Nikon Df Review – Is Retro Worth It?

Posted March 24th, 2014 by   |  Photography  |  Permalink

Retro looking digital cameras are the new design aesthetic in the camera industry. Companies from Fuji to Nikon to Olympus to Leica have all taken a stab at this burgeoning market and each has had various levels of success. Some are doing it very well, like Fuji’s X-T1, while others are playing catch up. Nikon’s entry into this world is the new Nikon Df. Designed to look just like a film camera from the 1960s and 1970s, it attempts to strike the difficult balance between old-school feel and modern functionality. How did Nikon do? Read below for my thoughts and a video.

Nikon Df Front

After shooting with the Nikon Df for a while, I realize that I’ve come to the exact same conclusions that everyone else in the industry has. Neat concept. Excellent image quality. Flawed design. That said, I still give the camera a thumbs up, but only for people that know what they are getting into and only for those who have an extra $3,000 to spend.

The Df is a camera made up from elements of other successful Nikon cameras. It takes the imaging sensor from the Nikon D4/D4s, the autofocus from the Nikon D600/D610/D7000 and the design cues from the Nikon FM/DE/FM-2. Nikon put all these parts into a high-tech blender and out came the Df.

Top of Df

The Nikon Df uses old-school dials to control exposure settings such as shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation and shooting modes (P,S,A,M).

Holding the camera in your hands is much like holding the older film cameras from the 1970s. The all-metal body feels substantial and the metal dials are refreshingly simple. Because many of the features of modern dSLR cameras have been omitted or have been moved to these outside dials, the menu system is significantly more limited than other Nikon cameras. I consider the simplified menu to be a good thing since menus have become bloated over the years and are difficult to navigate. If you are setting up your own Nikon Df, then be sure to download our Nikon Df Setup Guide.

Indoor soccer Nikon Df

The Nikon Df performed very well while taking these indoor soccer photographs. The AF system kept up with the players and the high ISO performance allowed me to shoot regularly at 1/800 second using ISOs between 6400 and 12,800.

The autofocus system has been the brunt of much criticism from other reviewers, but I haven’t found it to be as bad as they are saying. True, it isn’t as fast or accurate as the Nikon D4s or the D800, but it still works very well. It is the same AF system as you’d find in the D600, D610 or D7000. I used it to photograph an indoor soccer match a few days ago and was impressed with its ability to track action in the dimly-lit soccer arena. Using the autofocus outside on a sunny or cloudy day is no problem for the Df and it is my opinion that most people won’t have issues with the Df’s AF system.

Gig Harbor fishing boats

Panorama created from Nikon Df images. Gig Harbor, WA. Nikon Df. Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8.

Image quality is excellent as you would expect for a $3,000 camera. The CMOS sensor design is taken from the Nikon D4/D4s series, so it is one of the best in the business. At 16 megapixels, its strength is more towards low-light exposures than it is for high resolution details. I took quite a few landscapes and travel pictures with it and was pleasantly surprised with the overall image quality. I also created panoramas sequences and HDR merges from the files with great results. Dynamic range is very good so I was able to pull out quite a bit of detail from deep shadow regions by using Lightroom 5 and Nik Color Efex Pro software.

Frank Russell building

This image of the Frank Russell Building in Gig Harbor, WA was processed from a single Nikon Df image. I was able to hold detail in the highlights while pulling a bit of detail from the shadows. Nikon Df, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8. Processed in Adobe Lightroom 5 and Nik Color Efex Pro 4.

All of my Nikon lenses were compatible with the Df including my older manual lenses and my new autofocus and VR lenses. No issues there.

I found that using the Df in the real world helped me to slow down and think through my process a bit more. Because the camera isn’t as fluid to operate as the other Nikon dSLRs, you are required to be much more deliberate with your settings and camera operation. In general, I consider this a good thing, but if you are trying to move quickly (sports, racing, weddings), then the camera might get in your way.

Nikon Df Video

Here’s a video describing the things I like and the things I don’t like about the Nikon Df.

Things I Like

Image Quality. Just like the Nikon D4 and D4s, the Df produces stunning images.

Low Light performance. Shooting regularly at ISO 3200, 6400 and 12,800 and shots look wonderful.

Live View. The Live View screen clarity is excellent. New grid overlays are very helpful. Artificial horizon is newly designed and well implemented.

Memory Buffer. I shot 23 RAW in a row before buffer filled up. Used a middle of the road 90 MB/sec SD card.

AF-ON. Dedicated AF-ON and AE-L/AF-L buttons just like the other professional cameras in the Nikon lineup.

Look. The camera is beautiful. People love to look at it and talk about it when I’m out shooting.

Things I Don’t Like

Ergonomics. Leave something to be desired. The partially molded hand grip is nice, but doesn’t come close to the fit and finish of cameras like the D7100, D610, D800 or D4s.

Dial controls. Even though you can set your shutter speed from the top dial, you can still override it with the front or rear command dial. This resulted in numerous mistakes from not being clear about what the shutter speed really was.

Exposure compensation. I’ve come to really rely on exposure compensation as implemented on all Nikon cameras since the N8008. Push the exposure comp button by your index finger, and rotate your command dial. Very easy to do with one hand. However, with the Df, you have to use your left hand to rotate the exposure compensation dial. Almost impossible to do without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.

SD Card. The camera only has one memory card slot. I don’t know why Nikon would do this to us photographers. Two SD slots makes good sense and is relatively standard for high end cameras these days.

Is It Worth It?

So, the big question at the end of the day is whether or not the Nikon Df is worth the price? My answer is yes … for the most part. I say yes because the truth is that the Df is a nice camera. The person who should buy this camera is one who already owns a modern Nikon dSLR such as the D610, D800 or D4 and wants another camera with a little personality. If you don’t fit in that category, then I wouldn’t recommend this camera. There are other cameras such as the D610 or D800 or D4s that are better tools for photographers. If you are looking for one single camera to own, then the Df isn’t it. It needs to find a way to fit in with the rest of your kit as a tool to inspire your creative muse. A tool to help you slow down and enjoy the purity of photography.

One final note, I’ve added the Nikon Df to our Nikonians Academy workshops beginning in April 2014. Check them out here:

purple flowers

Nikon Df. 50mm f/1.8.

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