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why we'll never have a true digital nikon fm3a, and why the nikon df is wrong for me

Top view: Nikon Df vs. Nikon FM3a (via TheOnlinePhotographer)
I came across this scale comparison on the Internet's today. In one simple picture it summed up why the Nikon Df isn't the digital FM3a so many want it to be. It also illustrates in part why (outside of the price) I won't purchase the Df.

If you look at the top plates of both cameras, you can see the top plate outline of the FM3a literally sticking up from the Df body. The Nikon Df is much deeper than the FM3a from the front (the lens mount) to back (the LCD).

What we have here is an odd-ball digital camera design that appears to have bits and pieces of the FM3a stuck on it like a collection of spare parts someone had lying around at the time.

When old people like me say they want a digital Nikon FM3a (or in my particular case, a digital Olympus OM-1), we want the film sized body with a same-sized digital sensor replacing 35mm film. And as the Nikon Df illustrates so eloquently, that won't happen, at least not with this version of Nikon technology.

If you're wondering why the Df is so deep compared to the FM3a, it's because of the thickness of the sensor with its filter (AA or not), attached to a circuit board, and in turn probably attached to some sort of heat piping to pull heat away from the sensor. Add the LCD on the back of the camera, and you've got a fairly thick camera.

The only way to get around this kind of thickness is to create a new mount that has a shorter flange-to-sensor distance than classic film designs, and in the process remove the reflex mirror. Now you have what Olympus, Panasonic, and especially Sony, have created. In fact if you look at the new Sony α7/α7R from the top, it echoes the same flange to camera back distance (not flange to film surface distance) that many classic film cameras have, such as the Nikon FM3a, Olympus OM-1, and the Minolta SRT-100 series.

When you go to the trouble of creating a digital equivalent to film cameras based on size as well as the use of a 24x36mm frame size, then you have to make some hard engineering choices that in the end force you to create a new mount and subsequent new lens formulations. Like Sony is doing right now with the α7 pair of cameras.

The Nikon Df isn't a poor camera like some that have been released in the past (such as Sigma's SD1 APS-C DSLR, originally introduced at the ludicrous price of $9,700). It's just not what some purists like me had in mind for this type of camera.

The Nikon Df is the clearest illustration yet of why you can't go home again to 35mm film-sized cameras with OVFs, reflex mirrors, and have 35mm sized digital sensors. I've always realized this in the back of my mind, which was why I haven't been crying out with the rest of the Internet for a "true" digital OM-1. And why I was more than happy when I purchased my E-M5, which, while a little smaller, is pretty close to the OM-1 in physical size.

From my experiences with 4/3rds and APS-C size sensors (E-M5 and NEX 5N, respectively), current digital technology is exceeding older 35mm film in quality by a wide margin. With the lenses I can get for either µ4:3rds or APS-C E-mount I've made a complete transition from 35mm film to digital, and for me there's no need to look back. The Nikon Df is Nikon's fan's attempt to have it all; the same svelte 35mm film camera married to today's Nikon digital sensor technology on the F mount, and it isn't going to happen. Certainly not at the relatively low price of $2,799 MSRP. If you want that kind of physically small camera, then invest in one of the mirrorless cameras from Fuji, Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung or Sony, and move on.

Why is the Df wrong for me?
  • First is the price: at $2,750 body only, it sits too close to a Nikon D800 and too far away from a far more affordable Nikon D610. I understand the D4 sensor is in the body, and as Thom Hogan explained, the D4 16MP sensor is a high quality sensor and 16MP is better for older lenses. I buy the argument, but not the price, because:
  • It has a single SDXC card in the same slot as the battery. Every other FX camera has its cards (two) behind a separate side door for easy access, except the Df. Having the card in the battery compartment is a feature you find in budget digital cameras, not a nearly $3,000 Nikon DSLR.
  • The general look of the body. At the very least they could have simply pulled the rear edges of the top plate back to line up with the rest of the rear. They could have spent a bit more time eliminating a few lines. I read somewhere they spent nearly four years designing this camera. I think they spent too much time for what they produced.
  • The dials themselves. This is as much aesthetics as practicality, but look at the FM3a dials with white lettering on a black background. I much prefer the lettering on the older camera dials, especially for these tired old eyes. Yes, I know you can get it in all black and that solves that problem. I actually prefer the older chrome designs. It's the modern cameras I prefer all-black because anything else looks so bad.
  • An external interface that's just too busy. It's a complaint I level at Olympus and Panasonic as well. Too many dials, too many buttons. Older cameras were fun because it took very little to set them up and use them. This, again, may be the nature of the digital beast, but I strongly believe we've gone too far with all the controls we've layered on our digital cameras. We really do need to dial (no pun intended) a lot of this back, on just about all our cameras.
Other issues like a lack of video are irrelevant. I've realized that if I want to shoot video then perhaps I should buy a camera better suited to just shooting video. Right now I've been studying the Blackmagic Design video cameras that are aimed specifically at shooting video with the µ4:3rds lenses I currently have. I'm horrified at all the external junk you have to buy and attach to all of today's video-capable DSLRs to supposedly record "good" video (like Zacuto). For that kind of money I'd rather buy a Black Magic body, and keep the change.

And for those folks who believe it's just a small matter of firmware, it isn't. Today's video requires support in silicon (usually a co-processor built into the camera's SoC) as well as some hefty firmware to support it, and oh, by the way, a license fee (tax) to be paid on every device. Modern digital video ain't free and it ain't cheap.


  1. Hi Bill, a lot of people have been going gaga over this new Nikon but it seems that this camera is not as small as people want. To me it looks like a chunky and kind of ugly camera, but when the OM-D came out I thought that was ugly too, (it's the fake prism housing on top of these cameras that kills me,) but today I handled one at my local camera shop and really liked it. I've been using Pens the past couple years, but the ergonomics make it difficult for me to quickly shoot verticals. The OM-D is still a tiny camera, and I think that when the price drops I will buy a body and that awesome grip they have for it. It's only unfortunate that the batteries aren't the same ones that the Pens use. -hank

  2. It's only unfortunate that the batteries aren't the same ones that the Pens use.

    You're right about the battereis. I have the grip kit with my E-M5 and it stays bolted to the body with batteries in both body and vertical grip. I can easily go for a week between battery charges.


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