The Nikon Df: Six Months In

Warning NSFW

Sorry for all the NSFW posts this week. I know most of you seem to read this while on a break during business hours (yeh, right). Just happened to be most of what I shot over the weekend — except of course for my downtime during the horrible dark rainy Saturday afternoon I spent doing a more fashion-y setup with a model hanging around Atomic Canary that day.

The matter at hand; Six months in, how do I feel about the Nikon Df? Truth is that I like it just as much if not better than I did during my first week with it. I wanted to refine a few of my initial thoughts for anyone out there contemplating the purchase or for that matter any purchase. I’m certainly not recommending the Nikon Df as a camera that will be suitable for everyone on all occasions. What camera is?

Handling

Remember my diatribe regarding that word I hate so much; Ergonomics? You can read the rant if you wish but I’ll bottom-line this in relation to the Df. When the hell did people start using their shutter release hand as any sort of support system for hand-holding a camera? I’ll tell you when; It’s when the goto lens for people became the infamous pro-zoom. Certainly this is a stupid lens for most endeavors. You know the one, big, heavy, constant aperture, 24-70-ish kind of thing. On the surface this makes sense but in practice I cannot think of a lens I rather not have with me. I’ll take a 50mm and some other wide-ish flavor prime instead. The other thing that caused the right hand as support system notion is when all cameras started to need huge power sources and the manufacturers couldn’t really figure out where to put the battery. Hey, it’s not a big battery it’s a ”grip”.

Personally I don’t support cameras with my trigger-finger I support them under the lens with my other non-trigger-finger-hand. I have a very light touch with my right hand. No cramps, less camera jerk, etc. The more tense your right hand the more you have a tendency to move the damn camera when pressing the god damn button. Well at least for me. Want a tired hand? Try ”gripping” something with force for a few hours strait. Now try gripping it while having no freedom of motion on how it’s gripped. Right hand grip = stupid idea for most me. Oh, I’m sorry now I have the option of dangling the camera around my waist with my right hand a little more securely. Too bad I don’t do that, never have, never will. My relaxed position is with left hand grabbing the lens.

A lot of words to get to the same place. I shoot smallish lenses, specifically primes and the Df is perfect for smaller lenses. If your goto lenses are ”pro-zooms” then the Df is not the best bet. Neither is a D600 or a D800 — more like a D4. The infamous ”pro-zoom” is an odd-bird for what most people shoot. Not super fast as in large aperture — kinda slow at f/2.8. Not compact in any sense but intended to be hand-held. This is horrible. Honestly most really big glass deserves to be on a tripod and if that’s the case I would say the Df is far better for big glass that has a tripod ring on the lens. See where I’m going with beating this horse… Df not a good camera for the three lens pro-zoom setup. Df great camera for everything else.

As for the rest of the controls, they are superb if you at all like the direct knob approach. Heck they even chucked in the “pro” feature of one button 100% zoom and back for all that money. A missing feature on the D600. The feel of this camera is extremely Nikon F3-ish in some ways even better. Now, as soon as Nikon can make the guts and rear display as thin as film and a pressure plate we’ll be back to where we were in 1980.

Image Quality

Another term I don’t like too too much but it will do. Here’s where some of the NSFW stuff comes in. Just because I did some exposure tests while hosting a workshop last Sunday that made me think about some of the overt and more subtle imaging characteristics of the Nikon Df/D4/D4s. In some ways when you buy a digital camera and shoot RAW you can have any look you want via post-processing. In other ways you are stuck with one kind of film for every shot you take. I was impressed with both the D600 and D800 cameras and the fixed piece of film I was stuck with due to some right combination of dynamic range that I haven’t seen before when shooting in real world lighting conditions as well as the way highlights looked when they started to leave. The first thing I noticed about the Df was that it was in the same ball-park but actually held those characteristics far longer as you upped the ISO.

After six months of using the Df under a lot of circumstances I have to refine that a bit more. That meaty-ness the D600/D800 have up to about ISO 400 maybe ISO 800 is pretty good. The Df/D4/D4s is even better, much better. My original thought was that the D600/D800 was the goto meaty file up to ISO 800-ish and the Df had the DR/meaty-ness advantage from there and beyond. I have to revise that and say the Df is noticeably better in that category even at ISO 400 and stays about the same to ISO 1600 or even ISO 3200. This is where I live, ISO 400 to ISO 1600. For me it’s a better sensor for the imaging characteristics I care about. More like film, not watery and thin.

Another interesting thing about the Df/D4/D4s sensor is that there are certain response things that are almost CCD like rather than CMOS-ish. At lower ISO’s CCD sensors have a look under good lighting conditions and reasonably lit scenes that I think looks better than CMOS counterparts. I’m not a huge fan of the medium format companies all going for the high-ISO CMOS sensor thing as the “next-step”. I’ve seen the new Hasselblad files, I like the CCD sensor Hasselblad’s better at low ISO’s for sure. It’s a tonal response thing that’s difficult to say but easy to see.

Let’s take a look at that exposure test thing I was talking about. I wish I could do a side by side but that would be contrived anyway and I’m sure I could illustrate some lab test to sway your thoughts one way or another depending on how I set it up. The image above was an exposure test in a workshop I was hosting. My initial guess was a 1 and 1/3 stop under. Partly due to the clouds obscuring the sun about every 2 seconds Sunday. I guess Aperture Priority auto might help with that if you aren’t paying attention to the light.

The ISO setting was 400. Not a stretch for any camera but I wanted to push the crap out of this file as a meaty-ness exercise. Of course I bumped up the exposure in post 1 1/3 stops. I then proceeded to abuse the crap out of it. Specifically I used VSCO Portra 160++ which is an extreme curves treatment. Adding insult to injury I used highlight save++, lows-boost, and a dodge shadows local adjustment in the lower half of the frame. That’s a fairly huge set of bit pushing with a severely underexposed file. Most of the tonal range you see here was virtually black. All of the mid-tones where in the shadow ranges. The absolute brightest parts of the white wall were in the 30’s in terms of luminance value on a 0 to 255 scale. Noise? I actually added fake grain via the VSCO preset but who cares. It’s color and gradation that’s king in terms of imaging characteristics in my book.

While we’re discussing various academic properties that in isolation are not really factors in ultimate decisions for camera acquisition let’s talk sharpness, acuity, whatever. I can’t really tell the different on super sharp shots between the Df and my AA-filterless cameras. Translation; The Df’s anti-aliasing filter may be the best tuned I’ve seen. Can’t seem to tell it’s there.

All of this adds up to something that’s hard to put into a spec sheet or one measurement or one rating. The Df/D4/D4s sensor may not win at any particular metric in isolation but it might be the best overall sensor out there. More of an MVP than the most home runs hit. Continuing with the baseball thing - more of an RBI, high batting average that had actually won more games than the slugger that knocks one out of the park every once in a while that wooos the crowd. I’m not bothered in the least being stuck with the Df’s particular piece of film.

Other Ephemera

In no particular order there are a few other items worth mentioning. First is build quality. My Nikon Df is perfect. That might be anecdotal but I think it’s not based on other owners assessments. Every single lens I have needs no focus fine-tuning (told you this is a QC scam about “every lens is different” — bullshit, it’s outsourcing calibration and QC to users). Every single focus point is exactly lined up with the viewfinder indicators. All of it is perfect, the Df seems to be back to the standard Nikon-guy expectations of the D2/D3/D3s era of things. Let’s hope the same is true of the other non-Japan made bodies.

The Df has the best Nikon auto white balance I’ve ever seen in a DSLR body. I don’t hate it’s choices. It doesn’t seem to skew one way or another as a constant. Does it make choices I like every time? No, but no camera does. Not a big deal and definitely not a factor for RAW shooters but it’s nice, especially for the neophytes that judge “color” based solely on AWB.

Reasonably decent viewfinder for manual focus users. At least as good as it gets strait from manufacturers now. I’ve mentioned this before but forgot to provide a link; Contrary to popular belief, if you do manual focus all the time you can absolutely change the focus screen on the Df (and most Nikon’s) yourself. I wish it was more like the F3 which is designed to do so and engineered so that it’s reasonably foolproof. Changing Focus screens for a more appropriate MF screen is a lot like changing them on an FE/FM2/FE2. You need a little hook-y think and some tweezers. On an F3 you can be all thumbs and not screw it up. Here’s where you can get a manual focus screen for your Df and other cameras…

The battery life is unbelievable. It’s been great in Nikons since my Nikon D2h, the Df is insane. Not as good as the D4/D4s but here’s the punchline; The batteries are tiny. Tiny as in point and shoot tiny, now that’s a win. I regularly get 2000 shots out of one charge — That’s months of shooting for me. I cannot see the point of more than two batteries for myself.

What more can I say, I love shooting the Df. My Nikon D600 is neglected. I actually have a bit of paranoia that I’m going to use the Df to death. I’ll have to make a conscious effort to shoot my StupidCrap™ like workshop exposure tests and starting points on my D600 as I rather wear that one out first. I’ve never wore out a shutter on a DSLR but you can see I actually foresee that happening with the Df — that’s how much I like it.

RB

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