Nikon D700 camera user experience report
Part three: Image quality

Compared with what we had in the domain of relatively affordable digital imaging prior to introduction of the D700 (well, D3, actually), image quality produced by the Nikon D700 is nothing short of astounding. You most likely have already read about amazing high ISO performance of the camera, so let's deal with this aspect of image quality first.


The test photograph above was taken at ISO settings from 200 to 25600 and the crops below are 100% magnification of the part of the image marked with the yellow rectangle. To begin with, I did my share of pixel–peeping examining the files at different ISO settings on my computer screen. To see the real impact of noise on photographs, however, I also printed the picture at printing resolutions of 300 and 360 dpi at each ISO setting and then carefully examined the prints. The crops below can give you a fairly good idea as to the camera's high ISO noise performance; in all instances, no sharpening or noise reduction (both colour and luminance) was applied. My observations below, however, are primarily based on scrutinizing the test prints.

Nikon D700 noise at ISO200

Nikon D700 noise at ISO400

Nikon D700 noise at ISO640

Nikon D700 noise at ISO800

Nikon D700 noise at ISO1250

Nikon D700 noise at ISO1600

Nikon D700 noise at ISO2000

Nikon D700 noise at ISO2500

Nikon D700 noise at ISO3200

Nikon D700 noise at ISO4000

Nikon D700 noise at ISO5000

Nikon D700 noise at ISO6400

Nikon D700 noise at ISO12800

Nikon D700 noise at ISO25600

For all intents and purposes the camera performs equally well from ISO200 up to about ISO1250, i.e. prints at these ISO settings are equally outstanding. From thereon in problems with image quality begin to gradually become noticeable and progressively accumulate—noise starts being seen in prints at close examination, dynamic range begins to shrink and fine detail starts being lost to noise.

At ISO3200, for example, noise is noticeable in prints but not too obtrusive. If you remove colour noise in, say, Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), luminance noise remains perceptible in photographs but it gives them a sense of texture rather than noise and is far from objectionable. I find this ISO setting perfectly usable.

At ISO6400 we see more of what we observe at ISO3200. Here, noise starts bordering on the domain of intolerability (but to a certain extent can be dealt with in post–processing) and fine detail is noticeably impaired; nonetheless, this ISO setting is still quite practical.

Finally, I personally avoid using ISO12800 and ISO25600.

Low noise at high ISO settings, however, is not the only aspect that makes the D700 special and you will appreciate. Also of massive importance is that dynamic range captured by the camera's sensor is remarkably wide. In the beginning this might not be obvious if you only look at JPG files or when you open an image in ACR—the camera seems to apply a rather aggressive tone curve to captured images by default and lost highlight and/or shadow detail might be seen fairly often. Steep tone curves, however, are usually applied to produce more pleasantly looking JPG files and RAW data actually contains much more information than it seems—indeed, with the D700 RAW files you can recover a lot of highlight and shadow detail. The image below is one such example.


Processed in ACR

What happened with this picture was that I wanted to shoot wide open to blur the background, the camera apparently maxed out at the shutter speed of 1/8000, the image ended up overexposed and a steep tone curve was then applied. I know that I should have used ISO100 and/or a smaller aperture but things often happen too fast in the field to have time to make necessary adjustments. Had I shot in JPG, the image would have been ruined. Opened at default settings in ACR, it appears unrecoverable, too. However, careful processing in ACR reveals that none of the information was lost and the image is perfectly recoverable. In short, images produced by the D700 where I find dynamic range insufficient are few and far between.

Then there is also the matter of how far image files can be pushed while processing them in RAW converting software as well as in post–processing. While this aspect is very difficult or impossible to quantify, I find that images can be stretched to a very impressive degree before they start falling apart. And if you choose to shoot in 14–bit mode, then this, at least to a certain extent, is even more so.

To recap, put the incredible performance at high ISO settings, ample dynamic range and considerable stretch–ability of image files together and what you get is, indeed, state–of–the–art image quality in the domain of relatively affordable digital capture. Oh, and what about resolution? This aspect is addressed in the next part of the report.

Part one: Introduction and background

Part two: Ergonomics and handling

Part three: Image quality

Part four: Resolution (12MP vs. medium format film)

Part five: Miscellaneous notes and conclusion