Friday, December 7, 2012

Nikon D7000 Review



This is a long overdue review. Obviously, it is not a review about the newest and greatest D7000; it's a review about the D7000 as a great value near the end of its model lifecycle. Originally, I had thought that I was not going to write a review, since my thoughts about the D7000 have trickled out here and there throughout other blog posts this year. However, this seems as good a time as any to sum them up because of a number of factors, not the least of which is that the price as of  the end of 2012 is at an all-time low for the amount of performance the D7000 is capable of. You also have the 24mp DX era ever so slowly dawning on us, with the D3200 and D5200 having come, and the presumed D400 announcement around the corner.

That said, Nikon's mid-level cameras have always been stalwart performers. Users of the D70, D80 and D90 tend to hold onto their cameras for a long time simply because they are well made photographic tools. So in that sense, we are nearing the end of one part of the D7000 story, where the first time users have already fallen in love with it (and occasionally fallen out of love with it), and are now just entering the time when the secondary market is going to hunting for it as well. Regardless of what comes next, it's important to keep a little perspective; this is a lot of photographic horsepower in an affordable body, which means that the D7000 will have a place in the Nikon photographic world even after the introduction of it's eventual successor.

Update: For a look at the so-called "ISO-lessness" of the D7000, read here.

As of December 2012 the retail price for a D7000 is floating at just under $900 in the U.S. and Canada. If you'll remember, the introductory price was $1199; all told, this is a 25% discount off of the introductory price. To put that in perspective, your average dealer/retail markup is only around 5% on a dSLR body (they try to make it up with accessories). I've heard figures of between 25-40% gross margin if you take into account the whole manufacturing/supply chain (don't quote me on that), so any way that you look at it, this is end of life pricing that we are seeing. The price of the D7000 (and Canon 60D is you are so inclined) is not going to get much cheaper. There's always the fire sale to move the last remaining units when a new model comes out, but that usually ends up being a lottery. So $899 it is.


Was the D7000 the D300s Replacement?


From a product standpoint, no. The D300s is geared towards a more sophisticated level of photographer compared to the D90 and D7000... even if the D7000 has better specs and performance. However, since Nikon was taken an absurdly long time to introduce the D400, then for all intents and purposes, the D7000 has been the D300s successor. There are those loyal to the Dxxx camp who are waiting for the real thing, but a lot of time has passed, which has been enough for some D300/D300s users to discover that they can live with some of the downgrades to the D7000.

Before the expansion of full frame, the D200 and D300 were workhorse cameras. The high end pros were using Canon, but a lot of weekend professionals got by with the DX Nikons. The landscape began to change with the D700, and the Canon 5DmII; full frame became affordable to a larger number of working professionals. The D700 with it's extra wide dynamic range was in some ways a spiritual successor to the cult favourite Fuji S5 Pro. Meanwhile, Canon made strides in turning photographers into part-time videographers with the 5DmII. As of 2012 the revolution is complete, full frame and videography is pretty much a staple of the working professional, which illustrates why the D400 has not arrived yet. The professional market for this type of camera continues to move to full frame, while the enthusiast side has been served by the D7000. More than a few people have raised their eyebrows and wondered if there was still a place for professional crop frame cameras.


St. Paul's Hospital Lights of Hope campaign, D7000, ISO 1000


Further complicating the mix has been the introduction of the Nikon D600. Though the D600 is clearly consumer-oriented, Nikon's product roll-out has given the appearance that the company expects D300 users to graduate to the D600. Virtually every major lens announcement in the past year has been full frame, and the D600 arrived at a time when D300s users were expecting at least some sort of upgrade. In actuality, Nikon does not sell that many full frame cameras (best guess is about 10% of their dSLR volume) and still relies on DX for the bulk of their sales. There will have to be a D400, but they needed to clear product space so as to give the D600 as much breathing room as possible.


Nikon D7000 - ISO 1600, f/5.6, 1/125s


Which brings us back to the D7000. What all of this means is that the D7000 needed to be good enough to tide Nikon's mid-level DX effort through what would turn out to be a very long drought; and with that, it has done very well. If you had been waiting for the D400 (the greatest camera ever of 2013 as pronounced by Ken Rockwell.... wait for it...), there's no deal-breaker about the D7000 that would have stopped you from taking great photos all this time. Sure, there are some functional short comings, but through all of this time that we have not had a true professional DX camera,. the D7000 would have performed just as competently.

Is the D7000 a Good Value?


Yes, absolutely. If you think about it, because the D7000 needed to fill in a gap during a time when there was no D300s successor, it needed to move up slightly in features (autofocus fine tuning, more durable body, compatibility with AI-S lenses) to fill a void in what was still a very large market space. The price moved up incrementally over the D90 at the time of that camera's introduction, but if you account for inflation and currency fluctuation, the D7000 was almost the same price as the D90. In other words, even at the time of launch, you were getting more money camera for your money. Today, it looks expensive next to the D5100, but that is because the lower model is apparently clogging up Nikon's retail channels because of lower than anticipated demand in this weakening world economy. If you are intent on being a student of the photographic arts, the D80/D90/D7000 cameras are a better fit than the D5000/D5100. The lower spec cameras share some of the components, but the control and ergonomics of the higher spec cameras will serve you better and longer if you are the sort that wants to not take better pictures, but also be a better photographer.

As of the end of 2012, I wouldn't recommend a used D7000, especially at the retail prices that we are seeing. You wouldn't be saving that much over a new unit, and you would miss out on the manufacturer's warranty. (Also good to remember: Nikon warranties are not transferable, so this has to be priced fairly into any used transaction.) This is a good time for the customer, not so much for the camera companies. With the widespread discounting going on, you can bet that the manufacturers are trying to clear inventory, which either means that they misjudged the size of the market or the economy did worse than they anticipated. Looking at world events, it seems like the latter is especially true, considering that Europe is still on economic tender hooks. Said another way, if Nikon had correctly anticipated this year's conditions, they would not be discounting cameras at the level that they are doing at the busiest time of the year, so what we are seeing may not repeat itself next year.

The other thing to consider is that for most of us, 16mp is way more than what we actually need. We always say something like this when the megapixels go up with every generation, but it's true nevertheless in that for the way the majority of pictures are take, 16mp is overkill. What do I mean by that? If you are careful, you can print images from the D70 up to a size of 14 by 11". Okay, so if 6.1mp can do that, then 16mp will have no problem. You have to think about this for a second... the larger a print gets, the more likely you will be viewing it at a long distance, which means that your eye will be less able to pick out fine detail. So yes, there will be an improvement, and a noticeable one at that with the D7000, but there are other factors at play as well, like how you intend to use the final image.

That said, more data is more data, so I am not against the dawning of the 24mp DX era either. However, 16mp is something of a transition zone. The high resolution will expose flaws  in lesser lenses, and most definitely  does expose flaws in hand-holding technique. However, to the first point, it should be said that it is not true that higher resolution sensor's "out-resolve" cheaper lenses... most lenses in their aperture zoom sweet spots will still do fine. As we go higher and higher, though, it is less likely that we will consider 16mp to be an outdated level of resolution, as we are getting into the region of diminishing returns with regards to consumer level devices now. Put another way, if 12mp were an outdated resolution, there wouldn't be so many folks hanging on to their D700's.

Think about that for a minute. There are lot of people out there who have been shooting since the days of film and manual-just-about-everything. For some of these folks,  D7000 could very well be the last camera that they buy, not because they are old geezers that have one foot in the grave (hey, I started out with a Topcon RE-1. No autofocus, a little needle for exposure, and no flash synching) but because the D7000 could last them for quite some time here on out. This is an actual problem for the camera industry, as sales of dSLR's are forecasted to be flat to declining in the near future. Nearly everybody at the enthusiast level has a camera now, it's just a matter of moving people off of their existing devices onto the next greatest thing. Ostensibly that seems to be FX, but from what I can tell, sales of the D600 haven't been as strong as hoped, so for you bargain hunters out there, relax, $2100 is not the new normal for a serious-enthusiast camera. Think of all of the people near retirement right now how buy a new Honda or Toyota... that car could very well be the one that they keep driving until they decide to stop. That could also very well be the dSLR market unless there thy give the market something new to get excited about.


Does the D7000 Backfocus?


Grab a cup of coffee (or your favourite beverage), this is going to be a long discussion. There was been a lot of unfortunate forum chatter since the D7000 was released about whether or not the camera is prone to backfocusing, and whether or not this represents a design flaw or some kind of manufacturing defect...

The way Nikon's nomenclature for their autofocus units works is that the number in the unit name generally represents either the relative sensing area of the detecting elements, or it represents the number of discrete contrast sensing elements contained on the sensor. If you assume that the relative size of the detecting elements has remained constant over time, then the total sensing area and the number of units roughly corresponds to the number in the unit name. You can see a problem with that already, as you would expect that the technology in the sensing elements would have gotten more efficient over time, and presumably smaller like most other electronic devices. However, for the sake of argument, we are going to ignore that possibility.... So here is list of the various autofocus units used over the years, correlating the number of AF points with the implied area/number of AF units per point:
 
Camera AF Unit Points Units per AF Point




D40 CAM530 3 177
D70  CAM900 5 180
D1x CAM1300 5 260
D2x CAM2000 9 222
D200 CAM1000 11 91
D300 CAM3500 51 69
D7000 CAM4800 39 123

As you can see, there is something a generational difference starting with the CAM1000 unit, where the average area per point becomes smaller than that used in the past. I want to caution that this is a numerical thought exercise only, as you still have to take into account the fact that:
  1. Autofocus sensing points are not actually points
  2. Different AF units use as a different mix of cross-type and linear AF detecting points 
However,  the implied area per AF unit is the largest with the D7000, almost double that of the D300. This alone hints at the number of complaints about  the D7000's ability to focus: because the area per AF point is larger, what the D7000's AF unit has done is to trade off a little bit of specificity in exchange for sensitivity. If the points are smaller, they can discriminate between finer amounts of detail. However, if the autofocus points are larger, they might not be so precise in determining the exact distance, especially if your target has some depth to it. In fact, a common complaint about D300 users who have used the D7000 is that the focus is not as consistent... looking at the implied area per AF unit, you can see why. It would be like driving a Ferrari and then stepping into a Honda. Your reflexes would have been habituated towards the the Italian car, and jumping into the Honda... yes, the steering won't be as precise... but then again, the Ferrari was always meant for higher performance, yes?

A crude way to explain the way an autofocus point works is to say that AF is a bit fat and lazy. First of all, the effective area is larger than the rectangle indicator in the viewfinder. Secondly, the AF point is still looking at an area, not a point. So within the area that it is looking at, it will tend to lock focus on the thing that is closest to you in space. Hence the analogy, "fat and lazy". Think of it as you on the couch on a Sunday afternoon. You'd sooner reach for the beer on the coffee table than walk to the fridge to get one. (However, I am not implying anything about your physique). However, there is one exception to this; as much as the AF sensor like to lock on to the nearest thing that it sees, it has an even stronger tendency to lock on to contrasty things. Think fat, lazy, and a little bit near-sighted as well... the eyes might not be so good, but they are still good enough to make out strongly detailed things.

A word about the size of the effective area versus the size of the indicator in the viewfinder. With virtually all dSLR's, the size of the effective focus area is larger than the indicator, and in some instances, the effective area is centered with the indicator either. This is not a design flaw, all cameras made by all companies experience this. There are a number of reasons. First of all, light doesn't arrive in discrete points, it diffracts and has fuzzy edges (my university physics teacher would fail me for using that terminology). So in that sense, there isn't any point to making a finder that exactly matches the the shape of the effective area. Think of the rectangle as more of a probability guide. There is a very high probability that the camera will focus on what is inside the rectangle., but there is also a low probability that it will lock onto something outside of the rectangle. Another reason for the discrepancy is more pragmatic... aligning the view finder to precisely match the autofocus sensor's is time consuming and costly.  This is one of those 'experience things' that separates good photographers from budding ones. Autofocus is like exposure; it is extremely helpful, but it is still only an aide, and one in which you must discern the information that you are getting.

So going back to the autofocus point's on the D7000. Why so big? I'm of the opinion, and others differ, that Nikon tended to over-serve the intended target audience of serious amateurs, who tend to rush through shots a little faster than they will admit to. So speedy is good. Everybody likes snappy autofocus that doesn't hunt, but non-professionals are a little less adept and a little less picky about AF accuracy.... unless they are pixel peeping, in which case you won't hear the end of it on the internet. Think of how the matrix metering tends to weigh what's under the actively autofocus point more heavily than usual on a D80... that too was an intentional design for the amateur crowd, albeit one which was never received well. The AF unit on the D600 is similar to the on on the D7000, and on a full frame camera, the size of the AF points relative to the frame size is not as big an issue.

However, bigger points also means more sensitivity, and in this, the D7000 has one major improvement over the D80 and D90: motion tracking. The D7000 is rated to focus down to light levels of -1 EV; this is the same as the D80 and D90, but there's the ability to do something, and then there's how well you can do it. Using any of the AF-C modes on a D7000, all the way to 3D tracking is a surprisingly carefree experience coming from the older cameras. This point isn't to be underestimated. AF-C was a nice feature on the D80, but it wasn't something I ever felt comfortable using. Of course, there is more to AF performance than just the AF-unit; there's the amount of processing horsepower in the camera, the speed of the lens, both in terms of the glass and in whether or not it is a short or long focus-throw design... etc etc. But in moving to the D7000, motion tracking became a much more everyday thing for me than with the older cameras. This is exactly the sort of thing that makes for a good camera upgrade: you don't just want better, you really want something that opens up a new area of photography for you.

So in summary, the act of focusing with D7000 should be more deliberate than what you are used to with the older cameras. It isn't a deal breaker, but there are also rewards to be had as well. And most important of all, don't let forum chatter scare you away. As with all production runs, some people have had genuine issues, but every generation of cameras produces a strong following of detractors for whatever reason. If some of the chatter makes you uncertain, its good to pay attention to who isn't doing the detracting...

Does the D7000 Have a Tendency to Overexpose Images?


Absolutely not. However, there is something going on here that has been described at length elsewhere, but which is not well understood by your more casual shooter. The output from the D7000 tends to produce stronger looking midtones than previous cameras, giving the impression that you have an overly bright picture. That's not the case; what is happening is that the camera is correctly weighing exposure and colour information at the presumed subject, and biasing the output towards that. Since most subjects fall into the midtone area, it seems that camera is overexposing, but on may of these shots, you won't find burnt highlights or blocked up shadows. Again, this is a bit of a concession towards your typical consumer shooter, and what you find is that for the most part, subjects tend to be well exposed and colour accurate with the D7000. However, the way the exposure works doesn't seem to be as linear as on the D200/D300, which is what many of the more experienced shooters prefer.

D7000, ISO 100, f/7.1, 1/250s, 26mm

In fact, a strength of the D7000 is the exceptionally low read noise of the 16mp sensor, and the gain in dynamic range over the D90. For about 80% of the time, and discounting depth of field equivalencies, this camera is the equivalent or better of the D700.... that's the advantage of time, new sensors tend to be better than old ones, even if they are smaller.

Does the D7000 Backfocus in Incandescent Light?

 

D7000 - ISO 6400, f/2.8, 135mm, 1/50s. Almost near dark circumstances.
 
Maybe. To be honest, this is above my technical paygrade, so I'm unable to give a qualified opinion. From what I have read, it's the infrared light that's mixed in with the ambient light that has a potential to fool the system, but modern systems supposedly correct for this. If it were just a matter of the colourcast or the wavelength of the light, then you would expect red objects to also cause the system to backfocus, but that's clearly not the case. People have also reported instances brought on by the infrared focus assist lamps on the Nikon flash units. In Canon cameras, there is a consensus that certain types of fluorescent light causes problems. Some people also report neon light as a source of trouble.

Whatever the issue is, it must be something subtle or something that the camera is capable of dealing with the majority of the time. My gut feeling  is that it's not easy to reproduce between different people, even if some people seem to see it consistently in their own shots. Light sources vary, and you'd think that it's a reasonable expectation that camera engineers would have thought about this by now. So what users are dealing with is either extreme or spurious cases, as reproducibility between different photographers seems spotty at best. My guess is to not worry about it, but to be aware that it can happen when shooting in dim light with a strong colour cast.


What to Look for in a Used Camera


Even though I think it's better to buy a new D7000 in 90% of the cases as of December 2012, that may change in the future. There isn't anything in particular to watch out for with the D7000 compared to other cameras; the same things to inspect are the same things that you would inspect on any other used camera purchase. Just some random thoughts that occur to me:
  • Shutter count: You generally want to find the lowest shutter count that you can, and if not, you want the price to be discounted to reflect the amount of usage the camera has been through. This is true for all cameras, but as the D7000 is rated at a relatively quick 6fps, be mindful of buying a model from a 'spray and pray' shooter who uses burst mode instead of anticipating for the proper shot.
  • Lens Mount: If the camera has been used with some large and long lenses and put through heavy duty work, make sure that you test for focus accuracy with a lens that is familiar to you before buying. I don't just mean front-back, but also look for inconsistency side to side as well. A key point about the construction if the D7000 is that its metal frame only encompasses the top, back and bottom of the camera. The mirror box and front plate are not metal, as they would be on a D300, which makes the D7000 theoretically more susceptible to lens mount damage. The damage doesn't occur with normal use, but can be significant if you drop the camera with a long lens mounted on it. The lens will act as a lever and amplify the strike, occasionally to the point that it will crack the camera body. I haven't seen this yet with a full metal body frame, but have seen a few instances with the plastic bodies (D90 and down). Lesser strikes might not cause overt damage, but may be enough to bend the lens mount imperceptibly which will throw the autofocus off. This last thing can be frustratingly subtle, so subtle that you might not pick up on it until you run it through the full paces. Again, this is a common sense sort of thing to check on all used cameras before you buy, but since the D7000 is also more likely to be used professionally than the previous mid-level cameras, you might want to keep this in mind. 
  • Mirror oil spots: Some early models seemed to be affected by the mirror throwing oil onto the sensor. In some cases, a wet cleaning resolve the problem, and in others in didn't. Some users needed to have the whole mirror box replaced (usually under warranty, as this ear in the production run). If you suspect that a prospective camera might be afflicted, you would check in the same way that you would for dust spots. On a test shot, oil spots have more defined margins than dust spots, and tend to accumulate on one side of the sensor, as opposed to being randomly situated across the whole area of the sensor.
  • Rubber grip. The patch on the back of a Nikon dSLR where your right thumb rests is notorious for coming unstuck after prolonged use. That is because it is some sort of neoprene rubber, which absorbs oil from your hand. Over time, this makes the rubber patch expand, which pries it loose from the body. This is a really simple fix if you have one that is coming unstuck. Swab the area under the rubber patch with rubbing alcohol, and use rubber cement to attach the patch back in place. You may have to squish it in to make it fit, but the good thing is that the rubber cement will not damage the camera.
  • Cracked LCD. For some people, a cracked but functional LCD would not be turn off. For most, it would be pause for thought. The problem is that a modern dSRL is a horridly repair-unfriendly product, and if a damaged LCD does spontaneously go over the cliff metaphorically, there is a lot of camera to disassemble in order to replace the whole unit. As the saying goes, time is money, which makes major repairs n a modern camera a cost prohibitive thing.

Conclusion

Just as there are still D70 users out there, it's very likely that there will be still be D7000 users eight years from now. In the near future, we are definitely at the doorstep of the 24mp DX era. If you set aside usability and video and concentrate on stills, here's a thought to consider: The D5200 appears to be using a variant of the Sony NEX-7 sensor, not the Nikon D3200 one. By that account, one could reasonably expect that a presumed Nikon D7100 or D400 would have similar output to the NEX-7, possibly better given Nikon's history with Sony sensors. So.... if you already looked at the Sony output and decided that you weren't tempted this year, then you actually won't be missing that much with the presumed next generation of Nikon dSLR's. Just another example of why we've had such  a long wait for the next batch of serious DX cameras... the current ones are quite satisfactory already.

Update: As of 2013, we now know that the sensor in the D5200 is Toshiba sourced, and in all likelihood, the D7100 as well. Both show sample images that are better than the Sony NEX-7 and SLT-77, but the sentiment still stands. If you were happy with 16mp and weren't lusting after the 24mp output from the 2012 cameras, the 2013 cameras probably won't be big an enough of an improvement either, lack of low pass filter or otherwise.

3 comments:

  1. I think this is one of the best cameras and people don't want to get confused with other options.
    Thanks for posting.

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  2. Thank you. It was really useful to put things in perspective. I'm considering buying it now, in Europe it's half the price of the d7100 (seriously, 600 Eur vs 1000 eur).
    I was a afraid of the oil issues, but everyone is saying it's just the earlier copies. And this clarified a lot about the problems with the AF.
    Now I've got a question: I had a d5100, wasn't much of a pixel peeper, but I didn't notice any problems with the AF. Thing is I plan to get a Sigma 30 mm 1.4F "Art", and dof might get a little tricky if the AF doesn't do it. So, should I be worried about its performance with very shallow dof? I mean, I won't always have a very "contrasty" point at the distance I want to focus to solve all my problems, how can I get around the lack of sensibility? Cheers!

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    Replies
    1. What all lens reviewers know but are quick to gloss over is that all focusing is imprecise because it's a mechanical process. It doesn't matter what lens you use, but the imprecision get's magnified at f/1.4. When I use it, I tend to bracket focus a lot, because a 1-2 mm here and there can make a difference. However.... keep in mind that because of they way they are manufactured, DSLR viewfinders can't show you the added dof past f/2.8, so you don't get a true representation of what you are looking at.

      Also, with the D7000 (and any camera for that matter), always pay attention to what's behind your point of focus so that you can get a sense of what the AF point is locking on to. Modern DSLR viewfinder's were made for brightness, not manual focusing, so the reason why so many people are frustrated by focus is because it looked like it was in-focus a the time of the shot... however, it's not like the film days, you can tell if it it's generally focused, but not if it's perfectly focused.

      If you want the best precision, use live-view. Scroll down to the end of my orchid article (under "Misc")and look for the shot of tip of the orchid bud. That was f/1.4... not as precise as I wanted, but it got a little bit of a help-ing hand in post.
      (That's another 'secret' that people don't mention o the internet, that their great shots have a little help. We're all guilty of it.)Have fun with the Sigma, too!

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