As I’ve said in the past, handling has become a good news, bad news situation with most recent Nikon bodies. Fortunately, the good news side is winning a slightly higher percentage than it used to. I’m going to skip over most of the details in handling and just ask you to read my D300 and D3 reviews. I really don’t need to repeat myself on most of the points I’ve made recently.
The D700 (left) is actually bulkier than the D3 (right) when the MB-D10 grip is mounted on the D700. The hand position for the vertical grip isn’t as good, though the grip does have a mini Direction pad that is reachable by thumb for most people. Ergonomically, the D700 isn’t quite as good as the D3, which so far is the most comfortable Nikon DSLR yet produced.
The D700 (left) is only a bit bigger than the D300 (right). The hand positions between these cameras feel very similar.
So what changed with the D700 that has me smiling slightly more in the handling arena? Well, mainly the Info button. You can get to 10 key settings faster by using this interface instead of the normal menu system (for the record, both shooting bank controls, the three assignable buttons, both noise reduction settings, the Picture Control setting, and Color Space. This, coupled with MyMenu should give you all the top-level access you really need to settings you change frequently.
Like the D300, the D700 has no dedicated bracketing button, though, which is going to annoy some. Moreover, I’ve finally figured out that Nikon didn’t optimally choose the assignable button defaults. It’s annoyingly obvious what they should have done when you think about it: the AE-L/AF-L button should be assigned BKT (for button+dials) in addition to its default assignment as a button. Yep. You can do that (on both the D300 and D700), and it frees the FN button to be used for one or two other assignments. And it seems logical to assign an exposure function to a button that normally does exposure things. So when I say that Nikon is not getting the details right in the complex menu and control system they’ve built, I mean it. Thus, I’ll once again suggest:
- Banks for everything together, not just independently. I want a way to configure everything on the camera to one of my four pre-selected ways with a single change. That’s what a FN + dial option ought to do as default.
- Re-prioritization of menu items. In particular, the SHOOTING menu has things on it that are changed often, and things that change less often. Nikon has been afraid to build another level into their menu system, but it’s either that or they need to rethink why things like Live View settings (but not actually the implementation) live in the SHOOTING menu instead of the CUSTOM SETTINGS or SETUP menu. And why don’t we have just Image Quality, Image Size, and Image Compression? NEF bit size could be a sub-thought to Image Size, JPEG and NEF compression are sub-items in Image Compression. A little attention to organization would go a long, long way at reducing the menu clutter.
It’s a good thing I don’t give marks for handling, otherwise the D700 wouldn’t get five stars for everything in my ratings. Instead, it would have one item that gets only four stars. Don’t get me wrong, we can live with the current complexity in handling, but it’s not optimal, even with the Info button tweaks.
Meanwhile, with the publication of the Metadata Working Group guidelines, I think it’s also time to take Nikon to task for how it handles (and where it puts) metadata. The Copyright field actually is a Maker’s tag in EXIF rather than being where IPTC, the MWC, Adobe, or anyone else has said to put it. If our cameras have the ability to create and record information beyond the picture itself, we want that data to fit seamlessly into our workflows. And, yes, many of us (or is it most of us?) use workflows that aren’t Nikon Transfer –> Nikon ViewNX –> Nikon Capture NX2. (I should note that even the Nikon workflow doesn’t put that data in the right place; it just leaves it where it was written.) A several thousand dollar tool shouldn’t be trying to forge new standards that others certainly won’t follow.
This performance section is going to look a bit familiar. The only thing that’s really different than the D3 is the battery life. You’ll find that the rest of the items are only modestly edited from my D3 review.
Battery performance is good. Indeed, much better than I expected with the EN-EL3e. While I’m not exactly the most demanding shooter in terms of battery performance, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could usually go more than a day with a single battery in my D700. Put in image terms, that’s nearly 1000 NEF files (and 14-bit lossless compressed, at that). Of course, using the internal flash starts to cut into that quickly. But, overall, the D700 has the best performance of any camera using EN-EL3e batteries, especially for those with triple digits in its numbers. It’s night and day better than the D200, and a bit better than the D300, as well.
Writing to Card
CompactFlash write performance can be superb with the right card. I use the words “can be” because you really need a UDMA-enabled card (e.g. Sandisk Extreme IV or Lexar 300x) to see what the D700 can really do. I clearly get a frame or two benefit in the buffer with UDMA-enabled cards, and the buffer clears remarkably faster. That’s not to say that earlier generation cards are slugs–the D700 is almost twice as fast as my D2xs with my SanDisk Extreme III cards, for example, which means that it’s in the 16MBs per second range . But the UDMA cards can easily run two times as fast. Trust me, they’re worth it.
One thing to note is that file sizes can be large. NEFs range in size from 11MB (Compressed 12-bit) to 24.7MB (Uncompressed 14-bit) in Nikon’s numbers, while a JPEG Fine Large is 5.7MB on average, a bit smaller than a D2xs JPEG. The way I shoot (Lossless Compressed 14-bit NEF most of the time) I get around 100 images on a 2GB card, which is a bit low for me (too many card swaps when I’m doing HDR panoramas, where I’ve been known to take 100+ exposures for a single image), so I’ve switched to 4GB and 8GB cards. (There’s a dynamic here that you need to consider: the bigger a card, the more your images are at risk to a card failure or loss; the smaller the cards, the more you have to change them and the more likely you’ll misplace one). I should note that all the numbers I just presented are variable with the amount of detail in the scene. These numbers represent “typical use.” I’ve seen NEFs that are 50% larger than the expected number, and 30% lower. Obviously, the former had tons of small detail in it, the latter had very little detail in it at all. The same will be true of JPEGs. This, of course, means that the Frames Remaining counter on the camera can be about as reliable as a gas gauge on a car, perhaps less so, as variations in what you shoot will impact the number.
I’ve now got a pretty large mishmash of cards I can test in cameras. I’ve yet to see any that misbehave in my D700. I’ve gotten the best performance so far from my Hoodman Professional 280x (UDMA-enabled) and SanDisk Extreme IV (UDMA-enabled). The worst performance was with a generic PNY 1GB card. In my experience so far, I’d say you want at least a SanDisk Extreme III (IV is preferred) or a Lexar 133x WA (300x is preferred), though. The Delkin and Hoodman UDMA cards, along with the SanDisk Extreme IV and Lexar 300x, are the best performers I’ve found so far.
Autofocus performance is excellent, with a couple of small issues.
On the D300, the new CAM3500 sensor covers a very large portion of the frame, which means that the system is very good at following subject motion and managing highly off-center autofocus. On the D700, the same sensor covers a smaller portion of the frame, meaning that autofocus capabilities are restricted to a smaller portion of the frame. For some subjects, this is a problem, for others it usually isn’t (hint: subjects with skin tones fare better outside the autofocus sensing area with Auto Area AF than others).
Coupled with the scene recognition that is being done by the metering CCD in the viewfinder, the new focus system is sometimes so uncanny in 51 point 3D or Auto Area focus mode that it boggles the mind. This happens most often when there are faces or other skin tone in the area covered by the autofocus sensors. As it turns out, while various skin tones can look fairly different to us humans, to an RGB metering system they all are in the same narrow range and thus easily detectable. However, note that when you’re in non-white light–some fluorescent and sodium vapor, for example–this system seems to not work anywhere near as well, probably because the color tint from the lighting is polluting the skin tones the camera is trying to detect. On the D700, recognition of the colors of an object is clearly taken into account in Auto Area focus mode and somehow dealt with even when that object goes out of the autofocus sensor area! The question everyone wants to know is whether the D700 is closer to the D300 or the D3 autofocus system. For those not yet in the know, the D300 autofocus system uses a slightly less beefy CPU and tends to have a bigger hesitation prior to locking in initial focus than does the D3. The answer is that the D700 seems much more like the D3 than the D300, though it clearly seems to be between them in performance. My D3 snaps into initial autofocus faster than my D700, which does so faster than my D300. In terms of following subjects, the D700 and D3 seem to be equal there, with the D300 being very slightly less capable. With practice, all three cameras have perfectly fine autofocus. But if you move between the cameras, as I do, be prepared for slightly different initial acquisition speeds. Once an object is tracked, the D700 and D3 are uncanny in following it, the D300 slightly less so (but still arguably very good).
Low light focusing is also surprisingly good. While only the center 15 autofocus sensors are cross hatched and more sensitive to low light, if there’s enough contrast under the outlying 36 sensors the D700 still seems to be able to focus. A few people have noticed that this is less true with vertical pictures, probably due to the line orientation of those outer sensors. But in general I find only the inner autofocus sensors confident and reliable in low light with Single Area AF. Also, note that Nikon has made some changes to the way Autofocus Assist works. With lenses in the 24-100mm range, all autofocus sensors can trigger the assist lamp (on most previous cameras it was only the central sensors that could). However, there are still nuances here: go wider and the sensor set that can activate the assist lamp changes, as it does when you go longer.
The D700 does a very good job with erratically moving objects, such as flying birds and most sports. Like the D3, I’d place the D700 a bit better than the D2x in this respect. Only when the light gets dim and the subject gets decidedly out of the central area did I find any problems with tracking moving subjects.
Once again Nikon is providing mostly accurate color with the D700, though with more saturation than I like (Imatest saturation scores tended to be quite higher than 100% with all Picture Controls and color settings). In general, I see accurate, punchy color when the camera is set to its most neutral capabilities (Neutral Picture Control, AdobeRGB). Blues tend to more magenta-ish than cyan, the greens are accurate, and the warm colors all tend to have a bit too much yellow in them (most people will like that, especially for skin tones). But that’s nit-picking; the overall color accuracy is good enough to not worry about the minor drifts. Still, I much prefer the D2XMODEI and D2XMODEII Picture Controls than the ones Nikon supplies with the camera. All Picture Controls at the defaults are giving me a slight mid-range boost, though not as pronounced as with the D300.
White balance, curiously, seems better on the D700 than on the D300, especially in mixed lighting. The direct Kelvin settings once again didn’t match my Minolta Color Meter and my Imatest measurements, but they’re closer than the D300 was. The range over which Auto WB works well is more limited than Nikon suggests, though from about 4000K to 6500K it can probably be trusted. I should point out that the Korean camera clubs have been harping about Auto WB (with the D3, D300, and D700), and there’s some truth to their comments. Basically, they find that with JPEGs and Auto WB, these cameras are using a desaturation technique on colors that are near neutral in order to “force” a more neutral coloration. That seems to be true at extreme white balances, which is why I say limit your use of Auto to a fairly narrow range. I suppose you want to see a photo, right? Okay, here are two photos, one taken with Auto WB the other with a carefully made PRE WB measurement:
So which is which? And why is the exposure slightly different? Well, for one, the camera decided to meter them differently (no change in light or camera position, as it was on a tripod). But even though the Auto WB one (left) is slightly brighter, you can see evidence of desaturation in a number of areas. In particular, look at the skin tone patch on the Color Checker (far right on second row as the card is oriented here). Also, the byThom Camera Shop building is not a neutral gray, but has a slight warm cast to it, which is one reason why I use it next to the white Lego building. Curiously, neither example is correct (probably because this is a mixed lighting set and all that blue reflection from the background cloth is throwing some cyan-tinted light into everything). But the PRE WB is much closer and has more color saturation in it. And this is a near best case example.
This example isn’t as bad as the extreme white balances (because it’s in the range Auto does decently on), but it should show that there is a clear difference between using Auto and setting the right white balance. For you JPEG and TIFF shooters, you’re going to need to be more careful about how you set white balance. Even raw shooters aren’t completely unaffected, as the channel histograms come from that potentially desaturated JPEG. Bottom line: don’t trust Auto WB as much as you used to.
Overall, color is good once you get a handle on the new white balance settings. Be careful of saturation, though. Especially if you crank up the saturation controls you can end up with images that are cartoonish and don’t easily adjust back. Also, contrast tends to get set too high by the camera. Consider manually controlling and shooting for a lower value than the camera will give. It’s far easier to put contrast back into an image than it is to take it out.
Let’s start with amp noise: very good. But there’s a caveat. Generally, we aren’t worried about amp noise until we start shooting long exposures. The problem with the D700 is that it will absolutely start producing very visible colored hot pixels on long exposures unless you turn on Long Exp NR. This is actually very disappointing performance, and about as bad as the D80. I will note that my D700 is notquite as bad as my D3 in this respect, but compared to most other Nikon DSLRs, it’s in that same category of “hot pixler” that the D1x, D80, and D3 are.
I start with the problems because, other than those, the D700 simply blows away any DSLR Nikon has previously produced (except for the D3, of course). I’m almost tempted to say that you can shoot at any ISO up to 1600 at any camera setting (sharpening, JPEG compression, etc.) with impunity. I said almost. As with all digital cameras, increasing ISO does have other impacts, most notably on dynamic range and noise. If I really work at it, I can force JPEG compression artifacts into the faint noise and make them visible at 100% view at as low as ISO 800. But I have to select the worst possible JPEG compression (Size priority and JPEG basic) and push the contrast and sharpening to do that. So, here’s how I’ll put it: if you don’t overdo the camera settings you can shoot at impunity through ISO 1600. Yes, there will be a bit of noise if you pixel peep, but not enough to worry about. And, yes, you’ll lose a modest amount of dynamic range, but again not enough to worry about except in very high contrast scenes. But I’ll also note that I was shooting at ISO 800 almost the entire time in Alaska with my D700, including some landscapes, and I’m just not seeing anything in my images that I find problematic. Even the dynamic range at ISO 800 with the D700 (and D3) is as good as many previous bodies were at their base ISO (I’m thinking specifically of the D200 here).
If you haven’t read my basketball gym high ISO testing from the D3 review, go do so now. I’m not going to repeat it here. Instead, I’ll try another approach. Let’s look at that white balance example a little closer (it was shot at ISO 800):
That’s 100% view, straight out of camera at mostly the camera defaults (sharpening is turned up high, noise reduction is turned off, attempting to provoke problems). We’re looking at an area that is essentially underexposed (that’s really a black Lego door). Frankly, that level of image quality under those circumstances is pretty remarkable. A Nikon D2x would completely botch this.
The D700 is near state-of-the-art at 12mp. Thus, the D700 is a respectable landscape camera. By respectable I mean that you can push landscapes up to the maximum size a desktop inkjet prints and get excellent detail. Given some of the lenses Nikon has put out recently, any softness in the resulting images is not the camera’s fault. Diffraction softness sets in near f/16.
At the base ISO, easily nine stops of usable dynamic range are produced by the D700. Moreover, it has a Fujifilm S5 Pro-like ability to have a little latitude in exposure. I can usually bring back in a stop of highlights on raw files, when necessary, so I don’t fear pushing my channel values a bit.
Should You Get a D700?
Yes. Or no. Surprisingly, it’s not quite as easy decision as it might seem to be:
- Film SLR owner who hasn’t gone digital. If you’re a N90s or F100 user, the D700 is probably the camera you’ve been waiting for, though you should also take a long look at the D300. If you’re a F3, F4, F5, or F6 user, the D3 is probably the more logical choice, especially with the recent drops in prices.
- Consumer DSLR owner (D40, D40x, D50, D70, D70s). I’d say no, skip the D700 and go to the D90 or D300. First, there’s that DX/FX thing. You’re used to shooting DX and the D90 and D300 will sustain that. The D700 is heavier and bigger by enough that it should make you pause and consider the D90 and D300 instead, though if you’ve been missing the FX frame, that may be enough to tip things in the D700′s favor. Don’t get distracted by that high ISO and slight DR gain’s though: you pay a big financial penalty for the differences, and both the D90 and D300 are better than what you’ve got.
- Prosumer DSLR owner (D100, D200, D300 user). Older prosumer users will see bigger gains than a D300 user will, but the primary thing is FX, at least another stop of high ISO capability over the D300, and a bit more dynamic range. Still, I’d say D100 and D200 users really have to consider the D300. D300 users need to think carefully about what they give up and gain in moving to FX. The D300, for example, has autofocus sensors that cover most of the frame and has a higher pixel density (useful at the telephoto end with distant subjects, such as in wildlife shooting).
- Older professional DSLR owner (D1x or D2x user). Here again we have an easy answer: yes, move up to the D700 (or D3) if you’re ready to upgrade. The D2x might be able to hold its own against a D700 at the base ISO, but that’s where it ends: at every higher ISO value the D700 starts to pull further and further away.
Bottom line: the D700 a great camera, but make sure you need what it offers. And be prepared for Nikon to continue to pull “new and better” cameras out of their hat.
I’ve now had the chance to shoot with the D300, D700, and D3 on extended trips. Which would I pick? Well, it’s looking like the D700, as that’s the way my Ready Kit is packed. For the first time in a long time I’m close to where I was when I was shooting film. There are basically four scenarios in which I shoot:
- Landscapes/Macro. My preferred photography. A D700 with a couple of wide angle lenses plus my trusty 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor. That’s all I really need. Right now the wides are a Zeiss 24mm and a variety of things I’m testing, including my old 20mm. But I suspect that eventually those will become the Zeiss 18mm and my newly arrived Nikkor 24mm PC-E. Trying to do landscape kit with a D300 puts me on a zoom, either the Sigma 10-20mm or the Nikkor 12-24mm. Both are good, but those primes are hard to beat.
- Tooling around. When I’m in foreign cities walking around (waiting for the plane that’ll take me to wilderness ;~), I need flexible. Right now that’s a D700 with a Tamron 28-300mm, which has turned out to be far better optically than I’d expected. Too bad I’ve got DBS problems with it.
- Wildlife. Here it’s a tough call. On the one hand the D300 puts more pixel density on most subjects with the same lens, on the other the D700 allows me to shoot with near total impunity at ISO 800 and at ISO 1600 if I need it. I’m leaning more and more towards the D700, but I’ll almost always bring the D300 as a second body in these situations. Lenses I use for this are currently the 200mm f/2, 200-400mm f/4, and 400mm f/2.8. If I stick with the D700, I’m going to have to consider the 500mm f/4 instead of the 400mm.
- Assignment. When someone else’s money is paying my way, it’s a D700 with the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm, and a box full of i-TTL flashes. For certain assignments, I’ll obviously pick a lens tailored to it (for mostly portraits I’d be using my 85mm f/1.4 and 135mm f/2 DC, for example). But I’ll almost always bring the “f/2.8 kit” with me.
So the questions you probably have are these: why not the D3? I don’t usually need the extra performance, and size/weight is almost always an issue when and where I’m shooting. The one exception I’d make is if I had a sports assignment (hey Chris over at SI, you listening?). Why not the D300? At a pixel peeping level it just can’t quite match the cleanliness of the D700 file, nor the usable dynamic range. Moreover, since I shoot wide a lot, I’m stuck with a zoom for that, and as good as some of the wide angle zooms are, they don’t match what I can get with wide primes on the D700 (and the 14-24mm, which can match some of those primes, is huge, heavy, and can’t take filters when needed).
But you’re not me. You’re you. I need to point out that as I write this Nikon has four very capable 12mp cameras, and almost certainly one of them is the right one for you. The question is which? Well, okay, the question you probably have is what do you give up or gain with each? Let’s take this in steps:
- D90. Clean ISO to 640, very usable ISO to 1600. Modest frame rate (4.5 fps).
- D300. Adds: US$575, faster frame rate (6 fps), wider autofocus coverage, more robust body and sealing, weight/size, better viewfinder, 10-pin connector, mirror lock-up, 14-bits. Loses: video.
- D700. Adds: US$1225, another stop of clean ISO, another stop of usable ISO, slightly better autofocus, FX lens use, faster 14-bits, weight/size. Loses: frame rate (5 fps), pixel density.
- D3. Adds: US$1700, faster frame rate (9 fps), even more robust body and sealing, weight/size, better battery, multiple card slots, voice annotation, more dedicated buttons. Loses: self-cleaning sensor.
Yes, you can add a grip and get better frame rates and battery performance and more size/weight on the lower models. Personally, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me (you’ll need new batteries and charger, so the cost starts pushing you up to the next level), but it may to you. You gain only modestly in image quality climbing this ladder, and mostly at high ISO levels. My advice is to mentally climb the ladder and get off where the added cost doesn’t equal the added benefits in your mind.
- You pay for FX. The penalty for FX is currently a minimum of US$1225. That’s because you can pick up a perfectly fine D300 for US$1574 new but a D700 will go for US$2799.
- Complexity. With the last few serious Nikon bodies, the complexity of the menu system and the controls has grown to levels that now can’t be overlooked. The D700 actually has a few things that help the complexity, like the decently thought out use of the Info button, but it’s still a highly complex product.
- Where are my pixels? That 95% viewfinder means that you’re not seeing about a 100 pixels at each edge. Technically, that makes the D700 a 10.8mp camera in terms of accurately framing via the viewfinder.
- Shoot at any ISO. Certainly true for almost everyone up to ISO 1600. Where you’ll start to object is going to be somewhere north of there. Personally, the best ISO 3200 camera I’ve seen, bar none, and usable at 6400 with care.
- Pro in most aspects. Lots of control (though see drawbacks), lots of performance, and robust.
- Excellent Image Quality. It’s not just high ISO that’s good, the dynamic range is the best of the Nikon DSLRs, the acuity is excellent, white balance is better than ever, and, once mastered, the Picture Controls do give you plenty of control.
- Right Size. For those of us who travel a lot, the D700 is a far better answer than the D3. While bigger and heavier than a D300, the D700 is the first “right-sized” FX Nikon body we’ve had since the DCS Pro 14n. And it’s far, far better.