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Hands-On with Nikon's D700

A D3 in D300 Clothing

By Allan Weitz

It's truly a beautiful thing when all the hype and hoopla pumped out by camera manufacturers actually proves true when you finally get your hands on the camera being hyped and hoopla-ed. In the case of Nikon's FX-format D700, all the hype and hoopla have proved to be true.

As you probably know by now, the big news about the D700 is that it contains the very same full-frame, FX-format CMOS sensor found in the Nikon's flagship DSLR, the Nikon D3. The only differences between the sensors found in the two cameras have to do with circuitry and data processing related to the D700 body and the D700's flat-out burst-rates. And while some folks have been calling the new camera a D3 in D300 clothing, I call the D700 the coolest imaging machine selling for less than three grand.

Nikon's FX-format D700
Nikon's FX-format D700

The Nikon D700 looks and feels like the DX-format D300, which is complimentary in every respect. The camera has a solid, hefty feel about it and feels quite secure in the hand with or without the optional MB-D10 Battery Grip. The buttons and menus are located intelligently and should prove to be easy to adapt to whether you're a seasoned Nikon DSLR shooter or new to the tribe.

A cool feature of the D700 is that it can be used with both FX and DX-format lenses. When you mount a DX-format lens, a crop mask automatically appears in the viewfinder to define the live area of the frame. It should be noted when you shoot in DX-mode the resolution of your image goes from an effective 12.1Mp to about 5.1Mp because you're using a smaller portion of the imaging sensor. In the real world this means you will get a larger image from a D300 (12.1MB image file) and a DX-format lens when compared to a masked D700 (5.1MB image file) coupled to the same DX-format lens.

On the other hand, it's worth noting DX-format images captured with the D700, while lower in resolving power, deliver a broader dynamic range compared to the 'same' image captured by a D300 due to the D700's larger pixel size (5.49 X 5.49 microns versus 8.49 X 8.49 microns). This difference in tonal range is most apparent when shooting under low-light conditions.

Image files can be captured as RAW (NEF), TIFF, or three levels of JPEG compression. You also have the option of capturing RAW and a choice of three levels of JPEG compression simultaneously, a popular option that enables pro shooters to have their cake and eat it too. Storage is via CompactFlash cards.

RAW (NEF) and JPEG image files captured by the D700 maintain an exceptionally high signal-to-noise ratio from its EXPEED image processor via 14-bit A/D conversion and 16-bit image processing. In addition to expanded bit depth, Active D-Lighting regulates the dynamic range of each image to maintain shadow details and avoid blown-out highlights in contrasty lighting situations.

As with the Nikon D3, the D700's ISO ratings can be set from a base ISO 200 to a truly usable ISO 6400. You also have the option of rating the sensor at 12,800 (Hi1), and 25,600 (Hi2), which opens up new possibilities for flash-free, low-light photography, especially when shooting with wider-aperture optics. An Auto ISO setting is also available that pumps the ISO levels when shooting in settings with variable light settings.

Among the many image enhancing technologies found in the D700 is a lateral chromatic aberration reduction function, which helps reduce image distortions and loss of sharpness often found along the corners and edges of digital photographs. Two additional features glommed from the Nikon D3 include Live View, which enables you to view a live image on the camera's LCD in real-time, and a Virtual Horizon tool for keeping the camera squared-off to the horizon line.

As should be expected, the D700 is extremely responsive, boasting a 0.12-second start-up time and 40-millisecond shutter response time, which is quite evident when you press the shutter button. The D700's self-diagnostic shutter mechanism is good for 150,000-plus cycles and is complimented by a newly-configured mirror box designed to lessen mirror black-out times. There's also a new mirror balance mechanism that greatly reduces mirror bounce at the end of each exposure cycle for sharper images at slower shutter speeds.

The viewfinder on the D700 is quite bright and easy to eyeball corner-to-corner, with key camera settings and exposure info clearly visible along the bottom portion of the finder. The D700's viewfinder displays 95% of the total image area when used in full-frame (FX) mode and 100% in the masked DX mode. If you need to see 100% of the image in FX mode, simply play it back on the camera's LCD screen.

As with Nikon's D3, the D700's 3" TFT LCD screen is simply brilliant in every sense of the word. Composed of 920,000 dots (It's true. An independent pixel counter verified the count for us!), the image on the screen is both bright and incredibly detailed whether you are working in the D700's Live View mode or normal playback mode. A 170 viewing angle allows for bright image viewing even at extreme viewing angles.

For confirming focus or shadow and highlight details, the new screen is leagues ahead of previous generation LCD technologies. If you're a fan of selective focus imaging you can now pinpoint the exact points where the focus starts and begins to trail off. Shadow and highlight details are also far easier to eyeball. Wedding and portrait photographers shooting with the D700 (or D3) no longer have excuses for out-of-focus eyes when shooting formal portraits, regardless of the choice of aperture.

Though not as impervious to the elements as the Nikon D3, the D700 has the same high levels of moisture and dust-resistance found in the D300. The D700's magnesium-alloy chassis is supplemented by 'O'-rings and weather-proof gaskets in key locations within the camera housing. The D700's pop-up flash housing, normally a port of entry for dust and moisture, is also well sealed against the elements. And while water entering the flash chamber can possibly short out the flash, it has little if any chance of causing chaos within the camera's inner workings.

While on the subject of squalls and electronic flash, a worthwhile accessory that's been introduced along with Nikon's new SB-900 Speedlight is the WG-AS1 and WGAS2 Water Guard (for the D3 and D700 respectively), which is designed to keep the metal contact points on your flash and camera's hot-shoe dry when shooting in nasty weather. It's also worth noting the new SB-900 offers about 20% higher light output and 20% longer battery life as compared to the SB-800, which it replaces. The case it comes with is also about 20% larger as it contains compartments for all of the accessories included with it.

To ward off dust bunnies and other intruders that find their way into the mirror chamber, an Integrated Dust Reduction System employs four levels of sonic frequencies to shake loose schmutz off the image sensor.

Another smart feature I found to be of extreme value has to do with the little caps that keep dust and moisture out of the camera's PC flash sync and remote cord port. These little buggers usually end up lost the first time you remove them. Nikon's design team resolved this problem by placing these caps at the end of rubber arms that snake around from the camera's left-hand strap connection. Two points for the design team!

Autofocus is another area the D700 excels in. A 51-point AF system driven by a MultiCAM 3500FX AF sensor module keeps your subject tack-sharp at up to 5 frames-per-second out of the box, and up to 8 frames-per-second when coupled to the optional Nikon MB-D10 Battery Pack. Cross-type sensors are employed within the 15 points of the 3 center rows to lock and hold your subject in focus when using Nikkor lenses with an aperture of 5.6 or faster. In use, the camera's autofocus system proved to be quite responsive even when used under low light conditions with the kit lens set to the tele end of the range where the maximum aperture is effectively f/5.6.

Walking Tour of Hell’s Kitchen, NYC with the Nikon D700

Nikon's field-proven 1,005-pixel RGB sensor has long been the vehicle of Nikon's dead-nuts accurate 3D Color Matrix Metering II and i-TTL flash control. The same sensor is now part and parcel of Nikon's Scene Recognition System, which accurately analyzes the various components of the scene being captured and with split-moment timing chooses the optimum exposure data needed to accurately reproduce the image you see in your viewfinder. Advanced White Balance controls are also processed through the same RGB sensor for accurate color balance under the most complex lighting conditions, including those dreadful mercury vapor lamps that dot our urban landscape.

The Nikon D700 is available as a body only or with an AF-S Nikkor 24-120/3.5~5.6 G VR zoom, which keeps you well covered for landscapes and tight interiors through short telephoto and portrait imaging.

The Nikon D700 powers off an EN-EL3e lithium-ion battery that delivers upwards of 1000 exposures per charge, and up to 2900 images per charge when shooting with the optional Multi-Power MB-D10 Battery Pack with an EN-EL4a battery.

If a $5000 price tag has prevented you from going 'full-frame', Nikon just made it a whole lot easier to step up to the plate.

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