Nikon DF - First Impressions

Published on: 3rd Jan 2014

When the Nikon DF was locally announced on 5 November 2013, I requested to evaluate it and received one of the Nikon demo models on 9 December. The first impression is that it is very different from all previous digital SLR Nikon cameras. It actually looks and feels very much like a film camera when one uses it. If you follow some camera forums on the Internet, you will be aware that this camera has split the typical Nikon followers into two camps, namely those who want it because of the nostalgia around a retro looking camera, and those who do not want it, because of its looks! For the past month, the Nikon DF forum has been the most popular forum on dpreview.com.

I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to test it, and received responses such as "Why test it? You know it will be good". Currently I own a Nikon D700, so testing the Nikon DF will be beneficial in helping me to make up my mind whether or not this will be my next replacement /upgrade body.

I agree with the "You know it will be good" remark on Facebook as it is based on the 16 megapixel sensor used in the Nikon D4, but there is more to a camera than just the sensor.


In the case of the Nikon DF, in some respects I think of it as a "downgrade" from my Nikon D700, because it is based on the consumer Nikon peripherals while the D700 uses the pro-body peripherals. Replacing my D700 with a DF will mean that I will need to replace all my peripherals as well (later more about this).

My review will thus concentrate on real word usage, rather than a scientific technical review. (After all, I wanted to see if I would fall in love with this body like I had with the D700).

Test 1. The Nikon DF as a landscape camera.

I created two opportunities to test the Nikon DF as a landscape camera, namely one afternoon in the Vaal Triangle and shooting some seascapes during a trip to Durban. The tests involved:
  • Carrying it around (apparently the old-fashioned grip might be awkward for carrying it around with a large lens)
  • Using the exposure compensation dial, and
  • Covering the view finder when in aperture priority or during a long exposure.

My experience

The hand grip is much smaller than on the D700, but in fact, one does not notice any difference in handling it once in the field. I hiked for about 2 hours while carrying the camera with a 14-24 wide angle lens attached, and it did not feel any different from doing this with the D700. (Click on the image to see a larger size and the technical data)

This photo was underexposed to make sure I do not lose detail in the clouds. I checked the histogram to ensure that the shadows are not clipped. This photo is as taken. For exhibition or competition purposes I will usually lift out more detail from the dark areas during post-processing.

I found that I used the exposure dial much more to bracket while in the field than with the D700. (The position of this dial is exactly where it used to be on my old Nikon FA film body - so it felt quite natural to use). With the D700 I tend to use the bracketing function more.

When shooting in aperture priority, stray light from the view finder may influence the light meter. You can experiment with your current camera body: In aperture priority, check the shutter speed through the view finder, then move your eye away from the viewfinder and check the shutter speed on the top LCD (if your camera has a top LCD). You will notice a difference between 2/3 and a full stop! The D700, as well as all other Nikon Pro bodies, comes with a built-in viewfinder shutter, which I always use. The DF does not have a built-in viewfinder shutter, but Nikon can supply you with a viewfinder cap the fits over the viewfinder. In the manual it is recommended that you permanently hook it on the camera strap with the supplied lanyard to make it more convenient to use. This is a good workaround, but I miss my built-in viewfinder shutter! I will get used to it, but it will always be one of those things that annoys me.

In long exposures such as this one, it is very important to cover the viewfinder. It was while taking these photos that I sorely missed the built-in viewfinder shutter of the D700. I changed the white balance during post-processing to create a more natural look. The light was extremely dull as it was taken at 04:37 and sunrise was at 04:55. It also started raining while I was taking this photo - and I had to run back to the car!

Test 2. Capturing star trails with the Nikon DF

As an enthusiastic star trail photographer, testing the DF as a potential star trail camera was high on my list, but as an amateur photographer I was well aware of the fact that December is one of the worst months to do some star-gazing - the chances of having a clear sky night are very slim! This December was no different, and even when the night started out with clear skies, it soon changed into a night of lightning and thunder storms. My star trail photo turned out to be a battery test only (which was part of the point for doing a star trail on the DF).

I took 20 x 5 minute exposures (to do time stacking) before giving up. At this point the battery still had about 25% power. It seems therefore possible to take a 2 hour star trail photo. With the Nikon D700 I can take a 4 hour star trail by using the optional battery grip. The Nikon DF does not have an optional battery grip. On the D700 I also sometimes use the EH-5a power adaptor with an external power supply. This power adaptor is compatible with all my previous Nikon digital bodies (D70, D200, D300 and D700). It is not compatible with the DF. The Nikon DF is compatible with the EH-5b power adaptor and for serious star trail photography, you will need to create a setup around an external power supply utilising this power adaptor. From the long exposure stacking images I found that, although I captured in raw, it had random noise artefacts that I could remove using a dark frame images. This behaviour I also noticed a year ago with the Nikon D600. It is as if the camera is doing its own noise reduction even though I switch long exposure noise reduction off. I do not have this issue with my Nikon D700. One will need to do much more manual noise removal during star trail photos.

The other limitation I found is that the DF does not have the 10 pin connector and therefore my MC-36 multi-function remote control cannot be used with the Nikon DF. I normally use it for star trail photography by making use of bulb mode on the camera and a series of 5 minute exposures using the MC-36 interval setting. When applying this technique with the DF you will need to make use of a third party product (I used the H?hnel Giga T Pro in this test). I found a third party 10 pin converter on eBay that will allow the DF to make use of the MC-36

Test 3. Compatibility with old Nikon lenses

One of the selling points of the Nikon DF is the fact that it will work with almost all previous Nikon lenses, including the pre-AI lenses. I still have a large set of old Nikon lenses, of which the Nikon 55mm Nikkor Micro and the 105 Nikkor Micro are excellent lenses for macro work These lenses have outstanding optical quality, but are not compatible with Nikon D700 (pre-AI lenses). So I decided to test it on the DF. The Nikon DF has a special function to allow the AI latch to be swivelled out of the way, which allows pre-AI lenses to be correctly coupled on the camera. It also has a setup function to register old lenses so that it will reflect correctly in the EXIF data. I tested the 55mm during a still life session and was once again impressed with the optical quality of my old 55mm lens. (Based on the serial number, this lens was manufactured between 1969 and 1971).

I do not see many people actually using this compatibility feature in everyday photography, but for macro work where auto focus is seldom used, this definitely will come in handy. I didn’t have the time to test it with my PB-5 bellows, but according to the manual, it will also work.

Last comments

I have not mentioned the quality of the photos produced by the16mp sensor, because I think that everybody has consensus that this is the new market leader for high ISO performance. I took a range of photos on high ISO settings and could not see any noticeable degradation up to ISO 6400 and the photos produced at 12800 are very usable. (I posted an example of a photo taken at ISO 12800 on my Facebook page).

Conclusion

The Nikon DF is the first camera that I will seriously consider as a replacement for my Nikon D700. In my opinion, the biggest barriers of entry are the huge price tag and the fact that I will need to replace all my accessories as well, which makes this a very expensive exercise. The noise handling at long exposure time stacking is also a concern, but with the necessary (tedious) post processing, it can be eliminated. I will need to investigate this more.

 


(If you have read up to here and did not click on a photo yet, do so to see them in larger format and also to browse through the rest of this gallery)