Nikon Df in 2020

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How and why this ever happened to me is the post you are about to read.

Why on Earth a self-proclaimed mirrorless supporter since its very inception, a hobbyist who for the past 10 years advocated against DSLRs for their obsolete viewfinder technology and ordinary bad looks, ended up getting a DSLR himself at the height of the mirrorless technology in 2020?..

Two years ago I even dedicated a post under the tittle “5 reasons why I dislike DSLRs”. So what made me jump ship all of a sudden and buy a black Nikon Df together with three manual Nikon lenses?..

Electronic gadgets

These days I’m into rejecting cameras that feel like an electronic gadget — which is to say all my cameras except for the Leica M-E and the Epson R-D1x.

There are many things that make your camera feel like an electronic gadget, but mostly the fact that they come loaded with a bunch of unnecessary high-tech functions meant to be customized via an LED back screen, especially over the top AF provisions.

But, fundamentally, the very fact that the act of framing is now performed through a back screen or a similar electronic interface called EVF.

The photographer no longer sees an analogue, optical representation of the reality, but an electronic interpretation.

The more I started thinking about this, the more I felt the desire to return to analogue means. Except that I’m not into returning to film.

I do have two digital rangefinder cameras that feel as analogue as possible and the Leica M-E is my current preferred weapon of choice under this philosophy.

Nevertheless, I felt the thirst for more.

The beauty of the SLR system

Unexpectedly, I started appreciating the beauty of the single lens reflex (SLR) system that, with the advent of the EVF, I once considered obsolete and silly.

The mirror box, the pentaprism, the elaborate system of light reflections that paths the way for this complex journey, which is to bring the light all the way from the lens to the photographer’s eye.

It’s certainly old technology, and to think that it’s still being used by camera manufacturers nowadays, 100 years after it first came to light, is certainly a feat worth noting.

Most importantly, it just proves it’s good technology from a pure functional standpoint because, as opposed to rangefinder cameras, the SLR effectively allows the photographer to frame accurately with a through-the-lens view.

And all through analogue, non-electronic, optical means. How can one NOT appreciate this?

DSLRs are ugly

My problem with current DSLRs is that they look everything but elegant. They are ugly and remind me of abnormally shaped body builders with protrusions and buttons sticking out the body everywhere.

For me, DSLRs became the synonym of bad taste. There is this category of hobbyist photographers that use DSLRs because they think it makes them look professional. They love their big cameras and big lenses and they look horrible — fully equipped like they are going to war in the jungle.

Whatever.

After some flirting with the Pentax K1 and KP — both look relatively decent to me, with their signature accentuated pentaprism — I went for the Nikon Df.

Nikon Df

Before you accuse me of making this decision based on looks alone, allow me to clarify.

Firstly, I don’t consider the Nikon Df a particularly good looking camera. It’s just that it’s the best I could find in a crowd full of horrible looking DSLRs.

Secondly, my choice had more to do with specs than looks. The Nikon Df is perhaps the smallest full frame DSLR available in the market. It’s relatively small and light. It’s dated 2013 and not the latest technology, but it shares the same 16MP sensor from the flagship D4. Image performance is excellent, low light included.

Furthermore, it comes with a large viewfinder offering 100% frame coverage. You may be too young to know this, but 100% frame coverage used to be a luxury only available in the highest grade professional SLRs / DSLRs.

l1190103But most importantly, I realized this camera is compatible with basically all Nikon F mount lenses produced since 1959.

In fact, most current Nikon cameras are retro compatible to some extent, but more so with the Df because you can even use the oldest Nikon pre-AI lenses by flipping backwards the AI tab at the camera’s lens mount.

I’m not going to describe this feature in detail because there is enough information in the internet if you are interested to know more. My main point here is that I liked the idea of using old manual lenses on a Nikon Df.

Old manual Nikon lenses are the sharpest optics around and widely available in the second hand market at unbelievable low prices — jaw dropping low prices that you won’t believe. Better still, I realized that even to this day Nikon still produces some of these manual AI lenses, so you can buy them new if you are into it.

My new set

I bought everything in the Japanese second hand market: a black Nikon Df body with around 4000 actuations; three fully manual Nikon AI lenses: 28mm f/2.8; 35mm f/2; and a 50mm f/1.8.

And the best part: all together, I spent around USD$ 1250. Amazing, right? These fast primes cost me around USD$ 100 each!

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Half-baked classic

When the Nikon Df was announced, it created lots of fuss everywhere.

Polarizing products like this one generate a lot of hate talk. In general, the discussions centered around the looks of the camera, commonly seen as a half-heart attempt by Nikon to create a classic looking camera — for which I tend to agree.

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As said, I don’t consider the Df a particularly good looking camera. It’s a far cry from true Nikon classics it draws inspiration from, like the FM2 or the F3. Besides, there are better examples of retro-inspired cameras, we just need to take a look at Fuji.

The Df is in fact a modern DSLR —  a D610 with a D4 sensor — dressed-up with a classic skin. And it does look half-baked. The ugly protrusions and buttons sticking out are still there, and the back of the camera is the laziest attempt from Nikon to blend the classically inspired looks of the front and top to what is essentially a modern DSLR camera back which remained untouched.

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This is all the more noticeable in the silver Df version, because the two-tone body makes the randomness and ambiguous shapes of the different colour components stand-out even more. It’s a hell of a mess. This is why I bought a black one — looks far better to my eyes.

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Traditional ISO, EV compensation and shutter speed dials. And that infamous MASP switch.

Another topic often brought up by haters has to do with the somehow quirky control logic of the camera. I’m not going to spend much time here because so much has been written about this already.

Simply speaking, the Df brings traditional, old-school external switches for shutter speed, ISO and aperture (provided your lens has aperture ring). But, simultaneously, it offers the same command dials you will find in any modern DSLR to input shutter speed and aperture.

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In other words, even though there are traditional dials, you can ignore them all and override them altogether by operating the Df just like any other modern DSLR.

This also means that whatever setting is shown in the traditional dial, there’s a chance it’s not the real setting you are shooting with — which, I admit, is a bit odd.

With this ambiguity you can’t help but to think the traditional dials are nothing but a retro-inspired ornament.

Together with other questionable features, like the inclusion of a latch in the rather pedestrian battery compartment door; the special edition 50mm f/1.8 lens which is nothing but an existing AF lens with an added silver decorative ring; and even the “pure photography” teaser ad from Nikon which was mocked by everyone.

Everything about the Df  does feel like form over substance.

The experience

None of the above is really important from the moment you pick up the Df, look through its magnificent viewfinder and start shooting.

This is a beautifully well balanced camera. It feels compact and dense, it’s not too heavy, just enough to exert quality. And the grip is comfortable.

As for the quirky controls, you just need to be aware of them and understand how this camera ticks. And ignore. Not the end of the world and perfectly workable.

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My 28-35-50 trinity.

This is a camera to be used with classic Nikon manual lenses. I mean, if you are to go classic, then you should go all the way. And, in fact, the Df looks a lot better with classic Nikon lenses attached to it. The ensemble looks very cool in the black body.

Manual Nikon AI lenses are real gems, there is no excuse not to use them in the Df or, for this matter, any other modern Nikon DSLR — classically designed or not.

These lenses are sharp and produce excellent images.

Furthermore, they are small. Either because they are uncomplicated mechanical tools with no AF motors and electronics, or simply because they are decades old and not over sized like everything else these days.

They are the size of my APS-C Fuji lenses, yet they are full-frame fast primes!

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Left to right: 28mm f/2.8; 35mm f/2; and the pancake 50mm f/1.8.

It’s just amazing that you can buy these beautifully crafted optics at such bargaining prices. The aperture rings work perfectly with the body’s AI system, the focusing rings feel great with the rubber grip and are butter smooth in all three lenses I bought.

Unfortunately, there is no split screen for manual focusing — a shame because apart from the practicality, this would offer the ultimate old-school experience.

Still, there is focus assistance through indicators inside the viewfinder. Left and right arrows indicate which way to turn the ring to achieve focus and a green light turns on when it’s achieved.

This method is simple and became second nature in no time. I don’t even need to look directly at the light indicators now, they are clear enough to be picked by my peripheral vision. Nailing focus is easy.

 

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Nikon 35mm f/2 AI-s

 

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Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AI-s

Shooting without auto focus is a completely different affair worth experiencing. With manual focus, you are in full control of the process. There is nothing getting in your way, no complications from high-tech AF modes that distract you with their multitude of options and settings.

But for the real manual focus experience, you have to do it with fully mechanical lenses like these old Nikons. It feels pure when you look through the viewfinder, turn the ring and see the image slowly achieving focus. And if you move past the point, you instinctively turn the ring back.

It feels authentic.

On the contrary, modern lenses feel horrible when you switch to manual focus, because their focusing rings are by-wire systems that send electronic signals to the lens motors to move the internal lens elements — it’s a fake, a tasteless experience.

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The viewfinder of this camera is excellent. It’s large, it’s bright and it shows 100% view of the frame. This is the main reason I bought a DSLR: to have a through the lens view without electronic means, without an EVF.

And I couldn’t be happier.

For the past 10 years I’ve been shooting mostly with EVFs, and I really missed the authenticity of framing with a real life view, as opposed to an electronic interface. There is no flickering, no latency, no blown-out highlights or pitch black shadows. It’s the real world as is, in front of you, interpreted by your brain and not the camera’s electronics.

I understand EVFs bring many advantages, but nothing really beats the pureness and directness of an optical viewfinder.

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For a DSLR, the noise of the mirror mechanism is actually very well-dampened in the Df. The click-clack sounds great and the mild vibration offers a mechanical feel that is truly satisfying. It makes me feel I’m holding a camera, a mechanical instrument, not an electronic device.

The beauty of DSLRs is that you can ignore the electronic interface of the camera. Shooting with the optical viewfinder, I turn off auto review and can go through an entire photo session without turning on the back screen, without using ANY electronic interface. Not different from my Leica M-E, in fact.

Image quality is what matters and from this angle I can solidly say the quality of the Df’s output with the Nikon AI lenses is very, very good. These lenses are sharp, they produce beautiful bokeh and the colour rendition is excellent.

While the Df was released in 2013 and is 7 year-old technology, it’s worth remembering its sensor comes from the flagship Nikon D4. The 16 MP files are good enough for what I do, for my own enjoyment and satisfaction as a hobbyist photographer.

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Bottom line

I bought the Nikon Df with a set of manual lenses in an attempt to recover the feel of the good ol’ days shooting my analogue cameras, but without going back to film and giving up on digital.

I was looking for the same experience I get when shooting my Leica M-E with the magnificent manual M lenses. The most basic and simple way to take photos and enjoy the process, without the clutter of complicated and highly technological features that get in my way and pollute modern cameras nowadays.

With the Df, I’m happy to say I’m getting what I was looking for. Using this camera is a real joy, it feels analogue and mechanical.

Yes, it’s true, you don’t need a Nikon Df to get to this. Objectively, any other Nikon DSLR coupled with manual Nikon lenses would do the job and offer the same experience.

Or perhaps not really the same experience.

Going down this route with a retro-styled camera adds a layer of satisfaction to the process and feels more consistent as a whole. The Df may not be perfect in its looks, but it does look classic, even if half-baked. If there’s a camera to which you want to attach manual lenses, it’s definitely this one more than any other.

And, to be honest, now that I’ve been using it for a while, I think it looks pretty good, especially with the classic manual lenses attached.

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I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, especially with all my other cameras that sport an EVF — haven’t touched them ever since the Df arrived.

I’m under the impression I’m going to stick to this anti-electronic philosophy for a good while, meaning that in the coming future I will only shoot with the Df, the Leica M-E or the Epson R-D1x.

Laugh as you will, but as the Nikon ad goes — this is pure photography.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 comments

  1. Thanks for this earnest review, which I really enjoyed. I feel pretty much the same as you. The defining factor for getting the Df was actually the 100% optical viewfinder. I bought the Df this year (2020), and the Z7 was a strong competitor (because it also lets you use classic Nikkor lenses). But the mystique of the real viewfinder of the Df just won hands down over the gimmickry of the Z7 electronic viewfinder. Photography is about light, and the Df is the only camera that lets you experience light in the way the designers of the classic Nikkor lenses expected. BTW, I recommend that you try the Nikkor 5.8 cm f/1.4… it has a life of its own 😉

  2. Missing the Nikon Df… I do think about it from time to time, the colors from the raw files are also very good!! it seems so sharp too!! Also the best shutter sound !!! love it!! and miss it!!

  3. Excelent review, I agree with your comments on the DF (good and bad). Of course I seem to have similar tastes in photographic equipment as yours, as I too prefer manual focus lenses and digital rangefinders. Thank you for putting all this information together to help others find their way into a DF.

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