Nikon D700 Review

On July 1, 2008, Nikon somewhat surprised us all with the D700, which would become their killer camera of 2008 (and pretty much the past 3 or 4 years as well).  The mid-summer announcement caught us off-guard and immediately made us drool over the specs and, more importantly, the price.

The Nikon D700 is essentially a trimmed down version of the flagship (at the time of release) Nikon D3, with a price tag of only $3000 US when announced.  Fast forward six months and you can find the Nikon D700 in the sub-$2300 price range for the camera body.  With the introduction of the Canon 5D Mark II at $2700, you can expect rebates and price drops to continue as Canon and Nikon compete for your hard-earned dollars.

Enough marketing hoopla, let’s take a closer look at some of the specs that make the D700 such a drool-worthy camera.

Nikon D700 Key Specs

  • 12.1 Megapixel FX-format CMOS Sensor
  • Sensitivity Range of ISO 100 to ISO 25600 Equivalent
  • High Speed Shooting at 5fps or 8fps with Optional MB-D10 Battery Pack
  • EXPEED Image Processing
  • 51 AF Points
  • DX Crop Mode
  • 920,000-dot VGA 3-inch LCD monitor
  • 95% Viewfinder Frame Coverage
  • Built-in Flash with Wireless Commander Function
  • AF Fine Tuning

Nikon D700 Handling and Performance

Simply put, the Nikon D700 handles like a charm.  For the money, nothing comes close in terms of the responsiveness.  I’ve had a Canon 5D Mark II since early December.  While I love the image quality, ergonomics and ISO performance of the 5D Mark II, I have to admit that the Nikon D700 is much more responsive, particularly in terms of autofocus capabilities.

While the D3 has been around for a while now, it’s nice to see a more affordable (relatively speaking) full-framed DSLR from Nikon.  There’s something to be said about having a 50mm lens that feels like a 50mm lens, as opposed to a 75mm lens due to the 1.5x crop from DX sensors found in the likes of the D300 and D90.  The extra room on the sensor and larger photosites produce clean images even at higher ISOs.  I don’t think I would hesitate for too long if I were to need to bump the D700’s ISO up to 6400 to cover a dimly lit wedding reception.  Combined with the clean images that the Nikon D700 produces and, perhaps a bit of post processing, the Nikon D700 is a low-light beast.

In order to guage the ISO performance of the Nikon D700 in relation to the Canon 5D Mark II, I conducted a couple of not-so-scientific tests, which are available at the following links:

Canon 5D Mark II vs. Nikon D700 Brief ISO Comparison (Sample Images)

Canon 5D Mark II vs. Nikon D700 In-Depth ISO Comparison (Sample Images)

After looking over these images, I’m sure you’ll find plenty of reasons to gripe about my test methods; however, I think you’ll agree that each of these cameras is a stellar performer in terms of noise performance and overall image quality.  Frankly, I’m blown away by both of them.

I also took the Nikon D700 and Canon 5D Mark II out for a little stroll through downtown one night.  The results of the night shots are amazing.  Shooting primarily at ISO 3200 to ISO 6400, I captured a number of images that would be nearly impossible to capture handheld with almost any other camera.  Here’s a few of the keepers from the Nikon D700 at ISO 6400:

Keep in mind, these are processed images – but only mildly processed. I made a few adjustments in Lightroom, but nothing else. Again, the noise performance blows me away.  You can see more of these series of shots from the Nikon D700 and Canon 5D Mark II in this Flickr collection.

Ergonomically speaking, I am not a fan of the D700’s grip.  I know this is a personal preference for most and it’s probably my hands being used to a Canon grip, so I can’t gig the D700 too hard for this.  I’m sure there are plenty of Nikon shooters out there who think the Canon 5D grip sucks.  Just one of my very few gripes though.

The D700 is a button-lover’s heaven.  With the D700, you get access to just about every major setting you could want directly on the camera without the need to go digging through the menus on the LCD.  The scroll wheels are well-placed with access on your right forefinger and thumb.

I also appreciate the large viewfinder with 95% frame coverage.  The rubber eye piece for the viewfinder provides comfort and easy access to the viewfinder while shooting.  This is just one of those other little things that I prefer on the D700 over the 5D Mark II.  On the Canon, I feel like I’ve got to work to get my eye in the viewfinder more than the D700.

For Live View, the LCD with magnification capability is very convenient.  While autofocus is still available in Live View mode, it is a clunky operation that I found no benefit in using.  As I have said before, Sony, with its A300 and A350 (Read Photography Bay’s Sony A350 Review) is the only company that has gotten autofocus right in DSLR cameras.  In the shots prepared for and ISO comparison between the Nikon D700 and Canon 5D Mark II, I was able to take advantage of the Live View and obtain critical focus by manual means – something my eyes may have been unable to help with if I had used the traditional viewfinder.

Nikon D700 Compared to the Canon 5D Mark II

Given the current lineup of both Canon and Nikon, it is impractical to review a camera from either manufacturer without comparing it to a similarly situated camera from the other.  This is even more so with the Nikon D700 and Canon 5D Mark II.  It would be a disservice to fail to compare these cameras to each other.

As I said earlier, I am primarily a Canon shooter.  I bought a Canon 5D Mark II because my kit is committed to Canon.  I also think the 5D Mark II is a fantastic camera.  In my opinion, the 5D Mark II edges the D700 out in both noise performance and overall image quality.  However, it is a very thin edge and is, for most purposes, negligible.

There is so much more that goes into choosing a photographer’s tool than noise handling and image quality.  While these two components are very important, they are less of a deciding criteria when you have two cameras that are so closely matched on these grounds.

Where the Nikon D700 wins with commanding difference is autofocus and metering performance.  I think the difference in these two features should make the choice easier for those who are evaluating both cameras as a potential purchase.  The Nikon D700’s autofocus is much better in low light.  And, in my experience thus far, the D700 is much more accurate with its in-camera metering.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Canon would put the same AF system in 5D Mark II that was in the original 3 year old 5D.  Even an AF system on par with the $1000 Canon 50D would have been a major step forward.  The only thing that makes sense is that Canon decided to cripple the 5D Mark II to avoid cannaballizing sales of its flagship 1Ds Mark III.  Granted, the 5D Mark II’s AF system is not “bad” but it’s not up to par with the Nikon D700 either.

So, am I returning my 5D Mark II? No. The D700 is a great camera, but I don’t think it’s so great that anyone should trade in their 5D Mark II to change systems.  Additionally, I don’t think anyone needs to back out of their established Canon system to pick up the D700.  Canon shooters, pick up the 5D Mark II and you’ll be plenty happy for doing so.

Nikon shooters, this is a no brainer.  The D700 is probably the best “bang for buck” DSLR that Nikon has ever produced.  If you are on the fence about the D700, I’d say get off – plop down your cash and enjoy FX and high ISOs like never before.

If you are not committed to any system in particular and you’re trying to decide between the Canon and Nikon, my hat tip would go to the Nikon D700.  Unless you have a specific reason for the increased resolution of the 21.1 megapixels, you shouldn’t even factor that spec into the equation.  One thing you might consider though is the file size that you get from the Canon 5D Mark II.  I’ve had files over 32MB on the 5D Mark II – Nikon D700 files range from 12MB to 20MB.  Over several thousand files, we’re talking about some serious storage concerns.  The rest of the specs and performance considerations point me toward the Nikon D700.

Conclusion

Nikon, you did good with the D700.  You bit the bullet and surely hurt your D3 sales to fill a thriving niche market.  Thanks for chilling out on the megapixels and giving us something reasonable (in megapixels and price) with which to work.  I hope the trend toward improving overall image quality and performance continues to the detriment of the infamous “megapixel race”.

I highly recommend the Nikon D700 to anyone looking for professional image quality and performance.  There will always be a next-best-thing with extra bells and whistles to try to lure you away from your hard-earned dollars.  The Nikon D700 will be a workhorse of camera for many years to come.  It’s a bargain right now for around $2500.   And, whatever Nikon releases next will overshadow this camera for sure.  Don’t forget the D700 though.  It may just be all the camera you’ll ever need.

If you’re shopping for the Nikon D700, I would recommend sticking with Amazon.com, B&H Photo and Adorama. These three vendors are reliable, trustworthy and generally have the best (legitimate) prices.

For additional information, news and reviews on the Nikon D700, check out Photography Bay’s Nikon D700 Reviews and Resources.

 

Comments

  1. HuiBuh says

    This is probably the most genius dSLR built to date. Anyone who’s screaming for a D700x, didn’t understand at all why this camera was released.
    This baby will stay around for many many years.

    Why? Two reasons.
    The D700 is the one and only low light fighter. And 12MiP is (almost always more than) enough for almost all low light situations(press, events,…).
    As the price will become less steeper over the years, it will the “D300″-users entry to FX format.

    Actually I wouldn’t be surprised to see a D40″n” with 6MiP and very good noise behavior very soon, for consumers or as a second body for prosumers.

  2. Ali says

    Generous, fantastic – I’m still dreaming of a D700. I hope, it will happen soon…
    How often do you use a tripod in this D700 foto-session?

  3. says

    I love mine! It’s been fantastic, I just keep shooting it for fun and it feels better and better.

    Slapped a MB-D10 battery grip on it with an BL-3 batt. adapter and use my old EN-EL4 batteries out of my D2x. No reason to spend thousands more on the D3 for me. Pull the grip off and then you have a great travel camera as well.

    Even ISO 25,600 looks fine if you convert it to black and white, looks almost like a couple stops pushed 400 speed.

    Keep it up Nikon!
    -peter

  4. LP says

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments: “Thanks for chilling out on the megapixels and giving us something reasonable (in megapixels and price) with which to work. I hope the trend toward improving overall image quality and performance continues to the detriment of the infamous “megapixel race”.”

    So true…

    As noted by others, at other times and places on PhotoBay I had hoped for a similar approach with D3x…however, I’ll happily live with the ‘700.

  5. says

    I have shot with the D200, own a D70 … recently, have “upgraded” to the D700… WOW and what an awesome camera… the low light capability is astonishing, the rapid fps is wonderfull for wildlife photography….

    PHB

  6. says

    Eric,

    Thanks Eric, a high quality and fair review. I was in the ‘not tied to any particular brand category’ (although I owned a 40D with a couple of lenses – useless on FF).

    It’s clear that both the 5DMk II & D700 are astonishing pieces of kit and I think it’s great that consumers have three great cameras to choose from (including the Sony).

    Depending on what you want from your photography, one of these will suit better. I’m going to stop reading comparisons and spend more time using my D700.

  7. says

    For me it has been a hard decision moving from Canon to Nikon after 15 years. My Canon has served me well, but looking at the D700 it looked like the best all round camera for me.

    I was blown away by the D700 in every way, when receiving it in December.

    Great camera and the best decision I ever made.

  8. John Nock says

    I liked Eric’s review a lot. I’ve been a Canon user for 40 ish years and am looking to upgrade my EOS 10D to full frame. I nearly turned to the ‘dark side’ whilst waiting for the 5D mk2 to be announced and it was the D700 which caught my eye. The value for money aspect is hard to beat at the moment. My main interest is wildlife, birds in particular, and the autofocus/metering abilities of the Nikon seem to hit the spot. The only thing stopping me is the glass issue. Moving to Nikon will cost me a lot more in lenses than the camera.

    So what am I going to do? Wait for the EOS 1D MK4 is the answer. But for those without that problem I have to say the Nikon D700 takes some beating.

  9. says

    Excellent Review and analysis. Very fair and well done.

    I am in the market for a new camera – want a full frame camera. The 5D Mark II first caught my eye and then the D700. I agree with you, I can not understand why Canon would put such an antiquated focussing systemen in the Mk 2 – your reasoning if probably correct, however, not everyone is going to buy 1D, and they could be shooting themselves in the foot. To me the focussing system, especially in low light, is important.

    So why haven’t I purchase a camera? The D700 came out two years ago, the Mk II needs an upgrade. Only one camera came out this year and that is the Rebel. So I expect new versions or new cameras soon (better resolution, perhaps video in the D700, upgraded focussing system on the . I want to buy – actually have to buy before the beginning of August and that is an issue (want to use it and get used to it before I need the camera. And, for all of you in the market, hope I do buy soon because right after I do, the new or upgraded cameras will be released (never fails).

    One last point, the Nikon is considerably heavier than the Canon. Maybe a tribute to it’s build and weather-proofing, but some may not like the weight.

  10. Rob Kral says

    I’d really like to know about one thing that I don’t think was discussed:

    Nikon’s ACTIVE D LIGHTING as compared to Canon. I am a big Canon fan but the D700 really has my attention and I don’t have the investment of prior lenses to worry about. The better focus etc already has me looking at this Nikon but the last straw for Canon IMO might be the comparison to Nikon’s Active D-Lighting which really seems to keep blown hilights under control and handle shadows nicely at the same time. Can anyone comment on this feature as compared to anything similar from Canon?

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