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7/1/08 (new)

Lucky 7

Full Frame
Five Star
DSLR: D700

Pro. Full Frame. Flash. Dazzle.

While Nikon has considered the D200 and D300 to be advanced prosumer cameras, they have always thought of the D1, D2 and D3 cameras as professional models.

Funny thing is, the D1 can't hold a candle to the D80, let alone the D200 or D300. And the D2 is a lesser camera than the D300, which shares its image chip. With the D3, the flagship Nikon DSLR, full frame imaging came to the Nikon line and now that line is further blurred with the introduction of the D700.

Let's be clear about this: Nikon's ranking of what is, and what is not, "professional" in image gathering instruments has nothing to do with acceptance and use by the professional community of photographers. The nomenclature seems to be driven by price more than by features, ergonomics or image size.

In the recent D300, Nikon gave us a five-star, absolute killer camera for $1800. It's one of those singular moments in product design in which virtually everything worked better than excellent. Image quality is great. Price is right. Features are at the peak of their form. What could top it?

How about a full-frame, 24 x 36 mm image chip version that retains ALL of the D300 features?

That's what the D700 is. A D300 with several minor improvements and one big, honkin' image chip.

It uses many parts from the D300, but accomodating the larger chip has caused the body shape to change a bit. Mainly, it is 7mm taller and 170 grams heavier. Other than that, it's pretty much identical in capabilities to the D300, meaning that it is a five-star, world class, lust-producing, phenomenon.

Under its hood are the advanced intervalometer, B&W filter shooting options, wide range bracketing options, high continuous shooting rate, RAW compression options, exemplary JPEG compression options, My Menu system, three assignable function buttons, four shooting banks, four custom setting banks, HDMI video output, active D-lighting, 51-point AF system,

1005-sensor light and color metering (above), dynamic AF area tracking and extensive practical options for various specialty users, such as the Image Authentication option that establishes a digital provenance for image integrity.

Like the D300, it shows us over 100 primary menu pages of settings, options and function choices. If you know the D300, picking up the D700 will be an exercise in total familarity.

The Bad News: It will take photographers who are brand new to Nikon's ergonomics and design approach a few weeks of practice and study to catch the personality of the camera and to start becoming fluent with it, but all the basics are easy to access and when one gets lost or confused, either the on-board help pages (or our projected eBook) will move you forward.

I don't mean to imply that this—or any other advanced DSLR—is going to be as easy to learn and master as consumer cameras. There's a lot of depth to these cameras, much of which isn't obvious or easy to absorb. It's an instrument. If you want to seriously play it, you have to practice and make a lot of mistakes. The hardest thing to know is what to practice, and when. That means knowing the undercurrents behind each control and menu item. If you're not the sort of person who wants to learn a camera this deep, close the page and step away from the computer. Nobody will get hurt.

The Sea Change

We've been screaming for a Nikon pro camera that has a built-in flash for years. There simply was no excuse for not including a camera flash on DSLRs that are able to work with Nikon's superior CSL flash system.

With the D2/D3's you needed to mount an extra flash (SB-800, at minimum) on the camera's hot shoe to achieve control over CLS speedlights. Bummer.

But the D700 solves all that. Since it is an up-rezzed D300, it has inherited the D300's speedlight, too. Rollover the image at left to pop it up.

Flash Command modefrom built-in speedlights orchestrates the camera's flash and up to two remote groups of Nikon SB-900, SB-800 or SB-600 (and possibly SB-200R) units into wireless coordinated lighting setups, all adjustable from the camera menu system. It's like having programmable radio-controlled lighting right from the camera head, except there is no radio, just control.

Nikon’s brilliant (and patented) command and control system tells remote units how to behave and what to adjust via pulse-coded flashes of light from the camera flash. With external units told to participate as TTL partners, the camera assembles a flash exposure solution by considering every flash unit separately, then orchestrates a unified plan for the exposure, all in a twinkling.

No other system comes close. I use this system in my own studio setups with multiple SB-800 units, and I’m not surprised to hear that many studio photographers, wedding photographers and location photographers have bought Nikon’s Creative Lighting System flash heads by the six pack.

Like the D300, weather seals protect the innards from moisture, drizzle and the occasional wind-blown dust.

This practice is extended to the MB-D10 battery base—same as for the D300.

D700 images are collected with a 24 x 36 mm CMOS image chip, the same one previously available only in the D3 camera, and ISO settings move up to 25,600 in the camera’s H 2.0 setting. While that setting shows considerable noise, backing off about a stop and a half shows images that are surprisingly clean. At ISO 8,000 there is grain, but not so obvious in nominal prints. When 12.1 million pixels are crammed into a letter page print, the grain gets lost in all those itty bitty color tiles. In other words, it becomes finer grain.

D700 features that are not found on the D300 include an in-viewfinder tilt sensor that tells you how far off horizontal or vertical you are. We suggested this feature a few years back, and it's nice to see that great thinks mind alike.

When shooting with the D700, DX format lenses are not precluded. Sure, they won't cover a full frame, but when mounted, the camera switches into DX mode, graphically masking the viewfinder down to a 1.5 crop and collecting the center 5.1 megapixels per shot.

DX mode images are 2784 x 1848 pixels. At 160 ppi (our ergonomic minimum density as gauged from tests), that suggests a print about 17 inches long. At a more photographic 200 ppi, these smaller format images (crops, really) will deliver handsome, if not gorgeous, 13-inch prints.

In other words, unless you are printing bigger than letter paper, DX images will be fine, thanks.

The 3-inch monitor is about as large as you can fit onto the back of this size camera body, and the differences from the D300 include:

  1. Where's the info button?
  2. It's over here with its own dedicated button. Slightly less confusing.
  3. No more latch to open the CF card door. None needed.
  4. Aha! A dedicated Center button for the Multi-selector. Thank god.
  5. New eyepiece with a bigger port hole.
  6. ...Which focuses over there with a rotatry knob.
  7. Shut light out of the viewfinder. If your eye's not covering it, this shutter will prevent back-light from entering the camera and potentially fogging the image.

Everything on the front of the D700 mirrors the control layout of the D300.

12.1 vs. 12.2

D300's have exactly 32 x 16 MORE pixels in their images than the files from the D700. This makes the D700 images a tiny squeek smaller. Inconsequentially different. But revealing.

A 12MP image is an ergonomic plateau. You can't charge 25% more for images shot at 16MP, because the cry for images that are 15% larger than 23 inches doesn't exist as a separate market. Too many variables to make sense of this logic? I can sympathize.

Q: What image size sells? A: Big enough.
Q: What's big enough? A: 16 x 20 inches at the practical outside.
Q: Is that true, always? A: No. Neither is five by seven feet always enough, but you can't make money always shooting for the impractical maximum.
Q: Is 12MP big enough for 16 x 20 prints? A: Yes. Actual ppi in giclé prints is 212.8 pixels in every running inch of paper (84 / cm). Meaning it is well above the standards for human consumption of photographic detail.

It may have been extreme wisdom or some lucky coincidence, but the 12 MP strata that both of these cameras occupy meets the real-world experiences with 35mm film head-on. Several years ago, some dudes in Toronto showed super quality 35mm film scans versus the same lens on a 3 MP DSLR and added up the scores from each. Digital beat film at 3.1 MP, so 12 MP should be Big Enough.

Negatives? A very few.

The 51 point focus system in the D700 is NOT spread out over most of the whole image, the way it is in the D300. Instead, it only covers a smaller area in the center as a crop of You can use it in 11-AF point mode, but that's not the same thing. Advantage: D300. Still, you do get all 51 points when using DX mode.

The rotary dial that selects shooting modes (Single, Continuous, Live View, Self-Timer, Mirror Up) still can't be read from the camera back. We feel that our Review 2 of the D300 came out with this feature too late for Nikon to incorporate it in the D700. You think they don't read these pages?

Flash sync stops at 1/250 sec for the built-in speedlight and that will deliver all of a full-blast flash into your image. If you need faster shutter speeds, the camera will deliver slightly less than a full-blast flash, down 1/3 stop at 1/320 sec. For greater control of ambient light, you will need to employ an external flash, but you can sync with SB-800/900/600s at higher FP shutter sync speeds. FP refers to the focal plane shutter and assures that the flash is continuously emitting while the shutter is letting light onto the sensor.

Competitive Position.

Unless some new amazing wonderama of a camera comes out of Canon or Sony, we don't see this as being a concern for Nikon. When the D70 came out, the Nikon guys were hinting over dinner that there was a new spirit of design, evolution and photographer awareness emerging throughout the corporation. So far, we have seen nothing but affirmation of that claim in Nikon's evolving products.

In the same time period, we witnessed Canon's public marketing gaffes, so it's easy to wonder what the heck they are thinking. For a time there, they seemed to be on top, but putting out an 8 megapixel, $1200 prosumer camera while marketing a popular 10 megapixel $600 newbie camera is not the way to capture the high ground. Then turning around and bringing out a 10 MP replacement prosumer camera for $1300 while introducing a 12 MP consumer cam for $800 seems like strike two.

Preliminary Projection of a Conclusion:

Hey, the D700 is a five-star D300 plus a big image chip and a few new features. Bigger chip. Deeper ISO. Level indicator. Menu and info tweaks. Appropriate price at three grand.

Meaning, another five-star DSLR from Nikon.

(preliminary, but projected)

—Peter iNova

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