On paper, the new Nikon D800 looks incredibly impressive, boasting the highest resolution FX sensor we've seen from Nikon to date and a price tag to match.
Priced at £2,399.99, anyone wanting to snap up one of these professional-level DSLRs will be making a serious investment, but – before you max out your credit card – consider this: do you really need all of the bells and whistles that adorn the D800, or would your cash be better spent on its predecessor, the Nikon D700?
The Nikon D700 has achieved critical acclaim since its release in July 2008 and has attracted numerous industry awards for its impressive performance and handling. With accolades like the CAMERA GRAND PRIX 2009 Readers Award, numerous top scores in an array of technology magazine reviews and a sustained following among contemporary members of the Nikon photographic community, many professional owners still rate the D700 as a reliable workhorse that continues to meet their exacting standards, in spite of its relative age.
As is the case with the perpetually fast-paced digital camera market, with time comes an inevitable price decrease. Almost four years after its launch, the D700 can presently be picked up for roughly £1,500 online; so if you opted for it over the newer model, you'd save yourself around £900 – give or take. What better excuse to supplement your new purchase with a top-notch lens or one of the latest Speedlights (or two)?
Of course, technology has moved on since the D700 was born, and the D800's inflated price tag reflects the newer, more sophisticated features that it has to offer.
The D700's 12.1mp 36mm x 23.9mm FX sensor blew testers away with its high signal-to-noise ratio and subsequently superb low-light performance, as well as the wide dynamic range and excellent level of detail that it was (still is) capable of capturing.
While this camera arguably remains capable of standing up to the present-day competition in many respects, there are some merits to be gained by investing in the latest model.
Nikon has bestowed a newly-developed CMOS upon the D800 that the manufacturer claims is capable of delivering comparably clean shots at high ISO sensitivities, in spite of the huge increase in resolution that the latest model's 36.3mp FX sensor represents. If this rings true in our tests, then there's no doubt that more than a few Nikon aficionados' heads will be turned by what certainly looks to be a formidable camera.
The sensor's resolution hike also has implications for improved general AF performance and accuracy when putting the camera's 3D Tracking System to work, perhaps making it a more tempting choice for the sort of photographer who often works in fast-paced, action-packed situations.
Of course, it's not all about megapixels: image quality is affected by all manner of different factors – not least the lens that you choose to couple with your DSLR – so the photographer who has invested in the crème-de-la-crème of Nikon's pro-level optics stands to benefit the most from the D800's headline feature.
The inclusion of the manufacturer's latest-generation EXPEED 3 processor assures a snappy performance from the newcomer; although the D700's older processor still delivers a superb handling experience with its fast, accurate AF system and top continuous shooting rate of 5.8fps.
By comparison, the D800 promises a slightly slower rate of 4.6fps – the price you pay for packing those extra pixels onto the sensor. Nonetheless, it's an impressive feat considering the volume of information that has to be processed when recording each of the camera's images, which can deliver images anything up to 7360 x 4912 in resolution, with a single raw file measuring up to 76MB. As a result, you'll need to have plenty of reliable storage space for your files if you choose this model, whereas the D700's comparably more compact files – up to 4,256 x 2,832 - are less demanding in this respect.
Further differences between the two models include an expanded ISO sensitivity range for the D800, with the addition of ISO 100 at the lower end of its native scale (as well as being expandable to include ISO 50 and ISO 25600).
The new camera retains the outstanding 51-point Phase Detect AF system featured in the D700, with all of the same AF modes on offer bar a newly-added Face Detection function. Driven by Nikon's trusty Multi-CAM 3500FX AF system, the module also pledges to deliver better low-light sensitivity, owing to the tweaks that have been made to the AF sensor's algorithms (as with the D4).
Supplementary alterations – like a slightly larger 3.2-inch (compared to the D700's 3-inch) screen and 100% viewfinder coverage (compared to the older model's 95%) – subtly enhance the D800 further, while the addition of Full HD movie capturing capability, complete with stereo sound and dual-format (FX and DX) file recording, is likely to be a bigger deciding factor if you're weighing up the merits of these two contenders.
The latter upgrade – among others - has necessitated a change to the D800's storage card compatibility, with newly-added support for SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards, in addition to the CompactFlash slot that it shares with its predecessor.
With the exception of the slightly enlarged screen, subtly tweaked body shape and the addition of controls relating to bracketing and the new movie mode, there's little difference between the two models in terms of aesthetics and build quality.
Both cameras benefit from a robust, water and dust resistant magnesium alloy outer shell and sport the tried-and-tested comfortable grip and familiar styling that we've grown accustomed to seeing from Nikon's DSLRs.
The D700's metering system continues to put in a consistently accurate performance, with well-exposed images being produced under all manner of lighting conditions. The D800 promises to build on this further, benefitting from Nikon's newly-developed 91,000 pixel RGB metering sensor, which the camera's Advanced Scene Recognition System also utilises when Face Detection is enabled: features that we'll be putting through their paces once we get our hands on a full production sample.
It's clear that both the D700 and D800 – in spite of their age and price differences – have their individual merits as professional DSLRs.
The D800's biggest assets are evidently the more up-to-date technologies that have been developed in the time since the D700's release, making it more likely to appeal to photographers who like to combine stills shooting with movie-making and professionals who demand the very best low-light performance and highest-resolution images – assuming Nikon's claims are borne out in reality.
If your budget can't stretch to bag yourself the latest model however, the D700 still represents an outstanding professional tool that continues to deliver superb results and handling.
If you really must have the latest technology, the D800 certainly looks set to be among the best pro DSLRs that Nikon has produced to date; however if Full HD movies, the soft and hardware tweaks we've mentioned along with huge image files aren't at the top of your list of priorities, then the D700 is a worthy contender that'll make less of a dent in your bank balance to boot.