Last Monday I managed to quickly test the very new Nikon Df in one of the retail stores here in Brisbane. At that time I also happen to have my old Nikon FM3A with 50/1.4 AiS with me and still loaded with an unfinished roll of the discontinued Kodak Ektachrome slide film. The good thing is I actually got to test my fully manual lens with the Df to check if I can at least nail the focus without the help of a split prism finder.
The salesperson was very kind and very helpful and he was there to teach me how this camera works. The Df is not your typical digital SLR. It has way more physical dials than my FM3A and each one of them behave differently.
My initial impression was “wow this is lighter than I thought!”. Being a D700 owner, the Df is definitely light. It probably weighs closer to my much smaller Pentax K5. I have mixed feelings about this. Light is good but then you can’t help but think if the Df has more plastic than metal in it compared to the tank that is the D700. I wonder…
My second impression was that the Df is thicker and taller than my FM3A. It’s bulkier. The size matches the new 50/1.8G that was attached to it quite nicely. The grip though does not feel right. There is no “catch” for your middle finger that would help you grip the camera when you are fiddling the multiple dials with your index finger.
I couldn’t help but to start taking shots inside the shop. Since this is a display unit, naturally it won’t have any strap. I had to be very careful not to drop it. Like I said, the grip isn’t quite right so I made sure that both my hands were always holding on to the camera. I am a very tactile person. Touch is very very important for me. This is why I’m still using a very old IBM Model M keyboard for my iMac. That is why I suck at any ballgame that I do not have direct contact with the ball (tennis, baseball, etc…). Unfortunately the Df is one of those cameras that doesn’t feel right for me unlike the Olympus E-M1 that fits like a glove. In practice, this may not be much of a problem because you will be using a neck strap so the chances of it dropping while shooting is almost nil. It will be a problem though when you are setting it up on a tripod or when you attach the heavy 70-200/2.8 and have to rely on your weaker left hand to carry the whole weight of the camera and lens. Basically, your right hand is just there to work on the dials and buttons and not much else. I have a theory on why they made the grip this way which I will discuss later.
Dials. I love physical dials. I have never felt this way since I bought my Canon G10. Dials for ISO, aperture, shutter speed, shooting mode, exposure compensation. What’s not to like? If only they behave the same way. What I mean is, to turn the shutter dial for example you have to push a button on top of the dial. To turn the shooting mode dial, you have to pull it up first. To turn the ISO dial you push a very tiny button outside of the dial. And so on… The most annoying is the awkward aperture dial which is situated in front of the body and quite small for what it does. Hello! Aperture adjustment is probably one of the most important dials for adjusting exposure. People who are used to shooting with film cameras for example usually peg the shutter speed to the film’s rated speed and adjust the aperture accordingly as the light changes. That small aperture dial doesn’t cut it. And if you have short fingers like I do, adjusting it without taking your right hand away from the grip is not good. And what the hell is with that tiny PASM dial?! It only adds to the confusion. For example, if the mode is set to A but the shutter dial is set to 125, which one is the source of truth? You are forced to double-check that you are indeed in A mode and check in the viewfinder if the shutter speed does automatically change as you change the aperture with that clumsy dial. If you feel macho and set it to M mode but the shutter dial is set to the weird 1/3 speed, where is the source of truth? That PASM dial is totally unnecessary. My FM3A doesn’t have it. The FM2 doesn’t have it. Nobody shoots in S mode anyway (those who do are those who do not understand exposure).
I can probably live with the dial annoyances (except for that aperture dial) but for me the biggest annoyance is the grip. For a camera as bulky as the Df, it deserves a better grip. My theory is that the grip has to be made that way so that they can position that awkward aperture dial in that location. That’s two really annoying “features” put side by side. It’s no use complaining when you can’t offer a suggestion so here’s mine: the aperture dial should have been positioned on the left hand side of the body near the lens mount so you can operate it with your left thumb. That way it would feel more natural for us film shooters because that is how we adjust the aperture wheel in our lenses. Or better yet, make the aperture dial big and concentric with the lens mount so that it will feel exactly like how real lenses with aperture adjustments work. By doing this, you can now have a grip that has a catch for your middle finger so you can hold the camera with just your right hand without fear of dropping it. Both problems solved! You’re welcome.
The sensor would have been nice. At 16Mp, it’s really not bigger than my 12Mp D700 in terms of image size but a significant increase in terms of file size. I have not compared a D4 image with a D700 so I can’t comment on the quality. What I can say though is that I really love the film-like noise profile of my D700.
My verdict? I’ll pass until they redesign the aperture and PASM dials and improved the grip.