August was a slow month for camera reviews, what with the build up to Photokina absorbing much of the attention of camera manufacturers and PR companies. But there was one camera that really stood out among the devices that we’ve looked at since we named last month’s Editor’s Choice recipient: the Nikon D700. If anything says “summer vacation’s over, back to business,” it’s Nikon’s new junior-grade professional model, but in the case of this excellent new entry into the full-frame sensor space, the cost of doing business just got a little cheaper.
To me, digital cameras have always had a certain measure of disposability about them. Call me old fashioned, but I've been working with the same film system for years and have never felt much pressure to move up: in shooting film, the camera body itself plays, at most, a secondary role in final image quality. With digital, however – and especially high-end digital systems for what my colleagues in the world of computer reviews might term “power users” – there's a much sharper and more obvious technological obviation from generation to generation. I don't see many pros working with the Nikon D1 anymore, in spite of the camera's dominance in its not-so-long-ago heyday.
Now more so than ever with the latest full-frame, pro-grade DSLRs, though, it feels like we've largely finished turning a corner into semi-permanence: just as more and more folks are hanging onto their D2Xs and D200s for longer and longer, it seems that generation three of Nikon's professional digital series – of which the D700 is the latest member – may be a long-term keeper.
It's hard to imagine the D700's richly textured high-resolution images looking dated or blocky in a few years, and it's high-ISO shooting is as good as ever.
Likewise, a full-frame sensor has brought us back into FX land below the top-tier professional level after a little DX sidetrack, and the latest camera has largely upheld expectations about getting more and more technology for less and less money. Indeed, nearly halving the D3's street price, the D700 adjusts the affordability equation for a mid-tier full frame camera.
Ok. So it's hard to, in good conscience, call a camera costing several thousand dollars “affordable.” But part of the D700's magic descends from the fact that it opens new ground where full-frame cameras and MSRP are concerned. While Canon's long-running 5D remains cheaper on the street, in terms of initial suggested price, the D700 is the first full-frame camera to break the $3,000 price barrier (if only just, and for the moment you'll have trouble finding one near that price...). We're betting that once prices settle a bit after the initial buying frenzy – which may take awhile, depending on how quickly Nikon delivers retail units – this camera will be very much within reach of photo enthusiasts serious about their craft. All the more so if these aforementioned photo enthusiasts happen to have FX Nikkor glass hanging around.
In fact, the D700 was so good in our testing – so close to the performance of the D3 – that unless you shoot every day or make a living doing it, it's going to be pretty tough to justify the cost difference. Whatever half a step the D700 is claimed to give up in AF speed to its more intense older sibling, it probably makes up for it with some more consumer focused touches (a pop-up flash unit for starters...) that the D3 lacks. In a market where step-down cameras using trickle-down tech often seem to be intentionally crippled, you'll be hard pressed to find traces of this with the D700.
"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," wrote DCR reviewer Jim Keenan. "After having shot the D700 for a week and the D3 since January 2008, that's certainly the impression I've come away with." With this kind of direct and clear lineage, it's not surprising that the D700's image quality and performance measures largely speak for themselves in our opinion. (To see more of what the D700 is capable of, have a look at our complete Nikon D700 review as well as our initial gallery of shots from the D700 on Flickr.)
Finally, like most DSLRs beyond the most basic, consumer-grade products, the D700 is largely a niche market camera. It's hard to imagine family photographers, for instance, getting very excited about what this piece of kit does, especially in light of its still rather high price. That said, in the absence (at least to this point) of a new offering in this space from Canon, Nikon has for the time being jumped ahead in an important market segment that catches both hobbyists and working photographers.
Overall, if you're serious about your photos and looking for a system you can invest in for the long term, but don't want to take out a second mortgage to support your hobby, the D700 is unquestionably worth a careful look. If you can spring for its asking price, the cost-to-performance ratio offered by Nikon's latest is, in our view, currently unequaled in the upper echelons of the DSLR market.