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A low-light marvel
Nikon’s latest enthusiast-aimed DSLR is a technological tour de force, but does it live up to expectations?
The DSLR market is fiercely competitive as the likes of Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax slug it out for market share. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pivotal enthusiast DSLR sector, which seems to be leading the charge in terms of technical advances and important new features. Nikon’s latest salvo in the enthusiast DSLR wars, the Nikon D7000, is a stellar example.
With a 16.2-megapixel DX-format (aka APS-C) CMOS sensor that works in conjunction with Nikon’s latest EXPEED 2 image sensor, it is claimed to deliver a gratifying combination of operating speed and image quality, especially in low light.
The N7000's cutting-edge feature list includes:
- 1080p HD video with full-time autofocus, focus tracking and face recognition,
- 6 frames-per-sec maximum burst rate for up to 100 images
- Custom configurable 39-point AF system with 9 center cross sensors
- Autofocus fine tuning like a prosumer DSLR
- Nearly 100%, 0.95X magnification solid glass pentaprism viewfinder
- Bright 3-inch, 921,000-dot hi-res LCD.
To find out how well this all works out in the real world we took the D7000 for an exhaustive two-week test drive.
In the hands
Out test outfit was the Nikon D7000 Kit (approximately $1,500) that includes an 18-105mm (27-158mm equivalent) AF-S Nikkor f/3.5-5.6 G ED lens with built in VR (Vibration Reduction), a high-performance zoom that’s a nice match for the camera in terms of size, flexibility and heft. With the lens in place, the camera feels very solid and well balanced, aided by a very comfortable and secure handgrip.
Nikon cameras are noted for their excellent handling and control placement, and the D7000 is certainly no exception. The angled shutter release atop the grip is perfectly placed for a smooth, shake-free release, and the main and subsidiary command dials fall right under your right thumb and forefinger, respectively. Image quality, ISO, and White Balance can be set by pressing dedicated control buttons—there’s no need to scroll through the menus. Menu selections, which are controlled by a 4-way toggle switch surrounding an OK button, are exceptionally clear, legible and intuitive.
To the left of the pentaprism housing are two stacked dials—the release-mode dial (Single Frame, Continuous Hi and Low, Q for quiet shutter release, self-timer, remote control, and mirror up) surmounted by the exposure-mode dial (P, S, A, M, etc.) To set the release mode you have to press a small lock-release button and hold it in while turning the milled front edge of the dial with your forefinger—a little fiddly until you get used to it. However the Q setting is great for shooting discreetly—the release really is much quieter—and the mirror-up setting is very convenient.
Grandma with green flower: Superb definition throughout at ISO 400 (note facial details, jewelry, clothing, and sunglasses) and natural skin tones without any tweaking needed. Exemplary! Exposure: f/6.3 and 1/160 sec at 35mm (52mm equivalent) focal length. See lack of grain in detail, below.
The mode dial provides a Scene setting that optimizes the settings to correspond with your selected scene mode, the green Auto “point-and-shoot” mode has a “flash off” detent that prevents the flash from popping up when you don’t want it to—nice. There are two additional detents marked U1 and U2 for accessing your stored custom settings. We did manage to foul up a half dozen frames by brushing against the mode dial and moving it from “A” to “M” accidentally—stiffer detents would help.
The D7000 abounds with thoughtful little touches. There are two SD card slots under the hinged cover on the right side. Both accept SD, SDHC and the new higher-capacity SDXC cards, and they can be set up sequentially, activating the second card only after the first is filled up.
The AF/M autofocus-setting control lets you choose among 3 AF modes that are read out in the finder by holding in a button, and turning the control dial to scroll to AFS (single-shot AF), AFC (continuous AF) or AFA (single shot that switches to continuous when motion is detected). Turn the back control dial with your thumb to activate 9-point, 21-point, or 39-point AF to match your subject. The AF zones in use light up in the finder, making it easy to select the one that best matches your subject.
Origami sculpture and roses: Excellent detail and color saturation at ISO 6400. Auto White Balance also performed admirably, delivering remarkably accurate color in mixed tungsten light. Exposure: f/5.3 and 1/30 sec handheld at 66mm (99mm equivalent) focal length. See 100% detail, below.
Shooting HD Videos
Shooting HD movies with the D7000 is a delight, and ideal for enthusiasts that are not accustomed to focusing manually on the fly. Turn the clearly-marked lever at the upper right-hand corner of the LCD to LV (Live View) to select AF-F, the setting that provides continuous AF with focus tracking when shooting HD video. Once you’re in Live View mode, all you do to start the movie is press the red button within the lever axis—a red dot REC symbol—and an elapsed time counter now appears on the screen.
You can shoot videos up to about 20 minutes in length depending on card capacity. There’s no need to hold in the shutter release. Whether you’re shooting movies or stills, you can also enable face recognition that outlines each detected face in green and sets the focus accordingly—a feature that’s particularly useful when shooting video.
HD Video With AF: What’s the state of the art?
As long as I've brought up the subject of video, here are a few words about the pluses and minuses of the D7000’s HD video autofocus system. All such systems built into today’s DSLRs are based on optimizing the contrast of the Live View image, rather than using the phase-detection system employed for still picture auto-focusing.
Unlike phase-detection systems that identify the subject and achieve virtually instant one-shot autofocus, contrast-detection entails moving briefly back and forth through the optimum point of focus until the maximum contrast point is attained—think of how you focus a camera manually on a clear ground-glass screen and you’ll get the idea. Contrast-based AF is quite accurate, but it’s slower than phase-detection AF, especially when you’re shooting at long focal lengths, wide apertures, or close distances.
As a result, when you’re recording fast-moving subjects in low light, especially those that move parallel to the image plane or at very close camera-to-subject distances, videos shot with the D7000 will faithfully record the camera briefly hunting for focus until the proper focus is attained.
Occasionally, particularly when the subject is close to the near-focus limit of the lens, you can actually hear (and record) a light clicking sound as the AF motor in the lens moves back and forth seeking the optimum focus point. It is no big deal to edit out these little lapses, and you can completely eliminate the clicking sound being recorded by using an auxiliary stereo mike.
My verdict: While the D7000 fails to attain the holy grail of seamless AF when shooting HD video, this is due to technological limitations that have yet to be overcome in any DSLR with an optical viewfinder. In short, for most enthusiast and many pro shooters the advantage of being able to shoot HD video with full-time AF, focus tracking, and face recognition is immeasurably greater than any minor deficiencies in the present system.
Street musician: Grab shot shows good detail at the point of focus (sipper on jacket, plaid shirt), but shallow depth of field softens other areas of the image due to the long focal length (85mm, or 128mm equivalent) and relatively wide aperture (f/5.6). Color rendition is very accurate at ISO 400.
Speaking of optical viewfinders, the one in the D7000 is outstanding. Crisp and bright to the corners, with very good eye relief for eyeglass wearers, it rivals that of many more expensive DSLRs. So does its AF, focus tracking, Auto White Balance, and metering systems all of which use information accessed by the color recognition capabilities of the camera’s excellent and exclusive 216,000-pixel 3D Color Matrix Metering System.
Bearded man with glasses: This engaging close-up portrait is incredibly sharp for a shot taken handheld at 1/20 sec at a relatively long focal length (75mm, or 112mm equivalent), showcasing the effectiveness of Nikon’s VR image stabilization. Performance of the camera at ISO 1600 is likewise outstanding.
Image quality and performance
But what is really impressive about the D7000 is the totality of the package—its solidity, handling capabilities, supreme flexibility and overall level of performance. Its responsiveness is commendable, with virtually no perceptible shutter lag. It delivers outstanding low-noise image quality in RAW and JPEG images at all standard ISO settings up to and including ISO 6400, and the VR system in the Nikon 18-105mm lens provides a definite 3+-stop advantage when shooting at slow shutter speeds and long focal lengths.
Sports and action shooters will certainly appreciate that it not only provides a maximum burst rate of up to 6fps, but the EXPEED 2 image processor lets you shoot up to 100 frames at top speed. I did not have the opportunity to field test the i-TTL and Speedlight compatibility features, but the consensus among enthusiasts is that the system is as reliable and as well executed at the rest of the camera. I was also very pleased with its ample battery capacity that allowed me to fill a 16MB card with movies and hi-res stills without requiring a recharge.
As a matter of fact, even the battery charger has been upgraded. The infamous “fall out” cord on previous Nikon chargers has been replaced by a cord that locks tenaciously into the charger unit. You have to push in a spring-loaded tab before you can remove it for storage!
Conclusion and recommendation
The D7000 is a remarkable camera that should be given serious consideration by any photo enthusiast who wants it all, including great HD movies, superb still images, a full feature set, and robust construction, all at a mid-level DSLR price. I would be tempted to say that it sets a new standard in its class, but since this is a class full of formidable contenders I wouldn’t want to overstate the case.
Certainly, anyone who is into the Nikon system, including full-time and part-time pros, should take a close look at the D7000. It’s a heck of a lot of camera for the money, and by all means get the kit with the 18-105mm Nikkor, which is a pro-caliber lens that suits it to a T.