Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
The Nikon D700 digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is a cross between the full-frame sensor (FX – 24×36mm) D3 and the small-frame sensor (DX – 16×24mm) D300. The D700 is the economy model of the D3, using the same sensor and digital electronic processing pipeline as its bigger brother, minus a few high-end features such as a built-in vertical grip and dual compact flash memory cards. The Nikon D700 is a professional camera with 12 MP.
On August 23, 2007, Nikon invited the press from around the world to Tokyo and announced two new digital SLR cameras, namely the Nikon D3 (review), and Nikon D300 (review). As the first Nikon DSLR with a sensor that is essentially the same size as the traditional 35mm film frame, the D3 was a landmark camera. At the same time, the D300 demonstrated that Nikon would continue to support the DX format. Despite the huge price difference, the D3 and D300 share a lot of components such as the Multi-CAM 3500 AF modules that features 51 AF points.
Almost a year later, on July 1, 2008, Nikon introduced its second FX-format DSLR in the D700. Contrary to a lot of speculations, the second FX body is not a 20+MP camera. The D700 is essentially a cross between the D3 and D300. Therefore, it can be viewed as the economy model of the D3 or the FX version of the D300. Internally the D700 shares a lot of the same electronics as the D3. However, the external controls are very much D300-like. The three of them share the same auto-focus module the Multi-CAM 3500.
The Nikon D700 can be purchased from one of our trusted merchants in the following combinations:
Even though the D700 may be the economy model, its feature set is still extremely strong with only a few luxury items absent from those on the D3. The following list is a summary of the D3 features not available on the D700:
Dual Compact Flash memory card slots
Highest build quality from Nikon with a shutter rated at 300K actuations; the D700 is rated at 150K actuations.
100% viewfinder, 95% for the D700 with a 90% frame area
A dedicated lock button to lock the shutter speed and aperture
A dedicated Bracket (BKT) button for exposure bracketing
Integrated vertical grip with dedicated controls for the vertical orientation, although the D700 has the MB-D10 vertical grip option
Separate back LCD for ISO, image quality, and white balancing controls
5:4 crop mode and under the crop mode, the area outside of the crop is grayed out. The D700 only provides a frame outline for the cropped area.
Similar to the D3, the D700 is fully capable for action photography. Start up time is 120 msec and shutter lag is a short 40 msec, both just like the D3. Otherwise, the D700 is every bit as suitable for demanding action and low-light photography as the D3. The D700 can capture at 5 fps native with one EN-EL3e battery inside the camera. But just like the D300, if one attaches the optional MB-D10 vertical grip/battery pack (with either an EN-EL4/EN-EL4a battery or 8 AA batteries inside), the D700 can capture at 8 fps at the full 14-bit mode, very close to the 9 fps from the D3. The good news is that unlike the D300, the D700 can capture at the full 14-bit mode without any loss of frame rate exactly like the D3, while the D300 drops to only 2.5 fps in the 14-bit mode.
On the other hand, the D700 has some advantages of its own:
It is smaller and lighter than the D3
It has a pop-up flash. While it is under-powered and cannot rotate to bounce as a primary flash, its main advantage is that it can serve as the master for the Nikon Creative Lighting System (CLS) to control remote iTTL flashes
The D700 has the on-demand gridline option in its viewfinder that helps the photographer keep the horizon straight. However, the viewfinder is a bit dimmer and when there is no battery to power it, the viewfinder becomes very dark and blurry. That is not a fault but merely a feature that is shared among all Nikon SLRs with the on-demand gridline feature dated back to the film SLR the F80/N80.
On-camera AF assist light
The D700 uses the same Multi-CAM 3500 FX AF module as the D3, and the D300 uses a very similar Multi-CAM 3500 DX. It has a total of 51 AF points and among them 15 are cross type that are sensitive to both horizontal and vertical patterns. If you hold the camera horizontally, the 15 cross-type AF points are the ones in the center three columns, 5 to each column. Under dim light, typically the cross-type AF points perform much better. This is an AF module optimized for action photography but is less suitable for still subjects, especially in the FX format.
On the D700, the Multi-CAM 3500 can track moving subjects at 8 fps with the optional MB-D10 battery pack. My testing of the D3, D700 and D300 cameras indicates that the new AF module can track moving wildlife, birds in flight and various sports with ease. For action photography, I would rate it a step better than the auto-focus on the D2X that uses the previous generation of Nikon’s best AF module, the Multi-CAM 2000. With the D2X, roughly 80 to 90% of my surfing images are in focus. With the Multi-CAM 3500, it is quite close to 100%.
For photographing still subjects, one can select any one of the 51 AF points from the Multi-Selector pad on the back of the camera and use that to directly cover the subject in the viewfinder. Using the pad to move the selection one AF point at a time is slow. Therefore, there is an option to make only 11 AF points (out of the 51) selectable (Custom Setting a8). Additionally, if one presses on the center button of the Multi-Selection pad, it resets to the center AF point.
While the 51 AF points from the Multi-CAM 3500 cover a good portion on the D300’s DX frame, on the D700’s FX frame, which has over twice the area, the 51 AF points only cover the center 25% of the frame. Therefore, some old-fashioned AF, lock focus, and recompose may once again be necessary. In particular, if the camera is held in the portrait (vertical) orientation, there is no cross-type AF point in the top 40% of the frame, where the subject typically is. It can be a problem under indoor dim light. That is a disadvantage the D700 shares with the D3.
For photographing moving subjects, the D700 has the Dynamic AF Area option to choose a cluster of 9, 21 or all 51 AF points to track the subject (Custom Setting a3), with the center of the cluster at any one of the 51 AF points. A cluster of 9 simply represents a center AF point with a circle of 8 surrounding it to form a square. A cluster of 21 has a second layer surrounding the 9 inside.
The general rule of thumb is that the fewer AF points that are involved in deciding the focus, the less calculation the little computer inside the camera needs to make such that the faster AF will be. However, using only 9 AF points, it is rather easy for the D700 to lock onto the background when the subject briefly moves off the covered area, causing the common “back focus” problem. My experience is that using 21 AF points seems to be a better compromise. If one selects all 51 AF points, there is a further option to engage 3D tracking, where the Multi-CAM 3500 takes additional information from the 1005-pixel metering CCD inside the viewfinder into consideration. Since the metering CCD is sensitive to color, 3D tracking is designed to keep track of a subject’s movement provided that it has a different color and/or a lot of contrast from the background. My experience with this option is mixed. For smaller subjects that are covered by one or two AF points, the Multi-CAM 3500 can track the subject for a short while, but after a few AF point hops, it tends to lose track of it and latches onto something else instead. For larger subjects that can occupy 10 or 20 AF points, tracking works a lot better.
Unlike the D2X and D200 that have a Closest Subject Priority AF mode, the Multi-CAM 3500 replaces it with Auto-Area AF where it intends to automatically detect the subject. If the lens used is a D lens (including all AF-S and G lenses) that can relay focusing distance information to the camera body, the D700 has the ability to detect human faces automatically. For the new 3D tracking and face detection features, I would say there is still plenty of room for future improvement.