The D7000 is more like an entry-level pro camera than a top-end amateur.
As Nikon’s DSLR range heads into a second decade of production, it’s running out of number designations for new models. Commercial priorities dictate that nomenclature is diluted to maintain a strong identity for each product, but the single-, double- and triple-digit arrangement seems to have been exhausted. Providing a hint to Nikon’s solution, the entry-level 10.2-megapixel D3000 appeared as a replacement for the D40x/D60, soon followed by the 12.3-megapixel D5000 and 14.2-megapixel, 1080p video-capable D3100 models. As such, the newly introduced D7000 ends up being likened to a D90 replacement – something Nikon assures me is not the case.
“Nikon’s product range during the film era covered all customer requirements,” Jeremy Gilbert of Nikon told me recently. “We had a lot of variants available to suit the buyer, and the digital market is becoming very similar.”
Maybe there’s a D90 replacement coming, or it could be that there’s still stock of the D90 in the retail network, and they’d rather it remained marketable? At present, the entry price for Nikon DSLR ownership is much higher than in 2008, when the D40x was threatening the high-end compacts, so there is room below the D3100 for double-digit models to return.
D3s in miniature
The moment I put my hands on the camera and started looking through the menus, I felt I’d taken hold of a baby D3s. With frequent trips to central London making me look at the bulk of both my car and my kit, I can sympathise with the idea that “smaller” shouldn’t really equate to “less professional or prestigious”. In the same way that a Fiat 500 or Citroën DS3 gives me the style and specification I want without having a 16-foot liability to park, the D7000 seems to offer the control and flexibility I value in the pro Nikon, but without the weight and size penalty.
Small sensor and slower burst speeds aside, everything else seems just right. The 39-point AF feels naturally proportional beside the 51-point coverage of a full-frame system, the magnesium body, twin card slots (albeit SDXC rather than CF) combine with the VGA three-inch LCD to complete the impression that this is my familiar pro body – only much, much smaller. D300s and D3s owners can be forgiven for giving the D7000 a bit of the evil eye – the new 16.2-megapixel sensor gives the upstart camera a real advantage on the spec sheet, and the on-paper spec heads up to ISO 6400 before hitting the extended modes (up to 25,600); the same headline-grabbing figure the original D3 won over a massive group of professionals with.
It’s an interesting contrast with the older consumer lineup, which tended to inherit sensor technology rather than pioneer it – the 12.3-megapixel sensor first appeared in the D300, then the D90 (where it acquired video, later to come to the D300s) before ending up in the flexible consumer D5000. Likewise, the 12.1-megapixel FX sensor has yet to make it to a smaller body with video, and the 24-megapixel FX sensor remains unique to the D3x. The rapid appearances of the 14.2-megapixel D3100 and 16.2-megapixel D7000 point at a greater diversity of resolution in Nikon’s future product plan.
As you’d expect at the £1099 price point, both the software and hardware are well engineered. The familiar menu system reveals support for the wireless transmitter (although at £750, that remains a very specialised option) and, unlike the lower-level consumer models, the info display presents only in the professional, LCD-like layout. With the big improvement of direct access to custom modes, there’s still a scene-type control beside them on the dial – consumers and professionals are able to have their cake and eat it here. Even early AI lenses are supported, giving access to the lens catalogue back to the late 1970s. As with the pro bodies, the specifications of nine non-CPU lenses can be specified to allow colour matrix metering to work.
Accessible without the vertical grip, the 6fps maximum speed (the shutter is a 150K-rated, 1/8000s unit) and 100 percent coverage glass pentaprism with switchable gridlines bulk up those pro credentials, while two assignable function buttons and a viewfinder-visible virtual horizon reinforce the D3s similarities. Nikon’s new AF mode selector brings all related functions to one location, including live view/video constant AF – with the loss of the AF-On button being compensated for by making it assignable to other controls.
It’s easy to select an AF mode even without referring to the top LCD, thanks to the viewfinder display and illuminated AF points. There is a degree of weatherproofing on the body as well; although the lens provided in the 18-105mm kit isn’t weatherproof, the new magnesium-alloy MB-D11 grip has good sealing.
Nikon further enhances the baby-pro feel with a locking drive wheel below the mode selector, (which moves to the left of the body due to the large top LCD, as per the D90); true mirror lockup and quiet shutter mode are instantly accessible. In fact, bar the presence of a flash synch socket or the pro-level accessory connections (the D7000 shares the new mini connector for GPS and wired remote, while supporting the IR ML-3 unit), it’s hard to find any reason for this not to be part of the professional lineup. Yet it won’t count towards NPS status or qualify for NPU, while the D300s does…
The in-camera adjustments of the D7000 aren’t going to match the breadth of corrections and controls available through a computer but, for on-location corrections, quick shots and reporting, it’s possible to straighten buildings, correct distortion and colour. Here, the lifts at Aldwych Station have been corrected in-camera. Image © Richard Kilpatrick
The new sensor is something of a mixed blessing. Nikon’s approach to the camera means that 14-bit capture for raw is provided, the resolution makes the system more competitive on paper, and the new metering and AF make for a better camera overall – yet it’s hard to see a benefit from the 16.2-megapixel chip once you breach ISO 3200. Where the D300 and D5000, with their 12.3-megapixel chips, deliver strong native results up to ISO 3200 and usable results up to ISO 6400, the D7000 needs more attention post-processing to remove the noise in raw files.
For output purposes, the D7000 is a very strong performer – it’s only in the pixel-peeping assessment of technical capability where it’s not racing ahead, and it’s certainly very close to the original output of the D3 at pixel level. JPEG files out of the camera are well processed, although detail is sacrificed by noise reduction and, as with any high-density sensor, diffraction can be an issue with some lenses. Colour rendition and perceived “separation” of objects remains excellent, although I’m aware that this is a matter of taste for many photographers. As a Nikon user myself, the results are consistent with my other cameras.
The in-camera processing follows on from the earlier models, and delivers some artistic and quick-fix corrections, including a tilt-shift effect, multi-shot and colour adjustments, plus outline, paint and other “art” styles. Usually I wouldn’t venture into these menus but they’re actually a lot of fun and, in the case of distortion and perspective corrections, incredibly useful. Video capability relies on the same format as the D3100, moving from the single-frame-based Motion-JPEG to a true 1080p 24fps H.264 stream. It’s a good balance between quality and compression and, as with the D300s video, can be stored on one card, with stills on the other.
One benefit of the magnesium-alloy body is excellent heat dissipation – despite offering a recording time of 20 minutes, the camera remained cool and showed no signs of image degradation either on live view or recorded material for that full duration. The only sign of warmth was near the card slot during write access.
Compared to its competition, the D7000 performs very well. However, Nikon users accustomed to D3s-style results at ISO 3200 onwards will be weighing up the benefits of more pixels versus less noise, until the next body comes along to show where the rest of the range will take the sensor.
It’s worth noting that the first Nikon DSLR’s sensor architecture remained (through refinement) current for a decade, as the D1’s 2.7-megapixel unit was actually a 10.8-megapixel APS-C CCD with the same pixel pitch as the D3000’s unit.
Over 2010 we’ve seen a gradual improvement in Nikon’s resolution; that and the new metering suggests that big things are coming for the professional line. The 2016-segment 3D Colour Matrix metering is the first major upgrade since 2004’s D2x – which carried an evolution of the F5’s sensor. Though it offers some real improvements in the performance of the 3D AF (and seems to provide a more versatile white balance control, adding an “ambient” function to try and preserve lighting colour), it should also assist exposure calculations for wider dynamic range sensors, allowing near-HDR quality capture. It’s hard to see the D300s remaining in the range for long without updates to match the metering and resolution – particularly when the D7000’s construction and feature set eradicate the advantages over the D5000 that the D300s enjoyed.
With an RRP of £1099, the D7000 isn’t replacing the D90 just yet – that video-DSLR pioneer sells for considerably less, remaining competitive. The D7000 sits at the top of the consumer-level tree while providing professional feel and flexibility; the filter and effect functions feel like they’re added to a professional starting point rather than pro-body features tacked on to a consumer-level camera. Client perception of a “non-pro” body aside, I’d have no fears taking this for a paid shoot. As a backup to a medium-format or D3x setup, it’s a bargain; as an introduction to Nikon’s pro range, it’s perfect.
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