OK, so it came as no big surprise that I loved the new Nikon D700. How could I be disappointed with a $3,000 professional camera (equipped with a $500 lens), based on the D3 and D300–two models that already wowed me in previous tests?

But there’s so much hype and excitement around the release of this “flagship” camera that it’s easy to have unrealistic expectations. Would this camera be good enough to make even my crummy photography look great? Well, no. I took plenty of lousy shots, but only when I was goofing around in full manual mode, trying things that I wasn’t really sure how to do. In any of the automated or semi-automated modes, photos were fantastic. And when I did shut off the autopilot, the camera gave me more control options than I could ever dream of using.

The D700 is the true “I wish” camera. When the D3 and D300 models appeared last year, probably every photo enthusiast said, “I wish I had all the power of the gargantuan D3 in the (relatively) compact shape of the D300.” Finally, Nikon obliged. The D700 is hefty but luggable at 2.2 pounds, and it has the heart of the 2.7-pound D3, a 12-megapixel “full-frame” sensor that’s about the size of old-time 35-milimeter film. The big sensor gives great wide-angle options, and it soaks in plenty of light—especially because it is divided into only 12 million pixels. Canon’s latest full-frame model, the 1Ds Mark III, has twice as many.

Not surprisingly, the D700 takes great pictures even under miserably dim lighting conditions. Its lowest light sensitivity is ISO 200. Double it to 400 or quintuple it to 800, and you will see no appreciable loss of quality. This range will get your through just about any outdoor shooting (save at night) even on overcast days and in shadows. Indoors, you can go up to ISO 1600, 3200, 6400 and even 25,600. For top-notch photos, 3200 is probably the max. That’s a huge accomplishment for Nikon—a company that just two years ago made cameras that were almost useless indoors (without a flash, that is). And while the higher ISOs can get pretty grainy (looking like charcoal sketches or pointillist paintings at ISO 12,800 and 25,600), they are amazing for one fundamental reason—they allow you to photograph things that you can’t even see with your own eyes.

I didn’t have a rival Canon on-hand for side-by-side tests, but the D700’s low-light photos looked quite impressive against snaps I took with the 1Ds Mark III about six months ago. Photography freaks could analyze the Canon and Nikon photos, pixel-for-pixel, and argue about which camera is better. But the bottom line is: Nikon has closed the low-light performance gap.

Nikon, meanwhile, has always had a strong reputation for color fidelity. The D700 lives up to that. In outdoor shots from around my neighborhood, flowers, foliage and skies came out stunning. And skin tones were gorgeous.

Dynamic range (the ability to capture both darks and lights in the same frame) was also top-notch. I went up against some extremes of brightness on shady Brooklyn streets pierced by brilliant sunbeams, and the D700 took it all in. When the camera wasn’t able to capture the full range at the shutter click, Nikon’s D-Lighting editing effect brought out the highlights with just a few button presses on the back of the camera.

Click here to see an extensive gallery of photos from the Nikon D700, as well as the Canon 1Ds Mark III. The photos are all JPEGs straight from the camera card with no touch-ups, save some occasional cropping and use of D-lighting. (For more photos, you can also see this Flickr gallery I shot.)

OK, I guess there is one “I wish” feature that the D700 doesn’t have: A price that a starving journalist could afford. But I suppose that is really setting an unrealistic expectation for such a powerful camera.

D700 Daylight Shot

Gorgeous skin tones.

D700 Daylight Shot

Great Dynamic range: from the bright outdoors . . .

D700 Daylight Shot

. . . to the dark interior of the restaurant.

D700 Daylight Shot

Great color. Look at that blue sky!

D700 Daylight Shot

More rich colors.

D700 Low Light Shot ( (All shot at aperture f/5.6 and 1/60-second shutter speed.)

Brooklyn Borough Hall
At ISO 6400, you can barely make out the building. This is the best you’ll get from even most professional cameras

D700 Low Light Shot

At ISO 12,800, the building begins to emerge.

D700 Low Light Shot

Sure, ISO 25,600 is rather grainy, but you can see something that is literally invisible to almost any other camera.

D700 Low Light Shot (ISO 4000, f/5.6 aperture, 1/50-second shutter speed)

A dark Brooklyn street corner

D700 Low Light Shot

The same photo after applying D-Lighting. The building in the background emerges, as do the details in the scaffolding over the sidewalk.

Versus the Canon 1Ds Mark III

Of course, Canon is no slouch, either, capturing bright shots of a musician in a dark bar at ISO 1600 (f/2.8 aperture, 1/30-second exposure).

D700 Low Light Shot

. . . or of the bar itself at ISO 3200 (f/5 aperture, 1/25-second shutter).