Unusually, in the run up to the announcement of the Nikon Df we've been treated to a series of video teasers. But now the excitement will really start because we've finally seen the whole camera and it's a retro beauty.
Perhaps the biggest surprise with the Df is that Nikon has gone for a 16.2 million-pixel FX (full-frame) CMOS sensor. Some might have been hoping for a 24.3MP sensor like the Nikon D610 or a 36.3MP sensor like the Nikon D800, but Nikon has opted to use the same sensor as in the Nikon D4.
However, the benefit of opting for a 16MP sensor is that the photosites themselves are bigger and this means that they receive more light and generate a stronger signal which requires less amplification. As a result less noise is generated, so that images are cleaner.
Data from the sensor is processed by the EXPEED 3 processing engine, the same engine as is found in the Nikon D610, D800 and D4. This allows the sensitivity to be set in the native range ISO 100-12,800, with expansion settings pushing to ISO 50-204,800. That's a match for the D4.
Meanwhile there's a maximum continuous shooting rate of 5.5fps for up to 100 images and images are stored on an SD/SDHC/SDXC card. Unlike Nikon's other FX format cameras, there's only one card port in the Df.
While the Df's body may be new (well retro really), the majority of its components are familiar.
The AF system is the for example, uses the same Multi-CAM 4800 module as the D610 and has 39 AF points, 9 of which are cross-type. The 2,016-pixel RGB sensor that gathers information for the Automatic Scene Recognition System and informs the white balance, focusing and metering systems is also familiar.
On the back of the camera there's a 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen just like the D610's. In live view mode this can display a nine-cell grid that conforms to the rule of thirds and the scene can be cropped to give 1:1 or 16:9 format.
As it's an SLR rather than a compact system camera, the Df has an optical viewfinder which shows the image seen through the lens. This provides a 100% field of view and has 0.7x magnification as well as DX crop markings for when DX lenses are mounted.
A dual-axis digital level can display roll (horizontal inclination) and pitch (forward or backwards inclination) in the LCD, while roll can also be displayed in the viewfinder, making it easier to get level horizons.
In a unique move, Nikon has given the Df a collapsible metering coupling lever that enables old non-AI Nikkor lenses to be mounted directly onto the camera.
Full-aperture metering is possible with non-AI lenses when shooting in aperture priority or manual exposure mode – just like AI lenses, which have full-aperture metering in all exposure modes.
On the subject of exposure modes, the Df can shoot in program, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual exposure modes, there's no fully automatic option or scene modes. There is, however, the usual complement of Picture Control modes so it's possible to vary the appearance of JPEG files and produce monochrome images in-camera if you want.
There are a couple of features that are notably missing from the Df, the first is a pop-up flash – although this is hardly surprising given the camera's retro styling and pro credentials and there is a hotshoe. What's more the Df is compatible with Nikon's Creative Lighting System . The second omission is the ability to record movies. Yes, it's a stills-only camera.
The fact that there's no Wi-Fi connectivity built-in is unsurprising, but the Df is compatible with Nikon's WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adaptor that enables images to be transferred wirelessly to a smartphone or tablet. It can also be used with Nikon's WR-R10 Wireless transceiver and WR-T10 Wireless Transmitter which allow remote control over the camera.
Build and handling
While it is quite chunky, the Df is noticeably smaller than the D610. It also has a more angular design, based on the FM2, and a larger pentaprism housing.
Although the link to past Nikon SLRs is clear, modern materials and small elements of design give away that the Df is a modern camera. It's superbly retro, yet is weather sealed to the same standard as the Nikon D800.
Nikon wants using the Df to be as important and enjoyable as the images it creates. Key settings such as shutter speed, sensitivity and exposure compensation are all set by dials on the top-plate. However, the shutter speed dial has a 1/3 Step setting which when selected allows users to adjust shutter speed using the rear command dial above the thumbrest.
A locking button at the centre of the exposure compensation dial on the left and on the shutter speed dial on the right must be pressed before either of the dials can be rotated. Similarly, there's a lock button the side of the sensitivity dial, which sits below the exposure compensation dial.
There are also X,T and B settings which stand for flash sync, timed exposure (the shutter stays open until the release is pressed a second time) and bulb exposure (the shutter stays open as long as the release is held down. In another nice touch the shutter release has a thread at its centre to accept a traditional-style cable release.
On the right of the top-plate as you hold the camera there's a mode dial marked MASP. This dial is necessary because the Df is compatible with modern lenses that don't feature an aperture ring as well as older ones that do.
Focus mode is set in the same as on Nikon's other recent SLRs, via a switch to the side of the lens mount. This switch has a button at its centre which when pressed and used in conjunction with the front and rear control dials allows the AF options (Single-AF, Continuous-AF, etc) to be selected.
It's nice to see a return to a switch on the back of the camera to set the metering mode, and a button on the front of the camera which is used in conjunction with the command dials to set the bracketing options.
As yet we've only been able to use a pre-production sample of the Nikon Df and we've not been allowed to examine any images that we've taken with it on a computer screen, so we will have to wait until we get a full production sample in for testing before we can pass judgement on the quality of the images that it produces. However, given that it has the same sensor and image processor as Nikon's range-topping SLR, the D4, it seems a fairly safe bet that it's going to be a good performer.
By keeping the pixel count of the Df down to 16Mp rather than pushing it to 24 or 36-million pixels Nikon has put the emphasis on low light capability. This makes it a very versatile camera that's capable of shooting in a wide range of conditions.
We expect to see that noise is controlled extremely well even when the sensitivity is pushed to ISO 12,800.
Not surprisingly, given it's the same unit as inside the D4, the Df's viewfinder is nice and bright, and capable of showing plenty of detail. This will be appreciated by owners with a collection of manual focus lenses.
When time allows, live view provides the best view for manual focusing as the enlarged view enables the focus to be placed very precisely. The Df's screen is detailed and clear, but we will have to wait and see whether it suffers from the same problem as the D610's screen and overemphasises the cool tones in some scenes. In worst-case scenarios this can result in a change in white balance settings to one that produces overly-warm images.
We anticipate the metering system being reliable in most conditions. We've tested Nikon's 2,016-pixel RGB sensor and Scene Recognition System extensively and found it performs well in most situations. It has only thrown up a few surprises in the Nikon D7100 where we found the exposure compensation control is required more often than usual with most Nikon SLRs.
The prospect of a Nikon full-frame SLR built following a traditional design has been a source of some rumour and speculation for years. Naturally the teaser campaign for the Df has been greeted with considerable excitement and on the basis of the time we have spent with a pre-production sample, it looks unlikely to disappoint.
We love the traditional control layout, all the most important aspects are within easy reach. The camera also feels solid and is comfortable in the hand.
In addition, a pixel count of 16 million has been sufficient for many professional photographers and the D4 (which lends its sensor and processing engine to the Df) has proved itself to be a versatile and capable camera.
However, at £2,649.99 with the special edition AF-S 50mm f/1.8G lens, the Df is likely to beyond the reach of many. The Nikon FM-series was intended to be a more affordable alternative to Nikon's professional F-series. Unfortunately, it seems that in modern times manufacturing a stripped-down digital camera with similarly rugged build to the FM series incurs considerable cost.
However, that didn't appear to be an issue for several of the camera dealers that we spoke to at the Nikon UK launch event. They are of the opinion that if Nikon has got it right the camera will fly off the shelves. Perhaps so and early indications are that Nikon has got it right.
The Df looks and feels like an excellent camera that serious enthusiast and professional photographers will enjoy using. Given that it shares many components with respected Nikon cameras such as the D4, D600 and D610 we expect that it will be capable of delivering high-quality images, but we'll have to wait until we get a full production sample in for testing to be sure.