Nikon Df throughout the years
The odd one out in the Nikon family.
24 Photos • 23 October 2020
Lightweight, Full-Frame, DSLR
The Nikon Df is the lightest full frame DSLR camera from Nikon at only 759 grams, I weighed it myself. Nikon states 765 grams on their website. Nikon came out with the Z5 at 675 grams, and the Z6 and Z7 at 672 grams but these are mirrorless. It’s actually the lightest full-frame DSLR from any brand to my knowledge! The only camera that has the same weight stated as the Nikon Df is the Canon EOS 6D Mark II.
The camera comes with a really nice 16 megapixel sensor that is also found in the Nikon D4, 16 megapixels is not much and many would prefer 24 or 36 or even more megapixels on their camera, but personally I’ve never cared much for the resolution craze. More about this further down.
The body is sturdy and has nicely made dials and interface. Much alike my Nikon FM3a. The buttons and dials are where I expect them to be and it makes using the camera easy.
The viewfinder is nice and relative large and works pretty good with manual Ai-S lenses out of the box, but I’ve installed a modified Nikon K3 split image focussing screen for the Nikon FM3a in my Df. Which makes focussing even more fun with the manual lenses, or any auto focus lenses in manual mode.
Nikon D4 sensor with some adjustments
The Nikon Df comes with the same sensor and image pipeline as the Nikon D4 flagship camera, but has a different and less aggressive Anti-Aliasing filter. This results in slightly sharper images when a lens can resolve fine enough.
Quality per pixel is what I care about. And in this regard the sensor from 2012 does an amazing job. The 16 megapixel sensor makes the whole image workflow easy, and lightweight. Since the resolution is relative low for a Full-Frame camera this makes small mistakes in focus, or lens aberrations less apparent, this is a good thing for what I like to use the Df for: quick candid shots and reportage style photography.
Besides, 16 megapixels is still enough to print A3 size at 300 ppi. When printing at 200 ppi you can print A2 sized. And to be fair at both A3 and A2 300 or 200 ppi is way more than needed at the respective viewing distances that come with those larger sized prints. This is a topic on it’s own and one can read plenty of information on printing online, but in my opinion you only need 300 ppi for handheld photo prints.
The colour reproduction is stunning and very good out of camera, Nikon has a few RAW profiles that are accessible in Adobe Lightroom and my personal favourite is the NL “Neutral” or PT “Portrait” when selected in camera they will be automatically selected when you import the files into Lightroom. Colour bit depth is slightly ahead of the Leica M (Typ 240) to give an example.
Dynamic range of the camera at base ISO is amazing at more than 13 stops of range. As a comparison it’s just behind the Leica M (Typ 240) from the same year. But low light performance greatly outperforms the Leica M sensor.
Handling the Df
As a long time Leica user the looks of the Df did not really make me ‘wow’ as much a some of the real Nikon shooters who never even look in the direction of Leica. Many Nikon users even were negative about the camera and found it to be a cash cow or niche product no one would buy. Niche it sure is, I guess. But Nikon sold me a camera, and I would have never bought a digital Nikon if it weren’t for the Df coming out.
The camera handles quite nicely when you’re used to Leica M, or Leica R or Leica S or any Leica really. Having a dedicated shutter speed dial is nice. A dial for ISO looks fun but I don’t mind this to be in a menu. I don’t change it as often as I do shutter speed or aperture.
The Nikon Df works amazing with any Nikon F mount lens you can imagine, Ai, Ai-S, AF-D, AF-S lenses etc. I really like using the Df with Ai-S lenses that can be bought new (yes Nikon still produces some) or second hand for not that much money. Focussing them is quite good with the standard Df focussing screen, but even better with the K3 split screen meant for the FM3a. One can buy these online adjusted to fit the Nikon Df.
The camera is lightweight, and has a good grip and balance with the prime lenses I use the camera with. This might be different however when using a long zoom lens, or front heavy lens.
I have, like with my Leica S and Hasselblad X1D II set the autofocus to only activate with the AF-ON button, which sits exactly where my right hand thumb rests. Focus does not activate with a half press of the shutter release button. This is my preferred way for any camera.
There are a bit too many buttons on the left side of the rear display in my opinion but I can ignore them if I want to and it does not botter the handling of the camera.
For AF-S lenses without aperture ring I’ve set the aperture control on the rear dial instead of the front one, the front one is awkwardly positioned and not easy to use for me, however nice it looks.
To change modes: M/A/S/P there is of course a dial on the Nikon Df, which you have to lift and turn so you don’t accidentally move it out of the selected mode. The lift and rotate action however is because of the positioning of the dial awkward. Luckily I usually have it permanently set to M anyway.
Low Light Photography
One of the nice things about the Nikon Df is it’s low light capabilities. Very clean colour images with little to no post-processing can be achieved up to ISO 3200, combine this with a fast prime and you’ll be able to photography basically anything at any time.
Autofocus is great, even in low light, especially when using the center focussing points which are cross type.
If you like doing night time landscape or starscape (astronomy) photography using the old AF-D or even older Ai-S lenses is a treat. Simply rotate the focussing ring to infinity and you’re set. Unlike AF-S lenses that can focus past infinity, in this case you have to use live view to achieve accurate focus at infinity during the night. Even the more than 5000,- Euro Leica S lenses don’t have a hard stop at infinity.
The camera has a self timer that can be adjusted, and mirror up mode selectable with the lever to the bottom right of the shutter speed dial. In mirror up mode the first depression of the shutter release button flips the mirror up, and on the second press it will release the shutter making the exposure. The shutter release button is threaded and can be used with a screw in shutter release cable. I can use the same cable release that I have used with my Leica M6, M8, M9, M240 and R8.
Nikon F Mount Prime Lenses
I started photography when I was 14 with a zoom lens, but soon after I used a fast prime lens and was hooked. I didn’t care much for zooming in a lot, which is the trend most beginners follow when they start out with photography, sure I bought a zoom lens that could zoom in all the way to 300mm, but soon I discovered this was something I had no use for at all.
When I got myself a Leica M8 and Voightländer 28mm ULTRON I knew I never wanted a zoom lens again. Primes were my thing, and wherever I go I now bring a maximum of 3 primes that can cover everything I want.
When I want to bring just one lens, I usually bring a 35mm equivalent lens. When I bring two lenses I bring a 28mm and a 50mm equivalent. When I bring three I bring a 28mm a 50mm and then either a wider or a longer lens. This covers all I need.
Nikon has really an amazing set of lenses available for their Full-Frame cameras, both primes and zooms. But since I never use zooms and have no experience with the zooms from Nikon I’ll only comment on the primes I’ve used.
Many of the manual Ai-S lenses are of course of an older design, usually from the 70s or 80s. But some have a better optical design than the later AF-D lenses. For example the Ai-S NIKKOR 28mm f/2.8 has a better optical design than the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8D. While the Ai-S NIKKOR 24mm f/2.8 shares the optical design with the AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8D. So if you want to get a moderately wide auto focus lens it’s better to get the 24mm than the 28mm. Without looking at AF-S lenses.
As of 2020 Nikon still produces 8 manual focus Ai-S lenses in exactly the same way they’ve done since the 70s. These can be bought second hand for a small price or brand new as well with full warranty from Nikon. The price ranges from USD 409.95 up to USD 1164.95 when buying new according to Nikon. These lenses have a better fit and finish than many of the other brands out there making manual focus lenses.
Optically most of these lenses are outstanding as can be seen from the many results you can find online and the MTF curves. Others are not that good, like the 35mm f/1.4, it really is weak wide open and only becomes usable when stopped down quite a bit, funnily it’s also the most expensive of the bunch, not the 50mm f/1.2.
Ai-S NIKKOR 20mm f/2.8 | CRC
Ai-S NIKKOR 24mm f/2.8 | CRC
Ai-S NIKKOR 28mm f/2.8 | CRC
Ai-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4 | CRC
Ai-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.2
Ai-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4
Ai-S Micro-NIKKOR 55mm f/2.8 | CRC
Ai-S Micro-NIKKOR 105mm f/2.8 | CRC
Of course there are many modern AF-S lenses without aperture ring and internal autofocus motor, these lenses are in general: better, faster, more quiet, bigger. But they won’t work on my FM3a for example since there is no way to set the aperture since there is no aperture selection ring on the lens. However if you only plan to use them on the Nikon Df or any other digital body you’ll be fine. The AF-S lenses are usually a bit more expensive than the AF-D or manual Ai-S lenses.
For me the Df is all about being a compact Full-Frame DSLR so I prefer the manual Ai-S or AF-D lenses, they are usually smaller, cheaper, and look nicer on the Df body. Their performance is often great and they show more character compared to the clinical AF-S lenses. And with character I don’t mean they are bad, no, they are great. But if I need maximum sharpness and clinical results I’ll pick the Hasselblad X1D II or the Leica S (Typ 006).
My Nikon Df came as a ‘kit’ so it was boxed with the Special Edition AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G which costs USD 60 more than the normal version of the lens and is exactly the same except for some cosmetic changes that make it look a little like an old Manual Ai-S lens. The lens is amazing, it focuses fast, quiet, and is extremely sharp both in close range and infinity. It has one aspherical element which keeps performance really good even wide open. The lens is actually better than my all time favourite Leica Summicron-M 1:2.0/50mm. It focuses closer, has beter close performance range, nicer bokeh and overal look, and costs only a fraction. Of course the optical design is much more recent. That is also the reason I kept the AF-S 50mm and sold the AF-D 50mm I had.
One unique thing about the Nikon Df is that it works with virtually any Nikon F mount lens produced since 1959 including matrix metering mode, even with the non-Ai lenses. When using pre-ai lenses all you have to do is set up a lens profile in camera, and push up/away the coupling lever.
The Nikon Df is a very capable camera, it was back in 2013 and still is in 2020. The results you can achieve with the camera are amazing and are outstanding for both digital publications and fine-art prints. Operating the camera is a joy and once set up the way you like the camera gets out of your way and simply works. The camera has a near instant on start-up time so it’s always ready.
The results you can get with the Df are overwhelmingly good, and when coming from Leica or Hasselblad it’s a cheap system to expand the lenses you have when you want to try something new. Cheaper even than Fuji X system, since the Fuji X system lenses are all relative new and thus not really cheap. Nikon F mount has been the same since forever so there is so much lenses out there that you can buy for a bargain.
Nikon still sells the Df and it doesn’t seem like they will release a new one anytime soon. Maybe someday they will, which would mean upgrading your digital body becomes just like the look of the camera: more analog. You upgrade once every 10 years rather than every 2 years. The longer you use a camera and lens combination the better you know it’s subtle ways, how the sensor and lens combination renders certain light, how to get the effect you’re looking for. And I cannot recommend it enough: buy something and stick with it for a few years. You’ll get the most out of your gear this way, and for me the Nikon Df is familiar whenever I pick it up. I know how to work it to get what I want, just like the Leica S (Typ 006) that is soon turning 7 years old.
Would I recommend buying one in 2020? Sure, why not. It’s a capable camera, that attracts people who like a more hands on way of working but prefer a fast Nikon over a Leica with limited lens availability or any other niche brand.
Thanks for reading
I hope you have enjoyed reading and checking out the photos in my article and as always feel free to subscribe to my newsletter to receive an email when I publish a new article, or to leave your thoughts in the comments bellow. Donations are really welcome too since a lot of time goes into writing these articles. Donations can be made through Paypal contact me if you wish to donate. Thanks.