Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Nikon D7200 Review

Nikon D7200 Body

In the most fitting way possible, we begin the this review of the apparently not-so-changed  D7200 by recycling the opening to the D7100 review from 2013:

"It must have been something of a sinking feeling for those waiting for a successor to the Nikon D300s to see the arrival of the very well spec’d D7100.  Though some may argue against, I hold that the D7000 was indeed the commercial successor to the D300s whether or not Nikon admitted to it and that the D7100 is now the second camera to carry the line forward."

Wash, rinse and repeat. Along this line of reasoning, the D7200 is now the third "successor" to the D300s. There may be yet a full-metal body pro-spec serious DX camera yet that can assume the mantle of the D300, but if it ever comes it will be so late as to be likely called the D500, especially given how often the number "5" is creeping into the Nikon's current model names. Until then, Nikon was iterated the D7100 in the most literal way possible; by recycling the core concept and apparently much of the packaging. The specs are:

  • 24MP APS-C sensor
  • Larger expanded ISO range (to ISO 102,400)
  • 6 fps burst, larger buffer 
  • 51-point MultiCAM 3500DX2 autofocus system
  • Improved low light focusing to -3EV, one stop better than D7100
  • 2,016 pixel RGB sensor exposure sensor (like D610, unlike D750)
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC
  • Upgraded video (like D810 and D750), including Flat Picture Control
  • 1080p video at 60fps, but it 1.3x crop mode only
  • Battery life up from 950 to 1110 shots per charge
  • Body only price: $1,199.95 USD (Unchanged from D7100)

The problem with modern discourse... of any kind... is that subtlety is a dying art. In the way that things are perceived, they are either superlative or they are lacking. That is to say, in the vernacular of the internet, things either rock or they suck. (Cue George Orwell: Double plus good, comrade!) This is unfortunate, as reality always falls in between these two extremes. This is very much the case with the Nikon D7200. It's not  full frame, it's not smaller and lighter and to be quite honest, it's barely a change over its predecessor.  And yet, it's a good camera. A very good camera. Expectations shape perceptions of course. If you perceive the D7200 as being a letdown, then it's because you have a certain set of expectations. If you approach the D7200 with no expectations, then it's a great performance bargain, just as the serious Nikon DX cameras before it.

(For initial impressions, a look at the optional ME-W1 wireless microphone option and greater market position implications, go to the first impressions launch review.)

Body and Design

Except for a differently shaped pop-up flash top-panel, the D7200 is virtually identical to the D7100.  The only other visual demarcaters are the WiFi and NFC labelling. From an ergonomics point of view, this is unexciting, but a good thing nonetheless. Nikon's control layout is mature and has stood the test of time. If for whatever reason you were still using a D70, you would be able to get a running start if you switched to the D7200, as the family resemblance remains. There are small niggles here and there. The font used on the top LCD is a larger; easier to read but aesthetically not as pleasing. Like the D750, the white balance and image quality menus now come up on the rear LCD display rather than on the top display.

The D7200 inherits some of the (few) ergonomic shortcomings of the D7100. Even though the front of the grip is ample, the back thumb rest doesn't have enough of a lateral lip for the camera to "hook" into your hands. Usual gripes about how the D7200 doesn't have the "pro" button layout of the D810 and D300s, but this is mostly snobbery on the part of those that care. Yes, the top left control pod is easier to operate by touch on the D810, whereas the traditional dual-function shoot/playback strip of buttons on the left side of the D7200 LCD screen feels overloaded to the uninitiated. For the most part, these aren't hard to get around, but the absence of a dedicated AF-On button is a bit conspicuous given how many people use back-button focusing.

The addition of WiFi and NFC connectivity is a minor point, but a nice one to have given that the WU-1a is a $70 add-on if you want to add WiFi capability to the D7100. Nikon's wireless device app is rudimentary, but it gets the job done for occasional use.

Left to Right: Nikon D7000, D7100 and D7200

This is another model to come out of Nikon's Thailand plant. What's not present is the smaller/lighter construction seen on the D3300, D5300 and D5500 that makes use of a carbon fibre monocoque to increase strength and to simplify the internal structure of the camera. Given how well received the D750 and D5500, its a surprise that Nikon didn't take the time to re-engineer the D7200 in the same way. It's not as though there wasn't enough time, as the two-year interval between the D7200 and D7100 is pretty much in keeping with previous generational upgrades. In manufacturing terms, this means that Nikon can get away with most of the production tooling that it used on the D7100, which reduces the capital costs of production.

Left: Nikon D7100   Right: Nikon D7200

However, in practical terms, the lack of change means that the D7200 is a known quantity. Though ergonomic preferences vary, the D7xxx cameras are better than most when you are shooting under changing or demanding circumstances. This is something that becomes quite apparent when you move away from traditional DSLR's to mirrorless cameras. You can get used to any camera, but the trends is for the serious mirrorless cameras like the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the Sony A7 Mark II to mimic DSLR's, not the other way around.

Left to Right: Nikon D7000, D7100 and D7200

Autofocus and Shutter

While the paper specs indicate that the low-light sensitivity of the autofocus system has improved, the difference extends to all-around operation as well. Focus lock-on is quicker and a bit more sure than with the D7100. You likely won't see this difference until you push the camera tracking moving subjects, but the upgrade is welcome, especially for bird photographers.  Compared to the Canon 7D Mark II, the D7200 AF array isn't as good, as the peripheral detection points on the Nikon aren't cross-type. This means that the Canon AF system should be better at picking out horizontally aligned detail outside the centre of the frame; the outside AF points on the Nikon are sensitive to vertical detail only. In practice, the Nikon only has trouble in dimmer light or in extremely low contrast scenes. Both Nikon and Canon arrays are rated to -3EV, though that is only true for the centre points on the Canon.

How dark is -3EV you say? It's roughly the same as shooting outdoors under the light of full moon. Under these conditions, you'll be struggling to pick out any detail looking through the viewfinder and will just have to trust the camera to do its job. The implication of this should be clear;  turn the AF focus-assist lamp off on the D7200 if you've got one; the AF system works well without it in reasonable light conditions.

Unfortunately, the D7200 does not have the useful Group Area mode that is available on the D750, D810 and D4s. Unlike 9-Point, Group Area is functionally a "closest priority" mode and is better at picking out subjects in front of a busy background. 9-Point by comparison, is more heavily weighted towards the centre point.

Even though both generations of the 7D have fast and snappy autofocus, Nikon appears to be consistently better at maintaining focus tracking during extended bursts or while following erratically moving subjects. Both the first 7D and the 7D Mark II have fast, reliable and accurate initial focus acquisition; though hard to quantify, the 7D Mark II is probably subjectively better than the D7200 in this case. However, once focus is acquired and the the camera begins to follow the subject, the Nikon appears to be more consistent and better able to anticipate trajectory and velocity. While this applies to most of the dynamic-area modes, it especially applies to the 3D-Tracking mode, which by now a very mature and reliable  Nikon technology.

In most respects,  the D7200 to keeps pace with the 7D Mark II; the D7200 might be only able to do 6 fps whereas the competition can do 10fps, but the Nikon makes the most of it with excellent exposure and motion tracking during extended bursts.In any case, there's not enough of a difference to warrant switching systems. Naturally, 10fps is better than 6fps; the Canon achieves this with a specialized shutter design that allows for high speed operation without much penalty in terms of mirror slap vibration. One thing that the Nikon does in an okay manner but which the 7D Mark II does very well and does not get credit is in quiet shutter mode; for all of its power, the 7DmII can shoot quite softly if you want it to.

Speaking of shutters, one point of contention. Both the D610 and the D750 have maximum shutter speeds of 1/4000s, whereas the D7100 and D7200 top out at 1/8000s. What gives? It's not a conspiracy to cripple the lower-end FX cameras; it's just that the shutter blades have a shorter distance to travel in a DX camera, meaning that the maximum shutter speed can be higher.

In any case, the fact that the D7200 buffer now goes to 18 RAW files during extended bursts -  up from 6 -  is in itself cause for celebration from long-suffering serious-DX shooters. The D7100 was a popular bird photography camera for Nikon; it's just that it was a respected camera, not a loved one because of the shallow buffer.

Exposure and General Image Quality

Exposure Meter

One thing of note is that the D7200 uses the lower-resolution exposure meter that is used in the D7100 and D610. The D750 and D810 use the high-resolution pro-spec meter. In practical terms, the differences don't show up as much if your subject fills a large portion of the frame or if you are using matrix metering. If you are spot metering an area with tight detail and high(er) contrast, the D750 and D810 will tend to produce a more accurate... or at the very least, a more consistent result than either D7200 or the D610.

High(er) ISO  Image Noise

The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions.

All of the cameras were set to default Picture Control JPEG settings (Sharpening=3) with high ISO noise reduction turned off and centre-weighted exposure metering. Focal length was 18mm. Additionally, the clarity setting was set to zero for the D7200 and D5500. Active D-Lighting was turned off for all of the Nikons. The 7D Mark II was set to default settings, and shot at 17mm to equalize the difference between crop factors between it and the Nikons, which were shot at 18mm.

We're skipping past the lower ISO values to the "break even" point just around ISO 3200, where most APS-C cameras top out in terms of acceptable image quality for relative care-free shooting. If you are more demanding, your threshold is probably lower at ISO 1600, and if you aren't doing fine-detailed work or will be downsizing for web-output, then the comfortable level rises to ISO 6400. There isn't a hard and fast rule about where this barrier occurs, but a good rule of thumb is that it occurs when edges and lines start to lose their definition. Note that this quick test is operating under methodology of "equivalent operation" and not "equivalent results." The following cameras are shot with the same setup and are returning different interpretations of the same scene. For reference, the D7100 and D7200 return approximately the same file size at the same image settings.

Click on images for 100% crop view.

ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800
Nikon D7200 Hi 1.0 and Hi 2.0

Like the D7100 and the D7000 before it, the D7200 output has strong midtones, which makes the output look brighter than that produced by the older D300 or the Current D810. This is a consumer-friendly approach, but one that generally works as the colour and exposure at the point of focus is generally accurate. Generally speaking, the D7200 and the D5500 are better than the D7100 in the deep shadows, where the banding in the shadow noise isn't as prominent. Also note the faint purple-ish tinge on the D7100's black at ISO 6400 that is better controlled on the D7200. The D7200 and the D5500 also appear to produce  crisper edges, though this is very obviously down to differences in image processing between the EXPEED 3 and EXPEED 4 processors. Both the D7200 and D5500 have Nikon's revised Picture control setting, which adds a CLARITY slider in addition to the SHARPNESS slider. Unlike the traditional sharpness slider, which tends to apply to the global image, clarity only boosts contrast to midtones. The default setting is with clarity set at +1; if you turn it down the difference in edge acuity between the D7200 and D7100 diminishes, but the D7200's noise advantage in the deep shadows remains.

For kicks and giggles, Hi 1.0 and Hi 2.0 samples from the D7200 are included, which correspond to ISO 51,200 and ISO 102,000. The D7200 will only let you shoot these ISO levels in black and white, but what's worse, if you shoot in NEF+JPEG mode, the camera will only write a JPEG file the ISO level goes past Hi 1.0. If the black and white restriction didn't already tell you something....

Coming back off that ridiculous high for some perspective: we're really getting spoiled here. The fact that these cameras can still maintain some semblance of edge sharpness in this tightly detailed scene at ISO 6400 is a testament to how good modern camera technology is, even on the non-professional APS-C cameras. Collectively, the EXPEED 4 cameras (D750, D7200 and D5500) subjectively handle high ISO noise better than their EXPEED 3 predecessors. Miracles aren't being made here, but the quality comfort level of these cameras seems to be approximately 1/2 stop higher than with previous iterations. If you go to the RAW files, the differences narrow. Think of it in these terms; the EXPEED 4 generation is like using the higher quality noise reduction setting in your RAW converter, only you get to do it in the camera's JPEG engine.

As was seen previously, the 7D Mark II will tend to meter the scene with a shutter speed that is 1/3Ev to 2/3 EV longer than what the Nikons are reporting. The EOS 70D will also meter a scene similarly to the 7D Mark II. (That is to say, if the Nikon exposure metering gives you a value of 1/125s in aperture priority mode, the Canon exposure meter will give you a value of 1/80s.) From ISO 3200 and upwards, the Canons still produce clean-looking files all things considered, but at the expense of tighter highlight/shadow latitude and reduced colour saturation compared to the Nikons. Note the difference in product marketing going on between these two cameras. The Nikon, being a more consumer-spec camera, has an impressive-sounding but impractical maximum ISO setting. The Canon, being a professional-spec camera, has a more reasonable and usable max setting. To get a visual indication of the difference in image quality and exposure metering, go to the 7D Mark II review here:

Fixed Pattern Image Noise

Fixed pattern noise is noise that is produced by the camera circuitry itself, and typically comes from read noise or from dark current noise. Read noise is intrinsic to the process of taking data off of the sensor and is produced regardless of the shooting circumstance, whereas dark current noise is a result of the interference of the surrounding circuitry and tends to show up on long exposures.

The following is a short exposure from the three cameras with the body cap on and the eyepiece covered. This produces an exposure with no external light and minimal interference from thermal noise; you are getting mostly the read noise by doing this. The bottom portion of the sample has been boosted in brightness to make the texture of the pattern noise more visible. The upshot is that there is a bit more leeway in how much shadow-lifting that you can do in post processing with the D7200 by virtue of having a finer and more random looking noise grain than the D7100.

Nikon D7200 and D7100 fixed pattern noise

In other words, this is once again be the best image quality that you can get out of an APS-C sensor. The Canon 70D and 7D Mark II are good cameras but visibly lag in terms of dynamic range and noise control. The Fujifilm X-T1 has the pleasing "Fuji-look" but won't be able to objectively match the Nikon in terms of outright resolution and ability to pick fine detail out of reds and blues. The Sony A6000 would have similar image quality to the D7200 were it not for the way that Sony cameras process images. The Sony JPEG engine is rather heavy-handed with contrast and Sony RAW files use a compressed 11-bit format which  may lead to reduced highlight latitude in post-processing. For all of the other underwhelming non-changes with the D7200, the fact that it is still very Nikon-like in terms of the image-pipeline is a good thing. Now if they would only improve their RAW converter....


DX Upgraders

As is always the case, you get more value for money if you skip at least one generation. If you are using the D7100, there isn't much of an economic case for switching to the D7200. The D7200 is a better camera, and the buffer does make it work better for birders and those who need to do extended bursts. However, if you are a birder that is currently using the D7100, you will likely have found a way to (grudgingly) live with the shallow buffer.

The D7200 is a more worthwhile upgrade for D7000 users. From a file processing-standpoint, even though it is now an older camera, there is a reason to keep the D7000 if you have one, and that is because of how malleable the files are to post processing. (See this article about the so-called "ISOlessness" of the D7000 and cameras like it.) The D7200 makes the 24mp resolution "work better" than the D7100; there's less pattern noise in the deep shadows and compared to the D7000, the colours are a bit more natural looking at high ISO's. Of course, there is also the issue of focus performance with the D7000; it has an undeserved reputation for back-focusing, though truth be told, the D7100 with it's 51-point system is more reliable and generally has a high keeper rate. In this regard, the D7200 is once again better.

For anybody coming from the D80 or D90, you might as well go straight to the D7200 if you plan on staying in DX, but with the caveat to wait for rebates and discounts before buying. Usually, the discounting at the beginning of a camera's model life is not as generous as it is six months to a year in, but if you look at the D7200 as not being a "new" model so much as it is a refresh/continuation of the D7100, it might not take as long before the price moves off of MSRP.

Users of the D3xxx and D5xxx cameras (D5300, D5300, etc) might be served better by looking for a discounted out-going D7100 over the D7200 if the price differential is great enough. This is especially true if are just coming into your own with mastering the more technical aspects of photography and haven't the budget or inclination to acquire multiple lenses and flashes. If you are at this stage in photography, the D7100 will be more than enough, and the advantage that the D7200 has over it aren't immediately realized if you aren't pushing the capabilities of the camera

As to the whereabouts of the mythical D400....  this pretty much seals the deal. It's still missing the full metal frame and the "pro" control layout, but the upgrade in AF and buffer were pretty much the sore points for D300 hold-outs. The D7200 comes close enough to the ideal that there seems to be little point in a fully semi-pro DX camera anymore. The "professional" portion of the old D200/D300 user base has long since migrated to full frame, whereas the "semi" portion (or rather, the consumer portion) now has had three iterations of the D7xxx series. Don't misconstrue that as saying that you can't get professional quality-results out of the D7200, though. "Pro" is a label that the marketing departments apply; you can use the camera however you want. Yes, there is a price gap between the D7200 and the D610 that could be filled by a fully professional-DX camera, but any such camera that would appear now would have to be more than merely a D7200 with a metal body and the pro-layout.

APS-C Brand Switchers

In all honesty, the D7200 isn't the equal of the Canon 7D Mark II. It isn't as tough and it isn't as fast. The reality, though, is it is "good enough" in terms of the overall package, and if you hone in on the specifics of image quality and motion tracking, it's better. There isn't a good economic case to switch systems to get one over the other, not if you are invested in lens sets. Both of these cameras are getting typecast as birder-photographer cameras by their respective companies... affordable high pixel density cameras for use with longer lenses. While this may be true, both are excellent general purpose tools in their own regard.

A closer match to the D7200 in price is the 70D. While not as good a still-photography camera as the Nikon, the 70D is far easier to step into if you do casual videography by virtue of its Dual Pixel autofocus technology. Properly set up, you will get good 1080 footage out of both cameras; however, for causal family shots the Canon's video autofocus is lifechangingly more convenient. This also applies somewhat to the 7D Mark II, but without the swivelling touch screen, video seems like an afterthought on the more expensive camera.

FX Upgraders

More than what Canon is doing, the D7200's main competition will be another Nikon camera, namely the D750. Of course, if you are in either Nikon or Canon camp, then you will likely have considered jumping to full frame for quite some time. This is something that many people consider and is something that Nikon is actively encouraging users to do, but if you aren't getting paid for your photography it makes little financial sense. Being able to afford the more expensive camera is one thing, but if it were a cold hard calculation, there are other things that you could do with the price difference.

Left: Nikon D750   Right: D7200

In this regard, it's a case of the D7100 vs the D610 all over again. The image quality is roughly one stop better and you get the corresponding difference in depth of field, but that means less and less as ISO quality, image stabilization and the proliferation of faster lenses increases. However, taken as a whole, it's worth noting that the feature gap between the D750 and the D7200 is larger than with the original gap between the D7100 and D600; the D750 in execution is playing in a slightly higher product bracket than the D610. If you aren't going for the D750, it's not a case of merely settling for the D7200. It's because the D750 and all full frame cameras have an associated bump in size/weight/cost for everything... lenses and accessories...

Essentially, the situation hasn't changed since the days of the D700.  The jump from DX to FX is just as daunting as ever for the non-professional. What has changed? With a moderately good lens set, the D7200 is a better all-around camera than the old D700. If you want a DX camera that can do what the D750 does today, it might be another four year wait.

This does highlight an advantage of not buying more than you need. Many people look up enviously towards the FX cameras, thinking that they will be good enough to last as their last camera that they will buy in a long while...maybe ever. You see the problem with that, don't you? If that was what you though about the D700, you'd be stuck with a big heavy camera that is outperformed significantly in resolution by a D3300. Just like cars, depreciation is a significant cost of camera ownership, and the more expensive you buy, the greater the depreciation will be.

Mirrorless Dabblers

As to the "leak" of traditional DSLR users to mirrorless, the D7200 won't stop that trend. If you need to rely on your camera for mission critical work, a device like the D7200 is better than the mirrorless alternatives. This is especially when it comes to focusing speed and lighting options. However, many people who opt for cameras like the Fujfilm X-T1 or Olympus OM-D E-M1 are making a conscious choice to get off of the gear-upgrade merry-go-round. The D7200 won't speak to these people, but it might have caught their attention if the body had been redesigned to be like the D750.

Nikon really missed the mark with the virtually unchanged D7200 body. Next to the D5500, the D7200 feels as dated as handling the D610 next to the D750. Almost everybody who has tried these cameras have come away with positive impressions that the smaller and lighter carbon-fibre bodies offer. Nikon might have felt that the D7200 didn't need it, since it isn't a larger FX camera and the enthusiast DX glass sets tend to be bigger and heavier than average anyway. This is a mistake. Nikon and Canon are letting cameras like the  D5500 and SL1 be their mirrorless competitors; while there obvious truth that the consumer-level segment prefers smaller and lighter, a high proportion of X-T1, A7 and E-M1 users are former enthusiast-level DSLR owners. A D750-style size reduction would have been an effective way of slowing the migration towards mirrorless, but as is, the unchanged D7200 plays to the existing base of Nikon users... and that's it.

Marketing 101: don't aim for for the market is, but aim for where it is going. It's as though the D7200 came from 2013, when all of the discussion was focused on the small buffer of the D7100 and mirrorless wasn't a credible threat. The problem with that is that Nikon very clearly sees that the market is going towards smaller and lighter, and it's a glaring omission that the enthusiast-DX camera is the only Nikon segment that hasn't gotten this treatment. Even though the D750 and the D5500 are the most radical re-workings, the range of cameras that have shrunk while becoming more comfortable to hold extends from the D3300 through to the D810. It's hard not to come to the conclusion that the serious-DX neglect is intentional on the part of Nikon.

Left: D7100 with Tamron 17-50mm    Right: Fujifilm X-T1 with 16-55mm.

That aside: take a look at the picture above. Both 16mp APS-C cameras with standard-zoom f/2.8 lenses. Admittedly, the Tamron is small for a 17-50mm lens, but the point is clear: there isn't a size advantage to mirrorless once you get into the type of shooting that DSLR's are good for. The X-T1 is a darling camera when it is paired with primes, but once you get into work that requires working-zoom type lenses, the size and weight difference shrinks.

Concluding Thoughts

Like the cameras before it, the D7200 is a good camera. The problem is that you probably already own a good camera. That might be enough. "Good" might not do it for you and you are looking for a "great" camera. The problem with the D7200 is that it lies somewhere between.

If anything, this camera is miss-named. Were it to fall under the old naming convention, it would have been more accurately named the "D7100s"... same camera, minor updates to keep it fresh for another period of time until the next big thing. This was true of the D70s, the D2Xs and it worked very well for the3 D4s. The problem is that you can't mention the concept of an advanced Nikon APS-C camera without thinking of the D300... and how there isn't a successor or how lukewarm the D300s update was. If anything, the transition from the D7100 to the D7200 feels a little like the one between the D600 and the D610; the name was changed to make it feel as though Nikon was doing something where in fact, it's a bit of a marketing ploy to bide time. Cameras like the D750 and D5500 feel like the part of Nikon that is looking forward, whereas the D7200 feels like it is building on the past.

This will be the inevitable conclusion reached by many, as market dynamics have little patience for subtleties. However, in actual practice, the D7200 truly is a better camera than the D7100, if not by much. The image quality is a bit better, the buffer is deeper and the autofocus is more capable. These are all good things. It's a bit like the difference between the D810 and the D800... many small changes on paper, but in real-life use the differences amount to something more than the paper specs suggest.

With thanks to Broadway Camera 

Nikon Picture Control: Sharpening

The sharp eyes of A CDN $10 note. Taken with Nikon D7100.

Sharpening isn't a free ride. You can get something out of it, but you won't be paying nothing. Nikon tends to have a conservative mindset about this and other manipulations of the image data. Though you can get crisp looking images out of the camera, the enthusiast-level give you the most when the sharpening and contrast are turned down in order to preserve data quality for post processing. If you aren't going to be processing your images, then Nikon gives you the option of tuning the amount of sharpening via Picture Control.

Nikon D7100 with 18-140mm kit lens.

This is all well and good, but the documentation is what you would call technically correct: it gives you the correct information about the technology, but it doesn't give you a sense on how to use it. To that end, the following is an example of a a scene shot on a D7100 at ISO 3200. This is more or less where noise becomes intrusive enough to affect subjective image quality:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II Review

Left: Version 1    Right: Version II

As the old saying goes, small cheap good: pick two but you can't have all three. If it is small and good, it's not cheap. If it is cheap and good, it generally isn't small. If it is small and cheap, it's not necessarily good. This is a good adage to remember when you shop for camera gear, as it keeps your expectations in line and helps you set a budget for the gear that you need and can afford.

Of course, the key word is expectation. The AF-S DX Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II is small, cheap and good... if your expectation of what "good" means is kept in check. To make it clear, this isn't damning with faint praise, as the second version of this lens is better in every regard over the original 55-200VR. That lens in itself was an improvement over the original non-stabilized 55-200mm lens, and was (and is) a good lens by virtue of being compact and offering reasonable image quality at an affordable price.

However, time moves on. Because of the rise of mirrorless cameras, the 55-200mm VR, which is mall for a DSLR lens, is "big" for a generation that is only accustomed to only travelling with nothing more than a smartphone. Nikon addressed that by adding a retracing mechanism to the lens body. This was first seen on the Nikon 1 kit lenses; a retracting version of the 18-55mm VR kit lens is sold with later versions of the D3200, D3300 and D5300.

Left: Version 1    Right: Version II

Truth be told, with the lens retraced, this is an impressively small package to reach 200mm on the DX format. That said, it isn't what makes this lens good.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

DSLR VS Mirrorless: The Camera Market in 2015

Left to Right: Olympus E-M5II, Sony A6000, Fujifilm XE-2, Nikon D5500, Canon SL1

What you see above is an assortment of mid-tier DSLR and mirrorless cameras. They occupy different price points and serve different target markets, but all can be said to be "smaller large-sensor interchangeable lens cameras" which also have good image quality and/or handling in a portable package. Crudely speaking, these are cameras for people who love the act of picture-taking but who don't like carrying stuff around. This is a tricky market segment for the camera companies. People who love cameras tend to also like stuff... as in buying it and carting it around to places. Your typical Nikon D7100/7200 or Canon 7DmII user is unlike the typical buyers of the above 5 cameras. If anything, advanced enthusiasts are atypical of the market in that they tend to buy multiple lenses, whereas the mid-tier group may buy one or two extra lenses... over the entire lifetime of their camera ownership.

For this reason, the mid-tier is a tricky market to serve because the customers know enough to go for the better quality of a large sensor camera but aren't so fully committed to photography that they want to accumulate extra gear. This is a sticking point for many entering the camera market; for a generation that came of age during the smartphone revolution, anything bigger than an iPhone is "big." This is a demographic that is simply not used to carrying stuff around. Look at all of the things that a smartphone replaces: it's not just cameras, a smart phone also takes the place of a watch, a calculator, a music player,a day planner....

So ostensibly, the message to the camera manufacturer's is that people want smaller cameras. To that end, the conventional wisdom is that mirrorless cameras are the future. That';s been the sentiment for a number of years now. It's more true than ever before, and in two ways its still off in the future. The first reason is practical: mirrorless cameras have obvious size benefits over traditional DSLR's, but the second reason is more problematic. The issue with forecasting the future is not so much a matter of "what will happen", but "who will make it happen"... and "who" is a matter of who is willing and who is capable. Therein lies the problem, as Canon and Nikon, being heavily invested in the DSLR route and are not willing, whereas the mirrorless camera makers, with the possible exception of Sony, are not able. Not at the rate things are going.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Nikon D7200 Launch Review: First Impressions

Nikon D7200 with AF-S 18-140mm lens

The Nikon D7200 is the inevitable successor to the D7100. Despite all of the attention that Nikon hopes that you will pay to their FX lineup, the truth of the matter is that a larger proportion of their consumers are DX users. Since this is an unavoidable fact, Nikon has finally turned their own attention to serious-DX again. The headline specs are:

  • 24MP APS-C sensor
  • Larger expanded ISO range (to ISO 102,400)
  • Body is similar (same as?) to D7100 
  • 6 fps burst, larger buffer (Huzzah!)
  • 51-point MultiCAM 3500DX2 autofocus system
  • Improved low light focusing to -3EV, one stop better than D7100
  • 2,016 pixel RGB sensor exposure sensor (like D610, unlike D750)
  • Built-in Wi-Fi and NFC
  • ME-W1 wireless microphone option
  • Upgraded video (like D810 and D750), including Flat Picture Control
  • Battery life up from 950 to 1110 shots per charge
  • Body only price: $1,199.95 USD (Unchanged from D7100)

It goes without saying that owners of the D7100 will get better value by holding off an upgrade until the next generation... or biting the bullet to jump to full frame. This is just common camera sense, and has applied since the beginning of the DSLR boom. However, on its on merits, the D7200 is a feature laden camera that can perform in multiple roles. Despite the fact that full frame is "better" and that mirrorless is "the future", the D7100 (and cameras like it) was one of the best all-around cameras available. It wasn't as big, expensive and heavy as full frame, had much better focusing and metering than most mirrorless cameras, and had competitive image quality. What it wasn't, though, was the flavour of the day. The serious-enthusiast portion of the DSLR market is still probably the biggest segment in terms of market value, but its been a long time since the heyday of the D200 and D300, so it isn't as talked about. Nonetheless, the D7200 inherits its predecessor's virtues, so it will likely again be a value-packed "serious" camera. In the (probable) words of Ken Rockwell, it's "The World's Best Camera to Date (asterisk)". Actually, that would probably be mostly true...