For those who don't need the indestructibility or built-in vertical grip of a traditional pro dSLR like the Nikon D3 or the Canon EOS-1D Mark III — and that's quite a chunk of the pro market — smaller, lighter, and cheaper full-frame models like the Nikon D700 and the Canon EOS 5D and the 5D Mark II are the real workhorses. Plus, their (relatively) lower prices put full-frame shooting in the hands of deep-pocketed amateur photographers.
Though one normally doesn't consider a weight of 995 grams just for the body an asset, it comes up a lightweight compared with 1.2 kilogram-plus models like the D3 or Canon EOS-1D line. However, it's still a tad heavier than full-frame competitors like the Sony Alpha DSLR-A900 (850 grams) and the Canon EOS 5D series (816 grams). The magnesium-alloy body feels like a Hummer and it's better sealed than the D300, but it's not up to the dust and weatherproofing standards of the D3.
The body design clearly has more in common with the D300 than the D3, and is pretty Nikon-conventional. Almost all settings are adjusted via combinations of buttons and the front or rear dials. On the top left you've got the quality, white balance, and ISO buttons, plus a locked wheel that selects among drive modes (single shot, continuous low, and continuous high), Live View, self timer, and mirror lock-up. This does make Live View operation a bit clunkier than it needs to be; newer models have a dedicated button for popping into the mode, which makes it faster and a bit easier to use. On the top right, the power switch surrounds the shutter release, plus there are buttons for exposure compensation and exposure mode selection (PASM). Nikon provides a traditional status LCD, which displays slightly different information than the viewfinder: it doesn't show metering mode or ISO speed.
On the front left side of the body sit a switch for focus mode (single, continuous, and manual), flash pop-up and compensation buttons, and ports for a wired remote and flash sync cable. There's a programmable function button between the grip and the lens that you press with your right-hand ring finger; you can assign it from a variety of options, but my favorite is probably the virtual horizon, which uses the exposure compensation readout to display off-horizontal tilt. You can also reassign the depth-of-field preview button, which sits higher between the grip and the lens.
One of our favorite aspects of the D700's design — common to all Nikon's midrange and above dSLRs — is the use of switches for directly selecting metering mode (1.5 percent spot, centerweighted, evaluative) and AF area mode (single point, dynamic area, and auto area). You then use the eight-way multiselector to pick your focus point in the viewfinder. It's the same navigation control as on the D3, and while it's quite convenient, we find the switch itself — which you also use to scroll through photos and information displays during playback — just a little too jumpy when we're moving fast. Still, it beats the alternatives.
Other controls on the back include separate AF activation and AF/AE lock buttons, as well as the usual assortment of playback, delete, info, menu, and so on. As is typical of Nikons dSLRs, the D700 has a two-button format (delete plus mode) and reset (quality plus exposure compensation).
Like the D3 and D300, the D700 provides lots of customization capabilities, including two banks of savable settings with four slots each and a user-definable menu page. As with the D300, your dynamic area options are 9-, 21-, or 51-point AF areas plus 51-point 3D tracking; also like the D300, they're unfortunately buried in the menus. We also like the ability to choose the size of the center for center-weighted average metering. (There are too many options to cover here: download the PDF manual for the details.)
The 5D Mark II, with its movie-capture mode and high-resolution 21-megapixel sensor, overshadows the D700's relatively low-resolution 12-megapixel CMOS — the same as the D3's. But its bread-and-butter feature set is more than enough for any pro. Like its Nikon siblings, it's especially suited for HDR work, with bracketing options of up to nine shots at +/- 5EV in third-, half-, or full-stop increments. Other notables include the now-common Picture Controls for adjusting and saving contrast, brightness, sharpness, saturation, and hue; Active D-Lighting; Vignette control; a rather annoying multiple exposure option, which resets to Off after every batch and requires a trip into the menu system to turn back on; and raw file options of 12- or 14-bit with lossy compressed, lossless compressed, and uncompressed variations. Like the D3, the D700 has a DX crop mode to match DX lenses.
Performance and Image Quality
As long as you don't need pro-sports-speed continuous-shooting performance, the D700 is quite fast — just a bit slower than the D3 on occasion. From power on to first shot takes less than 0.2 second. To autofocus and shoot in good light takes 0.3 second, and in dim light only 0.6; shared with the D3, that's class-leading performance. Two sequential shots take about 0.5 second, even with flash, like the D300. The one aspect that the D700 cedes to the competition is its 4.9fps burst rate, though it's more than adequate for most situations. If necessary, you can spring for the MB-D10 battery grip — it uses many of the same accessories as the D300 — to bump that to a rated 8fps, which essentially turns the camera into an almost-D3.
Furthermore, with the same AF system as the D300, the D700 delivers fast, accurate focus, even in low light. Disappointingly, though, the viewfinder delivers only 95 percent coverage; this is odd, given that both the D3 and D300 both provide 100 percent visibility. The D700 also lacks interchangeable focusing screens, which many of its competitors offer.
Unsurprisingly, the D700 delivers great photo quality. With a really good lens the photos are very sharp, and the camera renders excellent exposures and a broad dynamic range. Both visually and by the numbers it exhibits first-rate color accuracy, though it seems to have somewhat glitchy automatic white balance under tungsten lights. It has a robust noise profile as well: photos show no degradation until about ISO 6,400, and are still quite usable at ISO 6,400 and ISO 12,800, depending upon subject matter. As for ISO 25,600, they're not as bad as the Canon EOS 50D's at that level, but it's very much an emergency-only option.
The only possibly significant drawback to the Nikon D700 is its resolution; if you ascribe to the no-scaling school of printing, then the largest 300 dpi print you can get out of its 12-megapixel files is a 14.2x9.4, and moving up to 11x16 requires 15.8 megapixels (though on an Epson at 240dpi you can cover 11x16 at 12 megapixels). Also, at that resolution, its prime competitor is the veteran and now less expensive Canon EOS 5D (so old we don't have comparative performance data for it), which is still widely available despite being dropped from Canon's official product line. Compared with the 5D, the D700 has greater latitude, a better AF system, and a more modern feature set. On the other hand, Canon arguably has a more comprehensive full-frame lens lineup with more options at midrange prices. And, of course, if you want the movie capture your full-frame options are limited to the 5D Mark II at the moment. (For guidance on where the D700 fits in with the D300 and D3, see Which Nikon dSLR?) Otherwise, the D700 is a great full-frame camera for professionals and prosumers.
(Smaller bars indicate better performance)
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(Longer bars indicate better performance)