Sunday, May 29, 2011

Nikon D700 Review

Nikon D700

In July 2008 Nikon introduced their second FX (35mm film equivalent) digital single lens reflex camera, the D700. The D700 shares many of the features of the D3 and D300, that were released a year earlier. The design of the D700 is very similar to the D300, but equipped with the FX sensor first used in the D3.  Nikon had to make some changes to accommodate the larger sensor and pentaprism, so the camera is somewhere between the high end DX camera and professional D3 series of cameras. In many ways the D700 is the digital F100 that many professional and amateur photographers had been waiting for, thanks to the solid design and excellent image quality it can deliver. Although the D700 is a three year old design, it is still a very desirable camera thanks to it's performance.

The headline features of the Nikon D700 are, a 12 megapixel FX CMOS image sensor with a native ISO range of ISO 200-6400 (extendable, to ISO 100-25600 via high and low settings), support for all full frame (35mm / FX) AF-S, AF-D, AF and AI/AI-S lenses. Like the D3 series of cameras, the D700 also features a DX crop mode, which automatically is activated if a DX lens is attached, although resolution is reduced to 5 megapixels. The camera has a 51 point auto focus system with 15 cross type AF sensors. Additionally the camera can act as commander for the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) via the built in popup flash, a SU-800 wireless flash controller or by select Nikon Speedlights, SB-800, SB-900 or SB-700). The continuous shooting speed of the D700 is 5 FPS, or 8FPS with the MB-D10 battery grip (more on this later).

The D700 features a powerful menu system with hundreds of custom settings. To become fully aware of what all these options can do for you, reading the cameras manual is a must. The menu system will not be covered in this review.

Build/Mechanical Quality and Handling:
Nikon designed the D700 with professional users in mind, so the camera is very robust. The frame is made of magnesium alloy, and the shell is made of high quality industrial strength plastics. There are dust and moisture seals in various locations on the camera, such as between seams, around buttons and dials, to prevent penetration by moisture and dust. Nikon does not claim that the camera is waterproof, so keep that in mind if you shoot in rain or snow. The professional build quality of the camera comes at a price, primarily in the form weight, the body is 995g on its own.

When you pickup the D700 you know you're holding a serious piece of kit, as it feels solid in your hands. The rubber covers on the grip and other parts of the body make it comfortable to hold for extended periods of time. You'll quickly find that your fingers fall onto the primary controls of the camera, such as the shutter, AF-ON button and rear command dial. The front sub-command dial is also easily reached by the same finger that falls onto the shutter button.

Controls and Ports:
The Nikon D700 is covered with buttons, dials and switches, which give the user the ability to quickly change settings without having to dive into the menu system. Many of the buttons functions can be changed in the menu system (not covered in this review). 

Top Right Side Controls:
The top right side features three buttons and a switch, which anyone familiar with pro or semi pro Nikon bodies will recognize right away. The shutter button is well placed, and slightly slopped, making it very comfortable to use in practice. The shutter button has a very soft feel when in transition between the half push and full push to release the shutter itself. Around the shutter button is the on/off switch. If you turn the on/off switch past the on position it will light up the top panel LCD. Repeating that same action will turn the backlight on the top panel off again.

Behind the shutter button you find the MODE and +/- (Exposure Compensation) buttons. The MODE button allows you to switch between P (Program Auto), S (Shutter Priority), A (Aperture Priority) and M (Manual). To switch modes you press the MODE button and rotate the rear command dial. Being an older professional level camera there are no scene modes, effects, movie mode or other such settings to be selected. The MODE button, when used in combination with the Trash button on the backside of the camera formats CF cards in the camera. Pressing the exposure compensation button and rotating the rear command dial allow you to select between +/- 5 stops of exposure compensation, from the metered setting. Exposure compensation has no affect in manual mode.

Behind these buttons is the top panel LCD which shows you important shooting information, such as the shooting mode, image quality, shots remaining, battery charge indicator, the set aperture and shutter speed and more. Unlike the D3 series and D300 there is no indication of what focus point/mode is in use via the top LCD. 

Top Left Side Controls:
On the top right side of the camera are three buttons for controlling, QUAL (Image Quality: RAW, RAW+JPEG, TIFF, Fine JPEG etc), WB (White Balance), and finally ISO sensitivity. The D700 has an native ISO range of ISO 200-6400, and can go from 100-25,600 in extended ISO modes.

Under those three buttons you will find the drive mode dial. To turn this dial you must push the small button beside the dial (front side of the camera). The dial allows you to switch from S (Single Shot), CL (Continuous Low, 3FPS by default), CH (Continuous High, 5FPS or 8FPS with the MB-D10 battery grip, when using EN-EL4a or 8 AA batteries), LV (Live View), Self Timer, and Mup (Mirror Lockup).

Front Controls:
The front of the camera has one dial, a switch, four buttons and two accessory ports. There are two buttons located on the left side of the camera mount, the top one being the Depth Of Field Preview Button, which is programmable and can be use for other functions. Under the preview button is the, also programmable, FN (Function) button. Just under the shutter button you'll find the sub-command dial. By default the sub-command dial changes the aperture settings in Aperture Priority and Manual Mode.

On the right side of the lens mount there are several buttons. The largest, which is located right beside the lens mount, is the lens release. The are two button on the upper part of  body on this side. The first is the manual release for the popup flash. The second button controls flash settings, such as flash exposure compensation and flash sync settings. Under the lens release button is a switch that controls the focus mode. M (Manual Focus), S (Single, focus once) and C (Continuous Focus). On the top right side of the mount there are two ports covered with rubber caps, with the top one being the standard PC sync port and the lower one being a 10 pin accessory port for standard Nikon accessories, such as the Nikon GP-1 GPS, MC-30 wired cable release and wireless cable releases as well.

Back side Controls:
The backside of the camera hosts most of the buttons, and switches on the camera.

Back Left Side Controls:
On the top left side there are two buttons, the playback button and trash (delete) button. Under those buttons you'll find the Menu button, which gives you access to all the primary settings of the camera. Lock/? has two functions. In playback mode pressing this button locks an image so that it cannot be deleted, although it does not protect against formatting the CF card. When you are using the menu, pressing this button will bring up a brief explanation of the highlighted menu item. The  - Zoom and + Zoom buttons allow you to zoom in and out of an image in playback mode. Finally on the bottom is the OK button, which is used to choose different options in the menu system.

Back Right Side Controls:
On the top right there are two buttons and two dials. The dial around the AF-L/AE-L button is used to change the metering mode between Matrix, Center Weighted and Spot. The other dial is the main command dial, which is used to change the shutter speed in S and M shooting modes.

The two buttons on the top are the AF-L/AE-L button, and the AF-ON button. The AF-L/AE-L button is programmable and can be used for a number of different controls including the default which locks focus and exposure. The AF-ON button, like on other semi-pro and pro Nikon DSLRs is dedicated to activating auto focus, allowing the user to free the half press of the shutter button from that action. Doing so is an option, and by default the camera will auto focus with both the AF-ON button and by half pressing the shutter. The AF-ON button allows you to prefocus on a subject, even in AF-C mode, and then let it go, while still half pressing the shutter so that you can fire off shots when the action starts (depending on shutter release settings).

On the lower half of the body, beside the 3" LCD the bi-directional control pad allows you to change focus points in shooting mode, and flip through image information plus different images in playback mode. In the menu system this pad is also used to navigate. In the center of the pad is a button that allows you to select highlighted options in the menu, and has programmable settings in playback mode. Around the pad is the focus point selector lock, which locks the focus point when turned to the "L" position.

Under the selector is the focus mode selector switch. There are three modes, Auto, dynamic and single point. Beneath the focus mode selector is the INFO button, which gives you detailed shooting information, such as the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, battery status, which focus point is selected, white balance, and other basic shooting information. If you press the info button again a sub menu comes up allowing you to quickly change a number of settings, such as custom shooting bank settings, Active D-Lighting, Picture Controls and settings for programmable function buttons. Press the button again to turn the info screen off.

Right Side:
On the right (hand grip) side of the camera body there is a flip out door which conceals the compact flash card slot. The slot only accepts type II CF cards, type I cards and micro drives are too thick and will not fit in the slot. A 4GB CF card can hold between 250-300 lossless compressed 14bit RAW images from the camera.

Left Side:
The left side of the camera body has a large rubber cover which protects three ports. On the top is a mini-HDMI port, next is a mini-USB2 port, and on the bottom AC input for studio shooting.

The base of the camera has a soft rubber cover, like the D300s and other semi-professional and professional Nikon cameras. In the center of the base there is a standard tripod socket. On the hand grip side of the base is the battery bay. The D700 uses the Nikon EN-EL3e battery, you can easily take 400+ images on a single charge. That is if the battery isn't left sitting in the camera unused for long periods of time, or operating in temperatures under 21ÂșC. To the right of the battery bay is a small rubber cover, which protects the contacts for the optional MB-D10 battery grip.

The Viewfinder:
The optical viewfinder is one of the most important parts of an SLR camera, because as the user you get to see exactly what can be seen through the lens, at least in theory. The D700's viewfinder offers 95% coverage (with a 50mm lens), which is typical for a non professional camera. Many suspect that Nikon equipped the D700 with a 95% viewfinder to protect sales of the D3. In any case the D700's viewfinder is large and bright when compared with even the best DX crop sensor cameras like the D2X, D300s and D7000 that have 100% viewfinder coverage (with a 50mm lens). When compared to my film camera, the Nikon F90X, the D700's viewfinder is slightly dimmer, but does offer slightly more coverage at 95% vs 92% on the F90X.

A great deal of shooting information is displayed inside the viewfinder along the bottom. Typical information such as, shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation, flash readiness, flash exposure compensation, and the number of shots remaining on the CF card are displayed. In addition to this, the set ISO rating is always visible. Additionally there are indicators on each side of the focus confirmation dot that tell you whether you are back or front focusing, which is very helpful when manually focusing.

Auto Focus Performance:
The D700, like the D3, D3s, D3x share a 51 point auto focus system. This system gives the user a great deal of flexibility in terms of composition, and the ability to track subjects with far greater accuracy than lower end cameras. There are settings in the menu system that allow you to pick between selecting all 51 points or just 11 points, in the same fashion as the D2X or D200. When shooting with the focus mode set to dynamic, you can set the camera to use 9, 21 or all 51 AF points. Like most modern Nikon DSLRs, the D700 features 3D colour tracking, a feature that is best used for focusing and then recomposing, in my experience. 

The D700 starts to focus right away when you either half press the shutter button or press the AF-ON button. Focus speed itself is somewhat dependent on what lens is used, but generally speaking the D700 locks focus very quickly compared to to cameras like the D90 or entry level cameras like the D3100. Speed is very similar to the D300, but the D700 is slightly faster to lock focus.

Image Quality:
All the functions and technical abilities of a camera are worthless if the camera cannot produce the images that you want to capture. Just as the D700 provides many technical abilities, it is also is more than capable of delivering in terms of image quality. To see the kind of images that the D700 can produce, head to the sample gallery of images, all of which are taken with the D700. D700 Image Samples

ISO Performance:
The following images are 4 megapixel crops from images taken with the D700. For larger views, click on the images. Image files show little or no noise right up to ISO1600 in good light, where a hint of noise becomes visible. From ISO3200-6400 noise starts to become apparent, but colour and detail does not fall off dramatically. Only in the non-native high ISO settings (12800-25600) does noise become displeasing, at which point luminance noise is troublesome. Noise is apparent in shadows by ISO800, but is not bothersome until ISO3200. Using high quality noise reduction software with RAW NEF files one could easily make decently larger, high quality prints from ISO200-6400.

Comments and Conclusion:
The Nikon D700 is a high performance semi-professional FX camera that delivers exceptional image quality, even at high ISO sensitivities. Although the D700 may not offer the resolution of the competing Canon 5D MKII (12MP vs 21MP), it has a lot to offer in terms of performance. It has a dust and water resistant body, and a professional grade auto focus system, both of which the 5D MKII lack. The D700 also has a pop-up flash which can act as a commander for the Nikon Creative Lighting System, allowing the user to activate numerous speedlights wirelessly. The 5D MkII requires a hotshoe mounted flash to achieve the same abilities. The D700 has an all metal mirror box, something else that the 5D MkII lacks. That may not sound important, but I have seen cases where some parts of the mirror box of the 5D MkII have melted or become miss-alined due to the plastic construction. 

The D700 can also shoot at 5 FPS, even when shooting 14bit RAW files. With the MB-D10 battery grip and non-EN-EL3e batteries the camera can shoot at 8 FPS. The 5D MKII can only fire 3.9 FPS, with or without a battery grip. The 5D MKII has the ability to shoot video (1080p), which the D700 lacks.

Nikon D700 with Optional MB-D10 Battery Grip

If you have never shot with a 35mm film SLR the D700 might come as a bit of a shock to crop sensor camera users. First of all there is no crop factor to consider when looking at lens focal lengths. The viewfinder is much larger and brighter than any Nikon DX camera, not to mention that the body weighs more than even the D300s, although not by much. Unlike the D7000 and D300s the D700 only has a single card slot, while the former two cameras have two slots. Full frame high performance lenses are also significantly more expensive as well. That cost can be partly mitigated by purchasing used professional lenses from the film camera era. D700 can also be use AI-S manual focus lenses very effectively, and not just because it can meter the lenses (The D7000/D300s can as well). Part of that superiority is due to the larger viewfinder, which makes using manual focus lenses much easier, without having to use liveview. That being said, I would still use liveview for critical focus with manual focus lenses.

Considering that the D700 still out performs even the best Nikon and Canon crop sensor cameras on the market today, three years after it's release, there is no reason not to consider it as your primary camera even today. Overall the Nikon D700 performance is outstanding, and one can quickly see why it is held in such high regards by many professional photographers around the world.

I have not attempted to cover every aspect of the D700, simply because there are many professional reviews that do so already.

* Full Frame (35mm film equivalent) 12 megapixel CMOS image sensor
* High performance 51 point auto focus system
* Excellent high ISO performance right up to ISO6400
* Excellent Build Quality (Dust and Water Resistant)
* Controls are well laid out, with photography centric design
* Extremely customizable in terms of function buttons and settings
* Resolution acceptable for all but the largest of prints 
* Many older AF-D (and AI-S) lenses available at decent prices

* Expensive (when compared to crop sensor bodies)
* Heavy/Large
* Modern high performance full frame lenses are expensive
* Auto White Balance is poor with indoor lighting


  1. AnonymousJuly 31, 2011

    Hey Rob,

    I love my D700, it does everything that I want and more. I too shoot landscape & wildlife( I am located in the interior of BC)


  2. Sam, I'm glad to hear the D700 is getting the job done for you as well!