Danny Santos II Shoots High ISO Portraits with the Nikon Df

Danny Santos II Shoots High ISO Portraits with the Nikon Df

Danny Santos II, portrait and editorial freelance photographer, recently published an awesome blog post where he pushed his new Nikon Df to the limit, taking portraits in low light at crazy high ISOs. You won't believe the image quality he gets out of the Df at up to ISO 4,500. While in the past we've railed on the Dhere, here, and here for it's "hipster-esque" aesthetic, there's no denying that it contains one of the best sensors on the market today. It is, after all the baby brother of the Nikon D4. I was very excited to see Danny's post, I feel it is one of the best real-world high ISO sets of images out there, it'll blow you away.

While working on his Portraits of Strangers project, Danny decided to leave his speed light at home one night and break in his new Df at ridiculously high ISOs.

Below you'll find four images taken between ISO 2,500 and ISO 4,500 each has a 100% crop below for details. All images are out-of-camera, with no noise reduction. This isn't the highest ISO ever — the D4s can shoot up to 409,600 — but it's awesome to be able to get useable files in such low light.


According to the original post, Danny's only main issue with his Df is the autofocus. Like the D610, the Df has Nikon's 39-point AF system, the same one from the 2010 Nikon D7000, not the 51-point monster found in the pro D300, D300s, D3, D3s, D3x, D700, D800, D4, and D4s. He reports that the AF in his Df would often hunt for up to 10 seconds before locking in on an eye, even when using the center cross-type AF point.

Danny can be found at his website or on Facebook.

Has the high ISO capabilities of cameras like the Df changed the way you've photographed?

[Via Danny Santos II]

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Jason Vinson's picture

camera stuff aside, these are great portraits!

Why do you say that? There's nothing here that really strikes me as a great portrait. They're all compositionally equivalent; person's face in the dead center, a small portion of the top of their head cut off, no thought to composition otherwise because he just threw the lens to such a large aperture, etc.

Now before someone harps on me, I'm referring to these pictures. This person may be a great photographer, it's just that these pics in particular don't truly don't convey too much skill. I realize the point of the photo shoot was to test the limits of the camera rather than personal skill, however, my post is simply a reply to yours, as well as a question about what you find great about these (from a learning perspective, of course...I always like to find out what people like in photographs that I don't, and see if I'm missing something)

Jason Vinson's picture

these are great portraits because i think the subjects look interesting and i like the connection they make with the camera. they looks real. I also like the use of background lights and how they interact with the subjects.

to the remark of them all being similar in composition, its because these where all shot as part of a project the photographer is working on, so he is going for consistency from image to image. the tops of peoples heads are not important when doing a close up portrait like these.

E Port's picture

The only portrait missing here is of the great hipster Lee Morris! Speaking of irony, these shots remind me a lot of Dani Diamond's work.

Spy Black's picture

"Danny’s only main issue with his Df is the autofocus. Like the D610, the Df has Nikon’s 39-point AF system..."

I always find comments like this amusing. Have a look at all the legendary images created with the Nikons F6, which had NINE AF point, the F5, which had FIVE AF points, or the F4, which had (I believe) ONE AF point. Then come back here and complain about those 39 AF points...

The complaint might not be about the amount of points, but the speed/accuracy the 39-point system offers. I'm just speculating.
You are right, in a sense. For portraits, especially shallow depth of field ones, I always use one-point to make sure the eye (or whatever it is I want) is in focus.

Spy Black's picture

Possibly, but again think of all the great sports, press, or general action shots made with the cameras I mentioned. How much more accurate were those 1, 5, and 9-point systems than the 39-points in the Df/D600/610?


I wasn't complaining about the number of AF points... my issue is with the amount of time it took to autofocus in low light. Any decent photographer would be able to manage with 1 AF point.

Spy Black's picture

Most cameras have that problem in low light.

Jason Ranalli's picture

Agreed. I usually use simply one...but the speed an accuracy are paramount.

Spy Black's picture

Well, the article here was written in a way that implied that the AF points were responsible for the camera's inability to focus in low light.

The meterings' EV range (not to be confused with the sensors') would have more to do with that than the number of AF points.

Sean Shimmel's picture


And to kind of back your insight, Zeiss favors manual focus over ANY auto settings.

I've heard it called "snobbery of the banal."


As for the portraits themselves:

1. Boldly mysterious
2. The slight grain is almost pleasantly filmic/analog

How many shots did you take with a Nikon F5 and an 3200 ASA film (which were mostly pushed 1600 ASA films and had a very bad quality)?
The thing is the 39 point AF is perfectly fine in good light but we are able to push the ISO now which also means we are able to shoot at less light. And that's where the 39 point af system has some trouble. it isn't just the fact that there are only 39 points. if you would create a camera with an 9 or 11 point af system but every focus point is an super amazingly awesome crosstype thing 70-80% of photographers would be happy to take that over an crappy 39 point.

If you want to judge the sensor turn off noise reduction in ACR (or whatever you use). Most of this high ISO quality is achieved in the software by default...

The idea is to make them look as good as possible, not bad.

You are missing the point. The article is about how good the camera performs, regarding noise, in a low light. They just forgot that the grain patern and noise reduction is achived in ACR engine. Nothing wrong about that. It is just a fact.

Jason Vinson's picture

i think i like the test being done this way. I'm not going to go out and shoot at high ISO and not do any type of noise reduction. For a real word test i want to see what type of final images i can get after post since that's how i would use the files myself. i do think it should be mentioned how much noise reduction was used though.

Thanks, man. I avoided any deliberate noise reduction in post. If there was any, that would be the default noise reduction settings if any.

'ascetic' completely different from 'aesthetic'

I don't think these results are anything amazing, I have taken similar quality photos with my older Nikon D700, and I am sure my D800E would be very close when down sampled! I wanted the Nikon DF, but the amateur AF system was a deal breaker.

I love the last paragraph. Cringeworthy considering it comes from a pro photographer. Most of the cited 51 AF points are NOT cross sensors hence pretty much unusable in really low light conditions. Both of my D300 and D800 struggle on anything but the center AF point when light becomes very (!) dim. Therefore dwelling on the number of AF points is futile.
Even though I'm a Nikon guy I think Canon does a little bit better on the AF subject.

Austin Rogers's picture

It's not the number of AF points that's the issue here, it's the quality of the AF system. Coming from the nicer system on the D700 I have been let down by the one in the Df and D610. I only ever use center point but have found a major difference in performance.

Cool photos Danny, and I also find the quote from your blog, "In a couple of hours that my friend Jon and I walked around in Orchard at night, we got more interesting portraits then I did walking around for 3 afternoons." interesting as well. I guess all of the really unique characters come out at night.