Nikon Announces Retro Df DSLR - Initial Thoughts

After a teaser campaign and a litany of rumors, Nikon announced its classically-designed Nikon Df DSLR with a wink to its famed line of 'F' series film cameras. With this camera, Nikon joins the crowd of camera makers going retro in an attempt to lure enthusiast photographers to cameras that are more than merely image capture devices.



The highlights

  • classic design with lots of mechanical controls

  • imaging functions similar to those of Nikon D4: FX-format 16.2MP sensor; ISO up to 204,800

  • thinnest and lightest full-frame Nikon DSLR

  • 39-point AF system, nine cross-type sensors

  • continuous burst of 5.5 fps

  • 2016-pixel matrix metering/scene recognition system

  • 3.2 inch LCD with 921K-dot resolution

  • compatible with AF, AF-S, DX, AF-D, Ai and non-Ai Nikkor lenses

  • black or silver

  • available late November at $2,800 or $3,000 with classically-designed 50mm f/1.8 lens

Nikon doesn't say so in its press release, but the Df lacks video capabilities.

Initial thoughts

In last month's panel discussion at PhotoPlus Expo about the future of photography, both the Nikon and Sony representatives stressed the notion that the feel and looks of a camera are increasingly important to a large group of photographers. The Df is Nikon's answer to this desire.

With it, they follow Olympus with its Pen and OM-D lines and Fuji with its X-series, which are quite successful. Of course, Leica, which never left retro with its M-line, is also successful and can't build enough cameras to meet demand. Other attempts to build on a beloved classic design have fallen flat, such as Pentax's MX.

The problem might be that Nikon comes in at a very high price point. The premium for the design is such that for almost the same price, you can pick up a 36-MP Nikon D800. That's a high price to pay for a classic look and feel.

Personally, I'm on the fence. I have a habit, driven by this blog, to buy all cameras that appeal to an enthusiast crowd so I can review them. This one, I'm not sure about. While I love mechanical controls, the Df is missing the aperture ring on the lens, something I love the most about retro looks and which I enjoyed on the Sony RX-1 and the Fuji X100S. Of course, with old lenses, one can have the aperture ring on the lens, but Nikon choose not to put one on the special edition 50mm. I'm not sure I want to lay out $3,000 for a camera that looks different but doesn't actually offer features that aren't available in any other camera.



I also wonder if Nikon is planning more special edition lenses for this camera and other cameras in the same vein. Its press release doesn't make any mention of this being more than a one-off.

Finally, what I think many photographers long for is not a camera that has dedicated buttons for everything, but a cheaper Leica-style camera. Leica has managed to design its top lines with as few controls as possible. It's clean and focuses just on the few functions that actually determine an image. While I have not yet shot with a digital M and don't know how it feels in everyday shooting, I do wish myself that someone else but Leica delivered a camera with just an aperture ring, shutter dial and ISO control as the main functions.



I do like the overall trend, though, of going back to cameras with a long heritage as I'm much more enamored of cameras that look like cameras than those that look like electronic devices. I do hope Nikon succeeds with this camera and the retro style continues to develop.

PS (added later in the day): Yesterday, when I wrote about my old Pentax ME Super, I played a bit with that camera and peered through its delightful viewfinder. Now that I've learned that the Df is lacking an old-fashioned viewfinder and the ability to change its matte glass, I think Nikon really missed the boat here. The claim that you can use old Nikon glass with this camera is hard to believe if it lacks the means to properly manually focus these lenses. I happen to have an old Nikkor 55mm f/1.2 lying around and it's nearly impossible to focus it correctly on my Canon DSLR (with adapter), a camera which also lacks a matte glass, prism or split screen.

After a day of thinking, I've decided to save my money for now and not pre-order a test model. I hope I can use one in the near future and might change my mind then about its desirability for me.

By John van Rosendaal