Nikon D700 Review (and D850 Preview)

Don’t worry – I won’t bore you with yet another camera review with all the nits and bits. This is more a personal farewell, an epigraph if you wish, to a trusted companion that has been on my side on many travels and hikes.

Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco - Nikon D700
Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco (Nikon D700)

In 2010 I bought my third digital camera, the Nikon D700. It was my first camera with a full-frame sensor. Before this, I had the Nikon D70 for six years.

Together with the D700, I got a set of lenses, some new, some used: The Nikon 20-35/f2.8, the 70-300VR, the 50/1.4D, and the 180/2.8D. Over time I sold the 20-35 and got the 16-35/f4, then I bought the 80-200/2.8D that I eventually replaced with the 70-200/2.8 VR (the first version). I also got the old 50/1.4 AIS and the 105/2.5 AIS (yes, the one that was used for the famous “Afghan girl” photo in National Geographic).

A smaller travel companion

The D700 was an incredible camera. You can see some of the pictures I took with it in the Israel gallery and in the recent Jordan/Petra gallery. However, the D700 is a heavy beast, especially paired with some good glass. I needed a more compact, lighter camera that I could carry when traveling and hiking. In 2016 I bought an Olympus OM-D M10 together with a 12-40mm/f2.8 Pro lens that performs really well.

Small Makhtesh (crater) - Olympus OM-D M10
Small Makhtesh, Negev, Israel (Olympus OM-D M10)

The Olympus is small compared to the D700. It’s retro-look works well for street photography, people tend to get much less intimidated by this camera. But the micro-4/3 sensor couldn’t hold a candle to the D700. Pushing shadows in Lightroom beyond 40-50% would introduce visible noise, even at base ISO. The OM-D M10 performs pretty well under good lighting conditions, but wasn’t made for low light, even with it’s built in stabilizer. Image quality wise, the 5 years older D700 full frame 12 MP sensor would easily beat the 16MP micro-4/3 sensor, especially in high dynamic range situations. But the Olympus OM-D M10 is a fun camera and I hope to upgrade to it’s newer Mark 3 version soon.

Shooting game

I always wanted to do some wildlife photography, something I hadn’t tried before. Reasoning that a crop camera would get me better reach with a telephoto lens and perhaps help reduce the total weight, I bought the Nikon D7200 together with the Nikon 200-500mm/f5.6 lens. I managed to get some reasonable results, but I admit that I still have a steep learning curve ahead of me. Although the D7200 has a newer 24MP sensor, I feel its low light performance isn’t as good as that of the D700.

The increase of megapixel from 12 (D700) to 24 (D7200) did not translate into a significant increase in detail. In mathematical terms, it’s like an increase of 4×3 to 6×4.

White-spectacled bulbul - Nikon D7200
White-spectacled Bulbul, Golan Heights, Israel (Nikon D7200)

A tool you can rely on

Whichever camera I tried, I always felt most comfortable with the D700. This camera would give me above 95% keepers, whatever I was shooting. With keepers I mean photos that are sharp, properly exposed, and show no shadow noise at base ISO. Even at higher ISO the noise wasn’t bad.

The Nikon D700 is a pleasure to shoot with. It has easily accessible buttons for all the important functions. My programming of the function button allowed me to quickly switch between normal to bracketing, or to use spot metering, all at the press of a button and perhaps twist of a dial.

Over the period of 9 years my D700 saw all sorts of weather conditions: Winter with temperatures down to -25C, but mostly summers in humid or desert climate with temperatures of 30C and way above (often 40C and even 50C). The D700 saw sand storms, dust clouds, pouring rain and lots and lots of merciless sun. Yet it never failed me. It took some beating and bumping, and I even managed to drop it on a rock. All I can say this camera is built like a tank.

Nikon D700
After the rain shower on our way to Mt. Sodom (Nikon D700)

Another noteworthy item to mention is that its battery lasts forever. I mean 1,000 and more shots with one charge. I only have one battery, the original that came with the camera. Even after 9 years it performs like new. I admit I don’t shoot that much, the camera has a shutter count of “only” 76,500.

Neither the Olympus OM-D M10 nor the newer Nikon D7200 have the capabilities, and perhaps image qualities, of the 10 year old Nikon D700 Fx design. Sure the D7200 has twice the resolution, but for all practical purposes the D700 is superior in low light situations.

Colored sandstone at Petra, Jordan - Nikon D700
Colored sandstone in Petra, Jordan (Nikon D700 and Nikon 16-35/f4)

So why would I want to retire the D700? The D700 is based on the D3 and uses the same sensor, which dates back to 2007. Sensor design has made some advances since then. The resolution of the Nikon D700 – though sufficient for web as well as prints up to A2 – doesn’t leave much room to crop. Every so often I would like more detail, particularly in landscape photography.

Almost divorced

Along came the Sony 7R, then the 7R II. The current model is the Sony 7R III which is considered a major upgrade. This last model was very intriguing at first: a compact, lightweight (mirrorless) design, a selection of excellent zoom lenses, and great low light performance, in addition to a high-resolution sensor. But when I held the Sony 7R III, I realized that this camera would require me to give up the dedicated controls I was used to. I would have had to adapt to a menu system that I wasn’t familiar with and that wasn’t very intuitive. Instead of taking photos, I’d have to study the user manual. My selection of Nikon lenses were practically useless on this camera, and that would have required the purchase of some expensive new lenses.

New partner

This made me take a closer look at the Nikon D850. The user interface was similar to the D7200, and not that different from the good old D700. Better yet, I could use my existing lenses.

The D850 is a heavy beast and weighs in just a little less than the D700. But unlike the Sony 7R III, the grip of the D850 is comfortable. The buttons and dials are at the places where I expect them. The new joystick is a very convenient way to change the position of the focus point. And I really appreciate the touch screen which works as one would expect in the 21st century, including double-tap.

Some users criticized that the camera doesn’t have a tilt & swivel screen and only tilts up and down. Actually I see this as an advantage, since this allows me to take photos less conspicuously. With the camera hanging in front of me and the screen tilted upwards, I use the touchscreen to focus and shoot – people in front don’t see the screen and are unaware of me taking photos. This can help produce a more natural scene. That said, tilting the screen and returning it is smoother on the Olympus.

When shooting lossless compressed 14-bit RAW, the file sizes of the Nikon D850 are big: around 45-55 Megabytes. The details, however, are incredible. Most of the photos I took so far were with the 16-35/f4 lens, a good lens but not the sharpest on the market. I plan to upgrade some lenses to meet the capabilities of the camera.

I was surprised to find the D850 underexposing many shots, but I need to see if this is an error on my side (incorrect settings).

Video isn’t my thing, I admit – I haven’t even tried it yet.

The Nikon D850 is not just an incremental improvement along the D700-D800-D810-D750-D850 timeline of high-end full frame products, it’s a quantum leap forward. Will I depart from the D700? I’m not sure, it’s still a great camera and deserves all the accolades it got, and more.

For more about the Nikon D850, see Nikon D850 – First Impressions.

Final thoughts

Now that I have had some opportunities to shoot the D850 and compare the results with the D700, I’m a little hesitant to retire the D700. I had hoped that the D850 would entirely replace the D700, but there are situations where the good old D700 produces better results. Don’t get me wrong, the D850 is an incredible camera, but so is the D700.

In low light situations it seems easier to get acceptable results when using the D700. Why? Well, the low resolution brings the advantage that camera shake is less of an issue. Take for example lenses without “vibration reduction” (VR): With the D700 you can usually handhold a shot using the “1 / focal length” rule. Not so with the D850, where you get visible blur at that shutter speed. In low light situations this means raising the shutter speed when you actually need to lower it due to noise.

I’ve done some indoor photos with the D850 and the Tamron 15-30/f2.8 G2 using the VR (or VC as Tamron named it). I can handhold safely about 1/15 sec using the VR. The following photo is an example.

Nikon D850
The Aedicule at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Nikon D850 with Tamron 15-30/f2.8 G2 @ 15mm f/4.0 1/15 sec ISO 280)

When working on D850 files in Lightroom 6 and pushing shadow areas, I need to employ noise reduction on photos that were taken at relatively low ISO. In the photo above taken at ISO 280 (shadows in LR at +45) I tuned in luminance noise reduction (10), followed by another noise reduction (10) after processing in NIK Color Efex Pro 4. In the end I still had to apply selective noise reduction (40) in the shadow areas at the bottom of the frame.

The D700 photos, on the other hand, require less noise reduction. Here is a D700 photo taken at ISO 640 without any noise reduction.

D700 with Sigma 24/f1.8
Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Catholicon (taken with the D700 and Sigma 24/f1.8 at f4.0 1/30 sec ISO 640)

Here is another example from the D700:

Stone of anointment at Church of the Holy Sepulcher - Nikon D700
The stone of anointment at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (D700 and Nikon 80-200/f2.8 @ 185mm f2.8 1/200 sec ISO 1800 processed in LR, no noise reduction)

And here another photo taken with the D700 @ ISO 1100, without noise reduction:

Nikon D700
Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Nikon D700 with Nikon 16-35/f4 @ 35mm f/4.5 1/30 sec ISO 1100, no noise reduction)

High ISO files from the D700 look cleaner than the D850 files. In all fairness, D850 photos have to be downsized to about 1/4 of the original image size to actually compare these files side-by-side with those from the D700.

Of course none of the low-resolution jpeg images above show noise, or signs of noise reduction. So if you don’t take my word, you can leave a comment and I will try to post full-resolution files, or at least 1:1 and/or 1:4 enlargements of some critical areas.

I will not shoot any test targets to produce side-by-side comparisons of the two cameras under a “controlled environment”. There are plenty of them on the Internet. I’ve chosen the above photos because of the challenging environment with dark shadows and strong highlights. The dynamic range of some of the scenes is far bigger than the camera can capture. This is real life.

If I were to get an assignment to shoot an event inside that church, I’d take the D700. I would likely get better results with the old but familiar D700. For landscapes and tripod work, I’d go with the D850 without a second thought.

The End

With the D850, D7200, and Olympus OM-D M10 in my camera bags, it was obvious that the D700 would get less and less use. I decided to give it to family, together with the Nikon 16-35/f4. Hope that this way it will find employment for years to come.


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Author: Heiko Sieger

The day has 24 hours. If that isn't enough, I also use the night.

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