We admit, it took us a few minutes to recover. This is a camera that really takes your breath away.

Announced today, the Nikon Df (MSRP $2,749.95 body-only) is a digital camera unlike any the company has ever released. At heart, it's the modern equivalent of a Nikon F3. Covered in manual dials and styled after Nikon's 1970s SLRs, the Df calls back at nearly every opportunity to the glory days of film.

But packed inside its retro-gorgeous shell are the guts of a cutting-edge DSLR, including a full-frame sensor and 39-point autofocus system—parts sourced from the professional D4 and enthusiast-oriented D600. They’re exciting components, but they’re also far from the most interesting thing about this camera.

We got to spend time with the Nikon Df behind closed doors at last month’s Photo Plus Expo. We came away buzzing with excitement, and fiending for the chance to get this camera into our labs.

Retro for a reason

The first thing you’ll probably notice about the Nikon Df—once you get over the classic pentaprism design and classic Nikon typeface—is its unusual wealth of manual control. Outdoing even Fujifilm’s X100S and X-Pro1, Nikon has gifted the camera with ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation dials, each with a locking pin. There’s also a physical mode dial—unusual for a high-end Nikon DSLR—with a clever lift-up-and-rotate design. Crucially, the mode dial includes only PASM modes. There’s no full auto shooting, no scene modes, no nonsense. (There are also no custom shooting modes, though with full manual control, who needs 'em?)

Outdoing even Fujifilm’s X100S and X-Pro1, Nikon has gifted the camera with ISO, shutter speed, and exposure compensation dials—each with a locking pin.

The second thing that stands out is the relatively small front grip. While still larger than the non-existent grips on many film-era SLRs, the Df’s is rather svelte compared to the one on a camera like the D4 or D610. But the reduced size doesn’t make it uncomfortable to hold—quite the opposite. The Df fit our hands naturally, putting our fingers just where they needed to be to hit the most-used controls.

As you’d suspect, the Df is easily the smallest full-frame DSLR Nikon has ever produced. But it’s still a big camera—bigger than most APS-C DSLRs, and almost massive in comparison to the recent crop of large-sensor mirrorless cameras. This is not a camera you’ll buy to reduce the size of your kit. It’s a camera you’ll buy for the degree of control it offers (and, of course, its looks).

And that control is truly wonderful. All of the physical dials feel fantastic, made from die-cut metal and providing excellent click-stop feedback. Some users might be annoyed by the locking mechanism used on each dial, but we suspect most will enjoy the security blanket. Since those dials take up so much space on the top plate, there’s no room for a full-size secondary LCD. Instead, you get a cute little screen up top with only battery, shutter speed, aperture, and memory space indicators.

Aesthetically, the Df is a knockout. It occupies a comfortable middle ground between the strong, angular lines of the F3 and the curvy, soft-touch futurism of the company's current DSLRs.

The back side of the camera is similar to the D800 and D610. Most of the controls—including white balance, file format, and main menu keys—are in a vertical strip to the left of the 3.2-inch LCD. On the other side, you’ll find a traditional four-way control pad, a metering switch, and toggles for live view and info. Above the generous thumb rest is the rear command dial, and to the left of that are the AE/AF Lock and AF-On buttons. (The latter in particular is a great addition for advanced users.)

Aesthetically, the Df is a knockout. It occupies a comfortable middle ground between the strong, angular lines of the F3 and the curvy, soft-touch futurism of the company's current DSLRs. From launch, the camera will be available in both black and silver finishes, and the latter even echoes Nikon’s film camera heritage with strips of black leatherette on the silver prism. On the whole, we prefer the all-black Df—the silver paint Nikon chose has the unfortunate side-effect of making the camera's mag-alloy look like plastic—but each finish will find its share of fans.

According to Nikon’s product reps, the body is fully weather-sealed—a fantastic feature for hikers and more adventurous street photographers. Many of Nikon’s high-end primes and zooms are also sealed, though the company doesn’t do as good of a job as some rivals at making it obvious (you won’t find an official list). Of course, you should bear in mind that all the old manual-focus Nikkors that will look so sexy on the Df can’t take advantage of the sealing.

High-tech guts to support low-tech methods

The Nikon Df’s approach to "slow photography" is philosophical, rather than hardware-dictated.

At the heart of the Nikon Df is the same 16.2-megapixel sensor used in the professional Nikon D4. While 16 megapixels is plenty of resolution to suit most users’ needs, it’s slightly curious that Nikon didn’t opt for the 36-megapixel monster from the D800—particularly given the sort of buyer this camera will appeal to. Don’t get us wrong, you should be ecstatic that you have the opportunity to own a D4 sensor at this price point, but this is a chip that was built for speed. The Df, on the other hand, was built for deliberate, measured shooting.

That’s not to say it’s a particularly slow camera; the Df’s approach to "slow photography" is philosophical, rather than hardware-dictated. Working in tandem with the sensor, the 39-point autofocus system (inherited from the Nikon D600) and shutter assembly are capable of a respectable 5.5 frames per second continuous shooting rate. The EXPEED 3 processor makes sure images speed through the processing pipeline.

In its pursuit of a "pure photography" experience, Nikon has decided to cut several features that are expected of cameras in this form factor, at this price point. Like the D4, the Df has no built-in flash. More surprisingly, it's also devoid of any kind of video mode. Since Nikon itself introduced HD video to the stills camera world with the D90 back in 2008, hardly a camera has been released without at least rudimentary movie capture capability. Leaving it out of the Df is a bold statement, and a bit of a gamble. (It’s also clearly a philosophical choice, since the Df can shoot stills in Live View.)

But the pared-down feature set pays dividends in other areas. Perhaps the most beneficial side-effect is the camera's incredibly long battery life: 1,400 shots per charge. We've seen far higher numbers from bulky professional DSLRs, but consider this: The Df gets that excellent longevity from the same EN-EL14a lithium-ion pack that powers the mid-tier D5300, a crop-sensor camera that's rated for just 600 shots per charge.

The Nikon Df has a very capable autofocus system, but Nikon is betting that many buyers will shoot the Df with their manual-focus Nikkor lenses.

The camera has a very capable autofocus system, but Nikon is betting that many buyers will shoot the Df with their manual-focus Nikkor lenses. In another effort to cater to the pure shooting experience, the Df gives you the option to disable the viewfinder autofocus point indicators—a tweak that gives you a clearer view when DIYing your focus.

Cooler still, the Df is the first Nikon DSLR that’s compatible with every Nikon F-mount lens ever made. On previous digital bodies, fitting lenses made prior to the company’s shift to automatic aperture indexing (Ai) could lead to a broken camera. Older film cameras got around this problem by letting you fold up the aperture coupling unit, and the Df is the first digital Nikon body to bring the option back.

So if your grandpa left you a trunk full of beautiful pre-1977 Nikon glass, the Df is your ticket. As for actually using those pre-Ai lenses... well, you're going to have to use stop-down metering, since the camera has no way of telling what aperture the lens is set to. That's totally old school—and that's exactly the intent behind the Nikon Df.

All of this emphasis on manual focus makes it quite puzzling that Nikon has opted for a non-removable focusing screen. The screen the Df picked up from the D600 is certainly adequate for users accustomed to modern full-frame Nikon bodies, but it’s not as as usable (or as large) as old-school split-prism screens and other specialized solutions. Hardcore manual focus geeks may be dismayed at Nikon’s approach here.

If you prefer to let the camera focus for you, the Df can be purchased with a new Special Edition AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G lens (MSRP $2,999.95 as a kit, $279.95 separately). Optically, it’s identical to the existing 50mm f/1.8G; the only differences are in its external appearance, where an aluminum ring serves as a shoutout to Nikon’s earlier Ai lenses.

A beautiful throwback... with a few flaws

While competitors like Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic have gone all-in with retro-styled system cameras, Nikon and Canon have stuck with sleek, modern designs. It’s for good reason: Today’s professional DSLRs have a very specific look, and it’s deeply ingrained in the consumer imagination. All of the Big Two’s DSLRs emulate the aesthetics of their pro cameras, and that visual association helps drive sales throughout the product range.

That's just another way of saying that Nikon is going out on a limb with the Df. It may be a limb that’s been thoroughly tested by smaller companies, but it’s still a risk. We get the feeling that Nikon has no real idea who will buy this camera; it’s just something the company is doing because it’s cool. And cool it is.

The Df offers fantastic build quality, full weather sealing, and phenomenal manual controls that are all but unheard of in digital SLRs. It’s stuffed with some of the best tech on the market today, and it’s also a gorgeous design, striking the perfect balance between classic lines and modern convenience.

Where the Sony Alpha A7 wants to capture your mind, the Nikon Df is aimed right at your heart.

But even from our short time with the Nikon Df, we can tell it’s going to have its share of detractors. This isn’t a perfect camera. (Though, honestly, what is?) Hardcore manual focus fans—presumably one of Nikon’s key demographics—are going to be upset at the fixed and far-from-ideal focusing screen. There will also be more than a few potential buyers who are turned away by the brilliant but resolution-limited 16-megapixel sensor. And even with the mighty D4 sensor, the $2,750 price tag presents its own challenges.

Alongside the Sony Alpha A7, the Nikon Df is one of the most exciting enthusiast cameras we’ve seen in some time. Each is drool-worthy in its own way: Sony’s cool, sleek futurism is every bit as enticing as Nikon’s warm and fuzzy nostalgia. But where the Sony camera wants to capture your mind, the Nikon is aimed right at your heart. Ultimately, which one speaks to you will have a lot to do with which organ you tend to listen to (and how many old Nikkors you have laying around).

Meet the tester

Ben Keough

Ben Keough

Contributor

@ben_keough

Ben is an experienced industry journalist who formerly served as Senior Editor of News and Features at Reviewed. He now contributes as a freelance writer and editor. Most recently hailing from the vast wilds of the American southwest, he is an avid photographer who is deeply disturbed by the lack of wide open landscapes in Boston.

See all of Ben Keough's reviews

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