The Nikon Df Manual Focus Dilemma

The 1/4,000th of a second fastest shutter speed isn’t much of a problem with the Nikon Df. You get ISO 50, so there you go. The viewfinder? In another league, we hear from reviewers. Other not highest specs? Well wouldn’t that beat the purpose of an all manual, retro Nikon Df? You don’t buy the Df based on specs. It’s about emotion, the feel. The Df is a bit Leicaesque, with minimal rational basis for purchasing such specs at this price. It’s a camera to slow down, be creative and take your time. But a real dilemma seems manual focus, the “retroest” of all features a true retro camera should have.

Nikon Df menu screenshot
Nikon Df menu screenshot
An important feature for the purists is the non-Ai lenses compatibility. Now that is truly retro for those who want à la Leica manual control on their creative impulses. Problem is, the Nikon Df has no split prism to focus those non-AI lenses easily — defeating the purpose of allowing those lenses?

Or are we lovers of fine gear drooling too much over nothing for no sane reason? Isn’t manual focusing with the Df a problem at all?

The Df lets you remove the visible AF points when shooting in manual focus. But honestly, with no emphasis put on improved manual focus Nikon might have missed out on a very crucial point with regard to connecting back to manual lenses and the whole feel of manual focus photography.

Would sound like a perfect combo, the Df paired with the mechanical Nikkor 50mm F1.2, a gem of a manual lens of utmost build quality. But just how well does the Df’s manual focusing work?

According to Nikon, the Df doesn’t have a user changeable focusing screen. And nah, no focus peaking, even though all the systems so far that have focus peaking available are of a smaller format, and hence a natively deeper DOF to mask the true worth of focus peaking as an answer to accurate manual focusing.

Nikon's jewel and my lens of choice for the Df: Nikkor 50mm F1.2
A Nikon jewel and my lens of choice for the Df: Nikkor 50mm F1.2 — real vintage if you want to go truly classic, and still available new.
Nikon should know what they’re doing and so far everyone that tested the camera seems OK with the manual modes and says the Df doesn’t need a split prism to focus properly.

Nikon bets on electronics rather than good old split screen — and electronics always add weight and suck battery life. A split screen option would have made everyone happy. No other solution works as quickly and as accurately for manual focusing.

You’re fine with the Df as long as you’re keeping your aperture no faster than F2.8 — or if you trust the electronic rangefinder. Or live view. With such a beautiful optical viewfinder it would amount to a crime to use the LCD. But if you’re focusing visually and want to be accurate at F1.4, it’s probably getting difficult with the screen that comes with this camera.

The jury is still out on this one. It just wouldn’t make any sense for Nikon to push for retro while missing out on the essence of retro: the culture of manual focus.

Comforts us Nikongear forum admin Bjørn:

Just returned from my first encounter with the Df. It is a lovely camera and ergonomically it’s a dream come true. Everything positioned where it should be. The viewfinder is much better than the sheer numbers would indicate and I had no problem whatsoever seeing the entire frame plus info below with my spectacles on. Focusing manual lenses was a breeze, even the 58/1.2 Noct or my 35/1.4.




  • Andy Umbo

    One of my many problems with any digital camera, and actually back to the auto-focus film cameras, is that the focus doesn’t “work” and doesn’t snap in and out; I always seem to trying to judge a manual focus image that doesn’t seem to change much.

    Imagine my surprise to find out, a few years ago, after all this time that modern cameras don’t use anywhere near a conventional focusing screen, they use some sort of fibre-optic light-pipe screen that keeps the image bright at the reduced f/stop of modern zooms; but allow for little manual focusing. I picked up an old Nikkormat the other day, and was surprised to find my eyes weren’t failing; lenses down to the 28mm f/3.5 were popping in and out of focus on the screen!

    Bring back ground glass/fresnel screens and real prisms instead of penta-mirrors!

  • Michael D

    I wonder if it would be so hard to move the focus confirm light so that it is the box that shows the AF point. That way, when you were in focus, the box would change from red to green, and you wouldn’t need a second eye to watch both where you’re trying to focus and the green light at the same time. This seems like an elegant and simple solution, and would have been so obvious for this particular camera. I would even settle for this happening only in the center–it’s been good enough for Leica since 1954.

  • george

    When I first heard / read about the Df I was overjoyed. But the smile soon disappeared from my face when I learned about the lack of exchangeable focusing screens. What a infuriating omission. If there was one single most important attribute that would have made me want to buy this camera (apart from the manual dials) it would have been the ability to use the right focusing screen for the job at hand, be it the split image or the grid etc. (The electronic grid on my D300 is a bad joke.) Shame, shame…

  • Ridiculous not to have a manual focus screen

  • It’s a major omission, but as diehard Nikonian Bjørn said manual focusing worked like a breeze. The only way to verify is the — hopefully soon — self experiment…

  • Looks like there’s hope:

    Manual focus works with graduations of focus snapping in and out clearly. No digital enhancement like focus peaking. Even without the green dot, seems to work like a breeze.

  • Saw a Df for the first time this evening. First impression not so good. It looks huge, and really ostentatious (in silver). I really don’t see the point…

  • While the camera’s a bit of an antagonism, it would fit my desires perfectly. Not sure about the needs, but Nikon’s onto something with the Df.

  • Oz Damo

    Checkout the 3rd-party focusing screens for the Nikon Df at Focusingscreen.com. There are genuine Nikon and Canon focusing screens, specifically cut for purpose. I am currently using the Nikon K3 screen on my Nikon Df, it is a great general purpose screen having both the split-image and micro-prism. I can focus as dim as the eye can see. Also appears to be brighter than original screen that came w/ the Df as well. Besides, I have also the Canon S-type (super precision matte), which is the ideal for fast-lens F2.8 or faster…it provides more accurate depth-of-field feedback and makes MF a whole lot easier. Other Canon screens for Df I use are the Df Ec-A (micro-prism) & Df Ec-L (cross-split)…both are great for special occasions.

    Link: http://www.focusingscreen.com/index.php?cPath=22_139