Nikon D700: Why I Went Full-Frame & Why You Don't Need To

One of our writers took the plunge and spent a few thousand on a used Nikon D700. He loves it, but realizes that most of you won't ever need anything like this.
By , Last updated on: 5/18/2014

A few weeks ago, I acquired a secondhand Nikon D700. This was my first step outside the somewhat insular world of Pentax dSLRs, and it felt like a momentous change for me. For a long time I’d felt like an outsider looking in on the “pro” tools reserved for Canon and Nikon owners, and this was my first glimpse at them in action. Faster autofocus! Cheap primes! Full-frame sensors! All of these would be mine. So here I am, several weeks later, evaluating the move. I admit, I have my doubts. What did I actually gain from making the jump? What does the D700 offer me that my K-7—ostensibly a worthy semi-pro body—doesn’t?

You may be asking yourself, “Self, what is Digital Camera HQ doing posting about the Nikon D700 in mid-2010? Didn’t that thing come out years ago?” Well, Self, you’d be correct. Almost. The Nikon D700 was launched back in July of 2008, following in the footsteps of and in many ways drastically improving upon the category of affordable full-frame digital SLR inaugurated in 2005 by Canon’s EOS 5D.

However, the category has grown in the intervening years. Goalposts in the industry are shifting, with new priorities—most importantly HD video—coming to bear. Crucially, the horde of consumer dSLRs is steadily closing the gap in image quality between full-frame and APS-C cameras. New advanced amateur models like the Nikon D300s and the Canon 7D, and even entry-level offerings like the Pentax K-x and Nikon D5000, have upped the ante in the high-ISO race. These last couple upstarts offer performance comparable in many ways to the D700, at roughly a fifth of the price.

In such a competitive climate, why is the D700 still a popular and vital model for Nikon? More importantly, why should you lay down more than $2,000 for one? Is it really that special?

Why is the D700 still a popular and vital model for Nikon?

Mostly, because it fills a gap. It represents the only step between the professional D3s and the prosumer D300s.
While the D700 lacks some of the pro features of the D3s, it nevertheless has a full-frame sensor, which is a crucial improvement over the D300s. A full-frame sensor (precisely the size of a 35mm film negative) is more difficult to produce, and therefore proportionally more expensive, than the APS-C sensors (less than half that size) found in most dSLRs. This higher component cost is reflected in the massive price gap between cameras equipped with the two types.

Consumers want full-frame sensors because, generally speaking, they offer lower image noise, better per-pixel sharpness, and the possibility for shallower depth of field than you can get with APS-C sensors. Additionally, film-era users can use their film-era lenses and get the same kind of results they did on film, whereas those lenses on a traditional dSLR will "gain" about 1.5 times the reach on the long end, and lose as much on the other.

But is the price premium on full frame dSLRs worth it?

The quick answer is: “It depends.”

Digital cameras, as you probably know, are presented to consumers in a series of performance tiers that climb from cheap point & shoot, to advanced point & shoot, to super zoom/bridge camera, to Micro Four Thirds (aka “EVIL” [Ed. Note – hey, he gave some of them good reviews], to digital SLR. Digital SLRs themselves are broken up into a number of tiers—entry-level, advanced amateur, prosumer, and professional. (And the tiers climb even higher, into the stratospheric, five-figure land of digital medium format.)

The camera companies’ goal is to move each user steadily up this ladder, continually upgrading his gear to level up to the next plateau. As you grow as a photographer, so does your arsenal, or so the logic goes. The companies want consumers to continually yearn for that next tier, but in truth not everyone is meant or even wants to get to the pro level.

Truth be told, there are very few things you can do with a full-frame dSLR that you can’t do with an APS-C dSLR. The differences between the two are incremental—evolutionary rather than revolutionary. For the most part, I use my K-7 and D700 interchangeably, picking up whichever I feel like on a given day. Only rarely does the camera I use factor in to how I shoot, or vice versa. In good light, the K-7’s 14.6-megapixel CMOS sensor performs nearly indistinguishably from the D700’s 12.1-megapixel offering. In fact, at times the K-7 offers better overall image quality, depending on the conditions and quality of lenses used. Where the D700 truly shines is in its high-ISO/low-light performance. It utterly decimates lesser cameras and facilitates shooting in near-total darkness. My D700’s images at ISO 12800 are comparable to the K-7’s at ISO 3200.

That said, I’ve also owned and used a Pentax K-x, which shares its 12.3-megapixel sensor with other high-ISO champs like the Nikon D5000 and the Sony A500. The K-x offers similar high-ISO performance at a fraction of the price, but of course it has shortcomings in other areas. Build quality is nowhere near that of the D700 or K-7. Ergonomics fall far short. Continuous shooting speed doesn’t even begin to approach that of the more advanced cameras. The viewfinder is smaller and dimmer. Responsiveness isn’t really on the same level.

But how many of these concerns will make a difference to the average user? I have to think, probably not many.

What the future has in store

So let’s return for a moment to the D700’s position on the digital camera ladder.
Now, the D700 has been joined by the D300s in the Nikon stables. The D300s offers similarly quick autofocus and much improved high-ISO performance in a body that looks and feels nearly identical. Unlike pretty much every new dSLR released these days, the D700 lacks HD video functionality; its main competitor, the newer Canon 5D Mark II, has crucially added it. Another point of concern is the D700’s 12.1-megapixel sensor. The 5D Mark II is endowed with a 21.1-megapixel monster. While the result is slightly lower dynamic range and somewhat inferior high-ISO performance, the differences are marginal; meanwhile, the higher resolution gives lots more room for cropping while retaining detail. Resolution isn’t everything, but it does have its uses.

Pro-level SLRs like the Nikon D3s and Canon 1D Mark IV aren’t exactly tumbling down in price, but they’re close enough to the D700 range. When you’re already spending more than three grand for a camera and lens, another grand or two doesn’t sound too ridiculous. Meanwhile, advanced amateur models are nipping at the D700’s heels in terms of features and build quality. At the same time, Sony has struck an early blow in the full-frame price wars, offering their A850 at an MSRP under $2,000 (compared to the D700’s $2,799 list price). This price edges down toward the $1,799 MSRPs of top APS-C models, blurring the line between the two categories.

It feels as though the range of options is in a state of constant compression. The trickle-down effect, in which new entry-level models “learn” from their older, more advanced brothers results in an environment where advanced cameras have to continually innovate in order to justify their cost. It’s not inconceivable to think that eventually all dSLRs will be full-frame, even those at the very bottom of the ladder.

Ok, so I probably don’t need it—but why do I want it?

Let’s make no bones about it… the D700 is a fantastic camera. Probably more camera than you’ll ever need.
Its build quality is rock solid with excellent weatherproofing, and it’s got a wonderful heft in the hand. It’s responsive and intuitive to use, with an autofocus system that’s blazingly quick and remarkably accurate. It can shoot at 8 frames per second, more than enough for sports and little tykes. Its viewfinder is big and bright, and packed with vital info readouts. And most of all, its image quality is frankly stunning. As someone who takes lots and lots of bad photos, I can say that it’s shockingly difficult to take a bad-looking shot with this camera. The thing is simply a joy to use, and as a physical object it’s worthy of worship.

Do I regret buying the D700? No.

Do I need it? Probably not.

Would I suggest that most users buy one? No.

Would they regret it if they did? I sincerely doubt it, so long as they can pay for food and shelter as well.

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