If an all-new 16.2MP sensor camera with 14-bit processing, twin memory card slots, full 1080p HD movies including AF operation, 100% viewfinder and wide ISO range that bases at 100 sounds like the recipe for a new Nikon pro model, you’d be half right. While features like these are likely to figure on Nikon’s next professional body, at the moment that frankly amazing spec is only available on the firm’s new high-end consumer camera, the D7000.
At a street price of around £1000 for body only, it’s pretty much the same price as the semi-pro D300S but is smaller, packs more features in certain key areas and therefore tries to blur the line between the consumer and pro user. And it does that job remarkably well. As a step up from the D90, it’s a total winner. Enthusiast photographers used to the D90 will immediately feel at home with the D7000 and be impressed by its array of new features and spec. Compared to the ageing D90, it’s better built, has faster AF, improved exposure accuracy and much more. It takes the popular D90, brings it bang up to date and gives a big improvement in handling and image quality. Anyone trading up to the D7000 will love its easy menus, cool art filters plus its speed and accuracy. And when it’s time to take full control and switch to manual, nice knobs and buttons make it easy to make changes fast. Job well done, Nikon.
But by pricing it directly against the pro-level D300S, the firm’s top-range camera that uses a cropped-size DX sensor, Nikon now offers semi-pro photographers an interesting choice: to go for the more rugged D300S or the newer D7000.
Where the D300S wins out is pretty much in build quality and weather sealing, more AF points, a faster frame rate and the handling that comes from a bigger, more substantial camera. But in pretty much every other detail, the D7000 scores as high or higher.
The heart of the camera is the new 16.2MP CMOS sensor, currently the most megapixels in any Nikon camera apart from the range-topping D3X at almost five times the price. It’s rumoured the sensor is built by Sony and is similar to the one used in its new SLT-A55. But as with other Sony-supplied sensors used in Nikon cameras, it’s built to Nikon spec and their clever software engineers seem to get better results out of it than the parent company can.
The sensor produces sharp images with lots of detail, especially at the usefully low base ISO of 100. And the new Expeed 2 processor also delivers amazingly good quality JPEGs that come surprisingly close to rivalling RAW files processed through Nikon’s own bundled software. Used with the kit 18-105mm lens, it’s the quality of the glass that starts to degrade image quality far before the sensor. Used with pro lenses, images are very sharp. That’s especially true if using full-frame lenses because the crop-sensor camera only uses the middle part of the image, so any semblance of distortion nastiness is cropped out anyway.
But it’s when light levels drop and ISO has to creep up that the difference in sensor size really starts to show. Nikon championed larger, full-frame sensors with fewer MP on its D3 and D700 pro cameras, claiming that larger photosites on a larger sensor gives less noise. And they were proved right, as the D3 and D700 set totally new standards of high-ISO performance, which a year ago was raised even higher by the stunning D3S.
So have they now reached the holy grail of managing to squeeze in more megapixels – for increased resolution – while not giving up any high ISO performance? In a word, no.
The D7000’s new sensor is impressive at high ISO compared to other crop-sensor cameras. It can even go as high as 25,600 ISO if you really must photograph in the dark. But if you’re used to looking at the results from full-frame Nikon cameras and are in any way a pixel-peeper, you’re going to be slightly disappointed.
Under a full studio-lit setup at ISO 100, the photo is sharp and full of detail but if you look closely shadow areas do start to show some signs of noise that just don’t exist on full frame Nikons. But it’s only noticeable to the trained eye, and under ideal lighting circumstances such as this, the quality is there and you could print out very large prints. As ISO heads upwards to 400 and 800, noise obviously gets worse, compounded by some softening of the image. At 1600, it’s pretty obtrusive for anything other than small prints or web use. If that’s all you need, great.
But if you’re serious about taking great quality images in low light, like indoors at weddings or for sports or photojournalism use, then the D7000 unfortunately isn’t the magic panacea. It’s impressive for a crop-sensor camera, but falls short of full frame at handling noise.
You’re far better off keeping ISO as low as possible and using Nikon’s fastest lenses for ultimate quality. However, Nikon’s fastest pro lenses are predominantly designed for full-frame cameras. The new 24mm f1.4 and 85mm f1.4 offer sublime quality, but become equivalent of longer focal lengths when on the D7000. And they cost more than the camera itself.
To get the same field of view of an 85mm lens, then a 50mm comes close on the D7000 – and is a fraction of the cost, too. However, the depth of field would be different at a given distance, affecting the look of the picture. And not all focal lengths are available in fast glass for crop sensor cameras. There’s no pro Nikon equivalent of the stunning 14-24mm f2.8, for example. However at the longer end, the crop factor gives a bit more reach for telephoto and zoom lenses.
Nikon’s 17-55mm f2.8 is an outstanding DX-specific lens, though. Although it seems Nikon sees its high-end future in full frame cameras and hasn’t unveiled any truly pro-spec DX lenses for a few years. So if you’re going to invest in a D7000 as the start of a system to work professionally, then consider your lens buying choices carefully.
Pro lenses also make the very best of the new autofocus system. It’s not blazing fast when fitted with the kit lens, but slap on pro glass and the AF snaps into frame sharply. There’s a new AF mode button which is right next to the lens. And despite owning loads of Nikon cameras over the years, I had to resort to reading the manual at first as I couldn’t work out how to change from multi AF to single point. Once you know where it is, it’s pretty easy to use. The camera’s AF points, albeit reduced in number from the pro cameras, are nicely spaced out across the viewfinder and even track moving subjects well.
Using the custom menus, I set the AF-L/ AE-L button on the rear of the camera as my main focus button and disable the shutter release from operating the autofocus and always leave the focus mode in AF-C continuous. That way, if I keep my thumb down the camera focuses continuously, but if I release it the focus stays where it is – like a one-shot or manual mode. I do this on all my cameras.
But on the D7000, the placement of the button is not in the easiest position, probably because Nikon has sited the new Live View and Video on/off button right next to it.
It was pretty much the only handling peculiarity I didn’t like. The rest was typical Nikon, which is easy to use and logical. I’m not too keen on the push-button method to zoom in on your images on the LCD screen, as I feel the method on the pro cameras of turning the thumb command wheel a bit more natural. But others will prefer the D7000’s method.
What is completely brilliant is having two card slots, which suits pro working perfectly. You can shoot RAW to one slot and JPEG to the other or make an instant backup – writing the same files to both slots at once. As anyone who has ever lost data off a card on an important job will tell you, this feature is worth its weight in gold. But you’ll probably need to stock up on larger SD memory cards as files from a 16.2MP camera eat up a lot of space.
Other features of real benefit to working professionally include the 1/250th max flash sync speed and the ability to control Nikon’s CLS wireless lighting system. The 920,000-dot screen comes standard with a plastic screen protector, and the shutter has a quiet mode ideal for increased stealth. A new battery gives long life, and there will be an accessory battery grip available soon, to improve handling, add a vertical shutter release button and provide more power. Sadly the camera doesn’t come with Nikon’s regular 10-pin connector, so remote triggering of the camera using a dedicated cable to Pocket Wizard transceiver just isn’t possible.
What wasn’t so great was the auto white balance naturally wanted to warm up scenes, and I found the meter tended to overexpose slightly at times. If you’re working in RAW, this becomes less of an issue then JPEG users at it can be corrected in post processing.
It’s a minor issue in a camera that delivers great results, along with many features pros will find very attractive. The D7000 performs well, handles well and is small and light yet still sturdy.
The video camera Nikon users have been waiting for
It’s no secret that Canon has stolen a march on Nikon when it comes to using its DSLRs as HD video cameras. The full-frame Canos EOS 5D Mark II led the way, and was quickly joined by the crop-sensor 7D complete with variable frame rate and a picture aspect that better suited widescreen TVs. Film makers took the cameras for their amazing image quality, light weight and shallow depth of field to give a true cinematic feel. And when Canon updated its 5D Mark II firmware to make full manual control possible, it gained more momentum.
Using DSLRs as video cameras is a compromise as they don’t offer the full control of proper pro video cameras. But many pro photographers have started offering video to clients as they can use their existing Canon lenses on 5d Mark II and 7D to provide great results, albeit with manual focus only.
Nikon users have been left behind. The D90, D3S and D300S offered video, but not the full HD 1080 video that high end users demand and still with manual focus only during filming.
The D7000 is the first DSLR to offer not only 1080p full HD video, but also offer autofocus while filming is you are using the right lenses. Nikon is suddenly not only back in the game, but attempting to take over.
The quality is superb, and well on par with Canon’s best offerings. The colours also look more natural while Canon’s definitely lean towards red. But the Nikon’s trump card of autofocus during filming is not as great as it may seem, as the AF tends to hunt slightly and the inbuilt microphone picks up the noise of the lens motor as it focuses. An external mic helps.
Canon still holds the top spot with its 7D thanks to its unique variable frame rate, which gives great slow-motion effects despite being at a lower 720 quality. But Nikon users now have a worthy HD video camera of their own. And for that reason, users of Nikon’s pro cameras could do well to invest in a D7000 for its video.
There are three different types of photographers who should be very interested in this camera. The first is someone looking to make their first forays into pro work, trading up from a camera like a D90. To this group, the D7000 is leaps and bounds better in every possible way yet can be just as simple to use.
The second group is those already using Nikon’s semi-pro DX cameras like the D300 or D300S. This type of photographer is likely to have some DX lenses, so the D7000 would give an image quality upgrade but in a less rugged and pro-style package. Chances are, if you’re a pro using a D300S you’re more than likely considering a move up to full frame for its greater high ISO capabilities.
The final group is the committed Nikon pro user, who probably owns a D3 or D700 camera and lots of pro glass, but who is interested in making the step into making commercial video. For this type of user, the D7000 makes sense as it has a small body that can be a backup to their main camera, but one that can be used to make proper high-quality video. It already takes all their lenses, although super-wide may be a problem due to the camera’s DX crop factor.
And if you’re used to looking through a nice big viewfinder from a full frame camera, peering through a DX camera is a bit like looking through a tunnel and you won’t love the ergonomics as much as the bigger cameras. However, you could use the crop to your advantage as a 70-200mm f2.8 lens from a D3 becomes equivalent to a 105-300mm f2.8 on the D7000.
As a backup body used mainly for video, it’s a winner. Shame it doesn’t have variable frame rate like the Canon EOS 7D, though.
8 First published in Photo Professional magazine.