Nikon D700 review: how does it hold up in 2014? by Nigel Rumsey

A Nikon D700 with 50mm f1.8 lens Camera reviews aren’t really my thing but a couple of people have asked what I think of my new (to me) Nikon D700, so I was tempted to give it a go. This is purely my subjective opinion of the D700 rather than a detailed technical analysis, the D700 has been around long enough for there to be quite a few of those. If that’s what you’re looking for I would suggest either the excellent DP Review or for something slightly more subjective how about the review byThom from Thom Hogan.

So on with the review. Firstly a little context, I’m generally a film shooter so I’m more used to carrying my Nikon F3 or my Holga than a large ‘Pro’ DSLR. The last DSLR I owned was a Nikon D7000 (which, as an aside, is a great camera). I mention this as the first thing I noticed about the D700 was the weight. Weighing at 995 grams, for the body alone, it is significantly heavier than the F3 which tips the scales at 762 grams, or the Holga which weighs basically nothing. Is the weight going to bother me? My first period of daily use was actually on holiday and I have to admit when I was planning to just wander around, with the possibility I may take a couple of shots, I found myself picking up my Fuji X100s (445 grams, including the lens) rather than the D700. However when I actually went out with the express purpose of shooting then I was happy to accept the weight penalty. Now granted the D700 was my new toy so it would be surprising for me not to want to take it, but a month later and the novelty may have worn off but I'm still really enjoying using it. When I'm shooting, the weight doesn't bother me. I've not, as yet, carried it all day so only time will tell on that score but it doesn't feel as though it's going to be a problem.

The main reason I wanted to switch from the D7000 was to get better low light capability. Anything above ISO1600 I found the D7000 way too noisy. I've been second shooting on a couple of weddings and in darker venues that was definitely an issue, to the point that even with an f1.8 lens there were some shots I just couldn't take - not a great position to be in. So we need to get a little 'pixel peepy' here for a moment.

Nikon D700 - ISO6400 no noise reduction

Nikon D700 - ISO6400 with noise reduction

Nikon D700 - ISO6400 B&W with noise reduction

Nikon D700 - ISO6400 100% no noise reduction

Nikon D700 - ISO6400 100% with noise reduction

This shot, at iso6400, is straight out of Lightroom with no editing, no noise reduction. You can see on the 100% crop it's certainly noisy, too noisy for me. Next to it is the same image with basic Lightroom noise reduction and a medium contrast curve adjustment, then finally the same shot converted to b&w. Looking at it at 10 x 8 size on the screen the Lightroom edited version is certainly passable. Maybe it's my b&w film roots but the b&w converted shot doesn't offend me at all, the apparent grain is certainly less than you'd see from Tri-X for example.

I don't have a 2014 DSLR to use as a comparison however DP review have this handy comparison tool. If you select a recently released camera you can compare it to a much older camera looking at the same image. I was hoping to compare my D700 with the D750, unfortunately that review isn't up yet so I've used, the next nearest, the D600.

Image copyright DP Review.

Image copyright DP Review.

Here you can see a 100% crop from both. I'd be interested to hear what you think; to me the D600 looks a little cleaner but not significantly so, not as much as I would have expected. For a six year old camera - on this very limited comparison - I think the D700 stands up very well.

For me the next most important factor after the quality of the image is the handling. Literally how does it feel in the hand, after all you could be carrying this thing all day. This is obviously entirely subjective - how big are your hands, do you have sausage fingers or delicate pianist's digits. My hands are on the small-side, so I probably have a slightly easier time getting a camera to 'fit' than someone with big chunky mitts. The D700 fits me very well, there's a nice big grip that I can get all four fingers on to, all the buttons fall easily within reach.

The 'oh-so-handy' ISO button

I do have one gripe however, the position of the iso button - who the hell thought that was a good idea? If you don't know it's on the top left-hand side in a little trio of White Balance, Quality and ISO. The quality I (almost) never change it's on RAW it stays on RAW, end of story. I may adjust the white balance maybe once or twice on a shoot, but to be honest on modern cameras the auto white balance is so good it generally stays where it is and I tweak it in Lightroom, if I need to. The ISO however I'm always playing with. If you're at a wedding, and it's showery, you can be outside one minute and inside the next, the ISO is constantly being tweaked up and down. If I end up using the D700 for 10 years I may be able to find that bad boy in the dark, but at the moment there's no way I can change the ISO without taking the camera away from my face. I'd hoped that I'd be able to remap one of the other buttons for ISO but no, Nikon have decided it should be inaccessible and inaccessible it shall stay.

There is the issue of video, or lack of it; back when the D700 was launched video on DSLRs was beginning to make quite a stir. The Canon 5D had been out for a couple of years and filmmakers were beginning to use DSLRs for video, and even TV. Yet for some reason Nikon decided they didn't want to put it on the D700. In hindsight that seems a strange decision. It shows how times have changed, in the conclusion to their review, DP Review don't even mention the lack of video. Today you can't imagine a medium range DSLR not shooting high definition video, never mind one targeting professional users. Yes, I'd prefer it if the D700 had video capability, I like the idea of shooting it, however I never once used video on my D7000 so it's not a big issue. I think if you're a student, say, who's grown up with DSLRs shooting video and this is your only camera it may be a deal breaker for you.

One important factor, which I'd persuaded myself to ignore when I was looking for an FX (full frame) camera, is the cost of the lenses compared with their DX (crop frame) counterparts. The Nikon 35mm f1.8 DX AF lens (at time of writing) will cost you £148.00, the FX version is £465.00. That's not so bad you can persuade yourself, but that's at the cheaper end of the Nikon range, things only get more expensive from here on in. Fortunately I only use a narrow range of lenses; my favourite the 35mm, a 50mm and 85mm. Never-the-less to go out and buy all three from scratch will cost £1,000. If your budget is tight it's certainly worth considering.

So in summary would I recommend the D700, a six-year-old DSLR, in 2014? There are always provisos to a question like that. Firstly if you want video then it's obviously not for you. If you're not tied into the Nikon system and you have enough money for a Canon 5D mk. III then, in my opinion, it's not for you either. If you're looking for a camera to take travelling, or to hang around your neck while sightseeing, then personally I'd buy something from one of the excellent compact mirror-less ranges. However, if you want a robust, reliable 'professional' full-frame DSLR, with excellent low-light performance for not too much money then it could be for you.

I bought my D700 about three months ago, it had taken a little over 24k shots (the shutter is rated by Nikon for 150k), it came with a spare battery, four CF cards and a Nikon battery grip. That little lot cost me £825 - which I don't think is too bad. If you decide to get one you won't have too much trouble picking one up, in good condition, for a similar amount. Let me know if you do.

Camera manuals and, errm, Donald Rumsfeld by Nigel Rumsey

a Nikon D700 camera manual With my new camera I received this well thumbed manual. I’m the third owner of my D700, that I’m aware of, so it’s been well used. It’s often said, but truly worth repeating, that even an experienced photographer won’t get the best out of their camera unless they read the manual.

The mistake I’ve made in the past is only using the manual to look up things I don’t know. It pains me to credit Donald Rumsfeld but he summed up the problem in his famous ‘known knowns’ speech.

“The message is that there are no ‘knowns.’ There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don't know.” Donald Rumsfeld, 6 June 2002.

The things you need to look up in your camera manual are the known unknowns, but there are also the unknown unknowns the things your camera can do but you won’t know about until you read the manual.

My suggestion would be to settle yourself in a comfy chair with a glass of your favourite tipple and read it from cover to cover.

(I’d like to take this opportunity to pledge I’ll never surprise you again with a mention of Donald Rumsfeld.)

New (to me) camera: Nikon D700 by Nigel Rumsey

A Nikon D700 with 50mm f1.8 lensAs you can see I didn’t buy a D610 as I suggested I might in a previous post. I went to look at one and for some reason it just didn’t excite me. I appreciate that’s a rather an amorphous thing to quantify, but if you’re not using a camera as a professional tool where maybe a particular feature is paramount, it should be something you enjoy using. Even when I had the D610 in my hand I was thinking back to the D700 I’d tested. There was, of course, the additional bonus that it was significantly cheaper than the D610. Granted the D700 is an older camera - a lot older in tech years, which I understand are slightly shorter than dog years - however from all I read it still gives great images. First impressions are it’s noticeably larger and heavier than my D7000, that’s obviously a disadvantage in some circumstances, although I quite like a heavy camera. It certainly feels very solid and well made.

I’ve only taken a few test shots around the house and in the garden, however everything seems to be fine. My lens ‘collection’ is limited to the beauty you can see there, I’d really like a 35mm lens, my go-to length, but that’ll come in time. Until then I’ve got a new camera to get used to.

Enjoy your weekend!