Nikon D700 First Thoughts

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Before the announcement of the Nikon D700, Nikon faithful already had arguably the most impressively stocked collection of pro-level photographic tools on the market: the highly regarded D3 anchors the top of the line with its full-frame sensor, and if you can settle for a smaller APS-C sized imager, the much more affordable D300 does a lot of what its big brother does for a lot less money. Between these two ends of the high-end spectrum, however, there’s a fair bit of distance (and a price gap of around $3,000) to fill in the space occupied almost exclusively in terms of price and features by archrival Canon’s 5D – an aging but affordable and very competent full-frame camera for under $3,000.

Nikon D700

Nikon’s been slower than Canon in jumping into the full-frame game anyway, but when they decided to make the move with the D3, they did it in a big way – with a sensor that made headlines for its film-like smoothness and its low noise levels that opened up new worlds of high sensitivity shooting and gave low-noise leader Canon its first serious challenge in a long time. Maybe ever.

After the successful introduction of their solid full-frame, full-pro camera last year, Nikon has delivered a one-two punch with the launch of the 12.1 megapixel, full-frame D700. If the D3 is just too much in terms of price, weight, and pro-only features, but the smaller sensor of the D300 just isn’t doing it for you, Nikon’s betting the bank that you’ll find the D700 to be, as Goldilocks observed, “just right.”

Of course, the first question on just about everyone’s mind is, “Does the D700 perform as well as the D3 in low light?” Whether there are minute differences in high-ISO performance due to different processing or some other factor is a question to be answered in the context of the full review. What can be said with certainty is that the D700 continues to offer an amazingly clean ISO 6400 setting, and expanded range options that take sensitivity up to a noisy but still serviceable ISO 25,600 equivalent. An as before, the noise at higher ISOs has a smoother, finer quality to it than typical digital noise, giving the impression of the graininess of high-speed film and making the expanded range settings particularly well-suited to work in black and white.

Nikon D700

Even when shooting in color, there’s a richness and vibrancy at higher sensitivities that we haven’t traditionally associated with ISO 1600 – much less ISO 12,800.

Nikon D700

And of course, there’s the allure of being able to gain up the sensor and produce acceptably clean shots without a flash in near-darkness. Want to grab shots of the kids’ school play from the theater balcony? You’ve got the extra stops to do it with the D700. Interested in photographing bands at your favorite night spot, or taking snaps at the museum where flash photography isn’t allowed? The D700 will easily oblige. Want to photograph street signs in the middle of the night? Yep, it will do that too.

Nikon D700

Initial impressions of noise performance are hardly surprising: we knew what to expect after our extremely favorable impressions of the similarly speced D3, and after day one at least, the D700 is on pace to make a good showing in this area.

(If you just can’t get enough of the D700’s stunning high-ISO images, head on over to Flickr, where we’ve posted a gallery of additional shots – most of the taken at ISO 1600 and beyond.)

Of course, the camera is superbly competent in other, more well-lit situations as well, as any camera in this class should be. In reviewing the D3, the new sensor’s dynamic range impressed us at least as much as its noise performance, and the combination of Nikon’s latest 3D matrix metering technology and the D3’s excellent sensor makes this camera about as rock-solid reliable for capturing the full range of a shot as anything out there.

Nikon D700

At times I did find myself tweaking exposure compensation, but more to achieve a high-key or low-key look than straight from the camera than to correct clipping concerns.

Nikon D700

The D700 carries a 51-point AF system, just like the pro-grade Nikon models that bookend it on either side in the manufacturer’s line-up. Internet rumors (and a few legitimate reports as well) have suggested that the D700’s system doesn’t quite hit the phenomenal focusing speeds of its big brother, though in just a few hours of shooting I found auto focus performance to generally meet expectations for this class. Some of our office folks also noted a few jitters in low contrast indoor situations, but again I personally had no trouble – even when shooting outdoors after dark. DCR Nikon guru Jim Keenan will be taking the reins on our complete D700 review, and hence we’ll leave final judgments about how Nikon’s latest AF system compares to those on its stablemates in his hands.

Nikon D700

Physically, the D700 is imposing, though it’s a little easier on your arms than the D3 with its integrated vertical shooting controls. Without the optional battery grip, the D700 is very manageable for day-to-day shooting, while retaining most of the robust feel of its advanced sibling. Control arrangement will be familiar to D3/D300 users, with heaps of dedicated switches and buttons and an ergonomic niceness that’s hard to match. Advanced shooters who like to have the basic options no more than a single button press or switch flip away will be pleased.

Nikon D700

Likewise, while it doesn’t quite match the D700 staunch build quality, the 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6 VR “kit” lens – if the consumerish connotations of such a word even apply to a camera setup that costs as much as a used compact car – is a reasonably solid performer in its own right, matching the D700’s resolving power fairly well. All of the shots above, as well as those currently in our D700 Flickr set, were taken with the 24-120mm, but we’ll be sure to give the new body a run-down with some other Nikkor glass in the full review.

In discussing our D700’s arrival yesterday, Jim summed up the feeling around here: in comparing specs sheets with its D3 sibling, it’s hard not to be impressed with the value that the D700 represents. Initially, it seems that differentiation between these cameras largely exists in the margins that will truly matter only to full-time pros and daily shooters. For nearly everyone else, early impressions suggest that the D700 will serve as a capable substitute for those seeking the D3’s already legendary high-ISO performance, especially, without the full weight of the D3’s legendary price tag.

Of course, the only way to know for sure is with a bit of rigorous testing. In the meantime, if you’ve got a fever and the only cure is more D700 images, our Flickr area has been stocked with a gallery of additional samples from day one with the D700.

Look for a complete review of Nikon’s latest and most attractively priced full-frame model in coming weeks. Ah, the anticipation…

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