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Friday, November 14, 2008

Hands On with the New Nikon D700


After some months of saving my pennies, I blew them this week on a Nikon D700. Remember our post about buying old, full frame lenses and using them on your small-sensor DSLR? There was a reason for it -- those cheap old lenses will last you until you move up to full-frame.

There are plenty of reviews and incredibly detailed spec-sheets for the D700 already online, so here I'll just cover a few of the quirks and delights I have found so far. In short, though, the D700 kicks ass. It's easy to use, and takes an incredible picture, even in the dark.

That Sensor

The headline feature of the D700 is its full-frame sensor, which is the same one you'll find in the flagship D3. You only get 12 megapixels, but they're big pixels, and their light-gathering ability is extraordinary. The top ISO available on the D700 is a staggering 25,600, a full eight stops faster than ISO 100. At that setting, though, the pictures are terrible. Convert them to black and white and they look exactly like they have been through a photocopier. A photocopier that is running out of toner. That said, even this is better than the results that the Canon G9 gives at just ISO 1600.

Drop just one stop, to ISO 12,800, and things are a lot better. The pictures are still noisy but Nikon has tweaked its noise reduction algorithms to mimic film grain, or so it seems. The EXPEED processor has no mercy with color noise, but is a little easier on the luminance noise. What does that mean? It means that the nasty stuff is cleared out, leaving a grainy but pleasing result.

Drop the ISO to 6400, the highest setting with an actual number (Nikon uses names like H0.3 for the more sensitive settings) and you'd never know you were shooting at more than 800. This, combined with a fast lens (a 50mm ƒ1.8, for example) means you can shoot in ambient light, handheld, at night. And coupled with the heavy body, which steadies things, you can handhold to some pretty slow shutter speeds, too. If you were to add a shake-reducing lens into the mix, you'd likely have no trouble with shooting 2001's monolith in a black hole. At midnight.

The Knobs and The Aperture Ring

About that heavy body. The weight is reassuring (body only and without the battery it weighs 995g, or 2.2 lbs.) but the feel in your hand is what counts. I used to own a couple of Nikon F100 bodies and the feel is similar, if a bit chunkier. The biggest change for anyone moving up from a cheaper DSLR is the manual controls. Instead of all the functionality being hidden away in menus, most of the important functions get their own knobs, dials and switches.

Those of you who remember our post "History’s 5 Best Interface Designs" will know I'm a big fan of knobs:

Its strength is its simplicity. Once you have twisted one knob, you know how every other knob works. If it is marked, its position provides visual feedback. If not, our brains easily associate the amount of twist with the level of the knob’s effect. And best of all, it’s the only controller we know of which can go up to 11.

Better still, many of the knobs can be customized to do different things. Part of the fun is digging through the custom settings inside the menus to figure out just what you can tweak. The short answer is "almost everything."

But the one thing I really love, the discovery of which actually brought a small tear to the corner of my emotionally suppressed eye (hey, I'm English. We don't do emotions) is the aperture control. You can choose to use the aperture ring around the lens to set the size of the hole, shifting it away from the finger-dial on the grip (custom function f9, page 326 in the manual).

For someone who has this muscle memory baked in since childhood, this is huge. You lose the fine grained control of the 1/3 stop adjustments available with the command dial, but the shutter speed takes care of this. You also lose the Live View function, but you can always switch back temporarily (and quickly).

Live View

It works, and the high resolution screen means it looks great, but the live view is janky as hell. Here's how you use it: Turn the dial on the top to the LV setting (it's the same dial that chooses between self timer, single and continuous shooting). Then press the shutter release all the way down. The mirror flips up and live view is on. To refocus, press the shutter half way. The mirror flips down, the camera focusses, and the mirror flips up again. And when you actually take a picture, the mirror flips again.

You can choose the "tripod mode", which uses contrast detection like a compact camera, but it is slow as molasses. To me, Live View is little more than a gimmick. You can, however, zoom in on the live view image to see a 100% rendering for easy manual focussing (if holding a two pound camera plus lens at arms' length and twisting the focus ring is your thing) and there's a semi-useful level that can be superimposed on the image, but still: Gimmicky.

Built-in Flash

Really. Why? C'mon, Nikon.

Full Frame

The full frame sensor means that all your DX lenses are useless. If you were hoping that you could use your 18-55mm DX zoom as an ultrawide objective, you're out of luck. You can force the camera to treat the lens as a full frame one, but you'll get heavy vignetting at the wide end and a drop in image quality away from the center at all focal lengths.

The D700 defaults to reading just the central part of the image area, which means that an 18mm lens will act just like it does on a DX camera and give the equivalent view of a 27mm lens. The rub is that you are then shooting at just 5 megapixels. Even my D60 doubles that. For Lomo-style fun and frolics, though, those extreme angles, low-definition edges and black corners can be useful.

Auto Focus

The D700 has 51 focus points, all of which can be individually selected, and 15 of which are cross-type sensors which are faster and more accurate. There are several modes, from single point AF to a 3D tracking mode which remembers the color of the thing you first focus on and then locks onto it like a junkyard dog on a schoolkid as it moves around the picture.

But all you really need to do is to set it to auto and forget about it. The D700's autofocus is uncanny. It seems to know what you are taking a picture of and it locks on almost instantly. If you ever saw the Clint Eastwood movie "Firefox" (or read Craig Thomas' book), you'll remember the thought controlled weapon system in the plane. I believe Nikon took this and built it in to the D700. It really is that good.

Should You Buy One?

There's so much more to this camera that we have no chance of covering it here. But if you're thinking of buying a D700 (and especially if you are weighing it up against the more expensive D3), go ahead. I haven't had this much fun taking photos since I sprung for a Leica M6 some years ago (yes, I saved long and hard for that one, too. I then sold it to pay the rent). Bonus: Stick the 472 page manual in the bathroom and you'll have your morning reading taken care of for weeks. $3000, or thereabouts.