If you haven’t noticed, the internet photography forums are abuzz regarding the question of whether the Nikon D800 should be considered a “true” successor to the D700. Many of these are civil in nature, but there are plenty of examples where passions seem to have gotten the best of some people. While there has been an enormous amount of positive commentary regarding the D800’s features, functionality, and value by many, there are others vehemently denying that the D800 can be considered an upgrade to their beloved D700. To prove their point, they even cite some Nikon representatives that reportedly claim that the D800 is a different kind of camera for a different market and not meant to replace the D700. Nikon’s announcement to continue producing the D700, with a corresponding price reduction to $2,199, has added more fuel to the arguments of those who believe the D700’s successor has yet to arrive. So who is right?
Well … they both are. How can that be? Simple – the D700 user base is not a homogenous group, but consists of users with many varied different photography interests, priorities and budgets. What they all share in common is the need for an entry level, affordable full frame Nikon camera. As such, they are evaluating the D800’s rich feature set next to that of their D700 in light of what they value most. Depending on your priorities, you could view the D800 as the perfect replacement for your D700. Or you could view it as an interesting model, but certainly not the model you have been waiting for.
When the D700 (see Nasim’s Nikon D700 Review) was announced in July of 2008, it was a breakthrough – an entry level full frame camera featuring a rugged Nikon body that looked and felt much like the extremely successful D300, and sported much of the technology of its big brother, the D3. It also included some other goodies such as a pop-up flash, the sensor cleaning system found on the D300, and an affordable grip that could help the D700 achieve 8FPS, with a 20 picture buffer for 14-bit lossless RAW files – all at a price that didn’t break the bank. So professionals and serious amateurs alike flocked to the D700, as it proved to be an excellent primary or backup camera. For $2,999 initially and then $2,699 after it had been available for a while, what was there not to like? (the price of the D700 plunged further down to $2,199 after D800 was announced)
The simple truth however, was that if you were in the market for a full frame Nikon camera, and could not justify a D3/s, you had no other option than the D700. Thus the D700’s user base encompassed a variety of photographers that covered the gamut: architecture, portraits, landscapes, sports, photojournalism, and wildlife. Now that the D800 has been announced, the differences that always existed between the various camps within the D700 user base are becoming much more obvious – and vocal!
It has been no secret that despite their love for the D700, quite a few loyal Nikon shooters focusing primarily on landscapes, architecture, fashion, and portraits, wanted to see an entry level full frame model with more megapixels. Many envied the 21 MP Canon 5D Mark II for its enhanced resolution, cropping options, and price point. Even professionals balked at the notion of paying $8,000 for Nikon’s top of the line D3x, which provided a mere 3MP increase over the 5D Mark II, at approximately 4X the cost. For these D700 users, the D800 easily surpasses the Canon 5D Mark II, the newly announced Canon 5D Mark III, and even the Nikon D3x in many respects, and represents the upgrade they were seeking.
For the fast action wildlife, sports, and photojournalist crowds seeking FPS speed, buffer, and reasonable file sizes (something less than 36MP apparently!) however, they clearly wanted to see a slimmed down D4 in a D700 body, with perhaps some improvement in high ISO capabilities. So while they may admire the D800’s feature set, they don’t see it as being the next generation of the camera they currently own. History tells us that those looking for a more economically priced “baby D4” may have to wait a year from the flagship model’s introduction. Time will tell if D700 users in this camp will have to wait as long.
The D800 also addresses the needs of those that wish to expand their use of high quality video, a market segment that Nikon has been lagging in (some would say ignoring) for some time. Many diehard photographers dismiss video, and have suggested that Nikon eliminate video altogether from the successor of the D700 to reduce cost, since it is not relevant to them. But despite the resistance from some photographers, video is opening up many new exiting opportunities for both professionals and amateurs, and Nikon would be foolish not to be competitive in this segment of the market.
Quality commercials have traditionally cost quite a bit of money to produce and been the bastion of large Madison Avenue advertising budgets. Cameras featuring high quality video now enable just about anyone with a modest budget and some creativity to compete in the advertising arena. If you have any doubts, consider that Jonathan Friedman developed a commercial (“Fluffy” the cat that disappears at the hands… er… paws of the household dog) for Doritos at a whopping cost of … $20. Friedman’s commercial was selected by Doritos to be aired during the 2012 Super Bowl. The associated 30 second airtime in the Super Bowl cost Doritos approximately $3M. The commercial was seen by over 100 million viewers. What did Friedman earn for his $20 investment and creativity? A cool $1 million. Try pulling in that kind of money taking portraits of high school seniors!
With the D800, there is no reason why creative amateurs can’t develop stunning commercials and promotions that compete with the best of the Madison Avenue’s advertising agencies. Videographers with a knack for directing will also be able to produce high quality programs or movies as evidenced by Nikon’s D800 promotional video of the bike riding physician. Some may recall that the final season’s episode of “House” was filmed entirely with a Canon 5D Mark II, a historic event that likely did not go unnoticed by Nikon. The D800 and similar technologies significantly reduce the barriers to entry for those that wish to develop their own content, and enable them to compete with major networks and studios. Nikon was simply not going to yield this potentially burgeoning market to Canon and others, so it was not hard to understand why enhanced video capabilities moved up the D800’s priority list.
I believe some D700 users may soften their stance once they better understand the D800’s 1.2X and 1.5X crop modes. As an example, if you extrapolate the numbers listed in the D800’s technical manual, you will realize that in the 1.2X crop mode, the D800 enables you to capture 25MP images in 14 bit lossless compressed RAW file format at 5FPS with a buffer limit of 23. This would equal the D700’s 5FPS speed (without battery grip) and exceed the buffer limit of the D700 (20) by 3. The D800’s AF system (inherited from the D4), crop modes, FPS, and buffer capacities may prove more than adequate for all but the most demanding situations. These numbers of course haven’t been verified by real world tests and may be influenced by the specific make/model of the CF and SD cards you employ.
Which Nikon users will upgrade to the D800? I suspect the user base will eventually consist of D3X, D3/s, D700, D300, and perhaps even some D7000 users. Along the way, Nikon will likely pick up some current full frame customers of Canon, Sony, and Pentax, and perhaps some currently shooting medium format film or digital. For those seeking high quality video, the D800 will be an extremely attractive alternative compared to the competition. This latter group may include both current DSLR owners as well as those that might have purchased more traditional video equipment.
The “is it or is it not?” debate regarding the D800 being a D700 successor will likely not be settled anytime soon. For many, they couldn’t be happier with the D800’s capabilities and believe it represents the very camera they have been hoping for. But the volume and tone of rhetoric in the photography forums also suggest that perhaps just as many believe Nikon has overlooked their needs and priorities – at least for now. That has to sting a bit, and is likely contributing to the intensity of the discussions. No doubt we will see the level of debates escalate to a new crescendo once the D800 actually hits the streets and test results begin pouring in. As this story unfolds, I will be very interested to see the customer survey data identifying who is upgrading and why. Stay tuned!