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.
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.
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.
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.
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