Friday, March 15, 2013

Nikon D7100 Hands-On Real World User Review (Part 1)

So it's finally here -- the Nikon D7100! Obviously I haven't spent much time with it, so this will have to be a rolling review. Here are my first impressions.

UPDATE: Added video of continuous shutter buffer and quiet shutter mode, added more info under "Additional features."
3/17/13 UPDATE: added video of JPEG continuous shooting buffer

My previous APS-C cameras did not have great low-light capability.  I thought about upgrading to the D7000, but when the D7100 and its new features were announced, I decided to get the D7100 instead.  Most attractive to me was the new sensor and its absence of a low-pass filter.  The other new features such as Auto ISO were additional incentives for me.

What’s in the box
- Menus.
- Shooting
- Reviewing shots.
Image quality.
- ISO series – noise. 100% crop.
- Shadow recovery.
Live View photo.

The D7100 specs have been known for a while so I won't spend much time on them. The D7100 meets or exceeds all features of the D7000. Some of the advantages compared to the D7000 are:
· Sensor: 24mp with slightly better high ISO performance that the D7000. DPReview says the D7100's sensor is completely new. Update: notwithstanding what Nikon says, the D7100's sensor may be the same as that of the D5200. See here.
· NO low pass filter for maximum sharpness. See below under image quality.
· The new, smarter Auto ISO (just like the D4, D800 and D600) that can take into account the focal length.
· Support for WU-1a wireless adapter allows remote live view on your iPhone or Android smartphone.
· Can do 1080p at 30fps or 1080i at 60fps (D7000 can only do 1080p at 24fps).
· Exposure mode dial has a button and lock, just like the D600. Prevents accidentally turning the exposure dial.
There are a few features that were welcome surprises:
· It has the instant 100% zoom on playback that was present on the D300, D700, and pro bodies but was missing from the D600.
· 51 AF Points with new AF algorithm, and low-light AF capability. It's supposed to focus up to -2EV, which beats even the D600 which can focus at -1EV.
· New! 1.3x crop mode. In this mode, the image will be cropped slightly (effectively 2x crop compared to full frame 35mm, very similar to Micro 4/3 and 4/3 ratio). The focal length will be effectively 2x instead of 1.5x, the continuous shooting speed increases to 7fps, and the AF points will fill the frame from edge to edge. The crop mode also works in video. In video, the 1.3x-cropped video will still have full 1080 or 720 resolution.
· New! Spot white balance: instead of taking a manual white balance shot of the whole screen, you can take the white balance from any small spot of the screen (in Live View). No need to look for a gray card.
· New! LCD screen is slightly larger (3.2 inches vs. 3.0), higher resolution (1.229M vs. 921k) and brighter (has white pixels, not just RGB).
When I got the D7100 I found a couple more surprises:

· The effect of exposure compensation on flash exposure can be canceled, just like with the D600!  Finally!!!

· In LiveView mode, the center OK button can be used for instant 100% magnification.

Other than the body itself, the D7100 package includes:

  • EN-EL15 Rechargeable Li-ion Battery: see below.
  • MH-25 Quick Charger: see below.
  • UC-E6 USB Cable: a mini-USB to USB cable.
  • AN-DC1 Strap: a generic Nikon strap.  Doesn't say "D7100".  For me I prefer it that way -- I hopefully become less of a target for thieves.
  • DK-5 Eyepiece Cap
  • DK-23 Rubber Eyecup
  • BF-1B Body Cap
  • BS-1 Accessory Shoe Cap
  • NikonView NX2 CD ROM
  • Manual in English and another manual in Spanish.
An HDMI cable is not included, which is somewhat expected.  However, what's conspicuously missing is the plastic LCD cover that usually comes with most Nikon DSLRs (with the exception of the D3 and its brethren).  The D7100 doesn't have a receptacle for the LCD cover.  On all my Nikons, I like to replace the plastic LCD with a GGS LCD protector (reviewed here).  The GGS protector is much clearer than the plastic protector, and seems to be more protective of the LCD screen.  However, there is no GGS protector for the D7100 yet, so I kind of feel the D7100 LCD screen is naked.  I hope GGS makes a protector for the D7100 soon...

The D600 has a receptacle for the plastic LCD protector (not shown).
The D7100 does not have a receptacle for the LCD protector.

The D7100 uses the EN-EL15 battery and MH-25 charger, just like the newer Nikons.  The EN-EL15 battery looks similar to the older EN-EL3 except that it's black and the bottom is rounded.  Included with the battery is a plastic terminal cover to prevent short circuits.  Took about 1.5 hours to charge from the box.

The MH-25 charger looks very different from chargers of older Nikons.  Instead of the battery clipping on to the face of the charger, the charger has a receptacle into which the battery is inserted sideways.  There is an open "window" so you can see the battery.  I like the new design better because if the charger is dropped, the battery is protected by the frame of the charger, plus it looks cooler.  A significant change is that the power cable for the quick charger is included but is optional.  Instead of connecting a cable with a plug, there is an included wall adapter that can be connected directly to the charger.  With the wall adapter attached, the plug can swivel so that the charger can be plugged directly into a wall outlet.  Great idea!

Externally, the D7100 is almost identical to the D600 in style.  I thought they would be almost exactly the same in size as well but actually, the D7100 is slightly smaller.

Left: D7100.  Right: D600

Left: D7100.  Right: D600

The D7100 grip feels very similar to that of the D600.  Please note some people feel discomfort on their fingers below the red swoosh - you should try it out to be sure.  One difference from the D600 is that the D7100's thumbrest is thinner than that of the D600.

D7100 thumbrest
D600 thumbrest

Like the D600, the D7100’s grip is not as comfortable as that of the D300. Part of the problem is because the D7100’s grip is a little too small for me. There isn’t enough for my ring finger and pinkie to get a tight grip.  Fortunately the D7100's grip is a little chunkier than that of the D7000.  If the size of the grip bothers you, you can always get the battery grip.

The D7100 has a magnesium frame that reassuringly lends some weight to the body.  Again, doesn't feel as solid as the D300 but it definitely feels well made.

Lens Mounting Mark.  The white mark for indicating how the lens should be inserted is now a rounded bump to provide tactile feedback.  Newer lenses such as the Nikon 28 1.8G and 85 1.8G have a similar bump that facilitates mounting a lens in the dark.

Battery compartment.  The battery compartment has a new clip that prevents the battery from falling out even when the battery door is opened.  There is also a spring that conveniently ejects the battery when the clip is moved aside.
D600 compartment shown.  D7100 is very similar

Hinged connection covers.  Like other Nikons, the side of the camera contains the connections such as USB, HDMI, GPS, and in the case of the D7100, a headphone jack.  One cool detail is that the rubber covers for these connections now have a hinge so that they'll stay open.  Previous Nikons had rubber covers that were more like flaps that you had to keep pushing away (or plug something in) if you wanted to keep them open.

The D7100 has a new LCD screen that is slightly larger (3.2 inches vs. 3.0 inches of other new Nikon DSLRs).  Although it has the same resolution, there are more pixels because in addition to RGB pixels, there are now white pixels which help brighten the screen.  This is not a scientific comparison due to several variables being different, but below are shots of the D600 and D7100 screens respectively, using the same brightness setting of -1.  Note that the D600 has an Auto brightness setting (in addition to a manual setting) whereas the D7100 only has a manual settings.

Top: D600.  Bottom: D7100.

In the field, I still found the D7100 screen a little hard to see in bright sunlight, so don't expect miracles.

In terms of color, my impression is that the D7100 screen may be more neutral than that of the D600, which sometimes looks warm.

The D7100 has an 8-way multi-directional pad.  The pad is a little larger than that of the D600.

Top: D7100.  Bottom: D600

In keeping with recent Nikon tradition :>, Nikon has again changed the functions of the buttons on the left.  Old Nikons consistently kept the zoom button on the bottom.  The D600 moved that button to the next higher button.  The D7100 moved it again, where it is now in the middle.  On the plus side, Nikon removed the useless Retouch button and changed its function to the "i" button, which is supposed to allow quick access to certain commonly used settings.

It doesn't seem all that useful to me, but I suppose it's better than the Retouch menu.

Surprisingly, Nikon has again revised its menu appearance.  As with the D600, the icons in the menus have a slightly 3D look.  However, unlike the D600, the D7100 has a thinner font, which looks sharper.  Hopefully it will not be an issue for those who have vision problems.

D600 on top, D7100 on the bottom.  The D7100 font is slightly thinner.
Pls. ignore the yellow glare (from my lamp) on the D7100 screen.

The D7100 has a very similar exposure dial to that of the D600, which itself was derived from the D7000 exposure dial.  Like the D600, the D7100 has a dial on top, which allows changing between PASM shooting modes, preset modes, and scene modes.  Rotating the dial requires pressing a button in the middle.  The button lock is helpful to me because I sometimes rotate the dial accidentally on bodies that don't have the lock.  One tiny difference is that the D7100's dial has grooves, whereas the D600's dial has the same texture as the body.  I think the grooves on the D7100's dial may help the labels on the dials to last longer.

D7100 exposure dial.
D600 exposure dial.

    Below the dial is a ring for specifying the shooting mode, from single, continuous low, continuous high, quiet, self-timer, mirror-up.

    Like other middle- and high-end Nikon DSLRs, the most-often used functions can be accessed through pressing a button and shifting the front or rear command dial, without going through the menus:

    • white balance (including biasing the WB toward warm or cool)
    • quality (raw or JPEG or both, including size and quality of JPEG)
    • ISO (including whether to activate Auto ISO)
    • bracketing (number of frames, increments)
    • flash exposure compensation and flash mode (front curtain, rear curtain, slow, red eye)
    • autofocus mode (continuous, single or auto) and AF points (auto, 3D, single, dynamic-9, 21 or 51).  See below.

    In addition, the D7100 has three customizable buttons: the AE-L/AF-L button, Fn button and preview button.

    Custom U1 and U2 modes.  The D7100 has custom U1 and U2 modes in its exposure dial, just like the D600 and D7000.  Here's how it works: you turn the exposure dial to one of the other modes such as PASM.  You tweak the adjustments as much as you like, e.g. choosing an aperture in aperture priority, setting the exposure compensation, specifying options in the menus, etc. etc.  Then you use the menu option to save the current settings into U1 or U2.  Whenever you switch to U1 (or U2 as the case may be), the camera will apply the custom settings.  From there you can change them as usual.  If you want to restore the custom settings, you turn the dial out of U1 then turn it back to U1.  The custom settings will be reapplied.  If you want to change the custom settings themselves, just make the changes you want then save the settings to U1 or U2.

    For me, the U1 and U2 modes are far more intuitive and sensible than the shooting banks used in some of my previous cameras such as the D300 and D3.  Those got so confusing that I never used them.

    Another benefit of the D7100 is that because the autofocus mode (AF-A, AF-S, AF-C) and metering modes (spot, center, matrix) are button-based instead of a dedicated dial they are included in the custom settings.  Of course if you physically switch the autofocus lever to manual then the autofocus mode won't apply.

    OLED viewfinder.  The D7100 features an OLED display in the viewfinder.  Honestly though it doesn't seem to make much of a difference for me.  I wouldn't have noticed anything.

    Continuous shutter buffer.  The D7100 has a fast continuous shutter speed of 6fps (7fps in crop mode, 5fps in 14-bit raw mode) but the buffer fills up very quickly.  One question is how quickly the buffer clears up.  Here is a video I made to demonstrate this.  I used a Sandisk Extreme (45mbps), 12-bit compressed raw:

    Here is a video of the continuous shooting with JPEG (fine, large, optimal quality)

    Quiet shutter mode.  Like other newer Nikon DSLRs, the D7100 has a quiet shutter mode.  It works by allowing you to control when the mirror flips back.  Presumably you would flip it back while the camera is covered to diminish the sound.  Here is the video:

    Intervalometer.  There is an intervalometer but it won't combine the shots into a time lapse video (unlike the D600).

    Multiple exposure mode.  Limited to 2 or 3 shots.

    Sensor cleaning.  Quiet, just like the D600.  One difference is that it takes a little longer to do the sensor cleaning compared to the D600, or to other Nikon DSLRs I have owned.  Hopefully that means the cleaning is more thorough :)

    AF-On.  There is no AF-On button but it can be assigned to the AE-L button.  Note however that you cannot use the focus trap technique.  When AF-On is used, pressing the shutter will release the shutter whether or not the AF point is in focus.



    Exposure Comp. for Flash:  One of the differences between Canon and Nikon is the effect of exposure compensation when using flash.  With Nikon, adjusting exposure compensation affects both flash exposure and ambient exposure.  With Canon, adjusting exposure compensation affects only the ambient exposure.  So if you wanted to underexpose the background by 1 stop for example while the flash exposure is normal, with Canon you just dial -1 exp. comp. and leave flash exposure compensation (FEC) alone.  With Nikon you dial -1 exposure comp then use +1 FEC to bring the flash exposure back up to normal. I much preferred the simple Canon way but I never had a choice until recently.  The Nikon D4 introduced a new option that allows you to specify whether exposure compensation affects flash exposure.  The D800 did NOT have this option but the Nikon D600 did have the option, and now so does the D7100.

    Spot White Balance:  This is a new feature.  Normally if you want to take a custom white balance, you have to fill the frame with a white or gray target.  With this function you only need a small part of the frame to be white or gray.  To use this function, enter live view mode.  Change the WB to the custom WB.  Press WB again to set the custom white balance.  When you set the custom white balance, there will be a small box that you can move around in the frame.  The D7100 will sample only that small area to get the custom white balance.

    AF fine-tuning.  Yes the D7100 does have AF-Fine Tuning.
    Non-CPU lenses.  Yes, it does support Non-CPU lenses. 
    Custom file name prefix. You can change the three letter prefix of filenames from DSC to any other letters (up to 3 letters).



    Speed and accuracy. I will test the D7100's AF speed and accuracy in the days ahead.  Thus far, my impression is that it locks focus faster than the D600.

    Smarter AF Area Options.  In previous Nikons, I could select any AF-Area (Auto, 3D, single, dynamic 9-point, dynamic 21-point, dynamic 39-point) in combination with any AF Mode (AF-C continuous, AF-S single, or AF-A).  The problem with this is that with AF-S, dynamic AF points and 3D tracking didn't do anything - it was just the same as single-point autofocus.  The D7100 remedies this by limiting the available AF-Area modes available under AF-S to Auto and single point only.  It's less confusing.

    Low light autofocus.  The D7100 autofocus is rated to -2EV, which is equivalent to an exposure of ISO 100, f/2.8, 30 seconds (not 1/30 second).  This is about the same as a moonlit night.



    The headline feature of the D7100 is its sensor, which is the first Nikon sensor to have no low-pass filter (a filter over the sensor that blurs the image slightly in order to avoid moire and stairstepping). Whereas the D800E had a low-pass filter that was nullified, the D7100 has no low pass filter at all. A few unique cameras such as the Sigma cameras with Foveon sensors or Fuji cameras with X-Trans sensors don’t have an OPLF because they don’t need them. The D7100’s sensor has a conventional Bayer filter but nonetheless does away with the OPLF, just like medium format digital cameras, Leica rangefinders, and the Pentax K-5 IIs.

    Just how sharp is the D7100?  I took some shots with the Sigma 35 1.4, at f/4 (its peak):

    Look at the full-resolution shot, specifically at the front deck of the boat.  You'll see that the D7100 was able to capture the fine detail showing the grooved texture of the front deck.  At the same time, there is a slight moire pattern (but not color moire) that seems to be visible.  I will try to get more samples of the D7100's sharpness in the coming days.

    I took shots of a test scene at ISOs from 100 to 25,600, in one stop increments.  

    Here is the link to the album in full resolution:

    I was guessing that the D7100's sensor was the same as that of the D5200, which although has slightly better high ISO than the D7000, is known to have horizontal pattern noise in extreme exposure adjustments.  My concern was therefore whether the D7100 had the same issue.

    I took the shot below in raw (converted to black and white). 

    To test the shadow recovery, I boosted the exposure +5 stops.  Here is what the shot looked like.

    Here is a crop of the shadow area:

    As I thought, there is horizontal pattern noise.  The noise doesn't go away even with +40 noise reduction in Lightroom (other noise reduction software may do better):

    I tried to adjust the exposure to where the horizontal pattern noise would be barely visible.  I found it to be around +3.5 EV:

    Of course this is just one factor among many, and a +3.5 EV adjustment will usually be more than enough.  I will continue testing the D7100.  UpdateNikon D5200 and D7100 Band-Aid: Solutions for Banding

    Live View in the D7100 works the same way as other recent Nikons.  There is a lever to choose between Live View Photo or Movie. To initiate Live View, you press the LV button in the middle of the lever.

    Live View Photo Controls.  Just to avoid any confusion, in Live View Photo mode, you can adjust aperture, shutter speed and ISO, in the same way you can without live view.  In Live View Movie mode, your ability to control these exposure variables is much more limited - as will be discussed in the video section of Part 2 (or see the responses to the comments below).

    Live View WYSIWYG or not.  In Live View Photo mode, the screen does not show the effects of the chosen exposure, except for exposure compensation to some extent.  It is not what-you-see-is-what-you-get.  

    Changing the aperture doesn't show a preview of the change of depth of field.  Pressing Depth of Field Preview has no effect on LV Photo mode.  Changing the shutter speed doesn't show a preview of the blur.  Changing the ISO doesn't show a preview of the noise.  Even in manual exposure mode, changing the aperture / ISO / shutter speed will not change the preview on the LV Photo mode (but there is an electronic light meter indicator).  Exposure compensation adjustments can be seen on the Live View Photo mode within a range of +/- 3EV but in dim conditions (e.g. at night), I can only see changes within a range of -3EV to +1EV.  If you apply exposure comp outside that range there is no change in the brightness of the screen.

    Although you can't always see the chosen exposure, you can see the depth of field in Live View Photo mode.  The trick is to select the aperture before you activate live view.  If you do this, then the Live View image will show the actual depth of field for the chosen aperture.  A couple of notes:
    - After Live View is activated, changing the aperture will not show any changes to the depth of field in the Live View display.)
    - If you select a narrow aperture, it will be harder for the camera to focus.
    - When I want to change the aperture and see the change in DOF, I change the aperture even while LV is active.  Then I just press the LV button once to deactivate it and press it again to activate it.  It's smoother to me than exiting LV, changing the aperture, and reactivating LV.

    Live View AF modes. The D7100 has two AF modes: AF-S (single servo, where the camera will focus then  lock focus upon achieving focus) and AF-F (full-time servo, like the continuous autofocus in AF-C).  I don't know why it's called AF-F instead of AF-C (maybe because the underlying technology - phase vs. contrast detect - is different...?).

    Live view focusing speed.  I was curious about how fast the live view can focus.  The D7100 has the same contrast detect AF in live view that is in the D4 and D600.  The speed is reasonable - about the same as an average point and shoot.  That's definitely way faster than the D90, which takes several seconds to focus.

    Live View AF Areas.  In live view you can select from different AF areas: normal (a small square), wide (approximately 4x larger than the AF area of normal), subject-tracking, and face-priority.
    Subject-tracking: in this mode, the D7100 will try to track your target as it moves around the frame.  To initiate it, you position the AF point over the target then press [OK].  The D7100 will start to track the subject.  As for how well it can track, I would say it's about the same as the non-liveview 3D Auto tracking in AF-C, except that AF point can move anywhere on the frame, not just in the cluster of AF points.
    Face-Priority: when you activate this mode, the D7100 will try to find human faces within the frame.  Then it will choose the closest among them and track that face.  If you want to focus on a face other than the closest one, you can change it using the directional pad.

    Live view magnification.  The D800 and some other Nikons have an issue with Live View.  When you zoom in, it shows only a lower-resolution magnification.  Here is the problem, described in a thread of DPReview's forum.  In this regard, the D7100 is similar to the D600: with the D7100 (and D600), the resolution of the magnification depends on whether the camera is autofocusing or not.  While it is autofocusing, the resolution is low.  When it is no longer autofocusing, the resolution becomes high (as high as the sensor will permit).  Logically, when the focus mode is AF-F (full time autofocus), then the camera is always focusing and the resulting resolution will always be low.  Upon switching to AF-S, the resolution becomes high again.  Similarly, when using manual focus, the resolution is also as high as the sensor's maximum.
    Below are test shots from the D600.  The D7100 LV AF behavior is similar:

    This is what the entire scene looked like.  I focused on the bottle of herbs upper right.

    I took a shot and zoomed in that focus area during playback.

    This is that same area during LiveView, while the camera is on AF-F.

    This is that same area during LiveView, while the camera is on AF-S.
    Same thing happens if I am using manual focus.

    LV continuous shooting speed (or lack thereof).  One issue with the D7100 Live View is that it is slow.  After you take a shot, it takes about 3 seconds to be ready for another shot.  By comparison, the D600 is ready to shoot again in about 1 second.


    I'm out of time so I'll have to tackle the other parts of this review next time (hopefully by this weekend).  Some of the things I'd like to find out:
    Autofocus performance (speed, accuracy, performance with non-focus motor lenses)
    Image quality vs. D600 (noise and sharpness)
    Dynamic range and highlight rolloff (compared to Fuji S5 and D600)
    Low light performance
    Crop mode performance (autofocus, buffer, etc.)
    UsabilityBecause of the D7100's extraordinary sharpness, one question is how usable the D7100 is in the field, where conditions are far less controlled. Does the D7100 require additional discipline in order to benefit from its sharpness?
    · Moose Peterson has been shooting in Costa Rica with a preproduction model of the D7100 for Nikon. Here are his posts on the D7100.
    · If you are interested in the Nikon D7100, you can join the Nikon D7100 group on Flickr to see more samples and discussions related to the D7100. I will be posting there regularly with updates on the D7100.