Nikon’s New Df Camera

A few hours ago, Nikon announced a new full-frame high-end DSLR, the Nikon Df. There was a lot of buzz and speculation about this camera. There are a lot of reactions to the feature set Nikon came up with. The Df is a D4-lite camera. That’s important to keep in mind. It uses the same sensor as the D4. At about half the cost of the D4 (but close to $2800 MSRP), it obviously wasn’t going to give users everything the D4 does. The main thing I’ve noticed reaction to is Nikon’s decision to nix video capabilities in the Df. But if you take that as a given and consider the hype Nikon put into positioning the Df as achieving “Pure Photography”, there is another feature missing that I think is more relevant.

According to this article relaying the Nikon announcement. This isn’t somebody else making a comment, this is right from Nikon officialdom itself.

Thanks to a new metering coupling lever located on the bayonet, the user has the ability to once again enjoy their lens collections with renewed functionality.

The thing is that the folding AI prong is not “new” except in the context of geology. My 1980s vintage Nikon FM had one of these. It also was simple enough that I haven’t understood its absence on intervening Nikon cameras. I can’t imagine that it could add more than a buck or two per camera body and without it mounting a pre-AI Nikon F-mount lens is very likely to damage or break the AI indexing tab.

Given that the complete compatibility with almost all manual focus Nikkor lenses (at least the ones not requiring full-time mirror lockup) was a major part of Nikon’s PR blitz for the Df, there’s a feature whose absence is baffling. The technical specifications say this about interchangeable focus screens:

Interchangeable Focusing Screens n/a

That’s right, there is no provision for changing the focusing screen on the Nikon Df. The installed, and apparently only, screen is the standard matte with marked autofocus points. I can only speak to my experience, but I have yet to use a digital SLR whose screen permitted critical manual focus using only the optical feedback from the focus screen. In many, including the Df, “focus confirmation” is available. This involves changing your focus while looking at a corner of the viewfinder to see a green “in-focus” dot light up. This is simply impossible to consistently use for fast-moving subjects, and is not, in any case, actually accurate without the careful calibration of the system beforehand. That ability to tune an autofocus system to a particular lens is itself a relatively recent feature. For critical focus of manual focus lenses on digital bodies, I’ve needed to use live view, and usually the camera is mounted on a tripod or copy stand, and the subject is a still life. (I am, in fact, using a series of non-AI Nikkor telephotos on Micro-4/3rds cameras, where the 2x crop factor and ability to refine focus in live view works in my favor.)

This is all, as “Bored of the Rings” told it, “queer and disturbing”. After all, the first thing that had to be nailed down absolutely with the 1959 Nikon F camera was the ability to accurately focus its lenses with nothing more than the interaction of the photographer’s eyeball and the focus screen in the viewfinder. And that proud tradition persisted up through at least the Nikon F3 and on the bargain-basement Nikon EM. Even my Nikon N90s autofocus film camera allowed me to confidently focus my manual lenses just by using the screen. But that ability went away. My Fuji S2, which was based on a Nikon N80 body, had significant back-focus, both with screen focus alone and with focus confirmation. I had to relegate manual focus use to cases where I could zone focus and run the aperture small enough so that depth of field would, hopefully, cover for the lack of critical focus. My Nikon D2Xs, the top-of-the-line Nikon for 2006, had much the same problem. I could have replaced the screen on the D2Xs, at least, in order to try to fix the situation.

I don’t have a Nikon Df to test. Someone else will have to report whether it is possible to use those non-AI Nikkors quickly and effectively using just the view of the focus screen. My experience says that I wouldn’t care to put a $2,800 bet on it.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.