Fujifilm X-100 – a rangefinder camera for the rest of us?

If like me you’ve used primarily single lens reflex cameras in the time of film, and dSLRs or mirrorless systems after switching to digital, using a rangefinder camera with an optical viewfinder has always been a challenge. I have a Leica CL that I bought second hand a long time ago when I was living a few blocks from an official Leica store (temptation was permanent, I could not resist), but I don’t use it much. Recently, I tried to use a fully restored Canon QL17 (the Canonet GIII, the most sought after model), but in one year I may have taken 20 pictures at the most, and I don’t know how many more months (or years) I’ll need to take the remaining 16 and have the film processed.

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Family Reunion. Fujifilm X100

On the one hand, I like those cameras – they’re compact, silent, and their direct optical viewfinder is easier on the eyes than the focusing screen of the SLRs. Their field of view is greater than the lens in use, and you also see what is going on outside of the frame: it helps me with the composition of the image, and it will help street photographers better anticipate the action.

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Fujifilm X100T – the optical viewfinder – the white frame and the various indications are a digital overlay – you can see the lens hood in the lower right corner of the image.

But it comes at a cost. You have no idea what the depth of field will be like, and if you forget to adjust the focus (which happens to me frequently in the heat of the action), you’ll find out about your mistake when you download your scans, a few weeks too late. There’s a steep learning curve – I find that with a rangefinder camera it’s much more difficult to anticipate what a photo will look like than with an SLR, and in my opinion, a film rangefinder camera has to be used a lot, if you want your success rate to approach what you get with a single lens reflex camera.

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The Fujifilm 100T – the electronic viewfinder – not different from what you get with  millions of mirrorless cameras.

In 2010, Fujifilm tried a new approach – they developed a compact camera, the X100,  with an hybrid viewfinder – that could be switched from a rather conventional direct optical mode, to a more contemporaneous electronic mode (an EVF). Since the camera also had a 2.8 inch LCD display at the back, the photographer could use the camera in three totally different ways: like an auto-focus point and shoot of the film era (with the optical viewfinder), like a simple digicam (composing on the LCD) or like a good mirrorless camera (with the EVF).

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Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade – NYC (2016)- Fujifim X100

The camera looked like a rangefinder camera from the seventies, and was graced with an analog interface (aperture ring, shutter speed knob), but it was a modern inside, with a very good 12 Megapixel APS-C sensor, and the four PASM exposure modes a photographer expects on a digital camera.

I had a X100 for a few years. It was a great camera for casual portraits, family reunions, or impromptu landscape. Being small and almost silent, it did not draw attention. But its auto-focus was extremely slow and incapable of detecting where the subject was without human assistance, and I was still missing too many pictures – as soon as the subject was moving or was not centered, in fact.

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Hotel Hudson, NY – Fujifim X100

So I finally upgraded to the third generation of the model, the X100T (the X100S is the Second, the X100T the Third, the X100F the Fourth…it’s easy) and I finally have a optical viewfinder camera that gives me an good success rate (let’s say 90% of the pictures are correctly exposed and in focus, which is a huge improvement over the 30% success rate I get with the Leica CL).

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Dragon Con 2016 – Atlanta – Fujifilm X100

Apart from the autofocus, the other big difference between the first and the third generation is the sensor – the X100 still has a conventional 12 Megapixel sensor (with the so-called Bayer matrix), while the X100T has a 16 Megapixel sensor with Phase Detection pixels (to accelerate the auto-focus process) and Fujifilm’s patented Trans-X matrix. The X100T is also the first the X100 series to offer the ability to connect over WiFi to transfer images to a smartphone, which is extremely convenient when you travel without a laptop. (*)

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It may look like a small point and shoot from the early seventies – but it’s packed with modern technology. Here, the model T from 2014.

If you use the X100 with the EVF, a recent version (X100S and better) will be reactive enough and provide an experience very similar to what a very light and very compact mirrorless camera with a 35mm fixed focal lens (full frame equivalent) would bring. But the real fun is to use the optical viewfinder.

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Dragon Con 2016 – Atlanta – Fujifilm X100

Like often with optical viewfinders,  the view of the lower right edge of the image is masked by the lens hood, and of course, you never visualize what part of the image will be in focus, and what part will not. But you get the benefit of a clear, un-intermediated view of your subject. Sure, you have to learn – from experience – when you can let the auto-focus and the auto-exposure modes play their magic, and when to take control back from them. There’s a learning curve, but at the end of the curve, lies the reward.

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Where the magic happens – push the lever to switch from the optical viewfinder to the EVF – and back.

How much? 

Of course, the X100 can be bought new – the current model (the X100V) sells for approximately $1,400. Brand new copies of older models can be found for approx. $1,000 (X100 F).

Used models are a bit cheaper, in the $800s for the X100F.

The X100S and the X100T are technically very close, and sell for anything between $450 and $700, depending on condition, on the second hand market.

The first X100 is a sort of classic and sells for approximately $300.00. It’s slow, but it still makes great pictures – if your subject is not too mobile.

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Fujifilm X100T – a “real” shutter speed knob and a “genuine” aperture ring – for when Programmed Auto Exposure is not good enough – Beware: the exposure compensation dial (bottom right) is very soft – it tends to move to + or – territory on its own…

(*) – there is another a difference between the X100S and the X100T – the so-called “electronic rangefinder” of the latter.
  • a clarification first – simple cameras (such as a Kodak Instamatic or the Rollei 35) have a direct optical viewfinder. Its most refined implementation, “the bright-line viewfinder, is essentially an inverted Galilean telescope system with an optically projected rectangle outlining the frame area”. (Encyclopaedia Britannica); they are NOT rangefinder cameras, because they’re missing … the rangefinder.
  • the Leica M is the perfect example of a rangefinder camera. Its direct optical viewfinder is supplemented by a coupled optical telemeter, the rangefinder, which assists with focusing.
  • technically, the X100 and the X100S are NOT rangefinder cameras: they’re cameras with a direct optical viewfinder, supplemented with an electronic auto-focus system (contrast detection for the X100, contrast and phase detection for the X100S).
  • With the X100T (and all following models), the photographer can enable an “electronic rangefinder” if working with the optical viewfinder in manual focus mode – it’s a very small EVF display projected in the bottom right corner of the optical image, that shows an enlarged view of the section of the image that the photographer will focus on. As per Fujifilm, “this makes manual focusing while using the optical viewfinder much easier, and more like a mechanical rangefinder”.

In my opinion, on a Fujifilm X100, it’s more a marketing gimmick than anything else; if you really want to focus manually, switch to the EVF. Interestingly, the “rangefinder emulation” is also available on other Fujifilm X cameras,  (the ones with interchangeable lenses), even those with an EVF and no optical viewfinder.

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Fujifilm X100T – Optical Viewfinder – AF-S mode.
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Fujifilm X100T – EVF (manual focus) with focusing aid set to “Focus Peak Highlight – Red”. There are other options (Standard and Split Image MF Assist modes are also available)
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Fujifilm X100 in manual focus mode – Optical viewfinder with “electronic rangefinder insert”

In the series …. shooting pictures in Atlanta in times of social distancing…. All those places are generally magnets for residents and tourists alike, and would have been packed in normal circumstances.

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Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Little Five Points – Fujifilm X100T
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Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Inman Park – Fujifilm X100T
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Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Centennial Park – Fujifilm X100T
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Atlanta – Memorial Day Week-End – Centennial Park – Fujifilm X100T

 

And now for something completely different: the Fujifilm XQ2

My everyday camera is an iPhone 11 – it’s a smartphone, of course, but it’s also a great camera – really – I like the ultra-wide angle lens (13mm equivalent) and its incredible capacity at making nice portraits or group photos in relatively poor lit scenes. But the iPhone 11 still has a few inherent limitations – its longest focal length is equivalent to a 26mm lens in a 35mm film camera (on the wide side even for a wide-angle, then), and the sensor is so small that even with the best digital signal processing, the best picture enhancement algorithms and a dose of “semantic image analysis”, it’s still not that great when there is really not much light.

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Fujifilm XQ2 with lens and flash extended. The lens covers the same range as a 25-100 zoom on a full frame (135) camera

Enter my latest acquisition, the Fujifilm XQ2, an ultra-compact point and shoot camera launched in 2015. It’s an old camera by digicam standards,  and with a sensor area of 0.58cm2, the XQ2 it’s a sort of tweener. Its sensor is twice the size of the 1/2.3in chip you could find in an entry level digicam, but half the size of the 1 Inch sensor of the current gold standard of ultra-compact digital cameras, the Sony RX100. Using a smaller sensor made the XQ2 smaller (marginally) and cheaper (massively) than the RX100, but took its toll on image quality in poorly lit scenes.

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Relative Size of Image Sensors (courtesy Simon Crisp in new atlas.com) – the Fujifilm XQ2 has a 2/3in sensor – as opposed to the 1/2.5″ sensor of an iPhone

The size of the sensors of small digital cameras is often expressed in Inches. An iPhone 11 has a 1/2.5in sensor, a Sony RX100 has a 1in sensor, and the Fujifilm XQ2 sits in between with a 2/3in sensor.

  • The “Inches” do not represent the actual size of the sensor – the figure is derived from the length of a video tube that would capture an image of a similar size in an old TV camera: for instance, a 1in video tube captures an image with a diagonal of 16mm, so a silicon chip with a 16mm diagonal will be advertised as a 1inch sensor, even if it’s much smaller than one inch in any of its dimensions (*).
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I leave the camera in full automatic mode most of the time (that’s the SR+ position on the mode selector).
  • Obviously, there is more to image quality than the sole sensor size – but all things being equal, any time the area of the sensor doubles, its ability to deliver noise free images at high ISOs improves by the same factor: if a 1in sensor (area of 1.16cm2) delivers noise free images up to 800 ISO, a 4/3rd sensor (area of 2.25cm2) will deliver noise free images up to 1600 ISO.
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The Fujifilm conventional commands.
  • In the grand scheme of things, we’re still in the realm of very small sensors: a so called full frame camera (Sony A7, Canon RF, Nikon D850 or Z6, ..) has a sensor which has 30 times the area of the sensor of an iPhone, and 12 times the area of a 1in sensor.
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Atlanta – Chattahoochee – iPhone 11. Focal length equivalent : 14mm
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Atlanta – paddleboard on the Chattahochee – Fujifilm XQ2 F/4.9. Focal length 25mm (100mm équivalent) – the two images were taken from the same vantage point, a few minutes apart.

 

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Horses at the Vinings Polo field, Atlanta – GA – Apple iPhone 11 – f/1.7 – Digital zoom x 3.5 (equivalent to 91mm)
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Horses at Vinings. Fujifilm XQ2 – f/5.6 – 21mm (equivalent to 85mm) – the two images were taken from the same vantage point, a few minutes apart.

In the real life

I’ve already sang the praise of the iPhone’s camera – it’s truly impressive – in particular when the images are viewed on a smartphone screen. The larger the screen (or the monitor), the less convincing the images, as the effects of the digital zoom (and of aggressive noise reduction) become more visible.  The images are pleasant, but very saturated and borderline loud. [images of the horses above]

The XQ2 (under the standard film simulation mode) delivers more subdued images, closer to the output of a conventional camera. In my experience, the XQ2 manages scenes requiring a high dynamic range better than the iPhone, even if it’s not as good as a camera with an APS-C sensor like the Fujifilm X100T. [pictures of the French Bouledogue taking the sun].

The big difference of course is the focal range of the lens(es). With its ultra-wide angle lens (13mm equivalent on a full frame camera), the iPhone lets you create dramatic landscapes. But its longest focal length is a short 26mm (equivalent), and most of the pictures involve a modicum of digital zoom. Which is costly in terms of image quality.

The XQ2, on the other hand, can zoom optically up to 100mm, which is very useful when you want to isolate a detail, or a human being in a wide landscape, without needing to crop the image.

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Max sleeping. Fujifilm XQ2 – shot at f/4.5 – 15mm focal length (equivalent to 70mm full frame)
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Max. iPhone 11. F/1.7 Digital Zoom x 2.8
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Max – Fujifilm X100T – for comparison – the APS-C sensor of the X100T has a much better dynamic than the tiny sensor of the XQ2 (or the iPhone’s)

The iPhone particularly shines at night – the images it creates are more dramatic than the images of the XQ2 – even if on a large monitor, they show more noise artifacts. In comparison, the XQ2 uses a more aggressive noise reduction algorithm, and the images lack details and have a distinct artificial look

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Long Beach. iPhone 11. F/1.7 40mm équivalent.
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Long Beach. Fujifilm XQ2. F/3.5. 1/8 sec. 3200 iso. 8.7mm focal (equiv to 27mm)
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Long Beach. Fujifilm XQ2. F/2.6 1/10 sec 3200 ISO Focal Length 7mm

As a conclusion

Honestly, at the beginning, I was a bit disappointed with the output of the Fujifilm XQ2. The images shot on an iPhone are more dramatic, more spectacular, almost brash. And the ultra-wide angle lens has no real equivalent in the world of dedicated amateur cameras, and the iPhone’s night landscapes are spectacular. The iPhone’s camera is incredibly easy and intuitive to use, you just have to pinch and point to adjust the framing and the exposure.

Because it’s a conventional camera, the XQ2 is not as easy to use (no touch screen) and its default output is less pleasing, but more in line with the expectations of seasoned photographers, looking less artificial. The camera can be operated with one hand – the iPhone can’t – and proposes more control options.

Practically, the big difference is the reach of the XQ2’s zoom – 100mm vs 26mm (equivalent) on the iPhone. In both cases you can use a digital zoom to bring you closer to the subject, but the quality suffers rapidly . To get to the field of view of  a short tele-photo lens (100mm), the iPhone will have to rely on a 4 x digital zoom and will in fact crop a very small section of the image at the center of the sensor, while the  XQ2 will still use the full 12 Million pixels of its sensor. And if you don’t mind the loss of quality, a 2.5 crop factor will allow the XQ2 to emulate a 250mm lens.

Lastly, and paradoxically for a photographer like me who had been taught that cameras were precious objets to be treated with the utmost care, I would not be afraid to risk the XQ2 in situations where I would not dare expose my phone. On the second hand market, the XQ2 is far less expensive than a new iPhone 11 (by a factor of 5, maybe). It’s also less important for my professional and personal lives than my iPhone – I would be sad to lose it but it would not have the same consequences as losing or destroying my phone.

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Long Beach. The marina. Apple iPhone 11. F/1.7. 1/4 sec. 640 ISO – Digital zoom x 2.2. (56mm equiv)
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Long Beach – Fujifilm XQ2 – f/4.5. 1/8sec 3200 ISO. Focal length: 19mm (equivalent to 76mm)
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It’s a tiny camera – it’s thicker than an iPhone but smaller in the other dimensions. The case is not an original Fujifilm accessory, and it’s not in leather, but it’s convenient.

Will I keep this camera? Yes. Will I use it? Yes.

Because it’s very light and ultra-compact, it’s not a big burden to carry it around.

Of course the iPhone is more convenient – it’s smaller, you always have it with you and it’s the go-to device when you only have 2 seconds to locate a camera and shoot.

But the XQ2 is a real camera, far better than the iPhone at capturing and isolating remote subjects. Because it’s dedicated to the task of taking pictures, its ergonomics make it easier to hold and to set up than a smartphone, and its output is more similar to what a real camera (film or digital) would deliver.

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The WP-XQ1 Underwater housing case.

Last by not least, the availability of an OEM underwater housing, specifically designed for the XQ series, and good for a depth of up to 40m (130 ft), is the cherry on the cake. I don’t know if I will ever dive with it, but it came with the camera and could always be used to protect it  from the rain or mud projections on the surface of the earth.


(*) For the anecdote, this nonsense of expressing the size of a sensor in relation to the length of a video tube from the 1950s is not unique to the photo industry – we’re still using Horse Power (HP) as a unit of power for the engines of our cars because in 1782 James Watt (the inventor of the high pressure steam engine)  had found it convenient to express the capabilities of his machines as an equivalent to a source of  power that everybody had experience with: the horse.


More about sensors: a good overview (written in 2013 but still pertinent):

Camera sensor size guide by Simon Crisp

The iPhone 11 and the power of “computational photography”

Photo and Video have become major differentiators in the world of smartphones – and the three-way competition between Google (Pixel), Samsung (Galaxy) and Apple (iPhone) has led to huge improvements in the last few years. Each new generation is markedly better at making pictures than the previous one.

A few weeks ago, I could not resist any longer, and took advantage of a promotion of my favorite carrier to buy the brand new iPhone 11 for $350.00 – I just had to surrender my old iPhone 7 in exchange. The truth is, I needed more internal storage, but I also wanted to see whether the new camera was as good as promised.

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iPhone 11 – sunset at the pool

And I was not disappointed. The photo section of that thing is incredible. Simply having access to any focal length between the ultra-wide (13mm equiv.) and the wide angle (26mm equiv.) at full resolution, with a digital zoom to bring you a bit closer to the subject if you need it – is literally a game changer: how often have amateurs access to a  13-35mm zoom lens on their full frame digital camera?

Of course, with a 12 Megapixel sensor and a “normal” lens limited to the equivalent of a 26mm wide angle, it can’t beat a medium format digital camera for large prints, or a DSLR with a fast telephoto lens for sports photography. And because of the way Apple has tuned noise reduction and HDR, the pictures are a bit light on contrast to my taste, but that’s nitpicking.

For subjects which are considered “normal” for an amateur photographer: selfies, family shots, portraits, street photography, urban landscapes, interiors, and for the “normal” destination of most of today’s pictures  (instant messaging, social networks, on-line photo galleries, prints up to 11x 8) it’s so good that I doubt I could get better pictures out of camera with any of the digital cameras I own.

Even if I spent big money on the latest and greatest full frame mirrorless camera, bought more lenses, and dedicated a lot of time to practicing and testing in order to seriously step up my technical game, I’m still not sure I would get significantly better results out of camera than what this iPhone gives me effortlessly. (*) (**)

So is the power of “computational photography“…

Very high level, an iPhone takes many different versions of the same shot (just before and just after you press the shutter release), with different focus and exposure settings, and uses artificial intelligence to decompose the image in sections (main human subject, background, sky, …). Each segment of the image is then optimized (exposure, contrast, noise reduction, focus, white balance…) and integrated into the “final picture” presented on the phone’s LCD. They call that “semantic rendering”.

All of this happens in a fraction of a second – the iPhone’s processor is a 64 bit / 6 core chip with a “machine learning accelerator”, and it can process 1 trillion operations per second.

Canon, Nikon and Sony don’t disclose many details about the architecture of the electronics of their top of the line cameras – but I doubt they have anything that even remotely compares to the processing power of the best of the smartphones.

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iPhone 11 presentation – the processing pipeline of an image – segmentation is what’s new.

Ultimately, “amateur photography” is about the pleasure of taking and sharing pictures.  I’ve been so pleased with the iPhone’s pictures that I’ve not used any other camera (digital or film) since I bought it. The novelty will wear off, and at some point, I’m pretty sure I’ll get tired of a “neural engine” making “semantic rendering” decisions for me. I’ll want my pictures to be really mine, not a quilt of segments massaged by an algorithm running on a chip with 8 billion transistors. Maybe I’ll just go back to black and white film, and process the images in a dark closet at home.

In the meantime….

Happy New Year.


Out of the camera pictures taken on the iPhone 11 – minor adjustments in the iPhone’s photo app.

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Florida – Sunset at the pool – iPhone 11

 

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Las Vegas – the Paris – iPhone 11 – with the 13mm equiv. Wide Angle lens

 

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Las Vegas – Night scene (iPhone 11 with optical image stabilization, handheld)
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Las Vegas – Mandalay Bay hotel. Interior Photography – iPhone 11
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Las Vegas – Street Photography – iPhone 11
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iPhone 11 – portrait mode. at night, at the terrace of a restaurant
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Florida – Landscape at sunset – iPhone 11 –

 

(*) Of course, the key restriction here is “out of camera” – with the help of Lightroom, and a set of Lightroom plug-ins, a recent full frame digital with a good set of lenses beats an iPhone – but we’re not in the realm of candid amateur photography anymore.

(**) I don’t do videos. But I’ve read multiple comparative reviews of the iPhone 11 opposed to good mirrorless cameras: for still images, a dedicated camera will ultimately yield better results than Apple’s latest smartphone (think large prints, action photography, …) – but for videos there is no discussion that the iPhone – because it has enough processing power to enhance each individual frame in a real time – is the better widget.


More about Apple and computational photography

https://coolhunting.com/tech/apple-iphone-xs-camera-computational-photography/

https://blog.halide.cam/inside-the-iphone-11-camera-part-1-a-completely-new-camera-28ea5d091071

Thom Hogan’s preferred Nikon “classics”

Thom Hogan has been on the Web forever, it seems. He’s a pro photographer, has a background in marketing and product planning, and he also teaches, I believe. He’s been  publishing very detailed user guides for Nikon cameras for ages, and his collection of Web sites (www.bythom.com; www.dslrbodies.com, www.sansmirror.com) is always an interesting read, not only for users of Nikon equipment, but also for anybody who wants to understand the market forces shaping the photo equipment industry.

A few months ago, Thom wrote a short piece about future Nikon classics (collectible cameras that are still usable and will hold their value in the future): https://dslrbodies.com/newsviews/nikon-2019-news/april-2019-nikon-canon/camera-classics/.

He has much more experience of Nikon cameras than I do, and my tastes have been – at least in part – formed by what I read in his books and Web pages over the years. So I won’t say “I’m right, he’s wrong”. Let’s be honest: if there’s such a thing as being right in photography, the odds that he is are much higher than mine. But sometimes I simply beg to differ.

Film Era:

Thom’s list includes some cameras that grace my personal collection, even if they’re not my preferred in Nikon’s range. The F90/N90 is extremely efficient, but a bit too automatic for me, and the F4 is really too heavy to be used anywhere but in a studio. I never used the F100 or a F5 (too modern for me – I tend to like my film cameras with a conventional user interface – you know, knobs instead of LCDs and control wheels).

Which leaves us with the last entry of his list, the FM3A.

The FM3A is an evolution of the FM2/FE2 cameras, with a dual shutter control mechanism (electronic and mechanic) – which offers the best of what the FM2 (mechanical) and the FE2 (electronic with On the Film TTL flash control) can offer. I don’t own a FM3A, but two of its direct ancestors are at the top of my list: I use my old FM relatively often – because it’s a rugged camera and I know it’s going to work no matter what. The FE2 is a peach (it oozes quality, and it’s so pleasant to use) – one of the  very best film cameras ever.

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Nikon FE2

Digital Era

You can collect “classic” cameras for their beauty and  for their importance in the history of the industry or a brand, but to me, a camera I can’t use to take pictures doesn’t qualify as a classic – it’s at best a “curiosity”.

In my opinion, early digital cameras are not really usable anymore, primarily because of their very limited dynamic range and very low resolution. If I brought one to cover a photo opportunity, I would most probably end the day disappointed and frustrated for having missed what could have been a great shot because of the technical limitations of the camera. Or I would have put it back in the bag, and used an iPhone instead. That’s why there is no early digital camera in my collection.

I recognize the importance of cameras like the D1h or the D100 in the evolution towards modern digital photography, but I will not add them to my collection. On the other hand, I believe that cameras like the D3 and D3X are still perfectly usable, but because they’re so big and heavy, I would ignore them, and buy their little brother,  the D700 instead. Admittedly it’s still a big and heavy camera,  but its performance is still exceptional, and with it I can use all the  Nikon (and Nikon-compatible) lenses I own.

Because I’ve been using Nikon cameras for so long, I find the D700 very intuitive and rewarding to use, and even today, the quality of the pictures that the 12 Mpixel sensor produces is incredible (in particular in low light or high contrast situations).

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Nikon D700 – a classic

It may be too early to add a D850 to a collection of classics, but it will most probably be the last enthusiast / pro DSLR from Nikon – the future is clearly mirrorless. They may launch a D6 for the Olympic Games next year (who knows) but I doubt they will keep on developing the D800 series beyond the D850.


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Atlanta – World of Coke – Nikon D700
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My always available and patient models – the performance of the camera in low light and with multiple light sources of different color temperatures is simply incredible. Nikon D700 – Nikkor 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF – 3200 ISO.

Back to the keyboard…

I have not abandoned this blog – I’ve just been pretty busy lately (a new job, a house renovation going on, and my Netgear ReadyNAS RN104 crashing again – I simply hope I won’t have to restore 2 TeraBytes of images from Amazon Glacier again).

The review of the Canon AT-1 that I published yesterday had been in the works for six months, and there will be more Canon related pages in the coming weeks (I found a restored Canonet QL17 in an antique show – maybe it’s going to make me more comfortable with rangefinder cameras – I brought my old Leica CL back in service to have a point of comparison). I added two old mirrorless (digital) cameras and a strange pancake lens to my Fujifilm arsenal, and I’m trying to spend more time with my favorite SLR, the Nikon FE2 and with Kodak’s Porta 400 film.

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Rottenwood Creek, Atlanta –  Canon AT-1 – Lens Canon FD 24mm f/2.8

So… compact rangefinder cameras, Nikon SLRs and dSLRs, early Fujifilm mirrorless cameras, Kodak film, you’ve got an idea of what I’m working on.

Please come back regularly, or follow my updates on twitter @xtalfu.


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Miami- Wynwood  -Street art – Unknown tourists – Leica CL – Fujicolor 400.

 

The Nikon D700 as an everyday digital camera


I briefly introduced the D700 in a recent post from the perspective of a collector and regular user of Nikon film cameras. Let’s see now how this ten year old dSLR compares with recent mirror-less cameras.

Impressive image quality, impressive white balance, impressive auto-focus

I’m not equipped to test a dSLR, and, honestly, I lack points of comparison. So I will just share a few thoughts.

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The d700 – one button or dial per command – an informative top plate LCD, and hundreds of options in the menus

Firstly, for a photographer used to Nikon dSLRs (I’ve had a D80 as my primary camera for almost 10 years until I switched to a mirrorless system), the D700 is very easy to apprehend.

It’s a conventional motorized auto-focus single lens reflex. There are more knobs, buttons and switches than on an enthusiast camera, the menus offer more options and a much greater level of customization, but the D700 is a camera a nikonist  will feel immediately comfortable with, without having to spend too much time buried in the manuals.

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Nikon D700 – a pro-camera with a very useful built-in flash (it controls Nikon’s cobras remotely)

Secondly, it’s a big and heavy camera. More than three pounds if equipped with a light prime lens or a consumer-grade zoom, almost five if equipped with one of the  f/2.8 wide angle or trans-standard zooms that the pros love to use.

Thirdly, its performance is still impressive for a ten year old camera. Admitedly it’s only a 12 Megapixel camera, but when it comes to overall image quality, dynamic range, white balance, auto-focus speed and exposure accuracy, it still holds its rank compared to recent mirrorless cameras.

The D700 – still the ergonomics of a conventional auto-focus SLR

Use a modern mirror-less camera and a D700 side by side – and it’s immediately obvious that the D700 is much closer to Nikon’s last auto-focus SLRs of the film era than to a Sony A7 series or a Fujifilm X-T2. And I’m not even considering the size.

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An electronic viewfinder (here the Fujifilm X-T1). It shows the picture as “seen” by the image sensor, and as it will be exposed. Information (like the artificial horizon or the histogram) can be overlaid if the photographers so chooses.

Modern mirrorless cameras have been designed to let the photographer not only frame but also visualize the image as it will be exposed directly on the big LCD monitor at the back of the camera, or in a high-resolution electronic viewfinder.

Sony and Fujifilm cameras have a large exposure compensation dial at the right of the top plate, just under the thumb of the photographer –  who can adjust the exposure values based on what is shown on the screen. The LCDs are now good enough to render accurately variations in exposure, contrast and image density  as the photographer plays with the settings, and in difficult lighting situations, it’s extremely helpful. What you see is really what you will get.

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The top plate of a mirror-less camera (Fujifilm x-t1). The exposure correction dial is large, and is easier to get to than the shutter speed knob. Note the Wi-Fi button, absent from the d700.

On the D700, the viewfinder, being optical, can not show the image as it will be exposed. And if the photographer plays with the exposure compensation settings, he will have to take one picture and then play it back to visualize what the corrections did to the images.

The D700 has a Live View mode, but it’s very primitive and can’t help with the exposure. It’s slow and relatively loud (the mirror first has to be lifted to clear the way to the sensor). The lens is locked at full aperture, and changes made to the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation) are not reflected on the LCD, and the depth of field can not be pre-viewed. Lastly, the LCD monitor is fixed, which further limits the usefulness of Live View – it still is difficult (acrobatic) to frame a picture with the camera close to the ground, or above the heads in a crowd.

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Live view 1.0 – it helps when working on a tripod (a detail of the image can be enlarged to facilitate focusing). But the LCD is fixed, and does not show the picture as it will be exposed.

ISO settings

The other difference is what you do with the ISO settings. The best cameras have reached such a performance level (almost no noise up to 6,400 ISO) that they can be left in Auto-ISO mode if the photographer so wishes. Instead of considering the ISO value as a constant and the shutter speed and the aperture as the variables (like in the old film  and early digital days), photographers can – for a given scene – set the aperture and the shutter speed to get the depth of field and the movement freeze they want, and let the camera adjust the ISO value to get to the right exposure. On cameras such the  Fujifilm X-T1 for instance, it is as easy to adjust the ISO value that it is to adjust the shutter speed, if you don’t want to rely on auto ISO. It’s not that the D700 could not be configured to react like a X-T1 (it supports Auto-ISO and you simply have to  press the ISO button on the top plate to  change the sensitivity with the control wheel), but it’s not a natural way to operate the camera.

Compact Flash reader and laptop required

Lastly, I have come to expect from a digital camera that it connects to a smart phone or a tablet over wi-fi, in order to edit and share jPEG pictures on the spot.

The D700 does not support Bluetooth or WiFi natively (it’s a camera from 2008). Eye-Fi cards (memory cards with a built-in wi-fi adapter) don’t exist in the Compact Flash format used by the D700. An  optional Nikon branded adapter is available (Nikon Wireless Transmitter WT-4), but it costs more than what I paid  for the camera. And when laptops have a slot for a memory card, that’s for an SD card, not for a Compact Flash.

For all practical purposes, this D700 will remain tied to a conventional PC  based workflow – and a traveling photographer will have to carry a laptop and a Compact Flash reader in addition to the camera (and find an Internet connection) if he/she wants to edit, publish or backup pictures while on the road.

Focusing with manual focus lenses

The focusing screen does not offer any of the focusing aids of a conventional manual focus camera (no micro-prism, no split image rangefinder), and no other focusing screen  is available from Nikon. When a manual focus lens is mounted on the camera, the auto-focus system is still providing information to the photographer (a green dot in the viewfinder when the lens is focused on the subject), and if the camera is installed on a tripod, you can use Live View and zoom into the image to check if the image will be in  focus. But you don’t have any of the fancy manual focus assist systems (Zebra, Focus Peaking, Digital Image Split) of modern mirror-less cameras.

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With a manual focus lens, the photographer can still chose the focus area (the black rectangle) and the green dot at the left of the LCD display indicates that the picture is on focus. No other focusing aid is available in the viewfinder.

That being said, the focusing screen is luminous, very fine, and the viewfinder is large (it’s a full frame camera, remember): when it comes to coverage and enlargement it sits somewhere between a N90 and a F3 HP. Getting the focus right with a wide-angle or standard lens does not seem too difficult, even without the focus assist modes.

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Nikon D700 – on a digital reflex camera, the photographer will see the image as it comes from the lens, but can not visualize how the sensor and the electronics of the camera will record it before the picture is taken (here with a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF-D mounted on the camera)

Full frame digital – dSLR or mirror-less? 

As I’m writing this article (early 2018), the cheapest way to shoot “full frame” is to use second hand dSLRs such as the Canon 5D or the Nikon D700.

Shooting with conventional dSLRs with an optical viewfinder still has its benefits: the optical viewfinder is much easier on the eyes in bright light, the autofocus of dSLRs is still faster and more reliable, and the battery life far superior. If you compound that with  Nikon’s decades of experience serving the most demanding professional photographers, and a line of auto-focus lenses built over 30 plus years, you understand why their dSLRs still win comparative reviews when opposed to mirrorless cameras (check DPReview‘s end of the year Buying Guides: Nikon D7500 – best camera under $1,500Nikon D750 – best camera under $2,000Nikon D850 – best camera over $2,000).

DPReview may still prefer dSLRs to mirrorless system cameras, but there’s no denying that  mirrorless cameras bring unique advantages: you can use indifferently the electronic viewfinder or the LCD monitor to compose your pictures, and you will visualize how the picture will be exposed before you shoot. I had never used the exposure compensation dial on any camera before,  because I never knew if I had to set it to +.5 or -.5 or whatever to get the exposure I wanted – I simply used to switch the camera to the manual exposure mode. On a mirrorless camera, exposure compensation becomes extremely easy to use because you see what it does in real time, not after the fact.

Although most mirror-less cameras systems have a very rich offering of native lenses, they are also very good bearers of old (manual focus) lenses, and they generally tend to be smaller and lighter than dSLRs.

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Non-CPU lenses (namely manual focus AI and AI-S lenses) can be preconfigured in the camera – the camera will base its matrix metering exposure on the actual focal length and the actual aperture of the lens – which should make it more accurate.
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Nikon D700 – when a manual focus lens is pre-configured in the camera, its actual F aperture value is displayed on the LCD (instead of the number of stops above full aperture).

Nikon and Canon are both widely rumored to be launching full frame mirror-less systems in the coming months. Because they’re late entrants on this market, Nikon and Canon can’t be content with “just average” cameras – you can expect their future mirror-less systems to raise the bar of performance to a level not yet reached by Olympus, Fujifilm or Sony. If they manage to preserve a good level of compatibility with their traditional dSLRs systems, many of their faithful customers will rapidly add one of the  new mirrorless models to their equipment bag. And it’s likely that the DPReview’s Buying Guides will put forward very different winners at the end of this year.

As for the D700,

it’s a very satisfying camera to use. Like the Nikon F3 in the world of film, it’s a unique opportunity for an amateur photographer to shoot with a tool built for professionals, but still of a manageable weight, size and complexity.

I don’t use my F3 that often, but taking pictures with a camera of such a build quality, with such a great viewfinder is an experience I enjoy from time to time. I suspect the D700 will follow the same path – I’ll shoot with a smaller and lighter APS-C mirrorless camera more often – when traveling in particular – but will go back to the D700 when I need to shoot digital, but still want to use my old Nikkor lenses and enjoy the true Nikon SLR experience.


How does a d700 compare with an entry-level APS-C dSLR such as the Nikon d3400, which can be had more or less for the same price? 

  • only  d700s with hundreds of thousands of actuations sell in the same price range as a new d3400. The d700 is a very solid and reliable camera, but buying a used d700 is riskier and could lead to high repair costs.
  • compared to the d3400, the d700 is a large and heavy camera, which will need larger, heavier and much more expensive full frame lenses.
  • the d700 is an old camera – it still requires to be used in a traditional workflow (Compact Flash cards instead of SD cards, no Bluetooth, no WiFi). Not that the d3400 fares particularly well in that regard – it also lacks WiFi, and neither the d700 or the d3400 have an articulated lcd monitor on the back of the body.

On the other hand,

  •  The choice of lenses is  limited on the d3400 (no wide-angle prime lens, only zooms). No such issue with the d700.
  • If you’re planning on using lenses of the film era (AI, AI-S, AF and AF-D lenses), the d700 is also a much better pick: it can meter with any of those lenses, it can auto-focus with conventional “screw-drive” auto-focus lenses, it does not “crop” the image, and its large viewfinder makes manual focusing easier.

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  • regarding image quality, DXOmark, – for what it’s worth – rates a d3400 at 86, and a D700 at 80. Not everybody agrees with their methodology, but in their world  the d3400 with a 24 Megapixel APS-C sensor and a dynamic range of 13.9 EVs is rated higher than a d700 with a full frame 12 Megapixel sensor and a dynamic range of 12.2 EVs. Interestingly, the d700 still leads in the high ISO race – they consider it’s usable up to 2,300 ISO, while a d3400 will peak at only 1,200 ISO. The benefit of the full frame imaging sensor, and of its relatively low pixel density.

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Max – Nikon D700 – Nikon 135mm f/3.5 AI – 1600 ISO – 1/60 sec.

 

Nikon D700 – an everyday camera and a future collectible?

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.

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Nikon D700: the sensor and the user interface of a Nikon Professional camera in a (relatively) compact and light body.

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

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Volkswagen Badge for 100,000 km Source: AlexWoa World of Accessories (eBay)

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.

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Nikon D700 – I had to change the rubber grips – but the overall condition of this camera is remarquable considering it shot 190 pictures every business day for 8 years.

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.

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Nikon D700 – One button for every function, locks on the rings – a true “pro” camera by Nikon’s standards

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:

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Nikon F90X (N90s in North America) next to a D700 – the two cameras are 15 years apart, but they were designed for the same target audience of serious enthusiasts and pros who don’t want or need the very top of Nikon’s Profesionnal line.

Lens Compatibility

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.

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Nikon D700 with Nikon Lens 50mm Series E – Aperture Preferred Auto Exposure and Semi Auto Exposure are offered on AI-S and AI 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.

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Nikon D700 with 55mm f/2.8 Micro Nikkor – as long as the lens supports Aperture Indexing (upgraded pre-AI lenses, and AI, AI-S, AF, AF-D or AF-S lenses) it will work with the camera.

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).

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Nikon D700 (left) next to a F90X from the mid nineties – the remote control connector is still the same.

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.

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The D700 shares the same round viewfinder accessory mount as the other “high-end” Nikon cameras (here a F90X on the right)

How much? 

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

Links:

Popular Photography’s “most important digital cameras of all time

Nikon Lens Compatibility chart: Nikon Lens Compatibility

Interesting reviews of the D700

http://ricksreviews.org/nikon-d700-review-2016-perspective/

https://photographylife.com/reviews/nikon-d700

Through the F Mount: a comparison of the D700 with the D4


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My always available and patient models – the performance of the camera in low light and with multiple light sources of different color temperatures is simply incredible. Nikon D700 – Nikkor 28-70 f/3.5-4.5 AF – 3200 ISO.