This new Nikon Df’s appearance screams “old school” yet it’s a full-frame DSLR with many 21st-century features ($2,780 body only, $3,000 with a Special Edition 50mm f/1.8G SE lens kit). Clearly with one foot in the 1970s, the other in 2014, the Df wants to bridge the past and the future. Does it do it the job? Let’s get into the Wayback Machine to find out.
Features and design
If you want the antithesis of a compact camera, this baby is it. It’s decorated with so many dials a SpaceX Dragon pilot would feel right at home using it. We referred to many recent cameras as retro-styled, such as Fujifilm’s X-series, but nothing is as retro as the Df, especially with the silver-and-black motif (an all-black version is available too). Why do we say that? Just check out the photos here and realize this high-priced DSLR only shoots stills – forget video of any type. It’s pretty startling since Nikon was the first company to introduce a moviemaking DSLR, in 2008, with the D90; here they’ve introduced one without the capability, but sells for $3,000. Obviously this camera is for still photographers – not videographers – and is a statement piece by Nikon. But let’s not dismiss it entirely, as the Df is rather unique, especially for owners of older Nikon glass.
This reviewer’s first “real” camera was the now legendary Nikon F2. That classic from the 1970s may have been film-based, but with it we went to the next level of photography. So our heart skipped a beat when we took the camera out of the carton and started testing it – it reminds us a lot about our old F2. We still keep the old F2 body and 50mm Nikkor lens as icons, on the shelf (check out the side-by-side image). The F2, while smaller overall, weighs more than the new Df. We don’t know for sure but Nikon probably used solid steel for the F2’s frame rather than the magnesium alloy used today.
Even though it’s lighter than the F2, the new Nikon is still quite massive, measuring 5.6 x 4.3 x 2.6 inches, and tipping the scales at 25 ounces/1.6 pounds (body only). Attach the 50mm f/1.8G Special Edition lens with its sun hood and you’ll have one large piece of gear in your hands. We must admit, the retro-ness looks really cool.
We’ve referred to many recent cameras as retro-styled, but nothing beats the Df.
Also on the front is sub command dial as well as Depth of Field Preview and Function buttons. There’s a self-timer lamp, a flash sync terminal cap, and the lens release button. On the left side of the lens mount is a Bracket key and a lever to adjust focus type (manual and auto). In keeping with the form-factor of the old F -series, the Df has a small bump-out grip instead of the typically deep one found on enthusiast DSLRs. It felt quite comfortable in our hands but you know the drill – do your own hands-on before you buy this or any camera.
The top-deck is loaded with mechanical dials and levers. There’s a double-decker dial offering ISO and exposure compensation. The range of sensitivities is astounding: 50 to 204,800 (we’ll get more into this shortly). There are push-button locks for both dials, which makes adjustments a bit awkward but hardly a deal breaker. You’ll find the flash hot-shoe on the mirror-box assembly, and next to it is a mechanical shutter dial with a push-button lock ranging from bulb to 1/4000th of a second; this is bit disappointing since most high-end DSLRs reach 1/8000. Below this knurled dial is a lever to adjust burst mode, mirror up, and so on. Top burst speed is 5.5 frames per second in CH (high) mode.
There’s a knurled combo on/off shutter button and a small mode dial (knurled, of course). (Detecting a “knurled” theme? The old F2 had them as well.) The mode dial is very minimalist, offering just four options: Program Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter-Priority, and Manual. Forget about Scene modes, which is hardly surprising given the target buyer. Given the fact this camera is an homage to the past, we’re surprised Nikon engineers didn’t add a film-advance lever for old time’s sake.
Memories are great, but the Nikon Df costs a lot of money for a nostalgia journey.
On the bottom is a battery/card compartment with a twist-ring lock similar to the F series. The hinge here is a bit squirrely as the door fell off rather easily. It snaps back into position with no problem but it seems a bit chintzy on a $3,000 camera. The right side is clean and there are three compartments on the left for USB, HDMI, and remote connections.
What’s in the box
As befitting a $3,000 kit, the Nikon Df comes in a sophisticated-looking box. You’ll find the body and 50mm lens as well as a strap and caps. There’s a lithium-ion battery rated 1,400 shots and a plug-in charger. Also included is an eyepiece cap to block light from hitting the sensor when using Live View. There’s a CD with Nikon ViewNX2 software and a 376-page user’s manual. If just looking at the Df didn’t let you know this is an advanced photographic instrument with a bit of learning curve, hefting this instruction tome should do the trick.
Nikon includes a one-year limited warranty. For more warranty information, including an optional two-year extended warranty, click here.
Performance and use
We couldn’t resist: We immediately took the aforementioned AI 50mm prime lens off our classic F2 and coupled it to the Df. It takes just a few steps in the Setup Menu to connect it electronically; by doing so, you can use the aperture ring on the lens. We forgot how much we liked that old standby lens, and used it extensively as part of our testing. The supplied lens is also an f/1.8 50mm, which got a workout too.
Since the Df is a 16.2-megapixel full-frame camera, maximum resolution is 4928 x 3280 pixels. We shot RAW+JPEG and straight JPEGs; a TIFF setting is also available. For a change, we didn’t have to worry about shooting videos. We took the camera to a local racetrack to capture the color and to see how the 5.5-fps continuous shooting mode handled speeding horses. Then we shot various static scenes such as flowers and buildings. To test the 204,800 ISO we performed our usual tests and took nighttime and dusk images. Then it was time to examine them all on a 27-inch monitor.
The Nikon Df is the best low-light shooter we’ve ever tested.
The images we took were top notch. After all, this is a 16.2MP full-frame DSLR, even with its old-school design. Colors were outstanding (see samples) with the depth and richness you expect from an imaging system like this. In fact, it uses the same chip and processor as the older $6,000 video-shooting D4, but that one has a more robust, traditional-looking pro-grade body. We took the Df and the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 to the racetrack the same day. Needless to say, the difference between an 18MP APS-C chip and 16.2MP full-frame is like night and day. Along with “thundering horses,” we also shot plenty of images in our Southwest locale. Using manual focus and the old 50mm, we got some great shots of blooming desert flowers.
Now, let’s get to that other important Df feature, that incredible 204,800 ISO option. Most new high-end cameras have ISOs 25,600 and lower, and few actually excel at that level. Pro-level editions will go even higher, with the Nikon D4S the current leader at 409,600. Most large-chip models can handle 1,600/3,200, but image quality quickly goes downhill when you push the camera higher. We tried many shots at 204,800 with the Df – dimly lit rooms, nightfall, etc. – and the results were absolutely dreadful. We imagine someone could find a reason to shoot at 204,800, spending hours adjusting RAW files with noise-reduction software. We’ll leave that project to those brave souls. However, the Nikon Df is the best low-light shooter we’ve ever tested. Here, you can easily go up to ISO 10,000 with few issues. Some of our dusk images held up at 25,600. Beyond that digital noise became much more apparent and 51,200 was about the limit before color shifts and noise overwhelmed the image. At 204,800, results looked like something from 2005-era cheap point-and-shoot. Although that 204,800 number is more a marketing ploy than anything else, we’ve never seen low-light performance this good. Nikon engineers should get a tremendous pat on the back for these results. Consider us impressed.
The Nikon Df is a mixed bag. We really wanted to love this camera, but sometimes memories are best left in the past. Given the price, the Df will appeal to the super rich who can afford such gadgets, and a very small group of photographers who are happy to leave the digital age (for the most part) and return to the analog land of mechanical dials, controls, and older glass. That said, we enjoyed our trip down memory lane since it’s hard not to like a full-frame 16.2MP DSLR with such excellent low-light capabilities. If we had $3,000 to spend, we’d definitely opt for the full-frame Nikon D800, which has more megapixels (36), a more advanced 51-point AF system, and takes Full HD videos. For those who want to go full-frame but have a more limited budget, check out the D610.
We commend the Df for its superb performance and design. Memories are great, but the Nikon Df costs a lot of money for a nostalgia journey, which makes it hard to recommend. We’re more than happy to look at our old F2 on the shelf and shoot with the appropriate tools for the 21st-century.
- Amazing low-light capability
- Love those dials
- Excellent stills
- Compatible with older Nikkor lenses
- Too darn expensive
- No video or Wi-Fi
- Images dreadful at ISO 204,800