PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux

19Oct/105

Nikon D700 Re-Review

The D700 strikes a balance of practicality and quality that is rare in any kind of product.  Although it’s no longer the latest model on the shelf, it delivers useful images under more adverse conditions than almost all other cameras on the market still today.  It remains a large and heavy camera however, and in my opinion that interferes with the journalistic style it is otherwise ideally suited for.

Many of us watched with awe as Nikon restored its standing in the world of photography with a bombshell announcement in the second half of 2007 : the D3 camera and its FX digital format.  Less than a year later the D700 brought the same results and almost all the same capabilities at substantially lower cost and in a more generally appealing package.  In a nutshell the D700 is the perfect marriage of the D3 and F6 cameras that more, though not all, people can afford.

I bought my D700 in October of 2008 and since then I have shot almost 25000 images with it, most of them with my faithful 2/35mm Distagon T* ZF.  Although I remain thoroughly impressed by its reliable output, the D700 is an odd complement to the M9 because in my hands both cameras want to shoot much the same images.  I felt I needed to make room for me to grow fully into the M9, so I tried to sell the D700.

That sale was unsuccessful.  I couldn’t part with the D700.

Operation

The D700 is a massive camera, more so than is strictly enjoyable to use.  Paired with a modern automatic zoom lens the combination is often unwieldy and exhausting after a few hours of use.  Smaller lenses, particularly manual primes, go a long way to improve the feel of the camera/lens system in your hands and through the day.

The most obvious fact of the D700’s operation is that its full-frame sensor captures the entire field of view of high-end FX-format lenses.  Whether this is an important feature for a photographer depends on the subjects that move him/her to make photographs and his/her photographic style:

  • Environmental portraiture, inclusion in breadth coupled with exclusion in depth, is virtually impossible with smaller sensors because the necessary lenses were never made.  Access to the Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G lens alone might justify a D700 purchase for some.
  • Photojournalism and portraiture (and indoor sports) lend themselves well to all serious sensor formats but full-frame sensors significantly improve the lens options for these application.
  • Wildlife (and outdoor sports) photography is only made more painful with full-frame sensors however.  All the optics for these applications need to be 50% larger/heavier/costlier to cover FX-format and almost invariably end up being slower for photographers of finite means, thus negating most benefits of the larger format.

Manual focus is easier with the D700 than most DSLRs.  This camera offers the most practical manual focus assistance (shared with the D3 and D7000 only) that I have ever encountered : the typical focus-confirmation dot in the D700 is joined by a pair of arrows that point the direction to rotate the lens towards focus.  In my opinion this doubles the speed at which you can manually focus with the D700, as compared to the D300 for example.

Automatic focus is of interest to more people however, and here the D700 is also impressive.  The 51-point focus grid impresses by itself, but its ability to act in coordination with the 1005-pixel high-gamut full-color metering sensor to track moving subjects more tenaciously is truly groundbreaking.  In hindsight it is obvious to me that this is how auto-focus should be implemented, and less-complete implementations of the feature (the state of the art for most manufacturers) just seem obsolete in comparison.

Other operational features like wireless flash control, 5FPS shooting speed, 95% viewfinder, CF card slot, battery, etc… do not matter much to me, positive or negative.  All of them are more than serviceable and I would entertain very few complaints directed at them.  I do have one last praise to give to the mechanics of the D700 : the 42ms viewfinder blackout time is just exemplary.

Drawing

The D700 is not a high-resolution camera but what resolution it does have, it delivers very consistently.  This may sound like an underwhelming endorsement, but I think this characteristic really sets it apart from other digital cameras.  With almost 25000 images shot with my D700 – almost all originals because I don’t use continuous drive or bracketing – I can honestly say very few were lost due to a failure of the camera or sensor.  That is what I call the proof of the pudding.

The D700 owes this consistency to a 12MP FX sensor that packs larger pixels (8.4 microns) than all other current models from all manufacturer (5 to 6 microns).  What that means in practical terms is that its digital positives have excellent highlight recovery potential, low shadow noise, low color noise and high edge contrast.  It’s easy to complain about low resolution but it is difficult (i.e. somewhat rare) to fully leverage a high-resolution device because of shortcomings in these other areas.

In terms of usable sensitivity levels the D700 suffers essentially no image degradation until ISO 800, followed by acceptable degradation until ISO 2500 and severe degradation above ISO 4000.  Nowadays you hear similar claims presented in support of every new camera that comes out, but DxoMark data shows it’s rarely the case.  My own experiences with multiple camera models of varying quality are in perfect agreement with the DxoMark data.

Sensitivity is not the only impressive fact of this sensor however.  At ISO 200 it is difficult to expose wrong with the camera because both highlight and shadow recovery potentials exceed 2 stops.  Over time I realized that this also allowed me to skip flash-fill in harsh daylight, now I only apply fill digitally in post-process and I think the results look far more natural.  Simultaneously, I do not need to bias exposure negatively when taking photographs of blondes in the Sun.

There are some negative qualities as well, associated with the full-frame sensor.  Light fall-off in the outer zones is much more of an issue with FX format than it is with DX format.  This is compounded when lenses are used at full aperture and ISO is set high because light is scarce – in this case the outer zones will appear significantly degraded if you attempt to correct for the fall-off.  In most cases I choose to live with the fall-off.

Conclusion

I once described to someone what the D700’s best quality was : when you press on the shutter button, a usable photograph comes out.  Can you say the same of even most cameras in most situations?  Paired with a state of the art prime lens, the D700 is a camera you can have complete unflinching confidence in.

Would I recommend this camera to other photographers?  Yes.  My only gripe with the D700 is how large and heavy it is.

Samples

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Comments (5) Trackbacks (3)
  1. I have to agree with your sentiments on the D700.
    Right now I’m looking to pick up my first digital rangefinder (M8), to gain some portability, but for someone who has gotten through as many lenses as I have, I’ve barely ever serious considered changing the D700. It’s just SOLID.

    I think the M8 sensor (apart from it’s lack of AA filter which is nice), may be hard to get used to in terms of exposure latitude and noise handling.
    I also own the Nikon 24mm f1.4, but think I may add the Zeiss 35mm f2 for a more every day lens… possibly at the expense of the Leica system.

    • Hi Kevin,

      The shock going from the Nikon D700 to the Leica M9 was initially jarring for me. Now I would say that in *good* light the M9 is almost always better than the D700. It has more lattitude than you might think.

      In bad/low light there is no contest obviously.

  2. Hello Olivier,
    I’ve had my D700 just a few months less than you and agree completely with your assessment. My “second” camera is a 7D which I love for other reasons, but it remains secondary, especially since I shoot mostly in low light.

    The one thing that jumped out at me from your review is how comfortable you are with manual focusing. I use the Nikon 35/2 partly for its miniature size, partly because of its AF capabilities. With wide lenses and low light I actually miss my (film) Leicas. I fret focusing manually anything wider than a 50mm on an SLR.

    You seem to have done pretty well with that Zeiss. Do you have equally good luck in “available darkness”?

    I have always wished for a rangefinder with the guts of the D700. I guess it will never happen (cost of developing a sensor with microlenses like the M9 but specs like the FX Nikons).

    If you are to take a look at the night shots in the following gallery, please keep in mind that the ones with flash (mostly at the start) were taken with the 7D. All else is D700 with either 35/2 or 85/1.4 Nikkors.
    http://antonisphoto.phanfare.com/glow

    Antonis

    • Hi Antonis,

      I’m comfortable with manual focus on the D700 in basically any light where it could be used. It’s not because I’m looking only at the focusing screen to judge focus, but because I’ve integrated the use of the green arrows together with the focusing screen. It’s the best of both worlds : I perform coarse focus (notably, I don’t hunt) and the computer tells me how to fine tune.

      The world needs more rangefinders, I hear that. The camera makers just don’t see the reality of this market because they only try to make cameras for everyone (every camera, for everyone). They miss the fact that there is a robust market for a digital Hexar or digital Ikon, to complement the digital M’s. This market is probably larger than the market for D3X cameras.

  3. Thank you for your reviews; I just stumbled across your site while looking for 75mm Summicron reviews. I also shoot a D700 mostly with a 35mm Zeiss. For travel I include the Zeiss 100mm and the Nikkor 50/1.4G. A heavy kit, but memorable images (see http://gallery.me.com/jimsuojanen – Spain for samples. The Tetons photos were shot with the 24-70/2.8 Nikkor).

    I rented an M9 with 35mm Summilux asph, shooting also with my 28 and 75 Summicrons (that I use with my M7). The M9 images are noisy, but they do have that “je ne sais pas” quality with the 35mm. The size and weight are very nice – sometimes I skip the D700 and take the M7. I hope to sell off other items in advance of an M9.2/10.


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