, but without the handgrip. When you compare where the film plane is on a Nikon F-series camera to where the sensor plane is on the Df, you can quickly see that there is a difference of almost 1cm in position. There is obviously a lot more going on in the Df, with its LCD screen, electronic sockets, buttons, dials, memory card slots and circuit board, which is why the body has to be larger, but the fact remains that it isn’t as slim and as compact as many would have hoped. It really is a standard DSLR, but in a body that has been designed to look and feel like the cameras many of us grew up using, and for me it just doesn’t quite hit the spot.
The change from the conventional front dial that sits in the handgrip, to a vertically positioned dial on the Df that sits flush to the front of the body, feels a bit like over-design. I found that the dial on the Df was as comfortable to use as the more typical front control dial, and it almost seems that it has been changed to fit in with the design of the camera rather than to improve the handling of the camera. The dial is positioned in the same place as the self-timer release on some Nikon F-series cameras.
There are a few other small things on the Df that don’t quite add up for a DSLR. By default, the Df’s image review setting is switched off. Instinctively, I found myself taking an image or two, and then holding the camera at arm’s length to assess the image I had just taken. Of course, thanks to the default setting, the screen stays blank, offering no preview, so you have to press the play button to display the image. While this setting can be changed in the menu, for all the Df’s intentions of replicating the experience of using a film camera you can’t escape the fact that it is a DSLR, and photographers will instinctively want to check their images. However, with the camera set up in this way it will aid battery life, so perhaps the Df’s EN-EL14a 1,230mAh battery won’t last for the quoted 1,400 images if you choose to review the images after each shot, especially as Nikon only quotes 600 shots for the same battery in the D5300.
The Df is available in a silver or black finish, and I prefer the black version. The silver version quite obviously looks like paint rather than metal when you view it at arm’s length, and it is also easier to read the white markings on the black dials, which is useful when shooting in poor light.
I’m really torn in my feelings for the design of the Df. While I like the manual control dials, the rest of the camera is really just the same as a conventional DSLR but in a different guise. It feels like a halfway house between a fully fledged attempt at creating a retro-style film SLR and being just a limited-edition DSLR with a vintage look – and it never really satisfies either category. Yes, you can use your vintage lenses on it, but how many people have pre-Ai lenses that haven’t been converted? This is surely only a very small market for Nikon. I own two pre-Ai lenses that have both been converted many years ago, and I can use both of them on other Nikon DSLRs without issue. So it will only be a small number of people with unconverted lenses (which are often collector’s pieces) who will have the most to gain from using the Df.
Nikon Df review – Metering
Image: This image was deliberately underexposed by around 1EV to preserve as much highlight detail as possible, which could be recovered from the raw image when it was processed
As with other Nikon cameras that we have tested with the same 2016-pixel RGB metering sensor, I had no major issues with exposures created using the Df’s evaluative metering mode. It tends to be metered towards creating a bright overall image, which results in highlights that sometimes look a little too bright.
Where I could, I left the metering to its own devices, knowing that there is enough dynamic range to recover highlight detail, and the brighter exposures mean that shadow noise needn’t be an issue. I did reduce the exposure by around 1EV, but having a dial on the camera’s top-plate with which to do this made it an extremely quick process.
Nikon Df review – Dynamic range
Image: The Nikon Df is capable of producing images with fantastic colour and dynamic range, as can be seen in this edited raw image
Although the Df tended to meter a little too brightly, I found that it was generally still possible to avoid blown-out highlight details. The dynamic range doesn’t score spectacularly high, with our test showing that the Df has a dynamic range of 12.66EV at ISO 200. That said, blown-out highlights weren’t really too much of an issue, and although I did have to be a little careful not to introduce colour noise when editing the shadow areas of raw images, there is more than enough information in images shot below ISO 400 to make some dramatic changes to the brightness.
Nikon Df review – Autofocus
Although the Df may have fewer AF points than the 51 points of the Nikon D4, the 39 AF points of the Df are spread quite widely across the frame, and there shouldn’t be too many subjects that stray out of this range.
Of the 39 points, nine are cross-type points, and seven are sensitive down to an effective aperture of f/8. I found that these centre points worked well in low light, and although the low-light AF does not quite have the snap of the Nikon D4, it is certainly fast enough for most situations.
Nikon Df review – White balance and colour
Image: The Df captured the soft details and tones in this foggy London scene very well
The white balance and colours produced by the Df look exactly as you would expect from Nikon. By default, colours tend to be quite neutral in tone with very natural-looking colour saturation. There are more than enough colour settings to keep photographers happy, but without being bombarded by different scene modes or art filter effects that are often seen on a more consumer-level camera.
Typically, the AWB setting has two modes: one that keeps warm colours in images, and one that removes them to produce a more neutral tone. While these settings are designed to be used when shooting regularly under tungsten lighting, I found that they are also worth keeping in mind when you are shooting in late-afternoon sunlight, where you will want to retain the amber hue rather than suppress it.
Nikon Df review – Noise, resolution and sensitivity
Image: Plenty of detail can be recovered from shadow areas without introducing image noise
With only a 16.2-million-pixel sensor, the Df understandably doesn’t resolve as much detail as those cameras with sensors in excess of 20 million pixels, notably the new 24.3 and 36.4-million-pixel, full-frame units featured in the Sony Alpha 7 and 7R compact system cameras. That said, the Df does an impressive job with what it has, reaching around 28 in both JPEG and raw images shot at ISO 100 in our resolution chart test.
Impressively, this resolution is maintained right up to ISO 3200, before the effects of luminance noise and moderate noise reduction starts to soften some fine detail. By ISO 12,800, the resolution is still an impressive 24-26, with JPEGs looking a little softer than their raw counterparts. At the extended Hi ISO sensitivity of ISO 25,600, luminance and colour noise can be seen creeping into resolution chart images and starting to really break down the detail, yet it still reaches around 24.
At the impressive maximum ISO of 204,800, there is significant colour noise that appears as a heavy magenta cast, with blue and green freckling. Line readout noise is also present, with some heavy banding. Unless there is no other option, these extended Hi sensitivity settings should be avoided, although given that they are so extreme it shouldn’t really be an issue.
Overall, what the Df lacks in fine resolution it makes up for with an efficient sensor that performs excellently in low light and at high sensitivities. Shooting in good light, it is possible to use even the ISO 6400 setting and produce images that have very minimal noise. However, I would suggest that ISO 50-3200 is a better working range, and if you really want to keep luminance noise to a minimum then try to keep the sensitivity to below ISO 1600.
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lens set to f/5.6 . We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
Nikon Df review – Viewfinder, live view, LCD and video
With a bright viewfinder offering a 100% field of view, manual focusing with the Nikon Df and older manual-focus lenses is quite easy. If your eyesight isn’t perfect, then dioptre adjustment of -3 to +1 is available, and there is always the AF indicator symbol in the viewfinder to fall back on.
Interestingly, considering the camera’s target audience, the Df does have live view via the 3.2in, 921,000-dot LCD screen. The screen itself is excellent, and when looking through images in playback mode I found that the camera responded quickly to my requests to scroll through the images or zoom in on particular areas.
As already mentioned, there is no video option on the Df, and this is something of a double-edged sword. The typical complaint of those who demand a DSLR that doesn’t shoot video is that they are forced to pay more for a feature they don’t want, but given that the D610 shoots full HD video and costs significantly less than the Df somewhat counteracts this argument.
Nikon Df review – The competition
Nikon users looking for a DSLR with a full-frame sensor will naturally consider the Nikon D610, particularly based on the fact that the camera costs around £1,000 less than the Df. Although the Df uses the same sensor as the Nikon D4, at around £4,225 the D4 will be way out of the reach of most enthusiast photographers and is a very different beast from the Df.
Many will be disappointed with the size of the Df, and perhaps those wanting a smaller DSLR-style camera with a full-frame sensor should also take a look at the Sony Alpha 7, which costs around £1,300 body only and can be used with Nikkor lenses via an adapter, although the lenses will lose the ability to autofocus.
Nikon Df review – Our verdict
Nikon’s aim is to try to recapture the essence of shooting on a vintage film SLR. So does the Df achieve this? Well, it is certainly a valiant effort, but the two mediums are very different and merely changing a few of the settings to dedicated control dials doesn’t really offer the same experience. As much as the dials were a novelty to use, the locking buttons mean that you have to take your eye away from the viewfinder to change settings. Neither did I like the repositioned front dial. I guess it made me realise that the design of a modern DSLR suits the digital medium, and while a vintage style or look may be nice, there is no real advantage to the dial controls.
With the same sensor as that used in the Nikon D4, the Df produces great images. Although the sensor may lack the detail resolution of some other full-frame Nikon DSLRs, it does perform excellently in low light, producing very little noise throughout its extremely high sensitivity ISO range.
The Df is certainly a good camera, but other than the extreme low-light capabilities of the sensor, its ability to use pre-Ai lenses and its vintage style, there is little that is unique enough to warrant its purchase over the D610, especially considering its price.
Nikon Df – Key features
As a professional DSLR, the Nikon Df does not have a built-in flash. Instead, it relies on the camera’s hotshoe.
The two dials on the left-hand side of the top-plate control the ISO sensitivity and the exposure compensation.
The shutter button of the Df has a screw thread for a mechanical cable release.
The main menu is located on the left of the camera and is easy to press with the thumb of the left hand.
This switch locks the AF point so that a press of the directional control won’t change the AF point position.
A press of this button displays all the current exposure and image settings on the rear screen.