Despite Form Without Much Function, Nikon Df Wins Red Dot Design Award

Despite Form Without Much Function, Nikon Df Wins Red Dot Design Award

Today, NikonRumors published a brief story about Nikon's winnings in the 2014 Red Dot awards. Every year the fellows at Red Dot in Essen, Germany select products in various fields with outstanding design. In the past, Nikon has been awarded Red Dots for their D4, 1-series mirrorless system, and various coolpix cameras. This year Nikon took home three Red Dots for their ACULON T51 binoculars, D5300 APS-C DSLR and, surprisingly, the Df.

Nikon's past Red Dot awards have been in both consumer and professional categories — for the purposes of this discussion I am considering the Df a "professional" camera (both because of the quality of the sensor, and the D800-equivalent price tag). Every time a product received a Red Dot it was because it represented a milestone in design. Cameras such as the D4 and D7000 represented real steps by Nikon to move the industry forward. Even consumer-grade cameras such as the mirrorless 1-system had traits that made them favorable to their intended users. Fujifilm took home three Red Dots in 2013 for their X-Pro1, X-E1, and Instax Mini 8, each of which broke new ground in terms of product design. The X-Pro1 brought Leica-like rangefinder functionality to the masses and the X-E1 was one of the first cameras to successfully compete with the Olympus PEN series (another former Red Dot recipient).

Coming from a design perspective, I don't believe the Df is on the same level as the D4 or X-Pro1. If anything, cameras such as the a7, D600, and 6D represented a bigger step forward in the camera industry, bringing full-frame performance to smaller, sub-$2,000 bodies. I feel that the tendency of non-pros to herald the Dand its ilk as revolutionary step forward for photography does more harm than good. A cameras worth is far more complicated than it's aesthetic.

While we've been pretty excited about the Df's performance (it has a D4 sensor after all), the camera's build and handling have left more to be desired. It's this last point that makes the Df's selection for a product design award so surprising. While I have no problems with "retro" styled cameras, physical dials, the whole-nine-yards, I think it's important to consider why most modern professional camera bodies look and function the way they do. They're designed to operate easily, often without taking your eye away from the viewfinder and to be ergonomic, distributing weight and fitting easily in the hands. Recognizing the Df with a product design award seems to be missing the point of what design should mean. It's nice that the camera looks cool and revisits a vintage look, but it isn't making any strives in functionality — and isn't that the whole idea? Or shouldn't it be?

Don't get me wrong, I believe the Df is the closest thing to a D700 successor Nikon has out (flagship sensor in a small, more affordable body), and I've even considered adding one to my bag. But its eccentricities make it far from perfect from a product design standpoint. It's form for form's sake, not form for the betterment of usability.

Be sure to check out our previous Df coverage here.

What do you think about Nikon getting a Red Dot for the Df? Do you think it deserved the win?

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I'm a professional, I own a Df, I love it, so yes!

Austin Rogers's picture

You're not alone! Fer Juaristi uses a pair of Df's for his wedding business, Lee Morris was considering picking up one, and I still might add the Df to my kit.

John White's picture

" It’s nice that the camera looks cool and revisits a vintage look, but it isn’t making any strives in functionality — and isn’t that the whole idea? Or shouldn’t it be?" basically sums up what I would have said. Nice post Austin!

Frederic Dupoux's picture

I'm a professional, I own a d800 a D3s and a Df I love it and want to get another one. For weddings it's the perfect size and the perfect sensor. I love how it feels in my hands and actually prefer the mechanical dials compared to a bunch of button combinations. So yes I believe it deserves the win. In design sometimes less is more.

Less is more? Should it be reiterated that this camera just adds more (looks) and very little more in progress or functionality?

Austin Rogers's picture

Purely out of curiosity, have either of you (Frederic & Jack) felt limited by the 1 SD card slot and smaller battery? I would be a little apprehensive to not have a backup.

I shoot RAW however coming from film of over 40 years have learned how to keep my finger off the button so much and think before I shoot. This way I don't feel limited with only one SD card, remember we only had 36 shoots before we had to change film, back-up, never knew what it was until I got a computer.
As far as the battery, only if I am shooting using live view for a very long time. Just keep a spare on hand.

I wouldn't shoot a camera professionally with out the dual card setup in mirror. Would i buy a DF? Maybe for a personal camera, if the price were cut in half.

I shot on single-slot cameras for years. Photographed a lot of important events, people, and places. Never had a problem.
Get high quality cards and take care of your gear you shouldn't have a problem.

Jerrit Pruyn's picture

Nikon makes great cameras, almost all the new cameras have a rocking sensor, but what does Nikon do? It gimps the cameras to make sure it does not trump another model. Either by controls, firmware, or in this case not having two slots.

James Nedresky's picture

What did you (or anyone) do when you shot film? Remember film rolls at an airport??, let alone someone opening the back of the camera when the film is not rewound? Yet, what were the odds? Many pro's shot digital prior to the 2 card thing. Just be careful, not fearful.

Every DF owner i know swears by it. I know of one that prefers it to his D800 even. I am on the verge of picking one up myself. The biggest gripe i seem to see in reviews is that it slows users down, and for me, I dont see that as a bad thing at all!

I love mine. Everyone in my field that has seen it has come up to me and in joy and amazement exclaimed something along the lines of "finally a camera I can use!". With real dials that which means you don't have to look at menus, that the most intuitive settings are immediately obvious. The Df controls are completely consistent with how classic Nikon works. I come straight from using F3 and FM2 because I can't stand working with F5 style control wheels. So I had waited for something like the Df for a very long time. It is a completely unique camera, literally the only one of its kind, and yet Fstoppers thinks it's not deserving of the Red Dot. Could you please elaborate? You think the prize should have to yet another run of the mill black dslr? If you're used to working with large format or other manual cameras, the Df is a godsend. Yet, you try your absolute best in trying to say the Df is superficial, using words like "looks cool", "retro styled", or "form for forms sake". That's not only arrogant but also completely wrong. Above would have been true if the Df was a conventional camera with a coat of style-paint. It's not. It's controls and focus on manual photography is unique.

I've had mine for a couple of months and love it more for every day. I can't understand why flame baiting articles like above keep popping up. Very happy Red Dot people sticking it to Fstoppers.

Austin Rogers's picture

It should be noted that as an op-ed piece, this is my own opinion. My guess is that the people from Red Dot aren’t out to get back at Fstoppers, likely they’re a group of non-pros who are excited by a retro-looking camera and awarding it because of that. Of course the Df is going to be a good fit for some professionals, perhaps myself included, but the point of this post was to remind people about the omissions in its design. DSLRs have seen a progression in their design, there are reasons they look the way they do. So going back to a camera that is deliberately less comfortable (small grip) and arguably less reliable (small batter / 1 card slot) doesn’t seem like a good move for serious users. If anything though, these comments are making me reconsider picking up one myself. :)

I would imagine that the Red Dot crew would have some very competent people on board regarding design. You also make the classic mistake of thinking of design as how something looks. "Design is how something works" S. Jobs.

Lets remove the styling from the Df. Pretend in your mind that it looks futuristic. Can you see how the looks doesn't matter at all? What matters is how it works. It works in a unique and for many preferable way. So your "form over function" statement is false.

What are the omissions on the Df? The battery? You'll get more pictures from the Df than a D800. You must really hate mirror less cameras then as they have ridiculously low battery life compared to the Df.
Small grip is a feature. Big grips are disliked by many.

The 1 card thing I don't think is a problem for most of Df's intended customers. Doesn't bother me in the least. I'm used to having 12 frames on a film roll where many more things can go wrong. No problem.

I don't consider a D4S or 5DmarkIII progressive design. That's more of the same design. That's status quo. Yeah, there is a reason that camera design exists. There are certain kinds of photography where snapshot cameras are good, but that design is far from optimal for other types of photography, for example fine art photography where intuitive controls and transparent settings are desirable.

I don't even like the looks of it. The Fuji XT1 is a retro looking camera done right.

I don't understand how the author thinks for example the D4 deserved the prize when all it did was the same as the D3 before it, only faster and better, but no difference in how it worked. The Df meanwhile re-introduced a methodology of photography we haven't seen since the excellent FM3a. The only full frame alternative is the Leica which is in a different league from the Nikon Df regarding cost.

You say the Df is "form without function". Could you explain what you mean? Please elaborate on how an ASA-dial and a shutter-dial coupled with a Nikkor featuring aperture ring is not functional. Also, what would be the more functional alternative in your opinion?

Austin Rogers's picture

Sure, I feel like more effort was put into making the Df look cool/retro than thinking about the usability. The ISO and shutter dials are nice but in reality won't be as easy to use as a normal camera (pressing down the center button and rotating as opposed to just turning the front / rear wheels). I'd hate to try to use the Df at night when you can't see the lettering. I think it's a tremendous camera, just that perhaps it doesn't deserve an award in product design.

"The ISO and shutter dials are nice but in reality won't be as easy to use as a normal camera"
That's completely false. It's much easier to use manual dials then having to understand the workings of pressing buttons and looking at screens while turning unmarked wheels. You don't need to look at the shutter dial while turning it. You count clicks. Et cetera, I'm sure there must be several places that can explain manual methodology to you. Search around. Some Leica forum may be a good place to start.

Your preferred way of working is with conventional old school F5 type lay out. This seems more convenient to you. That's fine. There are plenty of cameras for you, almost all of them. So why be a dick to manual guys? Why arrogantly suggest that your preferred way is more "pro", "easier" or more "convenient". The Nikon F100 is way faster than the same age FM3a. Speed and convenience has little do to with making good pictures. Likewise, some photographers thing the Leica offers the best way of making pictures. Others think a large format camera is by far the most efficient image machine. Get the point? Stop thinking of cameras like race cars. They are creative tools.

Manual controls makes you more aware of your cameras setting. You learn to pay attention to light in a different way. You are more in control of the image and in control of the mistakes. And so on, it's a different way of working. As a bonus manual control cameras are more fun to use than the automatics.

The dials are completely consistent with how Nikon dials have always worked. Super grateful for the locks. The shutter dial only locks in 1/3, T and X mode.
I also strongly disagree with your opinion that Nikon spent more effort trying to make it look cool. Quite the opposite in fact. All the functions are extremely consistent with how classic Nikon works and is more or less a love letter from the designer - it doesn't just remake the F3, anyone could think of that, but it's a new design offering the best from classical controls with the possibility of mixing in more automatic concepts, creating a uniquely flexible camera.

So you don't think that bravery in design should be awarded? That unique products should be awarded? In this case a camera with absolutely awesome controls which offers flexibility of operation like no other. A camera that for example Bjorn Rorslett has called "the best Nikon since the original F". The selection of a lower pixel sensor with better IQ characteristics spearheading the coming trend confirmed by the A7S?

If you're sincere in trying the Df. Use it with manual focus lenses or at least D-lenses with aperture ring. Use it in M. If you just want to use it like a D700 then don't even bother trying it. Sure, the Df can function this way, but the main reason to buy the Df is the manual ISO, Shutter and aperture controls. Most of the bad reviews comes from reviewers only testing with the stupid kit lens and then continuing to use the Df like any other DSLR. What's the point with that? Think of it as a Nikon-Leica.. and if push comes to shove you can put a G lens on and go auto. But if auto is what you're going to do, then don't bother. This is not the camera for you. Just as the F5/D800 is not for me.

p.s. If you use the Df at night and you're such a sloppy photographer that you don't know what shutter time your camera is at, there are three solutions: a) light the small info window on top or b)the big info view on the back or c) look in the viewfinder. All will tell you the cameras settings.

Companys don't win a red dot award. The buy them. The Red Dot award is widley known to be one of the awards you can actualy buy. That's why it isn't a useful source for quality and design among designer and creatives. It just fits the purpose to trick customers.

Please show us your documentation confirming this. Although I personally think this way about ALL awards, it's strictly my personal belief, and I could be wrong. You, however, are making a statement as matter-of-fact.

This would be a fact to lead the article with if, in fact, it' true.

I've used the Df and love the image quality, but must admit using it is a bit clunky at best. It's worth owning it for the D4 sensor at half price. Now, if Nikon had released the Df and it was designed like the Fuji X-T1 (which I own and love) with the D4 sensor, it would have been hailed as one of the greatest digital cameras Nikon has ever made.

The Df IS hailed as one of the greatest cameras Nikon has ever made.
What is better in the Fuji? The 'A' on lens and shutter dial is blown out of proportion. Its just as good to have a MASP and in some instances better.

I'd take the Nikon speed of operation, flash system, the clear optical finder, the battery, the better fit and finish, the better quality buttons and controls, the sensor, the 50 years worth of lenses of which many can be had for 50$ and the control layout ANY DAY over the XT1.
I don't own an autofocus lens but if I did I've heard that the Df autofocus smokes most other cameras out there.

Btw, I think the XT1 is a wonderful camera with great and sorely needed manual controls. I don't think it can hold a candle to the Df. The difference in price fairly reflects that.

My point was that if Nikon's Df with all that you hailed of Nikon had the retro operation of the X-T1 it would be what I claimed. I find the dials on the X-T1 to be very user friendly and well designed and placed. on the Df, they are not and the little front dial for aperture is a pain in the ass to use when not holding it to your face.

Fair enough. I much prefer the placement and locks of the Df dials. I don't think I have ever touched the front dial of the Df. I only use the manual Nikkors. If I for some reason wanted AF I'd rather buy a D lens with proper aperture ring. It was a stupid design choice by Nikon to kit the Df with a ring-less G lens, but hey, someone might actually like that little front dial and can then use it to their hearts content with the G-stuff they had already invested in. I just ignore it just like I ignore the 1/3 setting on the shutter dial. Its a good option for those that like it, but for those who doesn't those features become invisible after a month or so of use. Flexibility.

I find the exp compensation on the XT1 clutters up the right side of the camera where the shutter dial needs to reign supreme. The XT1 exp dial is also flawed in that it doesn't lock. There is needless clutter like the video record button and the Fn button. The XT1 also does not except the same threaded shutter release cable that I use for my film cameras. The (threaded) shutter release on the Df is one of the best I ever felt. No wiggle whatsoever and smooth as silk.

Here's a thought. It's really somewhat bold to take a product that has won an award and list reasons why it "should" not have won the award.

I don't know about this awards thing, but one thing is for sure: Nobody gets the Df. No modern-day photographer anyway.

If you've been shooting from the mid-90s on, it's understandable the reaction to the Df. If you ever shot day in and day out with the likes of a Nikon F/F2/FM, the Df makes perfect sense. People like me who did can easily use this camera all day without needing to take our eyes away from the finder, as you've mentioned. Because we shot differently back in the day.

The trick is to use lenses with f-stop rings which, from a practical point of view with this camera, are D-series Nikkors, or manual Ai's (or Samyangs). But most importantly you would have needed to have continuously shot with the aforementioned cameras to understand the Df.

The Df makes perfect sense to me, because I know where it's coming from. Although it's obvious Nikon capitalized on Fuji's retro fad upheaval, it seems to me this camera was targeted at geezers, specifically well-heeled ones, and principally Japanese (and, more generally, Asian) ones. If you've ever seen older Japanese men flock to the (pricey) vintage camera markets in Japan, then it would all start to make much better sense.

I have to say that I will criticize Nikon for not giving the Df a manual focusing screen option to make better use of all the older optics it can easily handle. I also find amusing their comment that this camera was four years in the making. Four MONTHS is more like it. Personally, I would have much preferred them putting ALL the guts from the D610 in it. I would much prefer the 24 megapixel sensor over the D4 sensor, but that's my personal taste.