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Nikon D700 Gordon Laing, August 2008
 

Nikon D700 verdict

Nikon impressed us all with its D300 and D3 bodies, but many believed a combination of the two could yield something even more special. Now there's no need to wonder. By essentially squeezing the D3’s full frame and high ISO quality into the D300’s more portable and affordable form factor, Nikon’s done just that with the new D700.

As such it’s hard not to be impressed by the D700’s handling, performance and feature-set. After all, it inherits a powerful 51-point AF system, high resolution 3in VGA monitor with Live View and superb 1005-pixel metering system, along with an HDMI port for connection to HDTVs. All this along with exactly the same full-frame sensor as the flagship D3 has been squeezed into a dust and moisture resistant body that’s closer in size and weight to the semi-pro D300.



Nikon D700 - front view




The image quality is excellent as you’d expect, matching the D3’s high sensitivity performance. Switch the D700 to its highest sensitivity and you’ll see noise speckles like any other camera, but you have to remind yourself this is now operating at a whopping 25600 ISO. Turn the D700 down to 1600 or even 3200 ISO – a point where most DSLRs are still delivering noisy or smeared images – and you’ll be greeted by remarkably clean and usable results. It really is an amazing experience to confidently shoot at such high ISOs knowing the result won’t be compromised.

In-camera JPEGs taken with the default settings can sometimes look a little soft, but this is easily corrected by applying a little additional sharpening. For the best results though, shoot in RAW with the 14-bit option. Even using Capture NX's default settings, the results are much crisper than in-camera JPEGs, without losing any of their very natural quality.

Like other full-frame bodies, it’s also a delight to see lenses deliver the same field-of-view they would with 35mm film SLRs. Ultra-wide angle lenses like the excellent Nikkor AF-S 14-24mm really come into their own on full-frame bodies, and the large viewfinder is also a joy to use.

The benefits of full-frame sensors are often tempered though by more apparent vignetting and edge aberrations from lenses, but the D700’s in-camera corrections really do reduce their impact. That said, you will need a lens that's sharp to the edge of the full-frame to make the most of the D700. DX lenses will work on the D700, but as explained on our features page, you'll either need to work in a cropped 5 Megapixel mode, or suffer greatly reduced quality towards the edges. So if you do go for the D700, you'll really need a collection of (potentially expensive) full-frame compatible lenses to do it justice.

While it’s easy to simply describe the D700 as a D300 with the D3 sensor though, there’s a number of additional differences and enhancements worth noting. The card door latch may have been sacrificed for the new Info button, but it does at least now offer direct access to many settings which were otherwise buried across various menus.

The Live View implementation may at first appear the same as the D300, but graphics like the alignment grid are now more easily switched on and off using the Info button. The D700 has also inherited the D3’s handy Virtual Horizon feature, and made it more useful by offering it in Live View (an enhancement D3 owners can also now enjoy with a firmware update). You can additionally assign Live View to the Function or DOF preview buttons, thereby allowing you to select the self timer or continuous shooting from the release dial.

 
Nikon D700 - top view
 
 

Much has also been written about how the D700’s continuous shooting and viewfinder are inferior to the D300, but that’s not looking at the whole story. The D300 may have 6fps to the D700’s 5fps, but unlike the D300, the D700 doesn’t slow down when shooting 14-bit RAW files. And while the effective buffer of both cameras reduces at higher sensitivities, the D300 does it at 800 ISO compared to the D700 at 3200 ISO.

And sure, the D300’s viewfinder may sport 100% coverage to the D700’s 95%, but the latter’s full-frame penta-prism means the overall view is much larger and ultimately preferred – remember you can still switch to Live View if you need to check 100% coverage.

So what’s not to like? Well it’s a shame there’s still no Live Histogram in Live View, and annoying that camera control and decent RAW processing software aren’t included as standard. Indeed it should be embarrassing to Nikon that all of this is available even on Canon’s entry-level DSLRs. We’d also prefer if GPS units could connect directly to the D700’s USB port rather than via a proprietary cable accessory. And while assigning Live View to the Function or DOF preview buttons may allow you to select drive options from the release mode dial, we’d ultimately just prefer a dedicated Live View button.

This is all just nit-picking though. The Nikon D700 is quite simply a superb piece of kit, but there is of course one big factor we’ve not yet mentioned: price. The D700 may be cheaper than the D3 and discounts will see it drop further, but the fact is the launch price is around double that of current D300 bodies. We’ve seen this before with the Canon EOS 5D: full-frame sensors are simply very expensive to produce and you’ll be paying a considerable premium for one. In order to make the most of it, you'll also need to couple the D700 with quality full-frame compatible lenses, and they don't come cheap either.

Full-frame is undeniably a desirable technology to have, but only you can decide if it’s worth paying the extra. After all for the same money as a D700 body you could get yourself a D300 and an AF-S 14-24mm lens, or a cheaper optic and a nice trip to try it all out on. And if you shoot at low sensitivities, the image quality - as seen on our results pages - is essentially the same.

Of course you could alternatively be coming from the opposite direction and find the D700 a relative bargain compared to the D3, but with the form factor and features being so close to the D300, it’s impossible not to make the comparison and realise the cost associated with that larger sensor area. So before wrapping-up let’s take one more look at the differences between the three top Nikons along with Canon’s ageing EOS 5D.

Compared to Nikon D300

 
Nikon D300
 
 
The new D700 may appear to trump the D300 with its full-frame sensor, but there’s actually a number of reasons to prefer the older model. Most importantly, you’ll enjoy all of its 12 Megapixels with DX-format lenses, compared to using just five from the D700’s larger sensor. Many wildlife and sports shooters will prefer this higher pixel density, and you’ll also experience less issues with vignetting or reduced sharpness towards the corners when using FX-compatible lenses.

The D300 is also a little faster as standard, shooting JPEGs or 12-bit NEFs at 6fps to the D700’s 5fps. The D300’s viewfinder may not show the expanse of full-frame, but it does boast 100% coverage to the 95% of the D700. The D300 is also a little smaller (mostly shorter due to the smaller penta-prism), 170g lighter, and while both bodies are dust and moisture resistant, the D700’s sliding memory card door feels cheaper than the D300’s lever-operated mechanism.

In its favour, the D700 of course has the larger, more sensitive sensor, but there’s other advantages too. The continuous shooting doesn’t drop in speed when shooting 14-bit NEFs, and the buffer doesn’t shrink until you’re using sensitivities two stops higher. The viewfinder may not deliver 100% coverage, but it’s still comfortably larger and sports a built-in curtain, while the camera additionally includes the Virtual Horizon feature and an Info button giving quick access to many settings.

The big difference though is price, with the D700’s sensor adding a significant premium – indeed the D300’s online prices were half that of the D700’s launch price, and even when discounts arrive there’ll still be a significant difference. Ultimately while the D300 may not match the D700’s high ISO performance nor have features like the Virtual Horizon or fast 14-bit RAW shooting, it remains one of the most powerful and compelling semi-pro DSLRs on the market. See our Nikon D300 review for more details.


Compared to Nikon D3

 
Nikon D3
 
 
The D700 may have cherry-picked the key specifications of the D3 including its full-frame sensor, but Nikon’s flagship model still has much to offer. Physically the D3 features a built-in portrait grip and a larger battery as standard. The continuous shooting is also almost twice as fast at 9fps to the D700’s 5fps. Both the D3 and D700 have large full-frame viewfinders, but the D3 boasts 100% coverage, a 5:4 aspect ratio mode, and crucially for pro shooters, a shutter block that’s rated to 300,000 cycles – twice that of the D700 (and D300).

That said, the D3 misses out on the anti-dust features of the D700, and it doesn’t have a popup flash, although the latter can equally be seen as a physical weak-point. The D700 is also smaller and lighter, but again pros may see the heft of the D3 as preferable. Finally, the D3 is comfortably more expensive than the D700. Most pros will easily justify paying the extra, but anyone only wanting the higher ISO performance of a full-frame sensor will be better-served by the D700.



Compared to Canon EOS 5D

 
Canon EOS 5D
 
 
With all the excitement surrounding Nikon’s D700, it’s important to remember Canon’s EOS 5D offered 12 Megapixel full-frame performance at an ‘affordable’ price almost three years earlier. Both it and the D700 offer essentially the same resolution and the benefits of a full-frame sensor along with roughly the same-sized viewfinders, but the best part of three years age difference gives the Nikon a significant advantage in terms of modern features.

The D700 shoots faster at 5fps to the Canon’s 3fps, has a 51-point AF system compared to nine on the 5D, and a much higher 25,600 ISO maximum sensitivity to the 5D’s 3200 ISO. It also boasts a larger and more detailed 3in VGA screen (2.5in 230k on the 5D), supports Live View (complete with contrast-based AF and a Virtual Horizon), has more sophisticated metering, 14-bit RAW files, a viewfinder grid without the need to buy a separate focusing screen, an HDMI port, and is compatible with lenses designed for cropped bodies (albeit with a reduction in resolution to 5 Megapixels). Physically they’re roughly the same size, although the 5D is 185g lighter, but lacking the D700’s degree of weather-sealing.

In short, the D700 comfortably out-features the EOS 5D, as you’d expect for a body which is almost three years newer. But in the 5D’s defence, it sports the same resolution and the same sized sensor, while three years of sales has seen the body fall to around 60% of the D700’s launch price. Judging from our results, the quality still stands-up too. Looking beyond the body to the system as a whole, it's also important to note most decent full-frame Nikkor zooms are currently pricey f2.8 models, whereas Canon additionally offers a number of smaller, lighter and more affordable f4 options.

It’s widely believed a successor to the 5D will also arrive by the end of 2008 which many expect to match or exceed the D700’s specifications, but if you can live without the new features and fast continuous shooting, the EOS 5D remains a compelling option and the most affordable full-framer to date. See our Canon EOS 5D review for more details.


Nikon D700 final verdict

Nikon has been very cunning with the feature-set of the D700, taking the key specifications of the D3, and only leaving those which would affect a small and generally pro audience – who probably already have a D3 anyway. So by keeping the core image quality of the D3 and squeezing it into a smaller, lighter and cheaper body with the addition of a popup flash and anti-dust features, Nikon’s created a highly compelling full-frame DSLR.

It does however leave the question of a very high resolution body, as Nikon’s top three DSLRs now all feature ‘just’ 12 Megapixels. This may be sufficient for most photographers, but pros or anyone shooting for high-end libraries demand more. Canon has long offered the 1Ds Mark III with 21 Megapixels and the long-awaited EOS 5D successor is bound to make a comfortable leap beyond its current 12 Megapixels.

 

Many industry watchers are expecting to see a high resolution ‘D3x’ by the end of 2008, probably featuring Sony’s recently announced 24 Megapixel full-frame sensor in a D3 form factor. How this will perform – should it even exist – is anyone’s guess, but if you’re thinking of spending big bucks on the D700, it’s worth speculating Nikon’s next move in the high-end DSLR market.

If you’re happy using a rival brand, there’s also Sony’s flagship Alpha – most likely with that 24 Megapixel sensor, built-in stabilisation and an aggressive price tag – along with Canon’s long-awaited successor to the EOS 5D to consider, the latter almost certainly offering more than 12 Megapixels. Both are again expected by the end of 2008.

But today we have the Nikon D700 which is by far one of the most impressive DSLRs we’ve tested. Indeed, beyond the minor nitpicking mentioned above, there’s really little we can criticise it on. Depending on your viewpoint it either represents a smaller, lighter and more affordable way to enjoy the D3’s superb image quality, or equips the D300 form factor with a significant step-up in high-sensitivity performance. That’s a win-win whichever way you look at it and if you fall into either camp you’ll be absolutely delighted by the D700.

Ultimately like the Canon EOS 5D almost three years before it, you have to ask yourself if you really need full-frame, as it still adds a very high premium over cropped-frame models like the D300. You might take one look at our High ISO Noise results and know that's exactly what you want, or you may equally be underwhelmed by the differences for the money. You should also look carefully at the full-frame lens options that are available, as this can result in a significant additional investment.

If you don’t need full-frame then simply go for models like the D300 and relax in the knowledge its resolving power at low sensitivities is essentially the same. But if you can justify the extra outlay for high ISO performance and lack of field reduction, then the D700 is a superb choice. And again while it is much more expensive than the D300, it remains comfortably cheaper than the only other full-frame option from Nikon – so at least we’re heading in the right direction.

So with the D700 Nikon further broadens its impressive DSLR line-up and continues to throw down gauntlet after gauntlet to Canon, making its arch rival look complacent in some categories. Canon simply has to respond, but until then there’s few independent observers who wouldn’t consider Nikon now having number one billing in DSLRs.

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Good points

Full-frame sensor with superb high ISO quality.
Tough build and great ergonomics.
Quick 51-point AF and 5fps shooting.
3in VGA screen with Live View.

Bad points
High price premium of full-frame sensor.
No Live Histogram in Live View.
Anti-dust not particularly effective in our tests.
PC control and RAW software not bundled.



Scores

(relative to 2008 semi-pro DSLRs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

19 / 20
19 / 20
19 / 20
19 / 20
13 / 20

89%
 
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All words, images, videos and layout, copyright 2005-2014 Gordon Laing. May not be used without permission.

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