8.10.2018

You went retro and bought a Nikon D700. What's my recommendation for a great first lens?


By: KirkTuck.com Austin, Texas. 2018

If you read the blog you'll know that I've reached back in time to cherry pick few really good cameras that Nikon made and to use them for much of my still photography work. I've written a bunch about one of my favorite cameras, launched in 2008, the D700, because it seems to me to be a wonderful blend of compromises that led to a camera of high reliability, great mechanical performance and speed, and it has a sensor that delivers 12 really good megabytes of resolution along with some of the best color performance and tonality I've come across in cameras; at least since the days of the Kodak professional cameras...

In the last few weeks there has been a run on good, clean, used D700 camera bodies as people snap them up and discover which part of the compromise equation they may have missed out on due to their allegiance to a certain camera conception or mythology. For example, one friend never shot full frame before. When they came to digital photography they embraced the basket of compromises and features (light weight?, small size?, good video?, good stabilization) that micro-four thirds cameras offered and rejected other options. Now they've decided to experiment with a different format and a different basket of compromises and, most would agree, that older full frame cameras flooding the markets right now can be a bargain. Certainly, the expense of $500 for a good, used imaging tool isn't going to break the bank; and if the new adopters decide the added weight, the moving mirror --- with its attendant noise and vibration--- and the lack of in body image stabilization isn't the balance they most enjoy they can easily sell the camera back into the market without much, if any, loss. They will have only really lost
the investment in time...

Most of the people I know personally who have recently added a D700 to their mix of equipment are coming from the opposite end of the format spectrum; the m4:3 cameras from Panasonic and Olympus. Few have gone "retro" from existing Nikon bases and even fewer adopters have swung over from Canon. I think it's the novelty of a greatly different format that pushes the new adopters to push the "buy" button and give the camera a whirl. They may have found that the mix of things they find necessary for their work have changed, or they just want to rejuvenate their photography practice by introducing something new and different to their mix. More power to them.

In the Nikon camp the D700 is a natural choice. Found used it's the cheapest way into the Nikon full frame solar system. I've seen great copies go for as low as $450 while the nastiest, used D750 has yet to crack the $1,000 barrier. Neither, for that matter, have the D600 or D610 (two cameras whose nice sensor is just about the only thing to recommend about them....).

In the Canon camp my first choice for a retro user would be a 5Dmk2, followed by a 6D. It's largely the same kind of performance differential and it's certainly the same format "look."

But after my camera acquaintances have their D700 bodies in hand they have to start making decisions about lenses. And that's a whole big can of worms when you consider that Nikon has put out over 100,000,000 lenses since they started building camera gear. The range of choices is incredible; and most made past 1977 (the period in which they introduced "AI" lenses) can be mounted and used on the D700 cameras, most with aperture or manual priority exposure.

I photographed with Nikon's professional film cameras right up until we started tossing money into the early "black hole" of digital so I've played with most of the most popular manual focus and early auto-focus lenses from their product line. This is my third or fourth go round with Nikon digital cameras and I've tried a fair number of the non-esoteric Nikon lenses of the 21st century as well. With this in mind I have a blanket recommendation for people who are new to the system. People for whom the D700 marks their first foray into full frame Nikon.

My first lens would be the underrated but very good and very flexible Nikon 24-120mm f4.0 VR. Here's why: The range of 24mm to 120mm works well as a "most used" focal length range for most people. 24mm is wide enough for most architecture uses and 120mm is a great portrait length. Having one lens with which to handle everything (at first) gives you time to prioritize learning how to use the camera instead of diving into research about which bevy of lenses you might want. Remember, at this fragile, early stage in your relationship with the camera in particular and the format in general, you may not have even established whether it's even right for you.


While none of the Nikon DSLRs have in body image stabilization the Vibration Reduction in the lenses that offer it is generally very good. There is an argument that in lens stabilization can be more effective (especially with bigger sensor cameras) because it can be optimized for the focal lengths and doesn't require the complexity of in body stabilization. It also means that the sensor is anchored in position and not subject to additional vibrations and even movement that can effect some "floating" sensors in cameras with IBIS. I've found the VR in the 24-120mm to be very good and agree with more scientific reviewers who suggest that it is providing about 3.5 stops of real (observable) stabilization.

While the lens is not ultra-fast it is very sharp, wide open, at 24mm --- at least in the center 2/3rds of the frame --- where you want it and need it.  The lens is centrally sharp through the focal length range and while it won't rival a Sigma Art Prime at any point in the range it is a good and noticeable step above most consumer zoom lenses.

The lens does not have a variable aperture which gets smaller as you zoom to longer focal lengths. The widest setting is f4.0 at 24mm the lens still delivers f4.0 at 120mm. The f-stop of 4.0 was sometimes an issue in the D2x and D200 days (and earlier) when even the flagship cameras from Nikon had noise issues above 400 ISO (some critical users would peg that closer to 200 ISO) but it's much less of an issue with the D700 and newer full frame Nikons, all of which have been class leaders for low noise at high ISO settings. You can safely choose f4.0 constant aperture zooms where, in the past, you may have need that one extra stop and been consigned to dragging around an even bigger and heavier lens.

The 24-120mm lens is big, bulky and somewhat heavy. The usual retail price is $1299. But I see many of them available online as "refurbished" or "used" in good condition for around $500. I paid $499 for a very good condition copy about six months ago and the performance has been flawless. It's most of what I would want in a day to day user. The times when I need something different are usually when I want extremely narrow depth of field or I need a macro capability that is beyond a conventional lens.

The lens has the usual geometry distortion flaws of its type. A lot of barrel distortion when used at its widest settings and a bit of pin cushion distortion when used at the other end of the focal length range. All curable in camera; when shooting Jpeg, or in Lightroom, DXO, PhotoShop and other software when shooting raw.

The D700 and the 24-120mm are a good pairing. The lens resolution exceeds that of the camera sensor so the lens won't be a limiting factor when it comes to making great files. The range is efficient and the handling of the lens is nice. In keeping with Nikon's philosophy of providing advanced users with external, discrete buttons and controls the lens has three buttons on the side. On is "VR on/off." The second is to set VR between normal and active, and the third set the lens to manual or auto focus.

I know the D700 is well weather sealed but the only weather sealing I am sure about on the lens is the rubber gasket around the lens mount. That means, at least, if you take the combination out in the rain with you then only the lens might have water intrusion but ingress into the body will be limited.

I have a lot more choices I can propose for a new user but I will say that the 24-120mm is a great performer and is always on one of my D800s when I am shooting full frame for money. It's a winner.

Next up I'll discuss a good choice for a second lens. Stayed tuned?

10 comments:

Tom Barry said...

I'm really enjoying this "quality retro" movement and your all-around expertise helps us sort out from among the available gear. In my (80-year-old amateur) case, I've long used and had a shall we say interesting relationship with the original Canon EOS 5D, nowadays called the "Classic." I absolutely love the color rendition I get from the 12.8MP raw files, not to mention quick processing. But the LCD is well-nigh invisible in anything except subdued indoor conditions. Even the readout in the viewfinder is very dim outdoors. In a way, it reminds me of my favorite film Canon of all time, the EOS 1-N; a real brick, uncomplicated and reliable. I might go to a Mark II, but what I use most of the time anyway is the 40D, which is, in APS-C terms, what the "Classic" should have been. So I limp along, when in full-frame mode, reminding myself that the "limitations" of the old 5D are mostly in my head, as I was able to take pretty good photographs for most of my life with, God help us, film, and no LCD for instantly reviewing. I primarily use three lenses with the 5D: EF 50mm f/1.4, EF 100mm f/2 Ultrasonic, and EF 28-135mm IS and enjoy the results. I look forward to reading your and others' adventures in retro-land.

Rufus said...

Thanks Kirk

My 8000 click D700 arrived in the parcel from a man ( thanks, Stan ) just some 15 miles or so from me. It is pretty much mint.

I have been exercising it with a 50m 1.8G and an old 70-210 D Nikon as I walk the dogs this past couple of days. It works perfectly; producing lovely crisp files that look terrific on my 4k monitor. I am going to print some files this weekend. It cost me less than $600 equivalent - at the upper end of values for these cameras but worth every penny I think for something so minty.

Agree that the 24-120 looks like a good fit. I must admit I am even tempted by the big 28-300 superzoom, which has produced some great files I have encountered on the web. Much better than I would have expected.

I am travelling to Latin America in the Autumn for work and a one-lens solution is tempting. 24-120 or 28-300? Obviously that comes down to how wide I think I need to go..

I will still take my X-T2 and a couple of primes. They are so small I won't notice the weight.

Looking forward to your next instalment..

Anonymous said...

I bought a D700 at your suggestion. The files are much better than I would have thought possible for such an old camera. It's as solid as a rock and the finder is a lovely change from my EVFs. Hard to believe Nikon got so much right so long ago.

Lyn Rees said...

I loved mh D700... Maybe I should buy another. Then again, I think I loved the D800 more.

Bill Stormont said...

I disagree with something you said here: "Certainly, the expense of $500 for a good, used imaging tool isn't going to break the bank…"

For many, that bank is already broken.

Kirk Tuck said...

I can't argue much with that, Bill. But it's a much less painful purchase than a new 24-70mm f2.8, or anything in the Leica catalog....

Marcio K said...

Kirk, how do you rate the low light capabilities of the D700 comparing to the GH5? Like, how many stops you gain with the same ISO / Aperture / Shutter settings, in terms of noise?

Regards.

Dave Jenkins said...

I held a D700 at a photo show some years ago and did not like the way it felt in my hands, so set it back down.

I might well still shooting the Canon 5D Classic I bought in 2006 if it had had automatic sensor cleaning, as most later cameras have. Especially when doing architectural work, it was a major pain to zap out dust spots from the skies in otherwise gorgeous files.

I moved to a 6D in 2014 and was very happy with it, but got tired of carrying around a load of heavy lenses. I won't use age for an excuse, but did suffer a compression fracture of the spine a few years ago.

David Zivic said...

I also totally enjoyed my ownership of a Nikon D700. I noticed you referred lens choice to go after AI Nikkor ones. I have 2 excellent lenses pre-AI and had them retrofitted. Not very expensive BTW. I also use them on Sony via an adapter. Remember back then ALL Nikon lenses were of professional specifications.

Mike Rosiak said...

Kirk, thanks for the recommendation. I put that lens on my "covet" list.

Once I got my nice used D700 a few weeks ago, I bought a used 28-80mm f/3.5-56 D from B&H at just $60. (I had already blown up my cash flow with the camera, plus I wanted to learn the camera first.)

I used the combo last evening at the local 52nd annual Goschenhoppen Folk Festival. I shot just JPG, medium file size, started with ISO 200, switched up to 400 as the light started failing. Somehow, I "saw" differently with that camera. I also found that the heft of it helped keep it steady - some decent shots even at 1/15. Just uploaded and viewed the pictures. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something "nice" about the way they look.

While I like the convenience and non-intrusiveness of my range of Lumix cameras (LX7, LX100, GX7, all set for silent operation), there's something about the D700 that just feels right.

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