They say the best camera is the one you have with you. But there might be a better kind of camera: The one you never want to put down.
Indeed, the full-frame Nikon Df’s appeal goes far beyond its throwback aesthetic, which borrows heavily from the black-and-silver body of the 35mm FM series from the ’70s and ’80s. Using this DSLR is a visceral experience, one that becomes borderline addictive once you get used to the controls. The camera seems like it has a soul. Thanks to a mashup of throwback features (metal top-mounted controls, compatibility with pre-aperture-indexing lenses, and absolutely no video mode) and modern technology (in-camera HDR, a 5.5fps continuous-shooting speed in RAW mode, and compatibility with Nikon’s separately-sold Wi-Fi unit), you’ll feel more connected to what you’re doing with all the buttons and the levers and the locking dials. It’s a flat-out blast to shoot with.
But this isn’t a camera for everyone. For one thing, it’s big and heavy. It also doesn’t shoot video, and requires you to be comfortable using manual exposure controls. Did we mention price? It’s really expensive ($3,000 as a kit with a 50mm/F1.8 lens, and $2,750 for the body only), and its autofocus system is a step down from other Nikon models in the Df’s price range. But once you start shooting with it, you won’t want to stop.
The main appeal with the Df for enthusiasts is that it accepts older lenses that were produced before Nikon introduced its automatic aperture-indexing system (Ai) lenses in the late-1970s. There’s a little metal tab on the camera’s lens mount that you need to flip up in order for these older lenses to work correctly with the camera, and then you have to jump into the menu and set the lens’ maximum aperture and focal length. I only tested my review unit with the modern kit lens — a decent 50mm F1.8 — but that feature is a huge draw for anyone with pre-Ai glass.
The 50mm/F1.8 kit lens is better than the run-of-the-mill 18-55mm zoom lens that comes with your average APS-C sensored camera, but anyone who invests in the Df should do so with other lenses in mind. Your mileage may vary, but I wasn’t too thrilled with the look of the bokeh in shallow depth-of-field shots. Some of them came out looking like they had been run through Instagram’s “blurry background” filter.
The old-lens compatibility isn’t the only way the Nikon Df goes a few functional steps beyond your average retro-themed camera. If you’re into mechanical knobs and buttons, get ready for a twist-and-click party. From left to right on the top of the camera, you’ve got a double-decker exposure compensation/ISO dial, a shutter-speed dial with a side-mounted lever for selecting single/continuous shooting, the shutter button, and a small bare-bones mode dial (manual, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, and program-auto) that you have to lift and twist to adjust. Nikon might as well have added a film-advance lever to the mix to round out the aesthetics.
While there are plenty of quick-access controls front-and-center, many still take longer to adjust than other control schemes. It takes two hands to make these adjustments securely while holding a couple pounds’ worth of camera because you have to depress a spring-loaded button while you turn each dial. The good news is you don’t always have to use the heavy-duty dial to adjust shutter speed; by setting the dial to “⅓ STEP,” you can move shutter-speed adjustments to the front or back scroll wheels.
You shouldn’t be bashful about cranking the Df’s ISO dial up either. This is a camera that gives you great performance when light is scant, and you’ll want to use fast shutter speeds (the Df’s quickest setting is 1/4000 second) when the situation calls for it. The Df’s ISO dial covers a span of 100-12,800, and you can even push it further. There are extended “H1″ through “H4″ settings that correspond to ISO equivalencies of 25,600 through 204,800, as well as an ISO 50 setting labeled as “L1.” Noisy spots start becoming visible at around ISO 6400, but the results are still very usable. The overall image quality doesn’t start to break down until about ISO 51,200 (H2).
The button layout on the back is more traditional. In fact, it’s practically identical to Nikon DSLRs like the D800/D800E and D610. By default, the aperture adjustments are controlled by a vertically oriented wheel on the front of the camera — it requires you to use your index finger to scroll. It’s not a bad setup, but I’m accustomed to using the horizontal thumbwheel on the back for aperture adjustments. One of the first things I did was to jump into the custom menu settings, select Customize Command Dials, and choose “Change Main/sub” to move aperture control to the back of the camera.
While the Df has the same 16-megapixel full-frame sensor found in the Nikon D4, which was the company’s flagship DSLR until the Nikon D4S was announced last month, its autofocus system isn’t as robust. Instead of the 51-point contrast-detection autofocus system found in the higher-end D4 and the higher-resolution D800/D800E, the Df has a more-limited 39-point system.
Autofocus can search a bit even in decent lighting — oddly, I found that autofocus worked better when I pressed the dedicated “AF-ON” button on the back of the camera rather than half-pressing the shutter button. The easiest way to fine-tune manual focus with this camera is to turn on the Live View display on the back and adjust while looking at the 3.2-inch LCD screen. Still, using Live View feels a bit like sacrilege while using such an retro-minded camera.
Aesthetic intrigue and low-light performance aside, who should consider paying around $3,000 for the Nikon Df? The easy answer is someone who (1) loves the way cameras used to do things and (2) has access to older pre-Ai Nikon lenses. The Nikon Df also has immense appeal as a step-up camera for anyone who’s comfortable with manual controls. The other full-frame cameras in Nikon’s stable are straight-forward bodies for pros and enthusiasts — the D800/D800E, D610, and D4S are all practical, video-capable options. The Df is more limited than similarly priced cameras in terms of features, but it’s also a lot more fun to shoot with.