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...

Body and Design

Unlike the D750 and D5500, the D7200 does not take advantage of newer Nikon's carbon composite technology in order to shrink the volume of the camera body. Given the warm reception that those other cameras received, the lack of any apparent change in the body is a bit of disappointment. That said, the D7100 is a comfortable camera to hold because of the deep notch on the front of its grip. The only real complaint about the holding comfort is that the lip on the back of the camera isn't as prominent as on the D610; the front is deep and notched but the back is a bit shallow. The D7200 appears to be the same in terms of physical dimensions.

If you aren't clear as to why stronger material equates to a smaller product, it's helpful to remember that a DSLR camera body is not so much a shell with circuits packed into so much as it is an "electronic onion"... there are layers and layers of circuits and components in a modern DSLR, so much so hat they usually rank low in terms of repair-ability compared to other electronic devices. Because the carbon fibre composite material is lighter and stiffer, it means that the structure of the internal body shell can be smaller, allowing components to be reshuffled into new configurations.

By DSLR standards, the D7xxx series isn't large by any means, but it is large enough to turn some people towards mirrorless. Nikon, with its other offerings, is making a dedicated and concerted play against mirrorless, by steadfastly making the traditional reflex mirror design work better with each iteration. Every camera since the D3300 has been smaller and lighter than its predecessor. This makes less of a difference with the D810, but the D5500 with its retractable kit lens makes for a serious alternative to only slightly smaller mid to upper level mirrorless cameras. The difference is less important on the D7200, as this class of camera is usually paired with a more advanced (heavy lens). Perhaps this why Nikon felt that a radial slimming down wasn't necessary,  but the what can't be conveyed is the improvement in tactile feel the new cameras have over the older ones.

Sound and Vision

Nikon ME-W1 Bluetooth Wireless Microphone. Left: Microphone Right: Receiver

Two things stand out about the D7200; the lack of an articulated LCD display and the inclusion of a wireless microphone option (ME-W1). This is completely at cross-purposes, and here's why.... First the display. There are three likely reasons why the display doesn't flip out:

  • Keeps cost down to make the price point
  • Maintains distinction between the D7200 and D750
  • The Canon 7D Mark II doesn't have one. Duh

That last point is tongue in cheek... but not really. Did you see the subtle thing that just happened there? By not having a swivelling LCD display, Nikon has subtlety made you compare it to the much more expensive semi-pro 7D Mark II, not the comparably priced consumer-level 70D. It's a little bit of "serious cameras don't have moving displays." all over again. (Yes, by implication the D750 isn't a "serious" camera... well it isn't, not compared to the D810...) This is frustrating, as the upgrade in video to the that first seen in the D810 is welcome, and so is the launch of a wireless microphone. That last one is a bit on the innovative side given how iterative the D7200 is. Also note that focus peaking assist is once again a conspicuously absent feature.... (Really, Nikon? This long for what should be an easy to implement firmware feature?)

More about Microphones

If there are two things that immediately set good videography apart from average movie making it's lighting and sound quality. For the hobbyist, the options in order of increasing cost and/or skill level are :

  • Built in camera mic (no cost, very low quality)
  • Lav mic (low cost, need to sync during editing)
  • Un-amplified external mic (low cost, moderate quality)
  • Amplified external mic (high cost, best quality)

First of all, anything is better than the on-board microphone on a DSLR. No matter how well engineered (and they have been getting better), you run into two problems. The first problem is that the microphones are too close to the camera body, meaning that they pick up the faint sounds of the lens focusing motors, the inner workings of the camera and the user's fingers operating the camera. Even if that weren't the case, the second issue is that the pre-amp's in digital cameras aren't particularly high quality. Proper pre-amplification is what turns thin sounding audio into full-rich audio, and for that, you need a dedicated micophone.

For interviews and general speech work, the lavaliere microphone (Rode Smart Lav+ et al) is the best option and the most reasonable cost. The problem for beginning videographers is that you need to sync the sound with the video during post processing, which is routine task for the experienced movie-maker but a daunting one for somebody who is just starting and who doesn't have quality editing software available.

For those who just want the audio recorded in with the video stream an external microphone that clips into the camera hotshoe is what's needed (Rode VideoMic Go, etc.)  The least expensive of these microphones don't have pre-amps built in, meaning that you are still relying on the camera's on-board pre-amp, but the quality will be better because you are using a dedicated microphone apparatus.

A better option would be for an amplified external microphone (e.g., Rode VideoMic Pro). The difference between the inexpensive un-amplified option is that that a mic with a built-in pre-amp does better in a nosy environment, and makes voices come out sounding fuller. It's the difference between head voice and chest voice if you will. These mics also generally have built-in bypass filters to reduce hiss and rumble.

However, you can see a gap in the above list. External clip on mics offer good quality but can't be put into discreet locations. Most lav mics are discreet but need syncing in post. This is where a wireless microphone comes into play. To be honest, the quality options that exist on the market aren't cheap and aren't small.
Nikon's wireless microphone option works through Bluetooth®; it probably won't have the range and robust nature of a professional option, but it will open up possibilities for people who are looking for a casual option. Note that this device simply plugs into the microphone port of the D7200, which means that it isn't specific to any one particular camera. Make no mistake, though; this is aimed at hobbyists, not professionals. Note the language in the official press release:

"Great for bloggers, aspiring videographers or even professionals, the ME-W1 makes recording audio for DSLR video simple, without sacrificing quality sound."

The ad copy is a bit transparent in terms of giving away what the marketing department is thinking. Price is set at $249.99 USD. It's simultaneously cheap and expensive. It's cheap for a unique product of its kind, all things given, but it's expensive compared to the result that you could get with something like the Rode SmarLav+. As always, the price of automation (or laziness) can be costly. PocketWizard TT5 shoppers know this all too well....

The Power of Six (Frames per Second)

Inevitably, the D7200 will be compared to the Canon EOS 7D Mark II. In some ways the D7200 is a Canon EOS 7D Mark II competitor and in other ways it isn't. in the eyes of some it will fall short because it can "only" muster 6 frames per second without the boost of the battery grip whereas the 7DmII famously does 10fps. Anybody with modest proficiency with either of these cameras will know that such a comparison is bunk. Yes, the Canon is faster, and is tougher. It is also a much more expensive camera, and one built to a higher specification. The real question is if the 7D Mark II justifies its higher price over what you can get with the D7200... and for many people the answer to that is "no". Simply put, the 7D Mark II is expensive for an APS-C camera. It's a mini 1Dx, with some of the pretension to go along with it, whereas the D7200 sticks closer to the traditional serious-enthusiast camera virtue of "best performance per dollar." Nikon will probably sell more D7200's than Canon will 7D Mark II's, simply because it's the "good enough" option.

Another question is how both cameras fair in real world use once you stop looking at the spec sheet. All of the AF points on the Canon are at least cross-type, making them more sensitive to vertical and horizontal detail. The AF points on the Nikon bodies are linear-only at the periphery. Both arrays are rated to -3EV, though that is only true for the centre points on the Canon. Subjectively, many people find that the Canon 70D and the 7D Mark II have faster focus acquisition than the D7100. However, the Nikon appears to be better at maintaining focus tracking, both in terms of subject movement speed and how erratic the movement is. In any case, 10fps is better that 6fps, but it won't necessarily make you a better photographer. The faster burst rate means that time can be subdivided more finely in order to capture something specially mid-motion, but the best improvement comes with experience and a tuned-sense of anticipation.

In any case, the fact that the buffer now goes to 18 RAW files, up from 6 is in is 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. 

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.

Expected Image Quality

Though the D7200 hasn't yet been released to the public the recently issued D5500 will give some clue as to its image quality. It would be understandable to assume that since it is yet another 24mp DX sensor, there isn't much to expect by way of image quality improvement. However, Nikon has been tweaking each iteration since the D3200, often jumping between chip suppliers.

If you will recall, the D7100 uses a sensor sourced from Toshiba. It has no anti-aliasing filter, but higher levels of pattern noise than would be hoped for. Compared to the D7000 before it, you have less leeway for exposure manipulation before pattern noise becomes apparent in the shadows. The D5300 came afterwards, and appears to be a Sony-sourced chip. The low-level pattern noise was reduced compared to the D7100, and as a first for Nikon, the black point was no longer clipped, making it better suited for deep-sky astrophotographers. Looking at the D5500, pattern noise again appears to be reduced, and the in-camera JPEG engine does a better job of controlling chroma noise at higher ISO. (Go to the D5500 review to see samples.) There may be tweaking differences between the cameras, but you can expect that the D7200 will show an definite improvement over the D7100 in JPEG, and probably similar image quality to the D5500. If it were any other way, the Nikon marketing department wouldn't be happy.

In other words, this will probably once again be the best image quality that you can get out of APS-C. The Canon's are fine but visibly lag in terms of dynamic range. 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 likely has similar image quality to the D7200, but 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.

Looking Forward

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. However, there are many D7000 users out there who felt the same way about the D7100; those users will get more of a worthwhile upgrade going to the D7200. Of course, if you are in either camp, then you will likely have considered jumping to full frame as well. 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.

As to whether or not the D750 is worth the price increase over the D7200, it's simply a case of the D7100 vs the D610 all over again. The image quality will likely improve by 1 stop, but that means less and less as ISO quality, image stabilization and the proliferation of faster lenses increases. However, it's worth noting that the 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. It's not a case of settling for the D7200; it's because the D750 and the associated bump in size/weight/cost for everything... lens and accessories... won't suit your needs. Or, it may be that the D750 suits you better. Either way.

As to the "leak" of users to mirrorless, the D7200 doesn't look like it will stop that. If you need to rely on your camera, especially for mission critical work, a camera like the D7200 is better than a mirrorless alternative, 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 might have caught their attention if the body had been redesigned to be like the D750.

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. It's not inconceivable that many D7200's will be used as backups for the the D750; after all, the D7200 very demonstrably shows its Nikon family heritage.

1 comment: