Nikon Df

Nikon Df

Nikon Df

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Nikon Df

If you buy a Nikon Df thinking it’s going to work just like a 35mm SLR from the 1970s, prepare to be disappointed. It looks like a classic SLR, and you can set many settings in familiar ways. But it mostly works like a modern menu-driven, over-optioned, “where the hell is that setting again?” digital SLR.

That’s not to say the Df isn’t gorgeous and highly capable. It is. It just has a learning curve. Someone with baseline film SLR abilities will learn its ways well enough in time. Someone new to digital SLRs with no film SLR history, however, should skip the Df. Other DSLRs, whether with APS-C or full-frame sensors, will prove easier to learn, and will produce no less wonderful images.

Nikon Df

When the Df was new, pros complained about a number of things. It takes only one SD card, not two, meaning no backup if one card fails. Its shutter maxes at 1/4000, where pro DSLRs typically go to 1/8000. It also doesn’t do video. None of that matters to me, an amateur still photographer.

Nikon Df

This camera has the same 16.2-megapixel (4928×3280) sensor as the Nikon D4, and most of the internal works of the Nikon D600. It just has a retro body and retro controls. It natively and noiselessly handles ISOs from 100 to 12,800, and with software trickery can go as low as ISO 50 and as high as ISO 204,800. The shutter operates from 30 to 1/4000 second and lasts about 150,000 cycles. The viewfinder is reasonably big and bright compared to other DSLRs I’ve known, and it gives 100% coverage. The Df uses Nikon’s 3D Color Matrix Meter II system, featuring a 2,016-pixel RGB sensor. If you want flash, you have to mount an external unit on the hot shoe. The proprietary battery is good for 1,400 photos per charge.

Nikon listed the Df for an eye-watering $2,749.95 upon its introduction in 2013. The price didn’t go down over time. When I bought mine in a kit with a 50mm f/1.8G AF Nikkor Special Edition lens in 2021, I paid $3,200.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know I’m a frugal photographer. I seldom buy a camera that costs me more than $100, and most of my collection cost below $50. But when I got my current job, as Director of Engineering in a software company, I wanted to treat myself. The role was a fulfillment of a career goal, and it came with a hefty raise. I had always drooled over the Df, and decided I’d mark this career occasion by buying one. By this time new Dfs were all leftover stock, as Nikon had stopped producing them. All-black Dfs were plentiful still, but like most people (apparently) I wanted the satin-silver-topped body. I would strongly preferred to have bought it from a camera shop, but the only place I could find that still had one was Amazon.

At 710 grams (25 ounces), the Df was Nikon’s lightest full-frame (FX, in Nikon parlance) DSLR. Yet it is large. Check out how big it is compared to my big Nikon F2. It’s easily as heavy as the F2, as well.

I’ve made any number of images with the Df that just blew my mind with excellent exposure and color. Many times, I’ve made images that looked film-like to me.

Feast of the Hunters' Moon
50mm f/1.8G AF-S Nikkor Special Edition
Köln
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor
Farm view
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor
Köln - Heumarkt
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor
Dahlias
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF Nikkor
1967 Chevrolet Camaro
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF Nikkor
Mourning doves on the deck
70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G AF Nikkor
Lilacs in Aalborg
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF Nikkor

I’ve been very happy with the Df for the documentary work I do. Its size isn’t a problem when I’m driving around with it in my car, stopping to make photos like these.

Poland Bridge
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor
Original SR 67 in Pendleton
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor
1958 McDonald's sign
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor

The Df shines at high ISOs. I’ve pushed it as far as ISO 32,000 with no discernible noise or loss of detail. I made these images at ISO 12,800.

Spice Rack
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor
Decca Record
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor

I wanted the Df to be my do-everything camera. It’s turned out not to be, for a couple of reasons.

First, its size limits where I’m willing to take it. Slung over my shoulder, when I’m in tight spaces I’m liable to bump it into things. It takes up a great deal of valuable luggage space when I fly with it.

Second, it isn’t always point-and-shoot simple when you want it to be. I frequently have to fiddle with settings to get the image I want. I welcome the control when I’m doing serious photography. But I’m far less excited about it when I’m on vacation and just want to make quick images of what I see.

I find the Df works most easily with prime lenses like the bundled 50mm f/1.8G AF Nikkor Special Edition lens. I’ve also had good luck with my prime manual-focus Nikkors and my short 28-80mm Nikkor autofocus zoom. Choose a reasonable ISO for the conditions, set the camera to any auto-exposure mode you like, and off you go. All will turn out well.

Free library, Downtown Indianapolis
50mm f/1.8G AF-S Nikkor Special Edition
Feast of the Hunters' Moon
50mm f/1.8G AF-S Nikkor Special Edition
My wife and our granddaughter
28-80mm f/3.3-5.6G AF Nikkor
Sunset over the Toyota dealer
50mm f/1.8G AF-S Nikkor Special Edition
String of lights
50mm f/1.8G AF-S Nikkor Special Edition

However, deep zoom lenses demand more of you to get good results. I bought a 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor lens hoping it would be my do-everything lens. I struggled with this lens for more than a year before I figured out how to get consistently good images with it. I kept getting far to shallow of an in-focus patch with it. I learned something about deep zooms: by their nature, they shrink the in-focus patch.

To try to remedy this, I turned on Auto ISO. Unfortunately, it increases ISO only enough to get a well-exposed image for the lighting conditions, even if the in-focus patch is paper thin. Here are some images I made with the 28-200 zoom where I wanted everything to be in focus, but missed. You can see it better at larger sizes — click any image to see it on Flickr. where you can blow it up to the max.

Berlin - Altes Museum
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor
Köln
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor
1949 Buick grille
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor
2023 Carmel Artomobilia
28-200mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-D Nikkor

Finally I learned to set ISO high, such as to 3,200, when using deep zoom lenses. This forces the big depth of field I want. This was entirely counterintuitive to me as a longtime film photographer. Fortunately, the Df performs noiselessly at ISOs this high.

A major reason I chose the Df is its wide compatibility with manual-focus F-mount lenses. Yet I don’t shoot them as often as I thought I would. Autofocus is just so nice, and I gravitate toward it. But there are times when one of my manual-focus lenses is just right.

Purple flowers
55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor
Citrus fruits
35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor
Tulips up close
55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor
Kitchen
35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor

I always shoot in JPG with the Df. It supports RAW shooting, but the JPGs are plenty satisfying to me. Why take on the processing overhead of RAW when you don’t need it?

I’m surprised and disappointed that it took me three years to make my Nikon Df work the way I wanted it to, especially with deep zoom lenses. I’m also disappointed that it won’t be the do-everything camera I hoped it would be. I’ll eventually buy a deep-zoom compact digital camera to take on trips.

Yet I’m happy to own the Nikon Df. When you use it in its sweet spot of thoughtful photography with primes or short zooms, it delivers fantastic images again and again. Isn’t this what we all learn about cameras eventually, that it’s just best to lean into each camera’s best uses, and find other equipment for other uses?

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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Hi, I’m Steven, a Florida native, who left my career in corporate wealth management six years ago to embark on a summer of soul searching that would change the course of my life forever.

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