What’s Old is New Again

Featuring old school design and a premium full-frame digital sensor, will the Nikon Df bolster sales for a leading manufacturer of consumer and professional cameras?

Featuring old school design and a premium full-frame digital sensor, will the Nikon Df bolster sales for a leading manufacturer of consumer and professional cameras? (Photo used courtesy Nikon USA)

Nikon has gone retro. With the introduction in November 2013 of the Df, Nikon hopes to recapture a level of dominance in high end consumer and professional photography the camera manufacturer enjoyed during the 1970’s. Nikon revolutionized 35mm photography in 1959 with its introduction of the Nikon F. The F was Nikon’s first single lens reflex (SLR) camera body and the first camera body to incorporate a host of new technologies in one compact frame.  Strong sales launched Nikon to the top of the 35mm pyramid, a position it enjoyed well into the 1970’s. Nikon F, F2 and F3 bodies were standard issue gear for photojournalists, and set a high bar for both quality and durability in the industry.

Nikon’s position as king of the 35mm SLR hill was challenged in 1975 when Canon introduced new autoexposure technology in its consumer model, AE-1 body. Canon’s rise continued in 1978 with the introduction of the A-1. This body’s programmed autoexposure technology and other advanced features made it an instant best-seller. Advances in autofocus technology dominated the next ten years, culminating with Canon’s introduction in 1987 of the EOS system. EOS autofocus technology was a huge step forward; so significant that professional photographers (including many Nikon shooters) began selling their gear and making the transition to the Canon EOS system. This transformation rocketed Canon to the top of the 35mm SLR camera manufacturer mountain. In many respects, Nikon has been playing catch up, ever since.

Nikon and Canon have been trading blows, so to speak, since the beginning of the digital revolution. While Canon remains the leader in worldwide digital SLR (DSLR) sales, Nikon’s D3 and D4 camera bodies had earned reputations as being the best low-light 35mm bodies available. Canon’s 1D-X and 5D-MkIII bodies have since countered that challenge. Nikon chose a slightly different tack in 2012 with its introduction of the 36 megapixel (MP) D800. Since 2008, the introduction of a host of new capabilities (video), technologies (mirrorless) and platforms (smart phones) have generated significant uncertainty as to digital photography’s future.

Nikon Df, a 16 MP, full-frame DSLR

Nikon Df, a 16 MP, full-frame DSLR featuring old school design cues. (Photo used courtesy Nikon USA)

Perhaps, this is why Nikon looked to the past for inspiration in the development of its latest full-frame DSLR, the retro Df. Featuring design elements reminiscent of vintage F-series bodies and the D4’s acclaimed 16 MP sensor, the Df delivers the latest in digital imaging technology in an old school package. The photographic community’s early response has been, shall we say, mixed. For those who, like me, cut their teeth in photography shooting 35mm film cameras, the Df harkens back to a time when we were falling in love with the art form. My first camera was a 1980’s vintage Nikon F3. I bought it, used, and immediately fell in love with the feel of the body in my hands and the intuitive layout of controls.

Viewed from above, the Nikon Df's layout of retro dials is a clear homage to the F-series bodies of 1970's.

Viewed from above, the Nikon Df’s layout of retro dials and controls is a clear homage to the F-series bodies of 1970’s. (Photo used courtesy Nikon USA)

If the Df reminds you of your first camera and stirs fond memories, you are not alone. Nikon has made a bold move developing a modern DSLR packaged in classic wrapping. Marketing a professional quality camera based on its design and outward appearance is a first for Nikon. In hindsight, it’s a wonder they didn’t employ this strategy, sooner. Products have been successfully marketed according to aesthetic appearance since the beginning of time. But photography is a hobby and profession driven by advances in technology. The history of Nikon’s rise to prominence and Canon’s subsequent ascension clearly illustrates this. So, while the outward appearance of the Df can be seen as a bold–and potentially brilliant– move by Nikon, the key to this camera’s success will be its performance. If the Df packages great performance in a retro body style that sparks the imagination, it will be a hit. If performance is seen as inadequate, the Df will flop. Let’s take a look under the hood to see what this baby can do:

  • 16.2 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor (same as D4)
  • EXPEED 3 Image processing engine (same as D4)
  • Native ISO range: 100 to 12,800
  • Expanded ISO range: 50 to 204,800
  • 5.5 frames per second (fps) burst rate
  • 39 autofocus points
  • 100% coverage optical viewfinder
  • 3.2-inch LCD (921K)
  • Magnesium alloy top, back and bottom panels
  • Shutter Speed: 30-second (min.) to 1/4000-second (max.)
  • Flash Sync Speed: 1/200-second
  • Lens Compatibility: Compatible with AI and non-AI Nikon F-mount lenses

With this new emphasis on retro design and appeal, Nikon has also trimmed the fat, so to speak, removing functionality purest photographers sometimes criticize as superfluous:

  • No video recording capability
  • No built-in flash
  • No large, top panel LCD display

If you look just at the specifications, it’s hard to decide exactly where the Df fits in Nikon’s line of full-frame bodies. In terms of resolution, it joins the D4 as featuring the second-lowest megapixel sensor in the full-frame line-up. The D800E and D800 top the list with 36 MP sensors, next comes the D3x with 24.5 MP resolution, then the D600 and D610 at 24.3 MP, the D4 and Df with 16 MP sensors and, finally, the D3s at 12.1 MP. However, while the D4 boasts a cheetah-like 11 frames per second (fps) burst rate, unsurpassed build quality, 51-point autofocus, 1/8000-second shutter speed, 1/250-second flash sync speed, HD video recording and outstanding high ISO performance, the Df offers only the same low light performance.

The rear panel of the Nikon Df DSLR

The distinctly modern rear panel, controls and viewfinder of the Nikon Df DSLR. (Photo used courtesy Nikon USA)

The D4 is Nikon’s flagship full-frame DSLR and nobody questions this standing. Where does the Df fall within that spectrum? On paper, one can make the case that the D800E and D800 should rank ahead of the Df. Similar cases can be made that the D600 and D610 are at least the equal (if not slightly superior) to the Df. But from a pricing standpoint, Nikon seems to believe the Df ranks right up there with the D800-series bodies. Here, are prices for all five (as of 11/09/13) bodies:

  • D800E: $2,996.95 (new)
  • D800: $2,796.95 (new)
  • Df: $2,746.95 (new)
  • D610: $1,996.95 (new)
  • D600: $1,499.00 (refurbished)

For an additional $50, the prospective Df customer can get a 36 megapixel D800, HD video recording, 51-point autofocus, built-in flash, 1/8000-second shutter rate, 1/250 flash sync speed, a CF card slot, expanded bracketing (up to 9 frames) and two additional stops of exposure compensation. At $750 less than the Df, the D610 offers 24 MP resolution, HD video recording, a second SD card slot, a slightly improved (though, arguably irrelevant) 6 fps burst rate, and equivalent performance in autofocus, viewfinder coverage, shutter speed, flash sync speed, and rear panel LCD. And if you’re willing to accept the risk of getting a body that needs regular sensor cleanings, a refurbished D600 can still be had for an incredible $1,499. That’s a bit more than half the price of the Df.

A customer sits lost in thought at the Rendevous in the Hotel Monte Vista in historic downtown Flagstaff. Shot with Nikon D600 and Tamron 24-70 at ISO 3200, 70mm, f/2.8, 1/60-second

A customer sits lost in thought at the Rendevous in the Hotel Monte Vista in historic downtown Flagstaff. This image was made with the Nikon D600 body and Tamron 24-70 Di VC USD lens. The exposure was made at ISO 3200, 70mm, f/2.8, 1/60-second. (Bill Ferris)

What does the Df offer by way of compensation for your willingness to part with about $2,750 US? Some would argue its improved build quality and high ISO performance separate the Df from the D610. However, looking at high ISO comparison images taken with D610 and D4 bodies (The Df features the same sensor and image-processing engine as the D4), the D610 holds its own up to ISO 6400. This begs the question, how often will you need an ISO of 12,800 or higher? In my experience, paired with quality, fast glass, the Nikon D600 and D610 are competent nighttime street photography camera bodies.

This leaves one other factor: style. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Nikon or its customers for being style-conscious. I’m style-conscious. (My wife would probably disagree.) I buy clothes that, in my opinion, are flattering to my appearance. I drive a vehicle that matches, in its outward appearance, my self-image as a man who enjoys the outdoors. I shoot Nikon, in part, because I enjoy presenting myself as a photographer who uses quality equipment. Understand, I love the ergonomics of Nikon bodies and control layout. And I’ve always been very pleased with the quality of the images my Nikon camera bodies have produced. But if I’m being honest, I have to admit that style is a selling-point with me.

A front view of the Nikon Df, 16 MP, full-frame DSLR with retro styling

So, if I were in the market for a full-frame DSLR body, would the Df be my body of choice? I do like the retro styling. It appeals to me as an homage to what the experience of being a photographer has the potential to be. That said, the Df’s classic styling also reminds me of the reasons I sold my vintage Nikon F3. I sold the F3 to finance the purchase of a Nikon D70, my first digital SLR. It took me about five minutes to embrace digital technology and say, “Good riddance,” to film. Gone forever were the days of not having the correct ISO film in my camera, of having to wait for negatives to be processed to learn if I’d gotten any keepers, and having to be judicious with each and every one of my 36 exposures. The ability to choose ISO on the fly, to instantly review exposures and to spend a week doing a wilderness backpack shooting all 500+ exposures on a single media card instantly sold me on the benefits of digital. Yes, I have fond memories of my old F3, but I have absolutely no desire to relive those days and frustrations.

Which body would I choose? After comparing the performance characteristics of the Df versus Nikon’s other full-frame bodies, I have no doubt what my decision would be. I would do just what I did about six weeks ago; seek out a refurbished D600 body and buy it.

Now, get out and shoot!

Bill Ferris | November 2013

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