Friday, January 3, 2014

Nikon Df Real World Review

Alright, so I've had the Nikon Df for a little over a month now and I think I've had enough time to give it a proper run-through. I've been looking at many other reviews and the Nikon Df is obviously a pretty divisive piece in the camera world today. Many reviewers are calling the camera the worst piece of crap to come out since, well, ever and others are proclaiming it to be a gift from the photo-gods.

While the Df isn't the best camera I've ever owned, it's certainly not even close to being the worst.

There are lots of strange comparisons and and odd complaints mainly because I don't think people know exactly where to place this camera and they are all holding it to different standards. The retro group is trying to lump it into a category with the Fuji X series. They tend to think that it's too big and clunky. Well, it's not a mirrorless camera so it isn't comparable there. It needs some girth to house the mirror box as well as the F mount flange distance. There are also the endless comparisons to the Sony A7 cameras. The only thing these have in common is a full-frame sensor. Again these are two very different cameras. No comparisons.

Then you have the other camp. They are trying to compare it to film cameras and DSLR's. Apparently for some folks it's not enough of one or the other. Well, sorry to break it to ya, but it's a DSLR with a retro twist. This is a niche camera and it's not directly comparable to a pro DSLR. That's not where this camera's niche lies. No, it's not as comfortable as a D800, it's not that kind of camera. If you want comfort buy a D800 or a D600. Many people were hoping for a D4 in a D800 package. Well, that's not what the Df is. No amount of hating it is going to change that. The D700 was a happy accident for us camera buyers. It was essentially a convertible D3. You had the D3 in a small relatively light package and you could add a grip and have about 95% of the D3 for about 1/2 the price. Great for consumers, but as much of a success the D700 was it was a failure in Nikon's eyes. They lost a lot of D3 sales. That's something they don't want to happen again.

Lastly you have the very angry bunch that calls it a "fashion accessory" and goes of on tirades about "hipsters" buying it so they can look cool. Well guys. Sorry to tell you this, but hipsters aren't really into spending $3000 on a camera to look cool. They'd rather buy an old F for $100. Film cameras are infinitely more hip than expensive DSLRs. And as far as fashion goes, well yeah. Some people may buy this camera because it does look cool. And there's nothing wrong with that. People buy cars for the way they look. People buy shoes, hats, purses, glasses, jackets, socks, etc... because they think they look cool. What's wrong with buying a cool looking camera? Especially if it actually works really well? I admit that I bought my Gretsch White Falcon guitar because it looks astoundingly cool, it plays amazingly well, and it sounds great. I bought the Df because it looks cool, it feels good in my hand, and it can produce amazing results. Who says your camera has to be an ugly amorphous lump?

Anyway, now that I got that out of the way lets talk about this camera in practical terms. As I said the Df isn't the most amazing breakthrough camera to come down the pipe, but it does have the D4 sensor and processor which gives it that amazing low light capability. I mean the camera seems to make its own light. You can check out my preview to see the high ISO performance. This is a well documented feature so there's no need to dive into that anymore.

The Ergonomics.

First I want to focus on the handling and design. This seems to be where most people take exception to the Df. I see a lot of reviewers that are complaining that's it's both too small and too big at the same time. The Df is a short camera, but due to the inherent design of the DSLR it has to be a bit thick. There's no getting around it. I've seen a few reviewers complain that the Df was uncomfortable to hold. One in particular seemed to be alarmingly pained by this fact going on to describe at length the horrible agony that the Df put him in reducing his hand to a useless claw. Very dramatic. You'd think the Df was a Schumann-esque device forced upon his hands to rob him from his livelihood.

Nikon does have one thing perfect in their pro DSLR cameras. They are ergonomically correct. They feel right. The buttons and dials lay in the exact positions (for the most part) that they need to be. The Df, well, it's not exactly ergonomic. Yes, this is due to the styling more than anything else. When I picked up the Df I was a little taken aback because things didn't line up right. The shutter-release button was too high and the strange new front command dial didn't feel natural and it was a bit hard to adjust. After spending about 1/2 hour with the camera I had it figured out. I had to adjust the way I hold and operate the camera. I used to hold the camera with three fingers on the grip and used my forefinger for the front command dial and shutter release button. I adjusted my grip to use with the Df so that my forefinger is on the shutter-release at all times and my middle finger rests on the front command dial. This brings your hand grip up higher and makes it more comfortable and it places the strap lug between the fingers keeping it out of the way. I also find it’s much quicker to adjust settings on the fly this way. I wish I had taken up holding the camera this way sooner. 

top: hand-cramp grip
bottom: new comfy grip

While not quite ergonomics, another thing I keep seeing is that people say it feels cheap or plastic. This I can only guess it because the camera is surprisingly light. People have been touting mirrorless cameras for their lightness and Nikon gives them a camera with a 3/4 magnesium alloy frame and a magnesium alloy top and bottom plate that is super light and people complain because it's not heavy enough? I don't care if it feels cheap and plastic because I know that it's not. I love the fact that it doesn't weigh my neck down. After handling the Df for awhile and getting used to the weight and heft the cheap feeling goes away.

And then we have the battery/SD compartment. It seems like everyone is irritated by this. I like having the SD card and battery in the same slot. When Nikon switched from the rear card flap, which was GREAT to the crappy sliding door everyone complained. Now they did away with the cheap plastic sliding door and put the card in a logical place people are mad about that. I've also heard a lot of grumbling about the door being cheap. I don't think it feels cheap at all. I think it feels very sound. I think the metal locking dial is a nice touch. I don't however understand why the door comes off like the old D200, but mine hasn't fallen off and I wouldn't have known about this unless I had read it on one of the bad reviews.
Edit: My battery/SD card door did eventually break. Both the the hinge and the locking mechanism. It's at the Nikon factory right now. 

And no, the tripod quick-release plate doesn't cover the door. You can easily swap out the battery or card. Yes you have to remove it from the tripod, but that's why you have a quick-release. 

The Controls.

Here's another sore spot for some people. There seems to be a lot of confusion and misinformation about how the controls work. The first thing I want to address is the shutter speed dial. There are many false reports about the locking mechanism. Let's clear this up. You don't have to press the lock release to change the shutter speed. The dial turns freely from B all the way to 4000. The dial only locks in 1/3 STEP, X, and T settings. Also you aren't stuck with 1 stop adjustments when you use the shutter speed dial. Setting CSM f11 to On allows you to adjust the shutter 2/3 of a stop in either direction from the base you set on the shutter speed dial using the command dial. I find this is extremely handy when shooting concerts. I usually want to keep my shutter speed at a set amount but I can fluctuate my speeds up or down quickly without worrying about going to far out of my comfort zone. I don't even have to look at the speed, just two clicks up or down. You can also set the dial to 4 seconds and use the command dial to go all the way down to 30 seconds. 

Secondly the Shooting mode dial seems to be giving people some problems. It's a bit small and you have to lift and turn it to change. I spend most of my time in Manual and even when I'm using another exposure mode I generally don't change modes in the middle of shooting with the camera up to my eye. I don't think it's necessary to make this a speed dial. If it didn't lock people would complain that it was always changing when being brought in or out of the bag. Which leads me to the next odd complaint...

The exposure compensation dial. Lots of complaints that the locking mechanism makes it to difficult to change. On the other hand ever since the day the Fuji X100 came out people have been complaining that the exposure compensation dial doesn't have a lock resulting in accidental over or under-exposures. Personally, I shoot Manual and RAW about 90% of the time. I don't find the EV dial necessary. If it went away I wouldn't miss it. I'd rather have it locked so it doesn't unintentionally get changed. 

Here are a few things I have minor quibbles with. Under the EV dial is the ISO setting dial. I will admit that it's not that easy to change in the midst of shooting, but it's really not that hard either. I wish it were easier, but personally I don't change ISO on the fly very much. I get the setting locked in or I set up Auto-ISO. One thing that would have been nice is to include the option of turning Auto-ISO on and off on the dial. 

The last bit on the top deck is the release mode switch. This is pretty fiddly to change no matter what. I don't really see how it could have been implemented any other way however. This is a setting I do often change on the fly. I like to switch between Single and CH when shooting sports and concerts depending on the action. Now I typically have to leave it in CH, which means I'm often firing off more frames on accident. Not a big deal, but a minor annoyance.

The next little issue I have is the front command dial (wheel?). My guess is that they designed it that way not only for the retro look, but also to keep the camera depth consistent. An internally rotating design would require more space on the inside. I don't have a problem with the way that it rotates, but it is very stiff and requires a good amount of force to change it. Luckily, I have a lot of lenses with aperture dials and I can use CSM f/7 to let me used the aperture ring, which is much quicker (although most Nikon D lenses lack 1/2 stops). I don't foresee the dial loosening up any with use. Again, this isn't a giant problem, but it's annoying. 

The last control I have a minor issue with is the BKT button. I wish it could be programmed for something else. I don't do HDR and I'm obviously not shooting slides so I don't really need bracketing. It's a good feature to have because many people do use it, but it would be nice to have an extra programmable button. 

Other controls are great. The Fn. and Pv. button lie perfectly under the ring and pinky fingers if you're holding the camera as I described earlier. The AE-L/AF-L and AF-ON buttons are right where they belong as is the multi-selector. I wish the metering mode selector switch was a few millimeters higher though, I find it just a touch awkward to switch on the fly. 

The Guts.

This is where we get down to brass tacks. If there's one thing everyone can agree on (well mostly everyone but the diehard trolls) is that the Df has excellent IQ. This is proven technology handed down from Nikon's flagship D4 (I've heard some trolls on Nikon Rumors calling it "old" technology, but let's face it, the technology is at a plateau). The Df is unrivaled in low-light even nudging out the D4 if you believe in the DxO Mark scores. No, it doesn't have the high resolution of the 36MP D800, but in reality almost nobody needs that much resolution. 16MP is more than enough for almost every photographer from the everyday amateur to the working pro. 

First let's clear up another myth that trolls have been flinging out there. The rumors that the Df is a Frankenstein camera made up of a D4 sensor and old D600 shutter mechanisms aren't true. The shutter design is obviously new and made for the Df because it is ridiculously quiet. Much quieter than the D600 and well, I ain't got no dirt or oil splats over 2000 shots in (My working theory is that the D600 shutter crud was caused by an experimental soundproofing material in the shutter box, but that's just conjecture). So just to be clear. The Df does not have discarded D600 shutter mechanisms. 

This brings me to the rub. My main problem with the Df. The Multi-CAM 4800 focusing system. I hated it on the D600 and I hate it on the Df. What I hate about it is the tight focus array. The 39-point system was taken from the DX D7000, where it excelled, and stuck into an FX camera, where it's just not enough coverage.

Edit: I've grown accustomed to the focusing. It really doesn't bother me much anymore. If I'm shooting a really low-light event I just use an SU-800 for a focus light.

The other issue with the Multi-CAM 4800 is low-light focusing. Opinions greatly differ on this. Some say it's great. Some say it's awful. In my experience it's somewhere in the middle. The center focus point works great in low-light, but the peripheral points are weak. This is relatively common, but the far points seem exceptionally weak in this camera. 

On the other hand in the daylight I find the AF is relatively quick. It locks on pretty fast and accurate. One reviewer picked up the camera walked around for 5 minutes and declared the AF worthless. It's far from worthless. It's not the best Nikon has to offer, but it does work well in the light.

Why build a camera that is so good in low-light and hobble it with a mediocre AF system? I think the 51-point AF system should have been used, especially at the price point. Apparently Nikon thinks that giving the Df the great Multi-CAM 3500FX focus system would be too much. That being said, the AF system is adequate if slightly limiting. And while I don't like it, it wasn't enough to stop me from buying the camera. 

Another issue that may people have is the lack of video. This is also another area where I find it odd that just a few years ago when the D90 was released with video the forums were erupting with outcry against video claiming it was unnecessary and nothing but a marketing scheme. Now those same folks are crying out that the Df should have video because it doesn't cost anything to put it in. I don't shoot a lot of video. Leaving it out is no big deal to me. I have a DSLR that shoots video, the D5300. And it's better because it has a movable LCD. The Df is for stills. 

While we're on the subject of leaving things out, the Df has no built-in flash. Another thing that sticks in the craw of some folks. Personally I use the built-in flash for wireless flash occasionally. It's nice to have, but it's not something I need. Not from this camera anyway. This is an available light camera. If you must do the "strobist" thing you can use an SB-700/800/900, SU-800, or any number of accessories. But really, this camera shoots in the dark. 

The Lens Question. 

The Df was specifically designed to take even the oldest F-Mount lenses. The indexing lever folds up so you can attach Pre-AI lenses. You can set your lens info and even get metering with Pre-AI lenses, something you have never been able to do on any Nikon DSLR. Many Pre-AI lenses are exceptional, and these lenses are usually cheaper because they haven't been useful on previous DSLRs. This opened up a new world of excellent but affordable MF lenses and allow photographers with this legacy glass to get back in the game. 

Ah, but there's a catch. And again we have another hot-button issue. The focusing screen. It's well known that DSLR focusing screens aren't the best for Manual focus. People wanted a split-prism or micro-prism collar focusing screen. That would have been cool. But it didn't happen. I'm not sure why Nikon didn't put one in or at least allow the focusing screen to be interchangeable. Maybe it didn't occur to the design team or engineers. Maybe there's a technological reason. I don't know. I sold off my MF lenses awhile back. As a matter of fact I only own one currently. I bought it the same day I bought my Df. Yes, it's not as easy to focus with the current DSLR screen, but it can be done.
Edit: You can swap out the focus screen on the Df. There's a Chinese company that makes them. I have no direct experience with it so I can't say one way or the other, but I've heard a few good things and nothing bad. 

If you want to complain about it go check out some of the entry-level Nikon camera groups on Flickr. There are lots of newbie photographers that use 50mm f/1.8D's on cameras with no focus motors. They manually focus them. These are people that have only owned DSLRs for a few months or a year. If they can do it so can you. It's not impossible.

While we're talking about lenses, the "kit" 50mm f/1.8G has been taking a lot of crap lately too. Whereas not too long ago it was everyone's darling because it was cheap and was shown to have better IQ than the more expensive 50mm f/1.4G. It gets a makeover and paired with the Df and all the sudden nobody likes it anymore? I hear lots of grumbling about the cosmetics. I like the new design. I hate the Nikon black and gold color scheme. The 50mm f/1.8G Special Edition is a handsome lens and it's still the best deal going in lenses in regards to price and quality. 

The Wrap-Up. 

Well, that's the long and the short of it for me. As you can see the Nikon Df is far from a perfect camera. It's a camera that can't really be compared to other cameras. It occupies its own little island in the Nikon lineup and in the whole DSLR world. This camera isn't for everybody. Obviously. The camera forums and review sites are full of people spewing vitriol and condemning it as an utter failure while it continues to fly off of shelves. 

Many people claim that the Df isn't a serious camera for the serious pro. Well that's just not true. A pro can take any camera and make great photos. I've been using the Df on all of my shoots lately. I've not run into any problems. The Df will be my professional everyday working camera. If I need something speedier I always have my D700s. If I need video the D5300 will do the job. 

Yeah, the Df is a funky camera. It's stylish and kinda fashionable. It's got top-notch image quality. It's got all kinds of weird quirks. But it's a fun camera. It's fun to carry around because it's small and light. It looks cool and people seem to like it because it's not intimidating like a big DSLR, but it also looks more serious than a D3200 or a Rebel. Shooting with the Df is a breeze once you get the hang of the controls. 

As I said in the beginning the Df isn't a camera for everybody, but I think that just about anybody can make it work for them with a little effort. 


Anonymous said...

You have raised good points about the AF. It's too bad that Steve Huff and others made false claims. Now we know the truth about how well the AF really works.

J. Dennis Thomas said...

Well, it seems like nobody out there wants to be honest about the focusing system. People either claim it's great or it sucks. Yeah, it could be better. But it's not unusable.

I didn't really look too closely at Steve's review. It was kind of bordering on fanboy so I just glanced over it. I watched the Digital Rev video and it's completely ludicrous. The AF system isn't nearly as bad as they claim.

Steven Foon said...

Bravo. Thank you for taking the time to address the countless review comments. I did find it interesting that when Nikon attempts to blend part of the old that we love with the new, the results have been pure controversy. I enjoy this camera as a daily DSLR.

J. Dennis Thomas said...

Thanks for reading it. I've never seen a camera that has polarized the photography community like the Df has.

I find that most people on the camera forums that hate it haven't actually used one. And most of the reviewers that hate it didn't give it a real effort because they had already decided to hate it.

I figured there needed to be at least one objective review!

In any case, it's just a camera. There's no real need for people to get so worked up over it.

Bob Roman said...

Well written, balanced and accurate assessment.

Unknown said...

48 99556553The fact that you have to spend all of this effort (and that others do as well) justifying, or attempting to justify, this camera is interesting, don't you think? For this amount of money, you should be able to put the same effort into extolling the advantages of the DF over other cameras, but, when you try that it is really marginal, and that is the issue. Again, for this money, you shouldn't have to accommodate.

Get a D800. At least then you could talk about how great it is...

J. Dennis Thomas said...

I don't need to justify my purchase to you or anyone else. I'm merely providing my opinions and experience from having owned more than 20 Nikon DSLRs, including the D800 (which I found underwhelming).

Do you want an example on what this camera has done for me that other cameras haven't? It has attracted attention to me while shooting events, which led to people approaching me to talk about the camera. I passed my card on to these people and have landed jobs. My Df has already paid for itself and it wasn't even because of the images, but because of the style.

You can save your trolling for the Nikon Rumors site or DP Review forums.

Anonymous said...

I don't need to lay out my points to anyone that asks why I immediately fell for this camera, I'll just point them to your review.

Great review and good for you writing it! I've heard all these other guys review the Df with such loathsome tones and wonder why. The camera is perfectly capable and if your not a sports shooter or pro but can afford a great camera to produce beautiful photographs then try out the Df.
I don't plan on being the next high paid photographer but I have a passion that yearns for great equipment and after having my Df for one full day I can tell it was the type of camera made for me. An everyday shooter wanting something different, capable and fun to take along with me as I create imagery.

shotsbybarry said...

Very well done. People sure do get worked-up over things, don't they. Hope more of them read your review.
Just wondering... will you be doing a Digital Field Guide on this one? If so, let me know when it comes out.

J. Dennis Thomas said...

Yes, people are really going nuts about it.

We are talking about doing a DFG for it. I'd like to but ultimately it's up to the publisher. If it move forward I'll let you know.

Living Life said...

Thanks so much for your review. I'm renting it now, hoping for it to work as replacement for my beloved d700. Blown away by the low light performance, but underwhelmed by the ergonomics and af clustering. In terms of ergonomics, I'm using the 1.4g primes and more than likely I would find the 1.8 primes as better pairings due to the lighter weights. At any rate, your review matches what I'm experiencing. I did have one question, are you toggling and finding the points sufficient, or do you choose to focus/recompose from the center point? Forgive me if I overlooked this. Thanks!

J. Dennis Thomas said...

It's not a straight-up replacement for the D700. There's definitely some concessions to be made with the AF, sadly. But it does top the D700 IQ by a good margin.

I'm using mine with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4|A and I find it handles pretty well. It's just a matter of getting use to the handling. It's not a camera you pick up and feel instantly at home with. It's like getting into a new car. Once you get accustomed to where everything is at you eventually get used to it. I'm in a position where I use so many different cameras all the time that I not hard-wired to any one body type (but if I had to choose the perfect one it would be the D700).

I am not finding the AF points sufficient in coverage. Something that forced me to sell the D600 (along with other handling issues). Generally I try to move the point as close as I can to where I want it and focus and recompose from there. It's a tiny bit quicker. If the light is really low and I find that the camera is hunting I will switch to the center point and focus/recompose from there. It's not ideal, but it's a workable concession.

I find that the low-light capability along with the smaller file sizes and small body size are preferable to using a D800. For me the Df gives me closer usability to the D700 than the D800 does. That's just for my personal shooting style. Your mileage may vary as they say.

In any case, the Df requires a good solid 2-3 hours straight of solid shooting. Once you spend time with it you will get used to the handling. Like I said, it's like getting a new car.

Kim L said...

New car = good analogy. I'm definitely warming up to it. Good to hear an honest/fair assessment of what you've found. Thank you!

J. Dennis Thomas said...

Thanks. That's really the most apt analogy I can think of. It's not a one-size-fits-all camera.

Larry L said...

Thanks for the great review, I think I have read and watched about every review there is out there on the DF. So many draw their conclusions on personal preferances rather than objectivity. There seems to be a generation gap (generalizing) we have from the older people who have spent years in film learning how to take great photos without a computer on board to the younger who keep demading more and more features, bells and whistles, not so relating to "pure photography". So for me, from using all manual slr's & 2 1/4, 25+ years, understanding the zone system, and old school shooting techniques, this camera makes sense. Less is more.

This American Blog said...

It is truly amazing how polarizing this camera is. I think a lot of nikon users are angry that the df isn't the next d700, 95% of the d4 performance at half the size and price. The DF is not that, but that doesn't mean it's a bad camera. I've had mine for a month and I'm really loving it. No, it's not perfect, but it's close enough for me.

J. Dennis Thomas said...

Now that I'm used to it, the only real fault I have with it is the 39 point micro-array AF system. The reason I got rid of the D600 was because of the AF. The Df IQ is so good I can almost overlook the AF, but it still bugs me.

Arie Vigelius said...

Read your review today. I have the Df for over a month now and I fully agree with everything you wrote. When you use it, you will love it. Indeed, the 39 points-issue is also mine. Tried your "hand-grip" today. It is much better for me. Now I have to get used to it.
Thanks for all the hard work!

Steve of Oz said...

Hi J. I have been considering this camera for a while but like some, have been put off by the low light AF performance claims. If the centre point is good, then that's not much of an issue as my subjects, fast moving ice dancers are usually centred in the frame. I use an 80-200 2.8 ed which focuses (screw) fast and accurate on my d700. Have you used a big heavy lens on your df to comment on AF speeds. I need better ISO performance as the rink is dark and typical Iso's are 3200-6400, to keep the shutter at 250

J. Dennis Thomas said...

@Steve of Oz: I've used some heavy lenses such as the Sigma 120-300 f/2.8 | S (approx 10lbs), and it works great, but it has an HSM motor.

On the other hand I sold off my last screwdrive lens years ago so I can't speak to the strength and speed of the in-camera focus motor.

With the type of low-light shooting you do I wouldn't see the AF being a hindrance because I would expect that a dancer has a pretty strong spotlight which will give the AF something with a good amount of contrast to lock onto, which is really what it's all about.

I used the old 80-200 for many years and found it to be an exceptional lens, but when I stepped up to the AF-S version I noticed a big increase in focus speed. And the 70-200's that follow are even faster. You may want to think about trading up to an AF-S to speed up your AF even more.

I'm not sure what kind of dancers you shoot. but one of my first shoots with the Df was Cirque Du Soleil, which I imagine has some typical dance type lighting and I didn't have any appreciable difficulties.

Kevin said...

Great review!!!

For me personally, I love this camera because it just MAKES me want to pick it up and shoot. Sure, it tugs on my heart strings... and that's bad why??? I mean, lets face it, this camera is exactly what I want for my fine-art imagery. It has made me slow down and get excited about photography again. I found myself getting too quick and just snapping off a bunch of images all willy-nilly. I love the fact that for whatever reason, this camera just makes me seek out new perspectives, new lighting, new subjects, new everything. It feels like it did when I first started 25 years ago... the excitement is back for me again. If a camera can bring that back, then heck yes I'm gonna love it. I can deal with the few annoyances just as you can. Heck, I've even forgotten about them at this point. To me, photography is not only about the end result, but about the moment in time in which the means to the end was conceptualized... this camera has made me become "one" with my imagery again. And speaking of the end result... Oh My Lord is it good. The images are stunning. I don't care what anyone says about 16mp not being enough. Hog wash is what I say. 16mp is enough for murals when printer settings are proper. The pixel race is for the pixel peepers and I my imagery is not for them anyway.

Carry on!


Anonymous said...

Denny -

I had read your review a few months ago, and now that I have the camera, I have reread it with greater appreciation for your tips and useful comments. I've had mine for exactly 24 hours, and like it more and more ever minute. I'm sorry that you have had some problems with yours, but that happens when you use your equipment professionally. Thanks for the good review.

Aperture Don said...

I'm a simple amateur. my only goal is trying only to get some fun in photography.
I've got a DF for 3 weeks now. I was waiting for a price drop. Nos In Europ a refurbished one costs 2000 euros. A nice price for this sensor.
I can't find any important cons with this camera: it should be used for what it has been designed for. It's small, light, with an amazing IQ. I use it with Nikkor AIS 28 , AIS 35 and Pre Ai 105. All MF. MF is easy with short ranges I use most of the time, and the green light confirms focus in a very accurate way.
"It looks like Df makes its own light": thats' it. And there are a very few camera that produce this effect.