You can pretty much guarantee that as Nikon announced the launch of the D700, thousands of recent camera buyers expressed their frustration at having parted with their cash for either the Nikon D300 or the D3.
Which ever way you look at it – whether you’re taking the stance of a serious amateur or hardcore pro – the D700 neatly fills a gap in the market with its powerful yet compact body. For those who had already opted for the D300 it offers the power of a 12.1-megapixels, full frame FX sensor for only a few hundred quid more (bearing in mind that the current D300 price is substantially lower now than when it was first released).
For those who had splashed quite a hefty wedge on the D3 it’s easy to see the benefits of having a lighter body (especially when faced with the prospect of a full day’s shoot). It’s difficult not to have a few “if only I’d waited” regrets.
The D700 essentially has the same basic innards as the D3, but in a more compact body. It’s a little larger than the D300, measuring 146 x 123 x 77mm, and weighs a little more, but shares similar characteristics in body design.
From the front, very little is different to the D300. Take a look at the rear, however, and you notice a much larger prism and viewfinder. The Compact Flash compartment lever has also been taken away to be replaced with an ‘Info’ button for bringing up your shooting data, but there are some lovely large buttons that are easy to operate and intuitive, as well as a generous 3-inch LCD monitor with a resolution of 920,000 pixels.
Taking the standard EN-EL3e Li-ion battery pack, the Nikon D700 is also compatible with the MB-D10 battery grip that allows you to fit in either an extra battery or, alternatively, eight standard AA batteries. For those who enjoy the larger, impressive size body and relish the idea of having extra grip, the addition of a grip will make this camera feel much more like the Nikon D3.
The 12.1 million effective pixel FX CMOS full frame sensor makes the D700 capable of shooting images up to 4,256 x 2,832 pixels. Shots should also be kept clear of dust as it features a handy self-cleaning sensor unit.
As you would expect from a camera that shares the same sensor as a top-of-the-league digital SLR camera like the Nikon D3, ISO range is not only impressive in stat form but performs well on a functional level, too. Capable of ISO 200-6400 (and ISO 100 and 25600 equivalents), at a low ISO setting noise levels are very satisfactory. As you creep up towards ISO 1250 noise becomes a little more obvious, but it’s still far from spoiling a shot.
Of course, as the camera includes an FX sensor, there’s a lot more scope for compatible lenses. It can take on all DX AF Nikkor lenses and you can be assured that all features, including Vibration Reduction, will be supported too. Alternatively, you can also mount Type G or D AF Nikkor, AF Nikkor, AI-P Nikkor or Non-CPU lenses. It’s worth noting though, that with a DX lens mounted on the Nikon D700 you can only achieve a maximum resolution of 5.1 megapixels. So if print size is a serious consideration this may be enough to put you off.
With DX lenses being the most common kit for the enthusiast consumer to accumulate, if you have previously owned a Nikon DSLR and you’re looking at the Nikon D700 as an upgrade model (but can’t fork out on more expensive lenses at the same time), you have the option within the ‘Image Area’ option to adjust the D700 to carry out an ‘Auto DX crop’. As the camera’s sensor captures a much larger area than a DX camera like the D300, D60, etc., without this switched on you have to be careful that the edges of your lens don’t appear around your frame like an awkward vignette. Within the main Shooting Menu you do have the scope to control Vignette appearance, reducing vignetting that may appear if you are using type G or D lenses.
It’s a little bit of a faff trudging through the menu system to adjust DX Area Crop, especially if you are switching between DX and other lenses. However, spend a little time working with the camera’s preferences and you can set the AE-L button next to the viewfinder to act as a shortcut.
Nikon has always faired well when it comes to layout and easy operation. Examine the D700 body carefully and it’s quite astonishing how many features and settings are accessible without having to work through the menu system. Yet it feels uncluttered and natural to hold. Pleasing, too, is its responsive and reliable operation. Likes its older brother, the D3, it’s quite obviously one of the fastest, most responsive digital SLR cameras you can buy at the moment. Everything from start-up to focus and file writing is impressively quick, which is perfect if you’re shooting fast sports subjects or wildlife.
The Nikon D700 has some good, unique features that really set it apart from other Nikon DSLRs and could even be argued to outplay the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, its only really serious contender. Of course, some of the features could be argued as being a little ‘gimmicky’.
Similar to the D3 you can display an electronic level that acts as a LCD displayed ‘Virtual Horizon’. This proves extremely handy if you don’t have the back-up of a tripod with spirit level, as it ensures you get shots dead straight whether you’re shooting in landscape or portrait mode. OK, so this may not be a vital requirement for every photographer, but in its favour, this Virtual Horizon is impressively sensitive and should reduce the need to correct Image Rotation during post-production.
Some reviewers have argued that consumers could save themselves some serious cash by opting for the D300 instead of the D700, commenting that image quality is identical at common ISO settings like ISO 200. However, we didn’t find this to be the case at all. Capturing a basic still life set-up with identical camera settings and identical lighting on both the D300 and D700, we found the image quality on the D700 to be far more detailed and richer in tone.
White balance also seemed to cope better in Auto mode on the D700 than it did on the D300, with fewer tendencies to over-emphasise cooling cyan tones. It’s worth noting that we tested shots on both cameras using a DX lens and D AF Nikkor lens to achieve well-rounded results. What we did notice, however, was that it did clip highlights occasionally, although not enough to be a drastic problem, with a little Curve tweak in Photoshop resolving the issue.
To reiterate, if you buy this camera and plan to make use of your existing DX lens connection, be warned: although this FX camera copes very well at adopting DX lenses and gives you the opportunity to Auto DX Crop, you will reduce your resolution down from 12.1 megapixels to a maximum of 5.1 megapixels. Whilst this is not a disaster and by no means the fault of the camera, it’s something that Nikon don’t make a song and dance about and could come as a disappointing surprise to new buyers.
The D700 is an outstanding camera that offers the image punch and operational joy of the expensive and heavy Nikon D3 camera. However, the price is far more realistic for the enthusiastic/pro photographer and its lightweight body makes it far less of a burden on long-duration shoots. It goes without saying that image quality is superb. Image detail and noise levels are particularly impressive and with the addition of ‘Active D-Lighting’ it copes well when shooting in awkward, back-lit conditions.
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Only if you know the benefits and limitations of the Nikon D300 very well can you see the merits of having a Nikon D700. The results are definitely there, but with the price of the D300 falling every month it could be argued that it's not enough to justify spending that extra money if you're upgrading from something like the D100 or even something like the Nikon D60. Therefore we suggest that, unless you are very serious about your photography, you consider the pros and cons of having an FX DSLR. Money concerns aside, this camera excels in both performance and handling.