What the Leica MD taught me what the Nikon Df should have been
By now, it's no surprise that I love my Leica MD Typ 262 for not having an LCD screen. Honestly, it's so much better. But I admit that not having an LCD is likely to be unpopular with most casual shooters, given that double-checking on review is a luxury that many can't do without. However, the Leica MD 262 was not made for the average photographer. It was made to be a halo product, targeted to photographers that were more serious than the average amateur. And from using it over the last two weeks, I can tell you just how exhilarating it's been. Leica has come out with a camera that only a trained photographer can enjoy, bringing back the feeling of film without the inconvenience of processing it.
I think that was what Nikon wanted to do with the Nikon Df. Unfortunately, Nikon was never actually successful in replicating that feeling with the Df.
I actually have a Nikon Df. I got one, because I had initially thought that the full manual setup of the Df would be good for my style of street photography. It was suppose to be the best of both worlds - being a fusion of retro and modern, hence the designation Df, with "f" representing "fusion."
I mean, what's not to like about the Df. All of a sudden, a Nikon photographer can mount their legacy lenses on a Df and fully use the aperture dial to set exposure. Ergonomically, it was suppose to bring back that feeling of manual control that seemed to have been lost with modern DSLRs. In addition to allowing the aperture dial of legacy lenses to be fully functional, the Df also had dedicated shutter speed and ISO dials, giving the photographer more direct physical manual control.
On paper, the Df is truly a winner. But it isn't. It has been very unsatisfying, from my user experience. And after having used the Leica MD 262 for a little while now, I believe I can put better into words a more constructive assessment on how the Df fell short of expectations.
The main problem with the Df is that Nikon was on the fence with what they wanted the Df to be. They made it a fusion of retro and modern. But in that compromise, the Df lost something. What it lost was intent. It was neither retro nor modern. It didn't feel like an old film camera, and at the same time, it didn't seem to perform as well as a D600 or D800. Nikon played it safe by not fulling exploring the retro position of the Df, largely because they didn't want to alienate their broad customer base. As a result, they went halfway retro and halfway modern.
What Nikon should have done was did what Leica did with the MD 262. They should have gone full retro, and made the Df a specialty halo product.
If Nikon were to make the Df a halo product, like the MD 262, Nikon would have piqued the interest of many professional photographers, who started out on Nikon, but then switched over to Canon. Many of these photographers still have legacy Nikon lenses, and may want to get a Df just for a chance to relive that long forgotten Nikon shooting experience.
If Nikon had pursued that direction, they would have completely designed the Df differently. For starters, they wouldn't have assumed that the Df shooters would mount current AF-S G lenses on the Df. That would make no sense, given that Nikon current lenses do not have aperture rings. With that being the case, the focusing priority wouldn't have been on autofocus, but rather the manual focusing experience of Nikon film cameras. With that one simple extrapolation of logic, Nikon would have then realized what they should have done - the Df should have had a split focusing screen, instead of one that optimizes autofocus. The Df should have optimized the manual focus experience, with autofocus being a secondary convenience.
Following that, the next delete option would be to remove the LCD screen - like the MD 262. If the Df were to be positioned as a halo product targeted to skilled photographers, why would an LCD screen be necessary? Without it, the Df would be truer to the image Nikon portrayed the Df to be on their many teaser advertisements leading up to the announcement. Removing the LCD would make the experience of shooting the Df feel like shooting a film camera, much like the shooting experience on the Leica MD 262.
And as an added bonus with no LCD screen, the Df could have been smaller - perhaps even as small as Nikon's legacy film cameras, like the Nikon FA, FE, and FM series. As it is now, it's significantly bigger than Nikon's legacy film cameras.
So - a smaller, no LCD, optimized manual focusing camera is what the Df should have been. It would have been unique, because it would've been something that Canon couldn't offer, given that Canon legacy lenses are no longer compatible with Canon's current EF mount system.
For me, such a Nikon digital body is a no brainer. It would be used by Nikon's most valued target - professional photographers - and it would allow them to demonstrate their skills. It would be the kind of gear that every pro Nikon photographer would have in their bag, much in the same way previous pro Nikon photographers with a Nikon F3, F4, F5 would have an FA, FE, FM tucked somewhere inside their bag as a backup body. And just because it's not optimized for autofocus, it doesn't mean that Nikon shooters wouldn't fit their AF-S G lenses on it. I'm sure they would - but usually as a backup.
If only Nikon made the Df more like Leica's MD 262. It would be in every pro Nikon photographer's bag. And Canon photographers would look upon the Df with envy. By the way, if Nikon really wants to pique interest amongst pro photographers, they should offer two versions - a monochrome in a black body, and a color version in a silver body. A retro FA/FE/FM like bodied camera would really drive Canon shooters insane!