Nikon D700: Camera Test

So what exactly is Nikon's new D700? A D300 on steroids? A D3 Lite?



So what exactly is Nikon's new D700? A D300 on steroids? A D3 Lite?

The fact is, this new DSLR ($3,000, body only; $3,600 with 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF VR lens) is both.

After weeks of shooting in the field and the full battery of tests in the Pop Photo Lab, we see it as an amazing combination of the two cameras. And by combination, we don't mean compromise.

Simply put, from the D3 ($4,540, street, body only) the D700 inherits a 12.1-megapixel full-frame imaging sensor. From the D300 ($1,625, street, body only), it gets a fairly compact magnesium-alloy chassis sheathed in polycarbonate and a pop-up flash.

With both of its siblings, it shares (among other things), a 51-point autofocus system with 3D focus tracking, 1,005-pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering II exposure control, and the EXPEED image-processing engine.

The result is a full-frame camera that doesn't feel like one. You don't have to think twice about carrying the D700 in your bag or on your shoulder all day.

One of the best things: You can get wide-angle shots without the field of view being eaten away by any lens factor. Since the sensor is essentially the same size as a frame of 35mm film, the wide end of Nikon's 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Nikkor makes it feel like the world is laid out before you, just waiting to be captured.

It's much like the experience with the full-frame D3, which, as our tests showed, has about the same viewfinder magnification as the D700. When it comes to viewfinder accuracy, though, the D3, with its 100-percent accuracy, lets you see exactly what you're going to get. Compare that with the D700's 95 percent (although that's still Excellent in our ratings). Interestingly, the D300, with its
DX (1.5X lens factor) sensor, actually has a higher viewfinder magnification and a near-perfect 99-percent accuracy. However, it crops that 14mm lens' field of view down to the equivalent of about 21mm.


Not surprisingly, the D700 aced our image quality tests of both RAW (converted to 16-bit TIFF) and JPEG files. (Certified Test Results for RAW are on the next page.)

JPEG resolution was 2350 lines at ISO 200, for an Excellent rating. By way of comparison, the D300's resolution was also 2350 lines and the D3, 2320 lines -- an insignificant spread. All three use the same EXPEED image-processing engine to crunch the pixels.

At lower ISOs, resolution remains essentially the same in JPEG and RAW. Noise reduction doesn't significantly reduce resolution until ISO 6400 and beyond. As you step up toward the D700's top ISO of 25,600 (Nikon calls it Hi-2), RAW gives you the option to preserve detail or sacrifice it in the name of reduced noise.

Yet even with noise reduction at its highest setting, the D700 serves up 1960 lines at ISO 25,600. For perspective, consider that, at its worst, the D700 comes within 100 lines of the 12.8MP Canon EOS 5D's best resolution, 2025 lines at ISO 100.

When it comes to noise, the D700 hews closely to the D3, though Nikon's flagship showed slightly less noise at its base of ISO 200, scoring 0.75 versus the D700's 0.93. That's still well within our best ranking of Extremely Low.

With noise reduction at full blast, the D700 doesn't reach Unacceptable levels until ISO 25,600, although it comes close at ISO 12,800. Even at ISO 6400, this Nikon keeps noise to Moderately Low levels.

Color accuracy? The D700 garnered an Excellent rating and, with an average Delta E of 7.2, essentially matched the D300 and D3, as well as the Canon EOS-1D Mark III. That puts these a nose behind Canon's EOS-1Ds Mark III, which scored an average Delta E of 6.98. Olympus' E-3 remains the Pop Photo Lab's color accuracy record holder with its score of 6.7.

As with the D3 and D300, the D700's automatic white balance is tough to beat. In extreme, mixed lighting, it served up neutral colors. Though it occasionally erred on the side of a bluish tint, most notably on a nasty overcast day, this was the exception and easily fixed in RAW processing.

Nikon's 3D Color Matrix Metering II system excelled in determining a proper exposure even in challenging situations. Harshly backlit portraits? No problem. Mottled, high-contrast shadows falling from a forest canopy? The D700 didn't flinch. At times, it's as though the camera were reading your mind. At other times, it feels as though the camera knew better than you.

We are, however, disappointed that the D700's AF system doesn't match the breakneck speeds of the D3. This means that photographers will have to settle for just blazingly fast. In bright and moderate light from EV 12 to EV 6, it's faster than Canon's EOS 40D and 5D, but not as quick as Sony's Alpha 700 or the Olympus E-3.

But low light is paradoxically where the D700 shines, able to focus in under 1 second all the way down to EV -1. At EV -2 (think full-moon dark), it's still quite fast, focusing in 1.25 sec, while the E-3 failed to find focus in such low light in our tests.

So what do you give up in buying the D700 instead of the D3? One thing is burst speed. In our tests, the D700 lived up to Nikon's claim of 5 frames per second; the D3 gave us 9.

Add the MB-D10 Multi-Power Battery Grip ($240, street) and the D700, like the D300, should hit 8 fps. Although we didn't have a grip to test by press time.

And while the D700 isn't built quite as Hummer-tough as the D3, don't think it isn't a pro-level body. It's got gaskets galore and can be tailored to your shooting style with 60 custom functions.

Switching from Canon? Remember to reverse the dials and exposure compensation readout. (Too bad you can't reverse the bayonet mount.)

Typical of a pro camera, the D700 offers +/- 3 stops of exposure compensation and the ability to automatically bracket up to 9 frames across that span -- ideal for experimenting with handheld high-dynamic-range photography.

Although there's a conceit among camera makers that pro models don't have a built-in pop-up flash (there's none on the D3 or Canon's 5D, either), this camera, like the D300, packs one. The pop-up gives you wireless flash control with Nikon's in-camera Commander mode.

You can control one or more Nikon flashes (SB-900, SB-800, SB-600, or SB-R200 Speedlights) in one or two groups from across the room, without having to run wires. And we mean control. For instance, you can even make one flash group, anywhere from 1/1.3 to 1/128 as powerful as the other (i.e., set lighting ratios) right from the camera's LCD. Plus, you can add the built-in flash to the mix and vary its output relative to the other two groups, or use the pop-up only for communication and prevent it firing when you press the shutter.

The D700 includes a live-view shooting mode, accessible from the drive control dial. As with other live-view Nikon DSLRs, using this makes the preview black out while the camera focuses. And, because the mirror flips down to focus and back up to restore live preview, it sounds like you actually took a picture, which can be confusing.


Does the D700 obviate the more expensive D3? Not for high-end pros: Hardcore types who find themselves shooting in the Arctic one month and the desert the next will prefer the D3's extraordinarily tight level of weathersealing. For paparazzi, who shoot lots of vertical images and so prefer a built-in vertical grip to a bolt-on battery grip, the D3's better. And pro sports shooters blasting off frame after frame need the faster native burst and extra CF card slot of the D3.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will be more than happy with the D700 fulfilling our full-frame fantasies.

Of course, if all your lenses carry the DX moniker of Nikon's APS-sized format, you should stick with the D300. After all, it basically mirrors the image quality and performance of the D700, and your DX lenses will yield only 5.1MP images on the D700. In other words, those digital-only lenses will fit this full-frame camera, but at a cost of massive cropping -- a sacrifice that hardly seems worth making on a regular basis.

But if you have some full-frame lenses or want to move toward Nikon's FX glass, the D700 is money well spent.

Imaging: 12.1MP effective, full-frame CMOS sensor captures images at 4256x2832 pixels with 12 or 14 bits/color in RAW mode.

Storage: Single CompactFlash Type I/II including UDMA; microdrives. Stores JPEG, NEF RAW, RAW + JPEG and TIFF files.

Burst rate: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode), up to 100 shots at 5 fps; RAW, up to 19 shots at 5 fps (12 bit) and up to 17 shots at 5 fps (14 bit); TIFF, up to 17 shots at 5 fps.

AF system: TTL phase detection with 51 illuminated focus points (15 cross-type). Single-shot and continuous AF with 3D focus tracking. Tested sensitivity down to EV -2 (at ISO 100, f/1.4).

Live view: TTL phase detection and contrast detection autofocus modes.

Shutter speeds: 1/8000 to 30 sec plus B (1/3-,1/2-, or1-EV increments). 150,000-cycle rating.

Metering: TTL metering using 1,005-pixel RGB sensor, 3D Color Matrix II, centerweighted, and spotmetering (approx. 1.5% of viewfinder). EV 0-20 (at ISO 100).

ISO range: Normal, ISO 200-6400; expanded ISO 100, 12,800 (in 1/3-EV increments), and 25,600 (in 1-EV increments).

Flash: Built-in pop-up unit GN 43 (in feet at ISO 100), covers angle of view of 24mm FX lens. X-sync at 1/250 sec.

Viewfinder: Fixed eye-level pentaprism. Accuracy: 95% (Excellent) Magnification: 0.74X (Very Good)

LCD: 3-in. TFT with 921,000-dot resolution, 170-degree viewing angle.

Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0, HDMI (mini-type) video, 9-pin GPS, and 10-pin remote control.

Battery: Rechargeable EN-EL3e Li-ion, CIPA rating, 1,000 shots.

Size/weight: 5.8x4.8x3.0 in., 1.82 lb with card and battery.

Street price: $3,000, body only.


• Full-frame 12.1MP CMOS sensor.
• Sensitive 51-zone AF.
• Sharp 3-inch LCD.
• Pop-up flash with wireless flash control.


• No second CF card slot.
• Blackout time when focusing in live view.
• No built-in image stabilization -- you'll need a VR lens.


Pros and enthusiasts who want the low noise, high sensitivity, and super-wide angles of a full-frame sensor, but who don't need the super-high-end Nikon D3.



Nikon has done an excellent job of keeping noise under control with its recent DSLRs. If you showed me this image 5 years ago and said it was shot at ISO 800 I wouldn't have believed you. Yet, even at ISO 800, the D700 keeps the image acceptably sharp, with vibrant, accurate color and lots of detail, even in the shadows and highlights. Shot details: Nikon D700; ISO 800; 1/50 sec.; f/4; AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED zoomed to 70mmPhilip Ryan


Nikon's 3D Matrix Metering II does a really great job of determining exposure. Here's it managed to maintain detail in both the bright parts of the bark of this tree while also holding detail in the deep shadows on the bottom left. Shot details: Nikon D700; ISO 400; 1/125 sec.; f/8; AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED zoomed to 60mmPhilip Ryan


The center of a flower is often a good place to look for fine detail and this flower doesn't disappoint. Again, this was shot at ISO 800, but that doesn't stop the D700 from serving up a great image. Shot details: Nikon D700; ISO 800; 1/60 sec.; f/8; AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED zoomed to 70mmPhilip Ryan


This flower is certainly more mangled than the previous one, but even though I boosted the camera's sensitivity, the image isn't. If you look toward the upper left you can get a sense of the film-like grain that the D700's noise takes on at ISO 3,200. That's a far cry from the golfball sized blotches you'd get with ISO3,200 film. Shot details: Nikon D700; ISO 3,200; 1/125 sec.; f/8; AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED zoomed to 70mmPhilip Ryan


I've never been adept at reading sundials, but the stone base this one is set atop is telling me that the D700 holds on to detail well at ISO 1,600. Nikon D700; ISO 1,600; 1/160 sec.; f/5.6; AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED zoomed to 34mmPhilip Ryan


While the D700's Matrix metering chose a more sensible exposure for this flower, I pushed the exposure compensation up to +1.33 to make the petals on the right light up and accentuate the shadow of the calyx played out on the rest of the petals. The D700 retains an impressive amount of detail in the bright petals given the harsh exposure. Shot details: Nikon D700; ISO 400; 1/100 sec.; f/8; +1.33 exposure compensation; AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED zoomed to 70mmPhilip Ryan


Thanks to its full-frame sensor, the D700 lets you get the most out of your wide angle lenses. In this case, I shot at 16mm and was able to capture a nice shot of the sign above the entrance to the Staten Island Ferry terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan. The doors on the bottom right give a good sense of the distortion you get at that wide an angle, even though this Nikkor is among the best at controlling such distortion in such a wide zoom lens. Shot details: Nikon D700; ISO 1,600; 1/80 sec.; f/13; AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED zoomed to 16mmPhilip Ryan