Why I Switched from a Canon 5D Mark II to a Nikon D700
Two weeks ago I did something I’ve been wanting to do for at least the last two years. I bought a Nikon D700. Ever since that camera came out I’ve been interested in it. For the longest time I had been a Canon shooter but I was getting more and more frustrated by Canon’s offerings and also my 5D was ticking me off. Unfortunately though, I had a fairly large investment in Canon glass so my curiosity wasn’t enough to justify a wholesale shift. Instead I decided to dip my toe in the Nikon waters and so got a D90, which at the time was a great intro into the world of Nikon. I immediately fell in love and I’ve waxed lyrical about it on numerous occasions so I won’t go into it again. I did miss full frame though, and was still using my 5D although less and less so. When the Mark II came out I ended up getting that, partly because I needed video for a specific job, but partly to give them the benefit of the doubt. I immediately hated it.
On my first test of the camera I was shocked at how noisy the images were at ISO 100. In the shadows, there was horrible banding. These were the little things that don’t make it into reviews for some reason. Anyway, having spent all that expense I tried to make the most of it. I have taken some good images in the intervening time with my 5DII and a couple of video jobs more than paid for it, but I still hated using it. I know some people love the camera, but I’m not one of them. Despite it being a technically better camera I still preferred to shoot with my D90. So finally, I had enough. An opportunity to get the D700 presented itself, so I took it. After two years of lusting I finally took the plunge. After sitting on the Nikon / Canon fence I’ve finally chosen a side and you know what, I couldn’t be happier.
But why now, I hear you ask? It’s widely rumored that the D700 will be replaced at some point in the near future, possibly this year, but almost certainly next. So why would I switch to one now? Why too, considering most other cameras are of a higher resolution, would you choose a camera with a “mere” 12megapixels? Let me address the second imaginary question first. I’ve always believed that there’s more to a product than its specifications on paper, and cameras are no different. Resolution is only one thing that goes into an image, and despite what the marketing people would want you to believe it’s not necessarily the most important. It was actually the fact that the D700 was still a 12 megapixel camera that made me really want to get it right now. You see, I used to own a 5dMark1 before I got the mark 2 and aside from numerous other issues with it, the images did have a certain look. It was very filmic, and not at all digital. That look is gone in the 5DII, replaced with a smeary noise reduced, banding filled blotchy digitalness. Sure you can push it to create great pictures but it lacks that filmic quality of the 5D1. The D700 on the other hand, also has that filmic quality in my opinion, and my fear was that a replacement, like Canon’s, would sacrifice that filmic look for a headline grabbing megapixel count. So in a nutshell, the reason I went with a D700 now is that I wanted to get one before they’re gone.
I know many people love the 5DII, but as I said earlier, I am not one of them. I bought mine and regretted it almost immediately. The two most obvious problems with the 5dII are the noise and the focussing. One of the 5DII’s big selling points was its high ISO capabilities. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, Canon forgot about the performance at normal ISO. The camera is very noisy in the shadows. So much so that it’s virtually impossible to recover any detail from overly crushed shadows. Any detail is lost to banding and noise. And it shows even in properly exposed files that need no adjustment. There just isn’t the definition in the darker areas of the image that there are in files from other cameras.
The D700 on the other hand has great shadow detail. You can recover by about two stops without worrying about noise, but more importantly, the detail in the shadows and dark areas gives an overall impression of much greater contrast. Images look much richer and stronger. It’s ironic, that much of the marketing for the 5DII concentrated on its resolution, but the overall tonality of the images from the D700 give a greater impression of clarity than the higher resolution sensor of the 5DII. Testing might give the canon’s images a technically higher resolution but to the eyes, the images from the D700 look better (in my opinion) Sure, I got some great images out of the 5DII but it required a lot of work, both at shooting time and in post. Images from the D700 jumped out of the screen the first time I loaded them up.
What’s more amazing to me is that I’ve been doing my initial shooting with a cheap Nikon 50mm 1.8. Yet even with this relatively poor lens, the images look better than anything from my 5DII with L-series glass. Even compared to my super sharp Canon Macro lens, images have more oomph. The other big issue is focus. Or, rather lack of it. The Autofocus system in the 5DII has been the subject of much, how shall I put this delicately, “debate”. Some have claimed serious problems with it. Others have argued tooth and nail that it is flawless. Personally, I have found it lacking. I’ve written a blog post on the subject before and I was surprised by the number of comments I got from people with similar issues. The autofocus system on the D700 is streets ahead. The layout of the focus points alone means you have much more scope to focus without having to use the centre point and re-compose (which can itself throw your subject out of focus) I haven’t explored the focus system fully yet but even what I have I’m impressed with.
Instead of going for marketing features or focussing on video, Canon should have concentrated on the areas that people had issue with the 5DI and addressed those rather than making a camera that looked great on paper. Sure the 5DII is selling like hotcakes but that’s primarily because of its video capabilities. But for the photographer, for whom the 5D 1 was such a revolution, the 5DII was a huge let down. Which is why I’m so in love with the D700. The D700 is in many ways what the 5D Mark II should have been. It takes a sensible megapixel count and makes the best possible camera around that. Canon could have made this camera but they chose specs rather than what it would be actually used for. All the issues users wanted addressed from the 5D1 the D700 addresses. It has a far superior autofocus system. It has virtually no shadow noise. It has a viewfinder display you can actually see in anything approaching bright light. It meters accurately and it’s controls are second to none.
I know there are many people out there who are very happy with their 5Ds. This is after all just my take on things. I know posts like this can get peoples tempers raised as Canon and Nikon both have very loyal followers, but at the end of the day I wanted to share my story. If you disagree that's fine, but this is my opinion.
At the end of the day, this sums up my feelings towards the D700: The emotional reaction I feel when viewing images from my new Nikon is the same as that I got when I first started using the 5D1. At the end of the day, photography, for me anyway is about conveying the emotion of a scene, and not just a cold documentary capture. I often felt that the 5d1 had that sense of big emotion from its images, a sense I rarely felt that with the 5DII. Looking at shots from the D700 for the first time was like deja vu only with more oomph.