So, another year, another carnival: what's new here and why should you care? Well, apart from the fact that it means you get to see some nice pictures, I also happened to have the good fortune to cover this year's event using a Nikon D700, which means that this year's pictures should make for interesting comparisons with both the pictures from 2008 (shot mostly with a D300), and those from 2007 (shot almost entirely with a D80). In short, this post can essentially be considered as a field report on the last 3 years' advances in Nikon technology.
What, then, is there to say about the D700? The first thing in need of mentioning is that in terms of handling, the camera feels very, very similar to the D300, which in my opinion is a good thing, as it makes it possible for D300 owners to pick up the D700 and feel at home almost immediately. Just slot in your CF card, screw on your lens of choice, and you're ready to go, it's that easy, hardly anything in terms of a learning curve to worry about, at least in basic operational terms (learning optimal usage is another thing altogether, as I will explain later).
There are of course a few differences in handling and appearance between the D300 and the D700, but while one might expect these differences to be in favor of the more expensive camera, this isn't necessarily the case. For instance, the top right-hand indicator on the D700 is smaller, and as such unable to accommodate a display of the AF-mode currently in use; additionally, the D700's card door isn't held in place by the secure latch which exists on the D300, and I did have the card door open on me on more than one occasion. On the plus side for the D700, the button at the center of the camera's control pad is a very useful feature which the D300 lacks, as is the ability to assign almost any custom function to an external button, instead of just the ones explicitly allowed for on the D300.
One difference which I might have expected to find between the D300 and D700 but did not, however, is in terms of the effective viewfinder size: to hear all the hype spouted on online forums, the D700's huge, bright viewfinder makes looking through the one on the D300 feel like peering down a narrow tunnel, but what I actually did find was that the size of the viewfinder image in the two cameras was practically identical, which is pretty much what one would expect given the specifications supplied by Nikon. The D300 viewfinder has a 0.94x magnification of a sensor image which is 23.6 x 15.8 mm, while the D700's viewfinder has a 0.72x magnification of a sensor image sized 36 x 23.9 mm; additionally, the D700's viewfinder only covers 95% by 95% of its sensor, while the D300's coverage is 100% by 100%: doing the math, this means the D700's viewfinder image is less than 10% longer on each side.
The biggest difference one notices when looking through the D700's viewfinder has nothing to do with the size of the image one sees, but with the spread of the AF-points one is able to choose: where the D300's AF points are spread out to almost completely blanket the viewfinder image, in the D700, they are bunched up more narrowly towards the center of the view. While this proved less of a problem in practice than I'd feared it would be, it still means that with the D700 there are occasions on which one will find it impossible to use autofocus in compose an image, where one would have been able to do so with the "lesser" D300; this is especially the case where one has such a shallow depth of field to work with that "focus and recompose" is entirely out of the question. I felt this problem most keenly whenever I tried to shoot with the camera oriented at 90 degrees and keeping a subject's head towards the top of the frame - what this meant in practice was using the subject's chin as a substitute for the eyes (the preferred focus), and hoping that things turned out alright.
Moving on from the specification comparisons, what is the D700 like in actual, real-life use? The first thing to say on this point is that the camera is fast and responsive, noticeably more so than the D300, in fact; autofocus is much quicker, and feels more certain and accurate, with less hunting than I was used to on the D300. The D700 is only able to fire off 5 fps against the D300's 6 fps, but the feeling I got was that - assuming the D700's bunched up focus points aren't an issue - those 5 frames are substatially more likely to be in focus. Supposedly the new D300S has a similar, faster AF system, but the 3500 module in the D300 is clearly not as capable as the 3500 FX module employed in the D700.
One other thing that is notable about the D700 - and indeed what it is far more noted for - is its incredible performance in terms of noise. The difference is certainly noticeable at ISO 3200 and above - where I would be loathe to use such settings on the D300, with the D700 I was able to obtain acceptable images at ISO 5000, and even one ISO 12800 image turned out far better than I'd ever have imagined possible. Still, it isn't at these ultra-high ISO settings which I find the D700 most remarkable, but at ISO 3200 and below; ISO 5000 and higher is a zone of darkness in which I'm only likely to venture when taking snapshots meant only for display on the web, while I am much more likely to run into situations where I need an extremely clean ISO 1600 or 2000, and in this zone the D700 delivers in full. The following image is at ISO 1600, and what is remarkable is just how clean it is when viewed at maximum size, and how much detail is preserved along with this cleanness.
Look at the image above at maximum size, and then compare it with the following one taken with a D300 at the same ISO.
One can of course obtain similarly clean images with the D300 through the use of noise reduction, but the price one then has to pay is in terms of lost detail, as human skin can then end up looking like plastic.
A practical consequence of the D700's superb high-ISO performance is that one is freed to be more aggressive in the way one shoots. In particular, where with the D300 I might settle for a minimum shutter speed of 1/320s when using Auto-ISO, in order to keep the maximum ISO below, say, 800, with the D700 I can set the minimum shutter speed to 1/1000s with an auto-ISO maximum of 3200; as long as most of the pictures are taken below ISO 2500 or so, the results should be as clean as what I'd have obtained with the D300 at ISO 200-800, and in practice they're likely to be better in terms of noise and color fidelity. Combine this with the increased sharpness made possible by the faster shutter speeds, and the result is photos that can be markedly better - and that is precisely what I did on this occasion.
On the first day of the Notting Hill Carnival, I settled for a minimum shutter speed of 1/160s and a maximum ISO of 1600, in a carry-over from my more conservative practices with the D300. In combination with overcast weather, the end result of these choices was that many of the pictures I took that day lacked the kind of biting sharpness I'd been hoping for, even if they had other redeeming qualities. The picture below is illustrative of what I'm getting at:
I was still able to get quite a few pictures I liked, especially when the sun came out of hiding for a moment or two (see e.g. the picture below), but after scrutinizing the pictures I'd taken at higher ISOs later that evening, I decided to use the D700's auto-ISO capability much more aggressively: nothing less than a 1/1000s shutter speed, and damn all other consequences.
As luck would have it, the sun also decided to come out of hiding on my second day covering the carnival, so it was a lot easier to meet my minimum shutter speed condition than I'd expected, even without using auto-ISO (which I nonetheless left on for the whole day). What struck me, though, was that even at low ISOs, the pictures from the D700 seemed better than what I'd been getting from the D300; the colors seemed richer and the tonal transitions smoother. I certainly hadn't expected this, given what I'd seen and read in different camera reviews.
When I rented the D700, I did so with the intention of using it only with lenses I already owned, not just because I wanted to keep costs down (though that certainly was a factor), but also because I wanted to find out how much of a problem it would be for me if I were to switch to one of Nikon's FX cameras: would I need to replace all my lenses to do so? The answer I arrived at, at least with the D700, was a clear "NO". My Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 zoom remained just as sharp as it had been on my DX cameras, while its field of view became a lot wider (and therefore more useful); my 16-85mm Nikor still has a wider field of view, but to replicate this on FX I'd need to get a 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor, an unfavorable prospect from both price and weight considerations. In practice 28mm on FX proved wide enough for most of the photos I wanted to get (though the story would be different if I were doing travel photography).
The other lens I was concerned about was the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR, whose problems with vignetting and soft corners on FX cameras has been much discussed in various places. I'd read the negative reviews, but I'd also read statements from many working photographers who insisted that these problems were hardly significicant in practice, and I wanted to settle the argument one way or another for myself. What I found was quite encouraging: when used with the D700's Vignetting Control set to "Normal", the performance of the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR is nothing short of stellar. Here's one example:
And here's another:
In fact, most of the photos in this post have been taken with the lens which is said to be "unacceptably soft" and even "mushy" in the corners by so many online critics, illustrating something I've long believed: most people who spend their time whining online about such things may know all there is to know about shooting brick walls and so forth, but they know very little about the actual practice of photography as either a profession or an art form. Nikon has already announced a new version of the 70-200m f/2.8 VR in order to placate the whiners, but I for one feel no need to upgrade, as the older version does a stellar job as-is.
Now, having sung the praises of the D700 at such length, you might expect me to say that I'm planning to get one as soon as possible, but if this is what you are indeed thinking, you're wrong. While I certainly can afford the camera - and at very little additional cost if I'm willing to sell all my DX equipment - there are other considerations which dissuade me from taking the plunge as yet. The most important of these is that my focus is increasingly on studio work, not on event shooting, and as such high ISO performance takes a back seat to factors such as resolution, dynamic range at base ISO, and the ability to go below ISO 100 (useful when shooting with strobes in daylight). On all these points, the Nikon camera which most suits my needs is the D3X, not the D700, but the D3X is just too exorbitantly priced for me to think about buying, and so I'll be saving my money until Nikon either sees the wisdom of offering a lower-priced D700X with similar performance, or the interminable wait drives me to pick up a Sony A900 and a Zeiss 24-70mm f/2.8 zoom.
The other consideration which keeps me from getting the D700 is that there is no FX equivalent of the handy 16-85mm Nikkor, which has become my staple lens when travelling. There may be sharper or faster lenses out there, but this one happens to be sharp enough, and its VR effective enough, to cover the great majority of travel situations in which I'd want to take a picture - and it does this while being reasonably small and lightweight. I could see toting a D700 and a 24-70 f/2.8 about the world with me if I were getting paid to take travel photos, but the hard reality is that only a handful of people get to see and appreciate the photos I do take, so there's no point going to the extra trouble in the name of a quality increment virtually no one other than myself will ever even notice.
That final statement is my problem with getting a D700 in a nutshell: in a world in which people are happy with the pictures they get from point and shoots, who will notice the quality improvements in my non-studio work? Bookers for modeling agencies and art directors can be expected to care about such matters, but experience tells me that what the average person cares about is either (a) whether their own faces or the faces of famous people they know about are in a photo, and (b) whether there's any eye candy in the form of beefcake or "T&A"; image quality is otherwise irrelevant to the ordinary run of humanity, and spending more on it won't bring any rewards, whether materially or in terms of plaudits. The D700 is the event photographer and the photojournalist's dream, and I also recommend it to affluent amateurs who have both skill and an eye for image quality, but for the average person with cash to burn, the camera's primary benefit will be to serve as a big, heavy status symbol screaming "I can afford to spend £1,800 on a camera!" to the wretched masses clutching their D60s and D5000s - but in that case, a Leica M8 (or the upcoming Leica M9) will do an even finer job of signalling one's wealth - or even better still, a Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet wristwatch ...