Nikon has long been a company that’s made me wonder about who they have designing their camera’s user interface. They seem quite pleased to have had Giorgetto Giugiaro style many of their cameras, but at the same time the cling to user interfaces that seem stuck in an bygone era with no apparent consideration for advances in technology or techniques.
The lineage of their standard DSLR UI can be clearly seen all the way back to it’s roots in the F6 and F100. Keep the same layout, add some more buttons for the new digital stuff wherever they fit. It seems to me that in their quest to preserve a consistent UI Nikon never really did stop and consider what made sense for the camera and technology.
The Nikon Df compounds the problem in so many ways as it attempts to graft a truly retro, not just a retro inspired UI onto a otherwise standard Nikon DSLR body. The issues with the Df’s UI are compounded in a couple of ways. First, Nikon doesn’t seem to have been fully committed to the retro interface. Were they afraid that if it was too retro in function they would lose sales?
The wishy-washy lack of commitment to me is most obvious in the design of the shutter speed dial. In a mechanical camera the shutter dial is the one and only place to adjust the shutter speed. On the Df, that’s not really true, instead you have a mishmash of controls and functions that leave me asking why they even bothered in the first place.
First there’s the fully opt out option. Set the shutter dial to 1/3-step and you set the shutter speed in 1/3 stop increments over the full range (30s to 1/4000th) using the main command dial like any other SLR. Then there’s the partial opt out option. Custom function f11: Easy Shutter-Speed Shift, which lets you adjust the shutter speed using the command dial to ±2/3rds from the selected shutter speed dial value in 1/3 stop increments, as well as allowing you to access the 4s to 30s range when the shutter dial is set to 4s. Finally, the fully opt in option of just using the shutter dial and accepting the full stop increments.
There’s no mechanical reason to limit the shutter dial to full stops. Other manufactures have been fully capable of producing shutter dials that step in 1/2 or 1/3 step increments, there’s no reason Nikon couldn’t do the same on the Df. Moreover, if the shutter dial provides the finer control, there’s no need to have the potentially confusing and contradictory mode that custom function f11 enables. The main dial already does the 1/3rd stop adjustments. Finally to the problem of fully range of control. To which there are several options. Leica, for example, simply doesn’t allow shutter priority to shoot below 8s on their M cameras. Limiting shutter priority 4-1/4000th is certainly a valid option. Alternatively, adding in 8, 15, and 30s only requires 3 more spots on the shutter dial, 1 of which would be freed up by removing the 1/3 step setting, the second could be freed up by making the X sync position the actual shutter speed position on the dial, the 3rd might simply require a slightly bigger dial. Of course since it’s the shutter speed dial, making it a couple of millimeters larger in diameter doesn’t seem like that big of a negative to me.
The second major design issue I see in the Df is that Nikon seemingly elected to follow classic camera layouts without, what appears to me, to be much thought about why things were laid out the way they were and what could be done better now. In many ways you could call some of the design aspects truly, maybe even blindly, retro not just retro inspired. I think the most obvious example of this is the ISO and exposure compensation dials.
Stacking ISO and exposure compensation like that makes sense in the context of a mechanical film camera. Since the actual sensitivity of the film is fixed by the film itself, the ISO/ASA setting on the camera fundamentally is just biases the meter. Setting exposure compensation is functionally no different than telling the meter that the film is faster or slow than it actually is. Since space in the camera is at a premium, having both controls affect the same linkage is a sound engineering decision.
Electronic cameras generally got away from that concept. When the control input changed from being a metal rod, to a couple of copper traces, it was quickly realized that certain controls made far more sense where they were easy to access as opposed to where they were mechanically efficient. Putting the exposure compensation where the photographer can quickly and easily make adjustments to it on the fly is one of the most obvious changes that happened to camera UIs when they moved to electronic inputs.
However, in the case of the Df, we have a fully electronic camera reverting in usability to copy the mechanical camera design. The problem is compounded again by the physical control supplanting soft inputs, as there is no way to set the exposure compensation from either of the two soft dials instead of the exposure compensation one, even though Nikon had shown with the shutter dial that they were willing to engage in potentially confusing multi-input controlled functions.
Finally there’s the real quandary to me, the removal of video support. Specifically there’s a real quandary to me about the complaints that seemingly lead to this decision. When video was first being added to DSLRs I could sort of understand the complaints that these video functions were taking away R&D time from improved still photography features. Even though that probably never was really true from an engineering stand point, I can certainly see how the perception would exist.
At this point, however, the cat is out of the bag. The sensor in the Df was already designed to support video, since it comes from the D4. Moreover, since Live View was retained, so far as the sensor is concerned it still has to perform the same as if it was shooting video. The Expeed processor already includes the hardware to process and compress the video, and the base firmware that’s shared between all Nikon products would have the software to support video as well.
In the end, the lack of video support comes down to either product differentiation, though that honestly seems like a stretch to me. Or the contingent of photographers that somehow can’t ignore a feature they don’t use but instead complain about it being there so much that they get the manufacturer to remove it.
In the end the Df is something of an enigma to me. Nikon seems obviously confused as to what they actually wanted to do with the camera; both unwilling to fully embrace the retro mechanical camera design and at the same time they embraced it enough to hamstring the user interface in such a way that I don’t really think it comes off as better or just different, but actually objectively poorer for it. In the end, I don’t think the Df is a bad camera, but I think it could have been executed considerably better than it was.