Nikon Df, A Retrospective Review

When the Nikon Df was launched at the end of 2013, it was unique for several reasons. First, it featured dedicated manual dials for aperture, shutter speed, ISO and exposure compensation. Second, it did not have a video function. Third, the innovative lens mount allowed for the use of all Nikon lenses dating from the the dawn of the F mount in 1959 to the most current G series lenses. In many respects the Df, was at the front of the wave that now includes the highly praised Fuji XT2 with it’s manual controls and the Leica 262 which lacks video and the new Leica M10. Nikon was widely criticized in 2013 for producing such an expensive retro styled camera that lacked video and focused on “pure photography.” Judging by all the copy cats, Nikon has been vindicated for being prescient and forward thinking.

Nikon Df, Nikkor AF-S 50mm f/1.4G
Young Monk. Bhutan, 2016

The advantage of positive manual controls on the Df are that once you set your capture quality you never have to go into your menu tree again except to reformat your memory card. I really love this, I can simply look at my camera and without turning it on know exactly how it is set. Another advantage to that their is no power required to change any of the essential setting required to produce an exposure unless you are using a G series lens. In that case the camera needs to be turned on to select an aperture.

Direct manual controls on the Df include aperture, shutter speed, ISO, exposure compensation, capture speed i.e. continuous high, low, single and quiet. There is a death of field preview button, focus mode selector and function buttons. The exposure compensation button, function button and lens release button are covered in the same hard vulcanite rubber as the optional AR-11 soft touch shutter release. The shutter release itself is a traditional Nikon threaded release and uses standard mechanical cable releases.

The Df uses the same 16 megapixel sensor and EXPEED 3 processor as the flagship D4 and D4s models. Low and natural light performance is outstanding. Color and tonality are what you would expect from a camera that shares the same heritage as the D4/D4s. It is manufactured in the same Sendai, Japan Nikon facility as all their professional grade cameras and lenses rather than Thailand or China.

Nikon Df, AF-S Nikkor 70-200 f/4G.
Hiroshima Castle Bridge and Moat. Hiroshima, Japan. 2014

Turning the camera on is the same as turning on my vintage Nikon FM, with a knurled collar surrounding the shutter release button. In the hand the Df is light, compact and points easily. The built in finger grip on the front right of the camera is reminiscent of the Nikon F3. On my Df, I’ve installed a DK-17M magnifying eye piece to assist with focusing manual lenses. If there is one place where the Df falls a little short is the viewfinder. Even with the magnifying eye piece, nailing manual focus takes practice and patience. Autofocus is perfectly fine for it’s intended usage, a walk around, travel and vacation camera. It is not designed or intended to be a high speed sports, action or wildlife camera. However in the hands of an experienced photographer it is capable of doing anything asked of it.

Nikon Df, AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm f/4G
Florence, Italy. 2015

My Df has been on continuous use since I purchased it in December 2013. For me it was a big departure from the thick grippy DSLR’s I had been using. The feel and exterior controls were immediately familiar and a welcome return to the aesthetic of my film cameras. It fit my need for a light full frame camera with high image quality for travel and everyday use, a companion. I travel extensively and this little camera has circumnavigated the globe. With it I have photographed the mountains, markets and desserts of North Africa, tigers in the jungles of India, rocks and dunes of Death Valley, shrines, temples, gardens and people from all over the world in all conditions. Rain, cold heat, sand. After three years of hard use traveling the world I can confidently say that the Df is a finely built and durable camera.

Nikon Df, AF-S 50mm f1.4G. Bicycle Rickshaw, India. 2016

In my experience the Df works best as a walk around camera with a fast prime mounted. Generally I use the AFS Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G. It’s a pretty traditional combination but the 50mm is how I typically see the world. Yet, sometimes I need to reach out with a zoom or go really wide and that versatility of glass is the true strength of an SLR system.

Photography literally means writing with light and a camera, ultimately is nothing more than a light tight box. All functions beyond activating the shutter are superfluous, ISO, shutter speed, aperture, frame rate, exposure compensation, and even focus are enhancements to the user experience and help the photographer create an image that matches their artistic vision. In my opinion the most successful camera designs are the ones that offer the most transparent user experience.

I was at a Nikon dealer recently in Delhi, India. It was one of those shops tucked away in the labyrinthine old city blocks of markets that give cities like Delhi their incredible charm. The shopkeeper kept looking at my camera, finally he said, “you’re using a Nikon Df.” I nodded and thanked him for noticing. He smiled and said “you can tell a lot about a photographer by the camera they use”. “How do you mean?” I asked. He went on to explain that the Df was a unique camera with an incredible sensor that only a well educated photographer would understand. We had a nice laugh together.

Without the large plastic handles and accessory battery packs, the Df looks and feels like a traditional film camera and people often ask me if I am in fact shooting film. They are surprised when I show it off and are impressed by such simple stills camera. Nikon doesn’t produce the huge accessories for the Df. I really don’t understand the need have a big bulky pack hanging off the bottom of a camera unless you are shooting high speed sports or wildlife photography for the extra balance and battery capacity.  In all day travel and adventure shoots I have never completely exhasted one of the EN-EL14a batteries because I don’t shoot video and rarely use live view. This camera make very efficient use of it’s energy.

As luck would have it, shortly after this article went live the diopter adjustment on my Df broke. Obviously the universe was trying to tell me something. It’s been sent to Nikon for repair and service. We’ll see how it goes. In the mean time I’m making good use of my FM3a, D810 and Sony A7rII.

Death Valley Racetrack, 2014. Nikon Df, Zeiss 28mm f/2 ZF.2

Rumors surrounding the release of a Df2 continue to swirl around the July 2017 centennial of Nikon. Yet, last week they announced a new commitment to mirrorless cameras, professional use cameras and reduce the number of SLR camera models. It’s not clear  how this will affect the future of the Df camera line.

Update, March 24, 2017

Received my Df back today from Nikon, and they did quite a bit of work on it. First all they fixed the diopter problem and replaced the mirror box. They also adjusted the auto focus function, parallax, checked the bayonet mount and checked infinity focus. In addition they performed a general service and cleaning. It now works perfectly and almost looks like a new camera.The exterior of the old mirror box was a bit beat up from all the travel and three years of hard use so I welcome the change. The wear and rubbing on the corners of the body remain but the patina of red dirt, dust, sand and clay are gone. Ah well, back to work.

As I was examining the camera I became curious about Df production numbers. A quick search took me to this page that estimate total production numbers based on serial number and region. There were just over five thousand camera bodies exported to the USA of which mine was #1963. Several thousand stayed in Japan and this mirrors my own experience. Japan is one of the few places in the world where I see other photographers using a Df in the wild.

I also came across this really interesting video by a gentleman from India. In it, he interviews Goto San, the developer of the Df. It makes sense to me that Goto San also developed the Nikon F3. You can clearly see it’s DNA in the Df. I found it particularly interesting that Goto San stated the fusion concept of the Df was to combine the mechanics of the original Nikon F with the digital sophistication of the D4, bridging the two and bringing them together.