Nikon D7100 Review

Everything but a buffer

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The Nikon DX DSLRs have been coming out slower since the Thailand flood. The D7100 announcement should have been in fall 2012, but didn't arrive until early 2013. Because the D300s replacement has also obviously not come in a timely fashion, a lot of people have taken to thinking that the D7100 is a combination of the D7000 and D300s rolled into one camera update. It is not. I repeat: it is not. 

That's despite Nikon's constant use of the words "DX flagship." At the moment Nikon seems to have several flagships (Coolpix A is the Coolpix flagship, for example). Must have been in the thesaurus someone was using in marketing. 

Unfortunately, that sends a very bad message to a number of Nikon DSLR faithful. While the D7100 has 24mp and better video than the D300s, it doesn't have the build quality, the pro buttons/menus, or a very big buffer. If this really was the new top of the DX line, Nikon is going to have some very upset wildlife, sports, and pro shooters out there, all who have been waiting for a D400 to appear. 

I'll just go on record again saying I believe that a D400 will appear. Nikon would be foolish to remove a revered camera from their lineup and think that everyone will just welcome the D7100 in its place. No way Jose. No go Joe. 

As you'll see, the D7100 is a very logical D7000 update. It moves the old top consumer DX camera platform forward one more nice step. For those of you haven't been paying attention, the progression has been: D70, D80, D90, D7000, and now D7100. That's a really nice progression, and it shows just how much Nikon thinks this particular price point is important to their overall DSLR lineup health. Every one of those five have been very competitive cameras when they appeared, all offered a huge array of features (for the time) to the consumer customer, and all have been at or near the top of the image quality game when they appeared.

D3200? Entry consumer DX DSLR. D5200? Additional features over the D3200, making for a mid-level consumer DX DSLR. D7100? Pretty much all the features Nikon has put in a consumer DSLR, ever. 

I would be remiss not to point out that the D7100 has a twin: the D600. The D7100 has a DX (1.5x crop) sensor and the D600 has an FX sensor (no crop). Other than the things that go along with that, there are very few differences between the two models. Nikon gave the D7100 the 51-point AF and the D600 the 39-point AF system, there are one or two menu items and other specifications that are different, but otherwise they're pretty interchangeable. Indeed, they're built in the same plant in Thailand using pretty much the same manufacturing line. Thus, those of you who read my D600 review will be experiencing a bit of deja vu. 

But it does bring up something a prospective D7100 user needs to think about: are you DX or are you FX? Lens choice varies between the two, and the D600 does bulk up just a bit in size and weight. Both are 24mp, both are basically the same feature set, but one is US$1200 (D7100) and the other US$2100 (D600): you pay for that bigger sensor, so you'd better be sure you really need it. Just as a reminder, FX gives you more ability to isolate depth of field, a bit more than a stop better high ISO performance, and a slightly less diffraction-impacted shooting scenario. That's not a lot for the extra US$900. Plus, you can look at some of the changes the other way around: DX gives you less angle of view for your long lenses, more depth of field at the equivalent shot, an AF system that covers more of the frame, and in the case of the D7100: no antialiasing filter. Nikon's made the choice difficult: benefits construe both directions.


What is It?

The D7100, as already noted, is the top end of Nikon's consumer DX DSLR line. Most people looking at it are interested in what changed from the D7000, so let's start there:

  • 16mp Sony Exmor image sensor (D7000) replaced with Toshiba 5105 image sensor (D7100); in addition, the antialiasing filter is removed on the D7100
  • D7100: an additional crop (1.3x) option 
  • D7100: Video gains 30 fps and 25 fps options for 1080P, 60/50 fps options for 1080i
  • D7100: stereo built-in microphone instead of mono
  • D7100: faster UHS-I SD card handling (45MB/sec max)
  • D7100 has a larger JPEG buffer but a smaller NEF/raw buffer than the D7000 it replaced
  • The D7100 gains the 51-sensor AF part while the older D7000 used the older 39-sensor AF part; we thus get 15 crosshatched sensors instead of 9, plus we get f/8 maximum aperture support instead of f/5.6
  • D7100: gains 5-shot bracket (D7000 was 3-shot max)
  • The 3" 920k dot LCD on the D7000 has been replaced with a 3.2" 1.3m dot LCD on the D7100
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The red swoosh has turned to a grin on the D7100 (right), but not a lot of difference otherwise.


That's really about it other than some menu/control tweaking and a few other minor performance gains. The two big stories here are: (1) different imaging sensor; (2) different autofocus. I wouldn't downplay either of those changes, but they don't come without both pros and cons.

Let's start with the new Toshiba sensor. As we'll see in the performance section, it's good, but in the deep shadows it can't compete with the previous Sony sensor. The removal of the AA filter gives us a bit more acuity, but potentially can trigger low-level moire in our image data. But the real issue here is the extra data. The move from 16mp to 24mp has reduced the buffer size when shooting raw images to basically one second's worth of shots, and that number can go down if you turn on a lot of the advanced automation features in the camera. This one change, alone, is what keeps many D300s owners from considering the D7100 a replacement, by the way. The D7100 is not a "burst camera" by any stretch of the imagination when shooting raw, and it's not exactly unrestricted for JPEG shooters, either (33 JPEG Fine Large, or about 5 seconds worth, maximum).

The AF system is a better upgrade, with the only con being that you have more sensors to move between if you're in one of the "controlling" modes. Like all recent Nikon DSLRs, we have the front button+dial method of changing focus modes, which a lot of people don't like (compared to the old style lever on the back of the camera). I say get over it, for most shooting your left thumb should be in a natural position to press this button and this means you can change pretty much all the top level focus options without taking your eye from the viewfinder. It really is a better system for dedicated shooters willing to learn it.

The body itself is sculpted differently, which is a real annoyance to those of us who use Arca-style plates on our cameras: we need new plates for the D7100. Likewise, you need a new MB vertical grip if you're moving from a D7000 to a D7100. Nikon has continually seen no value in keeping body size/shape the same even on a camera in the same platform undergoing upgrade. But at this level, they introduce frictions amongst users who then find they have to upgrade other options, as well. Fortunately, that doesn't include remote controls, GPS, or other accessories.

One strange change is the omission of clip points for a plastic LCD cover (and obviously, no such cover is supplied with the D7100). Nikon made no comments about improving the scratch/break resistance of the LCD glass (as they did with the D3 when they skipped covers on that camera), so I'm not exactly sure what motivated that change.

Overall, Nikon has refined the D7000 and kept the sensor and focus systems at the top of the consumer heap. 


How's it Handle?

The D7100 may be the best handling top consumer DX camera yet. I'm sure some will quibble with me about that, and please note I didn't write "the best handling DX camera yet." I mean in the D70 through D7100 progression of cameras, the D7100 has a bit more refinement and attention to detail than previous models. There are still some strange anomalies—such as the duplicate Info buttons with different functions—but someone's been paying a bit more attention to where the buttons should be, how our fingers distinguish them, and their organization. 

Up top we have the usual Mode dial that accompanies the consumer DSLRs (pro DSLRs get a Mode button). New this time is that it is locking: you have to press a button in the middle of it to rotate the dial to another setting. Strangely, this has upset a lot of folk, who now complain about having to do two things to move between exposure modes. I'm not one of them. Changing exposure modes should really be something you don't do often, and you should be doing so deliberately. Too many cameras have Mode dials that are easily dislodged by rough handling or even just moving in and out of your camera bag. The one thing you don't want to have happen is get ready to press the shutter release and then discover that the camera is in Auto or Effects or Scene or one of the two User settings when you wanted Aperture-priority. 

Aside: I often talk about fidgety shooters and collected shooters. With new workshop students I often see a lot of them coming in changing the Mode dial setting between shots. They seem to be chasing some "optimal" mode for every shot. I don't think constantly changing the Mode dial between P, A, S, and M is very useful. Indeed, given Nikon's Flexible Program system, you can pretty much control either shutter speed or aperture in Program mode with the Rear Command dial. Yes, I can see moving between U1 and U2 more often, but every shot? No, I like the locking Mode dial. My exposure mode (or camera-wide settings for U1 and U2) are right where I want them to be until I step in and change them. Which is rarely. 

Scene exposure mode is is interesting now. If you've got the Mode dial set to Scene and the camera is active, rotating the Rear Command dial turns on the LCD and brings up a very obvious scrolling menu, complete with photographic illustrations of an appropriate use for each Scene mode. Well almost appropriate. The photos for Child and Sports mode might confuse you a bit. The Child example should have a moving child, the Sports example shouldn't have a child doing "play" sports, it should be a real sports action shot. 

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Even on the back, the D7100 (right) is not a lot different than the D7000 other than the bigger LCD and some button and control positions moving.

Nikon designers always move the cheese, and the D7100 is no exception. The button stack on the left of the LCD is five buttons deep now, with an i button added to the bottom of it (pushing the + / - buttons upwards. Moreover, the D7100 now has the + (zoom in) button on top, the - (thumbnail) button below, a change that started with the recent FX bodies. My problem isn't so much with the button moving (please make it stop), but with the fact that the buttons all feel the same. Since the button stack is overloaded and gives us WB, QUAL, and ISO options while shooting, it would be nice to be able to find those buttons by feel, but they all feel the same. Someone was thinking slightly down these lines, as the +/- buttons share a slight divot in the body (the others all have their own personal divots), but it isn't enough to get to "touch discovery." 

I do like the new three-flap orientation of the left side connector covers. But come on, Nikon, did you really think that through? Wouldn't I be using the headphone and microphone jacks simultaneously? Why aren't they under the same cover so that I only have to have one open? 

Most people will have no idea what the camera is trying to tell them when they set Choose Image Area to a function button. The viewfinder reads 24 - 16 in DX mode, 18 - 12 in 1.3x crop mode. This is, of course, the sensor dimensions in mm (16x24, and 12x18). Apparently the engineer that designed this failed to solve for x. How such things get past a design review committee, I don't know. The problem, of course, is that the LED for the viewfinder doesn't have an X symbol. If they used the segments the best they could they'd get something that looks like 24 H 16. Ditto DX, which would look like DH. Still, Crop, 1.3 Crop could have been used and understood by every user. 


How's it Perform?

Battery — No real complaints here. The CIPA number of 950 shots seems reasonably close to what I got in my first few uses of the camera. I suspect I'll go over 1000 shots once I get dialed in with my timeouts and get the camera configured pretty much the way I want it (e.g. less menu diving). The D7100 uses the same EN-EL15 battery as most of the small body high end Nikon DSLRs have recently, so Nikon gets plus marks for continuing battery continuity. 

Card Speed — Nikon continues to use parts internally in their DSLRs, especially the consumer ones, that max out below what state-of-the-art cards can accomplish. Depending upon the card, I'm measuring 45MB/sec to 60MB/sec from UHS-I cards.

Even 45MB/sec is pretty good. The problem is that the camera is buffer constrained. At my usual settings I'm seeing a 5 or 6 shot buffer (shooting raw). If you think 1.3x crop is the answer, the buffer only goes up to 7 shots with the crop at the same settings. So, you fire a long burst of shots at a high frame rate (the D7100 is capable of 6 fps in DX, 7 in 1.3x crop) and after a second the camera's performance is solely determined by the part speed controlling the write to the card. The card may be capable of faster (I've got 90MB/sec cards, for example, and even faster ones have been announced), but it has no real effect on how quickly you hit the buffer restraint. What the faster card does allow is the buffer to empty somewhat faster. I'm seeing the buffer empty as much as twice as fast on the 90MB/sec cards as some of the 45MB/sec ones, thus I'm getting nearly 2x the fps after the buffer fills from those cards. For many people that still won't justify buying the more expensive faster card. It will keep the spray and pray shooters happier, though. 

Older SD cards can be quite variable in the D7100. I've got some that are real slugs once the buffer fills, while others that I thought might have the same problem chug along at a clearly faster clip (still not up to what even a 45MB/sec UHS-I enabled card will do, though). 

Do yourself a favor, buy some state-of-the-art cards if you're going to purchase a D7100. Make sure also that the card in the second slot is as fast as the first, otherwise you might slow the camera's performance (even for image review, believe it or not).

Autofocus — No complaints here, either. If you liked the D300's focus performance, the D7100 is a tiny bit better (the metering integration is providing that, I believe). This is as good as it gets for DX cameras, though it takes a fair amount of learning to figure out how to optimize the performance for every situation you'll encounter (a reason why autofocus is typically a very long section in my books). 

If you want to see just how integrated the system is, set AF-C 3D. Point at a distinct object (color, shape, etc.) and slowly pan the camera away with the focus active. Notice how the camera tries to keep the focus sensor on the distinct object? Notice how fast the camera is doing that? It actually tends to work better in actual shooting than in you'll see in this little practice test. Bottom line: I trust this focus system (set correctly to the situation) as much as do any Nikon has made to date.

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Here's an example of what I mean with the 3D system. I followed this player with a burst of shots from far to the left of the key to his current position in this shot. While it doesn't look like he's moving due to the 1/1000 shutter speed, this full sequence was less than a second according to the EXIF data. The camera is fairly close to where it should be for focus on this shot (with an f/1.4 lens). While it's not perfect (focus is on the front player's back shoulder), the camera has actually picked a reasonable point here, as it keeps both players in usable sharpness. Indeed, the entire 6 fps sequence is usable. On the other hand, this is the last shot in the sequence because, yes, you guessed it, the buffer filled. Doh! As Kevin complained afterwards: "you don't get to see that I made the reverse layup!" That's okay, we all know what happened. Nice catch and drive Kevin.


Image Quality — Nikon Picture Controls have been remarkably consistent since first appearing on the D3. I can see and measure some very small differences in color response between cameras, but frankly, all talk about color, white balance, contrast, and all the other usual image quality issues is pretty much over until Nikon changes from the current EXPEED Picture Controls. Pretty much everything I've written about the Picture Controls, white balance, and hues on previous EXPEED Nikons still applies to the D7100. Nikon has a "look" they try to hit, and they hit it consistently.

That leaves us with two image quality issues we do need to talk about with the D7100. The first is resolution. 

Yes, 24mp is more than 16mp. Yes, that means you're sampling data at a higher frequency and "get more resolution" (all else equal). But we're now in the danger area with sensor pixel counts:

  • 8mp more sounds like it is giving you 50% more resolution. It isn't. Resolution is measured linearly, so we've gone from 4928 pixels across the long axis to 6000, a gain of just 22%. That's slightly above the threshold of visibility. 
  • Diffraction is a contentious issue, but I think it's safe to say that diffraction impacts typically become visible at earlier apertures the smaller you make the pixel sites in the sensor.


It's that last point that probably induced Nikon to remove the AA filter from the D7100. After experimenting with this on the D800 (D800E model), Nikon appears to be getting bolder with AA removal (the 16mp Coolpix A doesn't have one, either). 

Still, despite 22% more resolution and no dispersion impacts from an AA filter, a lot of folk are going to have a very difficult time seeing an improvement in the D7100 over the D7000, even at pixel level. We're getting into a range now where there are continued improvements, but not everyone is going to see them, let alone be able to utilize them. Yes, I can tell that the D7100 results have "an edge" to them that the D7000 didn't. But I'm also trained to see small differences. Frankly, after showing some results to some untrained others, it seemed a bit random as to whether someone saw a difference or not, even at the pixel level. As I write this there's a US$300 differential in price between a new D7000 and a new D7100, or a 33% difference. For a 22% gain that you might not see. That's something we're going to have to think about more and more as we  move forward in the digital age. It's one reason why I wrote my Last Camera Syndrome article earlier this year.

Bottom line on resolution: yes, there's more, and it's actually significant, but it's also visually minimal, especially for those not pushing print sizes. If you're doing large prints, the change from 16mp to 24mp and the loss of the AA filter might be useful to you. If you're not, I'm doubting it will.

Which brings me to the other image quality issue: the banding in the deep shadow detail on these Toshiba sensors (shared with the D5200; see example in my D5200 review). The typical forum poster on other Web sites starts their condemnation of the D7100 sensor by shooting something four or five stops underexposed in raw, then bringing up the "exposure" in their raw converter. Typical result: shadows have some banding in them. 

Now, the areas that have banding in that situation are still probably three stops below middle gray after adjustment, so what we're actually seeing in such examples are things usually eight or more stops below middle gray. In normal situations, you're just not going to see such problems. But it's true that you might see some slight banding if you use Active D-Lighting in strong contrast situations or have to do deep shadow recovery in an image via post processing. Let's see, how many times have I done that so far? None, except for the times where I was trying to illustrate the problem ;~). 

I'm disappointed with this behavior, as it really means that I have to shoot brackets to recover shadow detail (which is what we used to do in Thee Olden Dayes of DSLRS). And then I have to figure out how to post process multiple image into one. Been there, done that. (It seems I need to be a little more clear here, as some think this comment contradicts my earlier one: "in normal situations you're just not going to see problems." This particular comment about bracketing has to do with the way I blend images for HDR-type results, a specific technique I use that I haven't documented to date. With a camera that has deep shadow recovery abilities, such as the D800, I simply don't have to think about my bracket choices much, or how they'll integrate together. With the D7100, I do. Simple as that.) 

One final comment on the deep shadow banding: I'm headed to Africa again shortly. On the one hand, the D7100 seems like it would be great coupled with the 200-400mm f/4 for safari. But in trying to decide which body I was going to take, I keep coming back to the D800. Why? Because I've got some crop choices, the buffer is more generous, but also because I never worry about shadow integrity with the D800. I often shoot on the edge of day in Africa, and there are times when I do pull up shadow detail significantly in post processing. I'm a little worried I'd be disappointed with the D7100 in this instance, and this is the type of shooting where I don't want to second guess a camera choice after the fact. Fortunately, my assistant has decided to bring my D7100 with us, so I'll be able to do some testing in real circumstances to see if my fear was justified or not. I'll report back more then.

If I seem a little flip about this so-called "fault" of the D7100, it's because I am. If you're buying this level of camera, you learn how it performs, then you adapt so as to be able to maximize your use of it. Nothing new there. As I noted in my D5200 review, there's a way to remove the banding should it appear through modest shadow recovery efforts, and it is tough to trigger without already being in an extreme situation trying to do extreme things. I consider it a (mostly) non-issue.

You'll want my usual basketball image to look at, so here we go:

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While this requires a fair amount noise reduction to clean up, it cleans up very nicely. We are losing detail in the basketball net, though. 

Final Words

Nikon has made a very nice DSLR with the D7100. It's faults and flaws are few and manageable, with the small buffer being the only one likely to upset any purchaser. While I faulted Nikon's marketing for using the term "flagship," at the moment the D7100 is the best DX DSLR Nikon makes. It's a remarkably capable camera that's potentially a lot of folks' Last Camera. 

What I just don't understand is the continued neglect on the lens end. The D7100 is good enough that it deserves more strong DX mainstream lenses than just the 16-85mm and 35mm. What's really missing on the D7100 is this:

  • 16mm f/2.8 prime lens or faster
  • 24mm f/2 prime lens or faster
  • 16-50mm f/4 VR zoom or faster
  • 50-150mm f/2.8 VR zoom


Instead of those lenses, I'm putting on DX wide angle zooms or very big and expensive FX wide angle zooms, using third party lenses (the 18-35mm Sigma f/1.8 is looking like a very nice option), or using FX telephotos that are a bit on the long side for "normal" use.  I find it an utter condemnation of Nikon's choices when a Coolpix A is a better DX option for 28mm equivalent shooting than the "flagship" DX DSLR (you like how I got that dig back in? ;~). 

Indeed, most of my regular DX lens kit is now third party, and I suspect that will be so for most D7100 users. We have to remember that DSLRs are "systems," not an end in themselves. It's all the things that you can attach to them and use with them that make them more desirable than a fixed-lens camera. Nikon is seriously behind on the "system" part for DX cameras, and nowhere does it show more than with the D7100. 

It doesn't matter much if you have a flagship if it doesn't have the right support. The admiral isn't wearing any clothes. At least any Nikon-brand clothing. 

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