A few months ago, I was wondering whether digital cameras could become collectors. Currently, they’re not.
Judging by the second hand market, the price of digital cameras is still driven primarily by their usage value in comparison to cameras being sold new today – the higher the megapixel count, the higher the ISO sensitivity, the larger the sensor, the higher the cost.
Cameras with a small 2/3in sensor and 8 megapixels or less have a very limited usage value, and are not worth much even if their design is unique and their lens exceptional (the Sony F828, for example). Cameras of undisputed historic importance and build quality (like the Nikon D1 of 1999) can be had for next to nothing, because their performances are extremely limited in comparison to what modern cameras can do.
Digital cameras from the mid-nineties (Sony Mavica, Apple Quicktake, Kodak DCS) are even less usable – they’re at best interesting curiosities. Photographers collecting them will have the same issue that collectors of early computers have been facing – the items are nice on a shelf or running an automated demo in a museum – but why would you ever use something that performs so poorly in the real life?
The sweet spot?
I’m probably a victim of an acute form of the Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but I’m trying to keep my addiction to old cameras in check by following a simple rule: I only buy (or keep) cameras that I know I will shoot more than one roll of film with – no shelf diva for me.
And even if I’ve been tempted to buy old digital cameras in the past (the Sony F828, a Nikon F1, or a Fujifilm Finepix S5 Pro would constitute interesting additions to my collection ), I never actually did it because the cameras are too limited or too cumbersome to insert in a digital workflow compared to current cameras, and I know they would never leave my photo equipment closet.
But what if there was a sweet spot – a digital camera still perfectly usable today according to my standards and at the same time of some historic importance? A used digital camera in a sort of pre-collectible status?
Two cameras come to mind – they’re both on Popular Photography‘s list of the 30 most important digital cameras in history:
– the Canon 5D of 2005, the first compact and relatively affordable full frame digital SLR – it opened the world of full frame sensors to enthusiasts and prosumers. It was huge commercial success, but its high-ISO/low light capabilities are limited compared to today’s cameras – they’re more 2005 than 2018: the 5D Mark II of 2008 is much more usable by current standards.
– the Nikon D3 of 2007, Nikon’s first full frame digital camera, and the first digital camera with modern High ISO/ low light capabilities. I remember the first time I used one (it was at a fund raiser, I was volunteering as the designated photographer, covering for a friend – and he had let me use his brand new D3) – I could not believe I was making nice portraits of people in a relatively dark room, just with the light of the candles on the tables. It was revolutionary. Digital photography was never the same afterwards. The D3 still holds its ranks today if you don’t need more than 12 Megapixel and 6,400 ISO but it is a massive piece of equipment.
A third camera is not on Popular Photography’s list, the Nikon D700 of 2008: the internals of a D3 (sensor, auto-focus module) in the more compact body of a D300 – at half the price of a D3. 10 years after it was launched, it still enjoys a devoted following, and the fact that it was not directly replaced in the Nikon lineup (Nikon never launched a “compact version” of the D4 or the D5) adds to its aura.
When I found a D700 at a low-low price, I jumped on the opportunity. Old Nikon SLRs are the ones I prefer and always come back to (FM, FE2, F3) and adding a full frame digital camera of the same family to my collection was only natural.
380,000 Shutter Actuations
Of course, there’s a catch. This camera has been through 380,000 shutter actuations already. Assuming it was originally purchased in 2009, that’s 190 actuations per business day, for 8 consecutive years. It’s not a Guinness Book of Records performance, but it’s still impressive. If it was a car and if we were still in the fifties, the previous owner would probably have received a diploma or a commemorative badge from the manufacturer (VW used to do it when a Beetle was reaching the 100,000 kilometers mark).
Nikon and Canon typically disclose the expected life of the shutter of their pro cameras (the D3 is rated for 300,000 actuations, the D700 for 150,000, and the 5D for 100,000) – but it’s an indicative and hopefully pessimistic value– I’ve read about single digit Nikon cameras (D3, D4 or D5) reaching the million actuations mark (with a precautionary mechanical refresh at 500,000 actuations).
In any case, I’m a hobbyist. I won’t be adding a lot of actuations to this camera. In a twisted way, this high shutter actuation count even makes it a more interesting collectible: maybe, one day, Nikon will send me a nice medal too.
The D700 – the photographic equivalent of a muscle-car
In the world of cars, manufacturers sometimes shoe-horn a big and powerful engine in a compact body – like Pontiac did in the sixties to create its archetypical muscle car, the GTO, out of the Tempest.
To a large extent, the D700 follows the same recipe: the engine of a big camera – the sensor, the image processor, the auto-focus mechanism of the top of the line D3 – in the (relatively) compact body of the D300. Of course, the D700 lost a few things in the transplant (the D3 can shoot 9 frames per second, the D700 only 5, and the D3’s viewfinder shows 100% of the frame, the D700’s only 95%). The D700’s body is probably not as solid as the D3 – but it’s heavy and feels very robust, and few photographers really need to drive nails in a wall with their camera.
Nikon has elected not to develop a direct successor for the D700: cameras of the D600 series are designed for consumers, the D800 series for photographers in need of a very high sensor resolution, and the D750 is still more consumer than pro. As a consequence, lots of photographers stuck to their D700 as long as they reasonably could, singing the praise of their unique “muscle camera” on the Internets and making it a sort of legend.
What’s so interesting about the D700 for a collector of Nikon film cameras?
The D700 is very similar – from an ergonomics point of view – to Nikon’s final high-end film SLRs, such as the F100 or the F6. They also share the same lenses and the same accessories:
One of the strengths of Nikon has always been the compatibility of the modern bodies with older lenses – but maintaining compatibility across multiple generations of hardware is complex and expensive – think of all the mechanical sensors and levers and electric circuits that you need to add to an all electronic digital camera to make it work with a lens from the early nineteen seventies (and vice versa). As a result, only a few Nikon cameras, generally at the high–end of the model range, live up to Nikon’s promise of full compatibility with older generations of lenses.
Some digital SLRs with APS-C sensors (D7200, D500) have a good compatibility level with older AI, AIs and AF lenses, but the 1.5 crop factor of the small sensor seriously limits the benefits of the operation.
Full frame digital cameras don’t have this limitation (a 24mm wide angle on a full frame digital camera has the angle of view of a 24mm on a film camera), but high resolution cameras like the D800 and above (with 36 Megapixel sensors at least) are extremely demanding for the lens and for the photographer (focusing has to be perfect, and no shake is permitted) and mounting an old manual focus lens deprived of vibration reduction on such a camera is not necessarily a great idea.
The D700, on the other hand, is compatible with all Nikon lenses made after 1977 (and with older pre-AI lenses if they were retro-fitted with an AI compatible aperture ring) – and its 12 Megapixel sensor is not going to make older lenses look too bad.
With the exception of the very recent AF-P lenses, almost all autofocus lenses are supported on the D700 (there are as always a few minor restrictions here and there). Manual lenses can only be operated in Aperture Priority or Manual (semi-auto-exposure) modes: they don’t have the micro chip and the data bus of their auto-focus siblings, but the photographer can enter a simple description of the lens (focal length, wider aperture) through the configuration menus of the camera to make matrix metering more accurate.
Contrarily to the Nikon FM, F3, F4 and the recent Df, the D700 is not designed to support unmodifed pre-AI lenses (the original Nikon F lenses that have not been modified to support Aperture Indexing).
Compatibility with other accessories
In a typical Nikon way, the D700 can use the same accessories as bodies of current and previous generations, provided they’re in the same class of “prosumer” and professional equipment: it has the same 10 pin connector as a N90 of 1992 or as a D800, and accepts the wired remote trigger release of the N90, but it has no infrared port and can not be used with the remote control of a D80 (which is a more consumer oriented camera).
Same for the correction eyepieces and other viewfinder related accessories – they can be shared with other current and past “high-end” Nikons, but not with the “consumer” product line.
On the second hand market, the D700 sits between the Canon 5d, which can be had for as little as $250 (USd), and the Nikon D3, which is still far above $500. Its price is to a large extent related to the number of shutter actuations – a copy with hundreds of thousands of actuations will sell for approximately $400 – while a copy pampered by an amateur shooting only a few thousand pictures per year will sell above $600.
The D700 has no known weak point – the rubber grips just tend to come off over time and have to be replaced with new ones. Nikon US do not seem to have them in their inventory anymore. A few Nikon authorized resellers still have them and will make you pay dearly for them, but Chinese made knock offs abound on eBay.
A follow up to this blog entry: The Nikon D700 as an everyday digital camera
More about the D700
Popular Photography’s “most important digital cameras of all time”
Nikon Lens Compatibility chart: Nikon Lens Compatibility
Interesting reviews of the D700