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Nikon unveils D700 full-frame digital SLR
Monday, June 30, 2008 | by Rob Galbraith
Nikon has filled in the gap between its midrange and pro digital SLRs. The D700, announced today and slated to ship in late July 2008, looks like a D300, acts like a D3 and promises to be as big a hit as each of them. Nikon has taken the full-frame 12.05 million image pixel CMOS sensor from the D3, placed it inside a body that is similar to the D300, weaved in capabilities from both and put a U.S. price tag of US$2999.95 on the result.

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Hybrid: Views of the Nikon D700. Click either photo to enlarge (Photos courtesy Nikon)

Nikon D700 feature summary

If you own a D3 and a D300, then you have in two separate bodies most of the key bits and pieces that comprise the D700. Its main features include:
  • A weather-sealed magnesium alloy body with popup flash that at a glance looks very much like the D300, though putting the D300 and D700 side-by-side reveals that:
    • The D700 is taller, sports an FX badge on its front and has a larger and more sculpted viewfinder bubble (plus various other small styling differences)
    • It has a round D3-style eyepiece opening rather than the rectangular type of the D300
    • The multicontroller on the back is pulled directly from the D3
    • The CF slot door slides rather than swings open
    • The INFO function has its own button
    • The caps on the 10-pin remote and PC sync ports are a different design than either the D3 or D300
Fraternal Twins: The Nikon D300 and D700, side-by-side. Click to enlarge (Photos courtesy Nikon)
Put more simply, handling the D700 is like handling a slightly bigger D300 with a larger viewfinder and better multicontroller. Make that much better: Nikon has really nailed the usability of the multicontroller with the D3, and it's great to see that the same component is on the D700.
  • A 12.05 million image pixel, 23.9mm x 36mm CMOS sensor designed by Nikon that is identical to that of the D3 and can operate in both FX Format mode and DX format mode. Nikon EXPEED technology, including 14 bits per colour analog-to-digital conversions up to the camera's maximum frame rate and 16 bits per colour digital image processing, also carries over from the D3. Pictures shot with the D3 and D700 are expected to look the same in every respect. Well, perhaps except for dustiness: while the two cameras share the same sensor, the D700's sensor package includes a self-cleaning component designed to vibrate away debris.

  • A standard ISO range of 200-6400, and an extended ISO range of ISO 100-25,600, in 1/3 step increments up to ISO 12,800.

  • A maximum frame rate of 5 fps for a Nikon-specified 100 Large Fine JPEG and 20 Lossless Compressed 14 bit NEF frames. With the optional MB-D10 Multi-Power Battery Pack attached and an EN-EL4 or EN-EL4a battery inserted, the D700's frame rate jumps to a maximum of 8 fps.

  • A shutter lag of 40ms (CIPA standard), startup time of 0.12 seconds and a shutter duty cycle rating of 150,000 frames.

  • The same 51-area Multi-CAM 3500 autofocus system as the D3 and D300, with the same broad range of configuration options.

  • Ambient and flash metering duties handled by a 1005-pixel RGB sensor and 3D Color Matrix Metering II algorithms.

  • Connection ports include USB 2.0, a 10-pin remote socket, PC sync, DC input and video (NTSC/PAL and HDMI) out.

  • A top shutter speed of 1/8000 and a top standard flash sync of 1/250 (or 1/320 via a Custom Setting), plus 1/8000 with a compatible Nikon Speedlight and Auto FP mode enabled.

  • A large, 95% frame coverage, 0.72x magnification viewfinder.

  • A sharp and clear 3 inch (diagonal), 920,000 dot rear LCD display.

  • nikon_wt4.jpg
    Linked In: The WT-4/WT-4a Wireless Transmitter in action (Photo courtesy Niikon)
    Compatibility with certain GPS units and Nikon's WT-4/WT-4a Wireless Transmitter.

  • Menu layout and options that very closely match the D300 and the D3, including niceties such as the Virtual Horizon indicator (which is found only in the D3 presently), My Menu for creating a custom menu list and Nikon's Retouch Menu for applying image effects and creating new finished files right in the camera.

  • A single, UDMA-capable CompactFlash card slot rated by Nikon to a maximum of 35MB/second (the same as the D3 and D300). The D700's slot accepts only CompactFlash Type I, which precludes the use of thicker Type II CompactFlash cards such as the Hitachi Microdrive.
Nikon D700 feature highlights

What a difference a year makes. In less than 12 months, Nikon has gone from having no full-frame digital SLRs in its lineup to offering two (and it's a foregone conclusion that later this year we'll see a third in the form of a 24.39 million image pixel D3X). Here's a more detailed description of certain D700 features.

Nikon CMOS sensor and picture quality The D700 shares its full-frame sensor with the D3. It's the same component and related processing circuitry; photos emerging from the D700 and D3 are expected to look effectively identical too. The only differences are expected to be operational: the D700 includes a sensor cleaning feature not found in the D3 (though this should limit the appearance of dust spots in clear areas of pictures too).

While it's widely known that Nikon uses sensors principally designed by Sony in many of its digital SLRs, the D3/D700 sensor is an original Nikon design that is manufactured not by Nikon but by an unspecified sensor fabricator. Prior to the D3, the only other digital SLR models to also feature a sensor created by Nikon were the D2H and D2Hs, and as with those models, Nikon isn't revealing their manufacturing partner for the new sensor. It has a pixel pitch of 8.45m and utilizes 12-channel readout.

d700_sensor.jpg
Sensor Sandwich: The components that make up the Nikon D700 sensor package (Photo courtesy Nikon)

The D700's sensor has a capture area of 23.9mm x 36mm, which is effectively identical to the size of a frame of 35mm film, and records 12.05 million pixel photos when the entire sensor area is active. Nikon calls this FX Format mode. Like the D3, the D700 will also operate with a smaller 16 x 24mm capture area, which is roughly equivalent to the sensor size of all Nikon digital SLRs other than the D3 and D700. Nikon now calls this DX Format mode. The photos taken in this mode contain 5.14 million pixels.

The D700 does not have the 5:4 capture mode of the D3, only FX Format and DX Format. Set to either mode, the camera will shoot continuously at a maximum of 5 fps, or 8 fps when either the MB-D10 Multi Power Battery Pack (with an EN-EL4 or EN-EL4A inside) or the EH-5A AC Adapter are powering the camera.

The processing circuitry is identical to the D3 and features 14 bit analog-to-digital conversions and a 16 bit processing path. The core image processing technologies contained in the D700 and other newer Nikons go under the umbrella name of EXPEED. When shooting NEFs, it's possible to specify whether you want them to contain 14 bits per colour or 12 bits per colour of information (the latter for smaller file sizes and a few more frames in extended bursts), as well as whether they are uncompressed, compressed (visually lossless, 40-55% compression rates) or losslessly compressed (numerically identical after decompression, 20-40% compression rates). Like the D3, the frame rate of the D700 doesn't slow when the 14 bit option is selected.

The D700 has a normal ISO range of 200-6400 in 1/3 step increments, and an extended ISO range of ISO 100 - 25,600, in 1/3 step increments up to to 12,800 (the camera can also be configured for 1/2 step and full step increments). By using a relatively large pixel size - in about the last five years, only the D2H/D2Hs have contained a sensor with larger pixels in Nikon's lineup - the company has positioned itself to create an impressive high ISO camera. The D3 is a testament to that, and the D700 should carry the same unique ability to record usable photos at stratospheric sensitivity settings.

The D700 includes Nikon's Picture Control menu for choosing and customizing the colour look of JPEGs and TIFFs produced in the camera, or NEFs decoded using Nikon's own software. As with the D3 and D300, there are four Picture Control settings - Standard, Neutral, Vivid and Monochrome - the first three being similar to, though not exactly the same as, Color Mode I, II and III in older Nikons. Each setting can customized. Customization options are Sharpness, Brightness, Contrast, Saturation and Hue. It's possible to store up to nine custom Picture Control combos, as well as save them to a CompactFlash card and load them into another body.

Optional, additional noise reduction can be switched on for JPEGs and TIFFs shot at above ISO 1600. Even with this option turned off, photos taken at ISO 8000 and above will still receive a measure of additional noise reduction. Noise reduction is implemented in the D700 in an identical fashion to the D3.

Long exposure noise reduction, when enabled, kicks in for exposures of one second or longer, and require a post-exposure processing time of 1.5-2x the exposure time.

Real-time image processing in the camera includes lateral chromatic aberration correction, Active D-Lighting and vignette control. The lateral chromatic aberration correction will work with any lens, including other makers' lenses, because the correction applied is based on an analysis of the image data, not on lens information. If shooting NEF, the correction isn't applied to the RAW data, but information about the analysis is, information that Capture NX/NX2 can use to do similar processing later. Active D-Lighting has the same three settings - High, Normal and Low - as in the D3 and D300, plus a new Auto setting that is not found in the earlier models. When Auto is selected, the camera will look at both data from the 1005-pixel metering sensor and the image data itself and decide whether Low, Normal or High (or Off) is appropriate for the picture.

Basic performance The D700 has a startup time of 0.12 seconds, shutter lag of 40ms (based on CIPA test procedures), standard top flash sync speed of 1/250 (which, unlike the D3, can be bumped up to 1/320 via a Custom Setting) and top shutter speed of 1/8000. With non-dedicated flash units such as studio strobes, the D700 should sync at up to at least 1/320. The shutter mechanism is rated to 150,000 cycles.

Viewfinder The viewfinder is a hybrid of the D3 and D300. With 95% frame coverage and 0.72x magnification, it appears to the eye to be roughly the same large size as the D3's viewfinder image, which offers 100% coverage at 0.7x magnification.

The information display is similar to the D300: shutter speed, aperture, metering and other data is shown beneath the viewfinder image, rather than most info beneath with metering to the right, like the D3. AF area squares are the rounded-corner, thicker-edge style of the D300 as well.

In an interesting twist, with the D700 set to DX Format, a Custom Setting controls whether the smaller capture area is delineated with a black crop rectangle only, or with the dark-and-fuzzy perimeter effect of the D3. The D700 will optionally display an array of grid lines across the viewfinder area.

The D700 includes a diopter adjustment with a range of -3 to +1 m-1, and an eyepoint of 18mm.

multicam_3500fx.jpg
Look Sharp: The Multi-CAM 3500 autofocus module (Photo courtesy Nikon)
51-area autofocus The D700, D3 and D300 all share Nikon's Multi-CAM 3500-based autofocus system (called Multi-CAM 3500FX in the first two and Multi-CAM 3500DX in the third).

It's comprised of 51 AF areas, including 15 cross-type AF areas (they operate as cross-type with lenses whose maximum aperture is f/5.6 or faster). The 51-area grid forms a wide rectangle across the frame, with minimal spacing between each AF area.

In single area autofocus, the camera can be configured to allow for manual selection from all 51 AF areas, or from 11 in a layout designed to mimic that of the D2-series cameras. The multi-area options include groupings of 9 or 21 AF areas in a cluster that's movable about the 51-area grid. It's also possible to have the camera choose from all 51 areas for you.

When set to use all 51 areas, the D700, like the D3 and D300, can be configured to use the Nikon-developed Scene Recognition System to aid in the subject acquisition and tracking process. The Scene Recognition System uses information about subject colour, derived from the 1005-pixel RGB metering sensor, to help the autofocus determine where the subject has moved to in the frame and shift the active AF point accordingly.

The D700 is the latest Nikon to incorporate an AF Fine Tune option to compensate for autofocus miscalibration with certain lenses or all lenses.

Our experience with the Multi-CAM 3500 in the D3 and D300 is that it's easily the best to grace a Nikon digital SLR, that it's a capable system and one that's up to the task of shooting both things that move and things that are stationary, but that it has a few quirks that keep it from winning a gold star as the best digital SLR autofocus of any brand.

3 inch rear LCD The D700 contains the same 3-inch (diagonal), 170 degree viewing angle, 920,000-dot rear LCD as the D3 and D300. As we've noted previously, this screen is so crisp and clear you'll never want to use another rear LCD to review your pictures again.

LiveView with autofocus When enabled, the rear LCD displays a real-time view through the lens. Nikon's iteration of LiveView includes an optional grid overlay, brightness adjustment, zoom and two autofocus modes.

  • The first, Handheld mode, uses the camera's 51-area AF to determine focus, and to do that it drops the mirror briefly, interrupting the LiveView image in the process.

  • The second, Tripod mode, uses the image sensor itself to determine focus, employing a method Nikon calls Contrast AF (which is similar to the autofocus method used by compact digital cameras). It's slower - you can see the lens' autofocus dance around the correct point of focus for a second before locking in - but the LiveView image isn't interrupted, and you can set focus from anywhere in the frame, not just within the AF grid. It also works when the LiveView image is magnified. Tripod mode is cool.
Though LiveView is nearly identical in features and function to the D3 and D300, the D700 adds one capability not found in either model: a mode that blends LiveView with the Virtual Horizon indicator on the rear LCD.

The D700's LiveView refreshes at 15 fps, like the D3 and D300 before it, which makes it feel somewhat herky-jerky when compared to the silky-smooth 30 fps of Canon's Live View implementation in cameras like the EOS-1Ds Mark III.

mbd10_bl3.jpg
More Power: An EN-EL4a Rechargeable Li-Ion Battery attached to a BL-3 Battery Chamber Cover for use inside the MB-D10 Multi Power Battery Pack (Photo courtesy Nikon)
Power The D700 takes the same EN-EL3e Rechargeable Li-ion Battery as the D300 and various other cameras in Nikon's digital SLR lineup. With the MB-D10 Multi Power Battery Pack attached, additional options include powering the camera with two EN-EL3e batteries simultaneously (one in the body and one in the grip), eight AAs or an EN-EL4/EN-EL4a (this battery is required to boost the D700 frame rate up to 8 fps).

The D700 can also be powered by the EH-5a AC Adapter.

One card slot A single CompactFlash Type I/II card slot is on the right side of the D700 body, like the D300 (the D3 has twin card slots). The D3 and D300 are the fastest writing cameras of any Canon or Nikon digital SLR we've tested. Like these two models, the D700 supports the UDMA transfer protocol and is likely to deliver the same impressive write performance (it shares the same 35MB/second maximum throughput spec).

Nikon's official specification for the D700's burst depth, when set to FX Format and the card is a SanDisk Extreme IV (or, presumably, other fast UDMA-capable cards), is 100 Large Fine JPEG, 20 Lossless Compressed 14 bit NEFs and 23 Lossless Compressed 12 bit NEFs.

(Note that the Nikon USA press release lists a different number, 17, for "lossless 14-bit Nikon NEF", rather than the 20 Lossless Compressed 14 bit NEF spec we were given. As of this writing we haven't found out which is correct, but we suspect that the press release is actually referring to the number of uncompressed NEFs that can be captured in a single burst.) 

The D700 includes an MH-18a Quick Charger for recharging the EN-EL3e.

d700_hdmi.jpg
Plugged In: Connections ports on the D700 include a Type C HDMI connector, analog video, USB 2.0 and DC input (Photo courtesy Nikon)
Video out Video out is comprised of an HDMI port (using the newer, smaller Type C connector in place of the larger Type A found in the D3 and D300) as well as a standard analog video port. HDMI playback is at resolutions up to true 1080i (in addition to 480p, 576p, and 720p). Video out is possible of the LiveView image also, but at 640 x 480 pixel resolution only. When the HDMI port is used, it's not possible for the rear LCD and external display to be on simultaneously. When the video port is used, both can be on at the same time.

Connection options The D700 has USB 2.0, PC sync, 10-pin remote, DC input (for use with the Nikon EH-5a AC adapter), HDMI (Type C) and analog video ports. It's compatible with certain GPS devices (those that conform to the NMEA 0183 v2.01 and v3.01 interface standard) as well as Nikon's WT-4/WT-4a Wireless Transmitter.

Software The camera's software bundle includes both ViewNX and TransferNX, plus a trial copy of Capture NX2. ViewNX 1.10 and Capture NX2 2.0.0, which are already available, will open and process NEFs from the D700, which means new versions will not be required to handle the RAW files from the new model. Note that most third-party RAW converters will need to be updated to support the D700 NEFs.

Choosing between the D3 and D700

The emergence of the D700 forces shooters considering a D3 to do some additional pre-purchase pondering. Call it The US$2000 Question: what do you give up if you opt to purchase the significantly less costly D700? The answer is surprisingly not all that much, though opinions will vary on the value of this or that feature. Here are some points to consider:
  • The D3 and D700 have similar weather sealing and the same weather resistance rating from Nikon, though its lack of popup flash will make the D3 somewhat less prone to damage if the top of the camera is impacted.

  • The D3 includes buttons and controls for vertical shooting, including an additional shutter release, AF-ON button, Main and Sub-Command dials. The D700 doesn't (though they can be added by attaching the extra-cost MB-D10 Multi Power Battery Pack).

  • Sound clips can be recorded and played back with the D3.

  • The D3's shutter is rated to 300,000 cycles, the D700's shutter is rated to 150,000 cycles.

  • The D3 has two CompactFlash card slots, and a slick range of options for utilizing both, whereas the D700 has a single slot.

  • The D3 shoots at up to 9 fps (or up to 11 fps with limitations), while the D700 tops out at 5 fps (or 8 fps with the MB-D10). Though the burst depth specs suggest the D700 will rattle off a few more NEF frames than the D3, the two cameras are effectively identical in this regard when both are operating at 5 fps and have the same speed of CompactFlash card loaded.

  • The D3 offers DX Format, FX Format and 5:4 capture modes, the D700 incorporates just the first two.

  • D3 viewfinder coverage is 100%, compared to 95% in the D700, the D3's AF area markings are somewhat less obtrusive and the D3 includes a separate metering indicator on the right side of the viewfinder.

  • Key settings such as shutter speed and aperture can be locked on the D3 using its dedicated L button (to lock shutter speed and aperture in the D700, you must access a Custom Setting), plus the camera offers quicker access to exposure bracketing.

  • On the flip side, the D700's body is smaller and lighter, and it offers features not found in the D3:

    • A self-cleaning sensor package
    • A built-in flash, one that can operate in Commander mode in a Nikon wireless Speedlight setup
    • Viewfinder grid line option
    • An autofocus assist light
    • A LiveView mode that can display the Virtual Horizon indicator at the same time
    • An Auto setting for Active D-Lighting
    • 1/3 step faster top standard flash sync speed
    • The option of a crop rectangle or dark-and-fuzzy perimeter when the camera is set to DX Format
    • Fast access to certain Custom Settings
Past Nikon practice suggests we may see some of these capabilities materialize in the D3 (and the D300 too for that matter) through a future firmware update, but for now they are unique to the D700.

Price and ship date

At a glance, Nikon appears to have produced a new model with many of the best features of the D3, but for a lot less money. The Nikon D700 is slated to ship in late July 2008 at an expected street price of US$2999.95 in the U.S., or US$3599.95 for a bundle comprised of the D700 and AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED.

In Canada, the manufacturer's suggested list price (MSRP) for the D700, which is likely to be very close to the actual selling price when the camera first comes available, is CDN$3299.95, while the D700 + AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED bundle is CDN$3849.95.

Nikon has also announced a new flash, the Speedlight SB-900, and two new perspective control lenses: the PC-E Micro Nikkor 45mm f2.8D ED and PC-E Micro Nikkor 85mm f2.8D ED.

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