August 21, 2018

The Switch – Nikon D700

5 minute read


At the beginning of July, I commemorated one year with the Fujifilm X100T. Although it is more targeted and limited than an interchangeable-lens (ILC) camera. I really believe this limitation is a huge boon for learning. The rangefinder-styled camera, with a fast fixed-perspective lens, moves without my conscious intervention to capture a fleeting vision, the same way that a spoonful of soup just rises from my bowl and up to my mouth without really registering in my mind. When I think back to my high school photography, tinkering with my father’s DSLR, that whole affair seems rather crude by comparison. “A more elegant weapon, for a more civilized age,” is an apt comparison between the nimble, even diminutive rangefinder over the overwrought, glass-clad hand-cannon we call the SLR. Only once I freed myself of the concerns of lenses and zooms, and sat down to learn exposure in earnest , could I come back to face the terrible SLR. So when my father offered to lend me his main SLR gear bag for a few weeks, I accepted with trepidation, and lent him my X100 in turn.

Gear

My father picked up an old pro’s kit on the used market a few years ago. The parts I spent most of my time with were the

In 2008, when this kit first hit the market, it was a revelation; even today, in 2018, it still holds up well. Although contemporary DSLR’s have improved low-light performance, greater dynamic range, and other perks of varying value (time lapses, video), they aren’t terribly improved at fundamental shooting.

(As an aside, I was actually tickled that this camera body was featured in a review by Mattias Burling, as he seems to err towards more “hipster” cameras, at least on his video channel.)

I really enjoyed shooting with this kit, and learned a lot. Some of my thoughts are below.

Update: I wrote about my experience using the flash separately here

The experience

The first thing I noticed, when I took this baby out for a drive, was the weight. Walking around with it wasn’t even as painful as lifting it up to shoot. Lens and body weight in at around 4 pounds, and the flash is also about a pound. Compared with my little Fuji, which is barely a pound on its lonesome, these were bordering too egregious to actually use. Nevertheless, I powered through, knowing my time was short.

The second thing I noticed, once I got past the weight, was the performance.

  • The X100 struggles to focus with low light, although its images are fine; the D700 hardly bats an eyelash.
  • Even in ideal lighting, the X100 can sometimes take a couple of seconds to lock focus; the D700 and AF-S Nikkor rarely take more than half a second to do so.
  • The X100 is practically useless for capturing people in serious motion (I have a better hit rate zone focusing); the D700 was born to trap movement in time.

All this raw power liberated me; I felt like once I learned the camera (and several hundred pages of sub-menus about configuring permutations between tracking, metering, and flash) I could trust it to systematically nail any shot. Whether at barbecues, birthdays, on walks, on my commute, around town, or just lounging around the house, the D700 was nearly flawless; for every shot I missed, I had 99 keepers. It felt almost too good; what was missing?

It turns out, the joy . The D700 is an ideal camera for the working professional who needs a dependable tool. Despite inclement conditions and long days, it refuses to quit; it purrs in the hands of a master. But, it was not built to be enjoyable to shoot with. The SLR camera controls, despite all their power, have less immediacy to the photographer, and exposure to the shooting process. The magic lies in auguring the perfect aperture with a handful of tactile clicks along the lens ring, bringing the shutter speed to bear, training the ISO until the exposure is just right, and impressing an image. For me, it simply did not manifest to the when fussing with the PSAM mode dial, ISO button-wheel combination, front aperture scroll wheel, and rear shutter speed dial.

At the end of my time with the camera, I felt like I had undergone an odd reversal as a photographer. I no longer felt like it’d be fun to just toss my camera in my backpack and stroll to work; what works for a compact one-pound camera doesn’t work for a 4 pound kit. But, I never had cause to fear that I’d take pictures for a friend or family member’s events, and miss a shot.

Ultimately, I couldn’t wait to switch back. I learned so much, and had my eyes opened, but felt like my joy had been stolen. I needed to have a fun camera again, even though I knew what was out there was more technically capable than what I used. (Granted, it’s not really fair to compare a professional full-frame DSLR and lens with what’s essentially a glorified crop-sensor enthusiast point-and-shoot, but I already did it, and you already read this far.)

Takeaways

I see now why many photographers have separate kits for pleasure and for work. The professional workhorses may be reliable, consistent, and performant, but they’re a hassle to schlep around, and don’t have as much character as one might want. But it’s also not really feasible to press an enthusiast throwback camera into full service photography (at least not mine).

At my first photography anniversary, I’d ruminated about whether I should acquire an interchangeable-lens camera. I’m not really any more convinced today than I was then; although I definitely see the utility in having such a camera (mostly for events/portraiture, methinks), I don’t think that the gains from having an extra camera or two justifies doubling-down on my investment (especially since I don’t do commercial work).

But yet…

© Jeff Rabinowitz, 2019