It is clear that the design is not the most important item when the potential of a camera comes into question (at least it should not be), but the Nikon Df is striking regardless of the fact whether you belong to those who like it or not. Admirers of old analog cameras, especially those from the Nikon’s cuisine, will recognize with ease the design, which took over the better part of its solutions from Nikon’s SLR models, such as the FM. Naturally, one hundred percent overlap of the famed camera would be impossible owing to the specificities that follow the digital technique, but it could be said that, at least from the front and from below, the Nikon Df succeeded, to the greatest degree, in visually evoking the spirit of the old times. The key parameters can be controlled completely manually, by using the dedicated dials for the ISO value and exposure, while a separate command for the exposure compensation is available as well. The list of the dials ends with that, so the camera exhibits a rotary on-off switch, as well as a mode selector, which is reduced to four basic, creative modes, without any scene ones, i.e. those programmed in advance. Provided that in your collection of lenses you have some of the older non-G models that exhibit a mechanical ring for the aperture opening, the retro effect will be complete. Ok, almost complete. The sensor is, after all, a modern element!
Physically not too large, yet pretty far from the MILC category, the Nikon Df very successfully evokes memories of the ancient times. The dimensions of 144 x 110 x 67 mm make it similar to the model D610, although they completely differ as far their shapes are concerned, which makes the feeling entirely different. Despite the design that seems massive, the Nikon Df is even a little bit easier than D610 and the total mass including the battery equals 760 grams. The grip is evidently shallower in profile in comparison to conventional DSLRs, which in reality leads to two things: a feeling in your hands that at the same time evokes nostalgia, but also inconvenience when you put a lens of a higher weigh category on the body, such as the AF-S 70-200mm f/22.8 ED VR II. Even after using it for a while, it becomes clear that this camera is not designed for heavy zooms or long-range prime lenses, but it will agree far more with less powerful zooms and short-range prime lenses with the focal length of 24 to some 135 mm. Everything above that becomes a challenge. The retro design only then charges for its visual receptivity, so you should bear this in mind if you considered engaging the Df professionally. The Nikon Df is offered in two variants, just as the analog models it looks up to – a black one, as the one we had at the review, and the other one in which silver is the dominant color, mainly on the top and bottom side of the body. The fact that opinion is divided about which variant is more beautiful tells us that probably neither of them will dominate the other as far as the sale is concerned.
Because of the specific shape, the construction platform is intentionally made for this camera, and it is similar to the D610 and D7100, due to the fact that the use of magnesium alloy is reserved for the entire case, except from the front part, which is made of plastic:
Magnesium-plastic body of the new camera*
Luckily, just like in the case of the aforesaid models, this type of construction did not affect greatly the robustness of the camera, so the Nikon Df can boast a considerable level of sealing, which according to the producer’s statements, provides sufficient resistance to all weather conditions, including the presence of dust. Of course, as we always point out when the sealing comes into question, it does not mean the ability to be immersed in water, which requires specialized equipment. We can see the sealed joint in the following schematic representation:
Schematic representation of sealing points on the Df*
The curtain is estimated at decent 150,000 actuations, and even though that rate does not mean a guarantee, we have no doubt that a greater part of specimens will successfully reach, and even exceed, this number, just as it is the case with the majority of other cameras nowadays.
The Nikon F-mount is physically compatible with the majority of existing lenses, and the Df’s uniqueness is in that it currently stands for the digital Nikon that achieves the highest possible level of compatibility with all lenses that this company ever produced! Aside from a series of auto-focus AF, AF-D, AF-S lenses, the compatibility includes and the so-called non-CPU lenses, which are not equipped with electronics, so their parameters can be memorized for nine models and, in that way, their use would be made considerably easier. Of course, that is not a novelty, since we are familiar with similar situations concerning several other more recent Nikon DSLR models. However, that is not the end. The specificity of the Df is in the AI lenses support implementation (the so-called automatic-indexing), since the stop, which is designed for them on the mount and which enables functional metering of light, but which is also present on all the bodies of the higher category, is possible to flip and in that way enable the use of lenses that even date from the period before the AI era (the so-called non-AI), produced before 1977. Those informed know that so far it has been possible to use these lenses, yet only on entry-level Nikon bodies (since they do not possess a stop) and without any light metering. On the other hand, for the majority of modern Nikon DSLRs of the higher category the existence of this stop creates an almost insurmountable problem since the same physical one prevents the assembly of such old lenses. The Df enables easy use of such lenses in the manual mode and in some cases it requires only a simple improvisation by locking the exposure in the aperture priority mode. For many people, this will be a piece of information worth its weight in gold, which brings a new life in the digital era to the entire generations of the once popular lenses. On account of the fact that a number of the mentioned old Nikon’s lenses were used for the last time to their full potential on the analog bodies such as F3, F4 or FM, the Df proved itself a truly retro device in a most unexpected way! It appears that design is not solely a matter of cosmetics and solely for the purpose of marketing…
SENSOR, PROCESSOR, AND A FEW MORE THINGS
We are positive that the greatest number of interested parties and potential purchasers of this camera consider the design a motivating factor of purchase. We are, on the other hand, interested in the sensor. The primary subsystem of a modern digital camera, its sensor, in the Nikon corporation has been brought to perfection; what is more, it proved that it is even not important from which cuisine a sensor stems. New generations of Nikon cameras, at least in the APS-C segment, almost completely turned to the sensors from the Toshiba corporation, while in the upper segment Nikon still mainly sticks to its old partner, Sony. The Nikon Df is special in this aspect, too; thus, it borrowed the sensor from none other than the top model – D4. The specialty of this camera with the most prestigious segment is in that the sensor was designed and signed by Nikon, and it was produced on the premises of the company Renesas.
While this piece of information will definitely divide the public into aficionados and fierce critics, the fact that the sensor that was offered was one of only two 'high-end' reporter models on the market argues in favor of the idea that a new camera does not differ from the existing ones by the outer 'façade', but by the philosophy according to which it was conceived.
With the following features, 3:2 aspect ratio, 36 x 23.9 mm dimensions, 16.2 MP resolution (more precisely 4928 x 3280 pixels), the CMOS sensor is one of rare offshoots that in the Nikon cameras of the new generation maintained the AA/LP filter (Anti-Aliasing/Low-Pass), by means of which twofold doubling of light rays is conducted before meeting photocells of the digital sensor, all that with the aim of eliminating toothed edges on the contours of photographs and, above all else, the undesirable moiré effect. Whether the resolution of this sensor lived up to the demands of the market is a question to which there is no simple answer. The public is polarized even on this question, so some lay stress on the resolution as the most essential item in relation to a sensor, whereas others prefer higher ISO performances – exactly what the Nikon Df should excel at. In the practical part of the review we will try to determine what is lost and what is won when on the other end of the scales the Nikon D610 is placed, a cheaper model with a 50% higher resolution.
Upgraded 16.2 MP Nikon CMOS, known from the D4*
The basic ISO range of the new camera starts from ISO 100 and goes to maximum 12800, while the software extended values are available in three lower L (L1.0 (ISO 50), L0.7 (ISO 64) and L0.3 (ISO 80)) values, as well as in a range of higher values. Such an ISO range encompasses as many as 4 software sensitivity boost apertures (!) - H0.3 (ISO 16000), H0.7 (ISO 20000), H1.0 (ISO 25600), H2 (ISO 51200), H3 (ISO 102400) and H4 (204800). This indirectly leads to an extraordinary dynamic range and ISO performances, so we are extremely impatient to try it out in practice!
The central processor from the Expeed family, to everyone’s surprise, remained from the last generation, which is a little odd, due to the fact that the previously presented Nikon D5300 had already brought the fourth generation of this chip. If we take into consideration the fact that many novelties that are introduced by Expeed virtually would not have any importance in this camera, we can understand this move. On the other hand, the choice of the old processor may also indicate that the work on this camera started a few years earlier.
Brains behind the system - Nikon Expeed3*
The vibrating dust reduction system, which has been present for years in Nikon DSLRs, is embodied in the technology called 'Integrated Dust Reduction System'. It functions in a similar way as the solutions applied in cameras of other manufactures, and it includes a connection of differently charged surfaces and the 'low-pass' filter, from which dust is shaken away by means of piezoelectric vibrations. Nikon’s solution vibrates at four different frequencies, with which it actively influences dust particles of various sizes. Unless customized differently, cleaning activates every time the camera is turned on/off. Additionally, if needed, it can be activated while the camera is being used. The long-term presence of self-cleaning systems in more or less all modern DSLRs indicates that this system helps keeping the sensor clean, and not only the sensor, it can be combined with the 'Image Dust-off' option of software dust removal that, with the help of the Nikon Capture NX2 application, maps the remaining dust particles and cleans them from the photographs.
Nikon Integrated Dust Reduction System*
The light metering sensor was also taken from Nikon’s previous models of the medium and high class. It is in charge of both determining the exposure and the flash glare intensity in the i-TTL mode. The stress is on the TTL sensor composed of 2016 pixels capable of performing metering of all the three RGB (Red/Green/Blue) color channels, by which, in addition to the reflected light itself, the coloring saturation is metered, and in this way the final metering value is driven to its average point, in order to achieve the best possible exposure and detail preservation, regardless of conditions. As with all other Nikon’s DSLRs, three modes of metering are on, where the special stress is laid on the 3D Color Matrix metering II. This mode performs metering with the aid of all the three color channels, in that way collecting samples of the reflected light from the whole sensor, after which it calculates the average value, at the same time taking account of the tonality, color presence, and in combination with the D and G lenses, the distance at which the light is metered, with which the desired part of the frame 'bears the brunt' in determining the correct exposure. In combination with the so-called 'non-CPU' lenses (lenses without the accompanying electronics), this metering is only possible to use providing that relevant information about the hooked-up lens is entered. The center-weighted metering also measures the entire scene, but with stress that values the middle part of the frame with 75, owing to which it is favorite when shooting portraits comes into question. For complete functionality, it also demands usage of modern lenses, when the diameter of the metering zone can be adjusted according to one’s needs (ø8, ø15, ø12 and ø20mm), and if old lenses without electronics are used, the default metering zone is 12 mm in diameter. The final metering mode is Spot. This mode places an accent on a very narrow circle of 4 mm in diameter (1.5% of the frame area) with a center at the currently chosen focal point, which is why it is used in situations where one has to determine the correct exposure of the focused subject, irrespective of the exposure of the rest of the frame. When used with 'non-CPU' lenses, it works only on the central point.
In case a photographer prefers certain corrections concerning light metering, there is a Fine tune optimal exposure option in the Custom functions, which can perform additional 'calibration', of the light meter according to the photographer’s own preferences and for every metering mode respectively, in steps of 1/6 stops. After such a correction, with which the obtained measures are constantly corrected for a certain value, and which should not be changed for custom exposure compensation, the metering becomes permanently 'changed' for a preferred value, so that it is not saved in the EXIF structure, nor annulled with the system reset. Of course, it can be restored to the default value at any time, if there is a need for that. It is a very convenient option, and especially if you do not fancy Nikon’s idea of the properly metered exposure.
TTL 2016-pixel RGB exposure metering sensor*
The usual function of high-end Nikon DSLRs, the Virtual Horizon, is also available on this model. The said function is intended to realign the camera more easily to the horizon, which helps photographers avoid a centuries-old problem – 'photo leakage'. The advantage of this function in relation to 'by-hook-or-by-crook' methods, in the form of various levels and other systems of leveling, lies in permanent presence in front of a photographer’s eyes, both when watching through the viewfinder and through the main display. The function of the Virtual Horizon is implemented into one axis, regardless of the camera orientation, which means that it will assist in leveling the unwanted leaning to the left or to the right, respectively, in both vertical and horizontal shooting position:
Virtual Horizon, camera leveling function at work – inside the viewfinder (left) and on the main display (right)
The auto-focus is another of the systems taken from the D610, which we deem to be a slightly odd choice. In view of the price class to which it belongs, we expected that the Df shares the AF system with the models D4 and D800(E), regardless of the fact that its primary purpose will not provoke some functional imperfections that this weaker AF sensor reveals, particularly a smaller number of and a worse layout of cross-type AF points. To remind, we are dealing with the Multi-CAM4800FX AF sensor with 39 AF points, out of which nine central points are cross-type.
Multi-CAM4800FX, TTL AF module with 39 points, 9 of which are cross-type*
39 AF points cover the most important, yet relatively small, part of the frame, and when needed, their number can be limited to only 11 for the manual selection. The central 33 are available at aperture openings of at least f/5.6 to f/8, while the 7 central points are available even at f/8. The layout of all the points, as well as of the cross-type ones, depending on the maximum aperture, can be seen below:
A representation of the layout with 39 or 11 AF points, as well as 9 cross-typed
There are two modes of focus and they are standard for Nikon cameras: the AF-S (Single-Servo AF) is the most frequently used mode for one-time focusing with a previously set point or a set of points; the AF-C (Continuous-Servo AF) mode is used for permanent adjustment of the focus in relation to the subject, i.e. its distance and position opposed to the selected AF point or group of points, and as such – serves for tracking a subject in motion. Apart from these auto-focus modes, there is also the manual focusing, supported by an integrated rangefinder whose services enable a more precise manual focusing, and it is active on apertures of f/5.6 and bigger, of course – on any out of the 39 AF points that can be selected. We direct a criticism at the simplified graphic representation of the rangefinder function, which could have been taken from a camera of the lower class, with which this segment was established with higher quality. Instead, the camera whose target group are aficionados of old manual lenses displays the function of a rangefinder from a camera of the higher class with which it was (paradoxically) carried out worse and it boils down to symbols for the front/back and in-focus positions. All this would not be that much unusual if Nikon had not decided to implement fixed focal plane into the Df instead of an interchangeable one, with the ability to adapt to the conditions of manual sharpening, which was expected.
There are four auto-focus modes that are used in combination with the aforementioned AF modes. They refer to the number and type of selection of AF points. The single-point AF is the most basic variant of the focus, but traditionally the most reliable, since the photographer maintains a complete control of the moment of focusing and of the selected point. It is available in both focus modes:
Single-point AF, focusing with one point selected
The second mode, Dynamic-area AF, represents a way of focusing mainly intended for tracking of a subject in motion, when the accent remains on the previously selected point, and the surrounding points help with recognizing and keeping the focus on the selected subject. Use is intended for the servo mode of continuous focusing (AF-C), while it is unavailable in the Single-servo (AF-S) mode. Depending on the conditions, i.e. the complexity of the motion of the subject, one can opt for one of the three sub-options. They represent the option of selecting automated focusing by using all the 39 points, by reduction to only 21 or only 9 points. A group of 9 points is intended for situations when it is difficult to maintain one focus point (in the Single-point mode) usually on a small subject that is moving relatively quickly, but still predictably:
Dynamic-area AF, focus area with 9 AF points
21 points will be more convenient for tracking a less predictable motion of the subject, but with the drawback of reduced accuracy, since the AF system will not always make a good estimate of the necessary distance:
Dynamic-area AF, focus area with 21 AF points
And a variant with 39 points is intended for tracking extremely quick subjects that cannot be maintained in the same part of the frame:
Dynamic-area AF, focus area with 39 AF points
3D-Tracking is the most complex auto-focus mode, because it involves a maximum 'concentration' of the two key systems in the camera – auto-focus and metering system. It is a focus mode with which, after an initial selection of the subject, the subject (in all three axes) is being tracked in the frame with an automatic change of the active AF point, as long as the subject is reflected inside the marked focus area. Coordination is permanently performed between the AF sensor and the exposure metering sensor, which analyses tonality, color, and illumination of the selected subject, and based on the data received, informs the AF system of the position of the subject and predicts the motion. If the subject, due to the photographer’s late action, temporarily 'leaves' the focus area, all that should be done is to repeat the selection of the subject. As we expected, the 3D-Tracking is available only in the continuous tracking mode (AF-C):
3D-Tracking, automatic tracking of a subject in space, by dynamic change of points
As we stated many times in the reviews of a number of other Nikon models, although it appears that this is too big a bite for today’s cameras, the 3D-Tracking in some situations manages to keep the focus on the selected subject quite well, which in some cases may produce much better compositional freedom, otherwise far restricted when it comes to action photography. Especially because it functions in such a way that it requires a minimum need for tracking the subject by moving the camera, as long as it is in the 'eye' of the focus area. The main difference between this and the previous mode of the dynamic zone with 39 points is the fact that the 3D-Tracking does not have a 'primary' point. The subject is selected in the beginning, after which all the AF points become equal and pass the priority to one another, in accordance with the movement of the subject in the frame. In the Dynamic-area mode with 39 points, one point has the absolute priority, while others only assist. Anyway, the 3D-Tracking is not almighty and one should avoid it in almost all situations when the subject is not distinctly delineated from the background, i.e. when the background is either too close or too confusing so that the exposure meter has difficulties to track the selected subject.
The last mode of focus on most cameras is in fact the default one, even though in no variant can it be the most effective, not to mention the most accurate. The producer may start with the assumption that the majority of future owners are insufficiently informed about the features that characterize the modern AF system, which is why they offer from the beginning that which everyone will know how to use. We believe that the situation is quite the opposite in fact and that the presence, let alone laying stress on such automatics, does users a disservice and leads to utter confusion. The auto-area AF is a prime example of what happens when the camera tries to 'think', endeavoring to select a subject at its discretion. Most frequently, it selects the closest subject in the frame, i.e. the subject, if the exposure meter registers the skin tone. It is available in both focus modes:
Auto-area AF, completely automatic selection with all AF points
In real conditions, it sometimes happens that the photographer’s wishes and the camera’s assumptions match, yet the central problem is the fact that the camera’s accuracy is not to be counted on since its manner of determining priority is questionable, to say the least. Namely, the automatic point-selection mode takes as priority primarily the closest subjects in the frame, as long as they are, even partially, covered by the focus area. In some situations that will definitely lead to the right focus, but in some quite probably it will produce an unfortunate result. That is why we claim that the manual point selection is a better solution and that the automatics should be cast aside as soon as possible, regardless of whether there exists some prior knowledge or not.
A group of options related to the auto-focus offers a set of usual options, among which is the AF Fine Tune, a function by means of which focus calibration can be performed. The calibration can be performed for a total of 12 lenses, in ±20 steps, individually for each lens, or globally, for the whole camera. It is a convenient possibility that is relatively rarely used, but that can be worth its weight in gold in case of minor problems with the focus, since it can eliminate the owner’s needs to visit the service. The only condition is to keep the focus constant, regardless of the focal length.
Another option for the additional adjustment of the AF to the photographer’s needs is the Focus Tracking with Lock-On. In five steps, it adjusts the AF system’s reaction speed to the change of distance of the selected subject, when the AF-C focus mode is selected. The highest level (5) causes the longest pause between two adjustments of the focus (e.g. in case you are tracking a subject in whose direction unwanted objects frequently appear, and which should be ignored by the AF), while the lowest (1) performs very frequent adjustments of the distance. This option can completely toggled off as well, when the adjustments are performed instantaneously, without pauses, which will be used most frequently when shooting very dynamic scenes, when quick adjustments are key to a good result. That implies some negative consequences as well, such is an undesirable and exaggerated reaction of the AF system to the obstructive elements in the frame, such as for instance lamp posts while shooting a car in motion. Exactly for those situations this option is the most useful since sudden shifts of distance in front of the selected AF point will be simply ignored.
The usual companion of the AF system on Nikon cameras is a solid AF-Assist lamp, which does not exist on the Nikon Df, which we consider an intolerable drawback, since the ISO range implies the use of more than poor light conditions, which affect the efficiency of the focus subsystem. Instead of that, owners of the Nikon Df will have to rely on the IC beam of the flashgun in case the AF-Assist is necessary.
As with all the cameras with a more complex auto-focus system, it is useful to study its functions, and especially each of its modes, even if you do not need some of them. This approach does not guarantee an absolute success, but it at least frees you from wandering through the menus in search for causes of poorly focused images, and it can drastically shorten the period of adjustment to the new body.
The viewfinder is optical, which is typical for DSLRs, and it is based on a pentaprism that provides 100% of the frame, and thus precise framing. The pentaprism secures a brighter projection, and with the magnification level of 0.94x, it makes the viewfinder very comfortable. The maximum distance of the eye from the optical element, which provides a full view of the frame (i.e. eyepoint), is only 19.5mm, so using the camera with glasses might be a problem. The diopter adjustments are available in the range from -3 to +1, via a dedicated dial on the right-hand side of the viewfinder.
Inside the viewfinder, things are more or less common when Nikon DSLRs are taken into account. The focusing screen is (unfortunately) unchangeable this time, too, which, in regard to the subject group and the general conception of the camera, can be interpreted as an impermissible deficiency. Behind the archaic name of Type B BriteView Clear Matte Screen Mark VIII, is the focusing screen with a dynamic display, which is secured by a special transparent LCD film, set between the focusing screen and the pentaprism, by means of which the most important parameters, AF points and a framing grid for easier coding are displayed in front of the photographer’s eyes. The AF points are placed in a visible frame, and can be seen at the same time solely during the process of selecting the AF mode. The framing grid, which is how Nikon labels the 4x4 framing grid, helps in composing the frame, and, if needed, it can be switched off. The illustration below shows the framing grid in action:
Viewfinder of the Nikon Df
From the informative point of view, the Nikon Df viewfinder offers a voluminous spectrum of information, which will even take turns in some cases, as it is not possible that all of them are presented at the same time. From left to right, there are: the focus and rangefinder confirmation indicator; the indicator of a currently selected light metering mode; the indicator of locked exposure (AE-Lock); the indicator of locked flash power metering (FV-Lock); the indicator of a selected mode; the indicator of adjusting the shutter with the flash speed; the exposure time (i.e. AF mode); the aperture indicator for lenses without electronics; the aperture; the light meter scale of the ±2EV range (with the option of changing the +/- values); the empty battery indicator; the flash power compensation indicator; the active bracketing function indicator; the exposure compensation indicator; the HDR and Active D-Lighting function indicators; the AutoISO option indicator; the number of remaining shots; the flash ready indicator.
CONTROLS AND OTHER DETAILS
Judging from the general reaction of the public, the controls are without any doubt the most interesting part of the new camera, at least if we talk about the first contact. They are organized in such a way so as to be reminiscent visually and mechanically of the famous past of analog Nikon cameras as much as possible, and they are functionally designed so as not to complicate your life. Namely, if at any moment you wish for typical DSLR managing, the Nikon Df will enable you just that, bearing in mind that the modern way of managing by means of the two control dials is still existent.
The front view of the camera reveals a relatively familiar layout, which is very similar to what we are used to with Nikon DSLRs, and at the same time very classic so that it irresistibly reminds us of old analogue SLRs of this manufacturer. The first thing that caught our eye is the logo on top of the case of the prism – it was purposefully designed to be reminiscent of the old design of this manufacturer. On the sides, slightly pushed to the front part, are links designed for tying the shoulder strap. They are set so as to maintain the brunt of the camera, together with hooked-up lenses, in order for the camera not to lean forward, but keep balance. Unfortunately, some users noticed that the link on the right side of the camera (i.e. on the left, if we look at the camera from the front), often can obstruct the index finger if we keep the finger constantly on the shutter button.
The handgrip was not taken from the old SLR as it had not had it. Instead, a handgrip of smaller dimensions was created, in order to secure more or less comfortable position in the hand, and at the same time not to affect too much the harmony of the design. On the spot where we have not seen it before, between the handgrip and the mount, is the front control dial, by which, depending on the selected mode, one of the primary parameters is controlled. Its orientation is now different, with the axis that is set longitudinally in relation to the camera, which is why it is a little inconvenient to control. We understand the desire for retro design to be as true as possible, but we think that this could have been realized a little more properly. Fortunately, typically for Nikon cameras of the higher class, the purpose of the control dials can be inverted, and even a special adjustment for the aperture priority mode was provided, so that, if you really wish to avoid using the front control dial, you can do it relatively elegantly. Lower in relation to the front control dial, next to the mount, are the programmable Fn (Function) and DOF Preview keys, whose function can be set according to needs, by selecting from the list of predefined controls.
On the right side of the mount, the situation is quite similar to what we see on the majority of other Nikon DSLRs. Aside from the LE diode, which signals delayed releasing, but this time it does not perform the AF-Assist function, there is a control for activating the bracketing function. A little lower is the PC-Sync terminal for connecting to the external lighting, as well as a button for the mount release for the sake of removing the lens. The farthest down is the switch for selecting the automatic or manual focus mode, in whose center is the button that, in combination with the control dial, performs the selection of the focus modes.
The upper side is characterized by a completely different design in comparison to all conventional, modern DSLRs, and it is easy to notice the dominance of all kinds and designs of mechanical dials, made of aluminum, conveniently toothed, in order to be easier for control, and engraved with clear markings. Of course, the central part on the upper side of the camera still occupies the case of the prism, on top of which is the hot shoe for the flashgun, but that is where all the similarities with modern DSLRs stop. On the left side of the prism, one above the other, are the dials for controlling the ISO values in the steps of 1/3EV and the aperture compensation of the range of ±3EV, also with the steps of 1/3 EV. Both dials are blocked so that there would not be involuntary spinning, and we are not most satisfied with the fact that every dial has its button for unblocking, and also its marker of the current value, because of which, at least in the beginning, the dials will be often set to incorrect values. It would be completely logical if the same marker referred to both dials, but that is the way it is. We do not like either the fact that the unblocking button of the ISO control requires to be pressed with the thumb of the left hand because of its position, in order for the dial to turn using the index finger, which in reality means considerably inconvenient manipulation with slightly heavier lenses.
We also have a criticism against the ISO dial which does not have the AutoISO position, so in order to perform that function, it is necessary to open the menu system and find the corresponding option. Nevertheless, it is possible to grant the AutoISO shortcut to one of the programmable buttons on the front side of the camera, so the quick activation of the AutoISO option is possible after all, on condition that you have previously set its parameters. The AutoISO option itself is traditionally a stronger aspect of a Nikon camera, and the Df makes no difference in this regard. It is possible to set the maximum value that will be included, as well as the minimum exposure time. The value that is selected on the ISO dial is taken as the minimum ISO value. In order for everything not to be ideal, the project team took care and enabled the camera to remain confused in some situations – since the position of the ISO dial is taken as the minimum value in the AutoISO mode, it is evidently possible to dumb down the camera if in the settings of this function you set a value lower than the one that is already on the ISO dial. On that occasion, the camera will say hello to you with a confusing note, which will disappear only when you determine what is in fact going on.
The situation to the right from the prism is even a little more picturesque. The dial for the selection of the exposure time strikingly dominates, and has the range from 4 seconds to 1/4000s, in steps from 1 EV. Except for the manual selection of the exposure time, this dial has a few more positions: the B (Bulb; available in the M mode) is intended for long exposures, which last as long as the shutter is pressed; the T (Time; available in the M mode) keeps the curtain open after releasing for as much as 30 minutes or until the shutter button is not pressed again, directly or by means of a remote shutter release; the X (X-Sync; available in the M and S modes) position is intended for operating with the flash and the exposure time is set according to the synchronization speed. The final position, marked with blue – 1/3 STEP - is available in the S and M modes and is intended for those who, due to a more precise control and higher speed of work, wish to control the parameters as modeled on modern DSLRs, by exclusively using the front and the rear control dial. And the exposure dial, as well as the previous two, has the unblock button in its center, and it is specific because it needs to be pressed only if one wishes to switch from the hand control of the exposure to some of the special modes. An inconvenient feature of this control are steps which do not encompass the thirds of steps, so if there is a need to set the exposure more precisely, the only solution remaining is setting this control on 1/3 STEP and managing the control dials in a typical way. We must admit that this is one of the things that convey the impression of vagueness.
At the base of the exposure time controlling dial is the lever for the shutter release mode selection. It has six options: the Single-shot (S), for a classic single shutter release; the Continuous-Low (CL), i.e. a slow burst whose speed can be set in the range of 1-5 fps; the Continuous-High (CH) – a quick burst of 5.5 fps; the Quiet Shutter Release (Q), which is used for situations in which one tries to be as imperceptible as possible, since the shutter sound is considerably lower than usual; the Self-timer is used for a delayed shutter release; the Mirror-Up (MUP) option raises the mirror in the upper position so that vibrations during the release from a tripod would be kept to a minimum.
Moved from the top of the grip, where we are used to find it with other classic DSLRs, a little closer to the prism, is a two-level shutter button. As with the majority of other DSLRs, on the first step, light metering and focusing starts, whereas on the second, the release takes place. This standard technique can be changed with a different control configuration, just as it is done on other cameras. The retro style did not leave out the switch by which the camera is turned on, and in the center of which the shutter button is situated. We a have a criticism concerning the shape of switch, which is strictly circular, so it is virtually impossible to turn on the camera using only one finger, which is how Nikon aficionados are used to with other models. The curiosity related to releasing has to do with the remote shutter release. Namely, the Nikon Df has a connector for classic electronic shutter releases, yet for some inexplicable reason the project team did not find enough space on the body for the infrared (IR) receiver, so the Df is the first Nikon in the last several years that does not have the option of remote releasing. Instead of that, the two-level shutter button has a thread for once-upon-a-time popular wired, mechanic shutter releases, and one such, expectedly, is offered as additional equipment with the Df. Although we consider the support for the mechanical shutter release attractive, to say the least, the omission of the IR receiver is pretty difficult to explain, regardless of insisting on the retro style. Especially since today cameras of the lower class as well, such as the Nikon D5300, have even two such IR receivers!
A little to the right of the shutter button is the simple mode selector, which has four creative modes, and their switching is achieved by means of rotation, by physically moving the selector vertically. The modes that are offered are: the manual mode (M), the aperture priority mode (A), the shutter priority mode (S), and the programmed auto mode (P). A complete auto mode does not exist, and the same is true for the scene modes, which is why the Df indubitably addresses the target group to which it was intended, and these are mostly advanced users, which rarely rely on automatics.
Somewhere among all those dials is the miniature status display. In comparison to its counterparts on modern DSLRs, this one encompasses only the most basic sequence of parameters, which are there just to save some percentage of the battery, so that the photographer would not have to turn on the main display all the time in order to check the settings. If we take into consideration the fact that the majority of the basic parameters can be seen even on the mechanical dials themselves, it is clear that there was no need for a better status display, particularly on such a camera as this one:
Minuature status display
The background light has an unusual bluish-white color and is activated with a control on its right side. The basic list of parameters is quite modest. The list includes: the exposure time, the battery indicator, the bracketing indicator, the multiple exposure indicator, the aperture and the number of shots remaining. Except for these, in certain cases there will be some additional parameters taking turns on the display, such as the intervalometer status, the buffer state, the white balance preset, etc.
The rear side of the camera became a bone of contention among enthusiasts, practically at the same time when it was introduced. A significant number of comments judge the entire rear part of the camera as insufficiently retro and, while we can agree that it could have been better, we do not agree that the final design could have been markedly different from the chosen one. Finally, digital cameras according to the definition include some modern elements, which definitely do not follow the retro trend, and since they are an inseparable part of the whole, they just have to be accepted as they are. The display could have fit into better only if it was mobile and if it could be flipped so that it would not be seen. The rest of the controls on Nikon cameras usually can pass the 'retro-check', so we could consider (subjectively speaking) the said criticisms with approval only in a sense that the used materials could have been fitted into the entire design of the body more properly.
The 3.2” (~8cm) display occupies the dominant position, and the control layout around it is more or less similar to other Nikon DSLRs. That is probably where the said criticism comes from. To the right of the strikingly bulky rubber casing of the optical viewfinder, are the controls for shifting to the preview mode and deleting photographs, whereas along the left end on the display is a series of five regular controls on Nikon cameras, some of which have multiple roles. By the Menu button, one enters the menu system and it does not have a secondary purpose. The WB control is used for setting the white balance, while in the preview mode, it is used for securing images against involuntary deletion. If the menu system is active, by means of this button a call to the interactive system of help is made, which describes the purpose of each single option relatively in detail. The Qual control is used for shooting quality selection, in the live-view mode it is used for magnifying the view, just as in the existing images preview mode. The fourth button is intended for connecting options in which the flash power is set, while in the preview mode and the live-view mode that button performs minimizing of a previously magnified preview. When that button is pressed and held together with the button for the activation of the status display background light, it calls for the procedure of deleting entire settings, which is indicated by the green mark. The final button, marked with the letter i, conducts the interactive change of parameters on the main display, when the Information Display function is active, which will be discussed in more detail later.
On the pentaprism case, on the right side of the viewfinder, is the diopter selection dial, by which the preview in the viewfinder can be adjusted to those who need it. To the right of the viewfinder are two controls. The AE-L/AF-L control is programmable, and the default function is the lock of the exposure or the flash glare intensity. The second control performs separated focusing, independent of the shutter release. Completely to the right from these two buttons is the rear control dial, by virtue of which the change of primary parameters of work is conducted, as a consequence of the selected photography mode.
To the right of the display are several controls. The smaller rotary switch is used for a direct selection of the light metering mode, while below it is another rotary switch, whose function is to lock the active AF point selection. In its middle is an eight-level button that is used for navigating through the menu system and the active AF point selection, whereas in the center itself is the OK button, which is used to perform the confirmation of the selected menu items and the direct central AF point selection. A little below is the LE diode, which signals the memory controller engagement during reading and recording on the memory card, while a little lower are the LV and Info buttons, which are used to call for the live-view mode, i.e. the Information Display.
The memory slot on cameras is usually located on the right side of the camera, hidden under the small door. That is not the case with the Df! The organization that characterizes it is mainly true for compact cameras, where the battery and the memory slot share the same compartment and lid. This slightly odd organization of the camera of such dimensions is probably chosen in order to avoid setting the memory slot doors on the right side and by that 'endangering' the retro style. We are not sure how much this is logical, but we do know that it can be pretty impractical to manipulate the camera of this size, particularly since the door does not have the classic, but rotary mechanism with the 'butterfly' handle, so that the retro design will be complete. As the time goes by, we think that the retro design perhaps imposes too much compromise. Fortunately, this organization did not cause one of the typical problems on smaller cameras – due to the size of the mounting tripod plate, it is impossible to change the battery or the memory card without taking the plate off.
We are also a little surprised with the fact that the Nikon Df has only one memory slot. We say 'only' since Nikon, by insisting on a double memory slot, practically covered an entire gamut of cameras except the series of entry-level models.
Although someone would think that a lower resolution necessarily means a less demanding file, it is interesting that the Nikon Df is in the position to produce even somewhat bigger RAW files than the 24MP sensor from the D610! The reason behind it is the availability of the Uncompressed NEF format, which the Nikon D610 does not have. On the same creative level, the D610 creates somewhat bigger files, but still not as big as the resolution difference suggests. As for the JPEG format, the story is a little different, so they are twice as smaller on this camera. In that way, a memory card with a capacity of 8 GB can store averagely: ~230 RAW, ~1000 JPEG, ~150 TIFF or ~200 RAW+JPEG images combined, in the maximum quality (14-bit lossless RAW + JPEG L/Fine). Of course, variations are possible depending on the noise reduction (the less the noise, the smaller the fails), the number of images at higher ISO values (they occupy more space on average), but depending on the content as well (images with mainly uniform areas occupy less space).
SD memory slot and battery compartment
The battery with the label EN-EL14a is another surprise, as it was taken from the D5300. It has to do with a revision of the old EN-EL14 battery, with which the new one is vertically compatible (which means that it shares the charger and compatibility with already existing cameras), and technically it differs with regard to its capacity. Such a new battery is characterized by a somewhat lower output voltage of 7.2 V and a capacity of as much as 1230 mAh, which is almost 20% higher in comparison to the previous version.
MH-24 charger with a new EN-EL14a Li-Ion 'smart' battery
The battery autonomy according to the CIPA (Camera & Imaging Products Association) standards provides almost inexplicable 1400 shots with everyday use of display! In reality, which includes its use in the most different temperature and light conditions, a combined use of the LV and a lot of navigation through the menus, as well as lenses without stabilization, with and without its own AF motor, the battery provided a rated number of shots, with variations of up to 200 shots, which is a tremendous result. Such a big difference in relation to the Nikon D5300 can be explained by the absence of the built-in flash, which is necessarily taken into account during the CIPA measuring, and additional reasons are hidden behind the direct mechanic controls that drastically reduce the need for any looking at the display whatsoever. Even at the status one.
In comparison to the memory slot, the team of designer did not do their best to hide the connectors, which, as usual, are located on the left side of the camera. Under the three separate rubber covers, one under another, are set the USB, the mini-HDMI and the dedicated interface for accessories. The USB connector can be used for remote controlling of the camera from a computer, for the transmission or printing of images on compatible printers. The mini-HDMI of the C type is designed for sending the preview to an external digital display, such as a monitor or a TV, when they can be used for the live-view mode or for the preview of the recorded photographs. If the camera supports the HDMI-CEC standard, navigation by means of a remote TV controller is enabled. The third connector is used for dedicated accessories, such as the GP-1/GP-1A GPS receiver, the WR-R10 and the WR-1 wireless shutter release or the MC-DC2 remote shutter release.
Connectors: USB, mini-HDMI and combined GPS/remote
The display was taken from the D610. It is a 3.2” (81mm) 921,000-dot display that features 3:2 aspect ratio, which came as slight disappointment, since after the appearance of the 3:2 aspect ratio that characterized the Nikon D5300, we had expected that that aspect ratio would become a standard with Nikon cameras. The display is equipped with an ambience lighting sensor, which in real time adjusts the lighting to the work conditions and automatically increases the contrast when the camera is exposed to the sun or snow, i.e. decreases it when the camera is used in a badly lit room or similar situations. This functions in practice pretty well, but as with similar solutions of other manufacturers, it is not always ideal and sometimes you will wish to adjust the lighting manually, which is an option that the camera offers as well.
We are already used to using the main display as a more detailed version of the status one, and despite the retro design, the Nikon Df is not exempt from this tradition either. The Information Display, as Nikon addresses this function from their point of view, encompasses almost all the relevant parameters and functions that one could need during the work, and they are available not only through managing the direct controls on the camera, but also by means of interactively managing the cursor buttons. The display itself can be adjusted to day and night conditions, manually or automatically. What it all looks like you can see in the following illustration:
Basic parameters on the Information Display, in day and night conditions
The live-view mode (in the further text LV) long ago became an essential function on DSLRs, firstly as a half-functional imitation of the similar way of work on compact cameras, and then as a necessary solution that accompanies video recording. Technically speaking, the LV represents a direct projection of the image from the sensor to the main display, 'live'. That is where the name comes from. Aside from the evident possibility of framing without bringing the camera close to the face (which is usually a little problematic with DSLRs, both because of a rather large mass and easier 'shuddering' of images), the LV enables a considerably more convenient use of a tripod, as well as in any situations in which framing by means of looking through the viewfinder is not physically possible.
Due to the presence of a mirror on the way of the light between the lens and the sensor, the LV on DSLR cameras works slightly differently in comparison to compact cameras. In order for the image to be possible, the mirror mechanism needs to rise from its usual position in order to free the way to the sensor, and consequently, the possibility of framing through the viewfinder is ruled out and, much more importantly, the possibility of using the phase AF sensor is dismissed, since for its functioning it is vital that the mirror be in its lower position. On account of these reasons, the LV mode employs an independent focusing system, known as 'the contrast auto-focus', i.e. the CDAF (Contrast Detection AutoFocus). Its manner of work technically differs from the phase one and is characterized by some positive and some negative properties. A positive one is, indubitably, precision, and a negative one stems from none other but the said precision, and that one is slowness or, if we wish to be politically correct, a low focusing speed. Focusing is performed with the aid of a special algorithm that measures the contrast between differently colored areas on the image from the main sensor and stops the focal plane only when it finds a position that ensures the highest micro contrast among the differently colored areas. The precision of the Df is high, as it was the case before, and the speed did not improve significantly in comparison to previous Nikon models. As with the phase focus, the more uniform the area that is being focused, the tougher the focusing; what is more, the contrast focus evidently has more problems in such critical situations. On the other hand, the majority of other manufacturers upgraded their own CDAF algorithms to the level at which it trails fairly little behind the conventional focus regarding speed; in addition, the only moot point remains the continuous tracking mode. Why Nikon does not grapple with this problem remains a mystery, but we believe that it has to do with the desire to preserve the positions of DSLRs on the market.
There are two focus modes available: the Single-servo AF (AF-S) for static subjects, when focusing, just like with the phase focus, is performed at a one time basis; and the Full-time Servo (AF-F), which corrects the focus permanently, reacting to any change of the distance of the subject that is below the selected focal area. All our previous tests indicated that one should not expect much from this focus mode, and we must state that even today the situation is not much better. Archaic hopping of the focal plane whenever it occurs to it that something has moved (though it often has not) is absolutely inacceptable for anything other than occasional entertainment. However, in some cases, users will be able to use some of the contrast focus modes offered by the Df: the Normal-area AF is a classic CDAF mode, whose focal area is of very narrow dimensions and which can be moved around the frame using the eight-directional joystick button (a 'teeter-totter'); the Wide-area AF is similar to the previous one according to its functioning, but the focal area is significantly wider, so as such it is adapted to frames that do not abound with subjects in close vicinity; the Face-priority AF is a fad long ago incorporated by many manufacturers and it is an imitation of the focusing system of the same name found on compact cameras, which 'looks for' the faces in the frame based on form and coloring and tries to maintain the focus on them; the last mode is the Subject-tracking AF, which is an LV version of the continuous focus and it functions in such a way that a selected subject is continuously tracked in the frame, similarly to the 3D-tracking focus in the phase mode. 'Constantly' is more a descriptive category than being a constant in the true sense of the word. Moreover, you will often wonder, "Where is the focus going?", although there is absolutely no need for that.
A special treat of the LV mode is an extremely precise manual focus system, which allows magnification up to 23 times:
Magnification in the LV mode
The LV is also equipped with standard parameters in the photo and video modes, which can be turned off:
Parameters in LV mode
There is also the framing grid, as well as the Virtual Horizon, for fine leveling of the camera in relation to the horizon:
Framing grid and the Virtual Horizon in the LV mode
Since it has a series of direct, mechanical controls, it was expected that the Nikon Df would get the live-view mode appropriate to a camera of this price level, and instead of that, we got almost a schizophrenic situation in which neither the camera, nor the user knows the current status of the selected parameters. As far as the parameter control itself, it is the same as on the majority of other Nikon DLSRs (except the D800(E) and the D4), which means restricted parameter control in real time. In order for the parameters to become active after change, the LV needs to be deactivated and reactivated. We are familiar with that situation since it is quite frequent with Nikon DSLRs. However, in case of the Df, the situation gets more complicated due to the presence of direct controls, so it occasionally happens that you can see one thing on the display and controls, and after shooting, the photograph turns out completely different. In this respect, individuals identified a problem with the manual focus in the LV mode, and we confirmed by checking that it definitely exists. Namely, if the camera does not show changes on the display, and the parameters become active after shooting, it can happen that focusing on a smaller aperture opening shows a bigger area of the depth-of-field, so in that way it can 'deceive' you concerning its spreading and the thing that you will get on the photograph if, in the meantime, you have selected a bigger aperture opening (which, logically, means a shallower DOF (Depth-Of-Field). That is not a major problem per se if so far you have had a chance to handle the LV on Nikon cameras, yet since the Df systemically supports a much wider range of interesting old lenses, the whole predicament becomes very serious – if you are in a position to use old lenses with the mechanical ring for the aperture opening selection in parallel with new lenses that do not feature it (all the lenses with the 'G' suffix), it is inevitable that you will be often in a chance to simply forget to apply the required ritual. While with old lenses the aperture opening will be inevitably accurate, since the camera has no methods to prevent you in doing that, involuntary relying on the technique with the 'G' lenses will produce undesired results.
As a camera that plays on nostalgia, on the one hand, we can understand that the LV mode remained secondary. On the other hand, precisely that LV mode will be the only link for those who will extensively use the ancient optics, with which the quality manual focus would mean nothing but pure delight. Particularly if we know that the focal plane is not interchangeable, so there is no way to increase the precision of the manual focus, except with the LV. A blessing in disguise is that the Df does not have the video mode, so this fuss with the direct controls will not have even more profound implications. The Live-Histogram still is not on offer, so the LV remains only a handy additional possibility, unfortunately, still disregarded by Nikon’s engineers.
The Nikon Df is currently the only DSLR in the Nikon gamut of cameras that, apart from the D4, does not have the built-in (the so-called pop-up) flash. This surprised us a little, despite the fact that analog cameras, on which the design is modeled, did not feature this accessory as well. The reason why we had expected the built-in flash on the Df after all is purely functional – on all Nikon cameras of the medium and higher class such a flash is used as an initiator of the remote control of flashguns, which this manufacturer has exploited for years as a very strong argument in its models’ favor. Naturally, the systemic support for such an act still exists, so if there is on a camera one of the flashes that can play the role of the master or the SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander, all the required options will be at one’s disposal.
The built-in hot shoe is a standard Nikon one, i-TTL compatible, but with the possibility of using old manual models as well. The meticulousness with which Nikon designed the i-TTL algorithm is probably best reflected in the way flashguns work in the bounce position of the head of the flash (a position during which the head turns toward a reflective surface, instead toward a subject in the frame), when it is capable of automatically determining the needed compensation of the flash power, in order to render a perfect exposure. Moreover, in situations that confuse the majority of TTL algorithms, such as shooting in the presence of a variety of reflective surfaces (mirror or glass), the Nikon’s algorithm will do just fine and effectively prevent underexposure. Finally, Nikon as a company rose to fame when the work with flash lighting comes into question, so it was more than expected that the same would be with the Df.
Since the Df has the PC-Sync connector for controlling studio lighting, it can be controlled in an old-fashioned way, via the sync cable. Of course, unless you already have a wireless release remote.