The Nikon Df as a road-trip camera

A good road trip camera offers good image quality, long battery life, and the ability to zoom in to capture a far-away detail and out to bring in a big scene when you can’t back up any farther. It is pleasant — not too big or heavy. It’s nice to have a viewfinder for full-sun days that wash out the screen.

Canon PowerShot S95

I’ve used my 10-megapixel Canon PowerShot S95 on road trips for years, and it’s been a good and faithful companion. Sometimes the sun makes it hard to see the screen. I also wish for deeper zoom — 105mm is sometimes not quite enough. Its big bugbear, true of any compact digital, is that I can’t get through an all-day trip on one charged battery. I always bring three. It’s happened that my third battery was dangerously low by the end of a trip.

Yet the S95 is easy to carry, and delivers terrific photographs. I’ve enjoyed it as a road-trip camera since I got it.

Nikon Df

I’ve brought my 16-megapixel Nikon Df along on my Indiana State Road 67 road trips both last October and in April. It’s a heck of a lot larger and heavier than the S95. Yet I can attach any of the huge range of F-mount lenses to it, and it has a full-frame FX sensor at 36x24mm, which is huge compared to the S95’s 7.44×5.58mm sensor.

I don’t find the Df to be unpleasant — it’s not too big or heavy. Slung over my shoulder, it’s not fatiguing to carry, and both hands are free.

But this is faint praise. In truth, it’s not better than the Canon S95 for documenting things. I publish my road-trip work only online; both cameras offer more than enough resolution for that. The two cameras render color differently, but both are realistic enough.

I bought a 28-200mm zoom lens for my Df. There is no doubt that this is more useful than the S95’s maximum zoom. It let me get very close to the top of the tall tower on the Murat Shrine building in Indianapolis.

The Murat Center detail

It also let me take a lazy photo from the driver’s seat of my car of this building in Marco, IN.

Marco, IN

The Df is quicker on the trigger than the S95. There was a greater chance I’d miss or whiff this photo with the S95.

Hippie bus

But otherwise, the Df isn’t appreciably better than the S95. I got the same kinds of photos with the Df that I always did with the S95, and the Canon PowerShot S80 and the Kodak EasyShare Z730 that preceded it.

Original SR 67 in Pendleton
NB Old SR 67 SW of Edwardsport
1893 Lamb's Creek Bridge
Downtown Muncie

My chief complaint about the Df — and this has nothing to do with documentary road-trip photography in particular — is that I had a devil of a time figuring out how to set the camera for consistently sharp photos. I keep my S95 set at ISO 200 and it kills it nearly every time. At ISO 200, the Df gave me lots of shake and shallow depth of field. What the …?

Country Club Rd. north of Brooklyn, IN

Thanks to a comment on an earlier post about the Df on this blog, I changed my default ISO setting to 800, and this problem went away entirely. But ISO 800 just feels weird and wrong to me after all of my experience with other digital cameras. But for whatever reason, ISO 800 just works on the Df. I get great sharpness, plenty of depth of field, and no ISO noise. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The Chatterbox

After I figured that out, I started getting consistently great images from the Df.

Beech Grove Cemetery

I’m likely to keep using the Nikon Df on the road, if for no other reason than the 28-200mm zoom lens I have for it. But there’s no denying that a compact digital like the Canon PowerShot S95 is easier to carry, and usually easier to use.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!


34 responses to “The Nikon Df as a road-trip camera”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    This is an interesting entry, since I’m currently going through a personal reevaluation of my photographic needs in retirement. I have an Olympus M4/3rds system, as well as some compatible Panasonic equipment, but just don’t care to drag any of it around any more. I’m currently looking at purchasing a Panasonic LUMIX LX 100 II, as something I would have with me most of the time. Since I’m a print person, you’d think sensor real estate would be important to me, but a pal of mine who also is a semi retired professional has been showing me 16×20’s from a Sony point and shoot that are far better than I ever expected! If your total usage is online digital, almost anything is acceptable, even my old Canon point and shoot, it’s just that I need something that has more settings and hence get me more repeatable results! To me, a lot of digital still seems to have a lot of incidences of unexpected output, compared to film, in which I always knew what to expect.

    Heading into my 70’s, I think it’s time to start divesting myself of everything I was holding on to, expecting I would use again.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That Lumix looks really solid. It will probably be a great choice to keep with you at all times!

  2. Marc Beebe Avatar

    I think we’ve all run into this problem same as you, Jim: “The latest is the greatest” isn’t true anymore. Much of the technological ‘advances’ in digital cameras is just glitz. For example they still can’t make a decent EVF even though it’s easy as pie to do so. Sometimes the best feature a camera can have is to convenient to carry.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, plenty of glitz. And also, the perfect camera doesn’t exist.

      1. matt Avatar

        “…the perfect camera doesn’t exist.”

        Which is sort of how we find ourselves fighting gear acquisition ‘needs’.

  3. JR Smith Avatar

    I traveled to New Mexico recently and brought along my Fujifilm X-T1. It was easy to carry and enjoyable as a walk-around camera. I may look at a small, compact prime lens instead of the 18-55 zoom to make it even more portable.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds terrific. Everyone who’s using the modern Fujifilm digitals seems to love them.

      An 18-55 zoom covers 80+% of all situations I encounter. It’s just those up to 20% of situations where a deep zoom is so darned useful.

  4. Theron Avatar

    If you ever get a chance to play with an Olympus micro 4/3rds, please do. Mine is an older EM10-MK2, which I guess is their beginner or maybe amateur model. I think it is all the digital camera I may ever need.

    The learning curve can be a bit daunting at first, but the small SLR-like form factor and 5 axis IBIS have won me over completely. Look Ma, no tripod!

    That said, all cameras are good cameras these days.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve long been charmed by the OM-D. A buddy of mine who shoots auto racing professionally used one as his main camera and got stunning images.

  5. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    In my dotage, more and more I appreciate compact equipment. I can easily put in a small carry-on backpack a compact Canon digital camera, a Leica IIIC, and compact binoculars. And I don’t want a lot of complex menus on a digital camera.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That was the biggest hassle of the Df on my recent trip to Denmark and Germany: packing it. It takes up a lot of room.

  6. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Jim, BTW, if you want and old trope from the dawn of photo time, never shoot a lens at a shutter speed slower than its size. I.E. if you’re shooting a 28 to 200, you shouldn’t shoot at a shutter speed slower than 1/200th, or it’s nearest (1/250th). This goes back to the dawn of time, to eliminate camera shake. There are a lot of pretty fancy-schmancy anti-shake programs out there now that work pretty well, but if you have to set your camera to asa 800, something else sounds like its going on?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I straight up don’t get this either. It defies all logic. Yet it seems to be the conventional wisdom with the Df.

      1. Marc Beebe Avatar

        I’d hazard it’s the camera’s programming. Unless ISO is cranked up it’s either using too large an aperture and/or too slow of a shutter speed to get things sharp. Bloody algorithms!

    2. Marc Beebe Avatar

      There’s actually science behind that trope. It’s meant for long lenses, though, where a very small amount of change in angle becomes a big sweep of the distant scene. So the best we could do for ‘image stabilization’ is snap really quickly so that the ‘moving’ picture would be frozen in a fraction of a second. It wasn’t perfect and only a guideline, but 1/focal length shutter speed saved many an image from being just a blur.

  7. ronian42 Avatar

    Hi Jim, my current, go everywhere digital camera is an aging but capable Panasonic DMC TZ60 (that’s the UK designation anyway). Terrific zoom range, compact size and the option to switch between evf or lcd. I do need to carry spare batteries, but that’s a relatively small price to pay given the performance of the camera in my use case. Might be worth a look for you.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Looks like a terrific camera, much like my Canon S95. There are all sorts of solid P&S digitals out there now. I wish I could find one with the image quality of yours or the S95 with a deep zoom, such as 200mm equivalent.

  8. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    My P&S of choice is the Canon A590. Not quite as nice as your S95, but quite satisfactory in decent lighting conditions.

    In addition to wanting the option of longer lenses, I mostly switched to a DSLR because the faster shutter & better low light capabilities help with photos of moving cars & trains.

    Having a fair number of K mount accessories I went with Pentax, and chose the K-x largely because it uses regular AA batteries rather than something proprietary, so it is easy to carry spares.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Most Canon P&S cameras could do plenty good work.

      What’s the battery life on the K-x?

      1. Dan Cluley Avatar
        Dan Cluley

        I dont have a hard number, but I would guess around 2-300 pictures. It takes 4 AAs. I’m just using ordinary NiMH rechargeables and don’t think I’ve ever used more than 2 sets in a day and probably didn’t use up the second set.
        In the cold it will indicate the batteries are done well before they actually need changing.

  9. kevinallan Avatar

    I’m mostly a film shooter and my only digital camera (apart from an old iPhone 7) is a Nikon D3300 which was released 9 years ago. It works just fine and I tend to think that, for the majority of users, digital cameras reached maturity some time ago and later developments are just increasingly marginal improvements.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      True. My wife uses a D3200 or D3300, I forget which, and it’s all the camera most people need.

  10. andytree101 Avatar

    Hi Jim, I had several thoughts as I read through your post. First, back in the day, when I moved from shooting the original Canon 5D to the Mk2, I found that after some tests, I got better results at the 400iso setting than the 200iso on the previous model. This, a bit of reading, and some research, and actually talking to a Canon rep, lead me to the conclusion that the Mk2 was “set up” to perform best at this point. It’s sweet spot if you will. I think we film shooters tend to think that lower iso produces better quality, in film that may be true but I’m less convinced in digital.

    I also think that more pixels and bigger sensor likes more light. A bigger sensor certainly means a higher focal length, 50mm on a “full frame” camera = 32mm (ish) on a cropped sensor, and who knows what on a compact (Panasonic TZ40 – 4.3-86mm) so lets say 10mm. The focal length is what it is – depth of focus at 10mm is going to be much greater than 50mm. The “old trope”, but very useful that Andy Umbo mentions holds true in my book. Interestingly I’ve just changed from the Fuji X-pro2 to the X-T5, same brand, sensor size, and lens, just more pixels. In my mini studio set up it most certainly needs more light that it’s predecessor did to get good sharp results!

    Finally, when I retire I’d like to walk from Lands End to John’O’Groats – it’s a UK thing! Something tells me it might well never happen, but if it does, I won’t be carrying a Hasselblad or X-T5 with me that’s for sure! I’d take something like a Canon Ixus or S95 and work it to it’s limits. We all know it’s the guy operating the camera and not the camera that makes the pictures. :)

    Thanks for such a great post – really got my “photography brain” going!!
    Cheers and best wishes Andy

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This is some really killer insight, Andy. I never thought about sensor size and pixel count as having an impact. I thought ISO is ISO is ISO. But clearly not!

      I’m just back from Denmark and Germany and had the Df along. It performed beautifully — but it took up a TON of room in my carry-on bag, and was always banging into things while it was slung over my shoulder. I’m thinking I will do well to research smaller, easier-to-carry cameras, that offer a deep zoom and good battery life.

  11. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Interesting thoughts Jim. You mentioned an unexpected shallow depth of field when shooting the DF at low ISO….the size of the sensor influences DOF in the same way that Aperture does. Small sensor, deep DOF. Large sensor at the same aperture, shallow DOF. Which is why medium format cameras are beloved by portrait, fashion and wedding photographers. And why “shallow DOF” is a processing option with phone cameras.
    A few weeks ago I had to go to Brisbane, Australia for an industry conference. I was away for 5 days, working most of the time, and as always the question was what camera should I take. In the end I decided to run a roll of film through my Kodak Retina 1a. It is a compact camera, especially with the lens stowed, and I discovered that at a networking event there is no better way to spark a conversation with a stranger than to wander about with a 70 year old camera slung around your neck!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Given that the FX sensor is the same size as a 35mm frame, I guess I wasn’t expecting so much of a difference! But clearly I have a lot to learn.

      I’ll bet you got a lot of attention with your Ia!

      1. Steve Mitchell Avatar

        Jim we are all still learning – I probably learn more from you than you can learn from me!

  12. Tim N Avatar
    Tim N

    Between using several, slightly older APS-C digital SLR, I have become a fan of my Panasonic Lumix G70. It‘s really small and light but full-featured and produces great photos, except that the corners of the wide-end of the standard zooms look visibly distorted to me (please check yourself). It’s slightly heavier, slightly younger brother is the G81 which looks very similar but has a metal chassis and is weather-sealed.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The G70 gets good reviews even now. Sounds like it’s a winner overall.

  13. Tim N Avatar
    Tim N

    Well, I am not sure if my DSLR Nikons (D90, D5100, D3300) don’t bring home better colour and perspective geometry. But what has become “the” POS of m4/3 cameras, for me, is the selectable 4:3 picture format which is the native m4/3-sensor format. It’s possible to select 3:2 in almost every m4/3 camera before taking the image, as well as panoramic and some other formats, but the only other main camera company offering reduced 4:3 at 24×36 mm² sensor size, is Canon, but not in their APS-C cameras. In > 24×36 mm² (mid-format or large-format) DSLR’s, 4:3 is common as well, likewise it is common in every ordinary point-and-shoot camera with small sensor sizes <= 1 inch (tube), or in every smartphone. But, between APS-C and the full 24×36 mm², even the “full frame” Panasonic Lumix’s don’t offer it, neither Nikon nor Sony. Nikon, in some professional 24×36 mm² cameras, has 4:5 built-in which basically is the net size of the old, classic, beloved film 6×7 cm² format. But no 4:3 in Nikons, not in DSLR, nor in Z.
    I love 4:3. For most motives, to me it seems the most harmonic way to take a photo. Even for landscape, because it has more foreground. And here, in Germany the printing, passepartout, and picture frame industry offers 18×24 and 30×40 cm² natively (well, they also offer 10×15 and 20×30 cm² for 3:2 film format). The really only situation where I prefer 3:2 are, besides holiday city panoramas, is the classical situation when you picture two (!) persons talking to each other, taking half portraits (heads and chests). I this case, 3:2 makes sense. But beyond?
    I do not understand that. I do not understand the technical reason, why a 4:3 crop before taking the photo is so difficult to offer. I would even buy a new film SLR if it could offer different picture formats like 24×24, 24×28, 24×30, 24×32 and 24×36 before (!) transporting the film to the next picture. Should all be easily possible with the actual microtechnological sensors.

    This should not at all be a “rant”. As I wrote, I just don’t understand it. And that’s the main reason, why I will stick to m4/3. Just my 2 cents.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What I’ve taken to doing with 3:2 cameras when I want 4:3 is to compose for 4:3 and crop the ends off the frame. Works well enough. But you make a good point that it would be nice to be able to select 4:3 in camera.

  14. Tim N Avatar
    Tim N

    I forgot Fujifilm. They also don’t offer 4:3 crop in their APS-C system. Only the GFX system has approx. 4:3, as I am informed.

  15. Daniel Brinneman Avatar

    General Store picture, I like.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My work here is done.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: