A Nikon D700 once occupied the back of my photo cabinet. Born in 2008, it was an object of desire for many photographers. But that’s no longer the case.
The camera was built around a 12-megapixel sensor, the same full-frame chip featured in the flagship D3, but in a more enthusiast-friendly body. The D700 was suitable for capturing the moments of our lives without overstraining a shoulder or the credit card.
Full-frame digital cameras are the sirens of the photography world. Serious amateurs and pros can’t seem to resist their call. The term full frame points directly to their 35 mm film ancestors. It is the approximate size of a piece of film that powered the photography industry for decades.
The allure of this format is understandable. In addition to its technical prowess, you can take a vintage lens from the 1980s, mount it on a digital full-frame camera, and the perspective is the same as it was decades ago, but with the convenience of digital imaging. It just feels right.
Many of the cameras topping today’s headlines are mirrorless versions of this evolving lineage. Now, instead of an optical viewfinder that uses a prism and mirror, we’re composing via an electronic image that’s essentially a small TV housed in a camera body.
As happens so often in technology, we can’t embrace the new without discarding the old. I never understood this, but I’ve witnessed it more than once. Film SLRs such as the Canon AE-1 Program and Nikon FM2 were belles of ball until replaced by Digital SLRs. And now mirrorless designs have made wallflowers of DSLRs.
The D700 and its peers find themselves in a particularly unenviable position, lost between two worlds.
Film cameras are cool again. Young artists want Nikon FMs, FGs, and FAs. Their mechanical design is appealing in this silicon-saturated world. The tactile sensation of turning a shutter speed dial or pulling down the self-timer lever feels good.
But most early 21st century DSLRs lack the physical appeal of their film ancestors. Plus, their internal technology is outdated. The advantage of a film camera is that you can “change its sensor” by loading a roll that suits your needs. Can’t do that with a DSLR. The sensor it’s born with is the one it takes to the grave.
DSLRs are not as hip as film cameras nor as compelling as mirrorless, hence nobody knows what to do with them. They are auctioned off on eBay for cheap or simply sit in the back of the photo cabinet with their lithium batteries trickling down.
This was the reality facing mine a year ago. I was digging around for a lens and caught a glimpse of its prism hump in the darkened corner. I pushed a few items aside to reveal its full presence.
“Still looks pretty good,” I thought.
I reached for it, turned on the power, and took a picture.
“Sounds good as well.”
I cradled the camera with both hands. “What am I going to do with you old friend?” I thought.
I sat the D700 on top of the cabinet and just let it hang out there for a few days. It felt a little bit like taking granny out for some fresh air in her wheelchair. But I didn’t mean it that way. I needed time to think.
I remember reading an article about a lens that appealed to me. It was a Voigtlander 40 mm f/2.0 manual focusing optic. What I liked about it was it featured an old school design with a few modern enhancements.
So yes, I would focus by turning the incredibly smooth scalloped ring and set the aperture by rotating through click-stops, but the lens also had a computer chip and metal contacts so current F-Mount cameras would believe it was a modern optic.
I wanted that lens.
That got my gears turning. What if I changed the focusing screen in the D700 to an older style split-image microprism design that we used in film cameras, then added the Voigtlander? This modification might be the photography version of the movie Cocoon, but instead of senior citizens springing back to life, it would be my fully-charged DSLR ready for action.
I found a suitable focusing screen on eBay and ordered the Voigtlander lens. The revitalization project was underway.
Two weeks later… I was sitting on my back patio with the D700 in my hand. I wanted to take a picture of something, anything. I raised the camera to my eye, and slowly turned the focusing ring until the world snapped into sharpness. I then adjusted the aperture ring to f/2.
This was no mercy kiss. I was in love.
These days, I use the D700 regularly. I have it tethered to my iMac running Capture One Pro software and depend on it for creating product shots for TheFilmCameraShop. The 40 mm Voigtlander is perfect for this task, as is the Nikon itself. I actually look forward to what was once a necessary, but mundane job each week.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m telling you this story. There was a part of me that felt bad when I caught a glimpse of the D700 in the back of the cabinet. Maybe I was projecting on to my own career. I’m not sure.
But I can tell you that we’re both leading productive lives now. And in the future, if anybody ever dares to wheel me out to a sunny patio on a summer morning, they damn well better remember to put the D700 in my lap on the way out the door.