Hands-On With the Retro Nikon Df (f for Fusion)

First off: the Nikon Df is a kind of trinity between D4, Leica M and good old film. Right, of the D4 that costs $6k and Leica $7k. And I am the only one excited?! Online commentaries are rather condescending, accusing Nikon of too much and not enough retro for the sake of retro. But when you pick up the Nikon Df for the first time you’re surprised about its “leightweight.” This beauty of a beast, weighing no more than 765 grams, with this build quality, looks much heavier than it’s actually in your hands. Nice. Add the smooth tactile feel of the metal mechanical dials enabling a direct, intuitive operation that’s rewarded with clear, crisp “clicks,” and you’ll immediately realize that Nikon has hit a home run with this camera that’s already a collector’s item on the day of announcement. This camera is like a time travel. Totally reminiscent of my beloved Contax G2 — prominent front wheel, anyone? — the Nikon Df is a joy to hold and operate. Inspiring precision mechanics. And they’re just one part of the truly enjoyable photography experience the Df promises to deliver.

Beautiful silver Nikon Df with leatherette finishing or...
Beautiful silver Nikon Df with leatherette finishing or…
“Pure photography,” as Nikon calls the philosophy behind the Df, might not be everyone’s vision of photography. First impressions of other reviewers on the Net are rather talking the Df down, if not smirking and belittling the concept et al… Right, we all need bigger, better, faster. And BTW, the nuts and bolts analysis of this camera follow when I get access to a production model. The Df’s not there yet, so all Nikon allows us for now is touching and looking at it…

Whenever Nikon calls a camera an “F” it’s a serious piece of engineering. The Df is Nikon’s first digital F. Nikon Df, that’s a D series with “f” for “fusion,” as Nikon told me. Or f for putting “fun” back into photography I’m tempted to say. With its very own interpretation of an f-word Nikon means: “fusion of responsive, intuitive dial operations and flagship D4 image quality in the smallest and lightest FX format body.”

If the D4’s sensor in a truly inspiring package is not good enough, I wonder what is. For the ones who like to slow down and enjoy a beautiful photography tool of great craftsmanship, well their wait is over. The DF’s heart, its reliable sensor, is the D4’s, known for its solid low light rendering, spot-on colors and accurate tones — in short: stable, fast, responsive performance.

What could be wrong with all the functions one needs within reach of the right thumb and left hand. No need to dig deep into one of those menus burying much of what you never need; no function buttons to be programmed and no getting lost deep inside today’s myriad of options of operational overkill. Everything about the Df is for the photographer. There isn’t even a video mode.The operational layout of the Df may look a bit like that of a fine Swiss watch. Nothing wrong with that.

But when one has to read thoughts like A Response on the Nikon Df Distaste, then it becomes clear many photographers are scared of the thought of going back to the basics, because this camera represents what many of us have lost as photographers.

The price? Lack of features? This camera has what is has to have and is built to last. If the naysayers are right and the Df is good at what doesn’t matter and substandard at what truly matters, well then Nikon will follow up within reasonable time with a pimped up Dfx or Dfs or Dfwhatever. But whatever price you’re paying now — either $2,749 or $2,999 for the kit — what you spend for one Df now can be easily spent on two or three other cameras due to “natural” wear and tear and innovation cycles.

This Df is rock-solid. It may lack the latest bells and whistles and this and that help, convenience and functionality. That’s exactly what the “pure photography” is not about. The Df is not retro for the sake of it. It’s consciously saying no to clutter, ballast and distraction. And why didn’t Nikon choose a sensor with more resolution, say the D800’s? And why not mirrorless? We’ll come to that.

... you might prefer classic black.
… you might prefer classic black.
While clearly not a smallish mirrorless camera, the Df (made in Japan) is Nikon’s smallest and lightest full-frame camera, yet if you’re looking for a truly compact camera better look elsewhere. This camera has muscle and is bursting with power, dominated by a glass pentaprism and built of magnesium alloy — and still the camera is very portable. It just feels perfect in the hand: not too big, not to small, just the right weight — and that good old optical viewfinder truly renders gorgeously.

It’s neither an elegant Fujifilm X series nor a Leica M replica. The Nikon Df stands on its on as the first truly retro digital camera. Not the newest sensor? Not the highest resolution? We’ll come to that. But what about no more struggling with an overly complicated menu and dials and buttons that bury a myriad of functions? This camera allows photographers to focus on photography.

You’ll look in vain for one of those flashy movie or video mode buttons that have become standard in every other camera. What, no video?! The Nikon Df has no video. “If you want video you have to buy the Nikon D4,” says Nipat Pongsapitaksanti, product manager Nikon Thailand. “The Df is positioned for pure photography.”

In this camera, you want no video. It’s a camera that sure knows how to ignite passion for pure, undistracted photography. “Inspiration on Contact,” as Nikon says. Holding the camera feels like an immediate bonding between user and tool. Call me a hopeless romantic, I’m not making this up. Or as Tatsuya Yamaguchi puts it, president and managing director of Nikon Thailand:

Nikon has always been innovative, trustworthy and passionately committed. We’ve come a long way since the first Nikon SLR in 1959, the Nikkor F. The Nikon Df is the fusion of emotional benefits that come from owning and operating this camera with superior build quality. The Nikon Df increases the desire to express yourself through photography.

Know what? This is not just marketing babble. This is right to the point what the Df is all about. It’s a camera that doesn’t really target the Nikon user. It’s a retro camera for collectors, enthusiasts, admirers of beautiful mechanical tools, without excluding pros and the old and new generation of photographers. Anyone seeing you with this camera will think, “Cool, shooting film!”

In reality though the Df is much of a D4. It carries the same 16.2MP sensor and EXPEED 3 image processor as Nikon’s pro flagship model, although in a much more appealing and portable body that’s “made for the street and real world shooting”, says Mr. Nipat.

Feeling right at home with the Nikon Df in hand.
Feeling right at home with the Nikon Df and 50mm F1.8G SE in hand.
That’s why Nikon didn’t choose the D800‘s or D610‘s sensor for the Df. Why less pixels? Mr. Nipat: “This camera is best for low light, something you can only get with the D4.”

Meaning: an ISO range from 50 (Lo-1) to an astonishing 204,800 (hi-4), in a sealed body offering quiet mode — which actually will be a shame to use because the sound of that shutter is so sexy.

And why Nikon doesn’t go mirrorless with the Df?

Mr. Nipat: “Electronic viewfinders are not there yet. The optical viewfinder is real time, very bright with 100% frame coverage. Also, after a long shoot for several hours, photographers using EVF might get a headache.” And yes, no EVF eating the battery away. According to Nikon the battery delivers 1,400 shots per charge…

Some of the other goodies: 39 focus points, wireless mobile adapter and the body’s front wheel replacing the lens aperture ring.

The redesigned aspherical 50mm F1.8G Special Edition has a leather-like texture on the outside surface and a silver aluminum ring — a focus ring that reproduces the knurls of manual focus lenses. This Special Edition lens has the exactly same optics as the normal 50mm F1.8G, less the aperture ring.

It’s a compact, lightweight prime on a pretty much irresistible body — you’re all set for agile, nimble, intuitive photography, and that’s exactly what the Df is designed for.

Regarding a Nikon Df lens roadmap the company’s not very specific. But I guess it’s safe to expect further Df lens editions in the future, such as a wider and a tele prime.

"A fusion of D4 image quality and lightweight mobility."
“A fusion of D4 image quality and lightweight mobility.”
Notwithstanding its heritage and retro feel, the Df is state-of-the-art: equipped with the Scene Recognition System which analyzes detailed information acquired from the 2,016-RGB sensor and the image sensor regarding aspects such as scene brightness and colors for optimal control over AF, AE, i-TTL balanced fill flash and AWB…

Nikon claims the DF’s imager is also able to reproduce textures with a superior three-dimensional appearance at low sensitivities, such as ISO 100, without sacrificing dynamic range. In a simple, direct, straight to the point camera.

I’m told to be in a pole position for a production Df for reviewing. Stay tuned! As far as I can tell from handling the Nikon Df, chances are I’ll have to to review my very own Df pretty soon. Wasn’t allowed to insert a memory card yet to truly examine the camera, but isn’t the very enjoyment of holding the right gear in your hands already half of photography’s magic.

Such beautiful cameras don’t happen often. Nikon clearly put a lot of market research into the development of this camera. The Df isn’t for everybody, but it is what many have long been waiting for because this camera reminds us on what many of us have lost as photographers. Photography, to me, is as much about images as about enjoying good gear and the very experience/process of photography. The Df’s certainly an adequate tool for this. This camera is right down my alley; a camera, finally, that is like a trinity between D4, Leica M and film. You’ll get what you pay for.

(For detailed Nikon Df specs and more reviews and hands-on reports please read our continuously updated The Nikon Df File bringing you the latest on this truly different and interesting camera. And you might also want to visit the official Nikon Df Pure Photography site.)

+++ If you like what you read here, why not support THEME. Purchasing via these links doesn’t cost you a cent more. Appreciate! You can order the Nikon Df and Special Edition 50mm F1.8G lens from

Release date is Thursday, November 28, 2013.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Wow ! Thanks Dan.

    Your genuine enthusiasm jumps off the page and pulls me in.
    Correct me if I got you wrong:
    No EVF, simply just a classical OVF.
    The words Hybrid and Fusion consequently refers to D4 technology in a light weight, retro style body.
    No video, thank you Nikon!!
    What pulls me in, together with your enthusiasm is the promise of outstanding low light performance.
    I hope that sets a new standard in upcoming DxO tests.
    The quiet shutter mode is also a big one for me, shooting music and theater.

    A few questions:

    Does the Df have PDAF Autofocus ?
    Does the Df accept regular Nikon FX autofocus lenses ?
    Is the quiet shutter totally quiet (having electronic first and second shutter curtain) ?

    Was there anything you didn’t like about the Df ?

  • Bengt, don’t go for quantity, go for quality!

    Couldn’t operate the camera and it was pretty noisy anyways, but I guess when they mean quiet it is quiet.

    And regarding compatible Nikkor lenses I wrote this in The File:

    The Df wouldn’t be a true classic if it wouldn’t work with 30 or more years old lenses. Nikon developed a mount system that works with all current AF-S, AF-D and AF Nikkor lenses and has near-100% F mount lens compatibility.

    Furthermore, it is the first Nikon digital SLR camera equipped with collapsible metering coupling lever that enables the use of non-AI lenses…

    What I didn’t like? Well I wouldn’t mind it being slightly less “muscular,” but can happily live with that. And the price. But you’ll certainly get what you pay for. This Df is no flash in the pan.

  • Richard Owen

    Definitely not a threat to the mirrorless crowd at over two pounds. I was hoping for something more like my old Olympus OM-4T in size but the Df does not fit the bill for me at this stage of my life. I will stay with my newly purchased X100S and X-E1. The Df is just to big and bulky for me. While it is lighter than the D2H I used, it does not have the draw for me that I had hoped for. I am sure it will sell well but I will continue in the direction I have chosen since leaving the newspaper biz.

  • PWL

    The way I see it, Nikon is just following in Olympus’ footsteps. They saw what a hit Olympus had with the OM-styled EM-5, and decided they’d do one like that, too. Yep, another example of Olympus cutting the trail, but still being an unrecognized underdog….

  • The invention — together with Panasonic — of a native digital system, a vibrating filter dusting of the sensor, the industry’s probably best image stabilization system, etc. etc. Olympus established itself as a force to reckon with. Some of their decisions cost them dearly, like the demise of Four Thirds and those management frauds. But I think they’ve found their place and are recognized as the one pioneering force behind the move from old to new, from mirror to mirrorless. They’ve proven many critics wrong and now as a strategic partner of Sony have more muscle. The Df is a different class and beast. Nikon might have copied from Olympus’s marketing department by creating a desire not for a camera, but for a certain style. It’s a tough fight against the established names. Olympus has come a long way — and I think they’re warming up to the idea that a second sensor format will make sense. I’d be surprised if a few years down the road Olympus also doesn’t go full-frame. So it’s a give and take within the industry. Everyone is taking and copying from everyone. Our burden? The incredible choice.

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