In 2008, something happened in the DSLR world that changed the game.
In the past, the class leading High ISO cameras were the hellishly expensive Canon 1 series. Nikon were seriously lagging with the D2 series, although this camera was a hardy workhorse, it just couldn’t keep up with the resolution and low noise properties of the high end Canons.
Just before the release of the D700, Nikon introduced the new flagship D3. This was heralded as breakthrough camera with world class leading High ISO capability and top quality functionality. It was Nikons first foray into full frame sensors, something Canon had been well ahead of. Sadly, it also had the price tag to match and was out of reach of most except professional photographers.
There were stirrings in the Nikon rumour mill. Talk of a mini D3, something experienced enthusiasts might just be able to afford. All sorts of ideas were flung around forums, and not long leaks from inside sources started to confirm the rumours.
Then in July 2008, the rumours stopped, and the facts were unveiled.
Nikon had produced a body that resembled the lesser spec D300 but stuffed a 36.0 x 23.9mm sized FX sensor inside it, as found in the D3. This sensor contains 12.87 million pixels and produces and image size of
4,256 x 2,832. Not only did they manage to do this, but they also added an anti dust system to the sensor, something the D3 lacked. A compromise had to be made though. In order to fit in this new system, the viewfinder had to made slightly smaller, giving only 95% coverage as opposed to the D3′s 100%. This may sound small, but remember, this is 95% of a full frame sensor approximately double the size of a DX sensor, so even at 95% you have a huge, clear and bright viewfinder to look through. If you are used to DX cameras, the first look through a D700 viewfinder is something quite extraordinary.
Other key features announced were the inclusion of the same Multi-CAM3500FX Auto Focus sensor (51-point, 15 cross-type sensors) as the D3 and auto-focus tracking by colour (using information from 1005-pixel AE sensor). This combined makes for a truly swift and precise autofocus system. The body, as expected was announced as a magnesium alloy chassis with full weather sealing. This is found in all Nikon’s pro range models and makes for an extremely tough camera. The d700 shared many of the same features as the D3, so the rumours were correct in thinking of a “mini D3″. There were however some differences, which many found disappointing. The D700 only has 1 Compact flash card slot as opposed to the D3′s two. The d700 has a lower frame rate of just 5FPS, or boosted to 8FPS with the optional and quite pricey MB-10 battery grip. Another point of concern to many was the inclusion of a built in pop up iTTL flash (G.No 17 / ISO 200). This was the first for a professional range camera and many thought it watered down the range. I however think it’s a great inclusion. Not so much for the actual flash itself, but for the commander mode to fire other flashes remotely. To do this on the D3, you would need a very pricey commander unit that sits in the hotshoe, as well as your off camera flashes. This works by firing several very fast flashes that don’t add to the overall scene but allow the off camera flashes too see it and fire themselves. A very clever and very useful system. This even works in iTTL when using Nikon’s CLS system with Nikon speedlights. Yes that right, iTTL wireless flash!!
The D700 dimensions are 147 x 123 x 77 mm and it weighs in at 995g without the battery and a hefty 1075g with the battery. This is not a light camera, and once you have added a lens, you are talking at least 1.5KG.
The weight however can work in its favour when using long heavy lenses as it makes for a more balanced unit.
The camera despite being slightly larger than the D300, still fits in the hand comfortably. It has a deep grip which your fingers can grasp securely. All the buttons fall instantly to hand, or thumb and this is what keeps me with Nikon Cameras. Their ergonomics just can’t be beaten. I recently bought a Canon Eos 50D, and swiftly sold it again, as the handling, grip and button placement was nowhere near as good as any Nikon body I have tried.
The D700′s 3.0 ” TFT LCD monitor contains approx. 920,000 pixels (VGA; 640 x 480 x 3 colours) which gives a 170Â° viewing angle and 100% frame coverage during live view. The screen dominates the rear of the camera and is a joy to view.
To the left hand side of the screen are the menu, lock, zoom in, zoom out and OK buttons. This buttons are only used when navigating the menus and reviewing the images you have taken. Above to the left of the screen are the play and delete buttons, again only used for playback. On the right hand side of the camera, the main operation buttons, which are all within reach of a finger or thumb for easy operation whilst shooting. Each button is in a logical place, and it’s really easy to change any setting without moving your eye from the eyepiece.
The top right on the back is the AE-L button combined with a twist switch to change your metering mode and beside that the AF-ON button. Beside these is a big rubberised horizontal scroll wheel. This is your main command dial, which either on its own or in combination with other buttons, changes a vast range of settings on the camera.
To the right of the LCD is the multiselect button used to change focus points, navigate menus and pan around taken photos. This also has a lock switch to prevent accidental adjustment. Below this is the focus area mode toggle switch and below that, a new inclusion the INFO button. This button has taken the place of the CF card door open lever that has been found on most Nikon DSLR’s. Now instead of this lever to open the door, you simply pull it open. Some people find this a problem and think the door will be opened accidently and broken, but I never had this happen and can’t see it happening any time soon.
Looking down onto the camera, we have another large screen, this time the top control panel. This contains lots of information about the current set up of the camera including selected focus point, ISO, aperture, shutter speed, WB and a lot more. To the front of this screen are the buttons to change the selected mode. The D700 does away with the common P,A,S,M dial in favour for a button which combined with the command dial changes the selection and shows it in the aforementioned top LCD. Beside this is the exposure compensation button, and in front of this is the combined ON/OFF and shutter button. On the front of the camera just below the ON/OFF button is another big rubberised wheel, this time, the sub command dial. Again this can be used alone or in combination with other buttons to change settings. This method works very well, as you can easily change every setting using either your thumb on the back wheel or a finger on the front. This was something I missed a lot from the Canon 50D.
On the left hand side on the top of the camera lies a dial, topped with 3 buttons. These buttons change the White balance, ISO, and file type/quality in combination with either the front or real rubber wheels. The dial below controls the drive mode of the camera, either single frame, low speed continuous, high speed continuous, Live view, Self timer and Mirror lockup. This dial is turned by pressing a small lock button to the top left of the dial. This prevents accidental changes.
I could go into great detail about how to change each and every setting, but there is such a vast range, it would take a long time. Instead I will just get down to it. What’s it like to use?
Frankly, stunning. The images from the camera are sharp, crisp and colourful. The dynamic range is slightly higher than that of a comparable DX camera due to the much larger sensor, meaning that the highlight and shadow detail can be resolved in greater detail. This gives you a bit more headroom when photographing high contrast scenes.
The High ISO is something this camera is famed for. It seems to eat light, when there doesn’t appear to be any. Shots up to ISO 1600 are mainly noise free and perfectly usable. Infact shots up to ISO 3200 are perfectly usable. Things only start to get a bit noisy above 12800 but are still useable. Only the highest at 25600 is reserved for emergencies. That was unheard of only a few years ago and still to this day is rare.
The sheer quality of the images at the High ISO settings is outstanding and still amazes me. I can happily set the Auto ISO function up to ISO 1600, and really not worry when it needs to utilise this, as an ISO 1600 image really isn’t much different from an ISO 400 one.
However the high ISO isn’t just this camera’s speciality. Autofocus is one of the best in class, and is fast and snappy even in low light. The camera has 51 AF sensors, 15 of which are the more sensitive cross types. Combined with a f/2.8 or higher lens, the camera can pretty much focus on anything, in any light. The tracking is superb, it will follow a bird around the frame with ease and in a sports situation is second to none. The 51 points fill most of the frame, so wherever your subject lies, there is usually a focus point on it. The camera can also use more than one point for super accurate focus.
For some, this camera could be too much. The choice of options and customisations is bewildering. It takes some serious manual reading to get to grips with all the things you can do. This is not a camera for the feint of heart or the beginner to DSLR. This is a professional camera, for professional users, and the lucky experienced amature. On top of that, it takes dedication to carry this lump around all day. If you are used to a pocket sized compact, you will be in for one big shock carrying this around all day.
One point I have yet to focus on is the price. If have made it this far into the review, I’m guessing either A) you have nothing else to do, or B) you are very interested in this camera. If it’s the latter, you are probably aware this isn’t a cheap camera. Current prices are hanging around Â£1500-Â£1700 for the body only and has been this price for several years. Its showing no sign of dropping for at least another year when we can expect its replacement..
You may think that it’s an obscene amount of money for a camera, but when you consider the D3 was almost double, and you are effectively getting the same camera, with a few extras and a few bits taken off, it doesn’t sound so bad. When you also consider you are getting a rugged, professional, super quality camera again it’s not too bad. This should be looked at as an investment. If you need the quality this camera produces, you are probably looking at taking photos to sell, so this will be a tool. A very good tool at that.
A thing worth mentioning is the lenses a camera of this calibre needs to fulfil its potential. If you put cheap glass in front of the sensor, you won’t get the results you hope for. You will need to spend some more money to get the quality of glass this camera deserves. The choice of most is the Nikkor 24-70mm f.2.8. This will set you back another Â£1200 or so brand new. This may sound a lot, but the quality of the lens matches the quality of the camera. Of course there are cheaper alternatives that won’t impact the quality a great deal, but I feel if you are spending this sort of money on a camera, you should furnish it with lenses to match. You wouldn’t stick budget tyres on a Ferrari Enzo would you?