Nikon has arrived relatively late to the full-frame market: while Canon has offered full-frame cameras such as the EOS-1Ds since 2002, Nikon’s first 35mm-sensor DSLR was the professional D3 in 2007. And the Canon EOS 5D has enjoyed the position of being the only affordable full-frame DSLR on the market since 2005.
"Affordable" is a relative term: at $3599 for the body alone, the D700 is $2000 more expensive than its nearest Nikon neighbour, the D300, and $700 costlier than the 5D. Add the $2319 cost of the 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor lens that accompanied our review model and the total price creeps close to $6000.
Full-frame verse DX
Nikon calls its full-frame sensors the FX format, as opposed to the DX format found in its lower-end DSLRS. The D700’s 36 x 23.9mm CMOS sensor has more than twice the surface area of the D300’s 23.6 x 15.8mm sensor and offers 12.1 megapixels, compared to the D300’s 12.3, and the 5D’s 12.8. The D700 produces 4256 x 2832 images, with best-quality RAW shots weighing in between 10MB and 19MB.
The biggest benefit to a full-frame sensor is high-ISO performance. Where most DSLRs sacrifice detail when the ISO climbs above 800, the D700’s images remain clean up to ISO 1600; even at ISO 3200 our test images remained largely noise-free. The benefit of such good noise performance is evident in low-light.
Each extra step of ISO on the D700 brings with it an extra step of shutter speed, so an environment that calls for a blurry shutter speed of 1/10th of a second will produce the same exposure at 1/80th at ISO 3200, which simplifies indoor hand-held shots.
Usable photos at ISO 6400
One of Nikon’s more head-turning claims is that the D700 produces “noise-free images for impeccable results at up to ISO 6400”, and while this isn’t entirely true, our ISO 6400 images were nonetheless rendered usable with some gentle sharpening. There’s even an ISO H 2.0 mode: equivalent to ISO 25,600, although noise was ruinous at this level.
The D700’s ISO handling continues with Nikon’s briliant semi-automatic ISO mode, in which you set the highest permissible ISO and the shutter speed at which the D700 should start raising it.
Active D-Lighting, Nikon’s powerful in-camera dynamic range adjustment, is another plus. Metering is performed with the same 3D Color Matrix Metering II system as the D300 and D3, while autofocus is the same superbly fast 51-point 3D tracking system.
D700 verse D3
The D700 does enjoy a few advantages over Nikon’s top of the range D3. There’s a built-in flash, for instance, and the sensor vibrates when you turn the D700 off or on in an effort to dislodge dust. The flash is of limited use, though – the majority of Nikon’s professional lenses come with large hoods that partially obscure the flash and in testing, left an eclipse on our subject.
And besides, professional photographers will prefer a flash with an adjustable head. The sensor-cleaning is arguably the more practical of the two features. And, while the D700 lacks the D3’s second LCD status screen, the newly-added Info button at the bottom right of the body instantly brings up a responsive screen on the main 3in LCD that gives at-a-glance information about the D700’s current settings.
The only disappointment is performance. Nikon’s top-end D3 offers up to 9fps in continuous mode; the Canon 40D shoots at nearly 7fps, and the Nikon D300 up to 6fps. The D700’s fastest claimed speed is 5fps, though in our tests the quickest we could squeeze from it was just over 4fps. This is adequate for most, but for $3000 it’s disappointing the D700 doesn’t breach the 6fps barrier, particularly when the cheaper D300 does.
We do appreciate the comprehensive lack of shutter lag, which was so negligible that the D700 frequently grabbed multiple frames when we had only intended to take one.
Rock solid body design
The hardware itself is rock-solid. Nikon has made extensive use of magnesium alloy in the body and chassis of the D300, and the result is a rugged, chunky camera that feels like it will survive all but the most wilful violence. The 147mm wide body, complemented with a heavy rubberised grip, is comfortable, and controls are laid out in a similar way to the easy-to-use D80 and D300.
The upshot is a shallow learning curve for current Nikon users, while seasoned DSLR users will acclimatise within a few hundred shots. Internally, the shutter mechanism is made from a carbon fibre and Kevlar composite, which Nikon claims has been tested to an impressive 150,000 cycles.
The price you pay for such an impervious-feeling body is weight: without a battery or lens the D700 weighs almost a kilogram. With a battery and the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens the weight rises to nearly 3kg: we felt every gram while we were testing.
The D700 is Nikon’s top-end semi-professional DSLR, and that’s reflected in the high price and sterling image quality. It’s overkill for those looking to upgrade from a compact digital to a DSLR, and even those upgrading from a low-end DSLR such as the Nikon D40 should ask themselves if they’d be better off with a mid-range model such as the Canon 40D or Nikon D300. But those who decide to splash out won’t be disappointed.
This Review appeared in the September, 2008 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine
Source: Copyright © PC Pro, Dennis Publishing