The clouds had been threatening all morning, but with a few commissions with tight deadlines for stories on our trip to Phnom Kulen (Mount Kulen) we had no choice but to keep riding through the jungle so I could photograph the ruins of the so-called lost city of Mahendraparvata in northern Cambodia, a few hour’s drive from Siem Reap.
We had bought some heavy duty rain ponchos – not the plastic one dollar ones – and as I finished photographing the carving, above, the heavens opened up. I quickly donned the thick poncho and tucked my camera beneath it for our slippery motorcycle ride to the next set of ruins, flying through mud and puddles at a crazy pace.
Already realising that these photos were probably only going to work in black and white, I was wondering how the hell we were going to tell the newspapers and magazines that things had not gone to schedule due to the rain.
With the wet season having just started, the chances of a dry day again, before the ‘tracks’ (barely living up to the label in most places) became virtually impassable for a few months, were slim.
As we arrived at one of the most significant ruins, the clouds rolled off and the weather quickly changed, and, so I thought, had my luck. Sweaty poncho off, I reached for my favourite trusty Nikon D700, which immediately gave me a memory card error. Then a low battery error. Then nothing.
Given that we had a team of locals here to help us get our photos, I didn’t want to panic or start swearing like a drunken sailor. I calmly changed the battery and memory cards as some kind of offering to my faithful friend that had seen more countries in the last four years than most braggart travel bloggers see in a lifetime.
But the camera was dead as a door nail. Of course, on an assignment like this you always have a backup and I quickly changed lenses and put the dead D700 away. I was too busy for the rest of the day to mourn the loss of something that really was just pieces of circuit board, metal, plastic, and rubber.
That being said, that camera was love at first click. While I have used everything from large format Toyo Views, medium format Mamiyas and Bronicas, 35mm Canons, Pentax cameras, and Nikons, the D700 was the first digital camera that had soul to me.
After using larger pro 35mm cameras for years, the D700 also felt more natural in the hand and was far less conspicuous, which is handy when you don’t want to look like a pro photojournalist.
In many ways it reminded me of my favourite 35mm film camera, the Nikon F100. Pro enough, but smaller, and also way less expensive than the top of the line models.
The most impressive thing about the D700 was the remarkably high ISO capabilities – even when shooting at 3200ISO I loved the way the grain looked, with an almost film-like feel.
It had its faults, however. The viewfinder did not have 100% coverage, meaning that your framing was actually 5% larger than it appeared in the viewfinder. The battery door and memory cards were flimsy. The rubber grip parts fell off the camera in record time. The white balance sometimes went completely kooky.
Also, I realised I wanted video, the viewfinder started to bug me, and the sensor at 12.1 megapixels was seen as a little stingy by some art directors used to cropping the hell out of images made with Canon’s 5D MKII with 21.1 megapixels – nearly twice that of my D700.
But there was something about that camera – the size and the image quality and just the right set of compromises that spoke to me.
Nikon made some good choices with that camera, which is more than I can say for the newer models, with the D600 having too many compromises and the D800 just overkill (36 megapixels) for most users, and not as good a street camera as the D700.
Although that particular D700 has been declared dead and I’ve moved on, it still sits on a shelf at home, having shot a whopping 294,401 images. Even though I know the newer cameras have even better sensors (if not the perfect fit that the D700 had in my hands) I occasionally stick a battery into its battered body and flick the on switch, just in case.
You can never have too many backup cameras, particularly ones that felt they had a little soul. Disappointed with Nikon’s latest offerings – and poor official response to problems with the D600, maybe it’s time I looked at Fuji and fall in love at first click again…