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THE “FULL FRAME” NIKON D700

INTRODUCTION

Texas State Capitol, Austin, TX

My reviews often assume the reader is “new” to the subject, the line of equipment, or the technology.  So, if you are a veteran of he DSLR world, you may want to skip this section of the review.

It is also worth noting that the D700 is a “prosumer,” serious photographer’s tool.  If you are not an advanced photographer with a fair amount of photographic knowledge and skill (and a considerable budget), in all probability, this is not the DSLR for you.

From the mid-90’s until 2002, I used (and loved) Nikon’s F100 body.  The F100 was in many ways, my all-time favorite SLR camera.  It was the “transitional” camera from consumer to pro and was a favorite backup (and in some cases main) body of many pros.  It was well built, had fast, accurate auto-focus (AF), and just plain felt good in my hands.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, Nikon denominates its “pro” bodies with single digit numbers and add’s digits as the body moves “downward” in features and price.  Hence the 10’s and 100’s series (favorites were the N90 and the F100) were the proverbial “step down” from the pro series, and the 1000’s series were so-called “consumer” bodies.

The “consumer” bodies alone are pretty impressive, with lots of the technology “borrowed” from the “pro” bodies.  But the Flagship bodies were always the F-1, 2, 3, 4, and – when I owned my F100, the F5.  Today, Nikon manufactures only one film-based pro SLR body–the F6, and you have to wonder how long before they discontinue it entirely.  While the lines have blurred because of the way technology evolves in digital cameras, Nikon still uses the same general theme.  Denominated “D” for digital, the current Flagship pro body is the D3 (By the way, “F” didn’t stand for film.  There wasn’t really any other technology available at that time, so there wouldn’t have been any reason for calling it a “film” camera.  And, confusingly, Nikon denominated some of their offerings “F” and some “N”).  Retailing for around $8,000, The D3 is out of the reach of, I would venture to say, most hobby photographers.  At the consumer end of the spectrum are the very affordable D3000 and D5000 (which ring in at between $300 and $700).  Once again, the transitional bodies are in the 100’s series.

These “transitional” bodies are generally referred to in the industry as “Prosumer” bodies.  In 2002, to the delight of many of us advanced hobby photographers, Nikon made the D100 available.  Finally, there was a DSLR offering from Nikon that was in the reachable (albeit still pricey) range for a hobby photographer.  However, it was a compromise.  The D100 used “lower-end” consumer body technology, including a “lesser” (in my view) AF module, and just generally cheaper features.  It was difficult to step down in quality and part with my treasured F100, but I wanted to make the move to digital, and life has its compromises.

In 2006, Nikon announced the next generation D200.  I was an early adopter, yearning for the F100 quality build, AF and features.  The D100 was a good, workmanlike camera and I got lots of enjoyment and some pretty darn good images out of it.  But the moment I had the D200 in my hands, I was ready to ship the D100 out for some needed funds.  I was pleased with the handling, image quality, and general build of the D200.  Still not the F100 – but very close.

After another 4 years of enjoyment, I began to “find” reasons to think about the next generation.  In the days of film, most of the changes to cameras were in technology that was not really “life-changing” to my “style” of photography.  Most of the changes were in film and you could depend on a camera body to last a long time and continue to be useful.  And you could make the “investment” in a good body, knowing it would retain its economic value over many years, if well cared for.  I expected to own my F100 for many years to come – until digital.

With digital cameras, the focus (pun intended) has really shifted from mechanical things like AF, flash sync, build quality, metering, etc., to the sensor and signal processing electronics.  Suddenly, camera bodies – like personal computers – are already becoming obsolete by the time you are taking them out of the box.  This often means there are more compelling reasons to upgrade bodies than in the past.

In the case of the D200, the D300 offers a better sensor and signal processing system, allowing less “noise” (the digital equivalent of “grain” in film) and better low-light shooting possibilities.  While there are some “mechanical” improvements, I don’t see them as enough by themselves, to move up.  But the new sensor makes it a much more compelling decision in my view.

DOES SIZE REALLY MATTER?

You were hoping I was going to resolve that issue once and for all?  Sorry (again, for the DSLR “veterans” who stumble on this, you may want to skip on to the real review).  There are really two different measures of size we are concerned with.  While perhaps inviting controversy, I’ll use Quantity (the number of pixels) and Quality (the size of the individual pixel).

As technology has progressed, the sensor manufacturers have been able to increase the number of “photosites” (for our purposes, we will refer to them as pixels) they can pack into a sensor of a given size.  The D100 was an approximately 6 megapixel sensor.  The D200 increased that to 10 megapixel.  The D300/D700 are approximately 12 megapixel sensors (and the Flagship D3x has a 24 megapixel sensor).

To visualize the importance of this, I like to think about a highball glass filled with colored marbles.  The marbles are packed in the glass fairly tight, but evenly dispersed in the glass.  If I take the marbles out and put them in an 8 ounce water glass, they all fall to the bottom of the glass.  In order to disperse them evenly, like the shot glass, I would need to suspend them in the air, and would start to develop large gaps or spaces between them.  The bigger the container, the more pronounce this effect.  The way digital images work, our eyes see shapes and smoothness when the marbles are packed tight together.  As the space increases, they “posterize” and begin to look bad.  If I have more marbles, I can solve that problem, because I can use a bigger container.  That is – in theory– why more megapixels are important.  There are, of course, newer and better methods ever developing in software to – in effect – create new marbles from the existing ones, but that is beyond the scope of this review.  And, at some point, we have enough marbles for any foreseeable use, and quantity becomes a diminishing return.  It is also important to understand that increases in “size” means you need more computing power and storage capability.


Because of the cost of manufacturing and limits of technology, in order to put an affordable and manageable sensor in our hands, the camera companies had to compromise.  They put a sensor inside an SLR body which was smaller than the size of a 35mm frame.  This created optical problems with existing lenses.  There has been much “angst” over the years over how this effected “length” of lenses.  Most lens manufactures have addressed this by creating lenses designed to work with the smaller sensor.  The industry has begun to refer to this sensor as an “APS” sized sensor.  At the same time, the companies have worked hard to design and create a 35mm sized sensor and over the past 3-4 years, they have successfully implemented them.  They are often referred to as “full-sized” sensors.  And, predictably, the “tastes great / less filling” wars developed.  I don’t personally see it as much of an issue.  To me it is relative.  But you do need to “think” about lens “kit” when considering which of these to purchase.  The D700 is the first “prosumer” offering of the 35mm sized sensor from Nikon.  Nikon refers to this as an “fx” sensor, and the APS as a “dx” sensor.

But there is, in my view, a more compelling reason to consider the larger sensor.  In this case, it is a matter of size quality rather than size quantity.  The 35mm sized sensor is physically larger.  So, it can have the same number of photo sites as an APS sensor, but each photo site is larger, which many argue results in increased dynamic range, and better transition and detail.

You might think of this as simply using larger marbles in my prior example.  If we used the same number of marbles but each one was larger, we can once again fill up the 8 ounce glass consistently.

Downtown Austin, Texas

FINALLY, THE REVIEW!

The purchase of the D700 was momentous for me.  My initial plan was to move up to the D300.  I had found an array of lenses, including the estimable, Nikkor 18-200 “dx” VR, and was comfortable with the format.  Other than a greatly improved sensor, I did not see much change from the D200 to the D300.  And its cost was about 1/2 that of the D700.  Going back to the 35mm sensor, would mean that my 18-200 wasn’t really going to work anymore and that I would eventually have to re-think my lens lineup.


There are really two reasons I decided to go with the D700 instead: (1) the sensor, and (2) the sensor!

Seriously, the D700 is purported to have the identical sensor used in the Flagship Nikon D3.  This means I am getting the “pro” sensor in a body that is less than 1/3 the cost.  And, my research indicated that it was much better in handling light and shadow (in digital vernacular, “dynamic range”) than any predecessor.  Because I like shooting in low light, and around the “edges of light,” that is a very appealing thing to me.  Part of the reason for this is because (at least in digital sensor technology) size really does matter.  Both the D300 and the D700 are 12 megapixel cameras.  But the D700’s larger sensor meant larger, and arguably better, pixels.

Second, because of the technology in this sensor, the camera is purported to be able to produce noise free images at very high ISO speeds (i.e., as high as 6400 in some cases).  Now that is downright exciting.  My early testing has been promising.

There is an array of other new features on the camera, which I will cover, and which may be interesting and perhaps even exciting to readers.  In my own mind, the primary features center around the new and improved sensor.  After all, in the end, it is about the quality of the images.

Cost and Availability

This body has been out for over a year now, and is pretty freely available.  It can be found used on eBay, as well as a new at a great number of retail outlets.  Price varies from the full suggested retail of $2699.  For new, I found my copy for $2399 at B&H Photo Video in New York, and it was the best “new” price I was able to find.  I frequent a site hosted by my friend and Professional Photographer David Cardinal, known as Nikon Digital.org.  If you click through his site, which has a free, very informative forum/community of Nikon DSLR users, it supports that site and hopefully maintains its free nature.  It won’t effect your price at B&H.  I would encourage you to support Dave’s efforts.

Features

As the Equipment Review Page notes, this is not intended to be a thorough review of all the features and gadgets on the D700 camera.  For in depth coverage, I recommend the Magic Lantern Guide to the Nikon D700, by Simon Stafford.  I often buy the Magic Lantern Guide on a Camera before I purchase he camera.  In my mind, it’s a rather cheap way to avoid purchasing something you didn’t really want.  My own copy was already highlighted and dog-eared by the time I purchased the D700.

Basic Required Features For a DSLR
.  What I really want to impart are the features I believe are interesting to the potential purchaser of this body.  As noted in the beginning, this is a serious, advanced, and rather expensive camera.  For serious photographers, I think a camera body should have a certain array of standard features, including depth of field )(DOF) preview, the capability for fully manual shooting, a terminal for attaching a remote shutter release, advanced flash synchronization capability, spot-metering capability, exposure compensation/manual adjustment in 1/3 stop increments, and fast, accurate AF as a minimum.  The D700 has all of this and more.

Curtains, Anyone
?  One feature I truly missed from my F100 was the viewfinder curtain (a little lever on the view finder that would shut a blind to prevent stray light from entering the viewfinder and influencing the through the lens light meter).  The D700 has given that back to us.  If you shoot from a tripod (and you should) with a cable release, it will be a nice feature.  For the past couple years, Nikon has given us a little plastic cover to slide on and off – and more importantly, to lose!  I found myself putting my thumb over the viewfinder (which, if you think about it, kind of defeats the purpose of mounting the camera on a tripod).

What Lenses Can I Use
?  The D700 will accept the so-called “dx” sized lenses with the smaller image circle, but because of the physics, you will actually have a resulting image of something less than 6 megapixels (a step backward from the D200 and arguably even from the D100 in megapixels).  I mounted my 18-200 dx VR, thinking, I might be able to be satisfied with a 300mm equivalent 6 megapixel image.  The “look” is so unnerving that I have concluded that I won’t be using “dx” lenses on this body.  Being an old school 35mm throwback from 1975, I won’t find this much of a transition back.

Info Panel.    Another new feature on the D700 is the “info” panel.  There is an “info” button on the  camera back which engages this feature, and you get a nice, bright screen on the camera’s LCD with all the information that we used to always have to find either in the viewfinder, or the top finder, (or perhaps by drilling down into the individual menus).  This is not something I was clamoring for, and do not currently see a whole lot of utility in.  What I do see is another reason for serious battery drain.  However, as my eyes continue to age (along with my mind), I may find it a useful feature.  I will have to wait and see whether it is something I will use in the field.  The good news is that it is optional.  You don’t have to use it.

LCD Display. The LCD is big and bright. It is, otherwise similar to the D200 and most of the Nikon DSLR layouts. One “new” feature (it may be on other bodies, but new to me) I really like is the ease of zooming in on an image to check image quallity. It is a one-press function on the zoom button. Press Multiple times to zoom in larger. Nice.

Sensor Cleaning!!!. This is an area I always thought Nikon lagged behind in. Dust on the LCD sensor has always been an issue for DSLR cameras. Indeed in the beginning it caused a lot of angst as articles were written in the forums about DIY cleaning, stories of nightmare attempts at cleaning, etc. I actually have owned 3 DSLRs and have never had a sensor cleaned. On the D100, I noticed a particular dust spot and was able to clean it with a squeeze bulb. I bought one of the fancy cleaners, but the attitude was not to mess with it until I thought it necessary. The D700 (as does, I believe the D3000 and the D3 series) now has an ultrasonic cleaner which should be a major improvement in “dust management.”

Live View.”    Point and Shoot camera’s have given us something that now seems to have become a “coveted” feature in cameras: “live view.”  I personally don’t get it.  On my Point and Shoot I can see the framed image “live” before I shoot it on the LCD on the back of the camera.  On a P&S, I see that as a kind of necessary evil, because of the problems inherent with viewfinders (either parallax, or that awful electronic viewfinder), in order to get proper framing.  From the first time I picked up a digital P&S back in 2000, I immediately missed the visceral feel of the SLR pentaprism viewfinder.  Why in the world would I now want to trade that for “live view”?  Also, my experience is that the LCD view is essentially useless in bright sunlight.

Having “dissed” this feature, in fairness, one justification for this from Nikon (and commentators) is that the D700 has only 95% viewfinder coverage (actually closer to 90%).  The “live view” gives you an idea of what the 100% coverage (the actual image) will look like.  This feature is “optional.”  If you don’t like it, you don’t have to turn it on.  I doubt it was a significant expense-increasing item (although they all add up).

Optional Grip
.    I bought the optional battery grip for my D100.  I liked the extra bulk for bracing against my face on handheld shooting.  I also like the vertical shutter release button.  But I found the “bulk” worked against me, partly because it was one more thing to lug around and pack for travel, and because it got in the way when using a tripod (which is, for me, 90% of the time).  And, the grip adds some versatility to the camera.  You can remove it.  Its capable of taking regular AA batteries which could come in very handy in an emergency situation.  And, it allows more battery capacity (the D100 held two of the rechargeables.  I believe the grip for the D700 allows use of a different, higher capacity battery).  When I moved up to the D200, I did not purchase the grip, and found that I appreciated less bulk in most instances.  I have not purchased the grip for the D700.  While it is not high on my list, I may consider it at some point.  It is one of those, “your mileage may vary,” items in my view.

Metering and AF.    The D700 is purported to have the most advance, color-matrix metering system Nikon offers.  It is supposed to be “smart.”  See my tutorial “Getting Exposure Right” for my views on this.  In spite of my firm belief that the photographer needs to understand how light works and what the meter is doing to get correct exposures, I have been awed by Nikon’s “matrix” metering system’s ability to “get it right” as far back as the N90s.  I see these improvements as incrementally immaterial.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t blame Nikon for improving.  But I certainly wouldn’t buy a new camera based only on that feature!

The AF systems continue to advance and I have found it sure, fast and accurate, on my f2.8 lenses as well as my relatively slow, old, Tamron 28-200 f3.5-5.6 zoom.

The Computer.    There are not lots of real changes here, but a couple significant ones.  First, the menu system has changed and become more detailed (I am not sure this is a good thing; but lets call it “neutral”).  One new feature is a “my menus” feature, that allows you to set up a menu that holds your most frequently used settings (the D700 retains the D200’s ability to set up to 4 separate user menu settings, useful if he camera is used by more than one person, or for different shooting situations.  For example, on a tripod, I like to disable the AF function on the shutter release and only use the back button, so I am free to re-compose without refocusing.  But in action shooting, I turn it back on again.  I have an “action” and “normal” menu set up).  I haven’t used the my “menu yet.”

I mentioned that the most exciting thing about the D700 to me is the high ISO capability.  Here, there is a “new” setting that really has some promise in my view.  You can set the camera to automatically select the appropriate ISO for a given shutter speed.  So if you are trying to shoot action subjects (wildlife or sports come to mind) and want to use the highest quality ISO setting, but don’t want to keep fiddling dials, this setting may have some real promise.  I plan to try it, first chance I get.

Images; The Real Test

Austin Skyscraper

Of course, its all about the images.  Unfortunately, there are two obstacles to my giving this new “toy” a real workout.  I have a day job.  And I don’t live in a very photogenic region.  I have been out just a couple of times with it and have experimented at different ISOs and with different lens and light combinations.  I have been very pleasantly satisfied with the results so far.  Recently, I was able to to travel for business to Austin, Texas.  In the evenings after a full day of “conference” I was able to sneak out a couple times and try some D700 shooting.  Of course, I wanted to try the high ISO capabilities.  This shot of a building just across the street from my hotel is shot at 2500 ISO, as is the skyscraper, also near the hotel.  Shot with a cheap 19-35mm zoom, I am impressed with the lack of noise in the shadows.

Nighttime Building in Austin, TX

The Texas State Capitol, above and the Downtown Austin shot of “One Congressional Plaza,” were shot at a more sedate, 200 ISO, which is — realistically where I expect the bulk of my shooting to be.  I am pleased with the color rendition and fine detail of these images.  You can shoot over to my website and see my new addition of “Austin, Texas” under “Cityscapes” for a few more shots with with the D700.

I am looking forward to learning more about this camera’s sensor capabilities and will comment back here from time to time, as appropriate.  And of course, from now on, the images you see here and on Andy’s Photo Blog will be D700 generated, for the most part.  In the meantime, I would love to hear of others’ experience with the D700 and with other “larger” sensors.



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3 Responses

  1. Good writeup Andy. Glad you like the camera. I love mine, so many great advantages in the ability of the higher ISOs. I have used Live View in a few situations where it was impossible for me to get my eye to the viewfinder – like a tripod across an ice pond that would have collapsed with me on it. It’s a great handling camera with excellent quality files. So far I have gone up to 36×48 inch prints with it, no problem whatsoever.

  2. Hi Mark: Thanks for the comment. One of the frustrations of Winter in mid-Michigan. Photographic doldrums. I haven’t really had enough time to give it a real workout, but yes, I love the D700.

    I made a couple of minor edits to the Blog since your comment, including a link to my website and new gallery for Austin, TX, which has a few more images.

  3. […] use 3 different cameras: a Canon G12 P&S, a Nikon D7000 “DX” sensor camera, and a Nikon D700 “FX” sensor camera.  As the illustration shows, there is a pretty remarkable difference in sensor sizes (if you would […]

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