With its 16.2-million-pixel CMOS sensor, Full 1080p HD video capture and a 2,016-point metering system Nikon’s latest enthusiast DSLR hints at what is to come in its professional DSLRs. Richard Sibley tests the Nikon D7000
- 16.2-million-pixel CMOS sensor
- New Expeed 2 processing engine
- Maximum ISO 25,600 sensitivity
- New 2016-pixel metering sensor
- New 39-point AF system
- Full 1080p HD video capture
- Double SD card sockets
- Street price around £1,100 (body only)
It is now more than three years since Nikon introduced its 12.3-million-pixel D300 and 12.1-million-pixel D3 cameras. With the exception of the 24.5-million-pixel D3X, every enthusiast and professional Nikon DSLR has featured a variation on one of these two 12-million-pixel sensors. While no one can deny that these cameras produce excellent images, in terms of resolution they are currently lagging well behind the pixel counts of nearly every other DSLR camera manufacturer and, as a consequence, are beginning to seem somewhat dated.
Thankfully, Nikon announced the new enthusiast-level Nikon D7000 DSLR in September, a couple of weeks prior to the photokina trade show. The new camera is pitched at the same level as the D90 and it has a host of new features that should make it more than just a mere modification ofthe existing camera.
The big news is that the 12.3-million-pixel sensor of the D90 has been replaced with a 16.2-million-pixel chip. Judging by Nikon’s past practice, it is likely that the new sensor will also find itself in the camera that will eventually replace the Nikon D300S, so there will be more than a few photographers interested in seeing exactly how this new technology performs.
However, the Nikon D7000 is about more than just its sensor. Like its main competitor, the new Canon EOS 60D, the Nikon D7000 features a number of new features that affect everything from its handling to its white balance.
As we have seen before, the new 16.2-million-pixel sensor is the same resolution as the latest Sony 16.2MP APS-C sensor. Given that Nikon has previously used Sony sensors in its DSLRs, this is probably the case once again. However, it must be remembered that the sensor is just one aspect of many that influence image quality – the low pass filters and analogue-to-digital converters, as well as how the digital signal is processed, all have a huge impact, and will differ between the Nikon and Sony cameras.
The full specification of the new sensor shows that it is a 16.2-million-pixel, DX-format (APS-C) CMOS unit, which outputs raw or JPEG images at a resolution of 4928×3264 pixels. By default, the camera saves these raw files as 14-bit files, although there is the option to reduce this to 12-bit via the in-camera image settings.
The processing of the information captured by the sensor comes down to the new Expeed 2 processing engine, which, upgraded since its original incarnation, is set to offer D7000 users improved colour performance and noise reduction.Like the D90, the D7000 uses SD rather than CompactFlash memory cards. The newer SDHC and SDXC cards are compatible with the camera, and will be needed to cope with the larger file sizes. Usefully, the D7000 has two SD card slots, allowing two cards to be used at once. How this twin memory is used can be decided in-camera and will largely depend on the type of photography being undertaken. At its most basic, the secondary socket can be used as ‘overfill’ storage, with the card only being used once the first one is full. More useful is the ability to save raw files to one card and JPEGs to the other. Similarly, it is possible to save images to one card and video to the other, all of which makes it easy to organise your media both in-camera and when importing files to a computer.
Although enthusiast photographers rarely push their cameras to the maximum sensitivity settings, like the ‘megapixel race’ it is one of the few items on a specification list that gradually keeps going up. The D7000 has a default sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400, plus extended ‘Hi’ settings including Hi2, which offers the equivalent of an ISO 25,600 setting. This is a 2EV increase from the extended sensitivity range of the D90.Like the sensor, the autofocus and metering systems of the D7000 are also new. The AF system now features 39 points, with the central nine being the more sensitive cross-type AF points. This is a substantial improvement over the 11-point system of the D90. Similarly, the resolution of the metering system sensor is over four times larger, with 2016 pixels compared to the 420-pixel sensor of the D90. and the 1005-pixel sensor found in the D3 and D300 cameras. There is a likelihood that we will see this new metering system in the Nikon professional cameras that we expect to be announced next year.
Of course, no newly released DSLR would be complete without HD video capture and the D7000 once again improves on its predecessor (which was, in fact, the first DSLR to feature HD video capture). The D7000 offers Full 1920x1080p HD video capture, with footage saved as MOV files using H.264 compression.These are the main updated features, but there are many more tweaks and upgrades to the existing specification, which will be discussed in more detail in their relevant sections. One thing is for sure, though: on paper, the D7000 looks to be a very impressive camera.
Auto white balance
It’s almost as if someone at Nikon has read my article about creating an atmospheric white balance (AP 30 October) and decided to include two AWB settings in the D7000. The first is a standard AWB mode, which aims to neutralise any colour cast. The second AWB mode, which is found in the white balance settings in the main menu, is called ‘keep warm lighting colours. Logically, it ignores warm colour casts to help preserve a level of realism and atmosphere when shooting in warm sunlight or under tungsten lighting.
Having both of these automatic white balance options should really please the two photographic camps: those who prefer a clinically neutral white balance and those who prefer a hint of colour. In use, I found that both settings work well, providing the perfect solution regardless of which of the two camps you reside in.
Build and handling
Rather than make wholesale changes to the build and handling of the D7000, Nikon has instead introduced a few tweaks and refinements to how its enthusiast-level camera handles. The most notable addition is the new Live View lever, which activates the function when pushed to the right. A further push to the right switches the mode off. I found it very tactile in use and far quicker than having to rotate the shooting mode dial around to the Live View option.Speaking of the shooting mode dial, this is new to this level of enthusiast camera, and is usually found on the D300S and D3-series cameras. In the D7000 it makes selecting a shooting mode much quicker. In fact, the camera handles far more like a D300 than a D90.
The last significant addition is the new AF button. The switch for selecting AF or manual focus is situated on the bottom right of the camera, on the side of the lens mount, as it is in all Nikon DSLRs. However, there is now a button in the centre of this switch. Pressing and holding it with your thumb while shooting allows you to change the AF mode to automatic, continuous or single using the rear control dial in use. The AF points can be changed by scrolling using the front control dial. If using single-point AF mode, the point in use can be changed using the directional control located on the rear of the camera.Also making the D7000 feel more like the D300S is the magnesium-alloy top and bottom, rather than the polycarbonate body of the D90. This is made even more impressive by the fact that the equivalent Canon EOS 60D is made of polycarbonate, whereas its predecessor, the EOS 50D, is magnesium alloy.
The changes in the construction of the cameras have no doubt been implemented to realign their position in their respective ranges, with the D7000 now pitched at a more advanced level than the D90. Similarly, you would expect that the D300S’s eventual replacement will also target a slightly more advanced audience, and will most likely compete with Canon’s EOS 7D.With the menu system of the D7000 resembling that of Nikon’s other DSLR cameras, those already familiar with the range should have no problems being able to pick up and use the camera immediately.
White balance and colour
The default colours produced by the Nikon D7000 will be familiar to anybody who has used a Nikon DSLR. As standard, the colours produced aren’t very saturated and look quite muted and natural. I found that I used the camera in its vivid mode for JPEG files. The landscape scene mode also increases colour saturation, most noticeably that of green and blue colours. Each of the standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait and landscape picture control settings can be adjusted in-camera. Using the included Nikon View NX2 software, custom picture styles can also be created and added to the in-camera settings, installed via a memory card.
A new auto white balance setting in the D7000 is simply entitled ‘keep warm lighting colours’. Rather than neutralising warm colour casts, it keeps them to maintain a level of realism. For more on this, see the Features in use panel opposite.For the most part, the standard AWB setting works very well; the two AWB settings mean that there are few situations when one of these two won’t provide a suitable white balance. Of course, there is also a full complement of standard white balance settings in the D7000, each of which can be adjusted to the user’s preference.
Like its colour rendition, the D7000’s exposure metering behaves much like other Nikon DSLRs. Despite its new 2016-pixel metering sensor, I noticed little difference from the 1005-pixel sensors used in the Nikon D300 and D3 series. Obviously, higher resolution metering is going to be able to gather more information, but when other cameras get by with far fewer zones, one does wonder exactly to what extent the 2016-pixel sensor is needed. The sensor does help to identify particular types of scenes and then expose them accordingly, and it is also used to help identify the correct white balance, but 2016 points seems excessive.
Generally, the D7000 produces good exposures when in its evaluative matrix metering mode. However, when attempting to produce print-ready exposures, images with large dark areas can be lightened too much. I found that this often causes skies to become too bright and in some cases burnt out. I found that when shooting an overcast sky I needed to underexpose images by as much as 1EV from the metered evaluative reading in an attempt to stop the highlights burning out. Although this does make the foreground a little darker than is preferable, it leaves detail in the sky while allowing shadow areas to be brightened to recover detail.
With a new 39-point AF system, the Nikon D7000 is a big upgrade from the D90. Most of the points are located in a bend around the centre, with the rest spread, horizontally, across the centre third of the frame.As mentioned previously, the AF mode button has been repositioned on the front of the camera, where it sits in the centre of the AF/M switch. Although it is positioned a little out of the way from the other buttons, it is still easy to use it in this position, making it possible to change the AF mode while shooting. This is possible as the bottom display of the viewfinder shows the AF mode that is currently in use.
I didn’t notice any significant improvement in the focusing speed of the camera and it seemed on a par with the D90 and D300S. In bright conditions, the AF quietly snapped into position. Low light did cause the camera to focus more slowly, but photographing a landscape during twilight didn’t prove to be a problem. When photographing objects closer to the camera, the AF illumination LED light automatically comes on to help focus. Incidentally, this bright white light also doubles as a light to help reduce the effects of redeye before the flash fires.One of the most impressive features of the AF system is the range of different AF-point configurations that are available. As well as being able to automatically use all 39 points, the number of AF points in use can also be set to just the centre nine or a wider selection of 21 points. Having fewer AF points available can make it easier for the AF to automatically select the correct point to use when panning or tracking.
The 3D colour matrix tracking option allows the focus to be set to a particular subject in the scene. The camera will then track this subject and move the selected AF as the subject moves around the frame. Again, this is particularly useful when photographing moving subjects such as wildlife, or when performing panning or tracking shots.Overall, the AF features of the D7000 are very comprehensive and there is more than enough to keep enthusiast photographers happy, regardless of their style of photography.
Resolution, noise and sensitivity
Image: In its default settings, the D7000’s JPEG files are a little soft. This can be fixed by sharpening the raw image
The 16.2-million-pixel sensor in the D7000 performs well, with in-camera JPEGs reaching around 28 on our resolution chart. By default, the JPEG files produced by the camera are a little soft, but the entire level of detail can be fully realised when images are saved and edited as raw files. A slight adjustment to the sharpening in View NX2 really makes a difference to the sharpness of details.
Image: Raw files are easily adjusted to reveal previously hidden detail in shadow areas
When editing images taken at ISO 400, I found that it is possible to reveal a huge amount of detail in shadow areas without noise becoming an issue. This should be of particular interest to landscape photographers wishing to expose images for details in the sky, knowing that the details in seemingly dark landscapes can be revealed without colour noise being introduced.As the sensitivity increases, the amount of detail that can be resolved is reduced, but this happens very gradually. Even at ISO 1600, in-camera JPEGs reach 26 in our resolution test. Colour noise does start to become visible in ISO 3200 images in the form of slight coloured patches in shadow areas. That said, even at ISO 6400 there is still a good level of detail, with minimal colour noise and only slight luminance noise.
Image: Taken using the Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 DX lens, the D7000’s 16.2-million-pixel sensor is capable of capturing very fine details
The two extended Hi1 and Hi2 sensitivity settings are also of a very high standard. More aggressive luminance and chroma noise reduction have to be applied, which affects image quality, but given the ISO sensitivities the resulting images are impressive.
Resolution charts: These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using a Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5 kit lens at 80mm. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
Image: Even the colour and contrast of JPEG files can be edited to reveal shadow details, without introducing chroma noise
Although there is a great amount of detail in shadow areas and some recoverable detail in the highlights, the D7000’s dynamic range can appear to be a little lower than that on other digital cameras. However, when editing the raw images it is clear that a lot more detail is captured than is visible in JPEG files. With this in mind, I would suggest adjusting the contrast (via the picture controls) to recover some of this detail. Obviously, if you have more time, shooting and editing raw images allows details to be recovered.
The Nikon D7000 also has an Auto D-Lighting feature, which alters the contrast curve to lighten shadows and darken highlights in JPEG images. When set to its normal setting, I found that the results are quite subtle and serve to act as a slight lift. Even in its high setting, the D-Lighting looks natural and, thankfully, it doesn’t produce a pseudo-HDR effect. Again, if you shoot JPEG images it is a good idea to combine the D-Lighting effect with a tweak of the picture control settings to get the most out of the camera’s dynamic range.
Viewfinder, live view, LCD and video
Despite the prevalence of Live View and electronic viewfinders, a good optical viewfinder will always be the preference of enthusiast and professional photographers alike. Thankfully, the viewfinder of the D7000 doesn’t disappoint. It is large and bright, with a 0.94x magnification. Even better, it offers a 100% field of view.
As expected, the D7000 uses a 3in, 920,000-dot LCD screen, which is bright and clear with a good level of colour and contrast. Having tested a few cameras with articulated screens recently, I have to say that I did miss the option to rotate the screen when taking low-angle images. In this regard, the recently tested Canon EOS 60D (AP 23 October) has an advantage. It still seems that Nikon does not view articulated screens as a feature that enthusiast or professional photographers would use.
That said, the screen has a very high angle of view, making it just about possible to compose images when holding the camera at very low angles. Switching to Live View is now made easier thanks to a dedicated switch on the rear of the camera. At the centre of this switch is a direct video-capture button. A press of this button when in Live View mode starts and stops video capture, regardless of which modes the camera is set to.
Sadly, with the mono microphone positioned at the front of the camera, the sound of the lens zooming and autofocusing is recorded. Thankfully, there is an external microphone jack on the side of the camera, which will be vital for anybody wishing to record ambient sound with their video footage.The quality of the actual video footage is good, with no significant sign of the ‘wobble’ that the D90 suffered from. This is great news for Nikon users wishing to shoot video.
Image: Canon EOS 60D
When we tested the Canon EOS 60D we were very impressed with its 18-million-pixel sensor, colour rendition and improved handling. However, the polycarbonate body is a slight compromise compared to the magnesium-alloy body of the Nikon D7000. On the other hand, the EOS 60D is the cheaper of the two cameras, making it good value for money.
Image: Pentax K-5
The Pentax K-5 has a very similar specification to the Nikon D7000. It has a 16.3-million-pixel sensor, with a magnesium-alloy, weatherproofed body and a maximum sensitivity of ISO 51,200. With the Pentax K-5 being around the same price as the Nikon D7000, it could prove a good alternative to those who aren’t tied to the Nikon system.
Nikon DSLR users have been waiting a long time for the D7000, not so much as an upgrade for the D90 but as a hint at exactly what Nikon is planning to do with its higher end DSLRs. From what I have seen in the D7000, they shouldn’t be disappointed.The improved build and handling make the D7000 feel solid, in much the same way as the D300S, and there is of course the new AF system, too. While the specification of the metering system is also improved on paper, there are still a few minor creases to iron out. Hopefully, this can be done easily and quickly via a firmware upgrade.
If you don’t factor in the 39-point AF system, which has fewer points than the D300S, then to all intents and purposes the D7000 feels more like a replacement for that camera. With this in mind, it should provide an excellent upgrade of the D90 and D5000, and for many D300S users, too. In fact, it should also make a good reasonably priced backup for professional photographers.Although the resolution is two million pixels fewer than on competing Canon models, the D7000’s image quality is comparable – I’m looking forward to a comparison test of the D7000 and EOS 60D. Nikon users should also be looking forward to seeing exactly how the new features of the D7000 are implemented higher up in the range.
Nikon D7000 – Key features
This dial will be familiar from Nikon D300 and D3-series cameras. It makes it easy to switch between single and continuous shooting, as well as self-timer and quiet mode
Situated on the front of the camera, the automatic/manual-focus switch now has a new button in the centre that allows the AF mode to be changed. This is a lot faster than having the button situated on the back of the camera
Dual SD card slots
The D700 has two SD cards slots. These can be used so that raw and JPEG images can be saved on different cards, or so that images and video can be kept separate
The D7000 has a dedicated switch to access the Live View mode. In the centre is a video-capture button that starts and stops video recording
Nikon has tested the shutter unit of the D7000 for 150,000 cycles. So, even if you take 15,000 photos every year, the camera shutter should last for at least ten years, by which time it will no doubt be very old technology.
Cross-type AF points
The D7000 has nine cross-type AF points, which can measure the level of focus across two axes. This helps improve speed and accuracy. The nine cross-type points are located in the centre of the imaging frame.
Built into the D7000 is an intervalometer timing system. This allows you to take a series of time-lapse images by specifying the number of images you want shot over a set period of time. The camera can then be left to perform the task automatically. You can even specify a start time.
AF in Live View and video
Continuous AF is available when shooting in both Live View and video-capture modes. As phase-detection AF is unavailable, the camera relies on the contrast-detection AF. It is one of the better contrast-detection focus systems we have seen and although it does seek back and forth, the action is fairly smooth and fast.