It took a bit longer than expected to write this third instalment but I have been so busy! And in any instance being busy means that I have now much more experience of shooting the camera since getting it. I think this will be the final part of my review, there are plenty of reviews of the camera out there that will undoubtedly tell you more about the technical side of things.
What I can say is that I have fallen in love with using the D7100 and now going back to using the D90 is a real wrench; not because the D90 is a bad camera — far from it; the difference is all in the handling and the D7100 is a much better handling camera than the D90. That said I believe I have expressed all I can on the ergonomics in part 2.
The big news for me was that the D7100 had the more advanced 51 point Multicam 3500DX (bla dee bla dee bla…!) AF system which it has inherited from the more advanced DX models like the D300/D300S, and Is used in an FX variant on the D700, D800 and others. The most important point is not really the 51 points but the 15 cross-type sensors which occupy the central three vertical columns of AF points. There has been some back and forth about whether it is as good as the D300, and some stuff about D4 algorithms – none of which I have any experience with but I can say this: AF performance is superb on this camera.
It is quick and snappy on AF-D (screw drive, 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.8) lenses, and performance on AF-S lenses (35mm f/1.8 DX and 17-55mm f/2.8 DX tested) is very good. In lower light the camera holds up well and I haven’t found it disappointing.
Tracking of fast moving subjects such as diving or movement within a fitness class (left) performed very well indeed. The fact I was able to deliver the results I got without necessarily being a sports or action photographer was very pleasing indeed.
Because the D7100 has two custom preset settings, U1 and U2 I have been able to set U1 up to be AF-S (single) focus mode using AF-ON assigned to the rear AE-L button; and the U2 mode to AF-C (Continuous) focus mode again with AF-ON functionality. This has worked very well indeed.
I have had to do a bit of fine tuning on lenses though. The 17-55mm was spot on and no adjustment required (and I understand that AF fine tuning on a zoom lens is a waste of time). The 50mm f/1.4 needed the most, the 35mm DX a little and likewise the 85mm needed a little tweak. I don’t see this as an issue but rather a benefit that if something just appears to back-focusing a little, I have the opportunity to fine tune it to perfection. I think some of this is exacerbated by the D7100’s fantastic resolution that shows up the slightest bit of back or front focus due to its ability with the right glass to resolve such detail.
One of the loudest criticisms of the D7100 is its small buffer size. This is to say when shooting 14bit lossless RAW, the camera has somewhere in the region of 5-7 frames worth of buffer before the D7100 slows down. If shooting in JPEG, with a decent card you can keep going at 6 or 7FPS up to a 100 shots. And if you’ve shot 100 shots in a single burst, I feel for you when it comes to editing that on the computer!
I think those criticising this who are sports and action photographers wanting to shoot 14bit lossless RAW (which you should do given the sensor’s capabilities) may have something of a point; but the performance isn’t too bad. Certainly as a wedding, portrait and projects photographer the buffer has not been an issue so long as I have had a decent card in the camera!
That latter caveat is essential to understand. Do not cheap out on SD cards in this camera, you will pay the penalty. Rather naughtily in my opinion Sandisk has recently relabelled their SD Cards. For example over the years their Ultra branded cards have gone from having a 15MB/s rating up to 30MB/s on the card. Now I know that those are peak read speeds, but given that Sandisk used to label their Extreme cards as 30MB/s and now has them labelled 45MB/s I had wrongly assume that the write performance should have improved as well, as the Sandisk 8GB/s ‘Extreme’ cards I have rated at 30MB/s as well performed well in the camera. Well you know what they say about assumptions…
In short, using a 64GB Sandisk Ultra ’30MB/s’ card in this camera was pretty terrible for bursts of photos, and this was just taking photos of people. The initial burst of 6-7 photos was fine, however the camera would then lock up for seconds at a time, playback was not forthcoming and it could take around 2-3 seconds for the camera to start responding again. That put a dent in some of the people moving shots I was doing (e.g. walking towards me whilst I backpeddle e.g. shooting the bride and groom walking down the aisle after being married) because the camera just could not handle it. I sent the cards back and took a punt on the 64GB Extreme cards (as I mention now labelled) 45MB/s. I didn’t go all the way up to the Extreme Pro (95MB/s) cards because at best it seems they will allow 1-2 extra frames at full 6FPS bursts, but then slow to around 3FPS, for double the price, not worth it, I’d prefer to have 2 good 64GB cards backing each other up.
The 64GB Extreme cards are much better. With 14bit RAW lossless compressed, I can shoot about 6-7 frames before things slow, and then it slows to around 2-2.5FPS, but the camera keeps responding and reviewing images is nippy and not at all compromised. That’s better!
I’m sure if Nikon ever do bring out their fabled D300S successor, then the buffer in that camera will be much better, but for what I do, the D7100 with a decent SD card will perform admirably. If you never shoot moving people or objects, e.g. landscapes, then a slower card will perform fine enough.
So I’ve said enough about the D7100 really. This camera has lived up to what I hoped – a robust, better handling and performing camera than the D90. I recently had a chance to shoot a D600 (Nikon’s new “entry level” FX format camera) which is not far off the price I paid for the D7100. I paid top-whack for my D7100 but I wanted to support a local business in Brighton rather than Amazon (who were selling it for around £150 less RRP), but versus the £1100 I paid for the D7100 versus the £1400 you can get a D600 for, it should be a pause for thought.
FX (full 35mm frame) is treated as the holy grail of digital SLR users, and perhaps rightly so for many reasons. You do arguably get better tonality, you do arguably get better dynamic range, and you do get better high ISO performance. However, the D7100 challenges this in two aspects: the tonality of the images this camera produces is exceptional, shot at a lower ISO such as 100-400, the images are out of the camera better than the D90. Processed in Lightroom, skin tones look wonderful. There is a quality to the files this camera produces that is very pleasing and with the right glass and the right eyes – produces results that are in no way inferior to a shot on full frame.
In terms of dynamic range, the D7100 is a treat, particularly at lower ISOs but even up to ISO 1250. With the D90 when shooting landscapes the trick for me was to underexpose around 1 stop to then preserve the highlights and then draw out the shadows in post. If I shoot the D7100 at ISO 100-400, I don’t need to do that now all except for the scenes with the most piercing of highlights (e.g. sunlight puncturing heavy cloud cover), it is all there! The histogram shows that an image exposed at what the matrix metering suggests packs all the highlights and shadows. This is a big step forwards. So much so, I am now reminded of shooting colour negative with this camera.
The third area where FX still has its advantage is high ISO performance, at ISO 3200 the D600 will produce better files. However, this is assuming that both files are well exposed and many people will shoot high ISO and still underexpose. To this I would always look at cleaning up the light with flash, it makes all the difference, although it is nice to have the ability to balance the ambient light with flash with better quality than I could achieve with the D90. Of course there are some instances where flash is too intrusive e.g. in a church wedding ceremony, and the FX camera will do a better job at high ISO.
The main advantage of shooting FX and therefore choosing the D600 is actually the lenses. A 24mm prime, is just that, not a 36mm equivalent, and likewise the 70-200 is just that. That certainly goes for people shooting weddings and portraits. Nikon has never fulfilled a decent range of DX primes, we have the excellent 35mm and a series of macro lenses. If Nikon were to make a decent 23/4mm DX prime again with a f/1.8 aperture, that would be phenomenally useful. As it stands the 17-55mm works well, but that’s a lot of lens to carry if you just want to do some reportage photography lightly.
However the D7100 bests the D600 in a couple of notable ways. First is the AF system. I didn’t find the D600 inaccurate, in fact it responded very snappily in use and I had no real issues with it. What I did find alarming was how little of the frame the AF sensors cover, they appear very tightly clustered around the centre of the frame; and I’m generally a focus and recompose girl; but I can see that being a disadvantage where the D7100’s AF points cover almost all of the frame, and if using the 1.3x crop mode, cover it all. Not so much an issue for people photographers, but for sports and action, that may be a hindrance. The second is although not likely to crop up too much but useful is the D7100 has 1/3rd stop more of flash sync (1/250th versus 1/200th), and a higher top frame rate (1/8000th versus 1/4000th).
All in all the choice will be yours between the two relatively closely priced cameras.
Where the D7100 excels for me is in its image quality. It produces truly excellent files with excellent dynamic range, and excellent out of the camera colour that for commercial work is very easy to process and turn around quickly. I have found shooting at ISO 800 indoors during bridal preparation shots the camera to produce extremely good low noise images, all the way up to ISO 1600, with ISO 3200 on a well exposed image being very good indeed. Even ISO 6400 on a properly exposed frame can turn in a decent result.
Ultimately, I think Nikon have produced a very decent camera that I look forward to using for many years to come.