Shooting Low Light Portraits with the Nikon Df

Posted on March 24th, by Danny Santos II in Personal Project, Review. 36 comments

Low Light Portraits with the Nikon Df
I was invited to try out the Nikon Df for a couple of weeks to see what I think about it. I knew it received a lot of backlash from the online community when it was released, most thought it was all form and no function. But there was one thing that really piqued my interest in this camera… it wasn’t the back-to-basics retro body or the ‘pure photography’ mantra.. it was the D4 sensor in a smaller more affordable package. Immediately, I knew there was only one way that I really wanted to test the camera – shooting low light portraits.

Nikon Df with Nikkor 85mm f1.4DThe plan was to walk around the streets, spot a face that stands out, ask permission to shoot, and click – pretty much what I’ve always done on my Portraits of Strangers project … only this time I’m doing it after dark.

Within the first few hours of using the Df, I was starting to get accustomed with its body and design. It was actually smaller than I expected, noticeably less bulky than the DSLRs I often use. I used to be a gadget geek, so having these knobs and dials that give me an immediate view of the settings was a welcome change. It’s ironic that this felt more streamlined than the LCD display readings.. but that’s just me. However, the fact that I have to press a button to rotate certain dials leaves much to be desired. But as I continued using the camera, this mechanism didn’t really bother me much.

Now the highlight for the Nikon Df for me is its low light capabilities. And within the first few clicks, I knew immediately it does not disappoint. I set the aperture to f1.4 and shutter speed either 1/125 or 1/160.. and the ISO to Auto. From one portrait to another, at varying light conditions, the ISO fluctuated between 1600 to 5600. And as expected, even at the very high 5600 ISO, the image looked great – image noise still at a minimum. Sure, if you look close enough, you will see some noise, but it does not distract from the image you’ve created. The portrait remains completely usable in my book. The sensor has lived up to it’s reputation.

I do have one gripe, though. I kept pushing the camera to tricky low light situations.. but the lower the light, the harder it was for the Df to focus. In almost all of the portraits, it took around 10 to 12 seconds for the camera to hunt and nail the focus.. it can be quite awkward for the stranger to look at the lens that long. On normal lighting situations, the camera usually gets the focus in a second, and I get all the frames I need well within 10.

Shooting portraits at night is quite a new experience for me. There were noticeably a lot more interesting strangers to take portraits of. 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. The lighting at night is quite tricky, as I have to anticipate light coming from the shop facades, from the street lamps, from the car headlights, etc. But more often than not, you are guaranteed with a more colorful and atmospheric portrait – provided your camera is able to catch up with you. In these situations, I find that the more you push the Df, the more it shines.

Overall, having this camera is quite liberating, really. When I’m faced with low light while shooting, I can just say “ditch the flash, bring it on.”

85mm  f/1.4  1/125sec  ISO2500

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 2500

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 3200

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 3200

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 4000

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 4000

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 3200

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 3200

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 1800

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 1800

85mm      f1.4      1/160sec      ISO 5600

85mm      f1.4      1/160sec      ISO 5600

85mm      f1.4      1/160sec      ISO 3600

85mm      f1.4      1/160sec      ISO 3600

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 4500

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 4500

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 1600

85mm      f1.4      1/125sec      ISO 1600

Big thanks to Jon for the company while hunting for strangers. Big big thanks to all the strangers who said yes to the portrait.

36 thoughts on “Shooting Low Light Portraits with the Nikon Df

  1. Question, do you use manual focusing on these or its on AF-S?

    because i can’t seem to focus on the eyes most times, making portraits not that good.. can advise? thanks mate.

    • Hi Anson,

      For these portraits, I’ve used AF-S… I rarely miss the focus on the eyes with the Nikon Df. Maybe it just takes a little getting used to? Make sure you’re focus point is on a contrast point, like where the iris of the eyes meet the white part. This might help.

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  3. Hi Dan!

    This is a unique project, simply inspiring. Your review is informative & direct to the point. The Nikon Df is my dream camera at the moment. I lost to a thief my D700 & Fuji x100 with my 50mm 1.4G, 14-24mm 1.4G in Brussels July last year, and I haven’t acquire any camera since then. Your review reinforces my plan on investing to get the Nikon Df.

    Oh, one question, are you shooting these images hand held?

    Thanks & more power.


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  8. Generally I don’t read post on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to check out and do it!
    Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thanks, very nice article.

  9. It’s really a nice aand helpful piece of info. I amm happy
    that you just shared this hellpful information with us.
    Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Your work always amaze me.
    I took notice about photography six years ago but I had never dedicated time enough to practice.
    However I do realize and understand what do you do to achieve such wonderful work specially when it comes to portraits.
    Since you began your Portraits of Strangers project I’ve been reading about how to and your comments about an specific detail of the model you photograph.
    I remember very well that blonde girl using glasses and your note about her hair that reached her waist.
    I wish one day I could do something similar to the photographs you do.
    Keep it up Danny!

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  13. One more advantage of Nikon Df in low light.Most of your subjects have either a normal size pupil of beautiful dilated ones !!

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