8.03.2018

Retro is Looking Modern When it Comes to Cameras. Just Look at all the People Embracing ancient Nikon D700s....

It's funny to watch progress march on in the field of cameras. Camera makers are learning how to get more and more profit from less and less expensive-to-manufacture cameras while using the lure of "newest" to hook generations raised on the worship of technology. Pull apart a mirrorless camera like the A7Riii and you'll be amazed at just how few parts reside in the actual body. There are very few moving parts, beyond the shutter mechanism, and even the shutters are drop in modules made in bulk by companies like Seiko. Linkages that required mechanical sophistication and precise assemble have been distilled out of the process and replaced by software (not that eliminating parts is at all bad!). Lens design is following along. Lens makers can choose different design compromises than they have ever been able to before because they can use software to fix heavy vignetting or vast amounts of geometric distortion. As megapixel counts climb one of the benefits
is that lens designers know there are a lot more pixels in the corners of the frames than there used to be so manipulating the edges of the frames, and expanding the corners into compliance, is less visible that it would have been in lower resolution files.

Having owned the Sony A7Rii (which has the same sensor as the A7Riii) and now being in possession of a Nikon D800e it's easy to compare files and to see just how much the march of progress has affected the only part of camera design that's truly important; slamming out the highest possible image quality!

In some regards RAW shooters will be better served with the ancient Nikon D800e. The camera shoots at a real 14 bits (if you set it to do so) and you can select a truly uncompressed raw file if you are in pursuit of the highest color discrimination and tonal integrity. One of the "parts" left off the Sony A7Rii was the ability to shoot at a real 14 bits as well as the inability to choose the amount of compression (or lack of compression) you'd like to introduce to your files.

Granted, most of us will never see the difference; especially those working on, and viewing images on laptops and most desktop computers.

So, I understand the logical and rational among us choosing an older Nikon over the much newer Sony cameras for a number of reasons but the trend that's a bit more mysterious and fun is that many of the VSL readers (as well as the site owner = speaking of myself in the third person again = it's a thing I learned from watching contemporary political speeches) are tracking down and snapping up mint condition, low shutter mileage, D700s. It's almost becoming a full on cult. But at least it's a cult that makes tremendous sense, given just how great the files are from the D700 and how much they are still so "right-sized" for most actual photographic production work.

I thought I would jump in a look at this phenomenon at bit closer after getting a phone call from a closer friend who was crowing about his latest acquisition: a dreamy, no mileage, pristine D700 with under 5,000 actuations on the shutter. The camera may outlast him!!!

So, if you drop $500, $600 or $700 on a camera introduced way back in July of 2008 what do you end up with? To start with the build quality of the camera is enough to make you pine for the "old days" of very, very solid camera construction and ample space on the camera body for you to enjoyably wrap your hands around it without accidentally activating a half dozen tiny buttons. You get a picture taking instrument on which you can find discrete, physical buttons to set WB, ISO, Bracketing, and File Type without having to touch a menu. Same with the controls for frame rate, self-timer and live view. Same with metering pattern, focus mode and focusing patterns. Pretty much you'll be able to operate the camera by unique and well labelled buttons and use the back screen solely for reviewing your (stellar) images. Those are not unidentified, random buttons that you need to program and subsequently memorize. they are significant, permanent controls that speed up the process of shooting to no end.

Sticking with the body and shutter, if you are looking for a reliable camera that will put up with much environmental abuse and still work like a champ then this model appears to be almost unique. I've come across four (battered, bargain condition) well used units which have each clocked over 500,000 shutter actuations and are still going strong. It's a dense and heavy camera for its size but it's easy to hold still for longer shutter speeds and the overall body seems to be strong enough to be run over by a mid-sized car and suffer not internal damage.

Moving on to the camera's guts, you'll find a full frame, 12 megapixel sensor. Used at its lowest (non-pseudo) ISO it makes beautiful files with no banding, artifacts or apparent noise. It's good at ISO 1600, very usable at 3200 and even useful, with good noise reduction post processing, at ISO 6400. It's a ten year old camera that has a lower actual noise profile than many current APS-C cameras and nearly all of the m4:3 cameras that are current. The sensor, and Nikon color science, combine to make wonderful files that are rich with color and have a very natural look to them. The lower pixel count also seems to give the camera a much sharper, more defined file characteristic when used or viewed up to its native size limits ---- which are still far larger than a 27 inch Retina screen.  If you can't make luscious and critically sharp prints at up to 12x18, or larger, the problem is NOT with the camera....

I'll go out on a limb and state that for 80-90 percent of my uses the files at 12 megapixels are adequate. The only time I want or need more resolution is when I am working on materials for clients that are headed for large posters; and even there I think the camera's files acquit themselves well. My D800s are good image makers and the detail, when you punch in at 100%, is awesome. But when I go to the new websites my clients are making with the images (the majority of uses for modern photography) I find that the smaller files look better than the "overkill" files from the higher resolution cameras.

This is a camera that makes me wish consumers had been smart enough to look beyond the simplest metric of camera specifications; horsepower (oops! I meant resolution) and look at other ways of judging a camera's ultimate usefulness. I think lower megapixel counts, along with bigger pixels, could make many peoples' experiences with digital photography much more satisfying.

So, is this a perfect camera? Devoid of any faults? I could plunge into hyperbole and make that claim but I'd be wrong because, like any instrument crafted by mortal men, there are some things that could, and have, been improved in later models.

First of all, I dislike the fact that the viewfinder only shows 95% of the image. That was okay when we were shooting slide film in an F100 because the slide mount probably covered right at 5% of the image. In effect, it was an accurate way to compose with slide film. But we ain't doing slides anymore. We need to see to the edges of the frame. This was remedied in the next iteration of small professional cameras in the Nikon line up (see D800).

Second, while that shutter may well be bullet proof, and have the stamina of a 747 engine, it's almost as loud when it goes off. It's a classic SLR/DSLR, old school shutter mechanism. And there is no workable silent shutter feature. People will know you are shooting unless you are doing so in the middle of rock concert... The flip side, in addition to reliability and robustness, is that the shutter mechanism is quick; as in: you push the button and the camera acts to make an image in as little as 25 milliseconds. Measured by my atomic wristwatch.

Third, we are sad to announce that the camera is not a video machine. You can find some hacks that allow you to use the live view feed coming out of the HDMI port to get some artifact-y and moiré-laden 720p video but it's certainly not going to look pretty, and you'll be searching in vain for a headphone or microphone jack.

Back over on the plus side of the ledger we have a few more things I think I should mention...

Battery life is superb. The camera just goes and goes and goes. Mostly because it's just working the shutter and mirror, and only in the fractional seconds of exposure. But it means I can go out shooting for a day and not worry about bringing a pocketful of Sony "Krugerrand briquettes" along to assuage my fears of premature battery depletion.

Autofocus is fast and sure. Better, I think that my last bevy of recent-to-new Sonys and other mirrorless models. You could actually follow fast action with a D700.

Well, that mostly sums up the D700 but the real question for me is: "Why are so many photographers reaching back and buying these decade old cameras instead of further fleshing out the modern camera systems they already own?" Part of it is demographic nostalgia. The more we work with the new, less capable, but shinier cameras the more we seem to miss a time in camera industrial design when cameras seemed built to handle anything mere humans could throw at them while delivering reliably good images, and being comfortable to use all day.

There is sure to be a cohort who are attracted to the nicer looking files from the camera when those files are used at smaller than billboard sizes. 

One group is probably trying desperately to get away from the OVERLY COMPLEX AND DAUNTINGLY DETAILED OVERKILL menus being foisted on them by computer programmers pretending to be camera designers.

And, finally, it may have dawned on people who've been shooting smaller format cameras that it's a whole different look to shoot stuff in a larger format and it's fun to dip a toe into the full frame waters without spending a bundle or being overly worried that a flimsier model might fall apart in their hands just as they are getting the hang of full frame shooting.

I think the D700 is a particularly solid manifestation of the idea that maybe (other than sheer megapixels) cameras today are really no better (as far as image quality is concerned) than cameras from ten years ago. Maybe the current sensors are slightly less noisy and the throughput is faster but many folks are waking up to the realization that the perception of performance being sold, like snake oil from the big review sites and V-loggers, is masking the reality that for the last ten years all we've gotten are tiny, incremental improvements in image quality but at the expense of handling, simplicity, reliability, and performance.

When it comes to resolution I always come back to the idea of horsepower. There are always trade offs. A more powerful engine is usually bigger and weighs more (the analogy being processing time and downsampling) and most of us don't live on a race track where we are able to drive in a banked circle at dizzying rates of speed. In photography most of us are handholding our cameras and most of the resolution that we pay for, and then have to workaround in post, is just lost. Absolutely lost.

We presume that raw power will overwhelm our bad technique but high performance cars are harder to drive well and easier to wreck convincingly. Huge image files show motion degradation more clearly and don't give the same impression of high sharpness in smaller sizes. We traded off and, to a certain extent, we got screwed. The move backwards to the D700 is an attempt by many to remedy our ill-advised plunge into the next greatest thing.

With that in mind. I'm still looking for good, used, low mileage D700s. I think they are as close to perfection in a modern camera as I can stomach.

(I decided to post this when I heard from the fourth VSL reader to have purchased a nice copy of the D700 in the last 30 days. That's too much coincidence to pass up. I've got two and love them. Great cameras that generate great files). 

added: Someone else's take: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cc3cAr5HkF8

17 comments:

Roger Jones said...

Well, I just got back from my 20 mile bike ride ( the hot steel tube of Satan between my legs) turned on my iMac and what do I see? Mr. Kirk Tuck telling the world/ singing the praises of the D700, and how great it is. Your right, it's everything you said to be sure, and Nikon still repairs the D700, but couldn't you have waited just a few days more, till I bought my 3 and last one??? Just a few days more, now the prices have gone up again!!!!!

Oh well that's ok, and your spot on about the D700

How's your ears? Better?

Regards
Roger

Malcolm said...

I'm not a Nikon shooter (apart from the FM2n I bought recently for a song) but I bought an original Canon 5D three years ago in great condition and I love it. Perhaps not as sturdy as the Nikon but more than enough for my non-pro needs. And the price has steadied; I'd pay the same for one now as I did three years ago. Whereas buying the latest 5D would cost me thousands for benefits I wouldn't be able to exploit. Cheap second-hand cameras in great condition, my favourite hobby!

Alex said...

I dont know much about digital Nikon, using Olympus MFT myself. But I never regretted buying two first generation OM-D EM-5 after the successor arrived. Less than 10.000 clicks each and going for a song. Long live the manufacturers drive to "innovate" and the second hand market.

Nick Davis said...

Totally agreed on the D700, Kirk. Only other downside I can perceive is the minimum 200 ISO in my very small studio which sometimes means I have to stop down further than I'd like. Sometimes I wish it was a little lighter when I've been shooting for four or five hours on location but it really delivers the goods! In many ways I feel it is a transitional camera as it has the solidity and feel of the late film cameras but with the benefits of a digital sensor. I think you've just pushed the prices a little higher too!

Jack said...

If only I, too, could play with more cameras (and lenses), what fun that would be. I am fortunate that I can do this vicariously by visiting VSL. I realize it's not quite the same, but it is oh so much more affordable.

I would love to try out a Nikon 750 (or even 700), but I have no lenses. All sold long ago.

Oh well, as long as you keep using and writing about these cameras, I'll make do until the lotto gods favor me.

Cheers

Russ said...

Thank God I already purchased my D700 months ago. This D700 Lovefest is going to jack up used prices to the point where it will be more expensive than the D600.

On a side note, if Nikon releases their new mirrorless camera the same way they did the D600, they're gonna be in big trouble.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone like the Nikon D3 or is the camera a little big and heavy?

Patrick Dodds said...

The NeverClose (TM) rubber cover on the side of my 700 is a PITA and now needs to be taped over on shoots but other than that yes, I still love using it. I've dropped it five feet onto concrete (the LCD cover on top of the body sprang out and the 24-70 suffered and had to be repaired), and the rubber on the back is gone so it isn't as comfortable to hold as it once was, but it still takes lovely pictures that can be processed more easily than the monsters from the 810 which customers not infrequently ask to be made smaller and more manageable. It does go off like a gun in a quiet room but still and all, I'm not selling.

DavidB said...

I am currently shooting with a Nikon D750 but I still own my Nikon D700 (and my Nikon FM!). The D700 has ~33K shutter activations which, I guess, means it's still in nearly new condition.

Frank Grygier said...

The internet is on fire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cc3cAr5HkF8

ODL Designs said...

I think you might be responsible, in no small part :)

I still think the look of the file has more to do with the analogue nature of capture with AA filters matching pixel densities and stronger bayer filters with a cleaner colour signal.

It could also be camera makers designing camera output for better testing performance and all the accolades as opposed to a "good looking file" which tests poorly.

JG said...

I'm not so sure the "move backwards to the D700 is an attempt by many to remedy our ill-advised plunge into the next greatest thing," as you claim, as much as it is a recognition that photos are not being displayed as prints-on-paper nearly as often today as they were back in 2008, when the D700 was released.

As the need to make large, high-resolution prints diminishes, then so does the need for cameras with sensors possessing many megapixels to create the files that make a large, high-resolution print possible.

So while it may be possible today to live happily with a 12MP camera, as you appear to be doing now with your brace of D700s, that was not so much the case way back in 2008.


David Corney said...

If you haven't seen it already check out Mattias Burling's YouTube video, where he discusses the D700:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cc3cAr5HkF8

Enjoy!


Ray said...

If Nikon made a mirrorless FF camera just for you it would have a fabulous EVF, and perfect ergonomics of course, but how many MP's? What would be the perfect balance of resolution and color depth for you?

Ray said...

And as far as that goes, what lenses would they make just for you?

Thanks.

RiverdogsCrossing said...

Well, I am another subscriber that went to Precision two weeks ago and purchased a Nikon D700 with 3149 shutter actuation. It is an absolute joy to hold and shoot and shares duties and lenses with my D810. The files are rich in color and just the right size. I could not believe a 10 year old camera that had been used so sparingly. I love it.

Rufus said...

Dammit - I find myself on eBay looking for a D700 now in the UK. This is becoming an internet thing. Given the demand I do not think I am the only one doing this...

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