Nikon Df Field Test
Nikon Df Field Tests
By Eamon Hickey
Field Test Part I -- Initial thoughts
A great many moons ago, when I was fifteen, my mom and my uncle banded together and bought me the Christmas present I hardly dared hope for: a single-lens reflex camera. It was a lightly-used Minolta SRT-101 with a 50mm f/1.7 lens, a classic metal all-manual SLR. I loved it. Using its simple controls I learned to make pictures.
A decade or so later, while working in a camera store, I earned a Nikon N8008s -- also known as the F-801S -- as a sales incentive. Here was a different beast, with a slew of automatic capabilities and, more radically, a much different control system centered on push-buttons and a multi-function command dial. This new system was made necessary by the camera's dozens of adjustable settings. I took to the N8008s immediately and soon strongly preferred its controls, which made my photography both faster and more precise.
I mention this to sketch the background I bring to the Nikon Df, which its manufacturer sees not as a retro throwback, but as a new blend of the classic and modern. Is that blend a good idea? I've been a bit dubious ever since the camera was announced. At the same time, I was hoping that Nikon would pull it off.
Handling & controls. Straight out of the box, my first impression of the Nikon Df was -- well, it's thicker and bulkier than most classic film SLRs. But that's partly apples and oranges, because it would really only be true if those SLRs didn't have a motor drive attached, and they'd all require bulky ones to match the Df’s 5.5 frames-per-second burst mode. On the other side of the coin, the Df is a bit smaller than most 35mm full-frame DSLRs, and it's lighter than you'd expect. In my large-ish hands, it feels secure and comfortable to hold.
My next move was to start spinning the Nikon Df's old-school dials, which, even if I no longer prefer them, are delightful to behold. Although the feel and precision of the controls -- and of the body itself -- are perfectly decent, they don't quite live up to the premium price and intended aura of the Df. This had no effect on my shooting, but it's still mildly disappointing.
After a quick run through the Nikon Df's menus to set the camera up, I spent some time figuring out how I would interact with its unique control system. My test unit came with the new AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G (Special Edition), which doesn't have an aperture ring, so I would be using the vertically oriented front command dial to change f-stops. Within a couple of minutes, it was clear to me that I wasn't going to love using the Df -- but, by the same token, that it wasn't going to make me miserable either.
And that's exactly how it turned out when I took the Nikon Df on a walk around my neighborhood. Shooting in Aperture-priority mode, I found the front command dial to be usable, but not as good as more typical dials on other high-end DSLRs. I like to shoot in Aperture-priority and make heavy use of exposure compensation. On the Df, the exposure compensation dial requires you to press a locking button to make a change. It can be done by feel without taking your eye off the viewfinder, but it's still slower and less convenient to use than most exposure compensation controls on modern, advanced DSLRs.
I took my walk with the Nikon Df in the late afternoon of a rainy day. The waning light required some ISO sensitivity adjustments, and this setting, too, is controlled by a locking dial. This dial, however, is a real pain. Because of the position of the locking button, you really have to take the camera away from your eye and do some finger gymnastics to change ISO. I neither love nor hate the Df's other dial controls, but the ISO dial was an actual impediment to my shooting.
In the hand & initial performance thoughts. My first outing with the Df may have left me lukewarm, at best, about its control design, but I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and trouble-free it was to shoot with once the settings were dialed in. I was using the AF-ON button for activating autofocus, and it, as well as the shutter release, were simple to find by feel. With plenty of room on the body, button spacing is very good, and I had no problems with accidental control activations. The dedicated exposure bracketing button on the front of the camera made it quick and easy to activate and adjust bracketing, a big plus in my book.
My last impression from that first shoot with the Nikon Df was that it -- like other high end Nikon and Canon DSLRs I've used -- is a very sure picture-taking machine. As I shot images of passers-by, storefronts, and even burgundy couches out on the sidewalk in the rain (in New York one disposes of almost anything, even unwanted furniture, by simply piling it up on the sidewalk), the Df's performance was excellent. Focusing was fast and decisive, and shutter delay was minimal. Control response was instant, and bracketed sequences fired off very quickly. Some of the Df's settings can't be changed quite as quickly as I prefer, but once it's set, this camera is plenty responsive.
Field Test Part 2 -- A Nighttime Stroll
Performance. Since it's equipped with the same sensor and processor as used by the professional D4 DSLR, one could reasonably expect the Nikon Df to be a great low light camera. I decided to test that with a nighttime stroll up Fifth Avenue a few days before Christmas. In this riot of holiday lights and light shows, trees and decorations, display windows and teaming crowds of sightseers, lighting conditions were changing wildly from shot to shot, so I set the Df for manual exposure mode, auto ISO and 3-shot exposure bracketing with the burst rate set for 5.5 frames per second.
This setup worked exceptionally well on the Nikon Df, letting me quickly grab shots as I went; each 3-shot sequence took just over half a second. At one point, near the entrance to Rockefeller Center, I looked up to see a young boy above the sea of people, riding on his father's shoulders. I raised the camera, autofocused and shot three different exposures. The image with 1/3EV of negative exposure compensation turned out to be the best.
I made similarly-quick raise-and-shoot images with the Nikon Df all along Fifth Avenue. These included other kids on parents' shoulders, and shots of cars passing the brightly-lit storefronts. I shot the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, and several other images of the people and lights around the skating rink in "hail mary" style, holding the Df above my head to shoot over the crowd. In every case the camera focused quickly and decisively, and cranked out bracketed exposures with no delay, fuss or muss.
The Df's controls also responded immediately to my changes and inputs, and it never kept me waiting. As I said in Part 1 of this report, once the controls are set, the Df is a very sure and responsive picture-taking machine. As I shot with it more, I also learned that its battery life is impressive -- I didn't have to worry if I forgot to charge the battery every night, as I do with the smaller cameras I've been using a lot lately.
Image Quality. As expected, the Nikon Df makes gorgeous high ISO pictures. The image of the boy on his dad's shoulders was shot at ISO 12,800 equivalent, and it's amazingly good considering that very high sensitivity setting. In the wildly-varying light on my walk, the camera's auto ISO function ended up choosing sensitivity settings from ISO 110 to 12,800 equivalents, and I got several dozen images at ISO 1600 and above. They look great -- very few cameras can approach this level of quality at high sensitivities.
On later walks in Central Park and Washington Square Park, I made some low-ISO shots of buildings and foliage, and these look great, too. They're incredibly smooth and noise free, with plenty of dynamic range and very few artifacts.
Field Test Part 3 -- Icy Rivers and Skating Rinks
Viewfinder and LCD. All current full-frame DSLRs that I'm aware of provide nice, big viewfinder images. The Nikon Df is no exception. It's one of the pleasures of these cameras, especially because you benefit from it on every shot. The Df doesn't skimp on the viewfinder, which is sharp and bright. The top professional full-frame cameras might be slightly better, but I didn't have one to directly compare, and it would be splitting hairs anyway. On two different days in mid-January, I took the camera out along the Hudson River at dusk to shoot landscapes, and the roomy viewfinder made precise decisions about composition easy despite the waning light. It was equally enjoyable on my night walk up Fifth Avenue.
The Nikon Df's LCD is among the best I've seen, providing a large, very sharp image. It does seem to have a somewhat warm color cast, though, something I didn't notice until I shot some comparisons with another camera one day. That said, color casts in camera LCDs are almost universal. We're in the middle of a long, cold winter in New York, so I almost never had the camera out on a sunny day, but I noticed nothing unusual about the LCD in bright light, compared to other high-end displays.
Shooting action. Nikon is marketing the Df as a tool for a more classical, contemplative style of photography, so I didn't expect it to be optimized for action shooting. In that sense, I can't really criticize the company's choice to use their second-tier autofocus system on the Nikon Df. Still, the camera can shoot at 5.5 frames per second, and does so for 25 raw frames or more without stalling (depending on bit depth and compression). While I wouldn't recommend it for full-time sports shooters, it certainly merits consideration as an all-around, shoot-anything DSLR.
With that in mind, on one Sunday I grabbed the Nikon Df and headed for the ice rink at Bryant Park. It was snowing lightly for most of the time shooting, but I was confident the camera's weather sealing would be up to the task.
At the rink, I set up at the end of the longest straightaway and shot a few dozen bursts of the fastest skaters I could find. I tried both single-area AF and the 9-point dynamic AF modes, and shot at f/2.8 or wider so that depth-of-field would not hide focus errors. The results were about what I expected: adequate but not spectacular. The Df had a hit rate above 50%, but noticeably behind the best-focusing sports cameras from Nikon and its rivals.
That said, on my subway ride over to the rink, I shot some quick street-style images of my fellow riders on the trains and in the stations. The Nikon Df focused very decisively and accurately in these low-light conditions, just as it did at night on Fifth Avenue, during the stroll that I wrote about in part two of my Field Test.
Throughout the time I spent with the Nikon Df, I found its autofocus, control, shutter response to be more than fine for most shooting environments, and I never got close to stalling its generous buffer.
Lens. In the general city shooting I've already mentioned in this report, I found myself liking the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G (Special Edition) lens. Using it to shoot street images in Central Park and along Fifth Avenue, I was pleased with its near-silent operation and quick focus response. Although it's not a premium-quality optic, it still feels solidly built and has a reasonably well-dampened manual focus ring. I also like its slightly retro look.
The retro-styled Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 G Special Edition lens (left) is optically identical to the standard one (right), but its plastic barrel is just fractionally larger and heavier. Sadly, there's no aperture ring, so handling doesn't match the Nikon Df's retro aesthetic any better than does the standard version.
Early in the year, I got a chance to shoot some landscapes along the banks of the half-frozen Hudson River near Kingston, New York under a cold, dark gray late afternoon sky. When I came across a fallen tree, I decided to shoot it wide open at f/1.8, hoping to cause the background to fade into a blur and evoke the quiet, almost melancholy feel of the day. I was really pleased with the way the lens rendered that scene and other landscapes I shot the same way. Although I'm generally skeptical of subjective impressions, I'll break my rule and say this optic has an unusually nice look to it with very pleasing bokeh when shot at wide apertures.
My images from the AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G (Special Edition) were also quite sharp and low in distortion. I did notice fairly significant light falloff at wider apertures, although the Nikon Df (and other Nikon DSLRs) can automatically compensate for that.
Summing it up. Over the course of my six weeks with the Nikon Df, I shot a lot of different subjects, from frozen rivers to giant soap bubbles; nieces to novelists. The camera did a pretty good job with all of them, and a couple of the images are downright gorgeous.
Through all that shooting -- more than 1,000 images, all told -- the Nikon Df churned away with unassailable competence and exceptional flexibility, capturing picture after picture quickly and decisively. If you need the absolute best high ISO capability, you'd probably have to spend twice as much to match the Df, and that is perhaps this camera’s biggest advantage.
And yet, in physical terms I don't really think the Df is a successful design. Other than the frustrating ISO dial, there's nothing terribly wrong with the design; it's just that it doesn't feel especially right, either. Trying to intelligently accommodate new and old aperture control regimes -- lens rings vs. body control dials -- has implications that ripple through the design, and it turns out to have been too big a hurdle for Nikon's design team this time around.
For me, what it comes down to in the end is that all the nice things I said about the Nikon Df's responsiveness are at least as true of other (in some cases, cheaper) full-frame DSLRs with more modern control setups, which make them faster and easier to use. There's just no real benefit to the Df's throwback controls. The blend, like a mediocre coffee, may be perfectly drinkable, but it's not deliciously tasty.
This, then, is a camera that leaves me conflicted. I'm not satisfied with it ergonomically-speaking, but there's no question that it can shoot great photos, and handles low-light shooting with aplomb. Is it right for you? The answer to that question may depend in large part on what you consider most important: the shooting experience, or the final result of your labor.