This is an in-depth review of the Nikon Df, a retro-style digital SLR camera that was announced in November of 2013. The Df is a very controversial release, I would say perhaps the most controversial one in Nikon’s DSLR history. After Nikon teased the public with its short videos that slowly revealed parts of the camera, many were excited to see something completely different than a traditional DSLR. Videos titled “it is in my hands again” and “no clutter, no distractions”, with constant repetition of “Pure Photography”, hinted at a camera that combines old style Nikon film cameras with a modern digital sensor. Nikon “Df”, a “Digital Fusion” of retro style and modern technology, became an instant hit on the Internet and one of the hottest topics of discussion and speculation on photography sites and forums. As we got closer and closer to the release date, enthusiasts from all over the world started speculating on the features of the yet to be released Nikon Df and pointed at possibilities of seeing a mirrorless camera, electronic viewfinder and a myriad of other technologies we now come to expect from modern mirrorless cameras. Film shooters had their own list of must-have features, including a large bright viewfinder with a split focusing screen for easy focusing with old manual focus lenses. In a very short period of time, the Nikon Df, a fusion of technologies, became an over-hyped camera with very high expectations…
And then it finally arrived. When the dust settled and people realized that the Df is basically a DSLR with a retro design, D4 sensor and D600 guts that came with a $2750 price tag at the time when Nikon was pushing D800 sales in the same price range, all the prior feedback and excitement turned into a bunch of hate. And very rapidly. Nikon had not seen this much hate on a newly launched product in a very long time. Not even in the days when Canon was in the lead with their pro full-frame offers, while Nikon was still sticking to the APS-C format. On one hand, the Nikon Df was laughed at, made fun of, mocked and criticized for its appearance, lack of features and high price. On the other hand, those that actually own and use the camera highly praised its image quality, ergonomics and overall performance. It seems like the particular group that is attracted to this camera knows exactly what to expect from it.
Indeed, the Nikon Df turned out to be a very controversial release. And my personal observation so far is that most of the hate you see on the Internet is coming from those that have never touched the Df and probably never will. And that’s OK, because the Df was not released to be loved by all. Nikon specifically targeted the camera at a small user base and as far as I know, they were quite successful at it. In my Nikon Df Rebuttal that I wrote in response to Bob Vishneski’s Heart vs Head article, I pointed out that the Df actually exceeded Nikon’s expectations in terms of sales. So the group that owns the Df is not as small as one might think, and it includes some of the highly respected photographers in the industry.
Before writing this review, I really wanted to take my time and get to know the Df and get myself more accustomed to it. Compared to Nikon DSLRs that I have been shooting with for the past 7 years, the Nikon Df is very different, especially when it comes to its handling and controls. Having been shooting with different brand cameras and formats for a while now, I realized that some cameras just take more time to get adjusted to. Hence, writing a review a week or two or even a month after handling the camera is something I try to avoid doing. By now, I have had the Df for the past 4 months, so this review is a summary of my overall experience with the camera during this period.
When it comes to pure technical specifications and features, the Nikon Df is a combination of different technologies that are found on existing Nikon DSLRs. In a way, it is also a fusion of existing DSLRs: D600/D610, D800 and D4. It has the same autofocus system as the Nikon D600/D610, its top and back are also of magnesium alloy construction and it has similar limitations as the D600/D610 when it comes to the fastest shutter speed of 1/4000 or flash sync-speed of 1/200. It has the same weather sealing features as the Nikon D800/D800E and also has a dedicated AF-ON focus button on the back of the camera. Its low-noise 16 MP sensor is very similar to the one on the Nikon D4. Just like the D4, it comes with no built-in flash.
Its firmware is also a mix of different DSLRs. For example, the Nikon D600/D610 has no center button instant zoom capability (during playback), while both the D800 and the D4 do. Since the Df has a number of similar features from the D600/D610, one might expect to see similar firmware limitations. However, that’s certainly not the case with the Df – not only does it have the same center button instant zoom capability (Menu -> Custom Setting Menu -> Controls -> OK Button -> Playback Mode -> Zoom on/off), it also has an advanced firmware feature for exposure meter coupling when using old pre-Ai lenses, which is not found on any other current Nikon DSLR.
What sets the Df apart from other Nikon DSLRs, is lack of certain features that have more or less become a standard on advanced / full-frame cameras. First of all, the Df has no video or time lapse video recording capabilities. Nikon decided to market the Df “purely” for photographic needs, so it completely excluded video recording options. A rather interesting and unusual move, considering the popularity of DSLR video. Another omission is a dual card slot – the Df only comes with a single SD slot located underneath the camera (more on this under “Handling“). There is no built-in flash either. Lastly, aside from the flash sync port, the Nikon Df does not have infrared or 10-pin remote connector ports on the front.
At the same time, the Nikon Df tries to compensate for those deficiencies in other areas, and weight with bulk are two huge factors in Df’s favor. At 710 grams, the Df is Nikon’s lightest full-frame camera. And with its comparably short profile and a more compact grip, it is also smaller than the Nikon D600/D610 (although not by a huge margin). Other features borrowed from higher-end DSLRs include a dedicated AF-ON button and a large rotary dial, similar to what one would find on the Nikon D800/D800E cameras. The Df features a usable 1:1 Live View, which is a world better in comparison to the ugly interpolated Live View of the D800/D800E.
The big subject of the debate is the top “retro” navigation of the camera, which obviously looks similar to classic SLRs like Nikon FM and nothing like a modern DSLR. Nikon used different dials for such functions as ISO, Exposure Compensation, Shutter Speed, Shooting Modes, On/Off and Camera Modes, along with the traditional rear dial and a small rotary front dial for setting different exposure parameters, similar to modern DSLRs.
In short, the Nikon Df is a mix of features and limitations mostly borrowed from existing Nikon DSLRs, plus the retro design. How does it all roll into the shooting experience? Read on to find out what we think.
2) Nikon Df Specifications
Main Features and Specifications:
- Sensor: 16.2 MP FX
- Sensor Size: 36.0 x 23.9mm
- Resolution: 4928 x 3280
- DX Resolution: 3200 x 2128
- Native ISO Sensitivity: 100-12,800
- Boost Low ISO Sensitivity: 50
- Boost High ISO Sensitivity: 25,600-204,800
- Processor: EXPEED 3
- Metering System: 3D Color Matrix Meter II
- Dust Reduction: Yes
- Weather Sealing/Protection: Yes
- Body Build: Top / Rear / Bottom Magnesium Alloy
- Shutter: Up to 1/4000 and 30 sec exposure
- Shutter Durability: 150,000 cycles
- Storage: 1x SD slot
- Viewfinder Coverage: 100%
- Speed: 5.5 FPS
- Exposure Meter: 2,016 pixel RGB sensor
- Built-in Flash: No
- Autofocus System: Multi-CAM 4800FX AF with 39 focus points and 9 cross-type sensors
- LCD Screen: 3.2 inch diagonal with 921,000 dots
- Movie Recording: N/A
- In-Camera HDR Capability: Yes
- GPS: N/A
- WiFi: N/A
- Battery Type: EN-EL14 / EN-EL14a
- Battery Life: 1400 shots
- USB Standard: 2.0
- Weight: 710g (body only)
- Price: $2,749.95 MSRP
A detailed list of camera specifications is available at NikonUSA.com.
3) Retro Controls
Handling-wise, there is a lot to say, thanks to the retro design. Since I have only been recently exposed to film cameras (I bought a Nikon FG with a bunch of old Nikkor lenses before the Df came out), I knew it was not something I would feel accustomed to from the start. And initially, that was certainly not the case – things felt odd, out of place and slow at first. Some things I just could not make sense out of and still cannot (more on that below). As I used the camera more and more, those retro controls did sync in though and I eventually got used to them. Let me go through each dial and explain how it all comes together.
Let’s start out with the dual ISO / Exposure Compensation dial, which is located to the left of the pentaprism / viewfinder. A few people complained about the large ISO dial, questioning the need to put it on its own dial. Looking at my Nikon FG film camera, the ISO dial was in fact on the left side and it was part of the exposure compensation dial. Obviously, each film has its own sensitivity, so the ISO part of the dial is only a placeholder, meant for photographer to simply remember which film was put into the camera. Nikon took the same idea for the Df, but made a separate ISO dial in 1/3 steps from L1 / ISO 50 to H4 / ISO 204,800. So when setting the camera ISO, you must use the dial – there is no place in the camera menu where you can change it. That brings up a slew of questions, specifically in regards to the Auto ISO function. A number of our readers initially asked me if Nikon killed the Auto ISO feature and that’s certainly NOT the case! Auto ISO is alive and well and it is implemented the same way as on the latest Nikon DSLR cameras. When you set the ISO on the dial, that basically becomes the minimum ISO sensitivity. When you go to Auto ISO sensitivity control in the camera menu, you can still set the maximum ISO sensitivity and the minimum shutter speed, with advanced Auto controls (Slower -> Faster). So if you like Nikon’s Auto ISO feature (which I personally love), it is still perfectly usable and not any different than Auto ISO you will find on other DSLRs. ISO values are always locked, which means that you must press the little button on the side of the dial to be able to rotate it. You can do this with your left hand easily – simply press the button with your thumb and rotate the dial with your index finger. You don’t even need to take your eye off the viewfinder, since the change in ISO values can be displayed on the bottom of the frame. The only thing is, if you need to make big jumps, say from ISO 100 to ISO 6400, then you will need to rotate the dial over and over again, as you have to go through each ISO in 1/3 EV steps. I had mine mostly set at ISO 100 and I used Auto ISO quite heavily in “Auto” minimum shutter speed mode.
Exposure Compensation was another area of initial complaint for me. Having used Fuji cameras, it was first a little odd to have to press a button to rotate the exposure compensation dial. But then I started remembering times when exposure compensation was too loose and changed accidentally on those Fuji cameras and then I realized that it was not such a bad decision by Nikon after-all. In addition, looking at my Nikon FG, I also realized that Nikon has had that lock on exposure compensation dial for a while now. One of our readers complained that the exposure compensation dial requires two hands to change and it should have been on the right side of the camera. I disagree. First of all, you can easily set exposure compensation with just the left hand, again, without the need to move your eyes away from the viewfinder. Simply press the button with the left index finger and use the middle and thumb fingers to rotate the dial. As you rotate the dial, you can look at the same -+ indicators inside the viewfinder to find out where you are at. In terms of the location, I don’t mind the dial to be on the left. Nikon probably could have swapped the PASM dial with the exposure compensation dial, but it would have looked awkward due to the sizes of these dials.
To the right of the pentaprism / viewfinder, we find another large dual dial – Shutter Speed and Shooting Mode. I really like the way Nikon designed the Shooting Mode dial – instead of the traditional rotary dial with a lock, this one is a switch that goes from Single (S) shooting mode to Mirror Lock-Up (Mup). The only problem is for people with large fingers. When the Shooting Mode is set to “S” (Single), there is very little space between the dial and the On/Off switch. If the index finger is not small/thin enough, it can be difficult to move it to another position.
The Shutter Speed dial is the one that probably received the most negative comments on the Df – and rightfully so! Some people pointed out that the way Nikon designed the Df is counter-intuitive and downright wrong, because the shutter speed could read one value on the dial, while being totally different in certain camera modes. Having been using Fuji cameras during the past 6+ months, I do agree that Nikon screwed up with the design and ergonomics here. Instead of having a separate dial for PASM camera modes, Nikon should have taken a different approach by having one more aperture value setting called “A” (Auto). So if you wanted to switch to Program or Shutter Priority modes, you could simply rotate the front dial till you got to “A” and the aperture would be automatically controlled by the camera. Instead of the 1/3 step option on the Shutter Speed dial, Nikon could have added another “A” (Auto) mode, which would set the camera to either Aperture Priority mode or Program Mode. The problem with 1/3 stop Shutter Speed increments is already addressed through the Custom Setting Menu->Controls->Easy Shutter-Speed Shift (f11) (once turned on, the camera allows to go 2/3 of a stop up and down the selected shutter speed, similar to what Fuji cameras do). For manual mode, you would have to set the Shutter Speed dial and either rotate the aperture ring on the lens, or rotate the front dial to set a CPU-lens to a certain aperture. This approach would have completely eliminated the need for the PASM dial and make it impossible to see wrong/different Shutter Speed values on the dial at any time. What is the point of having the “Easy Shutter-Speed Shift” option AND the 1/3 STEP on the shutter dial along with the ability to select different camera modes? Seems like Nikon wanted to keep the current way of changing shutter speed and aperture instead of fully committing to the retro style, so it just mixed it all up together. Personally, I ended up mostly leaving “1/3 STEP” on the Shutter Speed dial (which allows setting the shutter speed manually in 1/3 increments using the rear dial), because I did not see the point of using a set value.
On the other hand, Bjørn Rørslett, who I deeply respect and follow, sent the following comment to me on the Shutter Speed / PASM dials: “I do disagree with the comments on the shutter speed
dial and MASP switch. These are entirely logical and date back to the late ’80s (F4). They are kept for good reasons. Each photographer has to set up the camera for his or her main usage pattern and even though I mainly use the Df at ‘M’, the other settings have definitive advantages for special cases. Other users will put more weight on ‘A’, ‘M’ or even ‘P’. The good thing is Nikon understands the users are vastly different and lets them have the choice.” So there you have it – Bjørn disagrees with my above remarks, because he has seen a similar layout on the F4 in the past.
Here is an example of how screwy this Shutter Speed dial is. If you use a modern autofocus lens and set the camera to either Manual Mode (M) or Shutter Priority Mode (S) using the small round dial, the Shutter Speed setting will work as expected. However, the moment you mount a manual focus manual aperture lens (pre-AI, AI, AIs), the Shutter Priority Mode becomes completely useless, no matter what Shutter Speed you set it to – the camera will automatically set the shutter speed and will disregard the set value on the dial. Instead of this behavior, Nikon should switch the camera to Manual Mode whenever the shutter speed dial is set to a particular value. And better yet, if the PASM dial did not exist in the first place, changing the shutter speed would have automatically switched to Manual Mode, as it should. As of now, the PASM dial is a complete waste that occupies the already tight space. In addition, it is somewhat painful to use, as it requires lifting it up to change the setting. So if Nikon eliminated it, the On/Off / Shutter Release dial could have been moved to its place, or more space could have been created for the top LCD.
Speaking of the top LCD, while it does show some of the vital information like shutter speed, aperture, frame count and battery life, it is too small to accommodate such settings as shooting mode, focus mode, etc. When mounting an autofocus lens, if you need to change any of the AF settings, you must look at the rear “Info” LCD screen that contains more information – it automatically lights up when the AF button on the front is pressed. That’s certainly counter-intuitive for those that are used to look at the camera settings from the top LCD.
I am more or less neutral to the On/Off dial, along with the Shutter Release button. I found the On/Off dial to be a little stiff, but it is not too bad and will probably get easier to turn overtime. The shutter release features a small threaded hole for those old manual-style remote releases. I have never used one, but I guess Nikon wanted to bring the old way of the shutter release on the Df in its full retro spirit.
In summary, Nikon should have done a better job in implementing the retro design and should have completely eliminated the PASM dial to make the controls more meaningful and usable.
3) Camera Size
A lot of people complained about the size of the Df and how it fails to be a small camera like the original Nikon FM-series. Many review sites have been comparing the Df to those old film cameras and pointing out how the Df fails to be a true retro / film-like camera, because it is noticeably bigger in terms of height and width. I figured that this sort of commentary mostly comes from those that unfortunately do not understand what goes inside a DSLR camera vs a film camera. Film SLRs have far less components than DSLRs! First of all, keep in mind that the flange distance MUST remain the same whether on a film SLR or a DSLR in order to be able to use the same lenses, so there are minimum requirements for the distance between the mount and the film / sensor. From that standpoint, both adhere to the same standards. However, when you look at a film camera like Nikon FM, note its back plate – when it opens up to load film, see how thin that back really is! You cannot make the back of a DSLR that thin – the camera has a LOT of components in-between that occupy space. First of all, the sensor itself takes up more space than film. It has a couple of layers of filters (AA, UV, etc), then there is a heatsink behind the sensor to keep it cool. Behind that heatsink there is a large PCB, or what I refer to as the “motherboard” that houses the imaging processor, memory (RAM and ROM) and all sort of connectors to memory slots, battery, etc. There is no way to make that PCB super small, as there are lots of components housed on it. Then behind the PCB, we have the LCD screen, which also takes up 5-6 millimeters of space. The battery compartment takes up a chunk of space to the right of the camera, so there is no way to use that space for extra components. Then there are a bunch of buttons, dials and the top LCD screen, which also take up space inside the camera. If it was not for those buttons and dials, Nikon could have probably made the Df shorter.
So you can see why making the Df as small as a film camera would be an impossible task to achieve! The only way to do it would be to decrease the flange distance. But then you know what that means – it would no longer be an SLR camera and none of the Nikkor lenses would work natively, requiring an adapter. I don’t think Nikon had the intention of making a mirrorless Df in the first place. Looking at the much smaller Sony A7R/A7 mirrorless cameras, one can easily see that the flange distance is very short, which is why the cameras are so thin. Compared to a DSLR, the sensor on the Sony A7R/A7 is really close to the mount, located approximately in the middle of the camera (in width). All the above-listed components like the motherboard and the LCD take up the other half the camera. Roger Cicala and his team at LensRentals disassembled an A7R and you can see exactly what I am talking about by looking at some of the pictures – there is a lot that goes behind that sensor!
My point from all this – the Df simply could not have been made significantly smaller as a DSLR. Definitely not even close to the size of a classic film SLR.
When it comes to handling, the Df also needs some time to get used to. While I love the fact that the Df is so lightweight and compact when compared to the D4 and D800, its has a couple of annoyances that I wish weren’t there. First of all, if you have only used DSLRs in the past, the camera strap connectors are something that you will have to adapt your camera handling to. On most DSLRs, the strap is never an issue, since the shutter release button is located far from it. On the Df (and many old Nikon film cameras), the shutter release is on the top plate of the camera, so when you put your index finger on it, the strap can get in the way of other fingers that hold the grip. The best way to hold the Df is by putting the strap in between the index and middle fingers and that’s when it does not interfere.
The grip on the Df is noticeably smaller than on other Nikon DSLRs. Initially, I was spacing out my fingers and putting my pinkie on the bottom of the camera. After about half an hour of shooting, my fingers started to hurt. I then realized that it is better to put the fingers closer to each other and keep the 3 fingers on the grip. Once I adapted to this hand-holding technique, shooting with the Df was a breeze.
Another issue is the location of the memory card slot – I don’t understand why Nikon decided to move it to the bottom. Compared to a DSLR, having to open the battery compartment to change the card is certainly a hassle. Sony addressed this nicely on the A7R/A7 by putting the slot on the back side instead of the side, which helped keep the camera size small. Nikon probably moved the memory card slot to the bottom due to space constraints and if that was the case, then it would have been nice if two slots were provided instead of one.
While the battery door also has a retro twist-lock design, I have seen some reports of the door easily breaking and falling off. I personally have not seen such an issue on the two Df samples that I tested (one loaner and one owned), but I can see that it could be an issue, since the door and the connecting parts are plastic.
Some people have pointed out that the Df does not handle well with large zoom and telephoto lenses. While that’s certainly not the case (since it is similar to the Nikon D600/D610 in size/bulk), I do agree with one thing – the Df was definitely made to be used with smaller primes instead of large and heavy lenses. Since the grip is fairly small and not as protruded, it makes it somewhat more difficult to hold a heavy setup. The target market of the Df is comprised of photographers that love shooting with compact, fast aperture lenses. It is clearly not for those that lug around with 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms and superteles – the retro camera controls call for a lightweight setup.
The Df might take some time to get used to at first, but once you figure out the above quirks and work around them, handling gets more natural and fluid overtime.
5) Buttons and Controls
The back of the Nikon Df is designed very similarly as a modern DSLR. The playback and trash buttons are to the left of the viewfinder, the right side is occupied by the AE-L/AF-L, AF-ON buttons and a rear function dial. The traditional 5 button layout to the left of the LCD is also there, along with the large rotary dial and “Live View” / “Info” buttons. Compared to the D800/D800E, there is a separate switch for changing metering modes. Aside from that, the back is pretty much the same as on a DSLR.
As a result, operating the camera is very similar to operating a traditional Nikon DSLR – easy to use and intuitive. The rear dial feels exactly the same way as a rear dial on my D800E (and not smaller like on the D600/D610), which is good. Nikon decided to change the front dial to a small vertical dial, most probably for aesthetics reasons. Again, this one took a little time to get used to, so I do not look at it as something very negative in terms of handling. After several months of use, the dial still seems to work well without any issues, so I do not foresee potential long-term issues with it.
6) Menu System
The menu system is also very similar to one from a Nikon DSLR – a lot more like the D800/D800E/D4 rather than the D610. User preset modes are still the old and practically useless A to D custom settings banks. I wish Nikon borrowed this part from the D600/D610, which have proper user preset modes right on the camera dial. It is a huge nuisance to go into two different banks to set presets and it just seems like Nikon has been sticking to this inconvenient feature for too long now.
Aside from the missing Movie settings under Custom Setting and Shooting menus, everything else is pretty standard in the menu. The Playback and Shooting menus are very similar to what you would find on the D800/D800E. Other than a couple of missing options like primary/secondary slot selection, the only major difference I could find was in the Auto ISO menu – on the D800 it is called “ISO sensitivity settings”, while on the Df the title reads “Auto ISO sensitivity control”. Makes sense, since ISO is regulated through the top dial and not the camera menu.
If you are upgrading from an earlier DSLR like the Nikon D700, you will love the enhanced Auto ISO feature of the Df (which was first implemented on the D800/D4 cameras). When selecting the “Minimum Shutter Speed”, you now have an option called “Auto”, which will automatically set the minimum shutter speed to the focal length of the lens. For example, if you are shooting with a 50mm lens, the minimum shutter speed will be set to 1/50 of a second. If you can handle slower shutter speeds, you can set “Auto” to be 1/2 or 1/4 the focal length of the lens. Or if you have shaky hands, you can set it to 2x or 4x the focal length of the lens. Think of “Auto” as -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, similar to exposure compensation in full stops. If your focal length is 50mm, your “Auto” setting would look like this: 1/13, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/200. The default would be 1/50, but if you go one step slower your shutter speed would be fixed at 1/25 of a second, while going two steps faster would increase the minimum shutter speed to 1/200 of a second. This works with both autofocus and manual focus lenses. Many of us have been asking for this feature for many years now and I am very happy with this implementation, although I hope Nikon takes it a step further, by automatically compensating for VR as well.
The Custom Setting Menu has a few differences worth mentioning. Due to lack of a built-in illuminator (which Nikon should have included on the Df for focusing in low-light situations), there is obviously no “Built-in AF-assist illuminator” option. A bunch of other Metering/exposure settings like step values for ISO, EV and Flash are also missing due to the retro design. Most of the menu items under “Shooting/display” have been rearranged and the “Bracketing/flash” menu has a couple of new options like “Optional flash” and “Exposure comp. for flash”. Just like the Nikon D800/D800E/D4 cameras, the Nikon Df also comes with an advanced “Exposure Delay” mode with up to 3 second delay (d10 in Custom Setting Menu->Shooting/display) that can be used in conjunction with “Self-Timer”. For example, you can set the Self-Timer to 5 seconds and turn Exposure Delay on with a 3 second delay. Once the shutter button is pressed, the camera will wait for five seconds, raise the mirror, wait for three seconds, then open and close the shutter, then put the mirror back down. This will prevent pretty much any sort of camera shake – equivalent of using mirror lock up (MLU) mode with a cable release.
The confusing “Multi selector center button” has finally been renamed to “OK button” – that’s where you can configure the ability to instantly zoom to 100% view when reviewing images (a very useful and cool feature that Nikon stripped out of the D600/D610). Strangely, the “BKT” button is no longer programmable.
Lastly, the Setup Menu also differs a little between the Df and the D800. The Df has a new “Auto info display” option that by default turns the info screen on the rear LCD. For whatever reason Nikon also eliminated the “Battery info” option to see charge levels, number of shots taken and battery age. “GPS” has been renamed to “Location data” and new menu options called “Assign remote Fn button” and “Wireless mobile adapter” for the new wireless remote control tool have been added. The “Retouch Menu” stayed identical, except for the “Edit movie” feature.
7) Camera Construction and Weather Sealing
The Nikon Df is built a little better than the Nikon D610 in terms of construction – its top, rear and bottom are made from tough magnesium alloy (instead of just the top and the rear). In terms of weather sealing, it is very similar to both the D610 and the D800/D800E, so it also features various seals throughout the body to prevent dust and moisture from getting in. Colorado has recently seen very cold winter days, dropping as low as -25°C at night in the South Denver area where I live. I wondered how the Df would operate in such cold environments and I took it out a few times to shoot in below freezing temperatures. While the battery certainly did drain faster in extreme cold, which is expected, the Df operated without any issues. I did not see any shutter lock-up or other serious issues, which is good news. Here is an image that shows the sealed areas on the camera:
Obviously, one should be careful in handling cameras when moving from very cold to warm temperatures – condensation could cause permanent damage to circuitry (which is why Nikon always lists 0-40°C as the operating range, even for the high-end D4). As long as you use a sealed bag when moving indoors or slowly move the camera from cold to warm temperature, you should be fine.
8) Image Sensor
Without a doubt, the biggest strength of the Df is its amazing 16 MP full-frame sensor, similar to what is found on the top of the line Nikon D4. While 16 MP does not sound like a lot when compared to Nikon’s 24 MP or 36 MP sensors, it is more than enough for the type of work the Df is used for – it is not meant to be used for producing huge studio prints, detailed macro shots or capturing extreme landscape details. The Nikon Df is designed for and targeted at portraiture, wedding, street and news photographers that want a camera with amazing low-light capabilities; a natural light camera. High quality of straight out of the camera images and small RAW files are important in keeping the post-processing workflow efficient. For this reason, the Nikon D800 was not greeted with a lot of fanfare by working pros and enthusiasts that did not want to deal with gigantic files and all that extra resolution they did not need. Portrait, street and event photographers that had been shooting with the D700 for years, have been resisting the idea of getting a D800 for that reason. I personally know a couple of photographers that tried out the D800 and ended up returning it or selling it to go back to their beloved D700s. The massive 36 MP RAW files slowed down their workflow significantly and they were not too excited about the pixel-level image quality at high ISOs. Although I did my best to explain that down-sampling/resizing images during the export process reduces noise significantly, the underlying message was that they would rather work on smaller resolution images that are clean, rather than deal with all the extra steps. When I asked why this was such an issue from my wife Lola (who also does not like working with 36 MP D800 files), she pointed out a few things:
- RAW files from the D800 significantly slow down Lightroom, especially when dealing with images that need a lot of work (spot cleaning, minute adjustments, etc). So it is not just the slow speed at which RAW files are rendered, but it is also the speed of working on images directly. She demonstrated this on our home computer (which I recently built with the 4th generation Intel i7 processor, lots of RAM and SSD drives) and the performance difference between working on a 12 MP file from the D700 / D3s and a 36 MP file from the D800 was pretty noticeable. The files from the D700 and D3s were rendering in about 1.5 seconds (zoomed in to 100%, going from one image to another), the files from the Df and D4 were rendering in about 2 seconds, while the D800E was taking about 4 seconds total! This might not be a big deal when working with a couple of files, but the slower performance certainly does add up when processing hundreds of images.
- When dealing with noisy images shot above ISO 800, Lola noted that the process of editing images from the D800 can get painful, especially when working on editing skin details. The extra noise at pixel level distracts and affects skin details, so it is harder to deal with it. While she perfectly understands that exporting images at lower resolution reduces noise, she had a point – does she edit images and skin details on the original 36 MP image, which obviously takes more work, or does she first down-sample the image, then work on it to save time? Either way, both introduced more unnecessary steps or slowed down the editing process, which is why she preferred using 12 MP RAW files from the D700 and the D3s instead.
- When shooting indoors in low-light environments where flash cannot be used (church, ceremony, etc), the D800 starts losing colors and dynamic range pretty rapidly past ISO 1600. The D3s that Lola has been shooting with is better in that regard and she has no problem with shooting at ISO 6400 and even 12800.
- The Nikon D800 requires good lenses and good technique to produce sharp images. Again, this is only at pixel level, but she was just not too excited to see blur and slight focus errors on the LCD while shooting. For her, it was a frustrating experience that made her return to the D3s pretty quickly.
- Large files also need more storage, which translates to bigger hard drives, cards, etc. Those that shoot with smaller cards for less risk of losing data have to move up to larger media, since smaller 8 GB cards can only fit about 100 RAW files from the D800. While this is not an issue for most people, it is another investment that has to be considered.
- When delivering files to clients, exporting 12 MP images in a smaller resolution takes significantly less time in Lightroom. Lola typically extracts the same wedding several times (once for producing smaller files with copyright / logo for social media and once for larger print-size files), so larger 36 MP files definitely do make her wait much longer.
While I can technically argue with some of the above points, it is still a summary of what many photographers felt when dealing with the D800. That’s why we have been seeing a lot of “the D800 is not a D700 replacement” remarks all over the Internet. Personally, I love my D800E and I do not hesitate to use it for all kinds of photography. However, my wife would rather shoot with a lower resolution camera like the Df than go through the pain of editing those huge RAW files.
Thus, I do realize that lots of resolution is not necessarily what everyone wants. Most photographers never deliver files at their original resolution to their clients anyway, even when shooting at 12 MP. The Nikon Df has 16 megapixels, but those 16 MP files are beautiful and practically noise-free. That saves a lot of time and headache, as pointed out above.
As you will see from the Camera Comparisons section of this review, the image quality of the Df is outstanding, even when comparing to the down-sampled images from the D800E. While there is not much difference in performance at low ISO levels, it is pretty clear that the Df takes the lead at ISOs 3200 and above, especially when it comes to maintaining colors and dynamic range. I won’t go into showing pixel-level performance, because it is not a fair way to compare sensor performance – the Df easily outperforms the D800E at even lower ISO levels. So for comparisons, I always down-sample to the lowest resolution sensor and only provide those crops.
To me, the Nikon Df is mostly about its amazing sensor performance and it certainly delivers in that aspect.
9) Quality Assurance
So far I have only tested two samples of the Nikon Df from different batches, so I can only speak from my experience using the two. After seeing Nikon struggle with QA issues on the Nikon D800 (autofocus alignment problems) and D600 (dust issues), I paid extra attention to the Df to see if I could find any potential QA problems. I am happy to say that the two samples I tested were free of autofocus alignment and dust issues – both performed as expected. I did not see other issues like knobs and dials getting loose or breaking – the camera seems to be solidly built. Your mileage might vary, but I am definitely happy with the unit that I purchased and use. Some of our readers mentioned cases with the battery door falling off, but I did not see such issues on the two units I tested.
10) Autofocus Performance
The 39 point autofocus system used in the Nikon Df has definitely been another source of complaints. Many were furious with Nikon’s decision to use the same autofocus system as in the budget D600/D610, since the Nikon Df is supposed to be a “premium camera”. While I agree that it would have been nice if Nikon included the Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX AF system with 51-points, I do not find the 39 point AF system to be insufficient or lacking for the Df. The Nikon Df is not a sports or action camera to need the top of the line AF system (although as I demonstrate below, it certainly can do well for shooting action).
What about focus point spread? A lot has been said about how the D600/D610/Df have very small focus coverage in the viewfinder and how the D800/D800E/D4 are so much better. Although I have written about this a number of times before in previous reviews, just take a look at the below viewfinder overlay between the Df and the D800 and see the difference:
As you can see, there is not a night and day difference between the two – the larger Multi-CAM 3500FX is just marginally better in this regard, by about 1 focus point on each side of the frame. Now if I were to overlay the viewfinder from the Nikon D7100, then we would see a totally different situation – the focus points would spread over a much larger area. But that’s on DX…
10.1) Autofocus Performance: Daylight
In daylight situations, the AF performance of the Nikon Df is excellent. I was able to obtain accurate focus on my subjects most of the time and I honestly could not tell a difference in AF performance between the Df and the D800. I used a variety of lenses like Nikon 58mm f/1.4G, Nikon 50mm f/1.8G and Nikon 85mm f/1.4G and all performed very well without any issues. Daylight conditions are not really a challenge for most modern autofocus systems though – even entry-level DSLRs like Nikon D3300 do quite well when there is plenty of light. It is obviously a different story when photographing fast moving subjects or photographing in low-light environments.
10.2) Autofocus Performance: Low-Light/Indoors
All AF systems start to suffer in low light situations, simply because very little light gets to the phase detect sensor and it struggles with finding enough contrast (as explained in my “how phase detection autofocus works” article). While the Df definitely does suffer in low light situations, it is not really worse than the Nikon D800/D800E. I used the Df in various conditions and tested the camera’s autofocus performance in a very dimly-lit room alongside the D800E, going from one subject to another. Both cameras performed about the same in low light and I could not tell if one was better than the other. I only used the center focus point for this test, because that’s what I do when shooting in such environments.
Nikon kind of dropped the ball on the AF Assist Lamp though and completely excluded it. Although most people probably do not care for this feature, I find it useful in some situations where the subject is too dark. Looking at the front of the Df, I realize that there was just no place to put it – the left side is already occupied with the timer light, while the right side has the front dial. Nikon could not have put it too far to the right, because that’s where the grip is and fingers would obviously block the light, while the light closer to the mount would be practically useless, as it would hit the lens and the hood rather than the subject.
10.3) Autofocus Performance: Action
When my good friend Tom Redd called me for a photo shoot a couple of weeks ago, I decided to take the Nikon Df and test it out with my favorite Nikkor 300mm f/4D lens. We drove around some local parks and came by a coyote that was hunting for rodents in the snow. It was a beautiful morning after several days of heavy snow, so it provided for a good opportunity to enjoy the nature and take pictures. Here is a shot of the coyote jumping for the kill that I was able to photograph with the Nikon Df:
What you are looking at here is a 100% crop, i.e. pixel level quality. Aside from a little sharpening, clarity and color profile applied in Lightroom, I did not do any other post-processing to the image. The coyote is perfectly in focus and the timing is good – right when the coyote was launching into air to catch a field mouse (and it did catch a few that day). And here is another shot of the same coyote, but at a much closer distance. I down-sampled the image to 2048 pixels wide and did the same type of post-processing as the previous image:
Once again, focus is spot on and the amount of detail in the shot is impressive.
Overall, I am quite impressed by the autofocus capabilities of the Nikon Df for shooting action. While the AF system is not as robust as the one on the D4/D800 and the Df is limited to 5.5 fps, it can still do a very good job, as demonstrated in the shots above. I have not tried much more challenging photography like photographing birds in flight, but that would probably be taking the camera too far, as it is really not meant for that kind of use.
11) Lens Selection and Compatibility
The Nikon Df is the first modern DSLR that works with pretty much every Nikkor lens, including really old pre-AI lenses that cannot be used on regular DSLRs. Nikon was able to achieve this by making the AI coupling lever on the mount flexible – you can flip it vertically and it will be out of the way, so that you can mount a pre-AI lens without jamming it. I have an old pre-AI NIKKOR-S 55mm f/1.2 lens that I never had a chance to convert and had been wanting to use, so it was a perfect candidate for the Nikon Df. Once I got the AI coupling lever out of the way and mounted the lens (which mounted easily), I went to the “Setup Menu -> Non-CPU lens data” and set up the focal length, maximum aperture and picked “Non-AI” under “Exposure meter coupling”. The only thing that I had to remember to do, was to change the aperture on the camera when I changed it on the lens’ aperture ring. Once everything was set, the lens worked perfectly and I enjoyed it quite a bit wide open at f/1.2! Here is a sample image taken with this lens at f/1.2 of my baby girl Jasmine, who posed for a couple of shots while sitting right next to a window with her rabbit toy:
Manual focusing was a breeze, although I was looking through the viewfinder to acquire focus and not Live View. This one is also with minimal post-processing (+15 Shadows, +10 Blacks, 50/1/50 Sharpening, Camera Standard Profile) in Lightroom.
So if you own some old Nikkor glass, the Nikon Df will definitely make you happy, as it is designed to be used with old Nikkor classics. Armed with an f/1.2 manual focus lens and with Nikon Df’s insane low-light capabilities, you are opening up some great opportunities for extreme low-light photography! And the best part – those old manual focus lenses can be bought for real cheap on sites like eBay and Craigslist.
Unlike the Nikon D4 and the D800 that have a sophisticated 3D Color Matrix Meter III exposure metering system with a 91,000-pixel RGB sensor, the Nikon Df comes with an older and simpler 3D Color Matrix Meter II system with a 2,016-pixel RGB sensor – the same one used on the Nikon D600/D610. Again, this is another feature that I wish Nikon did not cut corners on. While I did not find myself constantly fiddling with the Exposure Compensation dial, I did notice that my D800E is more consistent and does a better job in general with handling unusual / high-contrast lighting situations.
13) Buffer and Battery Life
Similar to the Nikon D600, the Df can shoot at up to 5.5 frames per second. In comparison, the Nikon D700 with a 12 megapixel sensor is limited to 5 frames per second (without a battery grip), the Nikon D800 can only shoot up to 4 frames per second and the Canon 6D is limited to 4.5 frames per second. So I find the 5.5 fps speed to be pretty reasonable for the Df. It strikes a good balance – not super fast to compete with the D4, but not a slow crawler either. The bigger concern is not so much the shooting speed, but how long the camera can last before filling up the buffer.
Here is a comparison table of different Nikon DSLR camera buffers:
|Nikon DSLR||Speed||Buffer Capacity||Shooting Time||Image Quality|
|Nikon D7000||6 FPS||15 Images||2.5 Seconds||12-bit Compressed RAW|
|Nikon D7100||6 FPS||9 Images||1.5 Seconds||12-bit Compressed RAW|
|Nikon D300s||7 FPS||20 Images||2.85 Seconds||12-bit Compressed RAW|
|Nikon D600||5.5 FPS||27 Images||4.90 Seconds||12-bit Compressed RAW|
|Nikon D610||6 FPS||27 Images||4.50 Seconds||12-bit Compressed RAW|
|Nikon D700||5 FPS||26 Images||5.20 Seconds||12-bit Compressed RAW|
|Nikon Df||5.5 FPS||47 Images||8.54 Seconds||12-bit Compressed RAW|
|Nikon D800||4 FPS||25 Images||6.25 Seconds||12-bit Compressed RAW|
|Nikon D4||10 FPS||98 Images||9.8 Seconds||12-bit Compressed RAW|
Note that the Nikon Df can fit a total of 47 images into the buffer before it fills up and starts slowing down, which is the second best according to the above chart. The shooting time is also second best after D4 – a total of around 8.5 seconds will elapse before you start seeing the camera slow down to slower speeds. SD card speeds are obviously important in such situations, so if speed is important to you, make sure to get a fast SD card, like the SanDisk Extreme Pro series. I have a few of the SanDisk 16 GB Extreme Pro cards and they are incredibly fast.
When it comes to battery life, while the camera has a rather small EN-EL14a battery (the same one used on entry-level Nikon DSLRs like Nikon D5300), it is stated to deliver 1400 shots, which is a lot for such a small battery. In comparison, the bigger and heavier battery on the D600/D610 DSLR can only deliver up to 900 shots. But keep in mind that those numbers are based on CIPA testing, which means that the built-in flash is used for some of the shots, if the camera is equipped with one. Naturally, the built-in flash drains the battery much faster. Since the Df has no built-in flash, it can deliver a lot more shots in comparison. In my opinion, Nikon did the right thing by going with a smaller battery – it makes the camera a lot lighter. At the same time, if you own a D600/D610 or a D800, you will have to carry around another charger when travelling. The good news is, the Df is very efficient in terms of battery life. My first charge lasted close to two weeks, which is impressive. Cold winter temperatures definitely do have an effect on the battery life though, so you might need to recharge it more often when shooting in below freezing temperatures. To get the maximum life out of the battery, I turned off image review in the camera settings. Unlike most higher-end Nikon DSLRs, the Nikon Df has no battery grip option.
14) Dynamic Range
As I have already stated before, the dynamic range on the Df is very good, especially when shooting at high ISOs. As you will see from the next section of this review, the camera does a great job in retaining colors as well, something that high resolution sensors are not as good at. Measuring dynamic range requires a very consistent lab setup (which can get quite expensive). I have done some measurements of dynamic range using Imatest before, but without a dedicated lab and very strict measuring protocols, I found it hard to measure dynamic range consistently between different times. But when I did my measurements in one go before, especially comparing dynamic range between different brand cameras, I discovered that my results were very close to what folks at DxOMark produce. Therefore, until I get a dedicated lab for these kinds of scientific measurements, I will be referring to DxOMark data.
Looking at DxOMark results, the Nikon Df is rated at around 13.1 EVs, which is the same as the Nikon D4. In overall ranking, the camera stands as #33, right below the D4. In comparison, the Nikon D800 and D610 take the first two spots with impressive 14.4 EVs of dynamic range. If you are wondering why there is over a stop of difference between the cameras, then you should know that resolution plays a big role in dynamic range at low ISOs. DxOMark always down-samples images to lower resolution (I believe it was around 8 MP) when measuring ISO and Dynamic Range performance. So a camera with more resolution would definitely look better in recovering shadow details. You can see some of this in the Camera Comparisons section of this review as well, where cameras like Nikon D800E and Sony A7R show very impressive shadows. However, the ranking of dynamic range in DxO’s measurements only applies at base ISO of 100. If DxO were to take the average dynamic range performance across the ISO range, then the Df would actually rank higher than the D800! Take a look at the below graph, which clearly illustrates this:
It is pretty clear what happens past ISO 800 – the Df takes over very quickly and stays consistently high in comparison to the D610 and the D800.
15) Live View
Since there is no video recording option, the Nikon Df only has one Live View mode, primarily aimed for precise focusing. And I am happy to say that Live View on the Nikon Df rocks – it looks very sharp at 1:1 / 100% magnification and represents true pixel level performance. In comparison, the Nikon D800 has a really crappy interpolated Live View at pixel level, which makes it incredibly hard to obtain very precise focus. So the Df is a much better candidate for precision focusing. Once in live view mode, you can press the + – buttons on the side of the camera to zoom in and out. Pressing the AF-ON button will make the camera acquire focus using contrast detection method, which is more precise than phase detection.
16) ISO Performance at low ISOs (ISO 100-800)
- White Balance: Auto
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect
- Long exposure NR: Off
- High ISO NR: Off
- Active D-Lighting: Off
- Image Format: RAW, 14-bit Uncompressed
- Imported images into Lightroom 5.3
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
Let’s take a look at how the Df performs at low ISOs. Here are some crops at ISO 50, 100, 200, 400 and 800:
Keep in mind that ISO 50 is a boosted value, which means that it is simply a software change that darkens the image by a stop. Comparing it to ISO 100, I do not see any differences between the two in noise performance.
As expected, the Nikon Df performs incredibly well at low ISOs.
Boosting ISO to 400 still makes practically no difference, with only a hint of noise appearing at ISO 800.
17) High ISO Performance (ISO 1600-12800)
High ISO performance is a very important measure of DSLR sensor quality for low-light photography. Here is how the Nikon Df performs at high ISO levels between ISO 1600 and 12800:
ISO 1600 still looks very clean and ISO 3200 adds noticeable grain throughout the image, especially in the shadows. Dynamic range stays very high and colors are not impacted at all.
As we move up to higher ISO values, noise obviously starts becoming an issue. At ISO 6400, we now see more noise and bigger grain in the image. There is a little bit of detail loss. However, the image is still impressively clean at such high ISO. Moving up to 12800 the amount of noise doubles and now we clearly see loss of colors and shadow details. There are some artifacts showing up here and there, but nothing major. Still, pretty impressive performance overall!
18) High ISO Performance “Boost” (ISO 25600-204800)
Nikon Df also has extra ISO “boost” levels – ISO 25600, 51200, 102400 and a whopping 204800 for extreme situations. Let’s take a look at these:
Higher ISO values than 12800 on the Df are not native to the sensor, which means that it is simply a software boost, similar to ISO 50. As we get to ISO 25600, there is plenty of noise throughout the image and very apparent loss of colors and details. Look in the red lower shadow area of the ship – the reds are now mixing with blacks. Highlight details are still pretty good though. ISO 51200 destroys a lot of details and now most of the shadow details are gone. Lots of artifacts throughout the image. Personally, I would stay away from anything past ISO 25600.
The last super boost ISOs of 102400 and 204800 result in way too much noise and heavy loss of details, colors and dynamic range. Personally, I would not touch these ISO levels, unless I am shooting in pitch black darkness and have no other options.
19) ISO Performance Summary
As expected, the Nikon Df produces very impressive results at pixel level. ISO performance from 100 to 12800 is definitely in my comfort zone, as it provides plenty of detail and practically no loss of colors and details. ISO 25600 is a little on the noisy side, but also usable in emergency situations, especially if you clean it up with noise reduction software and down-sample to smaller resolution. Anything past ISO 25600 adds a lot of noise and artifacts, while losing a lot of colors and details, especially in the shadows. Personally, I would stay away from anything past ISO 12800-25600 for best results.
Still, it is pretty incredible that you can bump up ISO so high on the Nikon Df. Lower resolution and larger pixels do their job in keeping performance very high at pixel level. As you will see from the next section of this review, high resolution cameras can only keep up with the Df when they are down-sampled to the same resolution.
Please note that the camera comparisons are only based on image quality. Also note that all images from other cameras are down-sampled to 16 MP for a proper comparison.
20) Nikon Df vs D600 ISO Comparison at low ISOs
Let’s see how the Df compares to the budget D600 full-frame camera with the superb 24 MP sensor. Below are some crops at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800 (Left: Nikon Df, Right: Nikon D600):
While both cameras are very clean at ISO 100, the Nikon D600 has more detail in the images. And that’s the result of the down-sampling process – when a 24 MP image is reduced to 16 MP, it results in a sharper image that appears to have more detail. Hence, higher resolution sensors will always have an advantage at low ISO levels when you look at similar size prints.
Images produced by both cameras look very clean at low ISOs. As we approach ISO 800, we start seeing a little bit of noise on both cameras, but it is barely noticeable.
21) Nikon Df vs D600 High ISO Comparison
What about high ISO levels above ISO 800? Let’s take a look:
Things start to look a little different at high ISOs. While the amount of details is very high at ISO 1600 on the D600, it definitely shows a little more noise, especially in the shadows. Pushing to ISO 3200 makes this even more evident:
At ISO 6400 we definitely see more noise on the D600 and there is some loss of shadow details.
And at ISO 12800, the Df clearly performs better, especially at maintaining colors.
Both look very grainy at ISO 25600, but the D600 looks far worse in comparison.
22) Nikon Df vs D600 Summary
Judging from the above shots, it is pretty evident that the D600 maintains a clear advantage at low ISO levels – thanks to having a higher resolution and very low noise levels. Pushed to high ISO above 3200 however, the Df takes over. Do keep in mind that we are looking at down-sampled images though – the D600 would never look this good if you were to judge its pixel-level quality. If you are curious what the two look like at pixel level, take a look at the below images at ISO 6400:
Since the web page will automatically downscale the larger image, I would highly recommend to download both images to your computer for a more detailed analysis. If you look at both at 100% crop (pixel level), the difference is very apparent – the D600 crop is a lot noisier in comparison. This shows that the process of down-sampling / resizing significantly reduces noise.
23) Nikon Df vs D800E at Low ISOs
Now let’s compare the Nikon Df to the D800E, Nikon’s resolution king with a mighty 36 MP sensor. Due to big differences in resolution, the D800E has even more advantages at low ISOs and would appear sharper / more detailed when down-sampled. Here is the performance at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800:
Once again, we see a very similar situation as with the D600 – the Nikon D800E delivers a lot of detail due to downsampling and does an excellent job with keeping noise levels low at low ISOs.
There is a hint of noise at ISO 800 on both cameras, but it is barely noticeable.
24) Nikon Df vs D800E High ISO Comparison
Let’s see what happens at high ISOs above ISO 1600:
As we push ISO to higher levels past 1600, we start seeing noise patterns appear on both cameras.
Noise is pretty apparent at ISO 3200, as demonstrated above. The Nikon D800E has finer noise patterns, thanks to downsampling.
The shadow detail starts to get affected with the D800E at ISO 6400 and there is a little bit of color loss.
Pushed to ISO 12800, the Df still looks pretty clean in the shadows, while the D800E lost a lot of details and colors. In addition, the D800E shows plenty of artifacts throughout the image.
At its maximum ISO of 25600, the Nikon D800E has lost lots of colors and dynamic range and its shadow area is practically non-existent. We see a lot of false color patterns throughout the image. In comparison, the Df still retains some shadow details and it does not introduce false colors or lots of artifacts.
25) Nikon Df vs D800E Summary
When comparing the Nikon Df to the D800E, we see a very similar situation as with the D600 – the cameras seem to be about the same in noise performance at low ISOs, while the Df does a better job in handling high ISO levels. At the same time, the D800E shows sharper / more detailed results, when a 36 MP image is resized to 16 MP. The situation is obviously very different at pixel level, when you zoom in to both at 100%. Take a closer look at the Df and D800E at 100% crop (ISO 6400):
Once again, I recommend that you download both images to your computer for a more detailed analysis. The D800E not only has more noise, but it shows some artifacts in the shadows at ISO 6400 and there is a noticeable loss of shadow details and colors.
26) Nikon Df vs Sony A7R ISO Comparison at Low ISOs
Lastly, let’s compare the Nikon Df to Sony’s new full-frame mirrorless camera, the A7R. Here is the comparison at ISO 100, 200, 400 and 800:
Since the Sony A7R also has a 36 MP sensor, it has a serious advantage in providing the extra detail after images are down-sampled to 16 MP.
We can see that the Sony A7R is capable of excellent image quality at low ISO levels, including ISO 800. There is very little difference in noise performance between the Df and the A7R.
27) Nikon Df vs Sony A7R High ISO Comparison
Let’s see what happens at high ISO levels above ISO 1600:
As we crank up ISO to 1600, we start seeing very slight differences in noise performance between the two. The Sony A7R seems to have finer, but darker grain.
The same thing happens at ISO 3200, except the A7R shows a little more shadow noise.
And the difference is more apparent at ISO 6400 – now the A7R is losing more shadow details and colors.
At ISO 12800, the Df maintains a clear advantage – the shadow detail and color loss on the A7R is higher and we see plenty of artifacts throughout the image.
At at the boosted ISO of 25600, both look noisy, but the A7R looks a little worse in comparison. Take a look at the colors of the ship, especially the red area.
29) Nikon Df vs Sony A7R Summary
As I have demonstrated in previous articles, the Sony A7R seems to produce a little more noise than the Nikon D800E. While the camera does really well at low ISOs, it loses more colors and details above ISO 6400. As a result, the Df looks better in comparison. Again, this is happening at down-sampled resolutions. What about pixel level quality? Let’s take a look at 100% crops at ISO 6400:
You could see right away that the image from the Df looks cleaner and contains more color and shadow detail information. The Sony A7R produces plenty of false color noise in the shadows and we can see that the dark red colors are actually merging with black in the shadow area of the ship. The colors also look more vibrant on the Df throughout the image.
30) Camera Comparison Summary
When we look at the above comparisons and compare the Df to the down-sampled images from the D600, D800E and A7R, we don’t see a huge difference in performance between all of these cameras. While the Df seems to have some advantage in maintaining colors, dynamic range and details at high ISOs, it is not a staggering difference – it varies anywhere between 1/3 of a stop to maybe 1/2 of a stop. At the same time, the higher resolution cameras deliver amazing performance at low ISOs and provide sharper / more detailed results when down-sampled to 16 MP. So at the end of the day, it is not about one camera being a whole lot better than another. I would say that all cameras are more or less equivalent in image quality. Think of it this way – we have four cameras at different resolutions (16 MP, 24 MP and 36 MP) and they are basically on par when looked at a 16 MP print size. The below SNR graph from DxOMark confirms my findings:
As you can see, once images are down-sampled to the same resolution print, there is very little difference in ISO performance between all these cameras. Where the 16 MP Df stands out is at super high ISO levels above ISO 25600, but those are very noisy and practically unusable anyway.
So, what is the point of having different resolution sensors, if they are all somewhat similar? Well, if you read the Section 8 of this review, I brought up a number of points on why many photographers choose smaller resolution sensors. There are those of us that do not like dealing with large files and lots of resolution for their work, especially if they want to work fast and efficient. So at the end of the day, it is not all about the sheer number of pixels! Many feel like 12-16 MP is plenty of resolution for their everyday needs – sometimes less is more…
Having used the camera for the past few months, I understand why the Nikon Df creates so many emotions among photographers. It seems like the camp is divided between those that absolutely hate the Df and those that love and enjoy it. I partly blame it on Nikon for creating an over-hyped mood with its marketing video “teasers”, which set up unrealistic expectations among most Nikon followers and enthusiasts. With its retro design / controls, simpler autofocus system, beautiful images straight out of the camera and some obvious quirks noted on the previous sections of this review, it reminds me of the Fuji mirrorless system, the basic premise of which is to promote slowing down and carefully composing each shot before taking a picture. At the same time, I do feel like Nikon could have done a few things to make the Df a much more appealing camera. While I generally like retro controls in modern cameras (Fuji’s line of X-series cameras is beautiful and well-thought, Olympus did a really nice job with designing the OM-D series), the retro controls on the Nikon Df just do not feel like they were well-thought out. The biggest issue with those controls, in my opinion, is Nikon’s decision to mix the modern PASM dial with a Shutter Speed dial, which just don’t work well together. It feels wrong to be shooting in Aperture Priority mode and still have the ability to set the Shutter Dial to any shutter speed, even though it has absolutely no effect on the exposure. As I have stated in the long “Retro Controls and Handling” section of this review, Nikon could have easily fixed the problem by excluding the PASM dial and including an “Auto / Program” setting in the camera menu when changing the lens Aperture, which would have given real purpose for the Shutter Speed dial. Aside from this particular problem, I like the way Nikon implemented the retro controls on the Df. It does take some time getting used to when moving from a traditional DSLR, but once you get the hang of it, handling is a breeze.
For me personally, the real strength of the camera, however, is in its amazing image quality and light weight. After assisting my wife in shooting weddings, where I often end up with the D3s in my hands and a few heavy lenses, I have been wanting to switch to something lighter that is not going to put too much burden on my back and Lola’s editing time. I love my Nikon D800E, but Lola hates editing the image files that come from it. Nikon Df produces stunningly beautiful images when compared to other high-resolution full-frame cameras, as can be seen from the Camera Comparisons section of the review – basically the same quality you would get when shooting with the top-of-the-line Nikon D4. Yet it is much smaller, lighter and cheaper than Nikon’s flagship model. What’s not to like?
This camera was never supposed to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is a niche product – it was designed to be. Thus, I find it understandable that there are people who love it, and those who see no point in Df’s existence. The trick here is to respect both choices. What I find hard to digest, is the hatred Nikon Df receives from some people. Why would someone hate a camera they are not obliged to buy or use? After-all, it is not like we are dealing with a ridiculous Hasselblad Lunar or other non-original copycats with absurd price tags attached to them. This is a Nikon original with a whole different concept, a complete deviation from Nikon’s typical product line. It is something new, something refreshing after the long tradition of making the same-looking black DSLR cameras. Personally, I welcome this change, because it could be the beginning of something more exciting, more interesting. Perhaps this is the first iteration and Nikon’s attempt to do things differently. Perhaps we will see a second-generation Nikon Df2 in the future, with a cleaner layout, more features and who knows – maybe even a piece of groundbreaking technology or two.
Interestingly, most of the hate that I see on the Internet is from those that have never used or touched the camera. But that’s the age we live in – people’s feelings get intensified and amplified by the power of free speech and anonymity the Internet provides. Their judgement is based on pure specifications and the price tag – something the Df obviously does not excel at when compared to alternatives. Plus, it is not a camera without faults; it is expected that it would create plenty of controversy and negative buzz.
The good news is, we have plenty of full-frame choices. Everything from the D610 on the low end of the price spectrum to the top-of-the-line D4. The Df fills another gap, even if it is a small one. But it is hardly a bad camera as most people seem to claim. As for me and Lola, we have already sold our D3s and replaced it with the Df for our portrait/wedding business. And for now, I have yet to see an unhappy owner of the Df – those that buy it seem to know exactly what they want.
31) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Nikon Df body only for $2,746.95 for both silver and black versions (as of 02/12/2014).
32) More image samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Quality
- High ISO Performance
- Size and Weight
- Dynamic Range
- Metering and Exposure
Photography Life Overall Rating