Six Months with Nikon D7100

It’s been more than six months since I have had a Nikon D7100 for my own and I have been thinking of writing down my thoughts about the camera. However, these six months with the camera have been a bit of an up-and-down journey and it’s only now that I feel like I know the camera enough to write about it.

The D7100 is an enthusiasts’ camera and it will make you earn that title before you can be get along with it. Its 24MP sensor is like that brutally honest friend who wouldn’t flatter you and shine a spotlight on your weaknesses instead. Once you’ve overcome those weaknesses, though, the end result is something that can make a casual snapshot look like a stunning, frame-worthy photograph. The abundance of twiddly bits and sweetest ever handling in this line of Nikons appeal to the enthusiasts and set it apart from the latestD5xxx series that has the same sensor but with much crippled functionality and controls.

The Houseboat
“The Houseboat” 1/60s・ƒ/5.6・ISO 100・16mm

I’ve been a big fan of mirrorless cameras since the Sony α NEX came out. Back in December last year we got an Olympus OM-D E-M5 in the family and I wrote this after handling it:

I even dedicated a song to it. The D7100, despite being a big and heavy DSLR with a medieval reflective trapdoor, has purged all desire for OM-D from my system. How did this come to pass? Read on to find out.

The Upgrade

Before the D7100, I had been using the Nikon D90. Though it came out in mid-2008, I only acquired it in early 2010. Since then I also got a Sony α NEX-5, which I later swapped with Sony RX100 in 2012. The RX100 with its tiny 1″ sensor crammed with 20 mega pixels, superb Carl Zeiss optics and new software aids gave the D90 a really tough competition. The gap in IQ between these two cameras was so little that I found myself picking up the RX100 for convenience a lot more often than the D90.

When the D7100 was announced in February this year, its specifications pushed all the right buttons for me – weather sealing, dual SD card slots, more twiddly bits, top-of-the-line AF module and 24 glorious mega pixels without anti aliasing – wow! I decided to go for it since it was clearly superior to OM-D E-M5 (my then favourite) in IQ, I already had lenses for it and the Fuji X-Trans equipped bodies didn’t make a big impression on me.

Shimmer
“Shimmer” 1/500s・ƒ/16・ISO 125・300mm

Handling

Having started out with a Nikon D80, I’ve always liked the hardware controls scattered around the DSLR’s body because they make shooting fractionally (in some cases, significantly) faster. The D7100 takes speedy control to a whole new level.

You get to toggle Auto-ISO on or off with the front command dial while the rear dial, as always, adjusts minimum ISO. Similarly, AF area modes can be switched from the front dial while the rear dial adjusts AF mode. Both these settings previously required digging into the menus. Reviewing shots for shake or focus accuracy is now a 1-click operation. The OK button in the middle of the D-pad can be programmed to zoom in to a pre-defined level of magnification and again zoom out to full area.

Shooting modes can be selected via a dial stacked below the exposure program dial and both dials now have push-button locks to avoid accidental changes. Mirror-up mode gets moved among shooting options, so even less digging through the menus while you’re on the tripod and you want to lock up the mirror. Just switch to MUP mode, click once to raise the mirror and once more to take the shot and drop the mirror down. Simple!

The D7100 also comes with a new Auto-ISO implementation that adjusts minimum shutter speed according to the focal length of the lens attached, instead of keeping it at a fixed value. By default it selects 1/<FX eq. focal length> speed. E.g. for a 50mm lens it uses 1/80s (slowest shutter speed above 1/75). However, you can change it to be 2x or 4x slower/faster than the default. This is the most sensible and most capable Auto-ISO implementation I’ve come across anywhere.

There are many other tweaks and options that make it really quick and non-fussy to use the D7100 with great control over its operation without requiring a visit to the very long menus.

Image Quality

While the D7100 is an undisputed delight on the usability and handling front, I’ve had a really tough time with IQ. The 24MP sensor has a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde personality. Having used a 10MP D80 and a 12MP D90 earlier, I wasn’t prepared for the carnage that viewing 24MP images at 1:1 resulted in. Couple that with the fact that the RX100 with its Carl Zeiss optics gives highly detailed output on the 20MP sensor and I was downright disappointed.

The reliance on PDAF (as against the slower but more accurate CDAF on RX100) leads to quite a bit of focus inconsistency, especially with fast primes. While shooting people, again with fast primes, they sometimes move in the fraction of a second between focus lock and shutter release. I mostly shoot hand-held so camera shake also shows up now-and-then. All these problems become glaringly evident on the D7100. To add to the agony, most consumer zooms don’t appear very sharp at 1:1 on 24MP sensors either.

Earl Grey Tea
“Earl Grey Tea” 1/20s・ƒ/5.6・ISO 250・35mm

Over the last few months I have both grown accustomed to ignoring pixel level flaws and become more cautious in my shooting style to minimise such defects. In a way, this also helps while shortlisting keepers from a shoot. Identifying minor differences in contrast or sharpness is much more difficult with lower resolution sensors.

In terms of noise, the sensor again has its quirks. Up to ISO 3200, the results are pretty manageable. At ISO 6400 and above, there’s some low frequency noise which is easily removed without affecting overall sharpness, but there’s also some high frequency chroma noise, which becomes a bit difficult to handle.

Noise
Multi-pixel clusters of orange, green and purple can be seen here on the skin at ISO 12800

All of the above pixel-level agony is only one side of the story, though. Scaled down, the images from D7100 look really great – significantly richer tonality compared to D90 and RX100, massive Dynamic Range (13.7 stops as per DxO Mark) and great ability to resolve detail. All these characteristics come together to give the photos a subjective quality that a few years ago I could exclusively (and easily) find in photos from full-frame cameras.

Edge of the Field
“Edge of the Field” 1/1000・ƒ/8・ISO 400・16mm

Final Word

Ever since I got serious about photography, I have been a pixel peeper. My involvement with photography had a lot to do with working the RAW files on the computer, trying to get the maximum sharpness and maximum highlight detail with the least noise, etc. I’ve always wished that the camera would do better than it did.

The D7100 is the first camera that doesn’t leave me dissatisfied. It can show more detail than I usually care about. It has more dynamic range than I can project meaningfully in a JPEG image or print. It doesn’t get bogged down by noise even at ridiculously high ISOs. In short, it doesn’t give me an excuse to blame the equipment.

Instead, it makes my own flaws obvious to me. It doesn’t tolerate sloppy shooting. It makes me want to shoot better things. It makes me want to shoot things better. It wants me to rise up to meet its level of finesse. And it makes my journey towards better photography pleasurable by being such a joyful thing to operate.

Sunrise Over the Mohalla
“Sunrise Over the Mohalla” 1/160s・ƒ/5.6・ISO 100・50mm
  • Paulo Melo

    Your conclusion was inspiring and made me think that we both feel the same.

  • tempo

    I currrently own a Sony Nex 5R, im thinking to upgrade to a D7100, would be a good change or i must keep my Sony Nex? My interest its landscape, portraits, architecture and night photos, Thanks in advance.

    • I’d strongly recommend getting the 24mm f/1.8 Zeiss instead of D7100. I keep having thoughts of buying an E-mount camera again just so that I can use that lens!

  • kk

    thanks for the review. useful, as I’m using d90 right now and thinking of moving to d7100,but am not sure,yet. another option is getting more lenses,as it’s my money doubt.

    • Whether a lens upgrade is more appropriate depends on what lenses you already have. For a lot of lenses, upgrading to D7100 won’t give a proportional improvement in IQ because the lens would fall short of utilising the full capability of the sensor. That’s true for pretty much any Nikkor DX zoom lens, for example, except the super expensive 17-55 f/2.8 DX.

      If you only have “consumer grade” Nikkor zooms, a jump to D7100 isn’t the best option. Instead, you could go for the D7000, which is very close to D7100 in terms of sensor spec. and utilise the money saved to improve on the lenses. If you don’t shoot too much beyond ISO 1600, you could even keep your D90 and spend all your money on lens upgrades.

      If you have some good primes (50mm f/1.8G Nikkor, 35mm f/1.8G DX Nikkor, or better) or good f/2.8 zooms, switching to D7100 will be good because these lenses can produce enough detail for the 24MP sensor.

  • Stuey

    Excellent and balanced review Tahir.

    I bought a D7100 5 months ago and I have an up/down relationship with mine.

    When you get it right it can produce a stunning detailed shot, however these is too few and far between for my liking. The 24mp can be a hindrance, especially if shooting beyond 135mm on a moving subject – even with a 70-200mm VRII. More often than not, the shot will be unusable and blurred – something I never get with my 12mp D90 or D700.

    I’ve also noticed the AF is poor (in AF-C mode) at maintaining focus on slow moving targets especially if they’re walking towards/away from you – even my D90 seemed to handle this better. I tried the focus priority release setting (which works super on my D700) but it made no improvement to AF on D7100 which still happily releases without focus being attained. Note I don’t use the 3D tracking – I use single point which works fine on all my other Nikons. In comparison to my old D700 (which uses the 51pt AF system albeit FX) I was surprised and disappointed how poor the D7100’s AF was. In AF-C mode in a burst of 6 shots, only maybe 1-2 will be in focus with D7100 which I find unacceptable.

    My prime lenses don’t work well at all (except for my 35mm) and look out of focus especially when shooting wide open. My beautiful 135mm DC lens in disastrous on D7100. I’ve also noticed in strong sunlight with high contrasts the camera will sometimes not focus nor release shutter (even if not in focus release priority).

    Overall the camera for me has too many limitations i.e. it’s best suited for still subjects where you and the camera have time to adjust. For handheld moving subjects I wouldn’t recommend it at all – a D7000 would likely be the better option. I really wanted to like the D7100 but it has too man niggles for me.

    • It seems that 24MP is too high a resolution for the level of accuracy that PDAF systems might be able to deliver. The images look definitely worse at 1:1 but when scaled down to e.g. 1080px tall, I don’t find them to be statistically worse than those from D90.

      • Stuey

        I think you could be correct re PDAF. I tend to shoot at wide apertures (between F2-F4 for people/portraits) which will also clearly show any focus inaccuracy due to the narrow DOF. I find with D7100, I sometimes need to enlarge the shot (1400x2100px instead of my usual 1200x1800px) to bring out the detail. It’s probably one of the most difficult DLSR’s to get the very best results from, due to the high pixel density. The equivalent density on a full frame size sensor would be 56mp – makes a D800 easy!
        I think with time and patience the D7100 will force it’s users (like me) to improve their technique, but I do sympathise with beginners buying a 24MP DX body (like D3300 or D5300) as it’s nowhere near as forgiving as previous DLSR generations.

        • I came to learn a few days ago that using more focus points for tracking leads to lower AF accuracy and is only helpful in getting approximate focus on very erratically moving targets. How’s your experience been with this?

  • Sammy

    That’s disappointing. There are 2 reasons I want to upgrade from my D90 bodies. The first is high ISO, and the second is improved AF. But this review seems to indicate AF has actually gone backwards. I just can’t justify $1000 (which is minimum price in Australia) for a camera that can’t focus as well as something 4-5 years older and which produces images that only show up flaws unless you get everything perfectly right. Add to that other issues like horrible Nikon service in Aus, the new behaviour with flash and auto ISO (D90 and prior cameras raised ISO only after increasing flash power. Newer cameras raise ISO first meaning that if you shoot with flash you really should turn off auto ISO…inconvenient). I think I’ll continue to stick to my old D90 bodies for a while longer…

    • The changed auto-ISO behaviour with flash was a bummer. Being able to toggle auto-ISO on/off with the front command dial makes it much less painful, though.

      Just to emphasise, though the higher resolution makes flaws more apparent at 1:1 magnification, but the image isn’t inherently worse when you’ve scaled it to a D90 equivalent (50% zoom, or same sized prints).

      I’ve also come to learn that some of the AF issues might be due to a lack of understanding with 9-, 21- and 51- point tracking in AF-C/AF-A modes. Apparently, the more points you use, the better it becomes at tracking wildly erratic subject motion, but it also tries less hard to attain sharp focus.

      All-in-all, the 24MP resolution would lead to agony with unsharp DX zoom Nikkors and minor focus defects, etc. Once you do learn to live with it (18 months later, I’ve learned to cut some slack on AF but I still lust after sharper lenses), there is a lot to love about the body itself.

      I recently swapped the D90 with a D3300 and while it has similar IQ as D7100, it’s nowhere close in the handling and controls department.