Nikon D700 Review
by Tony Gomez
Published Winter ’09
“Full-Frame” FX Format D-SLR
One of the key features that distinguish a “professional” D-SLR from the more common variety is the ability to capture images with a larger sensor, often called a “full-frame sensor.” With a full-frame sensor, you can capture every bit of imagery the lens sees. With a non-full-frame sensor (the vast majority of D-SLR cameras are non-full-frame), you are capturing on a smaller-sized sensor. This results in a magnification factor, multiplying the effective focal length of your lens- ranging anywhere from 1.5X to 2X. So, for example, a 30mm lens on a non-full frame sensor D-SLR with a magnification factor of 1.5X is in reality a 45mm lens (30mm x 1.5 = 45mm). For many D-SLR shooters, this magnification factor is acceptable, but to most professionals and advanced users, it’s unacceptable. They want every millimeter of focal length they paid for to shoot with. That’s why they cough up more money for a “full-frame” D-SLR body. These are much more expensive D-SLRs. Even Nikon’s D3 full frame D-SLR costs $5,000, body only. By comparison, Canon’s two full frame D-SLRs, the 1Ds Mark III and 5D Mark II are about $8,000 and $2,700 respectively. So we’re talking about a big investment on the camera body alone.
But D-SLRs also evolve, become more compact, retain many of the best features of their more expensive brothers, and become more affordable too. Nikon has recently introduced their 2nd generation full-frame D-SLR (they refer to it as the FX format)—the D700 (www.nikonusa.com). It’s much lighter in weight than the D3 (1.8 lbs as compared to 3 lbs), but has the same great 12MP (12 megapixel) CMOS sensor, yet is more affordable at $3,000— body only.
So what features can you expect from the D700? First and foremost is the FX format, which allows you to use every bit of the focal length of the lenses you get for the camera. It’s only the second full-frame format ever offered from Nikon, the D3 being the first. The pixel resolution is 12.1 megapixels, so that definitely qualifies as pro quality. But more importantly, the size of the individual pixels in the CMOS sensor is relatively large (8.45 micrometers), which allows for greater light gathering power and a better dynamic range of captured images, all contributing to an improved signal-to-noise-ratio. This means that even in the lowest light situations, bumping the ISO all the way up to 6400 will still give you images that are relatively clean from the noise artifacts that continue to plague captured images in other D-SLRs, based on smaller sized pixels used in their sensors.
The heart of any D-SLR is its image processing system. The D700’s image processor is called EXPEED, and is among the fastest available in any D-SLR. In Continuous High-Speed mode, the D700 can capture JPEG images as rapidly as 5 fps (frames per second), or up to 8 fps with the optional MB-D10 battery pack. The D700 also accepts the latest generation “fast” Compact Flash cards (UDMA CF) for blazing fast 35 MB/second transfer rate.
Aside from simply being extremely fast in processing images, the D700 also has a very fast and accurate Auto Focus system. Nikon’s AF is called the Multi-Cam 3500FX sensor module. It features 51 individual Auto Focusing points (15 cross type sensors and 36 horizontal sensors). Auto Focusing modes include Single Area AF and Dynamic AF. The D700 also includes a 3D focus-tracking feature that tracks moving objects.
Photographers can individually tailor their image capture experience with the Nikon Picture Control System. In addition to their preset Standard values, Image Sharpening, Tone Compensation, Brightness, and Saturation can have user preferences of Neutral, Vivid, and Monochrome applied to them. Active D-Lighting, a Nikon innovation introduced a few years ago, allows users to further enhance the dynamic range of a captured image. Active D-lighting increases shadow detail without the risk of overblown highlights. This is a different single exposure process than High Dynamic Range photography, or HDR, which uses multiple exposures. (More on HDR in my companion story elsewhere in this issue.)
Another brand-new feature in the D700 is a self-cleaning system. It’s a well-known problem for D-SLRs that changing lenses introduces dust or other dirt that degrade the performance of the sensor. This built-in dust removal feature operates at camera turn-on, shut-down, or on-demand.
A Brilliant 3-inch LCD Monitor And Live View Mode Too!
Another nice trend in D-SLRs has been larger LCD monitors. The D700 follows this trend with a beautiful 3-inch 920K-pixel high resolution TFT LCD monitor that provides a wide 170-degree viewing angle. Not only is this monitor excellent for watching playback, and checking focus and other details of captured images, but it’s also terrific for the Live View mode.
Live View technology allows you to preview your scene in the LCD, before the image is captured. Nearly all point and shoot digicam owners will say “so what?” because they have always had the ability to see their images in the LCD viewfinder before capture. However, for D-SLR shooters, the Live View mode is a relatively new feature. The D700 offers two flavors of Live View: Hand-held and Tripod mode. In Hand-held Live View mode, Auto Focus with 51-point Phase Detection technology is activated. In Tripod mode, Contrast-Detection Auto Focus is used to focus on a specific area in the frame. Another cool feature, the Virtual Horizon line, can be superimposed over the Live View monitor to aid in shooting pictures with correct horizontal orientation.
Even though it’s the 1.8 lb sibling of its famous 3 lb D3 brother, the D700 is not lacking for ruggedness and durability. The D700’s camera body is made of a high strength magnesium alloy, and it’s weather sealed with precision O-rings to resist dust and moisture. If there’s one feature that advanced photographers will appreciate, it’s the rugged shutter. It uses a new composite carbon fiber and Kevlar (the same material used to provide bullet protection for law enforcement officials). The shutter goes through a 150 thousand-cycle test to certify performance.
Nikon supplied me the D700 with an AF-S Nikkor 24mm-120mm VR zoom lens, which is designed to fit the full-frame format of the D700. The VR designation (Vibration Reduction) is Nikon’s proprietary in-lens image stabilization feature, a nice asset when using the longer focal lengths. The VR zoom lens is very compact, and the whole package was very comfortable to handhold. I set the D700 to its 3D Color Matrix II metering setting for exposure and it’s Single-Servo AF for focusing. The shooting mode (P), A (Aperture Priority), S (Shutter Priority), or M (Manual) depended on the type of subjects I was capturing.
I took the Nikon D700 out to a wide variety of shooting locations—ranging from brightly lit daylight locations to night-time events, such as fall carnivals and theme parks. I wanted to test with a full range of lighting conditions the D700 could capture. For daytime photography, I chose a local classic car show at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. The true 24mm wide angle of the zoom gave me excellent perspectives on the classic cars, and shooting with ISO 200 gave me the finest quality in detail and color. For nighttime photography, I shot with the D700 at a local carnival, and at Disneyland. I shot with the D700 at or near it’s maximum ISO 6400 for the greatest sensitivity. Many of the carnival rides looked too static when captured at high shutter speeds, so I went into a slower shutter priority mode (1/4th sec) to capture more motion blur. The results were much dramatic and colorful. The view of the carnival from atop a Ferris Wheel was spectacular, and the high ISO 6400 captured detail that otherwise would have been lost. The noise at such a high ISO was negligible. At Disneyland, the Haunted Mansion was my favorite ride, and using ISO 6400 I got some terrific wide-angle shots of it’s dark and scary facade.
Unlike other pro D-SLRs, the D700 has a very handy built-in flash. I used it very effectively for flash fill in daylight and for shooting subjects in very dimly lit conditions. The only issue I had was that the zoom lens caused a flash shadow that was cast on images when the maximum 24mm wide-angle focal length was used. Solution—just zoom in a bit when the internal flash is used.
I also wanted to see how the D700 would perform in the Continuous High Speed Mode, and I tested this performance to the max by selecting both JPEG and RAW (Nikons calls it NEF) capture. I also set up a sequence of five bracketed exposures for later use of the HDR software that I will work with in a companion article. How fast could the D700 still work under these burdened conditions? By my estimate, it was very close to the maximum 5 frames/second specified rate, which is pretty astounding. I don’t mean 5 frames/second continuously, until the end of the memory, but enough shots to cover more than enough bracketed exposures. I attribute this high-speed performance to the EXPEED image processor, as well as the fact I was using the new generation of CF UDMA memory cards.
To say that the image quality of the D700 is excellent is an understatement. This is expected with all D-SLRs when shooting with the lower ISO settings, but I was delighted that even at the higher ISO 6400, the images were outstanding in quality, and relatively clean of noise artifacts. This means that you don’t have to spend big bucks on expensive faster lenses. Just pump the ISO up a bit and you’ll achieve the same kind of low-light performance. This is one great all-around D-SLR for available light!
The Nikon D700 also is one of the fastest D-SLRs I’ve ever tested, not only quick in it’s short time between exposures, but also in it’s ability to capture a burst of images in the blink of an eye—five frames/second, to be precise. And the auto focusing and exposures are tack-on accurate.
The Live View feature is available if you want to experience watching your image on the LCD, right up to the moment of capture. Serious enthusiasts and pros who are accustomed to using the viewfinder will probably find this Live View feature unnecessary. Those migrating from the point-and-shoot digicam world might find Live View mode much more inviting.
Probably one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in my many years of shooting with D-SLRs has been the use of the full-frame format camera bodies. While they delivered exquisite images, and used every bit of lens performance possible, they did so with a heavy price (quite literally), not only in cost, but also in bulk. Typically these pro-type D-SLR bodies cost $5,000 and weigh 3 lbs and up. Both were always an impediment to my actually owning and using them on a daily basis. The new Nikon D700 answered both of these problems for me in style as a relatively affordable $3,000 camera body, full of professional type features, and weighing a very comfortable 1.8 lbs, body only.
If you need a pro-type full-frame D-SLR, with a wide variety of lenses to choose from, but without the pro price or weight factor, consider the Nikon D700. As it did for me, the D700 will serve your needs very well!
MSRP: $3,000 (body only)
- 5.8”W x 4.8”H x 3.0”D, 1.8 lb. (body only)
- Image Sensor:
- 12 Megapixel (12 MP) Full-frame (no image magnification factor with Nikon FX format lenses); 1.5X with DX format lenses
- Maximum Resolution:
- 4256 x 2832 pixels (12MP) Full-frame
- 3-inch 920K-pixel LCD with 170 degree viewing angle/Optical pentaprism viewfinder
- File Format:
- RAW (2 types: 12-bit or 14-bit), JPEG (3 types), or RAW + JPEG (3 types), and TIFF
- Shutter Speed:
- 30 sec-1/8000th sec
- Compact Flash/ CF UDMA (35 MB/second)
- Exposure Modes:
- Programmed Auto, Shutter Priority Auto, Aperture Priority Auto, Manual
- Focusing Modes:
- Single-Servo AF, Continuous Servo AF, Manual. Focus range distance depends on lens chosen
- White Balance:
- Auto, Incandescent, Daylight, Fluorescent, Manual
- Exposure Metering:
- 3D Color Matrix II, Center-weighted, Spot
- Shooting Speed:
- Full-resolution JPEG images at 5fps or 8 fps with the optional MB-D10 battery pack
- 200 – 6400
- Other Features:
- Live View, Picture Control System, Active D-Lighting, Dust Reduction, Auto Exposure Bracketing
- FX (full frame) or DX (1.5 mag factor) lenses are available separately
- Built-in Guide Number 56/ISO 200; I-TTL external flash units supported