Too Much Camera

Posted on September 11, 2009 by psu

After a lot of deliberation, I decided to pull the trigger on a D700. After only two days, I haven’t used it enough for to provide you with a in-depth and comprehensive review, Top Gear style. But I can say this: Wow.

The D700, of course, is Nikon’s “smaller” and “more affordable” model of “full frame” digital camera. That is, the sensor in the camera is the same size as a piece of 35mm film used to be. Nikon thinks this is so important they even gave a new name to the full frame cameras, calling them “FX” cameras. The older digital SLRs with the smaller sensors are now called “DX”.

It took me a long time to convince myself that I wanted to pony up the extra money for an FX camera. After all, there is nothing sacred about 35m frame size. It’s just a historical coincidence. The supposed advantages of the FX cameras are easy to summarize and refute:

  1. Better image quality per pixel. Nikon’s pro cameras all have 12mp sensors. This means the pixels in the FX cameras are larger, which in theory means various things about the image will be better on a per-pixel basis. But realistically, the 12mp DX sensor that is in the D300 and D90 is already almost unimaginably excellent.

  2. Your old lenses have the same field of view and depth of field as they used to. This is no big deal, you can either get used to it or get different lenses. The Nikon DX lens line is pretty well filled out, covering very wide to very telephoto. Just suck it up.

  3. Nicer viewfinder, and some handling advantages. It’s true that the FX viewfinders are larger and easier to use. On the other hand, if you shoot with autofocus most of the time who cares? Also, in the D300 the AF sensors cover the whole frame which is awesome!

FX, it seemed to me, had a thin set of advantages at a relatively high price. So, why did I end up caving? Three reasons:

  1. The sensor is insanely good.

  2. My old lenses work right again.

  3. The viewfinder is really nice.

I have a modest example what the sensor can do here:


This picture was taken by room light at ISO 1250. As a point of comparison, I think it looks as good as what my D200 would do at ISO 200, maybe 400 if I was lucky. But that’s just the noise characteristics. Pictures out of the D700 just look sharp to me. When you hit focus correctly and you control the camera shake, all of the detail that you imagine will be in the picture is there. This didn’t always happen with the D200 no matter how careful I was. The D700 lets you get cleaner, sharper pictures in more situations than I ever imagined possible. That doesn’t mean the pictures are better, but it does make the process easier.

Also contributing to this ease of operation is that my 35/2 is finally a 35/2 again. Let me explain. I like the point of view provided by a 35mm lens used on a 35mm film body. The 35mm F2 lens was always was one my favorites on my film cameras. But, on a DX camera, the field of view is cropped. To get the wider field of view, you have to use a 24mm lens. But the 24mm lens has two problems:

  1. Everything looks like you used a 24mm lens.

  2. The 24mm lens is a 2.8, not F2.

These don’t seem like they should be insurmountable problems, but I never could get comfortable using the 24 to get my 35mm point of view. In addition, the D200 was never great at focusing the lens. So, I would just give up and use my zoom lenses. There is nothing wrong with zoom lenses, but they are bigger, heavier, and slower (F4).

The D700 brings back the joy of the 35/2. The field of view, perspective, and depth of field are finally right. The autofocus is faster and more accurate than with the D200. And as a bonus you can take pictures of things you can barely see, lit only by the slightest light, and they look like you were working in daylight.


The viewfinder is really great too.

In addition to resurrecting my old prime lenses, I also picked up the Nikon 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 AF-S G zoom lens. This is the zoom I used to use on my D100 and stupidly sold with the D100 to get a D70 with the 18-70 kit lens. On the D700 it’s a bit wider than the 18-70 was on the DX bodies, and as a bonus the lens is a bit smaller and lighter too. I plan to be happy with it. At some point I’ll get a 20mm lens to get just that much wider, and then maybe a longer telephoto prime too. I’m not in any hurry.

Overall the D700 feels like a machine that I have no right to be using. The thing is a bit too big, a bit too fast and most of all a bit too good for what I’ll do with it. Realistically all I will do with it is family snaps, vacation pictures maybe the odd bit of personal cityscape work around Pittsburgh. Still, I’m lucky enough have this camera available to me at this point and time, so I decided I’d take advantage of it. It may be too much camera, but it will be a hell of a lot of fun to use.

And the viewfinder is really nice too.