So two cameras have been announced recently that really get me going. First was the announcement of the Sony A7 and A7R (which I will refer to as one camera here since only the sensor is different) and today was the announcement of the Nikon DF.
Both of these are retro style cameras. Inspired by the old metal body 35mm SLR designs that dominated the photography landscape for decades.
When SLR film cameras went digital, they went with what was modern. The larger, curvy, ergonomic autofocus style bodies made out of space age materials. Including metal on the higher end models. That’s great. Those are nice bodies that evolved because they were better in many ways.
But there is a nostalgia that exists with the old metal bodied SLRs of yesteryear. For the younger generation coming up behind me, it’s hip and cool to be retro. But people my generation and older actually used cameras like this at one point because we didn’t have any other alternatives.
I cut my teeth on these older styled SLR’s back in the mid 1990’s when I took my first high school photography class. I couldn’t afford a fancy new autofocus SLR at the time and my class prohibited them anyway. So I dug out my parents old Minolta from the back of their closet. The 50mm f1.7 still on it. I dusted it off and picked up some new coin style batteries to get it going again.
The solid weight of it in the hand, the faux leather grip, the angled edges over the pentaprism, the feel of the thumb crank and the smooth old lens with the aperture ring around the barrel. Those were all beautiful things.
However, a couple years later I got hit with the autofocus bug and wanted to own a modern SLR. So I picked up a Canon Elan II with some money I saved and went shooting. I quickly discovered I didn’t care for the modern SLR. So I traded it in for the Contax 167MT. A nice blend of modern and old, but the lenses proved to pricey for me at that point in my life. So I traded that in for a Nikon FE and I loved that camera. It was like being back with the old Minolta again, but this time with Nikon glass and that certain gravitas that came with the Nikon name back then. That camera is still with me. It’s stilling on the shelf behind me as I type this.
So what does this all mean? It means I have a bias for these old style bodies. If they had been available as digital options when I went digital years ago, I would have gone with one of them instead of the modern body design that is everywhere today. But now I do have that choice. Camera companies are cashing in on the hipster “retro is cool” trend and bringing out all these digital cameras in old style bodies.
There has been one before, the Olympus E-M5. Not to mention a handful of retro rangefinder style cameras from Fuji, Olympus and Leica. I didn’t jump on the E-M5 because it doesn’t offer the video functionality I’m after. Other than that, it looks sharp and I hear nothing but good things about it.
Enter Sony and Nikon
The two new cameras from Sony and Nikon are different. For starters, they are both full frame cameras. So they match the frame size of the old 35mm SLRs. In the case of the Nikon it also has the reflex mirror and pentaprism along with the manual shutter speed and ISO dials. Not to mention even an old plunger style remote shutter release.
The Sony is more modern. Rather than literally trying to be an older camera with newer technology inside like the Nikon, it’s more of a modern interpretation of an older design. it functions like a modern digital camera in its layout. It’s just smaller and more squared off to give the impression of that retro look. The Sony is also a mirrorless camera. So it doesn’t physically have a reflex mirror or pentaprism. No optical viewfinder like the Nikon.
So what do I think of these two? Bare in mind I’ve never touched either. This is simply based on what I’ve seen.
The Sony A7
Well let’s start with the Sony A7 which is 24MegaPixel (the A7R is the 36MP version with slight variation elsewhere). For the sake of this I’m just going to consider these the same camera. I’m more likely to go A7 instead of A7R myself.
The Sony is the more practical of the two cameras. For starters it’s about $1000 cheaper than the Nikon DF. It houses a higher resolution sensor at 24MP compared to the 16MP in the Nikon. It has an electronic viewfinder which I personally think is more handy than an optical viewfinder. It also has a tilting screen on the back. Very practical. Plus because it’s mirrorless it has a shorter flange to focal distance, allowing you to mechanically adapt pretty much any lens you want to it from any manufacturer. With the Nikon, you’re pretty much stuck with Nikon F mount lenses, which have one of the longer flange to focal distances in the industry.
But a very important aspect about the Sony for me personally, is that it shoots video. 1080p video at 24 frames per second or 60fps. It also comes with a mic and headphone jack. Two connections that every DSLR should come with these days. You can even add an XLR adapter that Sony makes. Granted it’s an $800 adapter, but the option is still there. Something no other camera maker offers for this stlye of camera. It plugs into the hotshoe at the top of the camera.
So right off the bat the Sony is incredibly strong on features and lower in price. It is going to sell well to enthusiasts who want a full frame camera in a smaller retro inspired body.
The Nikon Df
The Nikon is a different story. This is a camera for people with a lot of money to burn and a lot of nostalgia. It’s a 16MP sensor which is a little shocking consider the latest Nikon DSLRs have been in the 24MP and 36MP range. I’m not entirely sure why they opted to go with the 16MP sensor from the D4 here. I retro style camera like this kind of brings with it a feeling of a slower shooting style in my opinion. From days past where you had a roll of film with only 25 or 37 shots and you took your time more to get the best shots at the best quality.
No doubt 16MP is enough resolution for most people most of the time and I’m sure the low light is impressive. So there is nothing wrong with it by any means, it just feels a like this camera would merit something a little higher resolution for portraits, landscape or still life work.
The biggest killer for me is the lack of video. I don’t know what Nikon was thinking here. I really don’t care if there is an onslaught of snobby photographers out there who hate the fact that video has creeped its way onto their beloved stills cameras. Get over it already. You don’t have to use it and really aren’t paying for it. Whatever software/hardware R&D costs that went into adding video have probably already been paid for by video shooters who are now buying these cameras as well. Extra cameras sold that would not have been sold if not for the video functionality. I hardly think you’ll get a savings by taking it away. If the DF is any example, it seems the lack of video certainly didn’t make it a cheaper camera. Especially compared to the much cheaper A7 with its nice video setup.
So the lack of video kills it for me personally. It’s already DOA without that. I can’t justify paying close to $3000 for camera these days that only shoots stills. I shoot both video and stills professionally and both on the same camera. It’s cheaper and quicker for me that way. I only have one camera to learn and one set of lenses.
But that said, I can’t help but feel tingly inside when I see the DF in all of its retro goodness. It’s so close to what I’ve wanted in a DSLR for years now. If only for that pesky lack of video I’d be saving my pennies right now. Maybe the DF2 will fix that mistake.
Overall where does the DF fit in? That’s a pretty high price for a camera that is not really pro ergomonically and lacks enthusiast features like video and a higher resolution sensor. At best this camera is really just a nostalgic item. If it were under $1000 I could justify the purchase (lack of video and all) just to have a full frame retro goodness camera to take out on photo hikes and look good around my neck. But at around the price of a 5DmkIII (a camera that can be hacked to shoot raw videos ontop of already great stills) or even a D800 in Nikon’s own lineup, I’m not seeing the value for this retro Df model. For someone like me it’s way over priced and under performing. Which is really a shame.