Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Field Tests: The Nikon D7000 - Very First Impressions...

Introduction

Post Date: November 8, 2010
Update #1: April 20, 2011. Addition made to comments on autofocus performance...
Update #2: May 2, 2011. Update to autofocus performance comments of April 20, 2011 (after installation of Firmware 1.02) - scroll down to section on AF performance...
Update #3: September 16, 2011. Another update to autofocus performance comments (after full field season of use of D7000) - scroll down to section on AF performance...

This interim field test report was produced after shooting with, and analyzing the output from, Nikon's latest DSLR - the D7000 - for only 3 days. While I've learned a lot about the camera and what it can do for me, I still have much to learn about it. Consider what follows as my VERY first impressions only - I don't think what I've discovered to date will change much, but it's possible. A much more detailed report of my field testing will appear at a later date (hopefully by month's end). This "mini-review" is NOT intended as a spewing of the specs of the camera - it's intended to convey how it works for me in the field. A good spec regurgitation can be found here on dpreview's website...

QUALIFIERS, CAVEATS, AND CONTEXT:

I test my gear quite extensively in an effort to discover how it will perform for ME (using my own shooting style) in a field situation. I'm not paid to test equipment, nor do I receive my gear for free. I test them under field conditions ONLY (no lab work) and use the same techniques I'm likely to use when I'm shooting the particular item in the field. While I do some of my testing very methodically, much of it is pure "field shooting". I do NOT shoot images of targets under rigidly controlled lab conditions - I shoot images of wildlife (or "proxies", such as my Portuguese Water Dogs) in the field. It's not critical to me to produce results that are generalizable or that are rigorous enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal - I care about how I can use the gear in the field and how to get the results I need to sell images! While some "lab tests" have a real-world correlate that translates into a limitation in the field, I find an increasing number of tests quite esoteric and the "differences" between two products is real only in a statistical sense (and has no real correlate in producing a quality image, which is NOT a pure science). There ARE tests I rely on - for instance, I find dxomark.com's published values for "Low-Light ISO" performance are almost always close to what I consider "acceptable image quality" (in terms of noise), and thus they have a real-world correlate for me.

In the case of the D7000, all I'm really trying to answer is this question: Will the camera work well enough as a complement to my "real" pro-body (currently a D3s) to justify owning and using it? I've long maintained that I would love a FULLY professional DX camera that: (1) is well-enough built to handle real field use (NOT abuse); (2) has decent low-light performance and (3) gives me a little more that 12 MP in resolution. Given that it's currently not clear whether this camera will become Nikon's flagship DX body - some argue a "fully professional" upgrade to the D300s is coming this spring - I have to ask: Is the D7000 the camera I have been waiting for? It is in this light that I bought and am currently testing this camera...I'm concerned primarily how it works for me in ABSOLUTE terms, not whether it's a little better than a D90 or D300 or...

Finally, I'm a dedicated RAW shooter of STILL images - everything that follows is based on use while shooting 14-bit RAW images. So don't expect comments about the quality of the in-camera JPEGs from this field test. I processed all RAW images processed used Adobe Lightroom (Release Candidate vers. 3.3, available from Adobe Labs). Video?? I can say NOTHING intelligent about the D7000's video capabilities - I don't shoot video clips (at this time) and likely will never shoot video clips. I also don't care about using a DSLR as a phone...so PLEASE Nikon - don't add cell phone capabilities to the spec list for the 2012 D7000s!

The Field Test: First Impressions of the D7000 In The Field

First the Executive Summary, followed by a little more detail...

The Executive Summary:

This is a very good camera - under the right conditions it can produce professional quality images comparable to that taken by any DSLR. The camera produces stellar images at low ISO's and is easily Nikon's best low-light/high-ISO performer in the DX format. All of the newly introduced features, including both a new AF system and new metering, operate very well - at least as well "as advertised".

More Detail - And Sample Images

1. Build Quality: As you can read in a billion places, the D7000 seems to be built very well - it feels and handles much more like a D300 than a D90. And, to be particularly politically incorrect, it feels more like a Japanese Nikon than a Thai Nikon - somehow reminiscent of the old F100. Nikon has told us that the body is "environmentally sealed". With one major exception (more on this below under "Dislikes") all the buttons and dials are, compared to other Nikons, in the "right" place and easy to access. I'm a moderately large person and the controls (buttons/dials) were NOT spaced too tightly for me to use easily in the field. Is the body built well enough to stand up to the day-to-day rigours of real field use? The jury is still out on this one (it HAS lasted 3 days in the field so far!!) - come back next June to see what I have to say about that!

2. Autofocus System: Nikon introduced a new 39-point autofocus system with this camera. I'm used to using (and really like) the 51-point autofocus system on the D700 and D3s. So...would I miss those 12 "missing" focus brackets in the viewfinder (51-point vs. 39-point). Nope, not one bit. Frame coverage of the 39 sensors is excellent. I haven't found a situation yet where I wanted to focus on a point where there wasn't a sensor (which would have to be somewhere on the extremities of the viewfinder).

A huge concern for me is how well an autofocus system will track a moving subject. Think "bird in flight". Or "bear-on-the-run". To test this I employ (using yummy treats as fiscal compensation) my fastest and most enthusiastic Portuguese Water Dog (Jose) as a subject. The test - have Jose sit at a distance and then call him to me and, while he's running full tilt directly at me, let rip with the camera and examine if the images (and how many of them) are sufficiently sharp for professional use. This is quite a tough test and many camera/lens combos (e.g., pro body with consumer lens; consumer body with pro lens) will produce VERY FEW sharp images in a sequence. I had heavy overcast skies all weekend, which means low contrast scenes which AF systems struggle with AND I could find barely enough shutter speed to freeze speedy Jose. BUT, despite these tough conditions, the focus-tracking/predictive autofocus system (39-point Dynamic Area mode) worked GREAT! I didn't shoot enough of these runs to really compare the "in-focus" capture rate with my D3s - but it seemed right up there (and over 80% of the shots were very sharp). Here's a representative image - with metadata overlaid on it...

20 April 2011 Update: In late March and early April I had the opportunity to test the autofocus system of the D7000 using Nikon's 400mm f2.8 VR, 500mm f4 VR, and the 600mm f4 VR (both "natively" and with the TC-14EII and the TC-20EIII). The D7000 "powered" the AF when using these large lenses just fine, provided the camera was in Single-Area AF mode (including with both static and moving subjects). I had the perception that the AF of the D7000 was slightly slower than on my D3s (when using these large lenses), but had no objective way to test this. HOWEVER, with all 3 of these super-telephoto lenses (even when shot without the TC's) the AF was close to non-functional in Dynamic-Area (39-point) mode. Specifically, the AF would bring the subject into focus if it was only reasonably "in-focus" in the first place. If the subject was quite out-of-focus (i.e., appeared blurry to the eye through the viewfinder), the AF system would audibly tick but not shift the focus of the lens at all. So...my copy of the D7000 had very limited use for photographing erratically moving subjects with the aforementioned super-telephoto lenses. So...forget birds in flight, running mammals (or humans), etc. Once I discovered this "problem" in AF performance when using Dynamic-Area AF mode I checked the situation using all my lenses - here's what I found:

• "Shorter" focal range zooms (16-35mm f4 VR; 24-70mm f2.8; 70-200mm f2.8 VRII): problem never occurred
• 105mm f2.8 VR Macro: Problem occurred sporadically (but who would use Dynamic Area AF with this lens??)
• 200mm f2 VR: Problem never occurred.
• 200-400mm f4 VR: Problem occurred sporadically (less than 50% of the time).
• "Big" Super-telephotos (400mm, 500mm, 600mm): Problem occurred close to 100% of the time.

NOTE: I no longer own the 300mm f2.8 VR, so did not test this lens.

How "damning" is this to the D7000? Well - in my opinion - hardly at all. I suspect only very, very few D7000 purchasers will be using it with Nikon's big super-telephoto lenses to photograph erratically moving subjects. AND, if I'm using Single-Area AF mode, the problem does NOT occur. For me it IS a bit of a disappointment, but perhaps expecting the AF system to work as well as a D3s is a bit of an unreasonable expectation of a $1,000 camera!

2 May 2011 Update: Shortly after I discovered this minor AF "problem" on the D7000 when used with selected super-telephoto lenses Nikon came up with a firmware update (to firmware v1.02). And, instantly I started to receive email asking me if the firware update "fixed" the AF problem. Short answer: No. But, as I clearly stated above, this is really quite an insignificant (and possibly non-existent) problem for MOST users of the camera. It occurs only when using some quite exotic (and quite rare) lenses, AND it ONLY occurs in Dynamic-Area AF mode. If I didn't have the opportunity to shoot the D7000 right beside the top-of-the-line D3s the odds are I would not have even perceived this limitation in AF performance as a "problem". Perspective IS important - this is a $1000 camera being paired with huge lenses that approach 5 figures in price...

16 September 2011 Update: I've now completed a full field season with the D7000. I have used/tested my D7000 with long lenses (those described in the 20 April update) while photographing grizzlies, black bears, aquatic mammals, many species of birds, and more. The AF system of the camera generally works very well (at all focal distances) with my "short" lenses (up to my 70-200mm f2.8 VRII) OR with ANY of my lenses (including all the super-telephoto lenses listed above) if the subject is at VERY close range (in the 10 meter range). However, I have been able to produce only poor to very poor results ("soft" images, inability of camera to attain focus at all, etc.) with my D7000 with wildlife subjects at "normal" working distances (+/- 30 meters or longer) with the following lenses: the 200-400mm f4 VR, the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 500mm f4 VR, and the 600mm f4 VR. I have heard anecdotally that other nature photographers have had similar findings when using long telephoto lenses with the D7000 but do NOT have details re: which lenses these photographers tested. I have also heard anecdotally (from a photographer I trust) that the AF system of the D7000 apparently works quite well with the 300mm f4. Please note that the problems I encountered with my D7000 are not related to AF fine-tuning (or lack thereof) - I have "tuned" the camera/lens combo for each of my super-telephoto lenses. At this point I deal with the problem simply by not using my D7000 with any lens longer than 200mm. While this may sound "damning", in practice in the field it is not too hard to deal with - I keep my D3s mounted on my "big" lenses and keep my D7000 in a belt holster with my 70-200mm mounted on it and ready to go when the opportunity arises. If I was relying solely on the D7000 the situation would be far more problematic, to say the least.

3. Image Quality: I haven't shot enough, and under enough different conditions, to make definitive conclusions on this. But I can comment on two things. First, at low ISO's (up to about ISO 400) the D7000 can produce images on par with the output of the D3s. I shot the same scene side-by side with the D7000 (with a 400mm f2.8 VRII lens) and the D3s (with a 600mm f4 VRII lens) and the output was virtually indistinguishable, even when viewed at 100%. Sample images showing this will be posted when I do my more in-depth field report of the camera.

Second - and critical to me and probably on the top of everyone's mind - what about low light/high ISO performance?? Well, it's not a D3s (or a D3/D700), but it's awfully darned good for a 16 MP DX camera. But here's the interesting point: If you view the RAW images of the D7000 with absolutely NO NOISE reduction (e.g., using Lightroom with both Luminance and Colour NR turned down to zero) significant noise - especially colour noise - starts visibly showing by ISO 640 and continually gets far worse. How bad? Well, a RAW image with no noise reduction shot with the D7000 at ISO 1600 looks about the same as a RAW image (again with no NR) shot with the D3s at ISO 10,000. This may sound awful, BUT bear in mind that a D3s shoots pretty amazing stuff at ISO 10,000. BUT, more importantly - and don't ask me why - the noise of the D7000 (especially that colour noise) seems to be VERY easily handled during RAW conversion. The bottom line is that you can get VERY good output at ISO 1600 and, depending on the image's final use, acceptable output all the way up to ISO 6400.

• Composite image of D7000 at ISO 1600 (with and without noise reduction) and D3s at ISO 10000 (with and without noise reduction). View this image set at 100% before judging anything: D7000 (ISO 1600) vs. D3s (ISO 10000) comparison (1 MB)

OK - now time for some real world thinking and some images. Many, if not MOST, images are used and viewed with the resolution cut-down (e.g., on every website on the planet and many, many printed versions of the image). The very act of reducing an image in resolution reduces noise. So...what would these D7000 (ISO 1600) and D3s (ISO 10000) images look like under "more normal" use. Check out these 1200 pixel versions (full-frame, but resolution reduced):

D7000 at ISO 1600 - 1200 pixels wide (370 KB)
D3s at ISO 10,000 - 1200 pixels wide (406 KB)
• What about the D7000 at MUCH higher ISO's? Here ya go: D7000 at ISO 6400 - 1200 pixels wide (385 KB)

The bottom line on the D7000 ISO performance? The D7000 shoots relatively noisy images starting at about ISO 640 or so. BUT, either due to the "nature" of the noise (a sensor issue), or because Nikon has produced a really hot noise-reduction algorithm that they're sharing with others (like Adobe), the D7000 produces VERY usable high ISO RAW files and, presumably, in-camera JPEGs. For me this means I won't hesitate to shoot ISO 1600 shots and will, on occasion, go even higher. This means that as a lover of Nikon's Auto ISO function, I'll likely "cap" the Auto ISO at 3200, but try to keep a little under this whenever possible. How does it compare with Nikon's other DSLR's? At this point (subject to change with additional testing), I would say that - after light noise reduction - the D7000 out-performs the D300 in ISO performance by about 1.5 stops. And, at ISO's of 1600 or higher, the D3s is at least 2 stops better than the D7000 (but this is NOT a reflection of poor performance by the D7000, but rather the superlative performance of the D3s at crazy ISO's).

4. The new 2,016 pixel RGB metering sensor: The pro Nikons (including both the D3s and the D3x) have built-in light meters that read off of 1,005 pixels. Theoretically, the doubling of the pixels used in metering should produce even better exposures (when not over-ridden by the user). At this point I have only shot under relatively low-contrast (and "easy to meter under") conditions. The new light metering system has worked very well, but I can't say I have noticed a difference in performance in the field (compared to my D3s). I'll say more about this once I've had a chance to evaluate it more thoroughly.

Likes and Dislikes: Here's a list of some of the "other" attributes I have an opinion about...

LIKES:

User Settings: U1 and U2 modes: Huh? What's this? If you look on the "Mode Dial" (round dial on top left side of camera - over where you used to "crank" to rewind film!) you'll see two new settings: U1 and U2. These are user-controlled groupings of settings that allow you to control almost EVERYTHING about the camera (and get to that "bank" of settings really fast if you need to). Think of it this way - I shoot almost exclusively on Aperture Priority Mode, but there are occasions where I want to change my ISO, minimum shutter speed, and AF modes all at once, and I want to change them NOW! Think of casually walking along in the woods and you suddenly see a Bald Eagle flying through the woods directly at you. I'd want to go to a high shutter speed (minimum of 1/1000s), whatever ISO I need to get there (Auto ISO set correctly), Aperture Priority mode, and a specific autofocus mode (39-point AF in continuous servo, Dynamic Area mode). With these new User Settings I can have ALL these settings saved as User Setting 1 (U1) and switch the whole kit and kaboodle simply by going toggling the Mode Dial to U1. Very, very cool. Very, very useful for me. Nikon: Please add this function (with THREE user settings) to the D4 spec list. And, oh yeah...maybe move the control of the VR mode of each lens INTO THE CAMERA and make it one of settings you can save with the User Mode!

Quiet Shutter Mode: I loved when Nikon re-introduced this feature on the D3s. The good news - it's even better on the D7000 - WAY QUIETER! This "Quiet Mode" is really, really quiet and something this wildlife photographer REALLY LIKES! Thanks.

No Frame Rate Slow-down in 14-bit Mode: Starting with the D300 and D3 Nikon allowed you to save RAW files in 12-bit or 14-bit mode. The catch on the D300 (not the D3) was that shooting in 14-bit mode slowed the frame rate down to a snail's pace. Not with the D7000: it's 6 fps when shot in 12- or 14-bit mode. Thanks!

Compact Body Size: As a user of the humongous D3s I really appreciate the compact size and relatively light weight of the D7000. Mind you, I WILL be using the MB-D111 battery grip as soon as it's available which will negate part of this size/weight advantage, but it will be my option whether I choose to use it on any given day.

Battery Life: I've only been shooting with the D7000 for a few days, but have shot a little over 1,000 images (including using the VR function os some pretty big lenses a lot) and my battery is still showing 50% full. Pretty good!

Resolution: There's a reason this is next-to-last on my list of likes - it's NICE to have the added resolution (4928 x 3264 pixels vs. the 4256 x 2832 of my D3s), but this isn't a HUGE deal for me. Nice - yes. Awesome? Nah.

Price: If you compare this camera with what we all were paying thousands more for a few years back (this camera KICKS a D2x in everything but build quality), even the most cynical would have to admit this is a LOT of camera for just over $1000.00. Great value.

DISLIKES:

Swapped Button Positions: I'm often shooting with two (and sometimes 3!) cameras in the field and rapidly switch between them. I'm often doing this when I'm in a situation when the LAST thing I want to be thinking about is where a specific button is on a specific camera (i.e., I want them to be the same). On about my last 10 or so Nikons the Depth of Field Preview button has been on the TOP right front of the body, with the Function Button on the BOTTOM right front of the body. Where are they on the D7000? Same place, but they're top/bottom reversed! Argh! Sure...it's a little thing, but a potentially important little thing in the field. Yes, I'm aware the placement of the buttons is the same as on the D90, but I thought this camera wasn't supposed to be a D90 replacement? Or is it? Why not make the positioning of these buttons the same on ALL the DSLR's? Seems like a no-brainer to me...

"Small" Buffer: This isn't really a "problem" with the D7000 - you can shoot 10 14-bit RAW images at 6 fps before the camera quits shooting (while it writes the image data to the SD card). BUT, my D3s...which allows you to take about a billion 14-bit RAW images without slowing down (OK, slight exaggeration). So I'm spoiled. Note to self: the D7000 is NOT a D3s.

Auto ISO Execution: I really like how Nikon has implemented the Auto ISO function on the D700 and D3s. It's the same on the D7000, except for one minor thing - your "specified" maximum ISO value can only be set in one stop increments, whereas it can be set in 1/3 stop increments on the higher end Nikons. This WAS the situation on the original D3, but was later addressed in a firmware update. I hope this is the case with the D7000.

Odd Image Review Behaviour: The D7000 has 7 options in what you can see on your LCD when reviewing the images. When using 5 of these 7 review displays you can "zoom out" to see multiple thumbnails and if you press the "zoom out" button repeatedly you can see, sequentially, 4, 9, or 72 thumbnails and even a calendar style display that lets you see what images where shot on what day. Cool. But when in either of the two "Show Highlights" review image option modes smaller thumbnails and the calendar view are inaccessible. Why? I could NOT find this documented in the manual and it seems simply like a software bug. Little thing. But irritating and potentially confusing to many users ("Why can't I get to those thumbnails??").

OK - time to summarize: Here's a relatively low-priced DSLR with 50% gain in effective magnifcation (crop factor) that can produce reasonably high resolution images at even quite high ISO's (with noise reduction). The camera's controls and operations, including autofocus seem to work very well in the field. My own list of likes is longer than my list of dislikes (and which are, admittedly, quite nit-picky). Does Nikon have a winner here? I think so. Will I be shooting it next summer? I think so - but I have still have to see if it really does hold up in the field AND see if there is a D300s replacement and, if so, what it offers. Should YOU buy a D7000? Your call! But you now know what my first impressions are...

Field Test Index


Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRIINikon's Series 3 tele-converters4 Ways to 400mm
Nikon D7000 - First ImpressionsLensCoat RainCoat ProThe Nikon V1
The Nikon D800The Nikon D4Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR