Hands-on: Nikon Df review

We knew Nikon had something up its sleeve. Throughout October there had been glimpses in teaser videos showing a Nikon product described as being all about "Pure Photography". The result is the Nikon Df, a full-frame, retro-styled DSLR camera.

That’s right, the Df isn’t a full-frame compact system camera. It’s another notch on the Nikon full-frame DSLR list, complete with mirror box and a glass pentaprism viewfinder with 100 per cent field of view. And, roughly speaking, the Df’s innards are the same as that of the top-spec Nikon D4.

Sitting next to the majority of Nikon FX DSLR cameras in the company’s line-up, the Df, complete with its non-italic retro logo plucked from the past, has a very similar footprint. It’s roughly the same size as a Nikon D800. No Sony Alpha A7 route here, then.

READ: Hands-on: Sony Alpha A7 review

You might be left scratching your heads as to why this has happened as the teaser videos seem to show the Df looking rather dinky. But that’s not the route Nikon’s gone for. It’s taken the retro style very literally, in that the Df looks like an old F-series from decades gone by complete with the full-size body.

Our verdict? After seeing Fujifilm bring itself back from the brink with its retro-styled X-series of compact system cameras, Nikon’s dipped its oar into a clearly popular market area. It’s been rather clever by being the first Nikon F-mount camera compatible with current lenses and older non-AI lenses thanks to a collapsible coupling lever that can accommodate either.

The dial-laden design is also key to what the camera is all about. There are separate mode dials for ISO, exposure compensation, shutter speed, and shooting mode. The first two are arranged in a dual stack, one on top of the other. It looks great and the dials feel sturdy in the hand thanks to the magnesium alloy build of the entire camera.

But every single dial has an individual press-and-hold lock mechanism. So if you want to adjust, say, exposure compensation while looking through the viewfinder you’re going to have to press the lock with one finger while rotating the dial - something that won’t be done easily with the camera raised to your eye.

We think Nikon should have at least put the option in for dials that could remain out of lock. Think about the latest Pentax K-3, for example, which has a slider switch to active or deactivate the dial lock on that camera.

READ: Pentax K-3 hands-on

One point of difference is the mode dial which needs to be pulled upwards and rotated to shift between manual, and priority modes.

Given the clash of old and new styles, there’s some overlap in the way the camera can be operated. There’s a front thumbwheel - which sits almost "vertically" on the front of the camera - that can be brought into action to feel more like a modern-day DSLR by switching the shutter dial into the "1/3 step" option. It makes the control feel more like a D800 or similar.

To the front of the camera there are also two programmable function buttons, the upper Pv one defaults to depth of field preview. Their positions are accessible, although you’ll need to get used to which sits where as it’s not typical that a pair of such buttons sit to the front of a DSLR - it’s usually just a single one.

Elsewhere there’s the usual AF/MF switch tucked around the front left side, complete with button that needs to be depressed to use the rear thumbwheel to toggle between single, continuous and various autofocus area modes. This side of the camera also houses a bracket (BRK) button and an X-sync terminal.

Which brings us to the Df’s innards. The autofocus system is the Multi-CAM 4800, the same 39-point system as found in the Nikon D600. Apart from this - which functions very eloquently, we’ve been using the D600 for many months to shoot sample photos of late - a new shutter mechanism capable of 5.5fps and rated at 150,000 cycles in its lifespan, and weather-sealing up the D800’s standards, the rest of the camera is much like a Nikon D4.

READ: Nikon D800 review

The Df has the same 16.4-megapixel full-frame sensor and Expeed 3 processing engine as the D4 and, therefore, you can anticipate image quality just as top-notch. No Expeed 4, however, does seem to be taking the retro concept a little bit too literally - but we like the fact Nikon hasn’t jammed in a super-high resolution sensor into this model. That sits more in-line with the "Pure Photography" route we think.

READ: Nikon D4 review

It’s not, however, as much of a hefty beast. The body doesn’t have the massive battery grip of the D4, seeing the Df weigh in at 710g without the lens. And that makes it the lightest Nikon full-frame DSLR on the market.

But there’s some good battery news. Despite using the EN-EL14a battery that also appears in other Nikon models, the company claims it will deliver 1,400 shots per charge. Which is bloomin’ brilliant - if, of course, it’s true. We managed to have only around 20-minutes experimenting with the camera.

Other top-spec features include full compatibility with the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS), a 1/4000th sec maximum shutter speed, an HDMI out, sensitivity from ISO 100-12,800 (50-204,800 extended), and a variety of accessories to suit the styling.

So there we have it. The Nikon Df is as much an exciting prospect as it is an oddity. We were hoping for something smaller, something a little more deft to use - the all-locking mode dials are something we’ll need to play with extensively before they take, we would think - and a touch more up to date. Mid-level focus system with -1EV low-light autofocus abilities, last-gen processor; we get the retro charm, but feel the Df had the opportunity to show off all the very latest Nikon tech, not be an experimental model to rest on last year’s laurels.

It will definitely appeal to those who want to go old skool though. Grab your old lenses, pop it into manual focus - the AF area point can be switched off when in manual focus via the menus - and you’ll feel the past has caught a train to the present.

The Nikon Df will be available with the special-edition 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor lens only, priced £2,750 when it goes on sale from 28 November. There will be silver or black colour options available. There’s no body-only option, something we think is a mistake given the Df’s compatibility with more Nikon lenses than any of the company's other DSLR cameras - but maybe that option will come up in the near future.



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