Sony said, as they took over the Konica Minolta camera division in 2006, that the day of mechanical controls and switches was gone. Economies of production and efficiencies of design meant that from now on, cameras would be controlled by buttons and menus. Anyone who remembers the original Alphas, the 7000 and 5000 from the mid-1980s, will also remember that this is not an original idea.
Minolta started to return to mechanical dials and visible controls after ten years of experiment with buttons, programs, and automatic functions. The Dynax (Alpha, or Maxxum) 800si and above all the 600si Classic restored traditional camera controls. The acclaimed 9 and 7 models followed, featuring physical switch or dial controls for exposure compensation (separate ambient and flash) and drive modes along with a shutter-dial style mode setting including the vital 1, 2 and 3. The triple custom memory setting enabling users to switch instantly between (say) outdoor action, studio flash and tungsten theatre lighting has survived as a Minolta gene all the way to the latest Sony generation.
Now Nikon has arrived with the DF, a very much standard autofocus DSLR using the D4’s 16 megapixel full frame sensor and a D610-derived AF and shutter specification, in a moderately compact retro-styled body with about the same number of mechanically switched visible controls as the Dynax 7D. It’s over ten years since the 2002 design of that camera (which finally appeared in 2004 after a change of imager from a planned Foveon sensor to the 6 megapixel Bayer Sony, rumoured to be a decision helped by Sony’s pressure on Konica Minolta as their main supplier for compact digital sensors).
Top, you see the Nikon DF in the black finish which very few sites are choosing to highlight – the silver and black looks SO much more retro – with 18-35mm Nikkor lens, 2013; below it, you see the Konica Minolta Dynax 7D with Konica Minolta (aka Tamron) 17-35mm. Note the strap lugs; KM moved one forward for better balance, but carefully kept the right-hand strap behind the shutter finger. Nikon has rather peculiarly chosen to place this strap lug forward as well, putting the strap physically between the index finger and the rest of the fingers.
The Nikon is hiding a flip-out aperture coupling pin to allow the use of original Nikon F (Photomic metering) or Nikkormat generation F-mount lenses, which have an external non-self-indexing meter coupler on their aperture control. Minolta’s full aperture metering used a self-indexing coupler which, unlike Nikon, did not required a back and forth rotation of the ring to tell the camera the relationship between the full aperture and any stopped down setting. In the 1960s, Minolta’s method enabled the fastest lens changes and also enabled ‘blind’ changing as there was no need to look down at the lens or engage a pin when doing so.
Nikon kept faith with their old mount when they introduced their AF system, despite the deep body register and narrow throat creating many problems with lens design. Minolta designed a brand new wider throat. At the time it made sense. Who then was to know that precisely the same constraints on lens design imposed by the narrow Nikon mount and deep mount to film register would make Nikon lenses much better, 20 years later, in the age of digital sensors with their need for telecentric designs and small rear exit pupils?
You’ll see that the old KM has a switched White Balance at the right hand end, more or less where Nikon has put a small PASM selector dial on the DF. Imagine it – a switch to get AWB, your most recent Preset, a Custom reading or to set in Kelvins. Where the D7D has a PASM plus 123 custom memory selector (locking) and hiding below it a mechanical switch for self-timer and sequence drive modes (3fps from the 6.1 megapixel sensor), Nikon has a very granular T (for time) to 1/4,000th shutter speed dial cramming those intervals in.
The actual shutter inside the camera despite being full-frame in the Nikon is really much the same as that of the D7D, a 30 second to 1/4,000th unit with X at 1/200th. And below the Nikon’s dial at the front (the KM has it at the back) is the drive mode selector, which does include the Mirror Up position that the D7D was lacking. There’s a mini LCD display on top to allow the use of the 1/3rd step control-wheel set shutter speeds, and to display the aperture on G type lenses which don’t have a physical setting and must be set from the body.
On the left end of the Nikon there’s a two-tier wedding cake for ±3EV 1/3rd stop exposure compensation, and below this an ISO control from L1 (50) to H4 (51,200).
I don’t seem to have a picture of the D7D left hand dial from above, but it offered something unusual – turn the dials a full 180° and the 1/3rd step EV compensation adjustments were exchanged for 1/2 step adjustments. The D7D also had a stack of controls on the back, like the lockable AF point selector control round the four-way selector, an ISO button (bearing in mind this camera was derived from the Dynax/Alpha 7, which used DX coding to read filmspeeds and an LCD menu entry to adjust them), Memory Set and other stuff which now seems rather clever and useful. The AS anti-shake physical switch, last seen on the Alpha 900, is one which would be welcomed back again. And of course this camera had AS. It was the first, and everyone apart from Nikon and Canon has followed the lead.
Where the back of the D7D was criticised for being a bit complex for the everyday user, the Nikon DF in all fairness bears a remarkable similarity right down to five left hand buttons and the metering selector switch, AE and AF buttons. The DF has more stuff on the front, including a control wheel which looks a bit like the battery cover off an early Mamiya SLR and two buttons down to the right of the lens escutcheon which vaguely resemble an ancient two-pin flash connector. Since there can be no actual need for the bulges they are placed on, this is probably deliberate. Same goes for the mechanical cable release screw thread in the shutter button, fun feature, but actually electrical releases can have many more functions and don’t transmit hand movement the same way. The DF has a pretty skinny right hand grip but exceptional battery life at up to 1500 exposures, where the D7D has a lovely big grip partly to accommodate a similar size of battery which rarely managed 400.
KM’s pioneering DSLR weighs almost 200g more than the Nikon, though both are made from magnesium alloy, despite the smaller format. That’s perhaps because the prism in the Minolta design was not downsized and the actual eyepiece magnification of the 95% view was 0.9X, where the Nikon dealing with a full frame is reduced to 0.7X (and still, of course, looks larger – 0.7X versus 0.9X 0.66X 0.95X, or a cumulative 0.56X scale).
As for size and fit, the Nikon is said be based on an F2, or maybe they meant an FM2 – but it’s not in any way, the prism can look vaguely FM2-like in the chrome version with leather panels, but the body is a completely different shape some 15mm shorter than an F2 but much fatter and taller. It’s a dumpy sort of chunk, is also shorter fatter and higher than the D7D despite having no built-in flash. D7D = 150mm x 106mm x 65mm (specifications misprinted as 77.5mm in many reviews, no idea why); Nikon DF = 144mm x 110mm x 67mm.
Now there’s one other way in which Nikon has copied the KM D7D – the DF has no video! It does have live view, and that means you can overcome the shortcomings of the D600-like 39 point AF module (limited to the DX crop area and in my experience with very small AF point areas making it ‘twitchy’). Live view has magnification and focus peaking.
The new Nikon shoots 16 megapixels not 6 – that’s what a decade of progress has done – and it shoots 5.5fps not an actual 2.8fps like the ‘3fps’ D7D managed. But it’s got just a fixed rear screen, 3.2 inches verses 2.5 (the D7D was ahead of the field in 2004). The Nikon also shoots superb ISO 6400, equal to the old sensor’s 1600 at a pixel level before you consider the benefits of the larger file as well.
And the pricing is borrowed from KM 2004 too – the D7D came in as a $1599 body only which made it a premium product against competition like the Canon EOS 300D, the Nikon DF arrives at $2749 body only and it’s a comparable level considering the full format, technology and cost changes, and a near ten year interval.
We’re sure the Nikon will be a success and this article is not trying to knock the concept or the execution. It’s just here to point out that a decade earlier, Minolta had designed and Konica Minolta eventually produced a DSLR with a general philosophy of physical, external, mechanical-feeling controls. As the pictures show, the Nikon DF could almost be a tribute to that design rather than something based on historic Nikon film bodies – which it quite simply isn’t!
– David Kilpatrick