|Nikon D700 Review
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Well, that was fast. First, Nikon produced and shipped a D3 derivative in less than a year. And I've finally reviewed a camera in less than three months from its appearance (it would have been faster, but I needed to do some shooting with it in the wild first ;~).
Why so fast? Let's start with Nikon's motivations. First, there's that sensor. The bottom line is this: once you crank up a sensor on the fab, you really want to run as many copies as possible to bring your overall costs down. Doing short runs increases your costs, and just how many D3's do you think Nikon can really sell? Certainly not a number even approaching the millions; I'd place the number in the low hundreds of thousands lifetime. That's a short sensor run. Thus, you look for other products to utilize that. And Nikon had to look no further than the long-bemoaned gap with the Canon 5D. Canon had an "affordable" full frame camera, Nikon didn't. The only real engineering issue that slowed the D700's appearance down at all was the integration of an FX viewfinder into a D300(DX)-like body.
Thus, I'm not surprised by Nikon's speed in creating a D700.
As for my speed? Well, Nikon did me a favor: I can dispense with a lot of detailed testing and just verify that, indeed, the AF and imaging capabilities of the D700 are the same as the D3. There's nothing new in the imaging chain (well, okay, the sensor cleaning aspect of the AA filter is new). There's nothing really new in the AF chain other than the change in focusing screen technology means a bit different capability in producing the sensor highlighting. Indeed, the more I looked at the D700 the more I realized that I had either written about something it features in either my D300 or my D3 review. The number of new things that the D700 dredges up are a reasonably short and obvious list when you start doing the concordance.
On the other hand, having just completed my Complete Guide to the Nikon D700, I can say the number of small differences in the D700 are almost exhausting to catalog and document. Things like the dropping of support for Type II CompactFlash cards (e.g., the Microdrive) or the addition of something hidden, like pressing the OK button twice when an image is displayed takes you immediately to D-Lighting adjustments for the image. So I do have a few things to write about, after all.
Obviously, if I gave the D3 full marks, the D700 has to be at least close to that, and it is. While it would be tempting to drop the features rating a bit (slower frame rates, no built-in grip, and a few odds and ends), there's the added features to consider (flash, sensor cleaning). In the end, I decided to simply try not to make too fine a distinction.
The D700 is some sort of hybridization of the D300 and D3. The body chassis is that of the D300, the viewfinder that of the D3. Indeed, the D700 shares the MB-D10 vertical grip with the D300, which means that the camera base is essentially the same. The controls are basically D300-like (with the addition of the Info button and center button on the Direction pad). The D700 includes an internal flash ala the D300, as well. So one way to think about the D700 is to think of it as a full-frame D300.
Internally, the story is (for the most part) different. The imaging chain is exactly that of the D3: same sensor, same microlenses, same digitizing circuit, same processing. Likewise, the D700 seems to have the autofocus processing speed of the D3 (most visible in Auto Area AF), though it does seem to have a slight lag in acquisition I don't always see in my D3 (could be slight changes to AF algorithms).
So, if you want to know more about the D700, start by reading the relevant control commentary in my D300 review, then read the performance commentary in my D3 review. That pretty much wraps the big picture up: D300 body, D3 image quality.
That's not quite the whole picture, though, so I'll spend the rest of this section talking about the significant differences.
First, there's size and weight. Side by side, the D300, D700, and D3 look like baby bear, mama bear, and papa bear (at least without the MB-D10 added to the D300 and D700). The family resemblance is uncanny, the sizes scale up the ladder naturally, and it is only when you look closely that you start to see differences. In some cases, you have to look inside to find the differences.
Take the viewfinder, for example. The D700 has the same characteristics as the D3 viewfinder except for one thing: percent view. Instead of 100%, you get 90% (95% view on both the X and Y axis adds up to 90% overall area). Nikon says this is because of another internal difference: fitting the sensor cleaning mechanism onto the FX sensor pushed brackets forward of the shutter, which produced slightly less mirror clearance. Net result: 95% viewfinder. Yet somehow the height of the prism area on the D700 has been reduced enough to fit in a pop-up flash. Nikon obviously did some clever engineering to fit everything into the reduced space it had with the D700 body design (if you've ever disassembled a D3 you'll know it was tightly crammed with components). And the only real giveaway was 10% of the viewing area.
As I noted earlier, there are a lot of small detail differences. Support for USB Mass Storage is gone. Ditto Type II CompactFlash cards. A new Info button quick-set ability has surfaced, as have some different assignable button options. The HDMI plug has morphed into a mini-HDMI plug (for no apparent reason). The D3's 5:4 support has been removed, but DX support is still there. The 1/320 flash sync support of the D300 is back. The list of these little changes is actually quite extensive, so if you're planning on shooting with a D300 and D700, or a D700 and a D3, or all three as I do, then you really need to sit down and make sure that none of these small changes are going to impact your shooting. The first time I went to plug in an HDMI display into my D700, for example, I had that small surprise of the different connector. You don't want things like that to disrupt your shooting or make you look foolish in front of clients.
That said, none of the small changes is substantive enough to worry about overall, in my opinion. I really dislike someone moving my cheese, and Nikon has once again moved cheese, including changing Custom Setting numbers for a number of functions I use. Fortunately all three cameras have settings banks you can use to get to your personal groups of settings faster.
For those deciding between a D3 and D700, the image quality and basic performance are the same, so here are the things to note:
For those deciding between a D300 and D700, there are both image quality and some slight autofocus performance differences, but here are the main things to note:
In terms of major features to consider between the three:
To many, the D700 feature list and price were shockers. But here's the way I see it: the D3 is squarely targeted at the photo journalist and sports shooter who needs absolute performance, the D700 is more targeted to the serious amateur and pro backup market. If I were shooting all day for a newspaper, that second slot and the voice annotation alone would be the clincher for the D3. If I were shooting sports, the faster frame rates make the D3 the choice (yes, you can get close with the D700 and MB-D10 grip, but you end up with a larger combination that isn't quite as robust). As much as the differences are minor, it should be pretty obvious immediately to you whether those differences put you in the D3 or D700 camp.
The bigger question has to do with the D300 versus the D700. Here you pay almost twice as much for a camera that, on paper, is arguably similar. Again, however, the difference is performance. The D700 doesn't slow when shooting 14-bit and has slightly better autofocus performance and better image quality. In Nikon's world, you pay more for performance. The recent introduction of the D90 should have driven that home, as we now have four 12mp cameras that give you four different performance levels.
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 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:
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.
The definitive D700 Guide is here
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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.
Writing to Card
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.
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.
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.
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.
Should You Get a D700?
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.
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).
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.