I have been contemplating buying this camera for weeks and when it arrived at my local camera store, it was hard to resist not purchasing it - especially after seeing and touching it in person. A whopping $3,000 later, it was mine. This has been by far one of the biggest emotionally-based purchases I've ever made, and believe me, I felt guilty as hell after buying it.
Before I get on with this review, I just have to make one thing clear: I am not a tech expert on camera gear. There are so many camera buffs out there who have been photographers for many years and know their stuff, inside and out. That is not me. I'm an artist who only really got into photography during the digital age, and I look for specific features and functions within the tool to get what I want out of it.
There were several things I wanted and expected from the Nikon DF. With the cameras Nikon has been releasing of late - you get one feature and you lose another. I don't know why they do that and I find it frustrating - maybe this is Nikon's way of getting people to buy multiple camera bodies. As the saying goes, "there are two sides to every coin".
So here we go - my take on the good and bad of the Nikon DF.
The DF Viewfinder: Has It Been Upgraded?
I've read on the forums that there was a possibly a new pentaprism in the DF and perhaps a different ground glass that makes manually focusing this camera much easier than the D800 and the D600. The word on the street is that the focus just "snaps" into place which makes it much easier to use Nikon's older manual focuses lenses. I am disappointed to report that this is not the case at all. The viewfinder is as dark/bright as the Nikon D600 (I own this). I don't see/feel any difference between the two cameras.
I didn't find it any different manually focusing at f1.8 - f4 compared to the D600 - it wasn't any easier seeing what's in focus and what's not. Mirrorless cameras with an EVF like my Fuji X100s does make manual focusing a breeze compared to this however.
The thing I like about the Nikon DF's viewfinder is that there's a piece of flat glass that sits on top of the recessed viewfinder (that covers it) - probably some form of weather proofing or something, I'm not entirely sure. Whatever it is, it does make cleaning the dust out of the viewfinder easier. My D600 has a constant dust buildup on the recessed viewfinder that is a pain to clean out properly.
Metering and Over-exposure
Something is odd about the default metering in the Nikon DF. Exposures are a tad over exposed in general compared to the D600. This is not to say that the metering is off - just a little different from what I'm used to.
What correct exposure is can be debated upon till the cows come home but I'm just comparing this to my Nikon D600 which I have gotten used to. The D600 meters correctly in my opinion for most scenarios, but the DF's exposure is off even in evenly lit ambient light environments. This applies to both Matrix metering and Spot metering.
The good news is, there is a menu option to fine tune metering in all the metering modes. I tweaked both Matrix & Spot metering modes down by -2/6 and it matches the D600 metering perfectly. Sorted.
Exposure Compensation & ISO Dials
The dials are big and look great but coming from shooting regular modern Nikons and also the Fuji X cameras, it is a bit strange that Nikon chose to put the exposure compensation dial on the left hand side of the camera. The compensation and ISO control has always been situated on the right side of the camera, close to the shutter button on most cameras of today.
With the Nikon DF, whether it'd be shooting in manual (to access ISO) or one of the priority modes (to access exposure compensation), I have to now take my left hand off from under the camera and reach up to the top left to access both those dials, leaving my right hand to support the entire weight of the camera via the grip. I don't really find this all that ergonomic to be honest.
Ergonomics & Handling
My hands are of average size and initially, I found the DF to be very nice to hold, especially when I was at the store with a 50 mm prime lens attached to it. However, after getting home and sticking on my 24-70 mm Nikkor lens, I found the camera body way too light and unbalanced, because the lens end weighed significantly more than the body. It's as if the DF is a camera made ultimately for primes.
My right hand got really tired because the grip is much thinner than the D600 as well, and I have to curl my fingers in more to hold on tightly to the camera (this is with a heavier 24-70 mm lens mind you) when I'm not shooting (or when I'm trying to tweak the manual ISO dial on the DF). When I do bring the camera up to my eye, the left hand supports from underneath so during shooting, it's not too bad.
The Nikon D600 has a "lip" just below the aperture dial (just above where you place your index finger) which helps support a heavy lens when you don't have your left hand under the lens to support it. The DF's front face is "flat", there's nothing to help brace the camera's body against your hand.
The body is smaller than other Nikon full-frame cameras, and it's light and easy to carry around - sure. But throw on a bigger lens and you lose all the benefits of the lighter chassis. The bottom line: unless you're going to use small/light primes lenses only with this camera, the size is not going to be an advantage. It is more of a hinderance.
The Aperture Dial
The aperture dial, looked cool at first glance. But I found that it was a little too stiff to turn and it doesn't appear that it will loosen up over time. Turning the dial can be a tad slow as it does take a bit of effort to manipulate.
The ISO dial as well is really tight and difficult to turn especially when I have the camera still up to my eye. Modern-design Nikon's are just right to turn with the soft dials. To be honest, I've gotten used to this and the manual dials on the DF really started to annoy me when I was trying to meter quickly.
Image Quality: Visually the Same
Comparing the image quality of the DF to the D600, I have to say that they are on-par with each other, with perhaps the D600 images getting a slight upper hand (better resolving power) with the larger file sizes and being able to resize them down for better perceived sharpness. I have not yet tested dynamic range of the RAW files but I don't think they would be too different from each other.
According to some comparison websites, the D600 has an edge over the D4 sensor (same as the DF) on paper. In actual usage though, I think one would find it hard to tell the difference, pixel peeper or not.
There are some nicely added features that aren't available on the D600. These are welcomed surprises by my books:
- Quick zoom on playback. Pressing the "OK" button on the thumb controller zooms your playback image in one fell swoop, making it easy to check focus. The amount of zoom can be set in the menu system. This is not available on the D600 and zooming means pressing the magnification button about 5-6 times to hit a 1:1 ratio. This can get old very very quickly.
- Fast autofocus compared to the D600. The same lenses I've used on my D600 have no problems with locking on focus with the Nikon DF, even in less than ideal light situations. AF just snap locks pretty much instantly.
Max Flash Sync Speed
The Nikon DF, according to the specs sheet has a 1/250 flash sync speed. I tested this with a couple of wireless flash triggers but it caps out at 1/200th. Going to 1/250th results in a very thin black bar at the bottom of the frame - it's still workable in my opinion.
Many reviewers have already said that the Nikon DF pulls at your heart strings, and they are spot on. The look of the camera body is divine and I love it. Question is though, is it really worth $3000+ for a different looking body that might not be so ergonomic in the end?
With this camera, you are paying a lot of money for a kind-of-vintage look, the manual operation dials, and a small handful of added features, and losing some others. Picture quality isn't much different when compared with the D600, D4 (same sensor) and the D800 (advantage of larger file size).
The only one thing you'd gain is the use of higher ISO values if you're a street photographer, and I personally prefer my much lighter Fuji X100s for this. There is noise even at ISO 400 but it doesn't smudge like the D600. A lot of detail can still be captured at higher ISO settings.
I'd like to add however, that we don't always make logical purchasing decisions - and this is the perfect case. Don't expect this camera to better your photo quality, but rather enhance the love for your craft.
Note: At this time of writing, the NEF files from the Nikon DF are yet to be supported by Lightroom 5.2 and Adobe Camera Raw. Guess those of you who want to be early adopters of the DF will need to find a workaround for your RAW files. Alternatively, you can shoot in TIFF format - which is a nice added feature of this camera.
Please share this review with your friends if you found it helpful. Thanks!
Here are some photos I shot with the Nikon DF in TIFF format (edited in Lightroom 5.2)
Here are some of my replies on various forums. I figured they'd be helpful for those sitting on the fence, deciding whether or not to purchase the Nikon DF. Rather than write it all out again, I decided to post it here:
"I see your points, but have to wonder, since you already own a D600, if adding a DF got you something significant over what you already have? If you were trying to decide between which camera to buy and the DF won, I could see that. But you already have a D600. The two systems controls are so different, that for me, and I mean for me, the added body would be difficult to rationalize as a needed acquisition.
Ans: Yup I have to agree. I thought i'd be getting an upper hand with the DF (better OVF so easier to manual focus), nicer body etc.. but as it turns out this is not the case. "
"A DF will be in my future to compliment the D4 and D800. It's $3000 US and a lot of money, but it seems like it's worth it.
Ans: You might get super annoyed with the dials. They're really hard to turn. If any of you have played with the Fuji X systems, you'll see what i mean. Those Fuji's are perfect and quick to manipulate. The DF dials are way too stiff.
If you already have a D4 and D800, use the D800 as a walkaround camera with a prime lens on it to keep it light I'd say. If you don't have any of those cameras, then I guess buying the DF would be fine as you wouldn't know any better and it IS a GOOD camera at the end of the day. Just not fantastic..."