When I was first getting into shooting film, I suffered from the same ailment that plagues most of us at the beginning: a lack of disposable money. A raise at work wasn’t on the horizon so, my other fundraising options were selling either my plasma or my digital camera. My not insignificant phobia of needles whittled my options down to selling my camera.
It was a Nikon D7000 and for many years it was the only camera I owned. I still consider it one of Nikon’s best cameras – unbelievably well built and packed with a foolproof meter and excellent crop sensor. But from the moment a few weeks earlier when I’d shot my first roll of film (Fuji Superia in an all-but-destroyed Minolta) the writing was on the wall. I wanted to shoot film, and despite years of helping me become a better, more patient photographer, I was ready to drop my faithful digital camera like a bad habit.
In the name of all things analog, I laid my D7000 as a sacrifice on the celluloid altar. I think I got $300 for the camera. It was enough to buy a Mamiya RB67 and a couple of lenses. I think I ran a total of five rolls of film through the Mamiya before it too was sold. I didn’t spend much time thinking about that camera after it left, but I often thought back to the D7000.
Three years after selling my digital camera I found myself in the market for another. Between my time working in product photography studios I discovered that taking quality photos for my articles wasn’t easy or cheap without a digital camera. The process of researching which digital camera would work for me quickly became exhausting. Without meaning to sound trite, the terminology of digital imaging bores me to tears. Sensors, megapixels, processors, LCD screens – all these things are supremely uninteresting to me. Two people having a conversation about them is a better sleep aid than a cup of Chamomile tea spiked with Tylenol PM.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t have a problem with digital cameras. Especially these days, they are the most capable imaging machines. And while I have my own opinions regarding the digital versus film argument, I have little interest in that never-ending debate. But digital cameras are boring things. They’ve always been uninspired, homogenized products, with a design ethos that survives from the nineties and has only in the last few years been challenged by new formats and upstart models. Canon’s entire approach since their adoption of autofocus has been delivering highly capable and advanced but supremely boring camera bodies. And Nikon has been making different versions of the F5 for 25 years. If I counted the number of digital cameras that struck me as having an interesting or inspired design, I wouldn’t need more than three or four fingers. But design isn’t everything – just ask anyone that uses Sony cameras.
I had to remind myself of that fact while browsing the used market for my own digital camera. My needs were simple: something to use for product photos and perhaps for some faster lens reviews. I knew I wanted something full frame and the investment in Nikon lenses helped narrow down the potential brands. My small budget narrowed down the options even further. I settled on the Nikon D700, which by 2019 was into its second decade of existence. Eventually I found one that had been used by a professional as his backup body, meaning it was in excellent shape and had relatively few shutter actuations. Three hundred euros and a few days later I was holding my new old digital camera.
In Craig’s recent article on the Nikon F100 he (quite correctly) called the D700 a relic in the digital world. But we’re in the relic business here at Casual Photophile, and a camera with the pedigree of the D700 deserves its due, even in 2020. So I thought I would share my experiences with the camera, where it’s worked for me and where it hasn’t.
A brief history of the Nikon D700
By 2005 Nikon was falling far behind Canon in the race for digital supremacy. For most of the decade, Canon had released both professional and compact-professional camera bodies with increasing amounts of capability and sophistication. Released way back in 2002, the Canon EOS 1Ds was the first to have a full frame sensor with 11.1 megapixels. The 5D Mark II debuted around the same time as the Nikon D700, also with a full-frame sensor, but this time with a far greater number of megapixels, 21.1!
At the same time, Nikon was a company in second place with competitors starting to gain ground. Professional Nikon users were still shooting either the flagship 4.1 megapixel D2H or the 10.2 megapixel D200, both of which still used the company’s crop-sensor DX format.
Their first shot at closing the gap was 2007’s D3. This new flagship camera was Nikon’s first with their new full-frame FX format. It was also the first to use Nikon’s new 32-bit Expeed processor and a new sensor with 12 megapixels. At the same time they released the D300, which was meant to be the top-of-class crop-sensor DSLR. The D3 showed Nikon’s commitment to professionals, and the FX system opened up DSLRs to decades of Nikkor lenses.
But an even bigger surprise was the release of the D700 only 11 months later.
Technically the D700 is classified as a compact professional camera, but it would be more accurate to simply call it D3 Jr. It has the same EXPEED image processor as well as the 12.1 megapixel sensor. While the imaging between the two cameras is the same, the D700 lacks some of the D3’s functionality – namely that it’s shutter is good for half as many actuations (150K to the D3’s 300K), a slower fps rate, only one card slot and a different viewfinder that shows 5 percent less than the one on the D3. As compensation, the D700 offered over the D3 a pop-up flash and a self-cleaning sensor.
At $3,500 (in 2020 dollars) the D700 wasn’t a cheap camera and wasn’t aimed at the consumer market. The D700 offered working photographers the same capabilities of the D3 in a smaller package and with 22 percent less weight.
The spec sheet of the D700 was top of the line in 2008, but today it pales in comparison to Nikon’s current lineup, including the most basic FX-class entry. This has been good news for those of us looking for a full frame DSLR on the cheap, but are we really missing out by not having a D780 or D850? That’s what I’ll try to answer with my experiences with the camera.
Build quality and design
Build quality is probably the only category in which I think the D700 actually beats out the newer Nikon cameras. This camera exists solely within Nikon’s “absolute unit” approach to camera design. While the weight will differ, there’s not a ton of difference between holding this, a D3 or even an F5. It wasn’t until I held Nikon’s newest DSLRs that I realized the extent to which manufacturers have moved toward light, nimble cameras. The D700 is neither of those things. Yes, it’s lighter than the D3, but put anything more than a small prime on the D700 and you’ll wish you had a wrist strap as well. The advantage to this is that the D700 feels like it was built to take abuse.
From a design perspective, there’s not a lot to drool over. Nikon’s cameras (non-mirrorless) have generally all looked identical since the mid-nineties. Maybe that’s due to the fact that it’s more economical to produce camera lineups this way, or maybe Giorgetto Giugiaro has been designing Nikon’s cameras for too long. Regardless of the reason, the D700 isn’t a beautiful camera. It’s ergonomic and effective, but it won’t be the inspiration for any love ballads or even find its way onto an ironic t-shirt. As far as design and personality goes, the D700 is more Bill Lumbergh than Bill Blass.
Shooting experience and performance
When I first bought the D700 it was for taking photos for my articles. But it quickly became more than just a product camera. It doesn’t take too many rolls of film to hit home just how expensive shooting film really is. That’s not all bad – it certainly makes me think more about my subjects and budgeting my exposures. But the cost-per-frame often doesn’t give me too much confidence to experiment with exposure.
Last summer while photographing waterfalls I took both the D700 and my F4 loaded with Ektachrome. I really wanted a good photo on Ektachrome, but I knew that I’d spent $15 on the roll and that it would be a challenging exposure. Enter the D700, here I could blast away until I found the composition and exposure settings I liked, then copy those settings to the F4 and take my shot. This has made the D700 a valuable tool for my photography (even if the same could be said about every digital camera).
Other types of photography have also gotten easier because of the D700. I’ve always been a fan of long exposures and nighttime photography. There’s something really zen to walking around Berlin at night, setting up the camera, and dialing in my photos through trial and error. To do the same with Cinestill and a Minolta might give me cool results, but the photographic process would be much more intensive and defeat the purpose of the exercise. I’ve also done my first panoramic photos with the D700, taking 5 to 7 vertical images and stitching them together in post. It’s just a quirky thing I enjoy trying out, and I’ve only felt comfortable messing with the process using my D700.
“But it only has 12 megapixels!”
If we were to rank the most prominent subjects of modern camera reviews, debates and arguments, sensor size and pixel count stand above the rest. The unspoken consensus is that more megapixels equals more resolution, which is good for a number of things like file size, image detail, moire, print sizes and more. Most importantly it’s a single number that’s easy to generalize and turn into a catch all metric for digital camera quality.
So if more megapixels means a better camera, wouldn’t that make the 12.1 megapixel D700 the equivalent of a 30-year-old that still talks about their high school sports triumphs? Once impressive, but clearly past its prime?
Nah. I think 12 megapixels is enough for most of us.
We often talk about the number of megapixels without considering their quality, or the sensor they’re squeezed onto. And the sensor the Nikon D700 uses is really excellent, with really wonderful color and high saturation. As someone who was ready to die on the hill of “nothing can beat film,” I have to admit that I love what I’ve gotten out of this camera.
We also all seem to have an unspoken agreement that we insist on being able to print our photos at billboard size while ignoring that a shockingly low number of us are actually printing photos anymore. Yes, it’s true that you would struggle to get quality 20×30 inch print with a three digit dpi from the D700. When it comes to shooting film, are the scans we get back typically more than what the D700 gives us in RAW format? Very rarely.
While we’re on the subject of digital negatives I’ll admit a dirty little secret: I really love working with RAW images. I know it’s not as romantic as the darkroom and burning and dodging in “real life,” but after getting back bad scans of consumer film and being frustrated at their limitations in post-production, working with the flexible RAW files from the D700 feels luxury. And while editing thousands of RAW files, I’ve been amazed at the usable amount of data I’ve been able to pull out of shadows.
What I don’t like about the Nikon D700
As I said before, this is a heavy camera. Lugging it around with a zoom lens for more than an hour is a struggle. I’ve looked at getting a vertical grip for extra balance, but the thought of more weight frightens me. It’s true that the extra weight stabilizes the camera during use, but it’s also true that you lose weight when you have the flu. Then again, I seem to gravitate to heavy cameras like the husky-jean wearing Nikon F4 and Mamiya RB67, so it feels a little phony to dock points for girth.
If I were to pick out a single thing that I wish the D700 had it would be a lower native ISO. I look at the D850 and Z7 shooting as low as ISO 64 with lustful jealousy as I’m relegated to only shooting as low as ISO 200. Still, this complaint is really nitpicky. I’ve never been unhappy with any of the images I’ve shot at ISO 200 and I often struggle to find any noise.
Conclusion: The pros far outweigh the cons
When I bought my Nikon D700, it was the cheapest full-frame Nikon I could find. I didn’t expect to use it for anything more than product photography, and didn’t expect it to wow me as much as my F4 or even my F100. But in that time I’ve used it for product photography, newborn photography, landscapes, long exposures and as a daily walkaround camera. And it was with the D700 that I’ve made most of my favorite images over the last two years.
Yes, it’s not as advanced as the D850. It’s not as dynamic as the mirrorless Z series cameras. It’s quantifiably inferior to nearly every other new camera made by Nikon and many other manufacturers. But qualitatively it’s not so cut and dry. Underneath its Milquetoast shell beats the heart of a survivor.
The Nikon D700 does 98 percent of what 99 percent of us actually need. And it does it for ten percent of the cost of cameras that provide the other two percent. I’ll never sell my D700, and not only because I’ll never get back what the camera’s worth. I have no doubt that this camera will keep clicking for many years to come. And unless I suddenly turn into a completely different photographer, there will always be a need for it in my camera bag.
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