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The Nikon D7000 is Competing Outside its Class

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Gift

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Is the D7000, billed as Nikon's top amateur/enthusiast D-SLR, now the best DX-format Nikon D-SLR of all? Strictly speaking, that ought to be the D300s, but the D7000 beats that model in at least two key areas.

Background

The D7000 is billed as Nikon's top amateur/enthusiasts D-SLR, a slot previously filled by the D90. But while the D90 is being kept on for now, it's one of the oldest models in the range. So most users are bound to see the D7000 as its replacement.

What's especially interesting is that because this is one of the latest models in the Nikon range, the D7000 also has some of the latest technologies, which means that it's not just close to the next model up, the D300s. It actually overtakes it in some areas.

Key features

The D7000 is not designed to be a D300s replacement. The D300s' heavyweight construction, 51-point AF system, 7fps continuous shooting and magnesium alloy body mean that it's still the best choice for hard, professional use, but the D7000's features leave it looking dated, and its replacement can't come a moment too soon.

So what's the D7000 got? The main news is Nikon's new 16-megapixel CMOS sensor. It's true that megapixels aren't everything, but this is quite a jump up from the 12-megapixel sensor that was previously the mainstay of Nikon's DX-format SLR range. The gap to Canon's higher-end amateur SLRs, which use 18-megapixel sensors, was getting a little too large and the D7000 closes it nicely.

The D7000 also has a full HD movie mode. This is another area where Nikon has closed the gap to Canon. You also get continuous autofocus in the movie mode (more on this later) and manual controls.

The ISO range is 100-6400. The continuous shooting speed is a creditable 6fps, and the shutter has been tested to 150,000 cycles.

You also get twin card slots, a feature usually found only on professional cameras. You can use the two cards for extra storage capacity, for storing different types of files (stills versus movies, say) or for backup.

Nikon has raised the stakes with the D7000. It might not be intended as a professional camera, but it has so many pro features and capabilities that it could certainly be used as one.

Usability and handling

The D7000 is a fatter and heavier camera than the cheaper D3100 and D5100, and it's not unlike the old D90 in general feel. However, the magnesium alloy top and rear covers and environmental sealing mean it's a step up from its predecessor in durability as well as specifications.

The 18-105mm VR lens supplied with the review camera is a good choice as a kit lens. Its size and weight means that it balances well with the body, and the longer than usual focal range gives it added versatility for movies as well as stills.

This lens has an internal focussing mechanism, so the front lens element doesn't rotate during focusing, and this makes it easy to use filters. The rear mount is plastic, though, and there's no distance scale for manual focusing. So although it's versatile and delivers good results, this is one of Nikon's cheaper lenses.

The Silent Wave autofocus motor in this lens isn't quite as silent as it could be, either. This doesn't have an impact on stills photography and by most manufacturers' standards it's still whisper-quiet, but you can clearly hear the AF motor working when the D7000 is set to continuous autofocus in the movie mode. In fact, unless you're using an external microphone (there is a socket), you'll probably have to switch off the camera's constant AF-F live view focusing mode and focus manually instead.

The autofocus generally is very good. Nikon's introduced a new 39-point AF system for this camera, which is a big step up from the cheaper amateur models in the range, though not quite up to the level of the 51-point AF system in the D300s.

These focus points are provided not just to offer a wide focusing area, but also to help the camera focus more accurately and quickly in its dynamic area AF and 3D tracking modes. You choose which mode you want to shoot in using a small button within the focusing switch on the left side of the lens flange.

It's a highly sophisticated AF system with lots of options and permutations, but once you've got your head around these, you have to start all over again when you switch to live view mode.

Here, the D7000 uses a different, contrast-based autofocus system because the regular phase-detection AF sensor is out of the light path when the mirror is flipped up. This is a characteristic of the SLR design, and so far the only maker to offer a workaround is Sony, with its translucent-mirror cameras.

In live view mode, you can choose between normal area AF, wide area AF, face-priority and subject-tracking modes. You also have the ability to move the focus point anywhere in the frame. This could prove very useful for studio still life shots, say, where the camera is mounted on a tripod.

The standard AF system is pretty fast, but the D7000 is altogether slow in Live View mode. It's fine if you're not in a hurry, but it's not the same as the full time live view of a hybrid camera like the Panasonic Lumix G2, for example.

There's an odd quirk with the aperture control, too. You can adjust the lens aperture in aperture-priority mode, but not in manual mode. It seems the only way to do it is switch out of live view mode, adjust the aperture, then re-activate live view mode again.

There's no histogram display in the live view mode, either. This does seem a bit of an oversight, in that a live histogram is one of the best ways of assessing exposure.

On the other hand, the LCD display is very good. It's the same 3-inch, 920,000-dot panel used on other Nikon D-SLRs. It's bright, clear and contrasty. It's a shame it doesn't articulate, though, like the one on the new D5100. Normally, you'd expect each camera in the range to have all the features of the one below and then some, but not this time.

Like other SLRs designed for enthusiasts and pros, the D7000 has two control dials, one on the front of the grip where your right index finger falls, and the other on the back of the camera underneath your thumb. It also has a status panel on the top plate which displays, amongst other things, the battery charge, the number of shots remaining, ISO, shutter speed and aperture and the white balance setting. The while balance icons in particular, though, are very small. They always have been on Nikon D-SLRs. So if your eyesight's not what it was or the lighting conditions are poor, you may have to press the info button on the back to display the camera settings on the main LCD instead.

On the top of the camera is a conventional mode dial, but beneath that is a locking drive mode dial. It's a good idea in the sense that you won't accidentally change the drive mode, but the locking button is quite awkward too reach, so changing the drive mode is actually a little too difficult.

On the right of the body is a memory card door which opens to reveal the D7000's two card slots. It opens a little too easily. It opened a couple of times simply when removing the camera from a bag - but it's not a major issue.

Generally, the D7000 handles very well. It's not as fiddly as a compact beginner's SLR, and nor is it as heavy and bulky as a pro camera like the D300s. The exterior is pretty busy, though. If you haven't used a Nikon D-SLR before, it could take you a while to memorize the positions of all the buttons.

Picture quality

So does the D7000's 16-megapixel sensor deliver extra detail? It does, but you're going to have to work harder to get it. Shooting RAW will help extract the maximum definition later on, but you'll also need good lenses. The differences between average lenses and great ones show up well before you reach this kind of resolution.

But, does the megapixel increase have an impact on high ISO performance? After all, because there are now more photosites on the sensor, each one is smaller. And at the same time, Nikon has pushed the maximum ISO up to 6400, and added two 'HI' settings that go to ISO 12800 and ISO 25600 respectively.

The results are interesting. Noise actually starts to appear at medium ISOs, but it's fine and light and quite 'film-like'. In fact, if you're a film fan you might quite like the effect compared to the slightly 'plasticised' look of Canon JPEGs, say. The noise builds up progressively - but slowly - as the ISOs go up, but the camera's in-built noise reduction appears to build up at the same rate to maintain a very good balance between noise and definition.

At ISO 6400, the image quality is still impressive. The noise reduction has by now taken away some of the subtler textural detail in the shot above, and the edges of objects are starting to look 'eroded', but the overall contrast and saturation remain excellent.

The two 'HI' settings go a little bit too far, though. Image quality at ISO 12800 is tolerable but quite clearly degraded, and at ISO 25600 it's pretty poor - both are probably best left for emergencies.

Sensor technology is developing all the time, often by small increments which aren't large enough to make any headline news on their own, but which accumulate to produce steady and significant advances. And the D7000's sensor certainly seems to benefit, delivering higher-resolution images and excellent high-ISO performance at the same time.

The color rendition is rich and vibrant, and the auto white balance coped perfectly with a whole range of lighting conditions. The D7000 has done a great job in the shot below, capturing the full depth of color in these flowers but still holding on to the subtle detail in the red petals.

It's a different story with Nikon's new 2,016-pixel metering system, though. Mostly it was fine, but when it was presented with heavily backlit or high-contrast scenes, it showed a tendency towards overexposure.

This shot is fine. The camera's balanced up the light and dark areas very well and come up with an exposure which is a good compromise.

This one, though, is a bit of a disaster. It's as if the metering system has fixed on the shadowed side of the building in the foreground and ignored the rest. The D7000 was used to shoot some bracketed exposure series for making HDR images at +/-2EV intervals at one point, and in some instances the -2EV shots were better than the 'normally' exposed ones.

The D7000 versus the rest

The D7000 is up against some strong competition in the form of the Canon EOS 60D and Pentax K-5.

The EOS 60D beats the D7000's resolution by 2 megapixels, but that's hardly enough to worry over. A lot depends on the image processing and lens quality, and while the 18-135mm lens often bundled with the Canon has a longer focal range, it's perhaps not the best lens in the world optically. The D60 doesn't quite match the Nikon's 6fps continuous shooting, either, but it does have an articulating LCD, it costs less and it has a cleaner, less complicated exterior, though it's a shame Canon has gone for a plastic body.

The Pentax K-5 is an interesting choice too. The 18-55mm kit lens usually supplied isn't the best, but the camera itself is small, robust and extremely well-specified. Its in-built dynamic range expansion is particularly useful when shooting JPEGs, and the image quality is a match for any other APS-C SLR on the market.

Verdict

The D7000 is a very good camera. It has a couple of limitations (no articulating LCD, some exposure issues), but they're comparatively minor. What it sets out to do, it does brilliantly. But it doesn't make it any easier to choose the 'right' Nikon. The new D5100 is less substantial, but has the same sensor, does include an articulating LCD and costs a lot less. Professionals, meanwhile, may want to hold out for a D300s replacement rather than investing in the D7000. For now, it's the best DX-format Nikon in the range, but it has a pretty hefty price tag and it's occupying a gap that can only get narrower.

Pros

Great overall image quality and high ISO performance
Full HD movies with continuous autofocus
6fps continuous shooting
Dual card slots

Cons

Tendency to overexposure in contrasty/backlit lighting
No histogram in live view mode
Live view autofocus sophisticated, but slow
Pretty expensive for a non-professional SLR

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