Well, the wait is (almost) over for the D7100. As someone who skipped the D7000, but went for the D5100 for the more advanced sensor, which I can say now I’m very happy with, it is intriguing to see what is available. I have been watching Nikon’s models keenly ever since I originally got my D300, around 5 years ago. Aside from a slight update in the form of the D300S, which certainly modernised the camera for newcomers, all Nikon’s subsequent pro models have been FX and with the semi-pro D600 it seems to many that there may never be a pro DX again. For reasons I’ll go into below, I disagree, but first of all lets see what makes the D7100 such a great upgrade, which I believe it is.
- 24mp sensor, with AA filter removed. This in itself, used with the right lenses, offers a far more detailed and potentially subtly sharper photo. Whilst we are quite used to getting slightly soft photos from DSLRs due to this filter and then digitally sharpening them, it seems to me much more natural to capture the native sharpness being offered. Removing one more item from the imaging chain gets closer to the native performance and for me, despite the risk of moire (which presumably can be fixed digitally when it occurs, if not so well now, more so in the future.) we have a step in the right direction. 24mp also offers similar detail to the D600 and if not nearly the same high-ISO or dynamic range, apparently more than the 16mp sensors gave.
- D4/D800 level autofocus, using an ‘advanced multi-cam DX3500 module’. I have a similar 51-point DX module being used in my D300, where it is excellent and apparently way better than the unreliable one in the D7000/D600. With the D4 algorithms, this should now have the best AF in any DX camera. Not only that, but the central AF point is usable up to f/8, making teleconverters with lenses like the 70-200mm f/4 useable with a 2X teleconveter and perhaps even the 70-300mm or upcoming 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 with a 1.4x. As someone looking for a lot more reach, this combination is very attractive!
- The fact that the AF is better than the D600’s should raise eyebrows. AF is more important than you might think, especially with higher MP sensors and bright lenses. It will still suffer from the DSLR problems of back/front focus meaning each lens should be optimised, but at least it will make for an effective action camera, (though see below for the proviso with this.)
- There’s a new crop mode, bringing a 1.3x crop (making for a 2x crop from the 35mm perspective), facilitating faster shooting and even better use of all those autofocus points. This will make for more reach, whilst retaining about a 16mp capture. Even with shorter lenses, it does make for varied crops as you take the photo and interestingly enough, these will offer the same crop as m4/3 cameras do. Now a 24mm lens will give you 36mm and a 47mm in one. The effect, combined with the usable teleconverter, may be most dramatic with the 80-400mm VR, assuming it is as good as the price suggests. Out of the camera, you’ll have a 120-600mm lens. Use the 1.3 crop and you get a 156-780mm at 5.6. Ramp it up with a 1.4x teleconverter, which we hope works as advertised and you have a massive 220-1090mm lens. If the AF and VR are effective enough, you now have something quite special for birding or safaris. Or even zoos!
- Better weatherproofing also brings it up to the D300 level. Only the ergonomics are not nearly as good, which means it is still seen as an enthusiast, but not a professional body, something that the relatively low price reflects.
- It brings better video options, with 1080P at 30fps, at a much increased bitrate, also offering stereo mikes, headphone out and uncompressed HDMI out. For anyone into video, this is a step up to the D5200 level and good news indeed.
On the Downside
Almost everything is an improvement, except for the disappointingly smaller, or at least less effective buffer. Presumably, they simply kept the buffer the same size, but raised the file size, but it all means that it can only shoot constantly at it’s full 7fps for 1 second with raw files. 1 second! Anyone getting this for sports or much wildlife shooting suddenly finds themselves with a handicapped camera in their hands. This little ‘gotcha’ is a dealbreaker for many D300(S) users, which presumably is intentional, so we pony up the cash for a ‘true’ D400 in the summer, or whenever. I find it pretty frustrating in itself and it means that, for now at least, the only other Nikon DSLR suitable for fast sports/wildlife shooting is the monstrously-sized and priced D4.
I’m personally on the fence about this being a true dealbreaker (for me). Of course, it is a massive limitation and I can’t stand it when my D300 freezes up from this, though it takes a lot longer to get there. There are some workarounds, though. First of all a fast SDHC card combined with the presumably faster throughput will help clear it a bit faster, though those seconds of pausing even with the fastest cards will seem like an eternity. Then you could always shoot in jpeg and with the crop mode, neither of which is always desirable, but it would raise the available buffer quite a lot, jumping (in fine jpeg) to 33 or 73, respectively, which is a big advance from the paltry 7 or 12 for Raws. This is one of the benefits of the crop mode itself and something we may see more of in high megapixel cameras to come.
Another potential issue is the lack of total modernisation. It seems the sensor is the same as in the D5200, so if the only issue is IQ, people may well just settle for that model. The LCD, though refined with white pixels for brightness, won’t swing down or out, a great convenience I use a lot on my own D5100, especially on a tripod. There is no touchscreen and the reliance on CDAF in live view means it won’t be able to AF very well in that mode, or be used as an LCD-based camera. Something we are used to in DSLRs, perhaps, but a weakness compared to mirrorless systems.
There is the persistent lack of in-body stablisation and of course this is also absent from almost all of Nikon’s prime lenses. This doesn’t just limit the usable shutter-speed, it also necessitates a tripod for video. Having used VR lenses for video hand-held, I know how well they work. It’s true though that sensor-based VR is seldom active for video, but at a time when video is becoming central, it is a bit of a handicap.
Other potential modernisations are buit-in Wi-Fi and GPS, both requiring bulky adaptors which I can’t see too many people buying into and reduce the camer’s vaunted weatherproofing when used, though more carefully designed, smaller door-flaps help a bit here.
Aside from this, there just isn’t all that much that’s new here. It’s a D300 in a smaller body with a better sensor. The sensor, weathrproofing and AF have simply migrated from other models. Yet in a sense, this is always what the D90/D7000 level of camera is all about. A price-sensitive, comprehensive and upper-mid level camera that can be used for a wide variety of photographic tasks. Aside from the crippled buffer, there isn’t much missing from this and it creates an exciting impression. It just doesn’t scream ‘future proof’ the way some of Nikon’s former DSLRs did. Most users will be more than happy with this model, yet I hope the ‘D400’ innovates more, showing us what the future is made of, with features that have us full on anticipation to try them out for the very first time.
This camera shows that DX is not only far from dead, but capable of being very exciting. Even without having any new lenses announced with it, the vast collection of on and off brand ones and the use of FX lenses make for a compelling system. The handicap of a small buffer and cramped ergonomics point to a potential D400 (D9000?) to come in the near future, hopefully with an even better sensor and video capabilities. The D7100 is so comprehensive that it is hard to imagine how the two could be differentiated, but the addition of typically pro features could make the difference.
The elephant in the room is of course the rise of mirrorless. So far Nikon has done little to take it seriously. The 1 series has too small a sensor for many users and this interferes with backwards compatibility. I think in the new Nikon A, with it’s 16mp DX sensor and 28mm equivalent lens, we have Nikon’s first foray in that direction, yet it seems to offer nothing unique other than size. It seems that any serious mirrorless camera from Nikon is years off and that even the early generations of a DX sensor-based mirrorless system will be simplistic. Still, as these will mature into primary systems, Nikon has continued it’s policy of making no new serious lenses for DX. It would be nice if the seemingly inevitable D400 brings any new kit lenses with it, but it seems Nikon still wants such users to invest in an FX system, despite the relatively huge sizes involved.
If this is music to the ears of Sony, Olympus and Panasonic, it should be tempered with the realisation that they still have some way to go to satisfy the needs of the typical pro user, especially when it comes to bright (in terms of bokeh abilities) zooms and also longer lenses. The mirrorless systems strength is still to be found in bright primes and good, convenient zooms. Only when consumers are more willing to consider larger mirrorless lenses that forgo that size advantage, will that change. Which means that DSLRs, love them or loath them, are still the most flexible system cameras around.