It's difficult to find a mid-range camera these days that stands out from the crowd. Professional cameras are a long way ahead of the pack when it comes to image quality and durability, but the cheapest of the cheap DSLRs are now also impressively powerful and easy to use at the same time -- which leaves the middle of the market as a very hard place to be. But cameras like the Nikon D7000 and Canon 7D have carved out a niche for themselves nonetheless.
But even the best cameras need an update every now and then. The semi-professional grade Nikon D7100 attempts to address a few of the shortcomings of the now-four-year-old D7000, and add a few much-requested features at the same time. Can Nikon improve significantly on one of the best and most highly regarded cameras of the last few years?
What Is It?
- Resolution: 24 Megapixels
- Lens Mount: Nikon F
- Screen: 3.2-inch, 1,299K-dot
- ISO: 100-6400 Native (25,600 Max)
- Storage: 2x SD (SDXC Compatible)
- Warranty: 2 Years
I'll start this review by saying that I'm a big fan of the Nikon D7000 from which the D7100 inherits its spot as the prosumer, semi-professional camera of choice in the company's line-up. I've used my D7000 from the day it was launched in Australia until now, and almost all of my review studio photos are captured with it. (Not this review, though -- I'm also road-testing a new Samsung NX1.) Because of that, I think I'm an especially tough critic of the D7100 -- I know its predecessor intimately and hold it in very high regard.
The D7100 is also not especially new -- it has been on the market for over a year now. As such, it's available on the street for much less than its $1799 RRP -- you're able to find it for around $1000 body-only if you do a bit of creative Googling.
The $1799 D7100 is Nikon's top semi-professional camera, and the most expensive and fully-featured of the camera company's entire product range to use a APS-C 'crop'-sized image sensor, the 24x16mm sensor size used in plenty of other entry-level and mid-range digital SLRs. The D7100 very roughly compares to Canon's new 7D Mark II -- another weathersealed, prosumer, crop-sensor DSLR aimed at the user who knows how to drive a full-size camera.
If you are one of those users, the Nikon D7100's layout will be immediately familiar to you. Around the front, the camera's body is dominated by the Nikon F mount lens shoe, the full-size finger-grip and a host of single- and multi-use buttons. There's the mode-and-coverage selector for the D7100's 51-point autofocus system (inherited from the top-of-the-line D4), flash and bracketing buttons, a multipurpose function button and a depth-of-field preview toggle. On the finger-grip is the first of the D7100's two dedicated shooting feature dials.
Up top is equally busy with switches and dials. In the centre of the camera, just above the optical viewfinder pentaprism, is the D7100's external accessory hotshoe and integrated stereo microphone. To its left is the locking shooting mode and burst shutter dials, and to the right is the multi-line backlit LCD screen that you'll see on all mid-range and higher Nikon digital SLRs. Directly in front of that screen is the D7100's dedicated exposure, metering and recording buttons, as well as the power switch and soft-press shutter.
The back of the D7100 has even more going on. A 3.2-inch colour LCD with 1,229,000 dot resolution switches between image playback, video recording, and information display as you will it, and it's flanked by five buttons on the left and a five-way control pad, info button and live-view toggle on the right. Up the top near the thumb-rest is the second shooting dial. Suffice to say that the D7100 doesn't exactly want for extra controls or dedicated switches.
What's It Good At?
The Nikon D7100 has some of the best image quality that I've seen from a APS-C image sensor. At its 24-megapixel resolution the D7100 has one of the most pixel-dense and theoretically detailed crop sensors of any digital camera, and Nikon has also removed the sensor's optical low-pass filter in favour of software anti-aliasing -- and the result, when you have a lens that flatters it, is the D7100's ability to produce beautiful photos.
At low ISOs -- below ISO 800 especially -- the D7100 can produce clean and clear and detailed photos that you'll be hard pressed to find any chrominance (colour) or luminance (speckling) image noise in. For outdoor, sunny-day photography and indoors under bright lighting, the D7100 does an excellent job. Whether you're using RAW or JPEG, you'll be happy with these kinds of images, since the sensor's automatic white balance detector is of an equally high quality.
At ISO 1600 and above up to the D7100's maximum native ISO up to 6400, incrementally more image noise is introduced. I'd be happy using ISO 3200 and 6400 if I was shooting RAW and could remove image noise while editing on a PC, but otherwise I'd steer clear when possible. Similarly, the ISO 12,800 and 25,600 equivalent extension modes do introduce a lot of image noise and I wouldn't recommend using them if you can avoid it.
Photos from the D7100 and its 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, as well as the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8, coming soon.
Nikon's control scheme for the D7100 is very well thought out. The previous model got almost everything right, but Nikon has brought the new D7100 up to date with a dedicated video recording button, live-view switcher and other much needed goodies like a headphone jack and GPS input. All these features mean that the D7100's Full HD 1080p video recording, a weak point of the D7100, is of the same standard as a more powerful camera like Nikon's D800 series. Especially if you're just using it for everyday recordings and not professional work, the D7100's video mode is more than good enough.
The D7100's screen is amazingly good for a DSLR, too. In recent years the rapid incursion of mirrorless cameras like the Samsung NX1 has really shown up the weak points of many of the current digital SLRs out there, and one of those weaknesses has been DSLRs' comparatively small, dim, and low resolution displays. The D7100's is one of the best you'll find on a digital camera today -- its RGBW pixel layout means that it is both vibrant and capable of an extremely high maximum brightness, making it usable for image review and video work even in bright daylight.
What Is It Not Good At?
When I say that you need a lens that flatters the D7100's 24-megapixel sensor, that lens will likely not be one of the kit lenses that you'll get thrown in with a D7100 bundle. The 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 lens in the D7100 kit that I tested was OK, but especially at maximum aperture and at the extreme wide and telephoto ends of its ability it produced mediocre photos, with slightly blurred detail. Moving up to a high-end lens, like the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 that lives on my D7000, produced far better results. Shell out for a better lens when you buy the D7100 -- you won't regret it.
If you were excited by the D7100's ability to record video at 1080/50i, don't be. To produce that fast frame rate the camera's sensor has to be used in a 1.3x crop mode, reducing its field of view, while at the same time producing video that looks somewhat softer and less detailed than its 25p alternative. It's a niche feature, but one that still needs some work.
While the Nikon D7100 has a very respectable 7fps maximum burst shutter speed, the camera seems to be let down a bit by the small size of its buffer. I was shooting the D7100 with Sandisk's amazing 512GB Extreme Pro SD card, as well as an equally fast Samsung 64GB Pro UHS-I -- both of which are perfectly speedy SD cards, some of the best you can buy -- and found that the camera is only capable of capturing 6-7 RAW photos at a time before the buffer is full. That's not great -- this is not a camera for fast-motion action or sports photography unless you're happy to shoot in JPEG.
The competition faced by the D7100 is fierce -- that's probably its biggest problem. Most of that competition comes from Nikon's own D610 and D750 entry-level full-frame sensor DSLRs, which are relatively cheap while offering a commensurate bump in image quality especially at high ISOs. Canon's 6D and 5D Mark III, when on sale, are not that much more expensive. The D7100 is an excellent camera overall, but there are plenty of other excellent cameras out there as well.
Should You Buy It?
If you don't have a very good reason already to buy and use a full-frame digital SLR, then the $1799 Nikon D7100 may well be every bit the camera you need. It's able to capture images with excellent clarity and quality -- as long as you use the right lenses, as the kit lens doesn't quite cut the mustard of the D7100's excellent sensor. It's great in everything from bright to reasonably dim light, too, only starting to stumble in lighting conditions that competing DSLRs already can't handle.
In terms of its control layout, ergonomics and general usability, there are few digital SLRs that I've used that feel as complete as the Nikon D7100. It's only very slightly different from the D7000 that preceded it, and that's a glowing endorsement as far as I'm concerned. The camera's build quality feels rock solid, too, and I'm confident that it'll stand up to years of punishment and regular everyday use.
Video is a mixed bag; it's much improved from the previous model and is by and large on par with competing brands and Nikon's own other digital cameras. However, the 1080/50i mode is a disappointment, with blurry and soft video output that isn't worth using compared to the standard video frame rate. It's a disappointment in the same way that the comparatively small image buffer is -- it's not a huge inconvenience and it's OK, it just feels like it could have been done a little more fully. The buffer almost feels like an artificial limitation.
Considered in abstract, though, the Nikon D7100 is a pretty damn nice camera for the quality of images you're getting, for the comprehensive nature and easy access of the controls, and for the subtle but important improvements over the previous model in Nikon's line-up. The D7100 is, apart from a few small niggles, an impressive photographic tool.