The Nikon D700 seemingly adopts the D3's spec inside a D300 body, but is the Nikon D700 too good to be true and how does it compare to the D3? The What Digital Camera Nikon D700 review investigates...
Nikon D700 Review
The Nikon D700 pitches its price pretty much bang inbetween the Nikon D300 and Nikon D3, and so further saturates the enthusiast/professional DSLR sector with an affordable professional model. Whilst the Nikon D300 and Nikon D3 models have each gone on to set a impressive benchmark for the sectors they represent, the Nikon D700, like the D3 before it, is a full-frame sensor model, which breaks new ground in terms of high-sensitivity image quality, especially at this lower price point. So is the Nikon D700 the camera to buy, and does seemingly replace the D3? The What Digital Camera Nikon D700 review investigates…
Nikon D700 review – Features
Despite the core elements of the Nikon D700 essentially being the same as the Nikon D3’s, there have been a number of alterations which explain why its RRP is almost £1,400 lower. Beginning with the similarities, the same fullframe, FX-format CMOS sensor outputs an effective resolution of 12.1MP, from a total value of 12.87MP. This has been paired with the EXPEED processing technologies also adopted by the Nikon D3, which deliver a 14-bit Analogue to Digital (A/D) conversion and 16-bit image processing. Nikon claims that this ensures smooth tonal gradations in both Raw and JPEG files, with the single-engine processing responsible for rapid operational speed and and a high signal-to-noise ratio up to ISO 6400.
After this point the Nikon D700 has further increments of sensitivity, effectively extending the range from ISO 100 to 25,600. Being outside of the camera’s ‘standard’ sensitivity range, these settings result from the method of bit-shifting rather than conventional sensitivity control. Noise reduction may be applied to both high-ISO shots and long exposures, with the Auto ISO control option further enabling you to set both a maximum sensitivity and minimum shutter speed at which you wish the camera to operate. This is particularly useful for non-stabilised telephoto optics for the prevention of image blur.
The Nikon D700 also provides support for both DX and FX format lenses, which is much to Nikon’s credit. This is in contrast with Canon’s prohibition of EF-S lens support on its 1D and 1Ds models, and makes sense given the more enthusiast market at which the model is aimed. To achieve this, though, images may only be captured at a maximum resolution of 5.1MP and the standard DX conversion factor of 1.5x applies. In terms of image optimisation Nikon’s Active D-Lighting system is present, and works by applying an adjustment curve for the benefit of shadow and highlight retention. It differs from standard D-Lighting in that adjustments are made as the image is being processed, rather than applied to images post-capture, although D-Lighting is also an option in the Retouch menu among a host of other retouching options. Four Picture Controls allow images to be captured in Standard, Neutral, Vivid or Monochrome formats, with the further option of editing, naming and saving your own variations in-camera (as well as in the Capture NX2 software). As if that wasn’t enough, Picture Controls can be shared between DSLRs and computers once they have been defined, and even downloaded from Nikon websites.
The Nikon D700 has the 3D Colour Matrix II metering system – also carried from the Nikon D3 – with its 1,005 pixel RGB sensor said to analyse brightness, contrast and AF area among other factors to determine accurate metering. Furthermore, it works in tandem with Scene Recognition technology which optimises white balance, exposure, i-TTL control and focus, all ‘within milliseconds prior to shutter release’.
As with metering, we also see the same incarnation of the Nikon D3’s 51-point Multi-CAM 5300 AF system. 15 cross-type centre points are vertically arranged in a 3×5 formation, with a further 18 each to the left and right. The system supports single point, auto area and dynamic focusing options, with a further 3D Tracking option available with the latter setting. This utilises colour information from the aforementioned RGB sensor to help keep track of moving subjects, while the auto and single-point area options are said to recognise people and skin tones to effectively provide face recognition.
Live view is available, with the D700 supporting both manual and auto focusing. The view may be magnified up to 13 times (past 100%) and viewed on the camera’s 3in LCD screen, which has a high resolution of 920,000 dots and a viewing angle of 170°. Tethering the camera to a computer is also an option via the Camera Control 2 Pro software, though unfortunately this doesn’t come bundled with the camera.
The D700 hosts a number of other features which you could spend many happy hours discovering. The Virtual Horizon facility essentially functions as an inbuilt spirit level, and may be overlaid onto the live previewing of an image, while the Custom Functions menu allows no less than 50 various adjustments, from assigning options to the Func button to a host of flash options and everything in between. You can even choose from five options to define the diameter of the centreweighted metering area – certainly a far cry from my Halina disc camera days.
So what of the differences? Well, arguably the main criticism of the Nikon D3 is that there’s no form of either dust prevention or removal with regards to the internal components. Thankfully, Nikon has seen fit to include the piezoelectric-based sensor-cleaning system that debuted on the Nikon D300, which is complemented by a dust-mapping facility via the Capture 2 NX software. The inclusion of dust-reduction has had a knock-on effect on the viewfinder’s coverage, which differs from both the Nikon D300 and Nikon D3 in offering 95% coverage with a 0.72x magnification factor. This reason for this is that the mechanism had to be modified to cover the full-frame sensor, as up until now it’s only featured on the DX-format Nikon D300. The other major difference is the inclusion of a built-in flash. This is somewhat unusual for a model of this calibre, and its guide number of 12 @ ISO 100 may make it a little redundant for professionals’ needs (also compounded by the sensor’s low-light abilities). Of course, for fill-in situations it’s there if you need it and support for Nikon’s TTL and i-TTL flash algorithms allows for external units to be triggered wirelessly. This includes the new Speedlite SB-900 which was launched at the same time as the D700. There are many other minor differences, pertaining to the camera’s operation and feature set. Instead of the Nikon D3’s 9fps burst depth the D700 manages 5fps, though this may be boosted to 8fps with either the EH-5A mains adaptor or MB-D10 battery pack. Curiously, while the Nikon D3 can also rattle off 11fps in its DX mode, the D700 retains a constant maximum 5fps rate at default, regardless of what format you’re shooting in. The shutter mechanism is also different and has been tested to 150,000 cycles, and there’s no microphone and speaker for audio notation. The camera also loses one of the Nikon D3’s two CompactFlash slots, while a sliding cover and large release button allow for card removal as opposed to the Nikon D3’s cover-popping button. There’s also no secondary LCD screen underneath the main one for checking exposure and image parameters, and the Info button has lost its assignment to the Lock button, now sitting on its own to the right of the LCD screen. Finally, the Nikon D3’s option to shoot in a 5:4 format is also missing.
Nikon D700 review – Design
While the feature set is akin to that of the Nikon D3, the real selling point of the Nikon D700 is that it’s in a body that resembles the smaller Nikon D300. Much of the design treads along the same path and at first glance it’s easy to mistake the two models, though the viewfinder chamber on the D700 stands much prouder from the top-plate. It also has a rounded eyecup like the D3’s, to the right of which sits a mechanical shutter blind which helps to prevent stray light from entering the chamber during long exposures.
To withstand the rigours of professional use, the Nikon D700 is sealed against moisture, dust and even electromagnetic interference. It’s been constructed from a magnesium alloy frame and features a similar button and control arrangement to previous Nikon models. Buttons for accessing the menu, zooming in and out of images and an OK button sit along the left-hand side of the rear, while the top-plate plays host to white balance, image quality and sensitivity controls, as well as featuring a dial for accessing single shot, continuous and live view modes. Mirror lock and self-timer functions are also present among these.
The multi-control dial from the Nikon D3 has made its way onto the Nikon D700, which features a confirmation button in its centre. It’s encircled with a locking ring which, when locked, restricts the changing of the selected AF point via the dial. Around the side of the camera are ports for mains supply, USB connection, video out and HDMI output, while flash sync and remote sockets fall just above the lens release on the camera’s front. The other side of the camera is half occupied by the rubber grip, and half by a memory card door. Personally, I prefer the D700’s card removal method to that of the Nikon D300 and the D3. It’s far easier to simply slide the cover and eject the card than to fiddle with a small latch or, in the case of the D3, to open a separate door to press a button which opens the the card door. The button for ejecting the card is surprisingly large and comfortable to press, meaning that none of the uncomfortable finger jabbing associated with smaller eject buttons is an issue here.
There is, however, decidely less room around the back for your thumb to breathe than on the Nikon D300, and the raised rubber edge gives the area an uncomfortably small definition. I didn’t find this too big a problem while shooting, though carrying the camera around meant that my thumb would often be chaffing against the edge. As the D700 is a pro model, I’m also a little surprised at how little room there is on the inside of the grip. The problem isn’t so much with the size of the grip itself, but the depression within it where I could just about fit my three fingers. Again, it’s very slightly more defined than on the Nikon D300, which I prefer. These issues won’t apply to everyone and depend on how you shoot, hold and operate a camera.
Nikon D700 review – Performance
Given the exhaustive functionality offered by the D700, I made my life easier by setting up a Custom Menu with the options I anticipated using most frequently early on. I left the depth-of-field preview button as it was, and assigned Active D-Lighting to the Func button around the front, later changing it to activate Raw shooting.
Perhaps the first thing that strikes you about using the camera’s performance is its near-instantaeous start-up. This is matched by the repsonsiveness of the shutter release, which with so little travel only requires the slightest push for focusing to kick in and a touch more for the shot to be taken. The LCD screen is just as impressive, with a pixel count that’s over three times higher than on most other DSLRs. While its benefits mainly concern image reviewing and zooming in to check fine detail and focus, it also heightens user experience by presenting the menu system and display panel with great clarity. This applies equally to the viewfinder, whose glass pentaprism is large and bright, and all exposure information is clear to see.
With regards to focusing, it really helps that each AF point isn’t a point so much as a small rounded box. Seeing this (or these) over the area in focus is considerably clearer than a small point, and particularly when shooting using the 3D Tracking function, where the focusing point dances manically as it tracks the subject. I shot a number of continuous-burst sequences using the function, shooting everything from ducks in the park, birds in the air, joggers on a racetrack and an assortment of street traffic. I also caught the attention of a footballing street performer in Covent Garden, who, upon hearing of my shooting continuously, was eager to show off his talents. The vast majority of my shots were sharp and focused, and on a couple of shots the focusing point was distracted by a passer-by, but I still managed an impressive hit rate. It goes without saying that subjects with a good contrast to their background will be tracked more easily by the system and a couple of times the focus point drifted off in more subdued conditions. The only other time I found the system swayed is when shooting a white duck against reflections in the water, where the camera was occasionally thrown by the bright reflections. No AF tracking system is infallible, but it would be unreasonable to expect too much more than that of the D700.
Overall AF performance is great, and even when I turned off the AF assist light in a dimly lit cafe it didn’t dawdle too much. Autofocusing is also possible when using live view, in both contrast- and phase-detectionbased modes (respectively titled Tripod and Hand-held). This setup is currently the most common on DSLRs, and with no augmentable LCD screen you could argue that it’s also among the most primitive. Even so, I found the Hand-held mode focused fast enough to capture stationary subject matter. Like all contrast-detection AF modes the Tripod mode is slower, and so cannot be used with such ease. What did impress me, though, was how accurately it ‘trialled-and-errored’ each focusing step; it does so quickly and in quite small increments, which for studio work makes it an accurate and user-friendly alternative to manual focusing. Although I found the camera reliable in terms of faithfully reproducing a scene, a couple of things threw me. For example, I took two shots of a car from similar positions using the same exposure settings. Upon review I was surprised to see one with a coldish, blue cast and one much warmer, and it was only after viewing the two images in View NX that a possible explanation arose. One image had just one focus point and the other had five, so it seems that either I had switched from single-point AF to auto area AF between the two, or simply that the camera’s Auto AF area had chosen a single point for my first image and five for the second. Focusing and metering systems are generally linked in DSLRs, but the D700 also optimises white balance and assesses Scene Recognition among other factors, prior to exposure. What this example highlights is the camera’s nature of optimising each shot prior to exposure, but this in turn means that a greater degree of precision is needed from the user for accurate results.
Whether you’re using a DX or FX format lens, poorer lenses will be scrutinised by the sensor, and DX lenses may show higher instances of corner shading and/or softness than if they were mounted on a DX-format body. Nikon has clearly considered this, and features such as the Vignetting Control (which, surprise surprise, has not just one setting but low, medium, high and auto flavours) are on hand to deal with this. Even so, there’s little point using the D700 with anything but quality optics. This is not to say that you can’t use older lenses and expect good results – I used an elderly Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 G macro lens and was more than impressed by its performance – just as long as they’re good-quality older lenses.
Image Quality & Value For Money
Nikon D700 review – Image Quality
Nikon D700 review – Raw and JPEG
The standard of JPEGs is overall high. Viewing JPEGs in comparison with their Raw files shows that highlights in particular are brought back to a much more detailed level, though I’d still be tempted to notch up the default sharpness setting up a touch. The camera processes fringing out of defocused areas impressively, but predictably it can struggle in focused areas where maintaining sharpness is more of a concern. I found fringing in focused areas of JPEGs slightly dulled rather than removed, so the camera is obviously trying to rectify this. Finally, it’d be nice to have a full version of Capture NX 2, rather than just a trial. Nikon has been generous enough in the past to offer deals on the software to Nikon D300 and Nikon D3 purchasers, so it may well do so again with the D700.
Nikon D700 review – Exposure
Shot after shot, exposures were balanced and detail was well kept. Different exposure settings (such as sensitivity) will dictate the exact dynamic range displayed by the camera, but with an average of up to eight stops you can largely be confident of retaining detail. I did find the Active D-Lighting function useful and effective, but having five different settings is a little unnecessary in the majority of situations, especially if you have to trial and error each one. Either stick to the Auto setting or leave images to post-production.
Nikon D700 review – Noise
With the same processor and sensor as the Nikon D3, it’s no surprise that the D700 exhibits the same fantastic control over noise. Noise rises very steadily through the range, and even at the maximum standard sensitivity setting of 6400 images have a tight grain that doesn’t destroy fine detail too much. There can, however, be a little banding visible around this sensitivity. Images at the maximum ISO 25,600 are noisy, but given how infrequently you’re likely to use this setting – and remembering that no other manufacturer has achieved such results yet – you can hardly complain. As with other DSLRs, there’s a considerable shift in terms of visible chroma noise between the highest two sensitivity settings compared with the rest of the range.
Studio testing indicates that the camera reproduces a relatively light midtone, prefering shadow to highlight detail.
Nikon D700 review – Colour And White Balance
The camera’s AWB system did remarkably well to reproduce faithful conditions, with a slightly lower but still impressive performance under incandescent lighting. The only other issues I encountered with the white balance system was when the camera selected different focusing points for consecutive shots of the same scene. Other than that, colour is pleasing and I didn’t experience any unexpected colour casts.
Nikon D700 review – Sharpness And Detail
The level of detail the camera manages to capture is impressive to say the least, particularly in areas where you may assume detail is lost. This is largely lens dependent, though, with only quality optics matching the sensor.
Nikon D700 review – Value For Money
It’s tricky to judge how good-value the D700 is, for the simple reason that it pretty much sits in a class of its own. On one hand, so much of the Nikon D3’s feature set is now available for almost half of what its asking price was just a year ago, that all of a sudden the Nikon D3 seems a little expensive. Of course, there are differences to justify this, but with the sensor-based cleaning and built-in flash you’re getting a few extras, too. It’s undoubtedly the best camera you can buy for under the £2,000 mark and that’s no easily-achieved honour, but I imagine the average enthusiast would be better served by the Nikon D300, which itself has a number of benefits over the D700.
The big question now is how Canon will respond. Given that its current 5D offers a 12.8MP resolution, its likely that its successor – should Canon ever wish to grace us with one – will surpass that of the D700, and so will appeal to the more resolution-hungry demands of stock photography, advertising and studio work. Sony, too, has all but announced the name of its 24MP pro-orientated model and rumours still circulate about other manufacturers muscling in on the sector. As possible competition to the D700 emerges then its value will have a more meaningful barometer against which to be tested, but at the moment, within its own class, the D700 is unrivalled.
Nikon has played a smart card with the D700, where professional credentials meet affordability. For professionals in particular the camera is ideal as a backup body, while the enthusiast will be spoiled by both its performance in a variety of situations and the flexibility of its images under post-processing. The small issues the camera does have – such as occasional banding at high sensitivities – pale in comparison to its plusses. I defy anyone to use the D700 and not be impressed by its ability to pop out perfectly exposed images in poor lighting conditions or by the amount of detail that it’s clearly capable of recording. It’s both an engineering masterpiece and a photographer’s dream. Only the precedent it sets for future DSLRs is more exciting.