News and Views from Dave Wilson

Archive for May 30th, 2010

Moving to a D700

by on May.30, 2010, under Photography

I recently purchased a Nikon D700 and am delighted with the new camera. I was aware of several features that I knew I would enjoy but have been pleasantly surprised by several other differences compared to my D90 that I had not been expecting. Here are a few observations on moving from a nice consumer DSLR to an even nicer professional model.

High ISO Operation

One of the main reasons I was interested in the D700 was it’s ability to shoot at high ISO settings with minimal noise. My initial testing has shown that the performance is every bit as good as I had hoped and I reckon I get about a 2EV improvement over the D90. Images at 1600 ISO are amazingly clean and I can shoot at 6400 ISO and get images that I am sure would look great at 12″x8″ and still be usable at larger sizes. The D700 tops out at 25600 ISO but I have yet to try this.

Exposure and Dynamic Range

The camera offers the option to shoot in either 12-bit or 14-bit mode and, since I’m shooting RAW, I have it set to 14-bit to save as much information as possible. I’ve not yet done any side-by-side testing to see if I can see any difference in the two modes, though. One thing I do notice, however, is that I can push and pull the exposure a lot further in Lightroom without seeing nasty artifacts than I could with the D90. A 2EV increase or decrease from the basic exposure still leaves me with an image that looks great.

This rather surprises me since, according to DXOMark, the D90 sensor actually has slightly higher dynamic range than the D700. Regardless, I definitely see a difference in the amount I can muck with the D700 files before noise or artifacts become annoying.

Autofocus

One feature that I was looking forward to was an increase in the number of autofocus points offered. My D90 had only 11 points that I could choose to focus on. When handholding, this was fine since I could set a focus point where I wanted then move the camera to reframe but for tripod-based situations and, specifically macro-photography I would very often find that I couldn’t get a focus point where I needed it to be and had to compromise my composition merely to move one of the limited number of points over the subject (or switch to manual focus). With the D700, however, I now have 51 focus points to choose from and this problem is a lot less likely to occur. The new camera also allows me to zoom the Live View display so that I can perform fine focus adjustment without having to rely upon the viewfinder. It is possible that the D90 would also allow this, though – I need to go back and re-read the manual to check.

While I had expected the increase in number of focus points, one huge difference that I had not expected is a very significant improvement in focus speed. On the D90, using high-end Nikon lenses, I was pretty impressed at how fast the focus would track but on the D700 it’s even faster still. Shooting soccer last week and using continuous autofocus with the 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, the camera appeared to be refocusing about as fast as my own eyes could.

Build Quality

After a couple of years use, my D90 is beginning to show some wear (as you would expect). Some of the rubber grip moldings are sliding away from their original positions, for example. While I have no way of knowing if this kind of thing will happen to the D700 after similar use, I can say that this is a far more solid beast. It feels a great deal denser and gives the impression of being a very much more serious piece of equipment. The downside here, of course, is that it also feels a great deal heavier. The additional weatherisation offered by the D700 should be helpful whether I’m shooting in rain or, more likely, being accidentally hosed down by a kid in our local swimming pool (as happened today).

Also related to build quality, the sound the shutter makes when it releases is totally different from the D90 and altogether more “solid.” The shutter mechanism is speced for 150,000 releases on the D700 vs. 100,000 or so for the D90 as far as I can remember.

Additional Features Helpful for HDR

The D90 could shoot bracketed sequences of no more than 3 frames with spacings up to 2EVs. The D700 on ther other hand can shoot up to 9 frames with up to 1EV spacing. This gives me a broader autobracket range of +-4EVs but forces me to use closer spacing. I had recently come to the conclusion that 1EV bracketing resulted in cleaner HDRs so this is not a big problem and, as we all know, hard disk space is free theses days anyway.

Another couple of features are rather nice for HDR, especially when doing interior shots and long exposures. The D700 has the same “Exposure Delay” feature as the D90 (this causes the mirror to lift approximately a second before the shutter opens to give the mirror vibration a chance to damp a bit and, hence, to provide a sharper image) but it also offers a true mirror-lock-up mode to further reduce the chance of mirror vibration reducing sharpness.

Although not helping with sharpness, another feature I enjoy and which should help improve the quality of tripod-based images is the viewfinder cover. Rather than being a slip-on piece of plastic (which I never used because it required me to take the rubber eyepiece surround off before it could be installed), this is integrated into the D700 viewfinder and operated by a lever to the left of the eyepiece. Shutting it prevents light entering the camera via the eyepiece during shots where your head isn’t doing this job instead.

Shooting Speed

The D90 would give me 4fps in continuous shooting mode and the D700 increases this to about 5fps. I use this when shooting the kids’ sporting events but it’s also useful for handheld HDR to ensure minimal time between brackets. One feature the D700 offers, however, is a shooting speed improvement when a battery grip is installed and equipped with either AA batteries or a special Nikon battery (with a standard EN-EL3e battery you don’t see an improvement). In these configurations, 8fps is possible.

Overall, then, the D700 is definitely exceeding my pre-purchase expectations. It just feels so much more solid than the D90 and gives the distinct impression of being a far more serious piece of equipment. I’m delighted with the results I’ve seen so far and am looking forward to some shooting during the summer to see how it performs for me.

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