D700 FX vs D300 DX

by mobileblogger on December 9, 2009

“Wohohoho!” <– that was what I “said” when I saw the first shots taken with the D700. Maybe this expansive reaction does not describe exactly the differences in image quality nor does say much about handling and ergonomics, however it says that I was QUITE surprised coming after almost one year of using an already wonderful dSLR that I enjoyed a lot.
What I will try to do is to put down some differences between these two cameras and pinpoint some considerations you might be interested in if you want to jump full-frame. Keep in mind that although astonished by differences in image quality, I haven’t taken this step yet and the reasons will be explained a little bit later.

The Image – noise, color, accuracy and some more

When talking about Nikon full-frame cameras (D3/x and D700 – for the moment…) what probably comes first to one’s mind is high ISO low noise capability. The improvement in this area is so dramatic that this alone might be a reason to go FX. Endless debates about EV differences in noise levels may continue for ages and, probably, no definitive objective answer will be written down. The point is that shooting at ISO 6400 is a must if you want to truly understand what high ISO low noise really means. True, a relatively lower resolution, 12mp sensor helps achieving such results, but the key here is not only the noise is less obvious or less chroma or… whatever, is the fact that, combined with the dramatic dynamic rendition in image of this camera, D700 allows you to do things that were not possible with D300 (or other DX camera) without a drastic reduction in detail and smudging shadows with impossible noise. For example – and that is the best argument I can raise – I am a big fan of underexposure as creative tool in photography. With the D300 I had to pay attention of exposing correctly at high ISO – maybe to overexpose a bit – then to bring down exposure in Capture NX2 if I wanted to achieve a 1/ creatively underexposed image with 2/ inapparent noise in shadows and 3/ preserved details, all these at ISO higher than 1000. To my surprise, D700 is much more forgiving with drastic (>1EV) underexposure in what relates to noise levels and lack of suppression of details. The image is clearer and more detailed that a corresponding DX one, underexposed with the same amount. The direct consequence of this is less time in post-processing (which I am not a very big fan of) and more keepers for your portfolio. Oh, and by the way, talking about Capture NX2, don’t believe all those that complain about it. At least on my 4GB 2.4 iMac works flawlessly and, up to this moment, is the best RAW convertor for NEFs in my opinion.
Back to noise, you might be interested to find out that ISO 6400 is a new, virgin territory to be explored with the D700 and this opens you the world of almost noise-free still photography at candlelight (exposure at 1ft/ 30cm from a small candle is 1/60 sec at F/1.4 at ISO 6400). Of course, you can push the limits and go further if you have a less expensive lens (mark that I avoided the term “non-pro lens”) using a good de-noising software in post-processing. Coming to that, I tried Noise Ninja, Imagenomics Noiseware and some other software but, whenever I need to artificially remove noise, I always get back to Nik Software Dfine 2.0 which is a superb plugin for Photoshop. In my opinion, it does the best compromise in noise removal vs. detail preservation. Get the trial version and make some tests, you will understand my point.
One more thing about high ISO: usually performance at these levels come at a price: sacrifice in detail rendition and errors in color accuracy. If the first was covered some lines above, I just want to say some words about color at high ISO.
Contrary to some beliefs, color accuracy depends not only on the gear but most important to the quality of light. One has to work with a balanced spectrum to achieve good color rendition and maybe this is the reason that difficult colors (e.g. skin color, colors in shaded areas etc) should have high quality light sources to be put in their real value in a photograph.
Strangely enough, the best artificial light source that comes immediately after the natural sun (with a bit of energy “taming”), is the cheap incandescent lightbulb (see color spectra vs energy for incandescent bulbs, lowell lamps and xenon lamps compared to CFL and laboratory reference lamps). Thus, even at low light energy, D700 behaves wonderful and on PRE white balance setting color accuracy is excellent and quite identical over the entire range of ISOs up to 6400. This is even better under natural light, color gamut is well preserved with a slight reduction in shades of deep red and blues (sky gradients may become slightly masked at high ISO levels. Overall, colors are exquisite and beautiful and extremely natural as long as you shoot under balanced light or, at least, under balanced gradients of light. Keep in mind that the worst white balance scenario is, always, auto white balance and fluorescent which, due to the inherent limitations of color distribution within fluorescent spectra, photos tend to have unpleasant hues.
What is different, too, from D300 is the noise absence at low ISO levels, maybe more important than the same behavior at high ISO.

Optics and cost of transition

The conclusions of the discussion above will provide you a huge latitude of creativity. You will not feel “limited” anymore even using lower quality optics. However, if you own a lineup of consumer-grade optics, some deteriorations in the outcome will be evident. The problem is that with a higher pixel pitch and full frame, all, but ABSOLUTELY all flaws of your lenses will show up in capitals. D700 comes with a kit lens that serves better as body cap than optics on such a camera. Get rid of that AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G ED-IF QUICKLY, otherwise you might feel the urge to send your D700 to Nikon for a checkout. Not even the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras will be spared, some vignetting will be obvious under certain shooting conditions (clear sky that covers half of image, large areas of light and uniform color etc). The latest additions from Nikon optics, the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Nikkor Wide Angle Zoom Lens and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Nikkor Wide Angle Zoom Lens are both good match for this camera and also some of the older lenses, especially the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D AF , the 35mm f/2 AIS and the 105 AIS versions of the lenses (which render a creamy, “de-focus”-like of images). Unfortunately, the rest of the pro grade lenses from Nikon are out of reach of the majority of us, but one can try and feel impressed by the older 80-200 or a fixed 300 f/4 that are to some match of this superb but unforgiving camera.
This may create a budget problem and it is the main reason I haven’t upgraded to a D700 yet (although my fingers burn…). If you just make a quick cash flow analysis, the investment for getting a FF “pro-grade” image with a D700 will hang heavy on your income, and includes the body and, MANDATORY, a pro-grade lens. And I will strongly suggest to go for the 24-70 f/2.8 nano coating AF-S something, which is the best walkaround zoom you might get for this camera. I have sold my 17-55 (a superb lens, but DX) and got the 24-70 just to be prepared for the next year upgrade to the FX format and decrease the financial shock one might feel with such a heavy investment in both a body and a pro lens.
Another optical issue is that going only FX with the D700 means that you have to say goodbye to any Sigma 10-20mm, or Nikon 12-24mm, or Tokina AT-XAF124DXN 12-24mm or whatever cropped format wide (or extrawide) zoom unless you want to cripple resolution to 5 mp and work in the DX mode (selectable in the D700 settings menus). The only option for FF is the new 14-24 f/2.8 Nikkor. Folks, this lens is incredible. It performs so well that even Canonites are prospecting getting them with adaptors on their pro bodies. But- and I hate to say that – it has some MAJOR functionality flaws that are extremely non pragmatic: different from – for example – the 16-35 Canon L, the 14-24 cannot take filters on the front. Bye bye polarizing filters and protection of the bulky rounded glass that protrudes like a fisheye. And going wide and pro, now, will cost you almost another 2 grands (even more in Europe). Nikon thought it well, and it gives you no choice: wanna the best wide and worldwide performance on a 24×36 FF ? Empty your plastic. It is simple as that.
The conclusion is that upgrading to D700, although fascinating from image quality point of view, latitude of photographic creativity and performance will cripple your financial health. Of course, this holds true if you don’t opt for a tammy or another cheap glass for your D700, which case might prove that you are… strange.

Body, controls, ergonomics

Who owns a D300 will immediately notice two annoying things: disappearance of the CF compartment lever and a smaller (=shorter) top LCD panel. The prism block is not so evident at first look, though obvious when putting both cameras side by side.
The CF card compartment has a D80/D40/D60 way of access, by sliding it open. This compromises the weatherproofing of the entire camera and if you are curious if I’m right, just try using it under rain. I’ve used my D300, I don’t have the guts to do the same with the D700. One might argue that the popup flash (present on both D700 and D300) is also a weak link and I agree, however, having a sliding lid for CF compartment is a downgrade in my opinion and the most ZZZZ thing (replace with the metaphor of your choice) somebody could do with with such a camera. A minus 10 stars for that alone.
The dimensions of the top LCD might or not be an issue. However, more important is the cropping of the viewfinder to 95% coverage from the 100% of the D300/D3. Some say “because of the popup flash”. Probably. Popup flashes have junk efficiency anyway, so why to cripple view in the viewfinder for this reason – it beats me. Moreover, try using the popup flash with a longer lens – nice effects you get !
So, Nikon, no excuse for the CF compartment lid and the viewfinder coverage which IS very important for composition.
The distance between the grip and the lens is slightly smaller than on D300. For me – it is a good thing since I have better reach for the function buttons on the right side of the lens, but I suppose this may be an issue for those with thicker fingers.
The multifunction wheel is more protrusive and the center selection button is something very useful. This IS an improvement over D300 when pushing the center of the multifunction wheel may accidentally activate other switches of the wheel. This was quite annoying especially when writing comments or labels for functions and settings.
Aside from these, the rest is identical with the D300. Ah, oh, I forgot: the unlocking lever for the CF compartments from D300 has been replaced with an “info” button which reminds me of the never-dying “print” button on the Canon bodies. Useless for such a camera. However, this may be debated. I leave it to you. I prefer to have better sealing.

Versus D3

It is arguable if spending almost double will bring you something of such a tremendous value that will worth the money. I don’t think so, at least for the serious amateurs and maybe some of the pros also. However, D3 is quite different from fps point of view and some other “minor” differences (two CF cards, locking lever for CF compartment, no popup flash = better sealing etc) which might compel some of you to spend even more.

Conclusion

Man, but I wrote a lot ! The idea behind all this is that D700 IS THE ultimate a serious amateur may wish for now. Together with D3 has the best high ISO noise and color performance, excellent low ISO noise (= absence, different from D300 which is somewhat noisy on solid colors), FANTASTIC color accuracy for normal shooting conditions (ISO 100-800), incredible focus accuracy, cool feeling when handheld and, coupled with latest Nikkors – superb optics, sharpness, color balance and a very artistic (but realistic) look of the images. However, this comes at a price, you need expensive optics to match the body performance. The choice is yours. I made mine: I’ll gonna wait for a while and make a smooth transition from the superb D300 DX to completely new (and certainly better) photographic horizons.

I hope this review will help you.

Happy holidays

12/21/2008

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