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Current Disscusion -- Nikon D7000


In the early days of digital SLR cameras, the camera bodies used to be very expensive. I still recall that in the summer of 1999, my wife and I walked into B&H’s digital department, and a sales associate suggested a $15K Kodak DSLR converted from a Nikon film camera. After a few years, the major price break through finally came in late 2003/early 2004 when the Canon Digital Rebel and Nikon D70 broke the $1000 barrier, and suddenly DSLRs simply took off. After barely a year in production, the D70 sold over one million units and became the best-selling Nikon SLR ever at that time.

Since the introduction of the D70, Nikon has been updating that product line every two years, with the D80 in 2006 and D90 in 2008, plus a minor D70S update to the D70 in 2005. Therefore, by the summer of 2010, it was widely expected another update would soon appear. When the D7000 was finally announced in September, 2010, it was surprising that its features are quite a bit stronger than those on the D90, in addition to the usual technological advances after 2 years. In fact, I would say the D7000 is much closer to the higher-end D300S than the D90 below it. It turns out that Nikon indeed classifies the D7000 to be a new category of DSLR, positioned between the D300S and D90. The latter two models remain as current on the Nikon lineup, at least for the time being, although it is clearly that they must be near the end of their respective production cycles.

Key D7000 Features

D7000 Construction and Controls

The body constriction and layout for the D7000 is also a cross between the D300S and D90. The D7000 has a metal chassis and weather sealing; those features are similar to the D300/D300S and D700. When you hold D7000, it feels solid but it is also considerably lighter than its bigger brothers due to its smaller size. Somehow certain people correlate the lighter weight to poor quality, but I don’t think that is the case at all. Once I was photographing some birds and suddenly it start raining heavily. I protected the 500mm lens with my jacket and ran back to the car. The D7000’s surface got quite wet, but after I wiped the water off, everything was fine.

New for Nikon DSLRs, the D7000 has a small lever on the back to engage live view, similar to the D3100 that was announced a month earlier. Once in the live view mode, a press on a dedicated button starts video capture. A second press stops video recording and another pull on the lever stops live view.

Size wide, the D7000 is just a tiny bit bigger than the D90. The D7000 control layout is very similar to those on the D90, although the scene modes are now hidden under a layer of menu. For example, the exposure mode control P, S, A, and M is now on a knob of the top left side of the camera instead of a button next to the shutter release. As a long-time owner of the D300 and D700, it took me a little while to get used to the D7000’s controls. If someone is coming from the D80 and D90, it should look very familiar.

I notice that camera size preference varies drastically. For a lot of “soccer moms” who need to care for a child or two, something of the size of a Nikon D40 and D3100 is very desirable. To them, the D7000 will be somewhat large and heavy. For those who are more used to the D2, D3 or the D700, the D7000 will seem small. If you happen to have a strong preference on camera sizes one way or another, it is best that you play around with a D7000 in your hands first before you decide.



Scene Modes

The D7000 features an extensive list of 19 scene modes, from portrait, sports, child to landscape.

Viewfinder

According to the specifications, the D7000 features a 100% viewfinder. In reality, what that typically means is that the viewfinder covers approximately 97 to 98% of the image area, and the slight crop is well centered. My observation is that the D7000’s viewfinder leaves out thin strips at the top and bottom of the frame, when the camera is in the horizontal orientation. For most photography applications, that is more than accurate enough, as even the top-of-the-line D3 family is off by a similar amount. By my observation, the D7000’s viewfinder covers approximately 97% of the actual image area.

Auto Focus

For the D7000, Nikon has developed a new Multi-CAM 4800 auto-focus module. It is similar to the earlier Multi-CAM 3500 that is widely used on the D300, D700, and D3 family DSLRs, but the higher model number does not imply enhancement. Instead of the Multi-CAM 3500’s 51 AF points, the Multi-CAM 4800 is down to 39, but more importantly, the cross-type AF points are down from 15 to 9, in a 3x3 matrix in the center of the frame.

Since I try to use the more-accurate cross-type AF points as much as possible, the D7000’s lack of them near the top and bottom of the frame changes my focusing practice a bit. I also tested the D7000 capturing birds in flight using my 300mm/f2.8 AF-S lens, thus the on-camera AF motor is irrelevant. The good news is that its AF speed is quite good, not that different from the higher-end D300S, D700, and D3.

The part of the D7000’s auto focus that is greatly improved is the one for live view and video capture, which barely existed before.

Shutter

The D7000 has the quietest shutter among all Nikon DSLRs I have used, even without engaging the quiet mode. The first couple of times I used my D7000, I was not sure whether the shutter had fired or not. Gradually I got used to it. Clearly the D7000’s mirror is very well damped. Similar to most of the recent Nikon models, the D7000 has the Q quiet mode that makes it even quieter, if that is possible.

The D7000’s shutter release is very sensitive. That is an issue I have experienced with the D300 and D3, mainly at the Ch (continuous high), 8 or 9 frames/sec mode. On the D7000, quite often I have unintentionally captured two consecutive frames with one press of the shutter.

The D7000’s shutter is rated for 150K actuations.



RAW Capture

Unlike the higher-end D300, D700, and D3 families DSLRs, the D7000 cannot save RAW captures uncompressed. There are only two compression options: lossless compressed and (lossy) compressed; Nikon refers to the latter as almost lossless. Our experience is that Nikon has excellent compression algorithms such that any compression loss tends to be in the highlight that is typically not visible to humans. In other words, from an image quality point of view, it should be safe to shoot lossy compressed, and the file size is approximately cut in half.

The D7000 also has 12-bit and 14-bit RAW capture options. The difference between the two is very subtle. In certain high-contrast and dim-light satiations, 14-bit capture may provide a bit more fine details in the shadows.

My typical preference is to keep as much information from the capture as possible to maximize the possibilities for future image editing, especially in these days memory cards and hard drive space are dirt cheap such that there is no point save on memory space; it is unwise to prematurely throw away information at the time of image capture. Therefore, my standard settings on the D7000 are lossless compressed and 14-bit RAW capture (again, uncompressed RAW is not available on the D7000). However, the D7000 uses SD memory cards, and even currently the fastest class-10 SDHC cards are still considerably slower than the fastest Compact Flash cards. When I shoot 14-bit lossless, it takes about 2 seconds to write each NEF image file, and the D7000’s RAW buffer is only about 10 frames in that mode. When capturing action images such as sports and wildlife or just children performance, it is very easy to fill up the RAW buffer after a few consecutive captures, and then it is the very annoying 2 seconds for the D7000 to write one frame onto the memory card(s). Memory buffer full was a problem I used to face once in a while with the D2X. After 3 years without such problems with the D300, D300S, D700, and D3, the first day I took the D7000 out to photograph some wading birds, I ran into the buffer full problem over and over. The fact that the D7000’s shutter is very sensitive and sometimes captures extra frames automatically does not help. Later on I switched to lossy compressed RAW; even though I remain at 14-bit, the D7000 can write about 1 frame per second (instead of 2 seconds) due to the greater compression and therefore smaller file size. As a result, it becomes infrequent for me fill up the image buffer, and even when that happens, the D7000’s buffer clears a lot faster.

12-Bit vs. 14-Bit Capture, Low and High-ISO Results

As it is typical between 12-bit and 14-bit captures from previous Nikon DSLRs, the difference on the D7000 is very subtle. At high-ISOs, there may be a bit more detail in the shadows at 14 bit. Overall, I would say the difference is very minor under all situations. In fact, it is typically very difficult to notice.

I have also studied a series of images captured on a tripod with the same lens and same aperture at ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, and 6400; I only varied the shutter speed to accommodate the ISO changes. From ISO 100 to 200, there is only a tiny bit of image degradation and a slight increase in noise; the difference is visible upon close inspection but largely negligible. The two-stop difference between 100 and 400 is still slight but more obvious.

The D7000’s high-ISO capability shows further improvement from the D300/D300S and D90, which previous were among the best among Nikon DX-format. My test results show that up to about ISO 800, the D300 and D7000 are about even. At ISO 1600, the two are still similar in the well lit areas in the frame; however, in the shadows, the D300 clearly shows more noise. By ISO 3200, which is the top rated ISO for the D300, the D7000 has a clear advantage while the D300 is barely acceptable. Beyond that, at its highest rated ISO 6400, the D7000 still provides acceptable results while the D300’s ISO 6400 equivalent is Hi 1, which not surprisingly produces terrible results beyond its rated ISO range.

White Balance

Exposure Bracketing

One of the weaknesses for the D300 and D700 series DSLRs is the lack of a dedicated bracket (BKT) control button. Instead, that functionality can be assigned to one of the Function (Fn) buttons. When I first had my D300, it took me no time to accidentally press the Fn button and engaged auto bracketing unintentionally. It took me a while to find out why my exposure kept changing. I am glad to report that the D7000 has its own dedicated BKT button. However, on the D7000, bracketing is limited to either 2 frames or 3 frames total. The increment can be from 1/3 stop to 2 stops, in 1/3-stop increments. But on the D7000, you can capture at most 3 images with exposure bracketing: normal, 1 over-exposed and 1 under-exposed. On the D300 and D700, you can bracket up to a total of 9 frames, 4 over and 4 under. If you do a lot of high-dynamic-range (HDR) merge, it is definitely more convenient to have more frames in bracketing.

Video Capture

The video feature (in Nikon terminology, it is called the movie mode) has been available since the D90 in 2008. Today, even the lowest-end D3100 has that capability. I have tested video capture on the D5000, D300S, and D3S. Video quality has always been quite good although Nikon only had 720p HD capture before they introduced the D3100 and D7000 in the summer of 2010. Those two new DSLRs both have 1080p HD capability. Additionally, the D7000 is the first Nikon DSLR that has good contrast-detect AF in live view and video modes. The auto focus is still not nearly as fast as the traditional one in the viewfinder mode, but it does a decent job. In particular, its ability to automatically detect human faces and lock focus onto faces works reasonably well, to some degree. Face-detection AF is effective when your subject is facing you directly. However, if the subject moves as his/her head turns sideways, AF can get confused. I have a video segment with an adult and a child sitting across the table from me at a restaurant, and there is another person at another table in the background. When the child was facing me, the D7000 detected the face and focused on him, but when he turned sideways to play with the adult, the D7000 would attempt to focus on the face in the background. When the child turned again facing me, the D7000 focused on him again. I end up with a video clip that keeps on re-focusing between the child and the background. Needless to say, that is very annoying. While face-detection is good technology and has its usage, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

The maximum length of video capture is also increased to 20 minutes on the D7000, up from 10 minutes before. Even though you still cannot capture a long wedding without interrupts in 20 minutes, the D7000 is a lot more flexible.

The weak link in DSLR video capture is still the built-in microphone. For indoors, casual video capture, it can provide decent audio quality; outdoors, it is next to useless. When I mounted my D7000 onto a 500mm/f4 lens to capture a wading bird feeding, the auto focus motor on the lens kept on adjusting focus as the bird moved around. The microphone picked up nothing but the sound from the AF-S motor and wind. For serious audio capture, an external microphone, especially a directional one, is a must.

Memory Cards

The D7000 has dual Secure Digital (SD) memory card slots. Similar to other Nikon DSLRs with dual memory cards, you can set up the two card slots in 1 of 3 modes:

However, video captures can only be recorded on one card at a time. In other words, there is no “backup” up for video.

As I mentioned before, write speed on SD memory cards is still slower than on CF (compact flash) cards. If you are capturing still subjects or casual images, perhaps it makes little difference, but if you are shooting sports or action and need to capture a lot of consecutive frames, it is best to get the faster cards. Now in 2010, even the fastest class-10 SDHC cards are very affordable. Nikon recommends at least class-6 cards for video capture.

Accessories

The MB-D11 has its own set of shutter release, AE-L/AF-L button, main and sub command dials, and mini multi-select pad for the vertical orientation, similar to the MB-D10 (the MB-D10 has the AF-ON button instead of AE-L/AF-L).

If you use the camera in the portrait/vertical orientation frequently or prefer a larger DSLR body, the MB-D11 can be a great fit. I have several large cameras already and prefer to have a smaller D7000 so that I use it as is.

Compared to the Nikon D90 and D300S

As I pointed out earlier, the D7000 is a cross between those two and priced between them. Both the D90 and D300S remain as “current” Nikon cameras for the time being. The D7000’s size and controls are similar to the D90, but its functionalities are similar to those on the D300S. The D300S is largely based on the D300 introduced back in 2007. Therefore the D7000 has the advantages from 3 additional years of technological advances and is superior to the D300S in several important ways, such as high-ISO capability, AF in live view and video modes, and better video capture. However, since the D300S can use CF memory cards, it can capture up to 8 frames/sec with the MB-D10 grip attached and the right type of batteries inside. The D300S’ Multi-CAM 3500 AF module that is shared with the top-of-the-line D3 series is also a bit superior for action photography.

Therefore, for wildlife and sports photography, the D300S still has its advantages over the D7000. It also has a larger body with more dedicated buttons such as AF-ON. The location for the ISO button is at a more convenient location. For people who can wait a bit, it is very likely that Nikon will update the D300S in 2011 with the new electronics in the D7000 so that you can get the best of both worlds, almost certainly at a higher cost.

The D90 remains as a viable consumer DSLR and is now in deep discount. For those who prefer to spend less on the DSLR body and do not require strong AF capability, it is still a good choice.

Feature

D7000

D90

D300S

Sensor (all DX format)

4928×3264, 16.2MP CMOS

4288×2848, 12MP CMOS

4288×2848, 12MP CMOS

ISO Sensitivity

100 – 6400 plus Hi 1 & 2

200 – 3200 plus Hi 1 & Lo 1

200 – 3200 plus Hi 1 & Lo 1

AF System

39 AF points, 9 cross type (Multi-CAM 4800)

11 AF points, 1 cross type (Multi-CAM 1000)

51 AF points, 15 cross type (Multi-CAM 3500)

Built-in AF Motor

yes

yes

yes

Metering with AI/AI-S Lenses w/ no CPU

yes

no

yes

Viewfinder Coverage

100%

95%

100%

Vertical Grip/Battery Pack

MB-D11

MB-D80

MB-D10

Back LCD

3", 920K pixels

3", 920K pixels

3", 920K pixels

Memory Cards

Dual SD

Single SD

Dual CF + SD

Shutter Speeds

30 – 1/8000 sec

30 – 1/4000 sec

30 – 1/8000 sec

Flash Sync

1/250 sec (1/320 sec iTTL)

1/200 sec

1/250 sec (1/320 sec iTTL)

Frame Rate

6 fps

4.5 fps

7 fps native, 8 w/ MB-D10 and appropriate batteries

HD Video

1080p, max 20 minutes

720p, max 10 minutes

720p, max 10 minutes

Battery

EN-EL15

EN-EL3e

EN-EL3e

Weight (w/out battery)

690 g/24 oz

620 g/22 oz

840 g/30 oz

Nikon 10-pin Control

No

No

Yes



Conclusions

The D7000’s main advantages are its high-end features such as dual memory cards, which is only available on current Canon DSLRs that cost $5000 and up, metering with pre-CPU AI/AI-S lenses, and high construction quality.

The D7000 would not be my choice for serious sports and action photography. Its AF system is half a step below the top-of-the-line Nikons, its frame rate tops at 6 per second, very respectable but there are clearly better options, and its memory buffer is somewhat limited. I am sure the D7000 is more than sufficient for parents capturing their children playing soccer and baseball, but for serious sports and wildlife photographers, a high-end DSLR will still make noticeable differences.

Video is gradually becoming an integral part of digital image capture. I am glad to see that Nikon’s video capability is greatly improved on the D7000. 1080p HD is finally available is video AF is quite decent. Similar to other DSLRs, the capability of the built-in microphone is fairly limited.

At a cost just a bit higher than the introductory price for the D70, D80, and D90, the new Nikon D7000 is packed with features and has a high-quality construction. It literally is a cross between Nikon’s top DX-format D300S and the serious consumer D90 with updated technologies. At its US$1200 initial price, I think it is a major bargain. No wonder why it is selling like hot cakes.