I ordered a Nikon D700 along with an SB-900, Nikkor 50 f/1.8 AF-D, Nikkor 28–105 f/3.4–4.5 AF-D, Sigma 180 f/3.5 macro, and Sigma 1.4x TC using the proceeds from my Olympus liquidation sale. This equipment arrived on 31 July 2008. This page gives my impressions after using the camera for a month, which involved several macro photography outings, photographing a wedding, and taking some casual portraits.
The E-3 is ahead of the D700 in several respects
The D700 uses a mixture of buttons, wheels, switches, and rings to control the camera. Things like the metering pattern, autofocus tracking, and focus pattern are configured via switches. You change the mode by moving the switch—simple and fast. The E-3’s controls operate entirely through buttons and wheels. Changing the metering pattern, for example, requires holding down a button and turning a wheel. This isn’t as fast to execute or learn as flipping a switch, but the motions burn themselves into your brain after a few weeks of regular use. The payoff is twofold: settings don’t change when the camera is bumped, unlike the D700’s AF mode, and every single camera setting can be programmed into the E-3 via custom resets. I had custom reset 1 set to aperture priority, ISO 100, image stabilizer on, raw capture, dynamic single target focus, matrix metering, etc. This let me easily revert the camera to a known state by holding down two buttons and turning a dial to trigger the reset. On the D700, bringing the camera back to a known state requires visually inspecting the position of numerous switches and dials. The E-3’s approach takes longer to get used to and requires regular practice, but I think that it’s superior in the long run. Sadly, there are only two custom resets, and you can’t give them names.
Auto-ISO on the D700 isn’t as useful as on the E-3. The problem with the D700 is that you program in a single minimum shutter speed. This is fine with primes but not so hot with zooms. The E-3’s auto-ISO function uses the focal length of the lens to determine the minimum shutter speed, and you can see the ISO change in the viewfinder as you zoom.
The D700’s environmental sealing does not seem as secure as the E-3’s. The flap that covers the USB and other ports on the D700 doesn’t close securely, the CF door simply slides open, and there’s a tiny latch for the battery compartment. Many other items snap closed. The environmental sealing on the E-3 is a work of art. Everything closes securely via locking doors, and protection for the PC sync and other connectors screws into place. There’s a greater overall feeling of solidity. All pro (starting around $500) and top-pro (starting around $1500) lenses in the Olympus lens line-up are also environmentally sealed. Nikon cameras and lenses have admittedly traveled the world and delivered photos in all sorts of extreme conditions, and a cynic would claim that Olympus’s environmental sealing only means that you’re free to snap out-of-focus, noisy pictures in these conditions.
The E-3 has fewer focus points than the D700 (11 vs. 51), but they’re more evenly distributed across the viewfinder. There’s almost always one where you need it. Too bad that none of them work reliably. The D700’s are packed into the center, which makes for more focusing and recomposing, but they work.
It is subjective, but the D700 doesn’t feel quite as good in the hand as the E-3, and fewer of the controls fall naturally under your fingers. This is particularly true with ISO adjustment. The E-3 puts the ISO button near the shutter release where it’s easily reached by your right index finger. It’s a simple matter to hold down this button and adjust the ISO with your thumb while looking through the viewfinder. Nikon puts the ISO button to the left of the prism where you need to move your left hand off the lens to access it. This requires a lot more movement than Olympus’s set-up. Nikon also doesn’t include auto-ISO as one of the ISO settings (it’s the one under ISO 100 on the E-3)—you need to access it through the menu system. The E-3 can even display the color temperature in the viewfinder, which lets you adjust white balance without dropping the camera from eye level. Olympus is well ahead of Nikon in this area.
The E-3 has a built-in IR receiver, which lets you trigger the camera using a $30 RM-1 that’s smaller than a pack of matches. It works well enough for casual use, but it’s not something on which you want to stake your reputation. The receiver is also on the front of the camera. Nikon requires you to buy at least $100 worth of stuff that screws into the 10-pin connector if you want wireless remote capability. Fortunately, custom function D9 plus the self timer does the trick for tripod work.
The D700 has a well-implemented live-preview system that can use either passive AF by flipping the mirror or contrast-detect AF using the sensor. The E-3 only offers passive AF. The D700’s implementation of passive AF feels more responsive due to its vastly superior AF system. I’ve yet to try the contrast-detect mode that Nikon calls tripod mode. Sadly, the D700’s LCD does not pivot like the E-3’s, which makes live preview difficult to use for shooting at odd angles due to glare. The LCD screen has a good viewing angle, but glare often washes out the image. I’m hoping that Giottos releases one of their kick-ass Aegis screen protectors for the D700 soon, as this would help considerably with glare. The E-3 is also smart enough to close the viewfinder shutter when live-preview is enabled to prevent light from entering the camera via the viewfinder and interfering with metering. You need to do this manually on the D700.
The E-3’s in-body image stabilization works well and gave me 2–3 stops of improvement depending on the situation. Nikon relies on image stabilized lenses to do this. It would be nice to have, but I’m hardly missing in-body image stabilization on the my D700 since its lower-noise imaging pipline lets me bump up the ISO 3–4 stops over what I would have dared use on the E-3. This also helps freeze subject motion, something image stabilization doesn’t address. It’s a great feature in the E-3, but I’m not missing it as much as I had expected due to the D700’s amazing high-ISO performance.
The E-3 has a quieter shutter than the D700, and its automatic white balance thoroughly spanks the Nikon’s. You should expect the D700’s automatic white balance to miss the mark by 1000+ K, particularly indoors, while the E-3’s gets close enough, even under tough mixed lighting, that fine-tuning typically isn’t necessary. This may be the result of the E-3’s external white balance sensor. Whatever the case, you need to make friends with the white balance presets and/or an ExpoDisc when shooting a D700.
The D700’s F-mount feels like a clunky throwback to the 1950s compared to the buttery-smooth 4/3 lens mount. Actually, it is a throwback to the 1950s! The F-mount seems more like a guideline than a standard as mixing teleconverters and lenses between manufacturers is a craps shoot. We’re not talking loosing functionality or EXIF data—the parts simply don’t fit together in most cases.
The D700 takes the lead most other things, like reliably delivering sharp, in-focus images
The D700’s image quality is in a completely different league than the E-3’s. Noise on the D700 is about 3 stops less than the E-3, it captures a wider tonal range, and the images look far sharper and more detailed. I don’t think twice about shooting at ISO 1600–3200 in well-lit environment and wouldn't see a problem printing ISO 3200–6400 shots at 16"x20" after some post-processing. ISO 12800 looks adequate for web galleries, small prints, or perhaps larger prints after a B&W conversion. Banding creeps in at ISO 25600—yuck. Regardless of the ISO, images from the E-3 always appeared a bit soft and didn't respond well to sharpening in post-processing. I suspect that this is due to the heavy noise reduction needed even at low ISOs (try decoding E-3 raw files using a high-res raw converter like RPP for a real surprise). Not so with the D700. They're crisp from the get-go and sharpen up additionally if needed. Shadows in E-3 images also always looked noisy, even at ISO 100, and lifting them in post processing mostly amplified noise and reveled banding instead of recovering detail.
The D700 has an amazing AF system. It works beautifully, even in dim light, which was a welcome relief after the inept AF system on my two E-3s (see my E-3 Focus Trouble article). When set to continuous focus mode, the D700 remembers the color of the object under the initial focal point. It then uses that color information to aid in handing off focusing duties to the other 51 AF points as the subject moves around the viewfinder. You can see the active focal point move when it's doing this, like when tracking birds in flight. It's amazing! When set to multi-point mode, the E-3 appears to simply pick the focus point with the most contrast, and it can’t hand off between points like the D700. The D700 also has an in-body focus-assist light for dim light, which is much less annoying than the E-3’s technique of flickering the pop-up flash. Tracking a bride moving down the aisle is no trouble, and the camera will even focus on the texture of drywall in typical indoor lighting at night. It was a struggle to get in-focus pictures with my E-3. It’s hard to capture out-of-focus ones with my D700.
The D700’s sports a gorgeous 3” LCD that offers four times the pixel count of the E-3’s 2.5” LCD: 640x480 vs 320x240. It’s bright, accurate, and appears to have a wider gamut than the E-3’s. Too bad it doesn’t pivot.
I have not yet used the D700’s flash system enough to have a strong opinion on the relative reliabilities of both systems, but Nikon’s system appears better thought out so far. Nikon lets you use an on-camera flash, either the camera’s pop-up flash or an external one, as a wireless controller and a strobe simultaneously. That is, the on-camera flash can both control remote ones and also contribute to the exposure. Olympus requires you to use the pop-up flash to control remote ones, and it can’t contribute to the final exposure. You can’t mount an external Olympus flash on the camera and simultaneously control remote flashes. Nikon’s flashes also give an audible alert when they recharge. The D700’s amazing high-ISO capability also places less demands on the flash, which gives you more reach or faster recycling. The head on the SB900 swivels 180 degrees in either direction, unlike the FL-50R which is limited to 180 degrees one way and 90 degrees the other, which eases bouncing the flash.
The D700 lets you build a custom menu of commonly used items and program the function button to bring up this menu. This is fantastic for quickly accessing settings that are buried in the menu structure. The D700 also offers a detailed battery status monitor that’s displayed continuously on the top LCD. The E-3’s battery status indicator, which only has three states (full, almost dead, and dead), is practically useless. Speaking of batteries, the D700 ships with a charger that fills an empty battery in under two hours. The charger that comes with the E-3 takes about five hours—the BCM-01 quick charger will set you back $80. The D700’s built-in level, which displays in the viewfinder or on the back LCD, is incredibly helpful if you tend to hold the camera crooked like me. It works in both portrait and landscape orientations.
Both camera produce beautiful JPEGs
The E-3’s JPEGs output impressed me compared to the E-500’s. There’s really not that much to be gained shooting raw files with the E-3. The D700 produces similarly wonderfull JPEGs while not suffering from the E-3s noise and slight softness. The D700’s raw files, however, leave an incredible amount of room for adjusting exposure and taming highlights/shadows in post-processing.
For many applications, Olympus is ahead of Nikon in the lens department. Olympus offers a stellar selection of lenses without a dud in the line, and all their pro and top-pro lenses are weather sealed. In contrast, it seems that many of Nikon’s lenses could stand an update for use on FX bodies.
The discontinued Nikkor 28–105 f/3.5–4.5 AF-D, which I purchased with my D700, is Nikon’s closest equivalent to Zuiko’s 14–54 f/2.8–3.5 and 12–60 f/2.8-4.0; you’ll be hard pressed to fnd a positive review of the Nikkor 24–120 f/3.5–5.6 IF-ED AF-S VR. The Nikkor 28–105 is an okay lens but exhibits unattractive bokeh on the long end: points of light get often rendered as doughnuts like with a mirror lens. I ended up buying a Tamron 28-75 f/2.8, which is working beautifully. It’s soft wide open but sharpens up nicely starting at f/4.0.
The Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D is the closest equivalent to the two versions of the Zuiko 50–200 f/2.8–3.5, and most reviews comment on its slow focusing and softening towards the long end. It also does not focus as close as the Zuikos and is not weather sealed.
The Nikkor 24–70 f/2.8G ED AF-S and 14–24 f/2.8G ED AF-S seem equivalent to the Zuiko 14–35 f/2.8 and 7-14 f/4.0 and are also weather sealed. This one is too close to call, particularly since I’ve only briefly taken the 24–70 for a spin and never touched the 14–24.
Nikon has a few versions of their 105 f/2.8 macro that are similar to the Zuiko 50 f/2.0, but they’re not weather sealed and are much larger. The stabilizer in the VR version also doesn’t work at macro distances. Olympus wins again.
The main wins for Nikon, outside of specialty long glass, is the availability of fast primes and third-party support. A Nikkor 50 f/1.8 AF-D costs about $100, and the 50 f/1.4 around $350. The comparable lens for 4/3 is the Panasonic/Leica 25 f/1.4, which costs nearly $1000 if you can find one in stock. Too bad Nikon discontinued their 28 f/1.4 AF-D. Nikon also offers a wide range of fast wide and telephoto primes and specialty lenses with perspective and defocus control. Adding in third-party manufacturers leads to a staggering number of choices: every third-party lens manufacturer makes F-mount lenses.
The D700 has less depth-of-field than the E-3 for the same aperture and field of view lens due to the difference in sensor sizes. This is often positive, as it helps with isolating the subject, but it’s a negative for macro photography where you’re fighting for every millimeter of sharp focus. It also negates two stops of the D700’s low-nose advantage, as you need to close down two stops to get the same depth of field as with the E-3. That is, 50 f/2.8 on E-3 has the same depth-of-field as 100 f/5.6 on the D700. I don’t see many reviewers addressing this fact.
My D700 produces beautiful, in-focus images. Neither of my E-3s could consistently do this, which renders their advantages moot. You can’t frame ergonomics, only results. I’m very pleased with my switch.
Perhaps Olympus will improve the E-3’s noise characteristics and fix its AF issues in the E-4. It took them four years to update the E-1 to the E-3, and I wasn’t about to wait that long. The D700 is giving me great images today! That said, Nikon could learn a few things from Olympus, particularly in the automatic white balance, automatic ISO, control layout, and viewfinder display departments.
Also check out this review of the E-3 by a professional that comes to many of the same conclusions.
The 2x crop factor of the 4/3 sensor yields small, fast telephoto lenses that pack tremendous reach for their physical size. The Zuiko 50–100 f/2.8–3.5 is a perfect example: it’s 1–1.5 stops faster than Nikon’s equivalent 80–400 f/4.0–5.6 despite being significantly smaller and lighter. The downside is that sensor’s physical pixel wells are significantly smaller than those on an APS-C or 35 mm sensors with similar pixel counts. This results in either noisier images or softening and smearing of details when noise reduction is applied. Sadly, a 4/3 sensor will always produce noisier images than a larger sensor with a similar pixel count given equivalent lenses and electronics.
Noise in digital images has much to do with physical limitations and comes from two major sources: shot noise, which dominates in the midtones and highlights, and readout noise, which dominates in the shadows (a third noise source, dark current, is only an issue in multi-second exposures and occurs when the sensor wells fill with thermally created electrons). Shot noise arises from the quantized nature of light and is a function of well size and quantum efficiency, which is the fraction of photons converted into electrons for later readout. Readout noise results from the electronics that convert the electrons captured in the sensor wells into a voltage for the A/D converter. It is also a function of readout speed: a high readout speed results in greater noise due to the increased bandwidth (cameras designed for low noise have low readout speeds).
We’ll likely see quieter electronics that reduce readout noise. Decreasing shot noise requires sensor wells that convert more photons into electrons. This can come from greater efficiency, such as improving overall quantum efficiency, or enlarging the wells to collect more photons in the first place. Any improvement that helps a 4/3 sized sensor will similarly aid 35 mm sensor performance, and the latter will retain the advantages of larger wells. Larger wells also have room to hold more electrons, which improves the dynamic range of the sensor since that value is the ratio of the well capacity to the noise floor.