Nikon Df review £2750

19th Dec 2013 | 16:52

Nikon Df review

Past and present combine for photographic pleasure and superb images

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

It may not be the camera for everyone, but many enthusiasts will love the Df's retro styling and go-anywhere capability. Plus the images are superb. Its current list price, however, seems very high.

Like:

Full-frame sensor; Small body; Traditional controls; Weatherproof

Dislike:

'Only' 16MP; No video recording; Expensive

Overview

After the shock that Nikon treated us to a few teaser videos in the run-up to its announcement, perhaps the biggest surprise with the Df is that Nikon has gone for a 16.2 million-pixel FX (full-frame) CMOS sensor.

Some might have been hoping for a 24.3MP sensor like the Nikon D610 or a 36.3MP sensor like the Nikon D800, but Nikon has opted to use the same sensor as in the Nikon D4.

Ratings in depth
Design 5Features 4Performance 4.5Usability 4Value 2.5

However, the benefit of opting for a 16MP sensor is that the photosites themselves are bigger and this means that they receive more light and generate a stronger signal which requires less amplification. As a result, less noise is generated so images are cleaner.

Data from the sensor is processed by the EXPEED 3 processing engine, the same engine as is found in the Nikon D610, D800 and D4. It seems odd that Nikon hasn't gone for the EXPEED 4 engine found in the D5300, but nevertheless the processor allows the sensitivity to be set in the native range ISO 100-12,800, with expansion settings pushing it to ISO 50-204,800. That's a match for the D4.

Meanwhile there's a maximum continuous shooting rate of 5.5fps for up to 100 images and images are stored on an SD/SDHC/SDXC card. Unlike Nikon's other FX format cameras, there's only one card port in the Df.

Nikon Df

While the Df's body may be new (well retro really), the majority of its components are familiar.

The AF system is the for example, uses the same Multi-CAM 4800 module as the D610 and has 39 AF points, 9 of which are cross-type. The 2,016-pixel RGB sensor that gathers information for the Automatic Scene Recognition System and informs the white balance, focusing and metering systems is also familiar.

On the back of the camera there's a 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD screen just like the D610's. In live view mode this can display a nine-cell grid that conforms to the rule of thirds and the scene can be cropped to give 1:1 or 16:9 format.

Nikon Df

As it's an SLR rather than a compact system camera, the Df has an optical viewfinder which shows the image seen through the lens. This provides a 100% field of view and has 0.7x magnification as well as DX crop markings for when DX lenses are mounted.

A dual-axis digital level can display roll (horizontal inclination) and pitch (forward or backwards inclination) in the LCD, while roll can also be displayed in the viewfinder, making it easier to get level horizons.

In a unique move, Nikon has given the Df a collapsible metering coupling lever that enables old non-AI Nikkor lenses to be mounted directly onto the camera.

Nikon Df

Full-aperture metering is possible with non-AI lenses when shooting in aperture priority or manual exposure mode – just like AI lenses, which have full-aperture metering in all exposure modes.

On the subject of exposure modes, the Df can shoot in program, shutter priority, aperture priority and manual exposure modes, there's no fully automatic option or scene modes. There is, however, the usual complement of Picture Control modes so it's possible to vary the appearance of JPEG files and produce monochrome images in-camera if you want.

There are a couple of features that are notably missing from the Df, the first is a pop-up flash – although this is hardly surprising given the camera's retro styling and pro credentials and there is a hotshoe. What's more the Df is compatible with Nikon's Creative Lighting System . The second omission is the ability to record movies. Yes, it's a stills-only camera.

Nikon Df review

The fact that there's no Wi-Fi connectivity built-in is unsurprising for Nikon, but the Df is compatible with Nikon's WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adaptor that enables images to be transferred wirelessly to a smartphone or tablet. It can also be used with Nikon's WR-R10 Wireless transceiver and WR-T10 Wireless Transmitter which allow remote control over the camera.

Build quality and handling

While it is quite chunky, the Df is noticeably smaller than the D4. It's about the same size as the D610, but with a more angular design that is said to be based on the FM2.

It's perhaps a little unfortunate that the Df has arrived at the same time as the Sony A7 and A7R which also have full-frame sensors, but are significantly smaller. However, although these cameras have a retro look and control layout, they are compact system cameras, so they don't have a mirror and the viewfinder is electronic.

Although the link to past Nikon SLRs is clear, modern materials and small elements of design give away that the Df is a modern camera. It's superbly retro, yet is weather sealed to the same standard as the Nikon D800. Though it has to be said that the faux-leather coating on the pentaprism housing is unconvincing and a little cheap looking.

Nikon Df

Nikon wants using the Df to be as important and enjoyable as the images it creates. Key settings such as shutter speed, sensitivity and exposure compensation can all be set by dials on the top-plate. However, the shutter speed dial has a 1/3 Step setting which when selected allows users to adjust shutter speed using the rear command dial above the thumbrest.

A locking button at the centre of the exposure compensation dial must be pressed before either of the dials can be rotated. Similarly, there's a lock button the side of the sensitivity dial, which sits below the exposure compensation dial. Although these might seem fiddly at first you soon get used to using them. However, the small exposure mode dial (marked M,A,S,P) is a little awkward to use as it needs to be raised to be rotated and it's hard to grasp, especially with cold fingers.

There's also a lock button at the centre of the shutter speed dial on the right of the top-plate, but this only comes into play when the control is rotated to the 1/3, X or T settings. Although the dial can rotate freely when it's set to one of the shutter speeds or B (Bulb), it stays put fairly well and doesn't get knocked out of position easily. We also found the drive mode dial, which sits under the shutter speed dial, tends to hold its position well despite not having a lock.

Nikon Df

For those unfamiliar with the options on the shutter speed dial, X stands for flash sync, T for timed exposure (the shutter stays open until the release is pressed a second time) and in bulb exposure mode the shutter stays open as long as the release is held down.

In another nice touch, the shutter release has a thread at its centre to accept a traditional-style cable release.

Focus mode is set in the same way as on Nikon's other recent SLRs, via a switch to the side of the lens mount. This switch has a button at its centre which when pressed and used in conjunction with the front and rear control dials allows the AF options (Single-AF, Continuous-AF, etc) to be selected.

It's nice to see a return to a switch on the back of the camera to set the metering mode, and a button on the front of the camera which is used in conjunction with the command dials to set the bracketing options.

lens off

One concern we had is that the strap-lugs on the right as you hold the camera seem to be in the wrong place. They're above the grip, which means the grip isn't as tall as it could be and the strap can get in the way when reaching for the shutter release. However after using the camera extensively, we're happy to say that it's not as problematic as we thought it might be.

It depends how you like to carry the camera. We tend to put the strap over our shoulders or wrap it around our hands, but in most instances we found that we could reach the shutter release quickly and easily. Those who carry the camera around their necks may find it a little more awkward at first.

While the Df feels rugged and survived a few rain-showers during our testing, it's rather worrying that the battery-bay door fell off a few times when the lock was open. It feels solid enough and seemed to snap back on satisfactorily, but we picked the camera up on more than a couple of occasions to see the door lying on the table-top.

Another issue is that it's easy to forget that the camera is set to Auto ISO sensitivity control mode and make the mistake of assuming that the value indicated by sensitivity dial on the top of the camera is correct. Similarly, the position of the shutter speed dial is misleading when the exposure mode dial is set to aperture priority of program mode.

OMLED

Not surprisingly, given it's the same unit as inside the D4, the Df's viewfinder is nice and bright, and capable of showing plenty of detail. This may be appreciated by owners with a collection of manual focus lenses, but they will be disappointed that the focusing screen isn't interchangeable.

One issue with the viewfinder is that if your eye is a little too high to it, the top of the information display at the bottom is cut-off.

Performance

As it has the same sensor and image processor as Nikon's range-topping SLR, the D4, it was always a fairly safe bet that the Df would be a good performer and it doesn't disappoint. Images have a high level of detail and noise is controlled well.

Our tests indicate that the Df produces JPEGs that have similar noise levels to the D4's, but the raw files (after conversion to TIFF using Nikon's Capture NX) have a lower signal to noise ratio, indicating that there is more noise visible. However, the Df is also capable of capturing more detail in both file types at the higher sensitivity settings.

Nikon Df

Noise is controlled extremely well even when the sensitivity is pushed to ISO 12,800, and ISO 25,600 shots are pretty decent with some looking acceptable at A3 size. However, we'd be very cautious about pushing any higher than this as noise becomes obvious and some areas in images taken at ISO 102,400 and 204,800 show some banding and have a magenta cast. These values are outside of the native sensitivity range indicating that Nikon isn't entirely happy with its image quality and are best held for emergencies only.

When time allows, live view provides the best view for manual focusing as the enlarged view enables the focus to be placed very precisely. Predictably, the Df's live view autofocusing system isn't its greatest asset. It's reasonably quick in good light, but it becomes rather slow and hesitant when light levels fall. However, we suspect that few Df users will be concerned by this as they are more likely to use the viewfinder to compose images or manual focus in live view mode.

We have seen the Df's 39-point Multi-CAM 4800 AF module before and with the right lens mounted it is excellent. With an optic like the superb AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II in position, subjects are brought quickly into sharp focus even in very low light and the camera can track them around the frame. Switch to an AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8 D or similar lens, however, and naturally things slow up a bit – particularly if the peripheral linear (Non-cross-type) points are used.

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The Df's screen is detailed and clear, but it suffers from the same problem as the D610's screen and over-emphasises the cool tones in some scenes. This can fool you into changing the white balance setting to produce warmer looking images and can result in shots that look too warm on the computer screen.

Our tests reveal that the Df's automatic white balance settings (there are two, with Auto2 being designed to retain a little more warmth) generally do a good job, but as we have found before, slight changes in composition can result in noticeable changes in image colour.

That said, image colour is generally good straight from the Df. The results are natural and JPEGs have a pleasing level of contrast when the Active D-Lighting is set to the default, Normal, value. As the Df is a camera for photographers who want to take control over their images, most users will shoot raw files, but its helpful to have good-looking JPEGs captured at the same time.

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In very high contrast conditions the Extra High1 and Extra High 2 Active D-Lighting settings enable highlights to be retained while giving detail in the shadow areas, but not surprisingly, the results can look rather flat and HDR-like.

In most situations the Df's Matrix metering system, which like the white balance and AF system is informed by the dedicated 2,016-pixel RGB sensor and Scene Recognition System, performs well in most situations. It seems to take most things in its stride and delivers well-exposed shots in a wide range of situations. However, it's clear that the exposure is weighted towards the brightness of the area under the active AF point, so positioning it over a bright spot will produce a darker image and when it's over a dark area the image is brighter. Slight changes in composition also have an impact.

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Nikon Df, we've shot our resolution chart.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Nikon Df is capable of resolving up to around 26 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

JPEG

ISO 100

Full ISO image. See the cropped (100%) versions below.

ISO 100 cropped

ISO 100. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution image)

ISO 200 crop

ISO 200. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution image)

ISO 400 crop

ISO 400. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 800 crop

ISO 800. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 1600 crop

ISO 1600. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 3200 crop

ISO 3200. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 6400 crop

ISO 6400. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

Nikon Df review

ISO 12800. Score XX. (Click here to view the full resolution)

Nikon Df review

ISO 25600. Score 22. (Click here to view the full resolution)

Nikon Df review

ISO 51200. Score 20. (Click here to view the full resolution)

Nikon Df review

ISO 102400. Score 18. (Click here to view the full resolution)

Nikon Df review

ISO 204800. Score 18. (Click here to view the full resolution)

Raw

ISO 100 crop

ISO 100. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 200 crop

ISO 200. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 400 crop

ISO 400. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 800 crop

ISO 800. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 1600 crop

ISO 1600. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 3200 crop

ISO 3200. Score 26. (Click here to view the full resolution)

ISO 6400 crop

ISO 6400. Score 24. (Click here to view the full resolution)

Nikon Df review

ISO 12800. Score 22. (Click here to view the full resolution)

Nikon Df review

ISO 25600. Score 22. (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Df review

ISO 51200. Score 20. (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Df review

ISO 102400. Score 20. (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Df review

ISO 204800. Score 20. (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests

Here we compare the Nikon Df with the Nikon D4 and D800, as well as two rivals, the Canon 5D MK III and the Sony Alpha 7R.

JPEG Signal to noise ratio

Signal to noise ratio

The Df's JPEGs are a very close match for the D4's in the mid and high sensitivity range, showing good control of noise and the ability to record lots of detail.

Raw (after conversion to TIFF) signal to noise ratio

Raw signal to noise ratio


At the lower sensitivity settings the Df matches the D4 for signal to noise ratio, but as levels climb it drops behind a little indicating images are a bit noisier. This maybe to allow more detail to be resolved.

JPEG Dynamic range

Dynamic range

At the lower and mid sensitivity settings the Df's JPEG dynamic range is lower than the D4's, but this is likely to give images a bit more contrast straight from the camera.

Raw (after conversion to TIFF) dynamic range

Raw signal to noise ratio

The Df's dynamic range is close to the D4's at the lower sensitivity settings, but it falls behind by about as sensitivity rises. This may be a result of the improved detail resolution and to boost contrast.

Thoughts of a pro

Jeremy Walker is a widely respected professional photographer who specialises in photographing landscapes, architecture, people and industry. He was commissioned by Nikon to use the Df to shoot images for the camera's brochure, and spent four weeks using the camera. What follows are his impressions and thought about Nikon's latest SLR.

Earlier this summer I was lucky enough to be offered the new Nikon Df camera to use.

My first impressions of the camera are of how much smaller and lighter it is compared to the other cameras in my bag, the D3X and D800. And while initially the ergonomics took a little getting used to (gone the smooth curves of other modern Nikon SLRs) I soon found using the controls became second nature. It's also eye-catching and stylish, with a 1980s retro look, think F3 or FM2. I think the chrome version looks better than the black.

On receiving the pre-production model my first action was to bolt on one of Nikon's f/2.8 zoom lenses, the 24-70mm. The camera felt front-heavy and awkward to hold, and I was immediately disappointed. However when using smaller and lighter prime lenses this camera feels (and looks) just the ticket.

This is a camera designed for primes, for hand holding, for street and travel photographers, for those for whom weight is an issue, for those who want to be discreet and travel light. This is not an all-singing all-dancing camera with every gizmo going, and some will moan about the lack of video capability or not having super-fast frame rates. But I think this camera is about slowing up and thinking about the image and what you are doing. Lets face it, we all have cameras that with many more modes and functions than we use.

So it looks good, and after initial reservations feels great, but what about using it in the real world?

In use everything is where it should be and the dials and knobs become second nature. The 1/3 setting on the shutter speed dial is a nice touch, which allows you to scroll through the shutter speeds in a conventionally digital way rather than use the dial on the top of the camera - although I used the shutter speed dial most of the time.

The 1/3 setting also allows you to go down to an exposure of 30 seconds, something not immediately obvious from the shutter speed dial.

The Information screen layout in the viewfinder is simple and clear, as is Nikon's menu system.

The battery is small (as is the charger), which is good and I am told that they are as good if not better than the D800's battery.

Image quality

So, the important bit, image quality. The sensor is from the Nikon D4, an awesome camera. The Df as you would expect excels in low light, high-ISO situations, produces clear and crisp images up to ISO 1600 and is capable of much more. Hence, the Df is an absolute gem for travel and street photography.

But the Df is not designed just for the realm of low light photography. I have been shooting landscapes with it, hiking up mountains for hours at a time grateful for the lighter load, and shooting crisp, clean images. Certainly for my stitched panoramas the Df is great camera. And this may be seen as heresy, but I also think this is a great camera for a pro to carry as a back-up. It's small and lightweight, and doesn't take up too much room in the camera bag, it's like the FM2 to was to the F3.

I had the Df for about four weeks, and certainly put it through its paces. I enjoyed using it, and was very impressed with the quality of the images.

This is not a review, but my initial thoughts. Would I buy one with my own money?

Too right I would.

Sample Images

Image 1

Click here to see the full resolution image

Colours are punchy straight from the camera, but you can inject more saturation through the Picture Control modes if you like. This shot was taken using the Landscape option to boost blues and greens as well as contrast.

Image 2

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The Df's Monochrome Picture Control mode is also capable of producing good results.

Image 3

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Skin tones are also good.

Image 5

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The level of detail in this image is impressive.

Image 6

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Images can be cropped post-capture in-camera to create better compositions.

Image 7

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The Matrix metering system has produced a superb result here.

Image 8

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Using the Fine Weather white balance setting retained the warm tones of this early morning image.

Image 9

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Thanks to the larger sensor, depth of field is restricted even at f/8 when shooting this close with a 105mm macro lens.

Image 10

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Good detail and natural colours are generally the order of the day with the Df.

Image 11

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Another shot with plenty of detail.

Image 12

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Image 13

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Slight changes to the composition and the location of the active AF point can have a significant impact upon the exposure suggested by the Matrix metering system with high contrast scenes like this.

Image 14

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Taken at the Hi+2.7EV sensitivity setting, this shot is pretty noisey and has some banding in the background, which limits the size at which it can be used.

Image 15

Click to see the full resolution image

Another nice in-camera black and white image, this time taken at ISO 12,800. The Df was able to focus quite uickly despite the low light with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens mounted.

Jeremy Walker

The images below were captured by Jeremy Walker using the Nikon Df during a shoot that was commissioned by Nikon.

Nikon Df sample image

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Nikon Df sample image 2

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Nikon Df sample image

Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon Df sample image

Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon Df sample images

Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon Df sample image

Click here to see the full resolution image

Nikon Df sample image

Click here to see the full resolution image

Sensitivity and noise images

JPEG

Main image

Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100% versions below).

Cropped ISO 100

ISO 100 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 200 crop

ISO 200 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 400 crop

ISO 400 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 800 crop

ISO 800 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 1600 crop

ISO 1600 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 3200 crop

ISO 3200 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 6400 crop

ISO 6400 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 12800 crop

ISO 12800 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 25600 crop

ISO 25600 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 51200 crop

ISO 51200 (click here to see the full resolution image)

ISO 102400 crop

ISO 102400 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon Df review

ISO 204800 (click here to see the full resolution image)

RAW

ISO 100 crop

ISO 100 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 200 crop

ISO 200 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 400 crop

ISO 400 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 800 crop

ISO 800 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 1600 crop

ISO 1600 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 3200 crop

ISO 3200 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 6400 crop

ISO 6400 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 12800 crop

ISO 12800 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 25600 (crop)

ISO 25600 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 51200 crop

ISO 51200 (click here to see the full resolution)

ISO 102400 crop

ISO 102400 (click here to see the full resolution)

Nikon Df review

ISO 204800 (click here to see the full resolution image)

Verdict

After years of rumour and speculation about Nikon introducing a full-frame camera with a traditional design and Nikon's own teaser campaign in the run-up to its announcement, the Df has naturally been greeted with considerable excitement.

Any disappointment that its sensor 'only' has 16Mp can be swatted away by the Df's excellent low light capability. It may not be able to resolve as much detail as the 36-million pixel Nikon D800, but it can be used in near dark conditions to deliver very respectable results.

Nikon Df

A pixel count of 16 million has been sufficient for many professional photographers who use the D4 and it has the added benefit of producing images that take up considerably less space on a hard drive and demand less processing power from a computer during editing.

We liked

We like the Df's traditional control layout which puts all the most important aspects for photography within easy reach. The camera also feels solid, is comfortable in the hand and a pleasure to use – despite the odd placement of the strap-lugs.

It's also good news that the camera is compatible with so many of Nikon's heritage lenses, but many are asking why this hasn't been done before.

We disliked

In the UK the Df is only sold with the special edition AF-S 50mm f/1.8G lens, which means it retails for £2,649.99. Meanwhile in the US it's on sale for $2,996.95 with the lens and $2,746.95 body only. Although these prices compare well with the D4, they seem high in comparison with the arguably better specified D800 and D610.

The Nikon FM-series was intended to be a more affordable alternative to Nikon's professional F-series. Unfortunately, it seems that in modern times manufacturing a stripped-down digital camera with similarly rugged build to the FM series incurs considerable cost – even if most of the internal systems are used in other cameras.

Front capped

Several of the camera dealers that we spoke to at the Nikon UK launch event were happy with the price as they believe it will sell well. Early indications appear to confirm this, but many photographers think the camera's price is around £1000/$1500 too high.

Some people have expressed surprise at how chunky the Df is, but it is comfortable to hold with enough space around all the well-sized control buttons and dials.

However, there are a few quirks in the design. The strap-lugs for example could be better positioned and though it looks quite chunky, the Exposure mode dial is quite fiddly to use.

Verdict

The Df is a strangely indulgent camera. It's far too expensive to be an impulse purchase for most and there are better options available for professionals. A professional is more likely to go for the better-specified D4 or, if they want to save money or get greater detail resolution, the D800/D800E.

Nikon has designed the Df for those who want to enjoy photography and for whom the end image is only part of the story. Many photographers will absolutely love it, because it feels great in the hand and has lots of direct controls that make it a pleasure to use - plus it's capable of producing superb images in a wide range of conditions.

Other photographer's, however, remain unimpressed by the retro styling, the lack of a video mode and the comparatively low pixel count – not to mention the high price.

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