The D700 at a glance
Three words: full frame sensor. That’s the most widely circulated fact of the D700, and formerly the focus of great anticipation for many like myself. It’s only a small part of the story however, and one which I ultimately find underwhelming.
There is no doubt that the D700’s sensor is an excellent one. Its claim to fame is unimpeachable imaging up to ISO-3200 sensitivity, but there is another significant advance that also deserves a mention. This is the first digital camera I’ve used that can recover from over-exposure, between 1 and 2 stops, and still deliver acceptable detail and color.
The sensor magic ends there though. Most lenses produce only slightly better results on the larger sensor, some are considerably worse, and my Zeiss lenses see no tangible difference either way. Properly-exposed images taken at average sensitivities are only marginally better than what I was used to from my D80.
What I like most with the D700 is what is shared to the last detail with its little brother, the D300. It’s the human-camera interface of the D700 that delights me most. The D700’s interface makes you the nerve center of the camera, and that’s no small feat considering the level of sophistication of the automation it offers.
There are a few recurring themes in this interface : buttons have only one meaning, those that alter state also require the turn of a dial, and the most important parameters have dedicated physical widgets (dials, levers…) that can be set by feel. Many parameters that competitors deem to be custom functions, and bury deep down in multiple levels of menus, are exposed at the surface on the D700. The viewfinder displays all the information that is pertinent, and some more, so you can keep your eye on the picture.
The complexity that the camera is able to manage is stunning. Multiple wireless flash heads are automatically controlled and balanced even when a mechanically-coupled Zeiss lens is mounted, through a lens interface straight out of the 1970s, without any caveats. The first truly useful implementation of Auto-ISO also brings some new operating modes which, frankly, I wouldn’t want to live without now (more on this later).
Step up from the D80
It’s clear that the D700 is better than the D80 in every way, but the benefits must be weighed against a much higher price tag too. In truth, many advertized benefits of the D700 seem almost irrelevant to me now. There is nothing wrong with the D80 body’s physical strength for instance, and its viewfinder is excellent as well. The D80 also can manage wireless flash heads, and the usefulness of its Auto-ISO mode is limited only by the camera’s sensitivity range.
The first area where the D700 completely eclipses my previous camera is the exposure meter. The D80’s meter is confused by all but the simplest low-contrast scenes, to the point where it appears it was crippled in firmware to protect the D200. In contrast, the D700 exposes correctly almost every time, by which I mean roughly 90% of the time. More importantly, already I am able to predict when it will expose incorrectly and can switch metering modes (by feel, via dial) to compensate. The icing on this metering cake is that the D700 also supports AI-coupled lenses, such as the Zeiss ZF, with full metering functionality and accuracy.
The second strongest benefit of the D700 is its auto-focus subsystem. At a time when the competition is visibly fumbling and now playing it safe with auto-focus, Nikon deployed the most advanced auto-focus capabilities on the market across its entire professional line. This wouldn’t be too surprising if you didn’t know Nikon’s much broader definition of “professional” : all cameras priced above $1500 at launch are professional models. That means they are all sealed against moisture and dust, all have the same enlightened control interface, come with large viewfinders with detailed information displays and now they all share 51-point auto-focus grids with subject tracking in 3 dimensions (as opposed to just depth, with possible guess at planar movement).
How well does the new auto-focus subsystem work? Exactly as advertised. Points outside of the center work well – that alone is a huge improvement over the D80 – and the tracking feature just plain works. There is no magic involved, you need good contrast to get accurate tracking, but at least it doesn’t get confused very often. A nice touch: the focus display in the viewfinder tells you which direction to turn the barrel to achieve focus on manual-focus lenses, like the Zeiss ZF, and tells you when you have reached the critical point.
The last major benefit of the D700 is the most obvious one, it’s that it produces clean and detailed images at sensitivities up to ISO 3200 and shows no loss in quality at all up to ISO 800. Although this is the original draw to the D700, in use I quickly came to take this ability for granted and stopped noticing its magic. The first effect of this capability is a small amount of extra freedom: I will now shoot indoors as long as there is daylight outside, but I still put the camera down when all there is tungsten.
The second effect is that it takes ISO off of your mind 95% of the time. This is why Auto-ISO really comes into its own with the D700, I am more than happy to put the camera in charge of this variable now. I am confident to say that Aperture-priority mode and Auto-ISO combine in the D700 to make the best camera operation mode of any camera yet.
Here’s how I use it:
First, I set the Auto-ISO desired shutter speed to either 1/50s or 1/125s depending on the lens I’m using the most at the moment, and the Auto-ISO ceiling to 3200. With the camera in “A” mode I control aperture, most typically via aperture rings on the Zeiss ZF lenses, and the D700’s meter does one of three things:
1) if there is enough light then it picks the lowest ISO and increases shutter speed
2) if there is some light then it picks the desired shutter speed and increases ISO
3) if there is little light then it picks the ISO ceiling that I set and lowers the speed
Future of APS-C
You would probably expect me to wax philosophical about the benefits of full-frame sensors at this point. I will do nothing of the sort. In my opinion the future of APS-C is very bright, and I see myself considering APS-C again in the next product cycle.
First, almost everything I have said here applies equally to the D300, and for half the price of the D700. In my opinion the D300 is the best product on the market today. It has the best balance of quality and price for serious photographers.
Second, because the value of camera bodies decays quickly the premium is hard to justify. Yes, the D700 will always take excellent pictures as it does today, but our standards are going to adjust in time. A future D400 would probably match the image quality of the D700 and throw in high-quality HD video for a fraction of the price, maybe even as early as next year.
Finally, the original basis of my argument for full-frame sensors was access to the right lenses: I despised the lack of fast, moderately-wide prime lenses for APS-C. My opinion on the subject has changed a bit since then. My Nikkor 70-200 VR suffered a crippling blow to quality by going to the larger sensor and Zeiss now has three attractive wide angle lenses, including the 2.8/21mm Distagon T*.
I conclude that there might still be some APS-C in my future. There is no real sacrifice to make when you choose Nikon’s APS-C product for serious photographers. The cost savings open the door for lens investments that both retain value better and solve most of my issues with APS-C.
Final word – 5D Mk-II
In the next couple of weeks the internet will be flooded with accounts of the 5D Mk-II’s feats, and innumerable comparisons to the D700 will be made. I believe we already know the outcome: the 5D Mk-II has vastly more resolution, only a slight amount more noise, produces better images overall in almost all conditions, shoots high-quality HD video of course… and all these capabilities are housed in a cheap mid-range body. The 5D Mk-II is all imaging – sensor and processors – wrapped with the least amount of camera they could manage.
The culture of these two giants, Nikon and Canon, are really clear in these products. In the end I chose to skip on the 5D Mk-II, with some regret, but I think I made the right choice in my context. I am still looking forward to video – I think a D400 that shoots HD video would make a great companion for my D700.
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