Yeah, it seems strange to write an article on why in particular I really love my Nikon Df. Why would anyone give a shit what someone else likes as far as a camera?
And yet, they do. And I kinda get that on some level.
I have heard this camera derided as being too “retro” by people who like the Fuji X-100… yeah. OK. (I love the Fuji as well, but this is not about the Fuji… so I am digressing.) I have read the litany of complaints from those who list no video, dials, slow to operate… blah blah. Yeah, them ‘grampacams’ are like that.
So let’s start out with what I do not care about. If you do care about all this stuff, then this is definitely NOT a review you want to read.
– High ISO (for me, shooting ends so there’s more time for drinkin’…) Shooting at 267,842 ISO means little to me.
– File size. Meh.
– Speed of the camera controls. Actually, I LIKE that they slow me down. More on that later.
– Ergonomics. Fits my hand just fine.
– Controls. Seem easy enough to me. I am fairly smart and can learn to twist a dial. Try it… not that hard actually.
So what do I care about?
– Image quality. Dayam this thing rocks.
– The size/weight of the kit. I already have a bigass kit of Canon DSLR’s in a huge roller bag. We good.
– The way the camera invokes a shot in my mind.
The way the camera itself invokes a shot… and that is IT, man. THAT is what I love about this camera.
Some background… I have been a photographer since before dirt was completely made. I have been a photographer since the Kodachrome days. And being a photographer meant that we had different formats of cameras for different types of work.
In my line of work, a generalist with a specialty of people, that meant a lot of kits.
I have an 8×10 Deardorff, a 5×7 Linhoff, a 4×5 Toyo and 5 lenses for that group. I also had a full set of Mamiya RB67’s, a Hassy Superwide, and a bigass kit of Nikons with 4 bodies all motorized.
When a brief would come in, there would be choices to be made. Film, processing, location/studio?
But usually there would be the first inkling of the system choice. Was this to be a view camera shot, or was this a shoot that simply called for 35MM? Should we go MF with the Mamiyas, or could it be time to haul out the big Deardorff?
The images in my head were inexplicably tied to the camera I chose. The camera I chose was absolutely indicative of the images I would make.
Fast action fashion? 35MM probably.
Portraits of cowboys on location? Medium format… even view camera possibly. And the choice would dictate the kind of work that would be produced.
Food would usually mean the view cameras, and model work would usually mean the 35 system.
Personal projects were many times created with the format of the camera in mind – sometimes chosen first. Along with the film of choice.
I did a shoot of old mines in southern Colorado on 8×10 B&W, and the next week shot Navajo coal miners in color on the Mamiyas. A week on the road for Motorola shooting executives in out of the way places was a 35MM shoot, and following that we shot stills of the first cellphones on both view camera and medium format. I would even pre-visualize the final print, as well as the look of it from the choice of film and format as well.
Contact prints of the 8×10 negatives were stunning, and the prints coming off the Mamiya were amazing… and different.
Shooting with a view camera is slow, deliberate and exacting. Each exposure takes a considerable amount of time. Focus upside down and backwards on the ground glass – under a black cloth, tilt the lens board, shift the back, adjust and focus again, shut down the aperture, prepare the shutter, insert holder, pull dark slide, wait for camera to settle, make exposure, insert dark slide, remove holder… prepare to do it again. Slow. Deliberate.
And the work that was created was deliberate and exact. There was no ‘rushing’ when using a view camera. A tripod was absolute, as was the preparation before going out to shoot. One shot at a time. One shot.
Medium format was a bit faster. We had a roll of film and a winder tool to advance it to the next frame. But this camera had something else that was unique: We held that camera at waist level, looking down into it. I had viewfinders for eyelevel work, but honestly used them rarely. It was the configuration of the camera that was tactile to working with it that made it part of the choice.
I liked looking down into my SuperWide Hasselblad, and the Mamiyas. I had a stack finder (a vertical tube to look into that kept out the ambient light) but still looking down.
Working with the medium format cameras was also deliberate, although we could move quicker than with a 4×5, and occasionally shoot off-tripod, it was still more meticulous than the 35MM cameras. We had fewer lenses to work with, and yet that too was part of the creative attraction. The big, bulky medium format cameras harkened to me a particular kind of photograph. There was something that the tool brought to the making of the image that I simply cannot explain, other than to say it was real.
The 35MM’s were the most dynamic. Shooting from eye level on a wide assortment of lenses, the work tended to be looser, more fluid… like the tool in the hand of the photographer would allow. Because of the faster cameras, I would make images in bursts (not really easy to do with a 4×5) and from places with difficult access (not easy with the MF cameras). The 35’s were an extension of my eyes. The MF’s an extension of my brain.
The view camera was an extension of my heart.
I don’t know if I have explained it well enough for others, and really, not a big deal.
I loved that tactile /creative part of the process. Still do.
Sometime along 2000, it all went away.
The DSLR replaced it all. Food shooters, architectural shooters, fashion shooters, portrait and product shooters all began to use the DSLR for ALL of the work. And the work started to show it. There was something missing from my imagery that was – at the time – unexplainable to me. I did not see the loss of the formats as big of a deal as it invariably was. I have learned over the years that it was indeed a love lost quietly, in the stills of time.
I think it explains my Df attraction.
I love it precisely because it is NOT another big DSLR. It is slower to operate, with deliberate dials and knobs. That slows me down, and it makes me think differently about the image. Holding it feels different as well. It is the first DSLR (SLR) that I have been happy with without a grip. Seems to fit my hand well, and feel very good in the way it handles both at the eye and in the resting position.
I would not have purchased a Nikon (although I do love the D700/D800 and secretly have pined for a D3400 in Ferrari Red… ). It would not have been a move up, but simply another big DSLR that – for all their differences – is really not any different than what I already own.
But the Df feels different and that makes me think differently about the photographs I would use it for. The lenses I have for it are all old model AF so they are tiny in comparison to their bigger, newer siblings. I like that as well. A tiny bag (in comparison) with four lenses and I am out the door. No shoulder stress, and no bag on wheels to find a place for.
The slowness, the deliberateness of the camera means a slower, more deliberate approach to the images. Earlier this week I went out to shoot a project for a client. I knew that the Canons were the right choice. Tomorrow I am doing a set of environmental still life and the Df will be on my shoulder. This coming weekend is the Renaissance Fair with my daughter. Nikon V1 is the chosen tool… great images, fast and easy to carry.
I would like to have a Fuji X-100 as well, and a fixed lens 35MM equivalent rangefinder… more choices for different ways of shooting.
So now I find myself with a big DSLR Canon kit (6 lenses – 20MM – 200MM), a single Nikon Df kit (4 lenses – 28, 35, 50, 85) and a Nikon V1 with 24-200 35 equivalent zooms (2). Different strokes and different approaches.
Not the same as before, with all the widely differing variances of tools, physical sizes, film choices, processing choices and more that was such a big part of the mystique, but it will have to do and for the most part, it does rather nicely.
So there you have it. My big reason for the Nikon Df is that it makes me think differently about the images I want to create because it IS different.
Nothing to do with the ‘retro’ of it, or the cool dials, or the amount of megapixels, or the shutter speed or buffer or yaddayaddayadda…
Yeah… big deal, eh?
(Oh, I like the new Sony Quattro system as well. So sue me.)