Tuesday, July 5, 2022
HomeCamera TechNikon Df - Thoughts From a Film Shooter - by David Hume

Nikon Df – Thoughts From a Film Shooter – by David Hume

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I remember the immense hype around the Nikon Df just before its release in 2013 – teaser campaigns; leaked specs, mystery mock-ups. Then came a tsunami of derision and disappointment when the Df hit the market. I was one of the disappointed ones; when I saw its bloated form in a camera-shop window I did not even bother to go inside for a closer look.

Here’s how chunky it looks compared to some of my Nikon film cameras:

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Oh My Lord. Imagine if you were hoping for the “Digital FM” and you got this.

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Here’s an easy way to make any 35mm camera look small – put it next to an F4.

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Now this really is not fair. Someone once called the black F2 with prism finder “the best looking 35mm SLR ever made.” That someone would be me.

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This puts things into perspective though: The D700 came out in 2008

So why would I buy one in 2022?

Let me explain. Firstly I have a developing obsession with the relationship between film and digital, and I wanted a full-frame dig to work with alongside my 35mm film cameras. I wanted something that was as close I could get to my Nikon SLR film bodies – and that would have to be a Nikon DSLR right?

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Some of the gang. Nikon Df, Nikkor 50mm f1.4 Ai 1/6s ISO 100

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Nikon F2. Nikkor 50mm f1.8 Ais. Ektachrome 100 (New)

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Dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Nikon F4, Nikkor 50mm f1.8 AFD, Ektachrome 100

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Ruby and George. Nikon Df, Nikkor 50mm f1.4 Ai

Okay then – how about that D700 I’ve owned since 2008 and which is still a workhorse round-the-house and people camera? The D700 is too big and heavy to carry with me. It is such a lump. I think it’s a really great camera and I love the IQ; I love that sensor, but yeah; the weight is a deal-breaker. Or maybe I should say the weight is the excuse I used to myself for buying a Nikon Df. I also really wanted to try the Df 16MP sensor. For me the 12/16MP sensors in the D3/D4 (and hence D700/Df) are sensors from the Golden Age. I just love what the D700 gives me. I’ve shot it in Raw from the start; the D700 .NEF files are only about 10MB. How about that? The Df’s are 16-20MB – which is still okay.

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Nikon Df, Nikkor 50mm f1.8 AFD

I have not yet really put the Nikon Df sensor through its paces… AFAIK it’s the last in-house one before Nikon went all Sony in their FF DSLRs. I don’t want to make too much of this though; the info on the net is a bit ambiguous and I don’t want to contribute to that net no-no of repeating rumours til they get traction and become accepted. I do think though, that if you’re working on ways of post-processing it’s best to stick with one sensor. I really don’t (currently) believe that you can have a LR preset that “works for all sensors” as many claim. I like the idea that I can now just work stuff out for the FF Nikons.

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Setting of the full moon. Nikon F2, 50mm f1.8 Ais, Portra 160

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Setting of the full moon. Nikon Df, 50mm f 1.8 AFD Shot at 1.3s ISO 160. Also shows that you can’t really shoot dig alongside film exactly because one will get the better composition and light. In this one the moon had moved out from behind the cloud and the light was a bit harsh. Both are handheld and a bit shakey, but that does not bother me, but it’s blurrier here and maybe a bit distracting. That’s Okay – the film one is better anyway.

As an aside, I don’t know where this will send me in terms of Fuji-land. I’ve become such a Fuji fan-boy over the past ten years since starting with the original X100 then using an XE-2 for editorial travel work then moving to the X-Pro 3 for fun. I’ll have to say that another reason to try the Df was that I was not really getting what I wanted from my X-Pro 3 for landscapes recently. One reason for this is ISO. I believe you can’t simulate the look and use of film without shooting the same ISO. If you’re going to compare digital to Ektachrome 100 I think you have to shoot at 100. Portra 160 at 160 and so on. I can’t actually shoot my XP3 below 350 or thereabouts to use the Auto DR functions. Another thing is the lenses and the way the lenses play with the sensors. The Fujinon 27mm f2.8 on my XP3 was too bitey and clinically sharp. I wanted something more like my Nikkor 50s and putting a big 35 f1.4 on the XP3 makes it almost DSLR-sized.

The Nikkor 50s are my favourite lenses so why not get a body for them? This is probably a story for another day though – let’s just say I like the Nikon Df sensor and leave it at that. Looking behind the shutter and seeing that nice big sensor makes me happy.

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Nikon Df

Time to talk about ergonomics.

In terms of the size and weight, the Nikon Df in the hand is not too different from a film SLR. It’s thicker than an FM or F2 of course, but it’s about the same weight as the F2 and it’s a lightweight if you compare it to an F4. The size/weight thing is really important for me, but it may not be for others. Two years ago I bought a little Billingham bag that is my travel bag. So what goes in that bag is my limit.

Some recent kits that fit this bag have been:
A: Fuji X-E2 with 27mm + Nikon FM2 with 50mm + Agfa Isolette 6×6 folder
B: Blad 503cx with 80mm + Fuji X-Pro 3 with 27mm
C: Nikon F2 with 50mm + Nikon Df with 50mm.

And I really could not take an F4 or a D700 with any other camera in that bag. So the Df works in that regard.

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I think the controls of the Df actually make sense if you put them in context.

Shooting along side a 35mm SLR.

I’m currently shooting film alongside dig much of the time, and the controls and ergonomics of the Df actually make a lot of sense to me if you put the camera into an historical context. The Nikon film cameras of the time (F6, but let’s include F100 as well) were sort of like the DSLRs – control wheels and top LCDs. The Df is like a cross between that and an F4, but it also has similarities going back to the F2 and FM.

This is going to sound corny but it’s true: The first time I shot the Nikon Df alongside my F4 when I shot the Df I thought; “hey, that didn’t wind on,” before I remembered, “Oh yeah, no film.” The mirror and shutter is very F4; smooth and classy and I haven’t shot an F6 or F100 so I don’t know about them.

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Some would say the top of a camera should look like this.


I’ll talk about just the specific bits of the controls as they affect me:

Shutter release and On-Off: Yeah I like it. The On-Off is like the lock ring on an F2 and the button is like an FM2. The half-press and the release are both good.

Stutter speed dial: Feels like an FM2 (but a bit rubbery in the bearing). Smoother than an FM and it’s a one-finger flick not a two-finger like the F2, F4 etc. (or you can set to a control wheel if you like).

Top LCD and the PASM dial: I’ll put these together because they’re both too small, but they need to be so they fit in. The LCD on the Nikon Df is actually handy because you can use it as a light-meter for your unmetered film camera which you are using because you’re too cool to have a metered one (coughs).  If the PASM is on A, then giving a half-press will tell you the speed too use for the aperture you’re on. (assuming you’ve set your Df ISO to your film speed)

Metering: It meters the same as my F4 – tick. So while I will expose film and dig differently, at least I have a light meter I can trust. It’s one more safety feature and one less conversion to do in my head.

PASM dial: Sure it’s small and fiddly, but as a concept I actually like it. It got a pasting on reviews of the time, but if you’ve used an F4 you see that doing it this way actually makes sense. Personally I only ever use A or M though, so your mileage may vary.

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Remember that this is what Nikon DSLRs looked like at the time, and the film cameras also had control wheels.

Focus/Back-focus button: Using AFD lenses on the Nikon Df is fine, works really well and makes sense to me. I probably would not bother with my zooms though. I don’t think the Df is for people who use zooms. I only ever used back focus on the D700, but on the Df the button is a bit close to the right because the body is smaller. No dramas – I’m used to half-press focus now, so I can use that if I want to. By the way, the AF is another thing that got a pasting at the time – because it was “only” from the D600 and had less points than the D4 but seriously who would care now? It’s fine and it’s nice using the multi-press button on the back of the camera to change the focus points.

Focussing Screen/Viewfinder: It’s smaller than an F2/FM etc, same size as an F4. It’s fine for AF and a bit small for MF and also does not have a split prism. This makes it not so good for MF lenses but I can see why they did this; If you had a prism it would be really strange with all those AF points. I’ve got a split prism on my F4 and yeah, it’s better than the Df for MF lenses, but seriously if I was going to use the Df for people shots I’d probably just buy a couple of AFD primes, which are cheap anyway, and leave it at that. For landscapes or wide angle lenses, bung on your old Ais lenses and all good to go. The viewfinder display is great – like a D700 etc. Easy to read, customisable.

Menus/rear screen: They’re like the D700. I like them, but then I’m used to them. I think any talk of doing without a screen and buttons (The mythic Digital FM – queue trumpets) does not really make sense. Or it certainly did not in 2013. I guess it would now with smartphone apps to change settings on the camera, but wait for a full-frame PIXII for that I reckon. (Don’t expect it from Nikon – just look at what Nikon did with the ZDX – yikes!)

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The Df is significantly smaller and lighter than the D700; significant for me, anyway.

Side Grip: Yeah, it’s nice and the Nikon Df is secure in the hand with a one-handed grip. It’s all compromises though; more secure means a bigger grip more like the D700 et all. Flatter means more like the F2 but means you always need two hands.

ISO Dial and Exposure comp: Yeah; they work. I don’t use auto ISO any more so it’s nice to have a dial to change it. Another super thing is base ISO of 100. This means you can simulate shooting 100 ISO films. I can’t see myself using the exposure comp wheel much; I’d probably just change to spot metering if things were not straightforward, but that may change.

Battery/Door: This is about the only thing that annoys me; because with no WiFi you’re always opening it to get the card out, and it’s fiddly and plasticy and feels like you’ll break it if you’re not careful. So unlike the back of the F2 and the battery door of the F4 which are sweet every time you use them; the door of the Df says “cheap!” every time you use it.

OK – what’s the point of all this then?

Ah – to USE the camera I guess…

I don’t think anyone looks at a great photographer’s work and says, “Oh man – that film stock!” Or,” Wow – what a sensor! What a camera!”  Sure, photographers have a style, but crushing the blacks in grainy B+W won’t make anyone into Anton Corbijn. I have the same type of tennis racquet that Federer used in 2001 to beat Sampras at Wimbledon but I can’t even feed a ball properly in a warm-up with it.

It’s something we need to get away from. So I guess I’m walking into a contradiction here; I’m buying a new camera to try to un-camera myself a bit. (In my defence I have now adopted a “one in – two out” rule for cameras and lenses to reduce the clutter, so my total camera numbers are down.)

I guess what it comes down to is that I wanted to simplify my film-dig shooting by removing variables. I now have the same image capture size, the same lenses, and a pretty similar shooting experience. Getting to this point meant I felt I should be using a Nikon DSLR alongside my Nikon film SLRs. The Df is the smallest, lightest FF Nikon, and the only one that is small enough for the way I like to shoot. So currently it’s the best camera for what I want. Is it a good camera? Sure. Do I like it? Jury’s still out on that one…

I love shooting film at the moment, but I don’t want to be reliant on it. A lot of this is also about learning. I think by interrogating the limits of what film can do and what dig can do I can learn to use both better; I can see both in a broader context. I’m getting better at training my eyes to evaluate a scene for how my camera will record it on both film and dig, and work out whether I’ll be able to get something I like out of that.

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Nikon Df, Nikkor 50mm f 1.8 Ais 1/10s ISO 160

In the film days I used to be more evaluative of the light; spend more time looking at how the light was falling and forming the scene, and dig made me a bit sloppier in that regard; not so much with landscapes maybe, but certainly with people shots.  I’ve recovered that care in my film photography, and I hope am also getting it back with digital. It’s actually pleasing to go out for an hour looking at landscape and not make a frame at all – film or digital – because the light was not quite right. With dig there’s always the temptation to bang off a shot anyway just in case.

I’m not purist in any way about either film or digital; I happily post-process both, and I’m not trying to make my dig shots into film shots. I’m trying, I think, just to learn from both, and just make shots I like.

Thanks for reading!

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