Nikon D700 review: a 2016 perspective

The Nikon D700 is still seen as one of the best and most iconic cameras Nikon has introduced in the last decennia. It was introduced in 2008 as the smaller and more affordable alternative for the professional Nikon D3. It shares a lot of internals with the D3, like the sensor and the autofocus system. The D700 offers a 12 megapixel resolution and an, for that time, incredible ISO range going from ISO200 to ISO6400 native. That was why a lot of professional and semi-professional photographers chose to buy a D700 instead of the much more expensive D3. That was probably why Nikon was a little reluctant to introduce a ‘real’ new Nikon D700. The D800 is a different camera aimed at a different audience and the D750 looks like a reasonable upgrade for the D700-users but can’t quite match the D700’s rugged body. The only newer Nikon that comes close is the quirky Nikon Df, with its high-end Nikon D4 sensor but it also lacks the rugged pro-style body the D700 has.

If you are interested in that other high-end Nikon camera the Nikon D800 you can read my 2017 perspective on the Nikon D800 here.

Nikon D700 review 2016

Full frame still seems to be the holy grail of photography for a lot of prosumer APS-C camera-users. If you are a Nikon shooter you can always buy a new full frame camera like the capable and affordable Nikon D610. But while it is quite affordable for a full frame camera it will still set you back about 1500 euros. An then you have a camera with a body built to the standards of the Nikon D7200 and a simpler autofocus system with just 39 AF-points. If you want a professional grade body the cheapest new option is the excellent Nikon D810, but that is even more expensive at about 3200 euros. The only cheaper option is moving to Sony (like I did), and buy a Sony A7 for about 1100 euros.

The downside is that the A7 is a mirrorless camera which feels and operates quite different than a DSRL. It’s a matter of taste if that suits you. The other problem is that native, autofocus lenses for the full frame Sony’s are quite expensive, which makes switching to Sony an expensive venture. Switching to full frame is always an expensive move, especially if you don’t have a full collection of full frame lenses and have to invest in both a new body and new lenses. But that silly old and iconic Nikon D700 is still around and you can buy a nice second hand one for about 600-800 euros. But at 8 years old that couldn’t be a viable option in 2016, could it? Let’s find out.

Build and design

The Nikon D700 uses a design very similar to the Nikon D300s, with a professional grade build quality and button lay-out. Nikon still uses the same basic design for the D810 and the new D500 APS-C camera also has a design that is very much like the good old D700. The button layout is very similar to that of the real professional body’s like the D3, 4 and 5 making using them side by side easier. That sturdy build does make the D700 quite chunky. The body weighs just a little less than one kilogram (2 pounds), but it does give you the feeling you’ve got a real high-end camera in your hands.

Nikon D700 review 2016
Pro-style button layout on the Nikon D700

The pro-style body layout means there are some details that are different from the consumer cameras. For instance there isn’t a PASM switch like you’ll find on a D7200 and other DSRL’s. Instead Nikon has mounted a combined drive-mode (single, continuous low speed, continuous high speed, live view, timer and mirror-up) and settings (ISO, Quality and White Balance) buttons on the left shoulder of the camera. You switch between the PASM modes with a different button on the right side of the camera. Another feature you’ll only find on the pro-style body’s is a dedicated AF-on button. You can use that for back button focus, a feature action photographers use a lot. The D700 has some other handy buttons and switches that make adjusting settings quicker and easier without diving in to the menu’s.  It has a switch to change the focus field from one focus point, to a group of focus points or using all the focus points. It also has a switch for adjusting the metering-mode. All those buttons may look a little intimidating for a beginner but if you have a little experience with Nikon cameras you’ll quickly feel right at home.

The Nikon D700 has got the round eyepiece just like you find on the other high-end full frame cameras by Nikon. It has got a big and bright viewfinder, that gives you a much better view of your subject than the smaller viewfinders of a APS-C DSLR. That also comes in handy for manual focussing, but that is even better when you use the live view mode. The finder has a 0.72x magnification and a 95% coverage. That means you’ll get a little more in your photo than you see in your viewfinder. The finder has got a small switch to close the finder for shooting long exposure shots and making sure you don’t get any stray light in your photo trough the eyepiece. The D700 also had a built in flash. Something most semi-professional cameras don’t have. I almost never use the built-in flash, but it does come in handy as a controller for external speedlights or when you need some extra light and don’t have a speedlight at hand.

Nikon D700 review 2016
Big round viewfinder just like all the other high-end full frame DSLR’s by Nikon

One of the greatest features Nikon has reserved for the professional body’s is the option to set the middle button of the 8-way controller to zoom to 100% when reviewing you images. This makes checking the focus very easy and quick. The only thing you have to remember is that it will zoom past the 100% zoom, which makes the image a little fuzzy. The first time using it I expected it to zoom to 100%, so I thought my images weren’t perfectly focused even while they were. After you’ve realized that you’ll find that this is a great function, that saves you a lot of time bashing the + button. I can’t understand why Nikon doesn’t add this function to other body’s, as it is a great function.

The rear screen of the Nikon D700 is about the same size as you’ll find on more modern cameras (3 inch vs. 3.1 or 3.2 for the new models). Its resolution is about the same as current mid-end models with a VGA resolution. It isn’t as sharp as the new displays of high-end cameras. Despite the resolution being a little lower the display is still very usable. It is definitely sharp enough for image review and using the Live-view. You have to remember the Nikon D700 display was at the top of the market back in 2008, so it still is quite good.

Nikon D700 review 2016

The D700 body also comes with a number of adjustable FN buttons you can assign to functions you use a lot. As you can see the Nikon D700 is an old body, but there isn’t a lot of functionality you will miss when you move from something like a D7200 / 7100 to a D700. In fact you’ll notice the old D700 has some great features you will definitely miss when you would move back to the prosumer body’s. By the way, the D700 is weather sealed just like the modern body’s like the D810, so it can withstand some light rain or spay (given you also use a weather sealed lens).

The Nikon D700 is one of the first cameras by Nikon that featured a live view function. Unlike the newer models you don’t have a simple switch to activate it, but you have to use the drive-mode dial. When you turn the dial to the LV-setting you activate live view by depressing the shutter button. The live view image has got a lower refresh rate than the modern DSLR’s, and the difference with a modern mirrorless camera is even bigger. But that doesn’t mean the image isn’t usable, it is quite sharp and clear and you can use the + button to zoom in, making it perfect for manual focusing. On modern (Nikon-) DSLR’s you get contrast detection autofocus in live view mode. That is accurate but very slow. The D700 doesn’t have contrast detection autofocus. Instead when you half-depress the shutter button it temporarily pauses live view, lets the mirror down and uses its normal autofocus system to acquire focus. This isn’t real fast, but I can’t say there is a big difference between this system and the slow contrast detection Nikon uses on its modern cameras. Both systems are a lot slower than a modern mirrorless camera anyway.

The D700 doesn’t have a video function. So you can’t record video with it. It does have a HDMI-out port, so you can connect it to your TV to review your images.

Nikon D700 review 2016
With the MB-D10 grip mounted the Nikon D700 is huge! And heavy…

I’ve bought the D700 with the optional MB-D10 battery grip. With the grip on it the D700 is even bigger and about as heavy as the Nikon D3. The MB-D10 has got some extra controls to make using the camera in portrait orientation easier. It has got an extra shutter release button, AF-on button and a 8-way multi controller. It also has a switch to turn the buttons on the MB-D10 on or off. The MB-D10 comes with two battery trays, one for an extra EN-EL3e (the normal D700 battery) and one for 8 AA batteries. The 8 AA-setup will give the camera enough extra power to increase the number of frames per second. With the normal batteries the D700 will go up to 5 frames per second. If you use the 8 AA batteries it can go up to 8 frames per second, making the camera sound like a machinegun. Because the buffer is limited you can take about 20 RAW-photos in the 8 fps mode before the buffer is full and the camera has to slowdown. You could also use the original battery for the Nikon D3 in the grip, that will also give you the extra speed. But the D3 batteries are very expensive (125 euros) and you would need an extra charger so that is mainly an option for people that already have a D3.

Using the D700

Using the D700 is a real pleasure. It is responsive and fast, and in no way gives you the feeling you are using an old camera. The professional Nikon-layout takes some time to get used to but once you’ve found you way around it you’ll love the controls. Every button is right where you want it and after a little while you’ll be able to adjust most of the settings without even taking the camera off your eye. All the buttons feel sturdy and have a nice feedback. The only button that is a little less nice to use is the 8-way commander on the back. On my D700 it feels a little mushy, and sometimes doesn’t respond the way I’d like. I don’t know if that is a problem with all D700’s or just my camera.

The body-design and big size of the D700 made it possible for Nikon to add an substantial grip on the camera. The D700 is perfect for people with big hands, and the grip has got a nice curve to it making it comfortable to hold. If you have very small hands you may have to adjust your grip to reach all the buttons on the camera, but with my big hand the button placement is just perfect.

Nikon D700 review 2016

On top of the D700 there is a big and easy to read LCD display showing the most important information. You’ll find information about your shutter speed, aperture, battery, white balance, image size and other useful information. The display can be lit by rotating the on-off button past the ‘on’ position. In the menu you can select how long the display stays lit. On the back of the camera you’ll find an ‘info’ button. Pushing that will light up the big rear screen showing almost all the settings.

Nikon D700 review 2016
The info screen is the same as newer Nikon models

Autofocus and features

The Nikon D700 is one of the first cameras to use the Multi-CAM3500 FX autofocus system. It was one of the most advanced systems on the market and its newer iterations are still used in high-end Nikon cameras today. The system uses 51 autofocus points of which 15 are \ cross type for extra speed and accuracy in difficult situations. The AF-points are spread out over a wide area. It is capable of advanced 3D tracking by working together with the 1005 pixel metering sensor.

All this hardware makes for a fast and accurate focusing system. When using a small cluster around the centre AF-points the lock-on is almost immediately, even in less than ideal lighting. The system is capable of focussing in – 1 EV light. While the newer models go to -2 of even -3 EV. Still, the D700 still is very accurate in low light, but in the worst of all situations it may slow down a little.

You have the option to choose one AF-point, a dynamic area of 9, 21 or 51 points or the full auto-mode where the camera will select the AF-points itself. In most situations I like to use the dynamic area single focus mode. This way the AF is fast and I can immediately see if the if the camera has selected the right focus point. In continuous mode the camera will not show which focus points are selected, making it harder to see where it tried to focus. That isn’t a problem for fast action shooting since you don’t really have the time to check your focus all the time, but for slower moving subjects I’d rather see what my camera is doing. The full auto-mode also works quite well. The camera will give faces (it can detect skin-tones with the 1005 pixel metering sensor) priority over other subjects, so even if there are branches or other things in front of a face it will choose the face most of the time. That is quite impressive for such an old system!

Nikon D700 review 2016

All in all the Nikon D700 is quite a lot faster than my Sony A7 when it comes to focussing with a shallow depth of field. The D700 does need you to tune your lenses for optimal sharpness, something you don’t need to do with a mirrorless camera as those use the imaging sensor for focusing. Adjusting the focus isn’t really hard by the way. With the option in the menu it is possible to correct a lens for optimal performance in about 10 minutes.

The Nikon D700 has got a shutter that is a little less durable than the one Nikon uses in the D3. The D3 shutter is rated for 300.000 actuations, while the one in the Nikon D700 is rated for 150.000 actuations. Luckily the shutter does allow for an impressive 1/8000th of a second minimal shutter speed for using fast lenses wide open. The newer D610 an Df only go up to 1/4000th of a second, which may seem worse than the D700. But since the newer models can go to the lower base ISO of 100, while the D700’s base ISO is 200. So the result will be the same (ISO 100 and 1/4000th gives the same amount of light captured as the D700 at ISO200 and 1/8000th).

Image quality

The Nikon D700 is 8 years old by now, which is prehistoric in technology terms. So that must mean the image quality is terrible compared to newer cameras? Well, it does have just 12 megapixels while newer models have 24, 36, 42 or even 50 megapixels. Does that mean it is useless? No not at all, 12 megapixels is more than enough, even for large prints. It does however mean you have to be a little more careful with your framing. With my 24 megapixel Sony I can crop about 1/3 of the image and still have the same amount of pixels I get with the D700. If you start to crop heavily with the D700 you will run out of pixels eventually, so you’d better try to get your framing in the first place so you don’t have to crop in post processing.

Nikon D700 review 2016
Can’t crop till you drop with 12 MP but it is perfect for making multi-photo panorama images with acceptable image size

Besides megapixels there are two other factors that have an impact on image quality: ISO performance and dynamic range. Looking at the usable ISO range I’d say up to ISO3200 is perfectly usable even for the largest prints. ISO6400 is okay, but will need to be cleaned in post processing losing some detail. ISO12800 and upwards are quite useless for normal use. When comparing the D700 to my Sony A7 I’d say the difference with the D700 is about 2/3 to one full stop. On my Sony A7 I see about the same amount of noise at ISO 5000/6400 I get with the D700 at ISO3200.

Dynamic range is something that makes the newer Nikons stand out with their Sony-made sensors. Does that mean a camera with a lower dynamic range isn’t going to give you good images? No, not really. Canon has produced a lot of cameras that have a substantially lower dynamic range than the models of Sony and Nikon, but where still very successful. Put in numbers, the Nikon D700 has got a dynamic range of 12.2 EV while the Nikon D810 goes all the way to a very impressive 14.3 EV. To compare those numbers, the Canon EOS 6D, Canons cheapest current full frame model has got a dynamic range of 12.1 EV. So while the D700 lags behind the newer Nikon models it still has more dynamic range then the current Canon models. More dynamic range means you can capture images with bright highlights and dark shadows and still have enough detail in both extremes.

In the following images you can see a deliberately underexposed image and the result I was able to recover from the RAW-file. When you pull the shadows in post processing you do introduce some noise in the image, but with a little extra work it still is very usable. I was expecting the result to be far less impressive, especially since my Sony’s dynamic range is a lot better in the DXO-tests. So nothing to worry about here.

Lenses

For the images in this review I’ve used the Nikon AF 50mm D and the Nikon AF-S 85mm G lenses. Both are quite small prime lenses with outstanding image quality. The big difference is that the AF-S 85mm G lens has got a fast and quiet focusing motor built in to the body of the lens. This makes it possible to use this lens on all current Nikon models, even the cheaper D3x00 and D5x00 series that don’t have a focusing motor built in to the body of the camera. The Nikon AF 50mm D lens is an older type of lens that doesn’t have a focus motor built in to the lens. The AF 50mm D is Nikons smallest, lightest and cheapest (130 euros) lens. It is so small it almost seems to disappear on the D700 especially when you have the MB-D10 battery grip on the camera. The AF 50mm D lens uses the focusing motor built in to the body of the Nikon D700. When focusing you’ll notice that the internal focusing motor of the Nikon D700 is capable of very fast focusing. On a small and light lens like the AF 50mm D lens the difference with other cameras isn’t that big. On larger and heavier lenses the difference is quite noticeable. When testing the focus speed of the Nikon AF 105mm D micro lens next to a Nikon D7100 the D700 seems about twice as fast as the newer prosumer camera. This is probably because the D700 has got the higher powered motor that is also used in the Nikon D3. For big lenses that can be the difference between sluggish AF and missing shots and nailing them. In some instances this makes the Nikon D700 focus faster with old AF-D lenses than it does with more modern AF-S lenses.

Nikon D700 review 2016
The Nikon AF 50mm D f1.8 is small and light

Photos

I’ve used my Nikon D700 mostly to capture family moments. With the fast auto focus it is perfect to capture children moving around and having fun. I haven’t made a whole lot other images, but in the following gallery I’ll share some photos I did make with the Nikon D700. All images are processed to taste in Lightroom CC 2015.6.1. Some just converted straight to JPEG, others have had work done by cropping or adjusting levels. I’ll add more images over time.

Conclusion

Is the Nikon D700 still a good and relevant camera in 2016? Yes, it surly is! The Nikon D700 is a perfect introduction in to full frame Nikon photography. With the current second-hand pricing it is cheaper than a new D7200, and while the D700 has got only 12 megapixels vs. the 24 the D7200 the D700 can still hold its own against the newer prosumer body. And it even surpasses that newer camera in some fields (build quality, control layout). I’m very happy to have added the Nikon D700 to my camera bag next to my Sony A7. I’ll use the Sony for landscape photography and traveling, and the D700 for the rest. But after using it a while I wouldn’t even mind having the D700 as my only camera. It still is that impressive. I’m even thinking about parting with my Sony and buying a D800, something I wouldn’t have even considered some time ago since I was very happy with my Sony. But the feeling of using a pro-style Nikon is just so nice, especially for a former Nikon (-D7000) user.

Nikon D700 review 2016

That means the only real conclusion I can make is: Even in 2016 the Nikon D700 is still a very good camera, that delivers very good images with very good high ISO performance, has got fast and accurate AF and can stand a lot of abuse. If you were in doubt about buying a Nikon D700 for semi-professional or prosumer use I can only say: just do it! I’m sure you’ll love it just as much as I do.

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