19 March, 2013

Baby Steps with the Nikon D7100

As much as I love my D300 bodies, they're definitely growing long in the tooth, and their major shortcoming has been low-light performance. Any time I would shoot a concert, I'd stick the ISO at 640, drop down to f/2.8, and hope for the best. And even then, there was noticeable noise in the shadows. So really, I've been waiting to replace them for the past 2 years, but until the D7100, there hasn't been a suitable replacement.

Stylistically, I tend to prefer a telephoto perspective, so the replacement would have to be a crop-sensor body (DX in Nikon lingo). The way I shoot also demands an autofocus system that is fast and accurate, and that remains fast and accurate in low light situations. The D300 AF system set the bar pretty high in that regard — the AF system would pretty consistently lock on to airplane winglets during red-eye flights, illuminated only by the once-per-second flashing of the red strobe beneath the fuselage. See examples: On Being Alone and The Calm.

So as soon as the D7100 was announced, I pre-ordered a pair of them. It uses the same MultiCAM 3500DX autofocus module as was used in the D300, and it has a modern sensor which behaves pretty dang well in low light and at high ISO.

My package from B&H finally showed up yesterday, and I managed to take a couple shots with it that approximate how I'd tend to use a camera. All in all, I'm impressed by the low-light performance and the UI enhancements, the AF is what I was hoping for, and the body and ergonomics leave much to be desired. Rumors are that Nikon will release a D400 later this year; here's hoping…

Update! Click each image to see the full-resolution, unsharpened version. None of these (including the reduced-size ones) have any noise-reduction in post (from what I hear, the camera does noise reduction on high-ISO images which can be reduced but not disabled for images above 1250ISO).
1/125s f/2.8 2200ISO 70mm I've tried this kind of shot before, but it's never worked. With the D300, I'd have to bump the ISO and drop the exposure to get a shutter speed where the chef's body was relatively still. By that point, most of the scene would be riddled with noise. With the D7100, it was point, focus, click. Done deal.
1/60s f/2.8 1600ISO 36mm I've never taken a photo this lovely in a partially-lit conference room before, and certainly not with as much ease as I took this shot. The only other camera I've owned which would do 1600ISO this cleanly would have been the Fuji X100, but because of its shoddy AF, I would've been tempted to manual-focus this shot, and because of its shoddy manual focus, I probably wouldn't have taken it at all (no, I'm not bitter). Again, with the D7100, it was point, focus, click, done.
1/100s f/2.8 2800ISO 55mm A nice out-of-focus blur at nearly 3200ISO. Even at 640ISO, the noise on the D300 tended to make the OOF areas noticeably jangly, whereas as lower ISO, they were super smooth. No such issue with the D7100.
1/125s f/2.8 1800ISO 70mm Just a quick AF test. I tried to focus on the keys and not the face, and the camera did what I wanted it to. As far as AF settings, I always shoot in single-area AF-C mode with release priority, so no face detection to contend with.

I had had face-detection enabled for a while on my NEX-7, and while it often did the right thing, I found that I couldn't predict what it'd do when I was shooting without my eye to the viewfinder, and so I disabled it. It's less awesome now, but also more predictable, which benefits the way I shoot.
1/4s f/2.8 6400ISO 32mm To finish, a completely out-of-focus shot at 6400ISO. This is basically a torture test for noise, since any texture is clearly the sensor's fault, and I can definitely live with this level of noise. So far, I've left the camera on Aperture-priority at f/2.8 and with Auto-ISO enabled. I'm sure I'll be fine-tuning settings for awhile as I get used to things, but so far so good.

I know a lot of folks out there are hemming and hawing over whether they should get a D7100 or wait for an inevitable D400. I'd say it depends on what you shoot, how you shoot, and what body you're coming from. My comments will be most relevant to someone considering upgrading from a D300/D300s:
  1. If you like to shoot full-resolution RAWs in continuous mode, wait. If you can deal with 1.3x crop mode (total ~1.95x crop), maybe consider it. The buffer on this camera is tiny. Personally, I only ever shoot in single-shot mode and I've bumped into buffer limitations at times. We'll see how this goes when it's time to shoot something for real.
  2. If you need low-light performance without the D7000's step down in AF performance, get it.
  3. The body feels noticeably plasticky, and I dislike the narrow grip, but for me, those aren't deal-breakers. By comparison, the D300 balances better with my f/2.8 zooms, it's more comfortable and secure to hold, and I never even think about how it's built, because it's rock solid. The D7100 lacks that rock solid feel.
  4. The shutter release button is a step down from the D300. It's hard to describe exactly, but it's difficult to activate the shutter release quickly and precisely. In his video review, Scott Kelby noticed the same thing, calling it "mushy." Shooting the D7100 side-by-side with the D300, the difference is night-and-day, and even though the cameras have identical frame rates, I can more easily take quick second and third and fourth shots with the D300 (note that I always shoot in single-shot mode).
  5. If you use AF-ON, note that (for me, at least) the AF-ON button for the D300 was in the perfect spot. The AE-L/AF-L button on the D7100 (which I've already programmed to behave as AF-ON) is offset to the left, and is much more difficult for me to trigger, especially if I'm holding the camera with one hand.
  6. I really dislike how they moved the Fn button under the camera mount. I recall someone mentioning that it seems designed to use with your left hand — that seems reasonable, but for anyone shooting with long glass, your left hand is going to be on the lens, so it's useless. The D300 Fn button falls perfectly under my right ring finger (just like on the D4). You can program the DoF Preview button, thankfully, but it still isn't in quite the right spot like the Fn button used to be. I really hope they'd fix this for the D400.
  7. The soft-touch inserts on the camera don't feel as aggressively textured or as tacky as the ones on the D300. This may just be something that develops with age and use, I don't know, but I think that's part of why the D300 feels more secure to hold.
  8. In the positive column, I love having a physical mode dial. I would always get confused while trying to switch between A and M modes on the D300.
In conclusion though I have a number of gripes about the D7100, having played with it for an evening, I feel I definitely made exactly the right choice in deciding to replace my D300 bodies with a pair of D7100s. The focus is on par, and the low-light performance is superb. As for those wondering how Nikon could differentiate a D400 against the D7100, I can say with all certainty that there are plenty of opportunities, and if Nikon fixes those, I'll sell the D7100s and upgrade again.

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