As Sony Looks Forward, Nikon Looks Back: Thoughts on the The Nikon DF
To say the release of the Nikon DF was hyped is something of an understatement. I don’t know whether it was the clever and effective viral marketing campaign, or the fact that said teasing caught many people by surprise that led to the hype, but the result was one of the most eagerly awaited cameras of the year, despite the fact that it’s existence was unknown only a few weeks previously. Now that it’s here, the retro styled full frame camera has drawn a range of reactions from many people. A lot of the photographers who I've spoken to all have the same reaction: “Why?” and personally I’m not quite sure what to make of it either.
I must confess to getting caught up in the hype prior to the actual release. I have been a Nikon D700 owner for several years, and I absolutely love that camera. The original D700 was effectively a D3 in a smaller body, so when the D4 came out, many people, myself included were hoping that a replacement for the D700 would be a similar product, based on the D4, or the D3x. Instead, we got the D800, which is a fine camera, but for many people, the megapixel count is excessive for what they need, and would have preferred the high sensitivity of the D4’s sensor over the resolution of the D800's. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great camera, but for some people it lacks that something special that the D700 has.
D700 lovers hopes were raised again when the D600 was rumoured, but instead we got another oddly positioned offering from Nikon. This time we got a more reasonable megapixel count, but in a consumer level body. Flash forward to a few weeks ago, and the rumours of the DF start to appear. From the beginning of the teaser campaign, Nikon promises a tool focussed on “pure photography”. The rumours start floating around of a Nikon D4 sensor in a compact, body. In other words, what many D700 owners had hoped the D700 replacement would be. Would this be the long awaited spiritual successor to the D700 many pondered? Well, unfortunately not really.
With the DF, Nikon has jumped on the retro bandwagon that has brought so much success to Fuji lately, but this is where my issues with the DF start. With Fuji’s cameras, the retro styling, and more importantly, the retro control layout offers obvious advantages in ergonomics. Most of the people that I know who use any of Fuji’s X-Series cameras, love the control layout. The combination of aperture ring, shutter speed dial and exposure combination dial make operating the camera a seamless and almost second nature affair. I’m sure this enthusiasm for hands on ergonomics is what Nikon were trying to tap with the DF, but the result is a little different.
What do I mean by this? Well, Nikon added physical dials and controls for just about every parameter, but you still have the standard nikon control layout too. Because most modern Nikon lenses don’t have an aperture ring you still control the Aperture with the control wheel on the front. To select shutter speeds in increments of 1/3 of a stop you select the 1/3 function on the shutter speed wheel and use the back control wheel. In other words like every other Nikon. This combination works really well, and there’s no real reason that having a dedicated shutter speed dial makes for any better ergonomics. In fact, because you have to depress the unlocking knob on top of the wheel to release the dial in order to turn it, the physical button is decidedly less ergonomic than the standard controls. Then there’s the mode selector dial. They have a physical mode selector button, but in order to turn it you have to pull it up and then turn it, meaning changing modes is also unnecessarily complicated. For decades cameras have had mode selection dials that you just turn, so why do you need this extra step? There doesn’t seem to be any reason to make it like this, other than for nostalgia’s sake. There’s a video on you tube of someone trying to change modes (see below) and it looks really fiddly and difficult. Again, the retro controls offer nothing of an advantage in terms of ergonomics. And speaking of the mode dial, what happens if you’re in Aperture priority mode and the shutter speed dial is set to something other than the 1/3 step function? Does it just inure the shutter speed wheel? On the Fuji’s there is an “A” setting on the shutter speed wheel that puts the camera into Aperture priority mode, therefore you always know by looking at he wheel what the shutter speed is, be it manually set or on automatic, bit on the DF it you have it set to 125 for example, but are on Aperture priority, that means nothing. Once more, this defeats the purpose of having physical dials in the first place.
Then we get to my personal favourite, the exposure combination dial. Whoever thought the location and design of this was a good idea, really needs a different job. On Fuji’s cameras, and Sony’s RX1, and new A7 cameras, the physical exposure compensation button is positioned so it falls nicely under your thumb position. It makes lots of sense and really helps with instinctive operation of the camera. On the Nikon however, the exposure compensation dial is on the left hand side of the prism, nowhere near where your hands fall naturally, and even worse, they have the awkward locking pin on that too, so in order to use it you have to first push down on the pin and then turn the dial.
If you regularly shoot in Aperture priority mode, as many photographers do, you probably use your camera's exposure compensation all the time. You want it to be simple and easy to use and you want to be able to do it without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. On the DF, that’s not going to happen, unless you can set the rear command dial to act as exposure compensation, in which case, once again why bother with the dial in the first place? It just defies logic, especially considering the teaser campaign promising a photographers camera, and this to me seems more like an exercise in designing something as a design exercise rather than filling a need. I really have to wonder did the engineers talk to a real photographer at any stage during the design process?
By the way, in case you’re wondering, I started my photographic passion with an old manual film camera many years ago, so it’s not like I’ve only grown up with modern digital cameras. I shot film for years, and I love the feel of an old camera, so it’s not like I’ve never used a camera like this.
I realise that I’ve just spent several paragraphs bashing the camera, so If I seem completely negative on the DF, don’t get me wrong, there are things to like about this camera too. The D4 sensor is an excellent sensor, with amazing low light capabilities. The camera’s size and weight are an excellent combination too, and the ability to use vintage non-ai lenses is a great addition. A small and light camera with these capabilities is pretty impressive. However I just can’t get past the bizarre retro for the sake of it ergonomics. I hope I’m wrong. I hope when this camera gets into people’s hands my concerns about usability are unfounded, but Nikon’s control layout is already really great, having been honed over years of design and development, so why did Nikon decide to throw all that away just because it’s a trend right now? Come to think of it, even Nikon’s consumer body D610 seems like a better, more rounded camera. The only reason to go with the DF over the D600 is if you need super low light performance, or you really like dials, or you really, really hate the idea of video on a DSLR.
Then there’s the price. It’s priced more expensively than the D800 but it has a lower resolution sensor, and it is without video*. Considering Sony’s recent release of the A7 and A7r, the DF seems a massively excessive, price wise in comparison. And then there’s the philosophical differences too. Sony’s cameras are incredibly forward looking, offering a raft of future technologies, newer sensors in smaller and more competitively priced bodies. I’ve said it many times but Sony’s camera devision is unencumbered by legacy technologies and have no qualms about trying something new which is what the’ve done with the new A7 and A7r. Nikon on the other hand don’t seem to know what to do with their full frame offerings. I know it might be unfair to compare the offerings, but I see nothing to recommend this camera over pretty much any other full frame camera. Certainly not at the current price. Again, maybe I’m wrong, in fact I rally hope I’m wrong and the DF will sell like hotcakes, but at its current price I will be really surprised.
* Speaking of price, in the US it's $2995 (with lens), but here in Europe it's going for €3350, which in dollars with the current exchange rate is equivalent to $4,496. Even if you take the dollar price, convert it to euro and add Vat, there's still close to a €650 in the difference. Just sayin'