Nikon D7100 review: A good camera, but not a no-brainer buy

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THE GOOD

The Nikon D7100 is a fast-shooting, well-designed camera that’s comfortable to use.

THE BAD

While the image quality is quite good, it’s not significantly better than that of the D7100’s cheaper sibling, the D5200. And the lack of aperture control in movie mode gets a facepalm.

THE BOTTOM LINE

While it’s still a great prosumer dSLR, the D7100 may only be worth the extra cash if you need a faster Nikon right now.

Despite some high-profile changes in the Nikon D7100, such as a new sensor, updated AF system, and better build quality, this long-overdue update to the Nikon D7000 doesn’t stand out from the crowd as much as it should for the money. Where once the company had to worry only about Canon with respect to advanced amateur SLRs, Pentax and Sony now produce some killer cameras, sturdily built and capable of shooting great photos with great speed. Plus Nikon’s own D5200, while not as fast or as well-built, may be good enough for a lot of folks. Don’t get me wrong — the D7100 is an excellent camera. But with missing capabilities and excellent-but-not-class-leading image quality, it’s not a no-brainer buy.

Image quality

Though it has the same sensor resolution as the D5200, the D7100 uses a new and different sensor that does away with the optical low-pass filter (OLPF), aka antialiasing filter, much like the Pentax K-5 IIs. Dropping the filter is intended to increase the sharpness of the native images without introducing the types of artifacts you get when sharpening in post. The trade-off tends to be increased moire, which the camera can usually address adequately for stills but less so for video. Unlike Pentax, which offers a more traditional OLPF version, Nikon’s putting all its pixels in one basket and offering just the one model — for now, at least. (Not a clue what I’m talking about? Try reading this primer.)

When scrutinized, the images from the D7100 look sharper than the D5200’s, and the extra bit of sharpness helps compensate for noise as the ISO sensitivity rises. That said, nothing about the D7100’s photos noticeably outclasses those of the D5200; they’re similarly good. Despite using the same metering systems, they seem to have slightly different settings, though, as the D7100’s matrix-metered exposures appear a 2/3-stop brighter in our lab tests — that’s better — than those of the D5200. And it does not seem to have the same focus issue in our lab tests that the D7000 did.

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JPEGs look good clean through ISO 400, though at ISO 400 I start to see a tiny bit of softening; they’re good up to about ISO 1600, and potentially usable up through ISO 6400, but as low as ISO 800 you can get better results from raw files (or play with the noise-reduction settings).

Overall, the D7100’s got good dynamic range and tonality, though there isn’t a lot of recoverable detail in the highlights. The default Picture Control does shift the hues a bit and increases contrast till it clips a little more than I like, but the neutral style delivers more-accurate colors without looking flat.

Video looks good, without many of the edge artifacts I expected to see and decent resolvability for 1080p, but with the typical blown-out highlights and crushed blacks (on default settings) that you find with this class of camera. The bigger problem for shooting video is the lack of aperture control — you can control shutter speed and ISO sensitivity only. I’m sure Nikon has a good reason for it, but it’s a really big hole in the camera’s feature set if you care about video.

Performance

The D7100 maintains the excellent performance of the D7000, and it’s about what you’d expect for a $1,200 camera. (Note that though I’ve included the D7000 results in the chart for reference, they’re not directly comparable since our testing methodology has changed since we tested the D7000.) The sensor has improved readout speed over the D7000’s, which Nikon attributes to a more efficient design rather than more output channels, and improved noise reduction in part because of an upgrade to the current Expeed 3 image-processing engine.

The camera powers on and shoots in just under 0.3 second, and typical shot-to-shot time (which in our tests essentially measures shutter lag) runs 0.2 second for either raw or JPEG; that increases to about 0.8 second overall with flash enabled, which is still pretty zippy, but it also varied quite a bit from a low of 0.6 second to a high of 1.9 seconds during testing. Shot lag — the time needed to focus, expose, and shoot — runs approximately 0.4 second in bright conditions and 0.5 second in dim. The lens movement is the bottleneck for shot lag, and the 18-105mm kit lens isn’t terribly fast in that respect.

For single-shot photography in bright light, the D7100 is about on par with the D5200, but earns its price premium for low-light autofocus and continuous shooting. It delivers an excellent 6.3 frames per second for an effectively unlimited number of highest-quality JPEGs (equipped with a 95MBps SD card, at least). I was a little disappointed with the raw burst, which maintains a 5.8fps rate, but only for six shots. Once the buffer’s full, it drops to about 2.9fps.

Nikon made improvements to the contrast (Live View) autofocus to ameliorate that annoying pulsing that appears when focused on a stationary subject during movie shooting, and now it looks rock-steady. It’s also faster than the D7000’s. Improvements Nikon claims to have made to the autofocus system include increasing center-point sensitivity up to f8 (compared with f5.6 for the D7000), a big deal for serious telephoto shooters.

SHOOTING SPEED (IN SECONDS)(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(1) Time to first shot
(2) Raw shot-to-shot time
(3) JPEG shot-to-shot time
(4) Shutter lag (dim light)
(5) Shutter lag (typical)

Canon EOS Rebel T4i

(1) – 0.6

(2) – 0.3

(3) – 0.3

(4) – 0.7

(5) – 0.3

Nikon D7000

(2) – 0.6

(3) – 0.5

(4) – 0.5

(5) – 0.3

Nikon D7100

(1) – 0.3

(2) – 0.2

(3) – 0.2

(4) – 0.5

(5) – 0.4

Canon EOS 6D

(1) – 0.6

(2) – 0.3

(3) – 0.3

(4) – 1.3

(5) – 0.4

Nikon D600

(1) – 0.3

(2) – 0.2

(3) – 0.2

(4) – 0.6

(5) – 0.5

Nikon D5200

(1) – 0.3

(2) – 0.2

(3) – 0.2

(4) – 0.8

(5) – 0.5

TYPICAL CONTINUOUS-SHOOTING SPEED (IN FPS)(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Nikon D7100 : 6.3

Nikon D7000 : 5.7

Nikon D600 : 5.5

Canon EOS Rebel T4i : 5.4

Nikon D5200 : 5.1

Canon EOS 6D : 4.4

Design and features

While there are a few control layout changes — some of which I like, others of which I don’t — overall the D7100 has the same look and feel as the D7000, with a nice grip and solid build quality. However, the new model is of sturdier construction; it’s composed of magnesium alloy and weather-sealed much like the Nikon D300s. Overall, it remains a well-designed camera with a fluid shooting design.

The mode dial sits on the left shoulder of the camera, now with a small center button to prevent accidental mode changes. Options include the usual manual, semimanual, and automatic modes, a special-effects mode with a handful of the usual selections, and a couple of user settings slots. Beneath it is the release mode (drive modes) dial. On the right shoulder are the status display, metering mode and exposure compensation buttons, and a tiny, awkward-to-use movie record button.

The back has the typical Nikon layout as well. White balance, quality, and ISO sensitivity buttons (which double as playback controls) line the left side of the LCD, though now there’s a new i button, distinct from the info button. On the right of the LCD is the big, lockable navigation switch, also used for focus-point selection, and the Live View/Movie Mode toggle switch with the button that invokes it.

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Oddly, the D7100 seems to have one of the more crowded body fronts. At the top and bottom are right-hand-operated programmable buttons; on the left side, in addition to the lens release, are the switch and button for selecting focus mode and options, bracketing button (five frames up to two stops or three frames up to three stops), and button for popping up the flash and setting flash exposure compensation/options.

While the optical aspects of the viewfinder are effectively the same as the D7000’s, the readout now uses an OLED display for higher-contrast text. There’s also an overlay on the bottom and side that depicts off-level tilt to the left or right. Unfortunately, because it’s overlaid on the scene rather than in the display area, it’s hard to see against a dark subject or in dim light.

The LCD is larger and much higher-resolution than before, and sufficiently visible in bright sunlight, but I wish it were articulated.

Canon EOS 7D Nikon D5200 Nikon D7000 Nikon D7100 Pentax K-5 II/IIs Sony Alpha SLT-A77V
Sensor effective resolution 18MP hybrid CMOS
14 bits
24.1MP CMOS
14 bits
16.2MP CMOS
14 bits
24.1MP CMOS
14 bits
16.3MP CMOS
14 bits
24.3MP Exmor HD CMOS
n/a
22.3mm x 14.9mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.6mm x 15.6mm 23.5mm x 15.6mm 23.7mm x 15.7mm 23.5 mm x 15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 – ISO 6400 ISO 100 – ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 100 (exp)/
200 – ISO 3200/6400 (exp)
ISO 100 – ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 80 (exp)/
100 – ISO 12800/
51200 (exp)
ISO 50 (exp)/ 100 – ISO 16000
Burst shooting 7fps
25 raw/130 JPEG
5fps
n/a
6fps
n/a
6fps
(7fps in 1.3x crop mode)
n/a
7fps
8 raw/30 JPEG
8fps
(12fps with fixed exposure)
13 raw/ 14 JPEG
Viewfinder (mag/ effective mag) 100% coverage
1.0x/0.63x
Optical
100% coverage
0.78x/0.52x
Optical
100%
coverage
0.95x/ 0.63x
Optical
100%
coverage
0.94x/0.63x
Optical
100% coverage
0.92x/ 0.61x
Electronic OLED
0.5 inches/2.36 million dots
100% coverage
1.09x/0.73x
Autofocus 19-pt phase-detection AF all cross-type; center cross to f2.8 39-pt phase-detection AF
9 cross- type
(Multi-CAM 4800DX)
39-pt phase-detection AF
9 cross- type
(Multi- CAM 4800DX)
51-pt phase- detection AF
15 cross- type; center to f8 or faster
(Multi-CAM 3500DX)
11-pt phase-detection AF
9 cross- type
(SAFOX X)
19-pt phase-detection AF
11 cross- type
AF sensitivity -0.5 to 18 EV -1 to 19 EV -1 to 19 EV -2 to 19 EV -3 – 18 EV -1 – 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/180 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 x-sync
Shutter durability 150,000 cycles 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 100,000 cycles 150,000 cycles
Metering 63-zone iFCL 2,016-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 1,005-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 2,016-pixel 3D color matrix metering II 77-segment 1,200-zone
Metering sensitivity 1 to 20 EV 0 to 20 EV 0 to 20 EV 0 to 20 EV 0 to 22 EV -2 – 17 EV
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p 1080/60i/ 50i/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/24p/ 25p H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/60i/ 50i/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/ 50p H.264 QuickTime MOV
(60i/50i only in 1.3x crop mode)
1080/25p; 720/30p/ 25p Motion JPEG AVI AVCHD 1080/
60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1,440×1,080/ 30p @ 12Mbps
Audio Mono; mic input Stereo; mic input Mono; mic input Stereo; mic input;headphonejack Mono; mic input Stereo; mic input
Manual aperture and shutter in video Yes Yes Yes Shutter only n/a Yes
Maximum best- quality recording time 4GB/29:59 min 20 min 4GB/20 min 4GB/29:59 min 4GB/25 min 29 min
IS Optical Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift Sensor shift
LCD size 3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3 inches articulated
921,000 dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3.2 inches fixed
1,228,800 dots
3 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3 inches articulated
921,600 dots
Memory slots 1 x CF (UDMA 7) 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC 2 x SDXC 1 x SDXC/ SDHC
(SDXC requires firmware upgrade)
1 x SDXC
Wireless flash Yes No Yes Yes Yes Yes
Battery life (CIPA rating) 800 shots 500 shots 1,050 shots 950 shots 740 shots 470 shots
Size (WHD, inches) 5.8 x 4.4 x 2.9 5.1 x 3.9 x 3.1 5.2 x 4.2 x 3 5.3 x 4.2 x 3 5.2 x 3.8 x 2.9 5.8 x 4.1 x 3.3
Body operating weight (ounces) 35 19.9 27.3 27.3 26.1 (est.) 25.9
Mfr. price $1,599 (body only) $799.95 (body only) $1,350 (body only) $1,199.95 (body only) $1,095.95/
$1,199.95 (body only)
$1,099.99 (body only)
n/a $899.95 (with 18-55mm VR lens) $1,690 (with 18-105mm lens) $1,599.95 (with 18-105mm lens) $1,249.95 (with 18-55mm WR lens)/n/a $1,699.99 (with 16-50mm lens)
n/a $1,099.95 (with 18-105mm lens) $2,049 (with 18-200mm lens) n/a $1,449.95/ n/a (with 18-135mm WR lens) $1,399.99 (with 18-135mm lens)
Release date December 2009 January 2013 October 2010 March 2013 October 2012 October 2011

Nikon has also added a useful spot-white-balance feature, available only in Live View mode. With this you can select a white point in the scene to set the white balance with one click. Other tweaked features include a two-shot, tripod-free automatic HDR that works well for bringing out midtones and shadows in low-light exposures.

I’m not a big crop mode user, but if you use it for extending focal length, Nikon also adds a 1.3x crop mode for an effective 2x crop factor (Nikon’s math, not mine), producing a 15.4-megapixel image. In that mode, continuous-shooting speed rises to about 7fps and you gain a 1080/60i/50i movie mode. It also has the Nikon-standard intervalometer feature.

For a complete accounting of the D7100’s features and operation, download the PDF manual.

Conclusion

Like the Canon 60D and T4i when they were young, the Nikon D7100’s advantage over its lower-cost sibling, the D5200, isn’t photo quality; it’s speed and build quality. But for a lot of folks the D5200 is fast enough, and if you don’t need the extra speed or weather sealing, you’re better off putting the money you save toward a really good lens. The D7100 is a great camera for still photography, but doesn’t feel like a must-have upgrade unless you’ve got a significant investment in good Nikon-mount lenses and need speed and durability on a budget — right now. But if you’re not in a rush to buy, I’d wait and see if a D300s replacement is nigh and what it might have to offer.

(cnet.com)

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