Jay Cassario is a wedding, engagement, and portrait photographer with additional passion for landscape and star photography, which has earned him publications by National Geographic. He is a regular contributor to SLR Lounge in addition to the BL Blog.
The Nikon Df: Thoughts, Test Shots, and Quick Review
by Jay Cassario
The Nikon Df is a very unique camera. With its vintage look and highly praised sensor, it had a lot of photographers drooling over it before it even hit the shelves. It also had its critics ripping it apart. It can’t be fairly compared to the D800 or the D4 – it’s not meant to be a D800 or D4. Call it a “hipster” camera if you want but there is a lot more to it than just a pretty retro exterior.
The Df takes you back to the film days of the 70’s and buried underneath all of those fancy dials is one of the greatest sensors ever produced by Nikon. The sensor used in the Df is the same FX-format CMOS sensor with EXPEED 3 engine that is in the flagship D4 but at about half the price (as of this writing). While it lacks some of the features of the D4, the Df’s combination of exceptional image quality, industry leading low-light capabilities, and vintage looks makes it a special camera that not only takes amazing photos but leaves you feeling a little more like a true photographer, however romantic that may sound, with every click of the shutter.
Disclaimer: I shoot both Canon and Nikon but I won’t be making any comparisons to the Canon bodies I own. I actually sold my D800 body just to purchase my Df and currently still own a D800E, which I shoot alongside a 5D Mark III and Mark II. I make a lot of comparisons to the D800E since it is a camera that is in the same price range and the one I have on-hand for comparisons. I also make some comparisons to the D4. No charts or graphs – just some of my observations that I hope will be helpful.
Dust Off Those Old Lenses
The Df resembles the FE from 1978 and, as an owner of several cameras from that time period, I dig that look. Even better is I have a collection of old lenses, including pre-AI lenses that I can now mount onto the Df thanks to the carried-over feature of a flip-up AI aperture coupling lever. The ability to flip this tab allows the mounting of F lenses that date back to 1959. Using these old items directly on a digital body is exciting!
That Vintage Look: Functional Buttons and Dials
The dedicated external controls on the Df is one of the coolest features for those of us who miss the tactile experience of a manual camera. Those who prefer the current DSLR button setup are not left out, though – the front and rear command dials are retained. The only dial that will seem “new” to those who never experienced 70’s-style cameras is the manual ISO dial.
The Trap Door
The battery and SD memory card are stored behind a trap door located on the bottom of the camera and held down with a twisting metal latch. The door is also able to pop off its hinge very easily so be wary of that!
With the rise of mirrorless bodies and tiny DSLRS like the Rebel SL1, camera size is a constant discussion and just comes down to preference. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the Df’s diminutive size – that it’s too small, awkward, and not comfortable. I admit that I prefer the relatively bulkier D800 to even just the slightly smaller D600. However, the Df isn’t really that small. The ergonomics of it are not as different from the average DSLR as I had expected.
Test Images: ISO
The ISO performance on the Df appears to be pretty close to the D800E until ISO 6400 (and there is a noticeable difference at ISO 12800). However, the D800E is no slouch!
The quality is just similar enough that the real difference may just be in the optical low pass filter. This “softening” filter, designed to prevent moiré artifacts, is intact in the Df but missing from the D800E. This is more apparent in the close ups below. It may be a good idea to do further tests for yourself if ISO sensitivity is important to you and you are trying to decide between the Df and other cameras. This example is in no way definitive.
The Overall Experience: AF, Battery, and More
The 51-point AF system of the D800 and D4 were scrapped for the Df in favor of the 39-point system used on the D600 and D610. This is a pain point for some users. Frankly, neither system spreads out as far as I would like so going from 51 to 39 hasn’t made much of a different for me when shooting. I did find, however, that since there is no AF assist light, the Df struggles to lock focus in low light. The D4 is missing this, too.
The battery is small and lasted through a 12 hour shoot for me (if barely). There is only 1 SD card slot, which is worrying – having dual slots is a nice security blanket. There is also no built-in flash, which is bummer news for those who like firing off-camera flash with a built-in flash. There is a hot shoe so I recommend Pocketwizards for flash triggering.
The best thing about the overall experience of the Df? The sound of the shutter is magical.
Admittedly, I had become a little despondent with Nikon and the Df has me proudly sporting my branded strap again. It’s new and different and is simply a joy to shoot with. I hope Canon delivers something similar soon – like a classy remake of the AE-1 with a great sensor. Perhaps I am being clouded by sentimentality? The Df has its flaws but , for me, it’s a perfect fit. Below are some sample images. Share your experience with the Nikon Df (and your shots!) in the comments below.