DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon D700 Review
by Jim Keenan -  8/26/2008

It was near the end of February 2005 when Nikon launched the D2X as its DSLR flagship. Then, in mid-December of that same year, the "prosumer" D200 arrived, offering a large dose of D2X performance at a fraction of the price. True, the D200 mounted a 10 megapixel sensor instead of the D2X's 12.4 megapixels, but it matched the big camera's 5 fps shooting rate at full resolution, had better high ISO performance and a built-in flash to boot. A lot of Nikon shooters who carried two bodies used the D200 as a relatively low-cost backup to their D2X – I certainly did.

Nikon D700


Now, history repeats itself with Nikon's new FX (full frame) sensor cameras: the pro-model D3 appeared in late November 2007 and the D700 in late July 2008, and once again the triple-digit Nikon appears to offer much of the D3's performance for about 60 perfect of the cost. Not quite the bargain the D200 was relative to the D2X, but then the D200 didn't have near the commonality of hardware that exists with the D3 and D700. The spec sheets for the two cameras are dramatically similar, but how does the more compact D700 measure up to the D3 when the actual shooting starts?

FEATURES OVERVIEW
FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
PERFORMANCE
IMAGE QUALITY
CONCLUSIONS
SPECIFICATIONS

FEATURES OVERVIEW
The D700 features Nikon's 12.1 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor (FX) and latest-generation EXPEED processor, as does the D3, but packaged in a more compact body with a strong resemblance to the D300.

Nikon D700

Indeed, the D700 will accept the optional MB-D10 multi-power battery pack that was introduced for the D300, and which, with the appropriate batteries, jumps the D700's continuous shooting rate at full resolution from 5 to 8 fps.

Nikon D700

There's the same 200-6400 standard ISO range found in the D3, with additional 100, 12,800, and 25,600 expanded settings available should the need arise, just like big brother. Other areas of commonality with the D3 include the 3.0-inch, 920,000 dot LCD monitor, two Live View shooting modes, multi-CAM 3500 AF system with up to 51 focus points, and 1005 pixel Color Matrix Metering II and Scene Recognition System auto exposure.

Actually, in comparing features and performance of the two FX sensor Nikons, it's quicker to list the areas where parameters differ: the D3 offers a 5:4 image aspect option not found in the D700, along with dual memory card slots. The D3 viewfinder coverage is about 100 percent, compared to 95 percent in the D700. Focus screens differ slightly. There's an "auto" active D-Lighting option in the D700. Fifty custom settings are available in the D700, versus 44 in the D3. The D3 can also shoot continuously at 9 fps at full resolution, compared to 5 fps in the D700 (without optional battery pack). Built-in flash for the D700, along with in-camera dust reduction. Different standard battery power sources and a 300,000 cycle-rated shutter in the D3 versus 150,000 cycles in the D700 round out the differences.

The D700 uses Type I CF memory media and Nikon includes an EN-EL3e rechargeable li-ion battery and charger, USB cable, video cable, camera strap, body cap, accessory shoe cover, monitor cover and software suite CD-ROM with each camera.

There are four primary shooting modes:

For a detailed listing of specifications and features, please refer to the specifications table found at the bottom of the review.


FORM, FIT, AND FEEL
There's no doubt the D700 is a DSLR – typical styling, 5.8 x 4.8 x 3.0 inch body dimensions, and a weight of just over 2 pounds without battery or memory card.

Nikon D700

 

Styling and Build Quality
The magnesium alloy body is weather sealed and finished in a matte black paint scheme, with patches of nicely tacky rubberized material in the handgrip, thumb rest, and left front portion of the body.

Nikon D700

In a departure from past practice with prosumer and pro bodies, the D700 loses the separate memory card slot cover latch, opting for a simple slide-to-open cover instead.

Nikon D700

The camera looks and feels well put together – nothing short of expected in this class.

Ergonomics and Interface
The D700 features a deep and nicely contoured handgrip that promotes a sure grip with its rubberized material. The thumb rest area is also well designed, and while the camera back is awash in buttons and controls, the layout is well thought out and does not lend itself to inadvertent activations.

Nikon D700

The camera just fits my hand like a glove, with the right index finger falling naturally to the shutter button. First-time users will find a nicely balanced and fairly intuitive to use instrument, while folks moving in from a D200 – and especially the D300 – will immediately note the strong family resemblance.

Nikon D700

In "pro camera" form, the D700's external controls allow for quick access to major shooting functions that the user might be expected to want to change on the run, such as ISO, white balance, image quality, exposure metering method, AF area mode, shooting mode, and exposure compensation.

Display/Viewfinder
The 3.0-inch, 920,000 dot color monitor that debuted in the D3 and D300 is excellent for image review and one of the most usable monitors in harsh outdoor light that I've come across. The D700 has a plastic monitor cover that the D3 lacks, but the monitor itself is made of tempered glass to further insure survivability.

Nikon D700

The viewfinder offers 95 percent coverage, which, while not bad, seems a bit underwhelming for a camera in this price range. That 5 percent could prove annoying in trying to finely compose shots to just fill the frame, though the smaller is certainly plenty large and bright nonetheless. There is a diopter to fine-tune the viewfinder to individual user's eyesight.


PERFORMANCE
Folks who shell out $3,000 for a camera body probably expect some fairly serious performance in return. All but the pickiest of users will probably consider the price of admission to the D700 club to be money well spent.

Timings and Shutter Lag
Nikon reports a 12 millisecond start up time and 40 millisecond shutter lag for the D700. The camera is ready to shoot as soon as you turn on the power switch so it's hard to argue with that first figure. With the standard hand timing device that DCR.com reviewers use to measure shutter lag, I was able to produce consistent .25 second times to acquire focus and shoot with the D700. I'd simply make a slow and deliberate complete shutter push and count on the camera to get the focus right, which it did consistently in good light. Suffice it to say that shutter lag in the D700 is not an issue.

Same lens, same conditions, same test with the D3 produced consistent .2 second times, so there seems to be a slight speed edge to the D3, but .05 of a second isn't going to make you miss most shots (unless you're shooting Michael Phelps swimming some Serbian guy in the 100 meter ‘fly). My experience with the D3 and the D700 suggests these cameras are very close in this arena, and casual shooters will probably not notice much, if any, difference.

Auto Focus
The D700 uses the same multi-CAM 3500 AF system as the D3 and D300. DigitalCameraReview Editor David Rasnake noted in his First Thoughts on the D700 that some staff members observed "a few jitters" with the system in low-contrast lighting situations. To explore this further, I shot the D700 and the D3 back to back with the VR 24-120mm lens supplied by Nikon with the D700. The results? In really dim conditions with a subject offering no contrast, both the D3 and the D700 would generally not achieve focus. I'd be surprised if any camera could in the same situation. When there was some contrast such as a line, edge, seam, etc., both cameras would acquire good focus quickly and in what seemed to be fairly similar times. Subjectively and where actual shooting is concerned, I could discern no significant edge to the D3 in this regard.

There are 9, 21, 51, and 51 point with 3-D tracking dynamic area AF options for the D700, same as the D3. I typically use the 51 point setting when shooting most moving subjects (51 point with 3-D being advised by Nikon as appropriate for erratically moving subjects such as a tennis player), and the D700's performance has been every bit as good as the D3. It's hard to lose focus on a moving subject with either camera if you're paying attention, and AF acquisition times seem on a par with each other. Overall, I don't get the impression that Nikon has "dumbed down" the AF performance of the D700 to make those of us who've already shelled out $5K for a D3 feel better.

Lens Mount
The D700 follows Nikon's practice of designing pro and prosumer bodies that will accept and meter with virtually any Nikkor "F" mount lens ever built (and that's about 40+ million at last count). During this review I shot lenses ranging from Nikon's newest VR 400mm f/2.8 to my 30 year old manual focus 200mm f/4 and 500mm f/8; the VR 24-120mm supplied by Nikon, and my 14-24mm, 24-70mm, VR 70-200mm, 50mm f/1.4, and 105mm f.2.8 micro AF lenses.

With non-CPU lenses (lenses without the computer contacts to tell the camera what the lens is) it's a simple matter to enter the lens focal length and maximum aperture into an internal menu – the camera can store 9 lenses for recall and designation when needed, and will meter in aperture priority or manual exposure modes. Here's a shot with the 200mm f/4 (which gave me accurate color and exposure on the first and only shot I needed of the sun face), along with two with the 105mm micro, and one with the 400mm f/2.8

Nikon D700
200mm f/4

Nikon D700
105mm f/2.8 micro

Nikon D700
100mm f/2.8 micro

Nikon D700
400mm f/2.8

The full frame sensor is best utilized, in my opinion, when you can fill the frame (or nearly so) with the image you desire – though there's plenty of resolution for some cropping should you desire it, a smaller DX format sensor's built-in crop factor means more effective resolution on a shot from the same distance and lens then cropped again after the fact. Folks who shoot wildlife or distant subjects and then typically crop images to get the look they want may be better served by a camera with the smaller sensor.

For an extreme example, I set up a cooler on the front lawn and shot it with both the D700 and the D300 from the same distance with the VR 400mm f/2.8 lens. Because of the 1.5x crop factor of the physically smaller D300 sensor, the lens acted like a 600mm and got me "closer" to the cooler with the D300. I then performed identical (and quite severe) 12 x 8 inch crops on only the label portion of each image of the cooler, which resulted in a 57 dot per inch (dpi) image from the D700, and 84 dpi from the D300. Considering that 300 dpi is the general benchmark for printing high-quality images, both cameras fell well short of the ideal, but with the D300 the better of the two in telephoto-and-crop applications where absolute resolution is concerned.

Flash
One of the major differences between the two cameras is the D700's manually deployed built-in flash. Color rendition and performance were good as both the primary illumination source and in a fill or supplemental lighting role.

Flash recycle times were excellent – shots taken in good conditions typically did not fully discharge the flash and additional shots could be taken immediately. Full discharges are indicated by the flashing lightning bolt, and took less than 4 seconds to recharge. The D700 will not allow another shutter activation with the flash enabled and still recharging, but you can disable the flash and shoot before the recharge is complete, if you're quick.

Image Stabilization
As is always the case with Nikon DSLRs, there's no in-camera IS here – Nikon builds stabilization into select lenses designated as "VR" (Vibration Reduction) instead. The VR 24-120mm lens offered as one kit option with the D700 is such an optic, and Nikon currently makes about 17 VR lenses in varying focal lengths and zooms.

Battery Life
Nikon rates the standard EN-EL3-e battery for approximately 1000 shots (CIPA standard) and 2500 shots (Nikon standard). I've taken about 700 shots and the battery "fuel gauge" is down to the halfway mark, so the CIPA standard looks to be the more accurate.


IMAGE QUALITY
The D700 produces nice default images with accurate and pleasing color rendition, but there are a host of user-initiated adjustments on tap to modify shots to suit almost any taste: for instance, "Nikon's Picture Control System enables users to adjust their images to pre-set parameters such as standard, vivid, neutral and monochrome that apply tweaks to image sharpening, tone compensation, brightness, overall tone and saturation."

With that in mind, here are Standard, Vivid, Neutral, and Monochrome shooting options:

Nikon D700
Standard

Nikon D700
Vivid

Nikon D700
Neutral

Nikon D700
Monochrome

The D700 also allows fine tuning of contrast and saturation. The following are Standard shots with maximum contrast, with maximum saturation, and finally with both maximum contrast and saturation.

Nikon D700
Standard, maximum contrast

Nikon D700
Standard, maximum saturation

Nikon D700
Standard, maximum contrast and saturation

Exposure, Processing, and Color
The D700 offers matrix, center-weighted, and spot metering options to calculate exposure, with matrix being the default value. The EXPEED processor equipped Nikons that I own (D3, D300) or have reviewed (D700) seem to do a better job of dealing with high contrast scenes and not losing highlights than the earlier high end Nikons (D2X, D200) in my fleet. While extreme contrast situations can still sometimes lose some highlights, these instances are much fewer and far between than with the earlier cameras. And if the lighting does manage to outwit the processor, exposure compensation is easily and quickly able to fix that problem via its dedicated button.

One word of caution: on one series of shots of surfers taken using matrix metering, I added one setting of contrast in the camera, which apparently was enough to upset the balance so that many of the white water/dark water shots were losing a bit of highlight. The D700 seems to do a great job all by itself on exposure, so I'd suggest resisting the temptation to do too much in the camera and save contrast changes for post-processing.

The retouch menu allows some post-processing functions of images within the camera, including D-Lighting, which "uses localized tone control technology to further optimize highlight and shadow detail while also maintaining natural contrast, giving photographers the ability to capture more perfectly exposed images, even in unusual lighting conditions".

Here's an original sunset shot, and then post-processed images at the low, normal, and high D-Lighting settings.

Nikon D700
Original

Nikon D700
D-Lighting (low)

Nikon D700
D-Lighting (normal)

Nikon D700
D-Lighting (high)

Both the D3 and D700 share an Active D-Lighting feature that "lets photographers choose from various intensities during capture, while a new Automatic mode [in the D700 only] also applies varying levels of D-Lighting as, and when needed, to enhance photos while shooting."

Here's a shot without active D-Lighting, and one using the auto mode. The auto mode shot looks to have a bit more contrast and detail in the shadow areas than the other.

Nikon D700
Active D-Lighting off

Nikon D700
Active D-Lighting auto

White Balance
Auto white balance was reliable across a wide spectrum of lighting conditions, including direct sun, cloudy, open shade, flash, and mixed bags of natural and fluorescent light. Predictably, incandescent shot a little warm on auto.

Sensitivity and Noise
When the D3 reached the street it was like the starship Enterprise, going to high ISO parts of the galaxy no DSLR had (safely and confidently) gone before, and offering a pretty impressive journey right up to and including ISO 6400. The D700 carries the same hardware, so all else being equal, the results should be the same, right? We'll see.

The DCR studio shots pretty much speak for themselves in this regard, and they're talking D3-like performance. The small shots all look pretty good, and even at the high-ISO end, the color rendition remains quite similar to the low end of the sensitivity spectrum. The enlargements logically show noise as speed increases, but ISO 1600 is still quite clean and to my eye the ISO 6400 shot looks like grain in a 400 ASA film from the 1970s or 80s. The 12,800 and 25,600 settings are certainly usable if needed, particularly if the image size will remain small. It's pretty hard to look at these shots and not be impressed.


ISO 100
Nikon D700
ISO 100, 100% crop

ISO 200
Nikon D700
ISO 200, 100% crop

ISO 400
Nikon D700
ISO 400, 100% crop

ISO 800
Nikon D700
ISO 800, 100% crop

ISO 1600
Nikon D700
ISO 1600, 100% crop

ISO 3200
Nikon D700
ISO 3200, 100% crop

ISO 6400
Nikon D700
ISO 6400, 100% crop

ISO 12800
Nikon D700
ISO 12800, 100% crop

ISO 25600
Nikon D700
ISO 25600, 100% crop

We didn't have a D3 to shoot alongside the D700 at the DCR studio, but I've got my personal D3 here at home so it was a simple matter to line up two shooting scenarios and put both cameras to the same tests. First shoot is a dartboard in our closed garage – illumination from a door to the back yard open about 6 inches, and a small fluorescent lamp so I could see the ISO settings on the cameras. Each camera was set up identically, with the "High ISO Noise Reduction" set to normal, auto white balance, and the VR 24-120mm lens supplied by Nikon, at f/5.6.

Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 1600
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 1600
Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 3200
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 3200
Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 6400
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 6400
Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 12800
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 12800
Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 25600
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 25600

The D700 images look a little more color saturated at the lower ISOs, but by ISO 12,800 both cameras look very similar color-wise, and noise levels look fairly equal across the whole range.

Second shoot was a decorative plate hanging in our covered walkway – open shade with some reflection from the stucco. Same camera set up, except for minimum aperture to compensate for brighter conditions.

Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 1600
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 1600
Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 3200
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 3200
Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 6400
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 6400
Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 12800
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 12800
Nikon D3
Nikon D3, ISO 25600
Nikon D700
Nikon D700, ISO 25600

This time, the D3 looks to have a little more saturation at the lower ISOs, with both cameras looking pretty similar by ISO 6400. Once again, noise levels seem consistent between the two.

While there seem to be some slight differences at various sensitivities and lighting conditions between the two cameras, noise levels look consistent and the color variations may be nothing more than individual camera traits – the results certainly suggest Nikon hasn't diluted the performance of the FX sensor and processor that have found their way into the D700.

Additional Sample Images

Nikon D700 Nikon D700
Nikon D700 Nikon D700
Nikon D700 Nikon D700
Nikon D700 Nikon D700

CONCLUSIONS
When the D700 was finally unveiled, the similarities between it and the D3 were many and obvious – it literally appeared as if Nikon had largely transported a D3 into a D300 body. After having shot the D700 for a week and the D3 since January 2008, that's certainly the impression I've come away with.

The cameras offer practically identical (and exceptional) high ISO performance, and the slight differences I noticed could well be individual camera specific rather than systemic. The higher shooting rate of the D3 can be largely offset by the addition of the MB-D10 battery to the D700 (at the expense of offsetting the D700's size and weight advantage). The D700 has a built-in flash and in-camera dust reduction that the D3 lacks. AF performance seems virtually identical. Both cameras are well built, with excellent ergonomics. The D3 shutter is rated for twice the service life of the D700's, and in the end, becomes the one area where the D3 holds a large advantage (at least from a specification standpoint) over the D700.


Overall, it's hard to say a $3000 camera is a bargain, but given the D700's level of performance at about 60 percent of the D3's cost, I'm betting Nikon sells a bunch of these things.

Pros:

Cons:


 

SPECIFICATIONS: Nikon D700

Sensor 12.1 megapixel FX format (36.0mm x 23.9mm) CMOS
Lens/Zoom Nikon F mount
LCD/Viewfinder 3.0", 922K-pixel TFT LCD with live view; optical viewfinder with diopter adjustment
Sensitivity ISO 200-6400 (boosted: ISO 100-25600)
Shutter Speed 30-1/8000 seconds
Shooting Modes Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual
Scene Presets N/A
White Balance Settings Auto, Preset, Manual Preset, Kelvin Temperature
Metering Modes 3D Color Matrix Metering II, Center-Weighted, Spot
Focus Modes Single Point AF, Dynamic Area AF, Automatic Area AF, Manual
Drive Modes Single, Continuous Low, Continuous High
Flash Modes Normal, Red-Eye Reduction, Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync, Slow Sync, Rear-Curtain Sync
Self Timer Settings
2-20 seconds, off
Memory Formats CompactFlash, Type I
Internal Memory
None
File Formats JPEG, TIFF, NEF (RAW)
Max. Image Size 4256x2832
Max. Video Size
N/A
Zoom During Video N/A
Battery Rechargeable lithium-ion
Connections USB 2.0, HDMI Video Out, Remote In, PC Sync
Additional Features EXPEED image processing, extended ISO to 25600, 8 fps full-resolution shooting (with optional battery grip), 51-point AF system, 3D Color Matrix Metering II