First thoughts on the Nikon Df

November 05, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

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After a plethora of rumours, leaks and enigmatic teaser ads, Nikon has finally announced its new Df digital DSLR. Its retro styling takes me right back to my first Nikon, the FM2, so there’s definitely an attraction there. And with all the attention it’s been attracting, I may well get the chance to do an Expanded Guide, which would mean spending a solid month using the camera... which would certainly give me a chance to decide exactly how I feel about it.
 
But meanwhile, based on the published images and specifications, here are a few thoughts about this camera. Aesthetically, I like it. The resemblance to 35mm classic like my FM2 is not a bad thing at all. Not that I dislike the current Nikons – I think they’re quite elegant, in fact – but they don’t have the same character. But in the end I don’t buy a camera because it looks nice. What really matters is how it performs and how it handles.
 
On this score, how does the Df stack up for me?
 
Things I like:
 
Light and compact. It’s Nikon’s smallest and lightest full-frame camera. Body weight is 765g, compared to the 810g of the D610 or the 850g of the D600 I’m currently using. 
 
Solid and weather-sealed body. It looks as if the Df has much of the rugged quality of the legendary FM2 (mine was/is virtually indestructible, and god knows it took some hammering), and also has a high level of weather-sealing.
 
16mp sensor. Of course, this will divide opinion; there are many who still insist that more pixels must be better. But for me 16mp is enough. It will stretch to a double page spread in a magazine and I hardly ever have need to take images beyond that. And the relatively large photosites mean that image quality holds up fantastically well in low-light/high ISO use. It’s the same sensor as in the D4, which is a benchmark for quality.
 
No video. Again, this won’t suit everyone but from my point of view, I really only ever shoot video when I’m evaluating the video mode of each camera for its Expanded Guide. As the Df has no video, its Expanded Guide (if we do one) won’t have a video chapter.
 
Great battery life. Officially 1400 shots on one charge. Sounds pretty good to me!
 
Button and dial interface. I’m going to hedge my bets a little on this one. I’m very happy using two command dials to set shutter speed and aperture. I’ve had a long time to get used to this and I’m not absolutely sure whether using a traditional shutter-speed dial will feel more awkward or not. The Df's second command dial, which I presume is used to set aperture (at least on modern lenses without a traditional aperture ring), is set vertically and I'm not sure whether it will feel as natural to operate. On the other hand, I really like the idea of going back to a traditional ISO dial, which means I can see at a glance what ISO is set. And it certainly looks as if I can set key parameters easily with the camera at my eye, which is crucial (and why I think touchscreens are a bad idea).
 
Things I don’t like:
Only one SD card slot. OK, they’re packing a lot into a compact body, but I’ve come to think that two card slots are well-nigh essential. Sometimes I’ll use this to shoot RAW and JPEG to separate cards, and on a few occasions I’ve used a WiFi card in the second slot, sending the JPEGs direct to my iPad so clients can see images right away. But most of the time I use it as backup, and on longer trips this is very important.
 
Focus system a la D600/610 rather than D4. This might be asking a lot, but while the AF system on the D600 is pretty good, it covers a relatively small area of the frame. As I shoot quite a lot of action, especially cycling, I really appreciate a camera which spreads its AF points over a higher proportion of the image frame. For me this often means either using a Dx-format camera or using the D600 in DX crop mode – which of course loses me the super-wide-angle view I sometimes want. It would have been nice to have the D4’s AF module too. To be fair,  this is probably just not what this camera is intended for, but for me it means it doesn’t add much to the kit I already have.
 
And finally, the big one: Price. The UK list price for the Df at launch is a fairly whopping £2750. No doubt it will drift downwards over the next year, but even if it drops closer to £2000... However much I may think I want one of these, I am not going to get enough benefit from it to justify spending that sort of money – even if I could afford it. If I want to extend my action shooting capability, I’d be better off looking for a used D4, or even a D3s. For that matter, the D800 has a better AF system than the D600, and still comes out cheaper than the Df. I don’t want or need the D800’s 36 megapixels, but I can live with it.
 
In fact, when I think of all the other things I could do with that sort of money, the Df rapidly drifts down the list of things I want. 
However, a lot of industry pundits are predicting that it will sell extremely well. I certainly hope so as it means we are far more likely to do an Expanded Guide. I’m sure I’d love using it for a month or so, and at the end of it I’ll either be convinced that I do need one after all or I’ll have got it out of my system for good.
 
I think my friend and ace mountain bike photographer Seb Rogers nailed it with his Twitter comment speculating on who’ll buy this camera: “Can you say "wealthy amateur"? (there are no wealthy pros)”. Right on all counts!

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