Old Star Rising

Bengt Nyman

It’s easy for the casual camera user to have deeply felt ideas about what a camera should look and perform like. However, the technology behind a well functioning camera is hidden to most and produces a marketable product only when properly combined and perfected. To support my claim I will make examples of three recently launched cameras; the Sony RX1, the Sony A7(R) and the Nikon Df.

When the Nikon Df was first announced I shrugged it off as another Leica or Sony gimmick. It’s no secret that I am highly skeptical of Leica and its long gone contribution to photographic arts. If a Leica performed as well as people think it does, my distaste would simply be a form of Leica envy. However, a pompous brand which no longer performs in any area other than overpricing its products does not get my respect.

Many wondered why Sony launched the RX1, a mirrorless, full-frame, 24MP camera with a fixed prime lens, robbing us of the possibility to choose a different lens. I believe there were two reasons. Sony still has very few lenses to offer even though many fine third party lens manufacturers are coming to Sony’s rescue. It will be interesting to see how this develops.

I believe the real reason, however, is that the Nikon-Sony 36MP full-frame image sensor contract dictates the details and the duration of the Nikon exclusivity to that sensor.

From an optical point of view the RX1 was a success, but failed in the area of CDAF speed. Therefore, from a marketing point of view, the RX1 was not successful. Also, you can not take candy from a child and expect to be loved for it. The market, at that price and performance level, demands interchangeable lenses.

In 2013 Sony finally introduced the A7(R), a mirrorless, full-frame, 24MP respectively 36MP camera with interchangeable lenses. I suspect that Sony is still not free to use the exact Nikon sensor which is probably why Sony developed a variation with offset pixel optics aimed at facilitating a very short flange distance.

The Nikon Df, mostly pulling all the right strings...
The Nikon Df, mostly pulling all the right strings…
DxOMark gives the A7R image sensor a high score, as expected due to its kinship to the D800E. However, due to the compromise in the design of the pixel optics, necessitated by the unwise choice of flange distance, the A7R’s ISO score is only 2,746.

Which brings us to the Nikon Df, a retro-styled 16MP DSLR. Initially all three of theses details failed to engage me. I would prefer my next camera to be a mirrorless, 36MP, low-light camera with sensor PDAF. Unfortunately we are not there yet. Fast sensor PDAF still appears to be the missing link.

To get around this problem Canon is experimenting with Dual Pixel sensor PDAF as well as with
Foveon three-in-one deep-pixel sensors, possibly also part of a sensor PDAF concept… not to mention Canon’s latest twist on the DSLR, a slow and quiet motorized mirror mechanism, not for sports photography but for essentially everything else including video with very fast frame rates as long as you don’t have to re-meter or refocus.

Meanwhile, what does Nikon do. They roll back pixel-mania from 36 to 16MP and gamble on a retro-style body with manual controls. Nikon obviously already has the technology; an updated 16MP, D4 sensor, ultra fast DSLR PDAF, etc.

I would not give the Nikon Df a second look if it wasn’t for its sensational low light capability. DxOMark gives it an ISO rating of 3,279, beating everything else on the market by a mile.

This makes me swallow my initial reaction, except for a small lump in my throat, being the 16MP. Being an MP fan and very happy with the performance and versatility of my D800E, I would have to swallow more pride to settle for 16MP. I do however applaud Nikon for not cramming any video into the Df.

My second camera is presently a Canon 5D Mark II. It’s fine, I have no complaints, but it is almost worn out. And the performance of the newer Nikon lenses is very tempting.

I use one camera with a 35mm or 85mm prime lens. The D800E with a Sigma 35mm F1.4 and a Nikkor 85mm F1.4 covers that need very well. I also carry a second camera with a 70-200 zoom. I use it for portraits and closeups when there is no time to change Nikon lenses.

So now that I have swallowed my pride I am thinking that a Nikon Df with a stellar Tamron 70-200mm F2.8 might just work well as my second camera. After all, photographing faces with 16MP rather than with 24MP or 36MP might just be enough. The lure is of course the stellar low-light performance of the Df.

What do you guys say?

Oh, who is the old star rising?

Nikon of course.

  • Just the other day I put my Df order on hold. Want to review it first before deciding. No doubt it’s a stellar camera; a camera that could have been easily made even more stellar would Nikon have gone for slightly heavier, more solid brass for the body and a decent battery door, just to mention the most obvious. Again, not the slightest doubt that the Df will satisfy the most concerned shooter, you will ask yourself why you ever worried about 16MP when not going for large landscape photography prints. But Nikon will really nail the Df with it’s second version, the Dfx or whatever.

  • Before you ditch the Canon, try the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II. That lens is simply spectacular and the main reason I got a 5DIII instead of a D800E.

  • Bengt Nyman

    The 5D with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II and a DxO score of 26/16 is certainly a step up from the earlier version scoring 20/12.
    However, I much prefer the D800E with a Sigma 35 f/1.4 and a score of 39/23.
    Zooms are convenient but you pay for the convenience in form of image quality.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Dfx ?? What have you heard ?? 24 or 36 MP ?? Yes, that would make me wait as long as it does not loose too much low light capability.

    The 16 MP image sensor still bothers me. It cuts my cropping margin to essentially zero.

  • The more successful the Df will be, the faster we’ll get an update.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I heard from a Nikon rep that it’s selling better than forecasted.

  • Whatever Df deliveries local Nikon here gets is sold out in no time. And they don’t get the numbers they want from Japan…

  • Bengt Nyman

    Most of Tom Hogans objections had to do with controls layout.
    My objections are about MP, grip and an awkward secondary dial.
    However, it looks cool, takes good pictures and has plenty of lens choices. For most people that’s what counts.

  • Bengt Nyman

    P.S. There are rumors about a 36 MP D4x. That is OK as long as we can also look forward to a 36 MP Dfx.