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A few weeks back, I went ahead and bought the new Nikon D700, but I really wanted to spend some time with it, and shoot in a number of different situations and scenarios, before I gave you my review. Now that I have a few thousands shots on it, I’m ready to share what I’ve learned.

My Field Report
The D700 was announced on July 1st, and Nikon seeded a number of photo sites with an early review unit, so for more than a month now we’ve all had access to very detailed write-ups of every single pixel, technical aspect, and mechanical specification possible. So, when I do a review, I want to bring a slightly different angle to it, so it’s really more of a ‘Field Report’ (what I liked and didn’t like and my personal impressions from actually using it out in the field).

My challenge in writing this field report, is that while it’s true the D700 is a new camera, it’s really two existing cameras made into one (the guts of a Nikon D3 inside the body of a Nikon D300), so I’m not going to have a bunch of exciting new features to share that everybody doesn’t already know about, so it’s really going to be a “feel for the camera” type of report, and my feelings on who might want one and why. We’ll start with a quick recap of what the D700 brings to the table.

Comparing it to the D300:

  • It looks just like a D300, and if you didn’t look at the name on the front (or the camera strap), you’d probably never know, so cosmetically, they’re very much the same, except that the D700 is slightly taller because of the updated viewfinder, and the D700 has the new flash sync and remote caps. Also, on the back the viewfinder area looks more like the D3′s, as does the multi-control wheel.
  • Since it has the D3 chip inside, you get two things: the Full Frame FX format sensor, and the incredibly low noise at high ISOs that made the D3 a truly groundbreaking camera. Although many working pros use the D300, Nikon (and many camera magazines), have always positioned the D300 as a consumer-level camera, but with the inclusion of the D3′s sensor, the D700 is a professional grade camera (just in a smaller package).
  • The D700 does have the D3′s Virtual Horizon feature (that gives you an aircraft-cockpit like readout to help you keep your camera level when shooting on a tripod), and on the D700 you can add this Virtual Horizon as an overlay when you’re using Live View.
  • The View Finder shows 95% of the actual frame area, vs. the 100% view you get from the D3′s viewfinder.
  • The Auto-Focus has been enhanced as well, and is an improvement over the D300′s (which is no slouch itself).
  • The downside of Full Frame is that for some shooters, it’s a disadvantage. For example, when I’m shooting sports, I get closer to the game (by around 50%) using a D300 because of the 1.5 DX magnification (my 200mm lens gives the equivalent of a 300mm lens on a full-frame sensor). I lose that advantage with a full frame D700.

Comparing it to the D3:

  • The D700 has something fairly significant that the D3 doesn’t have; a pop-up flash. Now, you might be thinking, “Well, who would want to use pop-up flash anyway?” You can use it to wirelessly trigger an off camera SB-800 or SB-900 flash, without having to have a 2nd flash or a separate commander unit. For me, that’s huge.
  • The D700 has the built-in Dust Sensor cleaner the D3 doesn’t have.
  • The D700 doesn’t have two memory-card slots.
  • The D700 is smaller and lighter than the D3 (but again, it’s not a pro-rugged as the D3, which is born to take a lickin’).
  • The D700 doesn’t have the little horizontal LCD at the bottom back of the camera for seeing, and changing, White Balance, ISO and Quality.
  • It doesn’t have as fast a Burst mode as the D3 (it does 5 fps with the body only. Add the battery grip and it goes up to 8 frames per second).
  • There are some tweaks to the software (like the ability to assign any camera function to the preview buttons on the front of the camera).

Things I Really Liked:

  • Besides the really obvious stuff (like High ISO and Full Frame, and the inclusion of a pop-up flash for triggering wireless flash), I really like how you access the memory cards—there’s no annoying memory card door button to push first—it’s just a simple slide of a panel (more like you have on some Canon models), and I think this is a step in the right direction for easy usability (hey, the little things matter).
  • I like that you can use the same batteries as the D300, so now I’ve got plenty of batteries for each camera (since I have both). The charger is smaller, and carrying a spare battery or two takes much less space and weight than the larger batteries on the D3.
  • I particularly like one change they made on the back of the camera; they moved the Info button to the far lower side of the LCD, and now it’s easily accessible with your thumb. It just seems like the perfect place for, and putting it there will probably get a lot more people using it.

What I didn’t like:

  • I could only come up with one thing that I didn’t like about the D700, but to me, it’s pretty significant. I don’t like the feel of the shutter. To me, it feels soft and kind of mushy (compared to either the D3 or the D300). This really surprised me, becasue one of the things I love best about Nikon cameras is the feel, and even the sound, of the shutter. It usually feels crisp. It sounds crisp. But to me the D700′s feels soggy and slow. By the end of the first day’s shooting, I was starting to get used to it, but that doesn’t mean I like it. I know that some people will like this new Carbon Fiber shutter better, and to some it just won’t matter, but if I could change one thing; this would be it.
  • There is one more issue, but it’s not a D700 issue; it’s a full-frame issue. The problem with the D700 is the same problem as with the D3; to really experience the full frame sensor advantage, you really have to have lenses that were made to take advantage of the full-frame sensor. If not, and you put DX format lenses on the D700, you get a 1.5x cropped image that’s only around 5 megapixels. If you have a lens like Nikon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 VR lens, then you’re in luck—it works great with full frame, and doesn’t do the “DX Crop” thing. However, if you have the popular 18-200mm f/3.5 – f/5.6 VR lens, then your image will be cropped down to 5-megapixels. Hey, better you hear it from me, than learn it the hard way. I guess what I’m trying to tell you is this; you’re probably going to need more than just the D700 body. You’re probably going to need to buy a lens (or two) to make it worth your investment. If you shoot portraits, the incredibly crisp new 24-70 f/2.8 FX lens runs around $1,700. If you shoot landscapes, Nikon’s fabulous 14-24mm f/2.8 FX lens costs around $1,550. In short; you’re going to need the money you save from not buying a D3.

The Bottomline
The D700 just takes a better looking photograph than the D300 (and really, that’s what it’s all about—all the rest is really just bells and whistles). The new sensor, the autofocus, the low noise—it all adds up to photos that just beat the D300 (with the D700 you get D3 quality photos, which the D300, good as it is, just can’t deliver).

If all I can find to complain about is the feel of the shutter, this must be one heck of a camera (and it truly is). It puts a full frame 35mm size sensor in a lot of folks hands for $2,000 less than they expected, and they added features that even the D3 doesn’t have, which really makes it a pretty insane deal.

So, the question is; why would anybody buy a D3, when they can buy a D700 with a battery grip, and have nearly the same camera for almost $2,000 less? That’s a good question, and I can’t swear that if a friend asked me if they should spend the extra $2,000 for a D3 that I could look them in the eye and tell them it’s worth it. If they’re a sport shooter or a photojournalist, then I’d probably say yes. Outside of those two groups, I’d have a hard time justifying the extra cost.

Then, who should buy a D700? It’s for anyone who wants to shoot handheld in low light (at higher ISOs than you would ever consider with a D300, like 6400 ISO). It’s for anyone who really wants the advantage of shooting with a 35mm-sized full-frame sensor, and it’s for anyone who just wants better looking images than they’re getting now with a D300 or lower. So, in short, if you’ve dreamed of a D3 without the D3 pricetag, your dreams have finally come true in the Nikon D700 (and it’s why I’m awarding it my “Scott Thinks It’s Hot!” Award). Way to go, Nikon!

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(photos courtesy of Nikon).