Nikon Df Class Warfare — You Get a D4, Leica M and Film Camera in One, and People Panic

Haven’t seen so much heated debate about a camera in years. You get a D4, Leica M and film camera in one, for the price of not even a D800, and the end of the world seems near. People panic. Nikon D4 performance at half the price with hints of an M feel. I’m sold — read my a bit biased hands-on report with first impressions. The camera feels homey, seems fast, responsive, is beautiful and with premium finishing. Pair it with a Zeiss Makro Planar 50mm F2. It’s one of these rare cameras that aren’t announced every so often. It’s one of these cameras that Canon has to follow suit. There is “hope that Canon will introduce some serious gear just for photographers,” writes CanonRumors. Not the videographer. And now this firestorm on the Net. Nikon of distaste, writes Lee Morris on PetaPixel: “The Nikon Df represents everything wrong with photography.” PetaPixel itself counters: “This camera represents what many of us have lost as photographers”, while forum entries — as on DP Review — bless us with pure poetry: “Pure photography. Pure marketing. Pure garbage.” Oh well.

Don't dare to think different in the world of camera haves and have-nots.
Don’t dare to think different in the world of camera haves and have-nots.
The Df is now the low light/high ISO champ in the smallest/lightest DSLR package. Truth is, the Df makes the D800 look like the camera it was not meant to be. Those crying out loudest against Nikon’s ingenious Df that will bring tons of new Nikonians into this brand of tradition, those pulling their hair out over a camera that is small, light, has extreme low light capabilities and looks like a gorgeous real camera with screws, metal and dials, well those want a Df no less. It’s just that they’re buried in their own gear and assumptions.

Class warfare among camera enthusiasts. Nikon pandering to collectors? Like a watch company? Some are utterly confused. What’s the point of a camera that does what it should do: give you control over the basics. No more, no less. Others hysterically denounce the pricing albeit this is one of the best sensors available in a near-perfect package. While $2,750 body only hardly sounds competitive, let’s be honest, it’s a camera for a small market share. The majority wants buttons and video and a menu on steroids. The Df is a minority camera for people appreciating quality, style and retro chic — and smaller files.

Unflinching, honorable voices pitch themselves in and fire up the rejectionists. Thom Hogan says the Df is not about the camera, Nikon wants you to buy into its style. To him the dials are the least intriguing parts of the camera; all they mean is returning to a slower approach to shooting he abandoned a long time ago. Then, the bitterness — the mashup camera:

This is your father’s Oldsmobile. If you’re under 40, you might not catch that reference; it has to do with the way GM tried to bring themselves into the future via body changes and advertising. What I worry about is that it is only the father that’s asking for it. The Df very well may be the first camera marketed and sold to the AARP crowd. First women, then surfers, now retirees. What’s the next niche target mashup camera going to be?

Isn’t this fun. And with photography I try to stay away from politics… One thing is sure: this Df is not as easily replaced by a smartphone as other cameras. On the other hand it’s too late for Nikon to beat Fujifilm to the retro thing while everyone’s new darlings, the Sony A7s, take a completely different positioning path.

No need to question the Df’s performance. It’s not a sports camera. It may take several iterations to get this Df “more right.” Over time we’ll get incremental improvements, adjustments, redesigns. For now, and this is really a shame, there are no focusing aids of any sort, such as split screen or micro prism that are found in manual focus SLRs. I’m waiting for a Nikon response to this question of how to manually focus lenses. They must have thought of something.

I have to reserve judgment as to how useful the Df is with manual focus lenses — isn’t this what the Df is all about… — until the camera comes in for review. But sometimes there is a quality to a first that’s unique, not repeatable and here to stay. The Nikon Df might just be such a first.

You can order the Nikon Df and Special Edition 50mm F1.8G lens from

Release date is Thursday, November 28, 2013.

  • Passageways

    I for one LOOK for the basic setting options and as buttons, it just seems right. 95% of all the gimmickry inside the menus is for people who know nothing about photography or want to be able to convince those who know nothing they, by understanding these options know it all.

    A split screen for manual focus would be terrific. Set aperture and shutter speed according to any situation, or let the camera choose the latter. For old timers this is faster than letting the camera control the shot. Including the finicky and over-appreciated auto-focus.

    Summed up:

    1) set aperture as you spot the scene according to what you within the limits if what is possible;

    2) set shutter speed or let the camera choose it, and;

    3) focus and shoot.

    The above makes a whole lot of horse sense to me.

    If you’re under 90, you might not catch that reference…

  • Brad Martin

    The manual focus issue is the big important issue with me about this camera. It looks great, and with the D4 sensor in there the picture quality is going to be fantastic, but I want a DSLR that I can use my Nikkor 135mm AI lens at f/2 if I want to and not make getting the proper focus a crap shoot with my depressingly weak eyesight. If I use the lens on my D800 I have to drop it down to f/5.6 if I want to make sure to stick the focus every time. This lack of “good” manual focus support on the D800 has kept me from investing in some of the great older Nikkor glass. What good is allowing the non-AI lenses to be used on the Df if you can’t focus worth a damn with them?

  • Still waiting for Nikon’s answer on this. From the Df’s specs sheet:

    Manual focus (MF): Electronic rangefinder can be used

    See attached screenshot below, the rangefinder display is in the center of viewfinder’s information. When it zeros out = it’s in focus.

    And there’s always the magnifying option via live view LCD…

    On the use of non-AI Nikkor lenses the Df press material says, even though this is about exposure:

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

    When focal length and maximum aperture value for non-AI lenses are registered with the camera beforehand (sic!), optimal exposure can be achieved with exposure metering when the camera aperture setting is matched to the aperture value specified with the aperture ring on the lens by rotating the sub-command dial (supported only in A and M exposure modes).

  • Brad Martin

    Hopefully that’s going to be more accurate then the D800’s manual focus “dot”, which is pretty close to useless at wide opened apertures. I kinda have my doubts that it will be. I will be renting a Df for a few days before making any purchasing decisions.

  • Christian Handl

    The Df is a nice Camera, but all the talk about retro I do not understand. If you really want retro why not buy a Mamiya 7 and some film – no buttons and a great picture quality (OK you have to buy expensive film, then waiting for processing, scanning, labeling…). Maybe the “good old days” were not as good as people remember. Certainly people wanted a digital FM, thinking it will be Full frame, lightweight ( about 500 gramms) and cheap, yeah dream on. And about lightweight: It is funny to see how people argue about lightweight cameras and optics and then completly forget about all the other items the carry around like a leather purse with a lot of coins (300 gramms) or heavy clothing. Even with the camera backpacks people often are willing to carry 500 gr to 1000 gr more than necessary (I use for small equipment the Tenba discovery camera backpack with 1200 gr). Maybe someone should sell to people a “reducer kit” the cheap version would be removable black tape, luxury version thin mahagony wood which would cover all the buttons and the screen at the backside of the camera. Only aperture an time to set (and maybe iso). What I mean is that nobody is forcing the people to deal with all those buttons and menues.

  • Brad Morris

    Call me a cynic but I really cant see this camera being that different to the Hasselblad/Sony cameras. All “styling” but actually nothing to add value over and above the more standard offerings.

    People are calling the dials retro, in appearance they are, but in operation they are not really any different from my D700 or any of the other modern Nikon DSLR designs, with the exception of the more inconvenient and compromised way of accessing 1/3 shutter speed stops.

    Access to these retro looking dials is significantly less ergonomic or user friendly than the more modern looking units, where left side controls generally only require a button press leaving your right thumb to perform all teh motion to make changes rather that a press and turn. The modern iterations leave all the hand motion to turn an easily accessible dial to the right hand. The Drive mode control on the Modern units is the only exception but that is not a control that you would generally change shot to shot.

    * Both still retain the PASM switch that requires you to make a vertical motion (push button or lift a knob) and rotate a dial.

    * Both require you to push a button and turn a dial to change ISO
    * Both require you to push a button and turn a dial to change exposure compensation
    * Both require you to push a button and turn a dial to change shutter speed. The compromise comes from the fact that the main dial only copes with full stops unless you select the “1/3 stops” setting and then you have to turn another dial on the DF where it is all in the one control on other Nikon DSLRS
    * both cameras require a dial turn to change aperture as they have to cope with a range of lenses that did away with an aperture ring, compromising their opportunities for a truly retro design.

    On top of that, they have crippled (video function), reduced resolution (albeit with probably better low light performance) and crippled the bandwidth available to write data to the Card storage by using an SD controller that by definition having what is most likely a low end consumer grade storage controller installed because they don’t need the bandwidth required for video output

    I hear comparisons with the X series Fuji Cameras that also have “retro” looking dials but the Fujis truly do have a traditional gestalt, available with shutter dial and aperture ring controlling functions in the traditional manner, even if they are in reality, a fly by wire type control, rather than the compromised, apparently retro looking but in reality, modern function of the DF.

    For the price that Nikon are asking, I would have thought that they should really have
    1. installed an XQD card slot instead of SD (much higher write speeds/bandwidth).

    2. retained Video functionality. The hardware and firmware donor parts already had this feature and Nikon have removed it.

    3. Included some higher end Video Codecs such as Prores (possibly that would entail additional licence fees but as the camera has basically been created from teh parts bin, they have much reduced development costs already anyway.

    4. used pixel binning in creating the video rather than line skipping as in the other Nikons to create clean video output without the same level of moire and artifacts.

    5. Allowed RAW 1080p video output similar to the black magic/magic lantern hack on the Canons.

    6. Replace the PASM dial with a switch to change from automatic to manual aperture, or alternatively allow the aperture command dial to scroll all the way past the smallest Aperture setting to select an “A” aperture mode as they have to work around the G lens challenge.

    7. Added an “A” function on the shutter speed dial to give users a real retro experience.

    8. provided a split screen or some other improved method of manual focusing the camera with older MF lenses that the mount supports, even if it is only as an optional replacement part.

    9. allowed for aperture control while shooting video

    If they had created a camera like that, then the cinematographer Video boys, the nostalgic shooters, regular nikon shooters with GAS and the black cat in a coal mine shooters would all have been beating down nikons door to buy one, even if the pricepoint ended up being a bit higher that the current $2700 cause they would have something absolutely unique rather than a just creating a modern slr with old age stage makeup.

  • Michael

    Voice of experience: that option, put something in the center and try to keep it there while watching somewhere else, is available on all current Nikon digitals, and it doesn’t work, the looking in two places at once thing. That’s why there’s an active market in split image replacement screens (I have one, and it works great). An genuine advance would have been to make the focus location box change color when focus is achieved, and I don’t know why someone hasn’t done that.

  • Are you ready for that story you once suggested Brad on why camera makers keep on producing cameras photographers don’t really want/need?

  • Very true. For certain photography I need a solid (weightier, bulkier) tool in my hand, for snaps anything goes. And you’ll be surprised, there’s a market for your reducer kit!

  • Canon does it with blinking AF points when manual focus locks the subject/object.

  • Robert Mark

    I’m told the reason we’ve lost the split image focusing screen is because it doesn’t work above F4 or so. Maybe so. All my old MF lenses were 2.8 and better. I never —seriously never— had a problem focusing the lens with the split image screen.

    I wish they’d at least give us an option to swap the stock focusing screen for a third party split image.

  • Brad Martin

    I suppose this also means that since Nikon is now putting the D4 sensor in a camera for half the price of the D4, we should soon be seeing the D4s (or whatever) with a brand new sensor.

  • Andy Umbo

    As a pro, nobody I know is complaining about the camera, we all want one…everybody’s complaining about the price! Almost 3 grand for a D610 is just not going to make it for us. Digital photography has, for better or worse (and most of us say it’s worse), become the upgrade cash-cow of the century for most of these companies. I was using the same equipment shooting film for over 25 years until the day my clients forced me to go digital; and now I have to replace stuff every 2-3 years, because the client want’s a higher pixel rate, different feature, or the stuff just breaks and is too costly to fix vs. buy a new one. For most photographers in most markets, digital upgrades are eating their retirement funds and making them live hand to mouth.

    The idea that camera companies are building these “almost got it” cameras that need replacement too often is why no one can stay in business any more. Some one who’s actually been shooting for years could sit down with a camera company and design a camera we all want with the features we all want; but then they’d sell us only one every 15 years instead of every 3 years. When the Nikon appeared at this price point, I just said: “…that’s it, I’m done…”.

  • Brad Morris

    Thought I just gave you one here. hehe