It’s late in the year but I think we finally have a contender for the best camera of 2010. No, this hasn’t exactly been a stellar year for new pro bodies. And no, the 16.2-megapixel Nikon D7000, with its APS-C-sized CMOS sensor isn’t exactly a professional camera, but it is a very robust prosumer DSLR with features that should make pros sit up and take notice.
Overall, the D7000 was the most fun camera I shot with this year and its combination of speed, durability, and sparkling still image and HD video quality helped me overlook the fact it probably won’t replace that lightning fast, gasketed and sealed professional workhorse covered in mud in your camera bag.
The D7000 does make a great second camera or a primary model for photographers on a budget. Selling for $1,199 body only, the D7000 is the replacement for the Nikon D90 which came out two years ago and was the first digital SLR to shoot true HD video.
Along with the big leap in model nomenclature from D90 to D7000, the new camera debuts at a price tag $200 higher than its predecessor. But that’s not just “adjusted for inflation” pricing—and lord knows the stagnant economy hasn’t seen too much inflation recently—it’s evident in some major upgrades on the D7000, the first of which is a jump to 1080p HD video. (The D90 topped out at 720p.)
The D7000 is also a much more macho camera all around, featuring a tough weather- and dust-resistant build which adds magnesium alloy to the top and rear of the camera. The shutter has been upgraded as well so it can withstand up to 150,000 snaps. (The D90 had a 100,000-cycle shutter.) A step up in weight class—27.5 ounces vs. 25.2 ounces—for the D7000 makes it feels more serious in your hand, where its predecessor felt slightly flimsy.
And this is why I’m so jazzed about the D7000. It’s not just the next version of the D90. As its sui generis model name indicates, the D7000 is a brand new category of camera for Nikon, and a very good one at that. Let’s take a look.
THE NEXT GENERATION
When the 12.3-megapixel D90 burst onto the scene two years ago offering 720p HD video capture, many people didn’t quite know what to make of it. Unfortunately for Nikon, it wasn’t until Canon debuted its full-frame sensor, 1080p-shooting 5D Mark II several months later and photographer Vincent Laforet’s ground-breaking “Reverie” movie captured with the 5D II exploded on the Internet after that, did people begin to realize what these HD-DSLR were really capable of.
Though the D90 was a very popular camera for Nikon, it didn’t have the talisman-like status of the 5D Mark II. And while Nikon has been quite successful with its recent pro DSLRs and lenses—look at the sideline of any sporting event and you’ll see lines of black Nikon glass where once it was all Canon white—the company has seemed to be a half-step behind in the HD video world.
That changes with the D7000, which is the latest in Nikon’s lineup to shoot 1080p. The D7000 captures 1080p at 24fps and 720p at 24 or 30fps and, in another breakthrough for Nikon, the camera is the first HD-DSLR on the market to offer continuous autofocus both while shooting video and in Live View.
A word about the D7000’s continuous autofocus feature: It’s probably not something you’ll use that often. It’s loud, slow, and has trouble achieving focus lock in low light shooting situations. This is not exactly the fault of Nikon; it’s more inherent in the feature itself.
Achieving fast, fluid, continuous autofocus on a DSLR is not easy because of the way still camera lenses work; the longer and more serious the lens, the more power the camera is going to need to find focus and lock in. And if you’re moving quickly from scene to scene, you’ll be herking and jerking all over the place.
It’s better for subtle shifts in focus in a static scene, such as from one face to another, when you don’t have time to manually pull focus. Nikon knows this which is probably why the continuous autofocus feature is not on by default and is, in fact, buried in the D7000’s custom menus. It’s also a big drain on the battery. Having said all that, continuous autofocus is an exciting tool to have on board for video-makers even if you don’t use it that often. Kudos to Nikon for adding it here.
Video quality from the D7000 is the top of any current Nikon DSLR on the market. At 1080p, my clips looked lush and clean and despite not having the benefits of a full frame sensor—the D7000 is only APS-C—I achieved beautiful background defocusing while shooting with the Nikkor 24-120mm f/4, which is reviewed separately in this issue.
On the downside, the D7000 only has a monoaural mic built-in though there is an external stereo mic jack. Other improvements I liked in the video mode were the straightforward switch on the back of the D7000 which puts you instantly in Live View mode and the red button in the middle which quickly gets the video mode started.
The problem of rolling shutter, which creates a jello-like effect in your clips when you pan too quickly, is vastly improved in the D7000 from the D90. It’s hard to avoid rolling shutter when recording video with a CMOS sensor but either the EXPEED 2 processor or some other special sauce or algorithm in the new camera does a good job of controlling it.
The D7000 now has dual SD card slots which along with giving you more overall storage, are easily configurable to save still images to one card and movies to another. Love this feature.
The biggest question the D7000 leaves you with after shooting with it is why would anyone buy a Nikon D300s now? That camera is about $600 more than the D7000 and doesn’t offer 1080p HD. Still shooting speed is virtually the same—the D7000 can shoot 6fps while the D300s fires at 7fps. (Editor’s note: Though prior to the D7000’s launch Nikon said the MB-D11 battery grip ($260) would boost the D7000’s burst speed to 7fps, the company now says the grip will not increase the frame rate.)
Even without the battery grip, the buffer for the D7000, when shooting JPEGs, is an impressive 100 frames. While shooting sports I loved that feeling that I could keep going and going in bursts during fast-action sequences. Shutter lag is virtually non-existent and there’s a quiet snappiness to the camera overall.
In terms of image quality, I’d put the D7000 on par with the D300s and better than rivals such as the Pentax K-7, Canon Rebel T2i or even the 7D.
Despite having more megapixels than the D300s, the D7000 was an excellent low-light shooter. I was skeptical when I saw the extended ISO range, taking this camera into the stratospheric heights of ISO 25,600, and while you really don’t want to go there with the D7000, it produced surprisingly clean images at ISO 3200-6400.
The D7000’s default anti-noise algorithms were also not overly aggressive and there were few signs of pixel squishing. In a pinch, the H.03 setting, which puts the camera at ISO 8000, produced perfectly acceptable results. Again, some credit must be given to the EXPEED 2 processor but I’d also say overall image quality benefits from its 14-bit Analog/Digital pipeline.
The new 39-point Autofocus system with 9 cross-type points is also a serious upgrade and I loved that Nikon’s added a button on the Focus Mode selector on the front left of the camera. When used with the camera’s controls dials, that button lets you quickly cycle through the various AF configurations so you’re not left fumbling for the right set-up.
The only downside, at least to me, is the relative small size of the D7000. My hand was a little big for the handgrip and with a large, heavy pro lens attached, the camera feels unbalanced. Those are somewhat minor quibbles and considering the more durable, rubberized build overall, I’m happy to say the D7000 feels like one tough cookie.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It hasn’t really been an exciting year for top-of-the-line digital SLRs. Though there have been a few interesting releases here and there—the Canon 1D Mark IV, in particular, comes to mind—new pro camera bodies were few and far between in 2010. The Nikon D7000 isn’t a pro body but it is sturdy and weather resistant and has enough speed and features to appeal to some pros. The headline with this camera is that it follows up on the pioneering legacy of the D90, the world’s first HD-DSLR, by adding the ability to shoot 1080p video with continuous autofocus. But let me add another headline here, the D7000 is not only a versatile and fun DSLR to use, it’s the best camera of the year.
Pros: Captures beautiful full 1080p HD footage; a tough build for a prosumer camera with added metal alloy and weather sealing; stereo mic jack; low noise, low-light shooting up to ISO 6400; fast 6fps shooting speed with 100 frame JPEG buffer; fun to use
Cons: Small feel overall and grip is a bit short if you have big hands; continuous autofocus in video mode is loud and slow; only monaural built-in microphone
Price: $1199 (body only)