Some Thoughts on The Nikon D700

In Tokyo

When I was in Tokyo earlier this year on an Asian speaking tour I met a friend for drinks one evening. He is a journalist and knowledgeable observer of the Japanese camera industry. We had a pleasant couple of hours discussing the state of photography in Japan and also a bit about the industry itself.

I had brought a Nikon D300 on the trip with me and when he saw it he asked if I knew the story of Nikon’s recent DSLR resurgence. Apparently, (at least according to my friend) in about 2005 Nikon’s board had a break with the company’s senior management. After some 50 years as a dominant player in the Pro camera market Nikon was losing not only marketshare but also "face", because of Canon’s dominant position in almost every market segment, but particularly with regard to Pro cameras and Nikons lack of a full-frame competitor to Canon 1Ds series. In short – Canon had been cleaning Nikon’s clock, and the board was pissed.

It seems (or so the story went) that the board removed some of Nikon’s more conservative senior management and replaced them with more aggressive "Young Turks", along with a mandate to rebuilt Nikon’s reputation and market position.

By the first half of 2007 the result of that management upheaval was evidenced by the introduction of the D300 and D3, two cameras which positioned Nikon once again at the leading edge of both the prosumer and photojournalist camera markets. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind that there will be a D3x in the months ahead with a 24 megapixel sensor, bringing Canon’s half-decade long dominance of the full-frame and high resolution Pro DSLR market to an end.

Though leaks prior to its July 1 introduction stole a bit of Nikon’s D700 thunder there is no question that this camera fills an ecological niche that few expected Nikon to address, a least not on such a rapid time scale. The D700’s obvious target is the Canon 5D, the only other full-frame DSLR besides Canon’s 1 series. These cameras offer a more traditional sized body than the single digit Canons or Nikons, and a considerably lower price point.

Most interesting though is that the D700 takes away nothing in terms of image quality and little in the way of features from its larger and more expensive sibling, the D3. This is in keeping with Nikon’s long standing approach of not hobbling its lower end models as compared to its top offerings, especially when the items being removed are simply software based and thus not more expensive to include.

Canon on the other hand pretty much tends to do this, removing features from lesser models, even to the extent of actually disabling them in firmware. (A thriving online business has been seen for the past few years, providing "hacks" which allow disabled features to be user-enabled on some Canon models).

Which brings us to two questions: The first is, to what extent will the D700 cannibalize D3 sales? The second is, how will the D700 compare with Canon’s soon-to-be-announced 5D successor?


D700 Vs. D3

As anyone who has read the initial online previews and Nikon’s promotional material knows, the D700 features the same ultra-low-noise 12MP sensor and image processing as the D3. It has similar weather sealing and robust construction, and the design compromises that have been made to reduce its size to that of a traditional SLR are minimal.

The D700 will sell for some US $2,000 less than the D3, a considerable sum, and potentially one that will keep the D3 away from many prosumers. Actual Pros may see the D3 as offering some valuable features over the D700. These include dual card slots, high absolute frame rates, audio note recording, a more rugged shutter, and….hmm, and… frankly not a hell of a lot more. Put on a battery grip when you need it and get a vertical release and 8FPS, and what more is there? Indeed, the D700 ups the ante over the D3 by offering a built-in flash (for some simply a convenient remote flash trigger), sensor shake dust removal, and of course, its big win along with lower price, smaller size and bulk.

All of which causes one to question the wisdom of Nikon bringing the D700 to market so quickly. Of course it will sell more cameras overall, which will help bring down the cost of the large full-frame sensor used in both cameras. This has to be part of the business equation. And challenging Canon in yet another previously reserved market niche has got to put the heat up another notch, particularly when Canon is so close to releasing a 5D upgrade. (Whether or not Canon saw the D700 coming soon enough to react with a competitive offering rather than a simply warmed over 5D remains to be seen).

Commenting on these issues without knowing all of the facts is a form of Monday morning quarterbacking. One just doesn’t have all the information that those actually making the decisions have available, and likely not all of the competitive and business factors are visible. But, it’s still fascinating to discuss, isn’t it?


Nikon D700 Vs. Canon 5D MkII

This analysis is simply speculation on my part. Like everyone else I will have to wait another few weeks till I can test the D700. But, since I own and use both a D3 and a D300 I have some sense of both the D700’s image quality, features and size since the D700 is in some ways an amalgam of these other two.

I also own and have used a Canon 5D extensively for the past few years, so it is very much a known quantity. The 5D is now well past itsbest beforedate, celebrating its third birthday next month, making it past middle aged in DSLR years. One doesn’t have to be prescient to know that a successor model will be announced no later than Photokina in September, and likely sooner.

What will this new camera, whatever it’s called, be like? Well, let me guess. Do you think it’ll have a 3" screen, Live View, sensor shake dust removal and all the other niceties that Canon has introduced on other models during the past few years? Right. I thought so. Sensor size? My guess is 16MP; a step up, but not so much as to threaten the 1Ds MKIII, which is still relatively new. Unlike Nikon, Canon doesn’t typically allow lower end models to challenge its higher end ones.

So – what will the battle of the second born children shape up to be like? If Canon serves us up a warmed over 5D, with just the mandatory upgrades and a slightly higher resolution sensor, then they’ll fall into Nikon’s trap. Without the wide range of advanced features that the D700 (and the D300 for that matter) provide over today’s 5D, Canon will likely come up short. The 5D MKII, or whatever its called, has to be a convincing offering, moving Canon back into a class-leading role.


Some Final Initial Thoughts

Canon has had a bit of a free ride for much of this decade, with its chief rival, Nikon, seemingly asleep at the wheel after its initial success with the D1. But beginning in 2007, with the aforementioned D300 and D3 launch, Nikon is, as I’ve written before,back in the game. But unlike Canon, Nikon is not a mega-billion dollar conglomerate and overall market leader. It’s resources are considerably more finite. Also, likely for this reason, Nikon has not previously attempted to be all things to all people, with models filling every niche in the DSLR ecology.

But, somehow, with the launch of the D700 I think that we are seeing a change of strategy. The top-end models are where the prestige and high margins lie, and the low end is where the volume and cash flow live. The mid-range, is, well, the mid-range, and already nicely filled by Nikon with its class-leading D300.

The 5D’s market segment though is a real niche. It straddles the prosumer / pro market segments, but I think it unlikely that it is either high margin or high volume. For Nikon to enter this arena so soon (just over a half year) after shipping its first full frame Pro offering, and by doing so with a camera which offers all of the image quality and almost all of the features of the D3, at some two thousand dollars less, is either a master-stroke or misguided. At this time I can’t quite figure out which it is, but for photographers it’s a big win, and ultimately that’s what counts the most.


Other Sources

You can download a 24 page, 10MB PDF brochure on the Nikon D700here, read Rob Galbraiths previewhere, and DPReviews previewhere.

July 2, 2008