Camera Review: Nikon Df

March 14, 2014

By Dan Havlik

The Nikon Df is one of the more divisive cameras to hit the professional market since, well, just about any time I can remember. To those photographers bored with the sameness of most current digital SLRs and who still have an affection for classic analogue SLRs, the retro-style Df might be just what the doctor ordered. The Df is nostalgic-looking, with a metallic and leatherette-clad camera body covered in knobs and dials that resembles a Nikon FM or FE film SLR from the 1970s or ’80s. It’s also designed to be compatible with over 400 types of Nikon lenses from the past and present.

Despite its throwback look, the Df uses the same 16.2-megapixel, FX-format (aka full-frame) sensor as Nikon’s D4 pro DSLR and boasts many of the same features. One feature the Df doesn’t have, however, is a video capture mode, which is an odd omission: Just about every current DSLR on the market offers some way to record high-definition movies. (Hey Nikon, is this a bug or a feature?)

And the lack of video is only part of where the grumbling begins for detractors of the Nikon Df. While it may look like an old film camera, the Df has a distinctly un-retro price of $2,749 for the body only; or $2,999 as a kit with the new AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G Special Edition prime lens.

That’s a lot of money for a camera that only takes pictures and resembles something you might have found on eBay. While trying it out with my frequent co-tester, photographer Jordan Matter, for several weeks, we found ourselves going back and forth on the Df, sometimes loving it and other times being slightly puzzled by this deliberately quixotic camera. Read on to find out what we ultimately thought about Nikon’s backward- and forward-thinking new DSLR.

I first saw the Nikon Df during a press briefing at the PDN PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo in New York City last year, but it wasn’t until I received a test unit on loan that I could really appreciate what Nikon has done with this DSLR. The trend of creating digital cameras that look like their analogue counterparts from decades ago has been going strong since 2009 when Olympus introduced the PEN E-P1, which resembled the old PEN F film camera.

While an array of retro-looking mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras and compact cameras from Fujifilm, Leica, Olympus and other companies has followed since, the Nikon Df is the first attempt at a true analogue-style DSLR. (You could argue that the Nikon D1 from 1999 is a retro DSLR since it was designed to look like the F5 film SLR but the F5 was only a few years old at the time of the D1’s introduction.)

My biggest complaint about most retro mirrorless cameras is that these small cameras sometimes resemble tin toys or novelty items. Their “presence”—a word frequently used to describe luxury automobiles—is often lacking. The larger build of Nikon’s Df DSLR and its jumbo-size knobs, dials and buttons, however, give it presence galore.

After attaching the matching 50mm f/1.8 kit lens, I put the Df rig on my desk and just looked at it for a while. Then I snapped a photo of it and shared it on Facebook and Instagram where it quickly garnered multiple likes. It is one striking camera.

But after using the Df for a few days, my views started to change as the camera began to reveal its quirks along with its charms. While, in press photos, the Nikon Df might look like it has an all-metal build, the camera body is actually made from magnesium alloy, which feels like hard polycarbonate in your hand. If you were hoping the Df would feel like those hefty film cameras it mimics, you’ll probably be a bit disappointed.

The lighter material and simple box-like design does, however, allow Nikon to call the Df the company’s “thinnest and lightest DSLR.” The camera’s dimensions are 5.6 x 4.3 x 2.6 inches and it weighs 25 ounces (just over 1.5 pounds), but despite these undersize specs, the Df looks and feels a bit on the chunky side. The stout profile didn’t bother me at all, and felt friendly and firm in the hand. The textured black leatherette coating on the Df helped a lot, and I like how Nikon has even wrapped it over the camera’s triangular pentaprism, just like on those old Nikon F-series film cameras.

I’ve talked to a few photographers who aren’t jazzed about the Df’s minimal handgrip, but I didn’t have a problem with it. It’s not as substantial as the curving, ergonomic grip on the Nikon D4, but the half-inch deep, Tootsie-Roll-shaped hump on the front of the Df, which is also covered in grippy leatherette, offers a fairly decent spot to hold on to. And it’s in keeping with the minimal style of the Nikon FM and FE, which had no handgrip at all.

The bevy of exterior buttons, knobs and dials also contribute to the Df’s analogue look. At first blush, it’s refreshing to see. Controls on many new cameras, particularly some of the latest mirrorless compact system models, have become so menu-based it’s difficult to make quick changes on the fly. (Unless you’re mighty fast with your fingers but I’d rather use that skill to snap more photos than change settings.)

To that end, I was thrilled by the big, knurled metallic dials for ISO, exposure compensation and shutter speed, and for several command dials for controlling a wide variety of the Df’s functions. There are also easy-to-access buttons all over the camera for everything from rear control autofocus to bracketing to AE/AF lock. A less noticeable but no less important feature of the Df is that it has a special Ai (automatic indexing)/Non-Ai lens coupling lever on front that makes it compatible with all those different Nikon lenses from over the years.

Meanwhile, the Df’s raised, metallic shutter button, which is surrounded by a knurled on/off dial, is well placed and very responsive to the touch. The Df is one of those cameras that begs to be used, and would you want any other type of camera, really?

I tested the silver-and-black, two-tone version of the Df—which, to me, is the better looking of the two—and the matte-black panel surrounding the 3.2-inch rear display will be familiar to anyone who’s tried Nikon’s other DSLRs, with all the familiar menu, live view and info buttons. In short, everything is very logical and tasteful, and for those who grew up with film SLRs it’s, well, comforting.

But is it effective? It takes some getting used to, which was surprising and a little annoying. Some of the design selections of the Df’s controls seem deliberately archaic. For instance, just to change between Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual modes, you have to slightly raise the mode dial to turn it. It’s awkward. Also awkward is the Df’s ISO dial, which requires two hands to turn: one to push down the unlock button and one to turn the dial.

The Shutter Speed dial gave my co-tester fits. It only moves in full steps: one-thousandth of a second, two-thousandths of a second, etc. If you want to adjust shutter speed in more precise one-third steps, you have to move it to the 1/3 Step setting and then use the rear command dial to adjust shutter speed via the Df’s small, monochrome screen on the top deck. After a week or so, we both got used to the Df’s quirks but the camera’s raft of exterior controls weren’t as much fun as we thought it would be.

Other small touches on the Df were also disappointing. The camera’s plastic silver memory card/battery door felt cheap and the tiny cover latch was difficult to turn. My co-tester missed having dual card slots, as he has on his Nikon D3S, for putting RAW image files on one card and JPEGs on the other. The Df has only a single SD slot. And, while it’s not noticeable from a distance, the contrasting silver tones on the Df’s chassis—the sparkly silver of the camera body and the flat silver of the dials—look odd close up, as if the dials were added as an afterthought.

As I mentioned earlier, quirks aside, the zippy Df is a camera that begs to be used. Its shutter button is well placed and highly responsive, and while the camera would seem to be a step down from Nikon’s top-tier professional models, it shares several features with those elite cameras and gives them a run for the money when it comes to performance.

Along with using the same 16.2-megapixel, FX-format (full-frame) 36 x 23.9mm CMOS sensor that’s in the Nikon D4, the Df has that camera’s 2,016-pixel 3D Matrix Metering and Scene Recognition Systems. It’s not as fast as the D4 but with a 5.5 frames-per-second burst speed, it should be plenty fast enough for most purposes.

My co-tester found the Df to be quick enough for photographing his main professional subjects: headshots, portraits, and dancers and athletes performing in real-life situations. The Df shares the same autofocus system as the full-frame D610: a 39-point AF array with nine points in the middle, and while that’s not quite as sophisticated as the Nikon’s pro level cameras, it proved to be more than adequate for most of our testing purposes.

Along with the Df’s 50mm f/1.8G kit lens, we also shot with the new AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G portrait lens for a separate review. With both lenses, we got consistent sharpness from the Df when photographing moving subjects in a range of situations, including low-contrast and low-light conditions. This should not be all that surprising—the camera does retail for nearly $3,000—but because of its semi-professional design (which is in keeping with its camera progenitors), we weren’t expecting it to be such a quick and accurate all-around performer. But we’re glad it was! The only thing that will slow you down with this camera is its interface peculiarities, which you should (eventually) get used to.

Image Quality
Because it shares the same sensor as the D4, we weren’t surprised the Df’s image quality was about on par to that model, which is to say it was superb. The Df’s full ISO range is 50 to 204800. Though you won’t likely use the Df all the way up to that maximum H4 setting—unless you’re a forensic science or war photographer working in near pitch-black conditions—it’s good to know the option is available and that you can produce acceptable, if expectedly noisy, results.

Many of my co-tester’s shots of dancers and athletes performing in everyday situations, like subway stations, at the mall or in a variety of weather conditions, require solid performance at higher ISOs. For him, the Df’s ability to shoot relatively clean, low-noise images all the way up to ISO 12800 is essential.

In good outdoor and strobed light, the Df produced fantastic results as well, capturing rich, natural-looking color and accurate skin tones, making this a great portrait camera. The Df’s big sensor also gave us beautiful bokeh, particularly at the f/1.4 of the 58mm lens. Dynamic range was also excellent with lots of details in the shadow areas of images and good control over brightness in highlights. Landscape photographers will also like the Df, particularly because its full-frame chip will give them the full width of their wide-angle lenses.

So while there are many attractive, retro-style digital cameras out there, the Df is the first one that matches its classic looks with high-class image quality. It’s no coincidence that—aside from Leica’s M-System digital rangefinders, which are in a category all their own—the Df is the first throwback-style camera with a sensor the same size as a piece of 35mm film. It’s about time!

The Bottom Line
The Nikon Df is an odd duck of a camera but not an unattractive one. On the one hand, if you have an appreciation for iconic film cameras from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s (in the interest of full disclosure, I have a small collection of these classic analogue shooters on my shelf), then the esthetics of the Df will appeal to you. Perhaps the most underreported story about this camera, however, is that it should appeal to those photographers who value image quality as well. While the Df’s not as rugged, weatherproof or fast as the Nikon D4, it has the same full-frame sensor, processor, and metering and Scene Recognition systems as the former flagship DSLR (which will be replaced by the forthcoming D4S). In short, the Df offers pro-level image quality while selling for more than $3,000 less than the D4. On the other hand, the Df’s exterior dials and knobs are more awkward to use than we expected and not nearly as much fun. Also, while the Df looks classy from a distance, its magnesium alloy build feels cheaper than those metal film cameras you fell in love with years ago. If you can overlook its quirks and don’t mind not being able to shoot video, the Nikon Df is a very good full-frame DSLR with a distinctive design that’s guaranteed to turn heads.

Pros: Very cool, classic look; excellent pro-level image quality; fabulous low-light performer at high ISOs; fast performance; compatible with over 400 Nikon lenses from past and present

Cons: Magnesium alloy build feels plastic-y; external dials are awkward to use for changing settings; no video capture mode

$2,749 for body only; $2,999 for kit with the new AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G lens; www.nikonusa.com

Read all of our hands-on camera reviews at pdnonline.com/cameras.