It is hard to see many favouring the D3 over the D700. The D700 packs the same imaging system (sensor & processing) into a smaller, lighter, significantly cheaper body. As a result the housing is smaller too, although this means it is more negative in the water. Additional buoyancy is recommended.
The only significant area that the D700 falls short of the D3 for underwater photography is the viewfinder. On the D3 (and D300) it gives 100% coverage, on the D700 it shows 95% in each direction. I liked the D700 so much I would love to tell you can’t see this difference. But you can. Particularly when shooting a fisheye, these last few percent represent quite a few degrees more of coverage. With a viewfinder as nice as the WS-45, which gives such a perfect view of the corners of the frame, I found it annoying to discover that these weren’t the actual corners. This is far from a deal breaker, but it is important to be aware of it.
The D300 makes stronger case against the D700. There are some who will buy the D700 because they must have a “correct” sized sensor. This is misguided reasoning, particular because DX offers a better range of lenses for underwater photography. The D300 offers better AF coverage and 100% viewfinder against the D700’s better higher ISO performance and slighter sharper AF responses. The D300 is much cheaper too, although in system costs the difference is not that large (D300 and D700 housings will cost about the same).
Decisions are further complicated when we speculate on vapourware. The next arrival seems likely to be a D3X, which if reports are to be believed will slot straight into D3 housings by early 2009. Tests with the 24MP Sony α900 show that these sensors will significantly out resolve the 12MP cameras. But whether you need that resolution is a debate for another time. Nikon released the D700 just 3 months after the D3, and it seems reasonable to expect a D700X could appear at either the same time as the D3X or soon after.
Another intriguing possibility is fitting a D300 in D700 housing with a different back (to accommodate the different position of the viewfinder). The D700 is taller than the D300, so won’t fit in many D300 housings. But housing manufacturers could offer an alternate back for the D700 housing to take the D300. This would allow the photographer to travel with a spare camera, and a French Subal dealer Michael Warren pointed out to me at Antibes, also give each lens you carry two effective focal lengths doubling your options. We shall see if any manufacturers are attracted by this idea.
The D700 is a highly capable camera for underwater photography, offering the same imaging system as the D3 at a cheaper price and in a smaller package. If you want to shoot FX underwater it is the obvious choice. It is bound to be a very popular choice for Nikon users. The Subal housing is an excellent complement to the D700, and kudos to the Austrians for getting this housing to the market so quickly.
Both the D700 and D300 are excellent underwater cameras. If pushed I would conclude that the D300 offers the marginally better system (e.g. 100% viewfinder, Tokina 10-17mm, better AF coverage), irrespective of price, unless you have a bona fide need for high ISO. However, if despite this you choose to go with D700 you would not regret it for a heartbeat.
When I shot the D3 I was full of admiration and respect for its abilities, with the D700 I loved them. There is something intangibly correct about the balance of features of this camera. Throughout the trip I kept referring to it as a sweet camera. I also really valued travelling with a small housing again. I am incredibly tempted to go out and buy one. I can argue why the D300 is probably a marginally better system, but I just want to use the D700 more.
Alexander Mustard (www.amustard.com). 17th November 2008.
Thank you to Peter Rowlands for lending me his Nikon D700 and Subal ND700 for this review. Thanks also to all on board Blue Horizon, especially Neil, Jarret, Andy for lending me kit to improve the scope of this review.
I hope to be testing some other D700 housings in the next few months. I look forward to reporting my findings here.