A new DSLR for my Harley-Davidson, the Nikon D700

It is time, after 10 years of use my old digital brick, a Nikon D1, reached retirement age and it is time for a new camera. I hope you find my thought process and analysis interesting…

Back in April 2010 I wrote a 3 part series about photography, and one was called:

Which camera for your Harley-Davidson?

Back then I was more looking at the different classes of camera, from a economical and small “point and shoot” to mid range DSLR. I compared 5 cameras:

  • Sony DSC-TX5
  • Canon S90
  • Panasonic GF1
  • Canon EOS550D
  • Nikon D300s

capping the recommendations with the best of its class, the Nikon D300s. I was not yet considering a replacement for my old D1, which I bought in 1999, but now, nearly 11 years later, it is time to let the old lady retire, so I started my research again, concentrating on the upper end of the DSLR range, something for the keen amateur, or even prosumer.

The question of “Which brand?” was not relevant, I decided this over 10 years ago: Nikon. I had a Canon befor that, and wanted a Canon, I trutsed Canon, but back then Canon had no digital SLR on the maket. Today, the choice is simply based on the lenses I bought over time, all Nikon lenses, and to switch brand would mean to buy a new set of expensive lenses, and that was not a option. Nikon it is.

There are presently 3 competent models in the upper range of NIKON:

  • D3s: a truly professional camera
  • D700: for the so-called prosumer
  • D300s: will satisfy every keen amateur

The D3s comes from the same professional heritage line as my old D1, but then, these 2 can not be compared anymore, even the D300s beats my old heavy brick in most of all technical categories. One important factor in deciding on a camera is of course the budget, and when writing this, JacobsDigital offered these 3 cameras (body only) at the following prices:

  • D300s: 1,140 £ (100%)
  • D700: 1,760 £ (150%)
  • D3s: 3,590 £ (315%)

Steep for many of us, and for me it excludes the D3s. The 2 other key points excluding the D3s at such early stage were:

  • the D3s has same sensor as D700, but a tad faster in maximum burst rate (fps, frames per second) and
  • size and weight are similar to my old D1, and I wanted to loose some weight

This now keeps 2 contenders in the race to jump into my camera bag, the D300s and the D700:

As you can see from this picture, the D700 is a bit larger, mainly due to the larger sensor and the higher grade viewfinder.

Here the key features of these 2 cameras, compared to my 10 year old D1:

It is incredible how quickly the technical features evolved over time, and how the initial retail price collapsed. But most frustrating is the decline in street price, I could cry seeing my trusted D1 being flogged on eBay for less then 200 GBP. The old lady still makes fantastic pictures, and its a real bargain for anybody wanting to venture into the prosumer class of very heavy cameras, tank class full metal, indestructible.

Making a long analysis short, the D700 wins over the D300s, but narrowly. The D700 is older, now 2 years, and a successor is expected very soon, either the D700s or a D800. Technology evolves very fast, but in this game I am not a early adopter, as most new models receive firmware updates pretty quickly, ironing out little software errors reported by mass market usage.

That is fine for me, I like the street tested mature ones, as it also means that the street price is comparably low, and at the moment the soon to be replaced D700 is price-wise comparably close to the newer D300s, well below its introduction price 2 years ago. Also, the next generation of D700 will mainly feature a higher pixel count and 1080p video capabilities, 2 features that are not most important to me, as I mainly shoot for web consumption.

Beside the relatively good price the D700 wins for 2 other key reasons over the D300s: its FX sensor and the viewfinder.

FX vs DX sensor

As I wrote in the earlier post, size matters, the sensor size, and the derived pixel density, is very important for the picture quality.

The FX sensor has the same physical size as the old, well know film, negative or diapositive, 36 mm by 24 mm. The DX format (above called digital SLR), introduced 10 years ago in high level digital cameras, is much smaller, as thus results in a crop of the image, as only part of the picture can be captured.

The reason for the DX format introduction were technology and costs, as 10 years back it was not yet possible to build for the mass market a properly working 35mm film sized sensor at a affordable price.

The smaller DX sensor, requiring a smaller image circle, also led to the development of so-called DX lenses. These are lenses that will not work well on a film camera or FX digital camera, because their image circle is smaller and would not fill the whole FX sensor.

DX lens used on a FX sensor

I got used to the DX sensor size, it defined my digital SLR life for many years, and the irritating discussion of crop factor in focal length was quickly forgotten. But with the new FX sensor, which is the same as in the D3s, its finally: back to the future. Now the digital sensor has again the same size as the image on the old 35mm films (also called 135 film), which is 36mm wide by 24mm high, and a 50mm focal length lens finally produces again a full frame 50mm picture, no more 1.5x crop factor. YES!

Confused about the 35mm <> 36 mm film talk? Here is the background:

The old film stripe was 35 mm wide,
but a image on this film was 36 mm wide, and 24mm high

The viewfinder

Also for the viewfinder, size matters, a big viewfinder provides clarity and comfort. For this I compared my old D1 with the new D700. Here a overlay of the 2 cameras:

The shutter release button and viewfinder are pretty identical in size and position, the whole right side of the D700 feels very similar to the D1, no radical change here. The heavy fat is cut away on the left side and under the body, fine for me, as I am holding the camera with my right hand, and the lens rings with my left. As long as the right side doesn’t change, I feel at home.

Comparing the D300s and D700 viewfinder, big differences become visible, and these seem so important to me that the D300s received a big minus.

One important feature I often used in my D1 was the viewfinder blind (small arrow A), as you should better close it when you take pictures without your eye on the finder, as the light entering via the eyepiece may cause the metering to underexpose your picture.

So, the Nikon D700 it is – not right now, but very very soon.

I will monitor the market prices for some weeks, check rumors on the launch of the “next generation” model D700s or D800, mainly to avoid the D700 suddenly running out of stock. But more importantly I now have to sort out my workhorse lens, the 24-120mm I am using most of the time, as it is also not working properly.

As for the D1, to which it was attached most of the time during the last 11 years, this lens earned the right to retire.

However now that I made up my mind to move away from the DX sensor size to the bigger FX sensor, the focal length range of my standard zoom becomes a new factor. Suddenly 120mm are real 120mm, and not virtual 180mm due to the crop-factor.

Do I need a longer zoom lens with the D700? I will analyse and discuss this in a later post…

to be continued

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4 Responses to “A new DSLR for my Harley-Davidson, the Nikon D700”

  1. Father Christmas was very generous today, and I found a Nikon D700 in my Santa Stocking. Thank you Santa Claus…

  2. Congrats on the D700! That’s a beaut! Better ISO performance than the Canon 5dmk2, though it doesn’t have video (and who needs video?).

    Moving to FF off of crop sensors will be a small adjustment. Start out with a WIDE lens and learn to love it, then you can convince yourself to worry about paying for more powerful telescopic lenses. That way, you won’t miss the 1.6x quite so much.

  3. Wow, you certainly know a lot about cameras!
    I’m glad you went for a Nikon though.

    For me, it’d always be between Canon and Nikon, because they make mostly cameras and camera equipment etc, but Sony and Panasonic just make electronic products and decided to start flogging cameras too – so that makes me think that the latter might not make such good cameras – if that makes any sense haha

    Not that I know too much about cameras though 🙂

    • Hi Pepper, thanks for you comments. I would also not want to buy a lens from Sony, but then, they do not make lenses. This said, Nikon is using Sony CCD sensors in many of their cameras, as in a modern digital camera the electronics are becoming as important as the optics. For me, the traditional opticals (lenses, filters) and mechanicals (shutter, viewfinder) define the picture quality, not the electronics (which are mainly in charge of post-capture tweaking and speed).

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