The Nikon Df Hands On

I've written before about the perilous nature of comparing opinions, critique, praises, picks, and pans from completely different camera communities. By far the most intolerant, critical, hard to please, and unsatisfiable community I've experienced has to be the quintessential Nikon Guy. Every tiny nit is the end of the world. Things that pass for normal in other communities are punishable by death with Nikon Guys. The funny part is when the other brand-guys take the vitriol spewed on a nit and somehow believe they can relativize that and then compare it to their own somewhat caviler assessment of their own preferred camera body, brand, company, whatever. Nope – completely parallel universe.

Open-mindedness - that's key in formulating your own choices. I've seen people completely convince themselves on non-sense they've read on the internet so much so that even when you prove otherwise beyond any shadow of doubt they still stick to some fantasy constructed in their own head. I guess I've been fortunate or unfortunate enough, depending on how you look at it, to have at least two systems working at the same time. Be it Hasselblad and Nikon, Nikon and Leica, Fujifilm and Nikon, even Nikon, Fujifilm, and Canon. True for me in the digital age as well as way back in the film days.

Case in point just as a level-set. Any camera without two different buttons for AE-lock and AF-on is pure consumer garbage that cannot possibly be used in any "pro" situation - junk. This is the rule as blessed by Nikon Guys. Even if you can set the camera up to have both by customizing buttons or better yet use the U1/U2 to have instant access to either one depending on what you are doing - nope doesn't cut it. Same goes for dual card slots. Same goes for the mode dial vs the shooting bank stuff, etc. Compare that to say Fuji where all the cameras only have a combo button… Hmmm and not a lot of them have dual card slots. Whatever. See what I mean? Okay – enough preamble. Let's get on with this now that I've actually spent some time behind the wheel of the controversial (even for me) Nikon Df.

The Good

Build

As far as modern cameras go it's great. Feels good in the hands, very solid, knobs, buttons, dials not only feel great but are generally well executed and easy to use assuming you like dials and knobs. The buttons D-pad and back of the camera are typical Nikon which means well sized, generally well placed, and a joy to use compared to something like the Fuji X100 which have hateful buttons and dials on the back. Made in Japan, the fit and finish is fantastic. A far cry better than Fuji absolutely. The bayonet is the tightest most precise since My film body days. The old-style knobs are nicely executed with great tension, perfect, the engraving/painting is fantastic, the black finish is gorgeous but obviously that's taste driven. It's matte with a light texture that looks very good to me. If it were smooth I would want it to look a lot like the old black Nikons or old painted Leicas looked and that's just not going to happen. It would look terrible when it wore through to the magnesium vs a brass plate. It's good enough and a lot different from the usual black Nikon finish on magnesium we're used to now.

I originally had mixed feelings on things about this camera but after living with it for a week I find some of the things I never expected and never get much air-play to be done well. There are some new things and a mixture of typical Nikon "pro" along side Nikon "amateur" functions. One of those things is the switch back to the four banks of shooting options and another four banks of custom settings. I really like the D7000/D7100/D600/D610 U1/U2 on the mode dial that stores EVERYTHING about both, providing quick access. The Df goes back to the four bank system. I thought this was a bad thing – there are some theoretical advantages to the two distinct four bank each method. Nikon is a bit queer with this as the shooting menu bank switches things like JPEG setttings, formats, ISO stuff, Auto D-Lighting, etc. The custom settings menu bank switches custom settings for what controls do what on the camera like AF-on with shutter release or back button only, other button customizations, flash setup and the 400 other operational characteristics in the custom settings menu. My beef was while easy to setup they where a bit harder to switch between since I rarely change shooting menu stuff but do change custom settings a lot and what I really wanted was a way to do both since the way I handle the camera has one or two things that I consider related in the shooting menu. Whatever, long story short the Df has this "pro" system but… both are easy to switch and are the first two items in the new "i Button" who's position happens to be where ISO is on the D600. Now it seems more convenient to change them both or just the custom settings for me.

That brings me to the i-Button, I thought this was a waste of time for me. Think of it a lot like the Q button on the Fuji - never understood why everyone went ape-shit over this. Really? Do you constantly fiddle with the JPEG settings? I don't. All nikons with the "info" button also have the "i-button" just push the "info button" twice… Truth be told I could live without the i-button but now that they've gone back to the 4 bank system I actually use it and it's a bit more mentally easy for me to just think of that as the U1/U2/U3/U16 dial only… Whatever. I consider it a win. The back of the camera seems clean and uncluttered for being as small as it is. Also a win. The screen is gorgeous as well.

The Size

This is the biggest factor causing me to spend my hard earned dollar on this thing. It's significantly smaller than the D600. I don't really like the fist full o camera thing. When it comes down to brass tacks reality I like something about the size of an old Nikon F3 – yes I can live with smaller cameras as well as bigger cameras but the F3 is just right for me. Guess what, the Df is not sized like an FE nor an FA even though it shares some top plate and finder design queues it's actually more of an F3 – almost exactly as wide. Taller and thicker absolutely but it's control placement, shutter, and overall feel I would have to say it feels more F3 than it does FA/FE/FM. Maybe an F3 with middle-aged spread setting in. I would love to see Nikon get even closer.

The finder is great. Yes, yes, we would all love to see F3 or even FM2 style interchangeable screens. Doubtful. I would have loved to see it with even more magnification but again it's along the lines of the F3 HP – I preferred the F3 Non-HP for it's slightly higher magnification. No big deal. It's a real viewfinder making this the smallest real OVF full-frame reflex ILC out there. I've been complaining about this for a decade, of course you knew I would support the company that did it for some reasonable amount of money. I would have supported Leica too but they have become a bit too extreme with the pricing.

The Sensor

I'll mention the sensor but not dwell on it. The sensor's great, it's fine, 16mpix is plenty, etc. You've heard all that along with noise performance better than a D4, etc, etc. Here's the real story that's a bigger win for me. Noise isn't the killer at higher ISO's in my book. I'm not a noise nazi. Dynamic range, tonality, and color are the big deals. From 800 ISO and higher this camera is a win for all of those compared to my old favorite the D600. Without a lot of scientific study the dynamic range, color, etc are in the D600's favor from 400 and below. When I'm shooting in lower ambient light I will certainly reach for the Df, even at ISO 1600 - not for any glaring better noise performance or so that I can shoot at 12,500 but more for the better overall look for things I care about. I waited until the end to tell you the real big deal though. The Df has the best auto WB of any Nikon I've ever used - it doesn't skew towards green in a lot of situations as Nikon's always have. This isn't huge for me but I know that a hell of a lot of people (RAW shooters included judge a camera only on WB – they may not say it that way bit it is what all the raving is about with Fuji color.

The Shutter

This is a camera that's reasonably quiet compared to most DSLR's. I don't know exactly why. I'm not sure Nikon did anything special to make it so but it sounds good and a little less harsh even on standard mode than the typical Nikon. What's not to like about a better sounding camera?

The Bad And Ugly

The AF System

Is it somehow bad? In a word no, I am used to the same layout and pretty much the same system in the D600. It's fine. So why do I list this under bad and ugly. Mostly as a matter of principle. Would the camera be better with the 51 point top of the line AF component – yes it would. Would it be night/day better, would it allow me to make pictures I cannot make with the slightly lower end component? Absolutely not. With a very few exceptions there's no practical difference in use. Things that do not lend themselves well to AF still won't things that do work fine with the current component. I'll get into the theoretical arm-chair quarterback kind of discussions on coverage area etc between both systems some other day. In practice it's a nit for many reasons. The only reality is at the very very edge of the performance envelope in low light the 51 point is very slightly better.

My temper tantrums have to do with Nikon's gall to charge the amount they do and use the lesser part. It just sticks in my craw they want $2,700 and refuse to put the best component they've got in the camera. I feel the same way about the D600 and D610. Up the price and my feelings get stronger about it. My gut feel it's far more about committee-think than it is about cost which is what really pisses me off. They want to go the extra mile in ensuring that a D600 is not chosen over a D800 nor a single D4 sale could possibly be cannibalized by a Df. Stupid. Temper tantrums aside – it works fine, it doesn't stop me from making the pictures I want to make, and the truth is it seems to have been fine-tuned since the last iteration. I swear my Df is faster than my D600 by a hair in focus acquisition.

Price

I hate the price point that Nikon arbitrarily picked. It's not crazy like Leica. There may even be less profit margin on these than an XT-1 with it's easy to make and less costly EVF along with the same old parts bin of every other identical camera Fuji pumps out. Sure Nikon has premium-priced us just because it has some desirable features for some people. I just think they went a bit too far. So has Fuji. At the end of the day I'm glad Nikon made this but for some reason it's price just sits wrong with me. Not terribly wrong but enough so that it's maddening. I would feel very differently if just a couple things were different. It's not the price, it's the price combined with no top-end AF component. No Special focusing screen – sure the one it's go works fine but agin it's the same part they use in a fantastic camera that costs a lot less. It's those little niggles that make the price feel too high. Put the high-end AF part in there, maybe do something a little more "special" for manual focus lenses, and even if it made no difference at all in any practical terms it would certainly make the $2700 feel different.

Exposure Compensation

I am going to list this as a negative purely due to the fact you must must must use your left hand to manipulate it. I don't think this was any sort of rush-to-market thing or thoughtless choice as many have suggested. I don't think it's a huge impediment. I'll cover that in the price of tea in china section. It all boils down to working method and 42 other things that could go either way. Is Nikon's new exposure compensation control system that works with the right hand more convenient? Sure. Does it make a huge difference? No. Would a knob for compensation on the right hand side of the camera without a lock be better? Depends. I'm sure if they did it like Fuji did you would hear complaints about how it's too too easy to change accidentally from a different contingent. Nikon's drive control is left-hand only on the other cameras - it's far harder to change than the Df's exposure compensation. Fact is the drive control on the Df is the easiest to set of any current Nikon. Does that make it better than any of the other Nikon Pro-cameras? No just different and not game changing either way.

None of the things you hear a lot of blow-back on are huge obstacles in just about any scenario – they are non-events. For the intended use of this camera it's certainly not anything to buy or not buy this camera over. Following Nikon tradition of idiotically hard to use – nearly impossible to use – left-handed exposure compensation coupled with left-handed ISO dials this is as good as it gets. I truly never ever never used exposure compensation on any non-AF Nikon film body. I don't even know why the controls were there. Nobody was masochistic enough to use them. I think the Df designer did a great job with what I believe was the intent – sticking with the left-handed ISO and exposure compensation that has always been in the same spot with Nikon film bodies. They work great far better than any film body and really just as good as any other control system. If you grew up with Nikon film cameras there's a good chance your working method is not based on AE compensation. It's something else. Let's say yours happens to be based on using that control – guess what. Works great, not really slower and if you are doing it "right" as least in the context of the way Nikon bodies work it's great. I will explain that in another post as I've discovered that there are a hell of a lot of people out there that haven't really figured out the "right" way to use Nikon exposure compensation, FV lock, the TTL system, etc. If you haven't watch out – this will be an epiphany.

The Price Of Tea In China

Let me start this section off by stating unequivocally I fell victim to ranting about theoretical issues. The kind that are arbitrary and various operational choices might, just might make more sense one way than another way in your head but in practice make no difference at all. Things that seem "oh yea, that's cool" if it works a particular way but since it works another equally as good or better way that wasn't what you first thought then it must be wrong and all screwed up. I was wrong. Most of the control decisions for this particular camera are spot on. They are fine and in some cases better than some other way. Most of the operational control issues I theorized about and you hear over and over are just stupid – they have nothing to do with the price of tea in china if you happen to be comfortable or even remotely like old-style camera controls. These are some of the best going. If you like the way blobulous fist-full-o-camera DSLR's feel and operate – fantastic Nikon makes those too…

Exposure Mode Switching, Gloves, Etc.

The exposure mode switching between manual, aperture prio, shutter prio, and program takes a lot of heat on all fronts. This seems to be one of the single biggest sticks up various reviewer's asses. I'm here to say it has no impact to for normal, non-retarded photographers. One of the points, actually a few of the complaints echoed all over the place that has to do with the PSAM dial making no sense, being harder, more confusing, woulda, coulda, shoulda, been done "differently" than say ummm Fuji - you see a lot of this. Even "Nikon Guys" say this but in the form of "why the hell didn't they just have an "A" on the shutter speed dial like an FE or an F3…", etc.

Really, is anyone that confused, Nikon Guy, Fuji Guy, Canon Guy, whoever by a dial that says PSAM vs a button that says "mode" along with spinning another wheel, or maybe another dial that's the same only on the left side of the camera? Oh no, that's really not that confusing at all is it? It has to do with the brainwash factor of somehow a mode knob is far far far worse than setting the shutter dial to A and then the Aperture Dial to A. This is a theoretical thing, either way is fine. One is not more or less confusing, and one is not faster or slower or better or worse. It's a wash. It's a wash just about any way you slice it but if I take a look at it personally how often to I change this anyway? Not much compared to changing other things, certainly not shot to shot or even every few shots. Who cares.

Onto the other reason it's so really really bad according to the internet lynch mob… You have to lift it up which you cannot do with gloves or so they say. Well the lifting it up at all part – see above. I don't change it enough to actually give a crap. As for gloves, I personally have never ever never shot a camera with gloves on. Then again I rarely wear gloves. Only time I can remember was the last time I shoveled snow off the drive. Other photographers - they where gloves… in the arctic. Guess what, I know a few photographers that shoot in the arctic regularly they use special gloves. Two pairs, an inner pair that is specially designed for fiddling with little stuff and giant mittens that have an opening where their fingers in the inner gloves can come out of the mittens. I actually don't know any photographers that shoot any camera with normal old gloves not designed for such a purpose like pushing little buttons. Do you? Whatever. On that note I dare you to operate a Fuji and those tiny controls with gloves. I will assure you if we were playing a game of who can fully operate their camera and all of it's functions while wearing mittens me an the Df would toast the Fuji guy.

The Shutter Speed Dial

This one takes a lot of heat as well. First off you might have heard – It only locks on a few of the positions like 1/3-step not every speed. Sort of they way the F3 did on A and maybe T. Case closed, it's fine, actually very nice and feels about the same as the F3's dial. Personally I use it a lot in my working method when in manual exposure. I really like how quick you can go in full stops from one end to the other. My fine tuning is usually via aperture anyway, always has been. Let's say you just cannot have that – fine tune the shutter speed too. You can use the rear command dial to tweak between shutter speeds… look ma, just like the Fuji's and better yet far better than the "if you look at it funny it will change" flippy lever of the X100/X100S.

Now how about that 1/3-step position that seems to have made people's heads explode. Don't feel like using the knob? Then don't put it on 1/3-step and use it just like all the other Nikon bodies. It's an option. It doesn't bother me that it's there in the least. Haven't ever used it, may never use it. Ignore it if you want, I do.

Oranges, Apples, Bananas, And Tacos

You cannot make a camera with traditional style of controls and also have it work exactly like, nor feel exactly like that other kind of camera we're all used to. Want a D4 – get one. Want a camera that handles exactly like a DSLR, grab a D600 or a D800 or a Canon whatever mk32. This was an impossible camera to make for Nikon. There was no way they were going to make everyone happy. Maybe no single photographer completely happy. They have an audience of users and customers that is vastly greater than Fuji. They have a camera line up to be envied in a lot of ways. They have a history of many many great cameras. Make every customer old and new exactly happy? Impossible.

Here's what they did do. They produced a fantastic camera that's unique, useful, smaller than anything comparable, and at the end of it made every buyer of one including me pretty happy. I told you when I saw one in person and held it I felt differently about it in many ways immediately. That's what prompted me to give it a shot. Guess what… It won me over as it has many many other people that decided to buy one. Could Nikon have made me feel a whole lot better even if I had to pay $100 more – absolutely. Put the high end AF sensor in it for god's sake even if it does nothing to help me make pictures in 99.9% of my practical reality. This is where Nikon botched it. The feeling rather than any reality in execution or horrid design issue or operational quirk. Somehow they managed to make a lot of Nikon customers feel not quite rite about the whole deal from the get go. Am I keeping the bugger? Absolutely!

Look at it this way. Let's pretend Fuji somehow came out with this camera instead of Nikon. Every thing is exactly the same just Fuji-ized in a strange way. Let's call it the X-T-SUPER-PROFESSIONAL-2Xs. The more X's the better. It has a new sensor design that's full-frame, the X-TRANSCENDENTAL II. It suffers no wierdo water-color effect, no pink or red rendering issues, no smearing of colors, it was "specially designed" for "special photographers that need lots of X's and market speak" to have the same 16 megapixels but gives you the absolute best IQ in terms of noise, color, dynamic range, etc at ISO's higher than 800 while maintaining ooohh good color everywhere (no slouch at low ISO either). Better low light than the Nikon D3s, any Canon, better than even the D4 (D4s not out at the time). It had an OVF of 100% coverage. It boasted operational speed that was 4 times better than anything Fuji's have now. Better focus tracking, better playback, virtually endless buffer when shooting at close to 6 FPS. It was smaller and lighter than any other digital Full-frame OVF reflex camera ever made. Hell, let's even say it wouldn't mount the APS-C XF lenses but they had an 85/1.4, a 58/1.4, a 35/1.4, etc. (same as the Nikon prime line-up) and it also would work with any 35mm Fujinon lens ever made with full functionality.

Fuji would get gushing praise and hailed as the second coming. There wouldn't be a peep of criticism. Nikon has released a fantastic camera that can quite literally mount every single F-mount lens with tons of functionality made since 1959 (except the one or two that you can't use the finder), it sees in the dark, it's fast, it's responsive, it looks great, built great, handles very nicely if you at all like a more traditional camera style. Has the best flash system in the business, and supports just about any working-method you can come up with from meat and potatoes to completely modern extremely well. The Df is a great camera for most photographers unless of course a D4 is actually the camera you need.

More to come. Lots more, including my experience with AIS as well as Pre-AI lenses from the 60's. These were my first coherent thoughts after living with the Df for a bit. I didn't want to flavor my first impressions with a lot of new-toy bias nor WTF bias due to my prejudices based mostly on principle and product positioning bullshit than the way the camera plays in the real world evaluated without that context.

RB

Ps. I like Fuji, I just feel the need to balance the universe with a dose of reality hence the comparisons. Remember I've mentioned that just because you dial up something that SAYS ISO 800, or 1600, or 3200 on the dial it doesn't mean that's the same as a different camera dialed to the same number. I can show anyone that cares – online or in person that the Fuji's are 2/3 stop slower best case benefit of the doubt even at base ISO than any current Nikon FX or DX. I also mentioned that that gap gets wider the higher the ISO… I don't collect internet references to back me up so I'm not the ultimate authority on if this has EVER been mentioned by anyone else. I've personally never seen it on any review of any Fuji camera ever. All I've ever seen is absolute bullshit that somehow the X-TRANS Fuji's are "comparable" to the best full-frame – absolute crap. They are possibly as good as other APS-C sensors out there but certainly not miles better. Long story short someone posted the one other comparison to other cameras that was more in the context of Leica performance vs. Fuji vs. Nikon that also confirmed this. The author was a bit less forgiving than I was as he pegs the real ISO somewhere near two stops slower than the Nikon at not too terribly high of ISO numbers. Scroll down to the Are they really ISO 3200 section.

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