First impressions: Nikon Df for Portrait Photography

The first camera I bought for myself was a Nikon N90s (also known as the F90x here in Asia) in the 1990s. I was in college and a freshly declared photojournalism major at Indiana University, and it seemed that all the cool photographers were using those cameras at the time. So launched a love affair with Nikon cameras that has lasted for almost 20 years.

Nikons have always been my workhorse cameras from the N90s to the F4, F5 and F100 in the days of film, to a D1 (and D1H) at the first newspaper I worked for and progressively going through the digital full frame series to the D4 and D800E that I currently use, so I was definitely interested in giving the Nikon Df a whirl when the kind folks at Nikon offered to loan me a set to try out.

It’s nice to see Nikon going back to their roots and coming out with an FM inspired DSLR. Specs-wise, I was impressed. The D4 has an amazing sensor that I use day in and day out, so to have that same sensor in the Df meant that I was not going to have to worry about losing the picture quality (and more importantly, the low light sensitivity) that I am used to when shooting with this camera.

Over the years, digital DSLRs have gotten a little bigger than their film counterparts and the Df is no exception. However, the heft is comfortable without being awkward.

I have to say that the first time I used the Df did give me a bit of a schizophrenic moment. The insides worked like normal DSLRs, but the buttons, dials and adjustments, while all logically placed in the classic camera style, took a little bit of getting used to. On its own, the DF is a thing of beauty. The buttons and dials feel solid and the actual usage of the camera, while in conflict with how other Nikon professional level DSLRs work, is actually amazingly intuitive on its own. I decided that the easiest way to get used to the camera was to just go out and shoot a series of portraits with it to get used to the feel of it.  

Geeks On Motorbikes #1

The Df is as great an ice breaker as I've seen. The retro styling automatically allows me to start a conversation with the people I shoot as they are curious about this “old looking” camera. There were no small number of people who assumed I was still shooting a film camera and were surprised to find the technology housed in it. A photojournalist at heart, I almost never have a problem talking to subjects and getting them comfortable, but it was nice to have the camera help me along with getting my subjects interested and worked great in engaging them in conversation.

Geeks On Motorbikes #2

Unless I am shooting in a studio or very tricky lighting situations, I tend to shoot with aperture priority more often these days (what can I say, maybe age is slowing me down!), but since the Df reminded me of the cameras I used when I started out, I wanted to shoot the same way I did with those cameras, going fully manual with my exposures and focusing and using single shot shutter releases instead of motor-driving through my photos. I was prepared to feel like I’ve slowed down (and in truth, it took a bit of time for the rust to come off) when shooting manually, but like riding a bicycle or swimming, you may not have done it for awhile, but it comes back to you really quickly.

The body feels like an old friend that you haven’t seen in a while. Muscle memory takes some time to get used to where the shutter speed dial is, and you mind takes a bit of time getting used to adjusting your shutter speed in full stops instead of the thirds of a stop that we are used to. But the great thing about it was simplicity. I felt like I had less to worry about, less technology to fuss with, and more time to just look, frame and shoot. I wasn’t shooting an assignment, I was taking pictures because I wanted to. Talking to people who interested me, and capturing faces that looked interesting, not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

In the editorial (and even commercial) market these days, an emphasis is placed on speed. On how quickly you can upload your photos to your publication or onto the wire, or how quickly your clients want to see your images.

The Df is a welcome change, a passport if you will, and one that says that it's ok to take your time. I would say that it gave me the opportunity to pay more attention to the actual craft of photography and to focus in on the fundamentals. The FM series was a great beginner camera for a lot of people who were interested in film photography and who were serious in understanding how the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and iso, and I see the Df appealing to the same demographic of photographers today. Photographers who want to know more than just how to take a good photograph, but what actually MAKES a good photo.