Even at the top echelons of professional photography, the lumbering DSLR is becoming a bore. Smaller shooters with big camera specs are the trend, and with that mandate in mind, Nikon's releasing the Df. The new DSLR — yes, DSLR, not the full-framed mirrorless monster of rumours — inherits its key guts from Nikon's flagship D4 in a package that's just over half the size and weight of that ogre. More than just a relatively compact full-frame camera, the Df looks like a relic from the glory days of film photography — and in a lot of ways, it shoots like one, too.
A Tiny D4
The new Df features the exact same 16.2-megapixel, full-frame (36 x 23.9 mm) image sensor and Expeed 3 processing engine as Nikon's $US6000 D4 flagship. The key spec to note here is that the camera can shoot at a standard ISO sensitivity of up to 12,800, compared to ISO 6,400 on any camera you might consider a competitor. That means you'll be able to push the Df a touch further than other cameras in really tough, dark conditions without totally screwing up your images with noise.
Design: Still a DSLR
The Df follows the current trend towards the vintage aesthetics of old film cameras with a magnesium body that comes in either black or silver trim. Both strongly resemble the classic Nikon F3 with their labelled click dials and prism crown. Beyond a stylistic consideration, this design choice is all about enticing traditionalist fans of those old Nikon cameras. Probably one of the Df's most appealing features is that it's compatible with pre-1978 Nikon glass. A lever mechanism on the Df's mount allows you to couple old "non-AI" lenses with Nikon's modern metering system.
If you've ever seen a Nikon D4, you know the thing is freaking enormous. By contrast, the Df's 143.5 x 110 x 66.5mm body is the smallest full-frame DSLR Nikon makes. It's like a skinny version of the compact D600/610 DSLR design Nikon introduced last year.
In another nod to its old school roots, the Df isn't mirrorless. While there was some speculation that Nikon might go the way of Olympus or Sony and abandon the bulk of a mirrorbox in favour an electronic viewfinder, the Df has an optical VF. It uses the same satisfying, beefy eyepiece Nikon used on the D800. Since this camera's likely to appeal to exacting photogs using manual focus, you'll be able to remove the camera's AF point display from the viewfinder so you can really see what you're shooting without impediment.
While the purist crowd will love the optical viewfinder, the Df's mirrorbox does add a chunk of heft to the camera. Consider that the Df's body has nearly twice the volume of the new full-frame mirrorless cameras from Sony. At 710 grams, it weights about 50-per cent more as well.
Shooting: Solid specs, but no video
While Nikon outfitted the Df with a monster of an image sensor, it's had to make some sacrifices to keep the size and price of the camera down. The 39-point autofocus system isn't as advanced as the 51-point system on the D4. What's more, the camera records on SD cards rather than on Compact Flash, which reduces that maximum continuous shooting speed to 5.5 frames per second from the D4's blazing 11 fps maximum. I should note, though, that the Df's listed performance specs are consistent with that of other smaller full-frame cameras, like the aforementioned Sonys or the D600.
Probably the most important consequence of the smaller body size is that the Df does not shoot video at all. It's strictly a still camera. Nikon just couldn't cram a sensor cooling system and a mirrorbox into a camera this size.
How does it measure up?
Given Nikon's loyal and traditionalist user base, it's probably not too surprising that Nikon hasn't gone the mirrorless route with the Df. Where cameras like Sony's full-frame A7/A7r or the Olympus OM-D E-M1 are hoping to carve out market share by cramming huge specs into the smallest space possible, Nikon has a strong foundation of photographers that like their optical viewfinders just the way they are, thank you very much.
Indeed, the Df, like Fujifilm's mirrorless cameras, is targeted at the kind of photographer that cares about one feature and one feature alone: Image quality. The Df's proven image sensor will deliver goods in that category. The question is whether a broader market of people looking for an expensive camera can live with the fact that the Df has a larger body than the rising tide of mirrorless powerhouses, while at the same time lacking now-standard features like HD video.
It's hard to say whether Nikon's relatively conservative approach will pay off. I haven't actually held the Df, but I suspect the it's going to feel much the way it looks: Like a stripped-down vintage workhorse. Compared to some of today's feature bloated cameras, that sounds pretty attractive, really.
The Nikon Df isn't cheap: $US2750 for the body alone,or $US3000 bundled with a special edition 50mm f/1.8 lens. We're currently on the hunt for Australian prices, as Nikon doesn't like to give them out. Either way, that's pricey, considering you can get a more fully featured, smaller camera from Olympus or Sony for cheaper. We'll have to wait until the Df drops at the end of the month to find out if an awesome sensor in a retro body is enough to justify that price tag. [Nikon USA]