Thursday, February 21, 2013

Nikon D7100 Impressions

Nikon D7100! The long anticipated day has finally come! To be fair, the wait has been just about right if you were looking for a replacement for the D7000, but it's long overdue if you are wanted to replace a D300s. The signs are a little ominous, though... the question on everybody's mind is if we have seen the last of the D300-style bodies with the introduction of the D7100. Let's get this one out of the way: probably yes.

But before we dive deeper into that question, there is no doubt that this is a lot of camera for the money.  With each new generation of mid-level enthusiast dSLR's, Nikon has managed to either meet or exceed expectations. If many ways, the D600 was like a D7000 with a full frame sensor stuffed into it. Likewise, the D7100 is like a D600 stuffed back into a D7000 body, only refreshed a bit.

Headline Specs

Behold, Ken Rockwell's best! ever! (insert weasel word) camera du jour:

  • 24.1mp sensor, no optical low pass filter (OLPF)
  • 51 point Multi-CAM 3500DX autofocus module, similar to D300s
  • 6 frames per second, 7 fps in 1.3 crop mode
  • 3.2" LCD
  • New OLED display within viewfinder
  • Shutter rated to 150,00 actuations 
  • Central autofocus point can function to f/8
  • MSP is $1,199.99 USD
  • March 21, 2013 release date
The big surprise is the lack of an optical low pass filter. Very likely, this sensor is a variant of the Toshiba sourced chip in the D5200. As pixel densities increase, the lack of an OLPF becomes more practical, as moiré is less likely to be generated. Recall that moiré is false information produced when the spatial frequency of the subject exceeds the sampling frequency of the camera. Increased resolution is increased sampling capability. The D800e is still susceptible to moire, and even though the D7100 has a greater pixel density, I feeling is that it will be more prone to moire than the D800e. Consider equivalent applications: at 35mm on the D7100 and 50mm on the D800, the field of view is approximately the same, only the D800 having more megapixels, has a higher sampling frequency capacity and can resolve finer detail before moiré sets in. However, it is possible that there may be some sort of  low pass filtering going on within the D7100's on-camera processing. If you've ever adjusted the anti-aliasing function on your video card driver, this is exactly the same idea.

I'm not sure I like the removal of the low-pass filter. There's a certain segment of the photographery community that likes the sharp acuity bite that light-to-no anti-aliasing filtration gives. Think Fujifilm X-Trans. I like it too, but it's never at the top of my list of most important features. There's a trade off somewhere down the line; with the Fuji cameras, it's colour smearing and fractal artifacts in high spatial frequency subjects. With the D7100 it will sure to be moiré. Let me put it to you in terms of a cost trade off: when shooting a D7100 hand-held, most people will not be able to extra more resolution out of the camera than a D7000, but the chances of generating visible moire have gone up greatly. In other words, in exchange for a harder to achieve upside, we know have to live with an easier to achieve downside. That said, moiré does not affect the majority of subjects, and the majority of D800e owners do not have to grapple with it  on a serious basis.

As mentioned before regarding the D5200, the Toshiba sensor is ostensibly very capable, giving near equivalent per-pixel performance as the 16mp sensor in the D7000. Since its launch, there has been a lot of internet chatter about banding in the deep shadows of the D5200 files. Whether the 24mp sensor is more susceptible to banding or not is irrelevant; most of the examples that have been put forth use extreme tone curve bending to prove their point. If you were interested in quality photography, you would not resort to this amount of image manipulation. As always, if you want quality, expose your images properly at the time of shooting. At the very least, expose them as close to how you would want them to be in the final edit.

The 1.3x crop mode very neatly address the issue of how Nikon has seemingly ignore the crowd of D300s shooters looking for more pixel density. (Think birders). This is a welcome feature considering that the D7100 has an abundance of pixels to crop with, and that the noise performance will be presumably on par to what we have seen with the D5200.  However, Nikon's literature  describing this feature is dreadful. Yes, it's cropped 1.3x, but what does that mean exactly? It means that you are getting the field of view that is equivalent to a FX lens of two times the real focal length. In other words, a 50mm lens on DX gives an effective field of view that is the equivalent of 75mm on DX. With the D7100's crop mode, the lens now becomes the equivalent of a 100mm FX lens. However, cropping 1.3x into the DX sensor gives you an effective sensor area that is similar in size to micro 4/3. 

Six frames per second normal and seven fps in crop frame mode are reasonable for this price range; if you want faster frame rates, there also needs to be an upgrade to the computational power of the predictive AF circuitry. However, a letdown is the size of the buffer, which only allows for 6 shots while shooting lossless NEF. I don't think that's a deal breaker, since intelligent shooters don't spray and pray, but it is nonetheless a limitation if you are doing serious work, and will probably keep some people pining for a "true" D300s successor.

A new useful photographic feature is spot white balance mode, which is triggered in Live View. No more fiddling around with the custom white balance preset. I find that a lot of my indoor social pictures are shot in places with mixed lighting.... fluorescent ambient, halogen spots, incandescent feature lights... in situations like this, the colour balance can be a bit of a lottery... spot selection would be very useful indeed.

Construction-wise, there are cues from the D600 in the D7100. The D7000's spring-loaded Live View switch is gone, replaced by the unified movie/liveview toggle common on the new Nikon bodies. The mode dial on the top of the camera now has a push-lock like the D600, and is presumably from the same parts bin. If you placed the D7100 and D600 side by side, they would look almost the same from the back, except for the D600's taller pentaprism viewfinder. For video, the microphone is now moved to the top as is often found on modern Sony and Panasonic cameras, which is a good thing as it means that it is not longer next to the lens. Shooting casual video on the D7000 was aggravating because the microphone picked the noise of the lens focus motors, and was especially intrusive with screw-drive lenses.

Also of note, this launch also seems to be the most definitive that Nikon has been about the weather sealing of the camera. In their literature, they have described the weather sealing as being equal to that of the D300s. Though Nikon wasn't clear about how robust the the D7000 was, the consensus was that the D300s was superior. This is a further hint that the D7100 is meant to carry the D200/D300 through the D7xxx line. However, the frame of the camera is still only a partial metal frame, unlike that in the D800. The upside, however, is that the D7100 remains a reasonably light camera to carry around.

Sample Image Review

  • Moose Peterson's sample images are here.
  • Nikon's official samples are here:

True to tradition, Nikon's sample images are... lacking. Well, actually, the subject matter (planes)is exciting, but not necessarily as beautiful as some of the other sample sets that have shown up in the past. I liked the sample sets they put out for the D3100 and the D5200, while also not terribly indicative of their camera's performance, they were at least beautiful. The images have very good acuity when viewed at the pixel level, but it's hard to judge against other cameras based solely on single images alone. The official image that seems the most useful is the sixth, shot with the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR. Note the gratuitous level of detail captured in the forest through Nikon's excellent new 70-200 lens. However, I couldn't help but notice that none of Nikon's samples had any of the hard/synthetic  repeating type of detail that would typically provoke moire.  Likewise, Moose Peterson's images are gorgeous, but the websized samples don't tell us much about the camera itself.

Talking About Rumours

Just to recap, the following was probably the most credible rumour that surfaced in 2012 about a possible D400. It first appeared on Nasim Mansurov's blog, June 12, and most rumours throughout the year were a variation of this. At that time we were expecting a fall release for the D400, but the D600 had not launched yet.
  • Sensor: 24.2 MP DX CMOS,
  • Processor: EXPEED 3
  • Weather Sealing/Protection: Yes
  • Shutter: Up to 1/8000 and 30 sec exposure
  • Shutter Durability: 200,000 cycles, self-diagnostic shutter
  • Storage: 1x CF slot and 1x SD slot
  • Speed: 8 FPS, 9 FPS with optional battery pack and Nikon D4 or alkaline batteries
  • Autofocus System: Advanced Multi-CAM 3500DX with 51 focus points and 15
  • Price: $1,799 MSRP

You can see why this was a credible rumour. It's mostly correct except that it missed the mark in what type of body the hardware would be housed in. Also, 8fps is optimistic for a non-D4 class camera. To be honest, there's nothing particularly surprising about this old rumour, most of the specs could have been projected from what we knew of the state of the technology at the time. The sensor specs are close to what the Sony NEX-7 has, both in still and movie output, but we know know that Nikon has an additional option with their Toshiba-sourced sensor that offers better image quality than the Sony part. The price looked a bit high back then, and looks too high now with the D600 selling on a near-perpetual discount.

Later in the year, the Japanese magazine Impress published these rumours: D7200 with 39pt autofocus, and D9000 with 51pt autofocus. 8-10 fps.  Then came word that Sony had a 20mp APS-C sensor in development and speculation started to swirl that the D7000 replacement would go to 24mp while the D300s replacement would get 20mp.

As an aside, I'd like to pass on a bit of wisdom from Nate Silver's excellent book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't.  In political polling, if you poll often enough and with statistically significant sample sizes, the reported popularity percentages tend to remain static when there is little impetus for the public to change its mind. However, as election day comes closer, outlier polls tend to gain more visibility; the press will start running with any poll that shows movement whereas the true population preferences haven't changed. In other words, in the absence of any change in the political landscape, if you poll 10 times, and the first 9 times are static and the 10th time shows movement, the odds are actually closer to the the results of the first 9 polls and not the 10th.

So it was with the various D400 rumours. As time went on, some of them started getting a bit more fanciful.  In other words, nobody really knew what was happening. And in a certain sense, that probably included Nikon as well. Last year, Nikon shored up it's FX lineup in both lenses and camera bodies, and has ostensibly been hoping that consumers waiting for a new high-end DX camera would reach a little further to get into FX. Judging by the world economy and the on-going Nikon rebates, that isn't happening fast enough for Nikon. The reason why there have been differing rumours is because Nikon has likely toyed with different directions at various stages of the development of the next high-end DX camera.

Sibling Rivalry 

The release date for the D7100 is March 21, 2013. That's about a month's time away from the date of announcement. It's not completely out of the ordinary, but it is a bit telling.  If the D7100 had been released in the expected timeslot back in November, it would have seriously dampened sales of the D600. Of course, the D600 is a more capable camera, but at nearly double the price, it's not twice as good, and that has been readily apparent with most consumers. The reaction to the D600 has been almost universally positive, but it seems as though people have not been voting with their feet. The state of the world economy has not been a help in this regards. Nikon needs to move as many units of D600's as possible between now and the end of March. I'm not saying that they need to do this because their situation is dire, but because it's been obvious that they wanted an FX push for 2012 that clearly wasn't fully realized. Nikon as the manufacturer will never admit it, but the D7100 and the D600 are very much in danger of butting against each other. If the economy was better, the D600 would have more breathing room, as more people would be willing to pay the premium for FX, but that doesn't seem to be the case. There's an old adage that you have to cannibalize your own sales for the competition does it for you. Unfortunately, that could happen in the short term, only in the wrong direction for Nikon. The end game is that the lower end of the dSLR market will likely evolve into mirrorless systems; the high end will move up into FX. The hard part is figuring out what to do with the cameras in the middle.   


How We Got to Where We Are

We may never seen another camera like the D300s again. Recall that at one time Nikon's high-end lineup consisted of the D3 and the D300. Technically, the D2x was still the top of the DX range back then, but that's like saying the D3x is the top of the FX range today. The D300 (and the D200 before it) was split between advanced amateurs and working pros, wedding pros in particular. The D3 was something exotic that only the high-end professional market could afford. Something changed all of that, and that something was the Canon 5DmII. At roughly the same time as the D3/D300 era, the Canon lineup was divided into the 1D/1Ds for full frame and APS-H, and the 50D/40D for the crop frame market. The first 5D was something of a curiosity, it got by on its full frame sensor alone, as its control layout was anything but high-end or cutting edge. The 5DmII changed all of that by giving near-1D image quality in an affordable package. Of course, you could describe something similar about the D700, but the 5DmII went further in that it became a widely used videography camera. Still photographers were hesitant to step into movie making roles at the time, but the 5DmII came along at just the right moment in history. Now whenever you go to any wedding, chances are that the professionals will be Canon users and taking video as well.

This had a knock on effect with the high-end DX market. If you were a paid professional, you couldn't compete against full frame with a crop frame camera. Canon eventually retreated from the semi-pro DX market, moving the 60D downmarket into more consumer territory and moving the premium end up to the lower volume 7D. The D300/D300s was quite advanced for its time, so it had a long life in the market, but no successor came. The D7000 wasn't a better built camera, but it most ways it was a better camera overall. This put the D300s crowd into a split position: the professional portion started to migrate to FX, while the consumer portion either didn't move or settled with the D7000. I've mentioned before, even though it is not a classic semi-pro body like the D200/D300, in every other way the D7000 was functionally the replacement for the D300s. We didn't realize it, but the semi-pro and serious enthusiast camera lines had already been merged the whole time we were waiting for the next big thing.

For anybody shooting professionally  (and there were those who did so with the D7000), the D7100 is of course, a capable camera. The lack of the outright ruggedness of the D300s full metal frame may be a put off, but chances are, if you're photography is important enough to require this rugged a camera, then it's important enough to warrant the higher image quality of a full frame camera.

Good News for the Consumer


For the suggested retail price of  $1,199,99 USD, we can once again say that Nikon is giving us more camera for the dollar. I think this will be a terrific seller, but I'm not convinced of if being a significant upgrade for current D7000 owners. The traditional logic was that it was only cost effective to change cameras every two generations. However, the D7000 was such an improvement, it pulled up many recent D90 owners. I'm not sure that will be the case with D7000 shooters. Because cameras are as good as they are now, we are entering a time of diminishing returns with each new generation. It's hard to envision how the next generation will be better than the D7100, but that will be a certainty. (Please don't be 36mp, please don't be 36mp, please don't be 36mp....

So, the long wait is over.  It remains to be seen if the enthusiat crowd will put their money where their collective mouth has been  during this long, long wait....

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