Could be your digital ticket to vintage camera nirvana
The Nikon Df that you see here is a DSLR that packages the convenience of full frame digital photography in a body that resembles the film-based SLRs from years gone by. Rumor has it that Nikon has been working on this camera for at least a couple of years, and it is designed to be a love letter of sorts to diehard fans of the brand. In case you're wondering, ‘Df' stands for Digital Fusion.
Visually, Nikon has done a great job with this camera. If you've used or seen Nikon's older F3 or FM/2 cameras, the Df will instantly look familiar. Even if you haven't worked with those models, the design and finish of the body, as well as the layout of the various controls make it blatantly obvious that the Df isn't your typical DSLR.
Like older film SLR cameras, our finished in black Nikon is covered in buttons and dials, with the majority of the dials sitting up top. The ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, and exposure compensation dials lock on their current setting, and require that you hold down a lock release pusher (small circular silver button) before you can turn them. This is easy enough to do if you've got the camera set-up on a surface or tripod but a bit more challenging if you're holding the camera with one hand, and have only one hand free. The Df isn't particularly heavy with the supplied 50mm F1.8 lens but the grip is rather shallow - we'd advise using the included strap to prevent handling mishaps from turning nasty.
Using the Df on a day-to-day basis, you certainly get a sense of using an older camera (especially with the control dials) but, of course, there are plenty of modern amenities. As with other Nikon DSLRs, you still get the enormously useful release mode dial, so you can quickly adjust the way the shutter behaves - if, for example, you're shooting at a wedding or are in another scenario where a loud camera shutter won't be appreciated, you can quickly select ‘Q' for quiet-shutter release.
Within the retro body lurks the same 16.2-megapixel CMOS sensor that Nikon uses in its professional grade D4. This is interesting because the D4 sensor is well regarded for its low-light performance, moreover the actual D4 is double the cost of the Df. There are caveats however, the autofocus system used by the Df comes from the older full-frame D610, the Df can't shoot video, and has a lower continuous framerate than the D4 (5.5fps on the Df versus 11fps on the D4). The lack of video capture didn't bother us though - in fact it fits with the camera's vintage inspired looks and controls. The lower continuous framerate can be limiting however, particularly if you're interested in capturing crisp, in-focus action shots in rapid succession. That said, 5.5fps is on par with what you get from other similarly priced DSLRs.
Since the Df packs the D4's sensor, we began testing it with low-light photography. The sensor does a fantastic job of capturing photographs with minimal noise at most of the standard ISO settings that people would use, but setting up the camera to take those carefully composed photographs was a challenge. The Df's autofocus system just isn't able to focus well in low light, so we had several situations where the lens was focus hunting, desperately trying to find a focus point. The only way to get around this issue is to manually focus the lens, and we advise doing this right from the start because a lens that's constantly trying to automatically focus will quickly drain the camera's battery.
Shooting with sufficient light and well-lit subjects, the photographs were as we expected - vibrant, crisp and sharp. Even with sufficient light, the autofocus system can be tripped up on occasion but it's nowhere near as inept as when you're engaging in low-light photography. Noise is, once again, notably absent from photographs at most of the standard ISO settings that people rely on. The Df features extended ISO settings, with the L1 setting offering ISO 50 and, at the top end, a frankly crazy ISO 204,800. At this top extended ISO setting, every photograph showed tons of noise. This is hardly surprising - no SLR we've tested has produced usable photos at their highest extended ISO settings, so we continue to wonder why manufacturers include these settings at all.