Tuesday, April 9, 2013

REVIEW: Nikon D7100–A Mini D800E?

Nikon D7100
Nikon D7100 (Kit lens shown, but not tested)

I was a big fan of the D7000 and the D600 was my 2012 DSLR of the Year, so when I got the news that D7100 was coming out I was very excited. When I heard it went the way of the D800E and it shipped without a low pass filter then I got even more excited. I was hoping this was going to be the usable resolution equivalent to the D800E, but it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good camera with excellent image detail. However, it’s not going to dethrone the D600 as my favorite Nikon camera.

For this test I got to spend some time with a D7100 using the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED lens as the kit lens version was unavailable. Ergonomically it feels about identical to the D600 which is a good thing as that’s an excellent camera to use on a daily basis. Since the D7100 is NOT a full-frame camera it doesn’t suffer from the same compact AF point selection area as the D600 so that’s actually one thing that makes the D7100 better than the D600. The other thing that is in the favor of the D7100 is the fact that it’s about $800 cheaper (as of this writing) than the D600, so it’s a great value choice as well.

Nikon D7100 Rear View
Nikon D7100 Rear View

Overall I loved the ergonomics of the camera body and it’s vast number of external buttons all within reach (and many are programmable). The rear LCD is supposed to be higher resolution than the D600 (1,229,000 dots vs – 921,000 both 3.2”), but it sure didn’t feel like it. The new info button comes in handy as well for learning more information about the vast features in the menu of this camera.

Overall, it’s a great body that think anyone would enjoy – especially after you get used to the features / quirks of the Nikon system.

Auto Focus Performance

I suck at shooting birds, but the D7100 doesn’t!
f/2.8 @ 70 mm, 1/1250,ISO 2000

One area where the D7100 really seemed to excel was in its Auto Focus performance. Simply put, it’s outstanding – one of the best that I’ve tested – and a lot easier to use than the D4 system. In fact I quickly got so used to how good it was that I found myself trying to find a way to make it fail, and it handled most tasks that I threw at it without any issue.

I’m a horrible bird shooter so when I coincidentally ran into a big group of birds I just upped my shutter speed in M(annual) and put the D7100 to the test. Even in AF-S mode it was nailing everything I threw at it. In AF-C it did a great job of not getting confused when obstructions approached like in the shot below (which honestly would trip my 1D Mark IV up):

This is scary good AF! I was looking the opposite direction when I heard something.
I turned, shot the frames and this bird was gone. It even didn’t get tripped up by the branches!
f/2.8 @ 62 mm, 1/2000,ISO 100

If you shoot sports or moving objects like birds, cars, etc… then you will REALLY enjoy the AF system on this camera. It’s by far the easiest system I’ve used and it gives my 1D X a run for its money. I can also say with confidence that the D7100 AF system performed significantly better than the D4 that I tested. I wasn’t expecting this when I was out testing this camera, but if I was a D4 owner I’d be demanding that Nikon put this mojo in a D4 firmware upgrade or in a new D4s.

The frames per second is useless unless you shoot JPEG only with fast SD card’s, but if given a choice I’d rather accurate AF than FPS any day.

Real World Sample Images

As always, these images ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (yes, even the lame ones <g>). You may not save, edit, print, redistribute or otherwise use them without expressed written permission.

The full set of images is available at http://www.ronmartinsen.com/nikon/d7100, but here’s a few noteworthy images. Click the image for the original and view using the gallery to see EXIF information. All major settings were camera defaults except Active D Lighting was set to Auto. I was using Auto ISO (full range) and typically AF-S with a single point on my intended subject.

I have lots of examples where the shadow detail like this is excellent
f/2.8 @ 24 mm, 1/125,ISO 100, No Flash, AWB (Warm)

Not bad, but the X20 shot of the same scene was just about as good!
f/4 @ 70 mm, 1/1250,ISO 100, No Flash

Curious about dynamic range? This pretty much exercises the whole gamut!
f/5.6 @ 38 mm, 1/200,ISO 800, No Flash, Shade WB

Curious about bokeh or depth of field? Here’s a start.
f/4.5 @ 28 mm, 1/400 (Windy),ISO 800, No Flash, AWB (Warm)

This is hard to appreciate small, but a letter size print of this has wonderful detail
f/6.3 @ 40 mm, 1/200,ISO 800, No Flash

I was happy with the in-camera color as a starting point in this shot
f/4 @ 27 mm, 1/500,ISO 100, No Flash, AWB (Warm)

f/2.8 @ 28 mm, 1/400,ISO 100, No Flash, AWB (Warm)
Good light? Gorgeous results

Really bad light? Still pretty darn good results!
f/2.8 @ 27 mm, 1/1250,ISO 100, No Flash, AWB (Warm)

I had to shoot –1 EV, and ended up with very nice reds here!
f/4 @ 70 mm, 1/320,ISO 100, No Flash

One of the many examples where the AF system
just did the right thing like it was reading my mind
f/2.8 @ 70 mm, 1/125,ISO 125, No Flash

Another example of excellent shadow detail, pleasing bokeh and neutral colors
f/4 @ 62 mm, 1/400,ISO 100, No Flash

The dynamic range is so good here that it feels exactly like it felt in real life
f/4.5 @ 24 mm, 1/125,ISO 110, No Flash

This is one of those impossible shots you know won’t work, but you take anyway.
I was actually pleased with how well it captured the scene.
f/6.3 @ 60 mm, 1/250,ISO 100, No Flash

About Real World Sample Images

I sometimes am asked, “what do you mean by ‘real world’ sample images?” Some have even taken a poke and said “does that mean photos that suck?”

The truth is that as a consumer one of the things that has always annoyed me is when I see the images from a camera on a web site that look fantastic, but when I get it home and use it under normal everyday conditions the photos just don’t have the same “oomph”. As a blogger  I began to investigate “why” there were these discrepancies and I discovered three things:

  1. Some sites doctor their photos so what you are seeing is an edited image that used the camera in question, but that’s not an image you’ll really ever get out of the camera. To me this is useless.
  2. Some sites only show you photos taken in beautiful surroundings and lighting conditions. While these may be real images, they aren’t the type of image the average person will be taking. This leads to massive disappointment when you get home and are shooting around the house in very difficult lighting and non-ideal locations and think “gosh, this camera sucks compared to what I saw on the web”.

All of the images I feature for all my camera reviews are only impacted by the in-camera processing which is also what you see on your camera’s LCD (even when you shoot RAW). There is NO post-processing and what you see is what you can expect to get. While I do try to get some images in nice settings so you can see what a nice photo will be like, I also work hard to stress the camera to see how it performs under difficult situations (i.e., backlight, mid-day sun highlights, tungsten lighting, indoors with high ISO, etc…).

It’s my opinion that real world shots really tell you what you want to know about a camera and keep you from being surprised when you get it home. It does mean that I have to take some criticism for shots that aren’t always cropped perfectly (what you see is EXACTLY what came out of the camera), and I show image failures. However, my goal is to be the place that you can trust for a REAL assessment of a camera and a place you can trust.


I didn’t test video on this camera, so I have no comment.

Bookshelf Test

Bookshelf tests are conduction on a tripod with mirror lockup and camera default settings. I did turn D-lighting on and these are the actual in-camera JPEG’s (Fine) with no external modifications.

NOTE: Even though I had the lens set to the 24mm mark, all shots report as 26mm in this article.

f/2.8 @ 26 mm, 1s, ISO 200,No Flash

Excellent dynamic range is obvious – I was very impressed right out of the camera. Despite supporting ISO 100, I felt ISO 200 gave the best image quality. The overall best shot I got was at the 24-70’s sweet spot of 35mm @ f/5.6 and ISO 200:

f/5.6 @ 35 mm, 4s, ISO 200, No Flash

That, boys and girls, is goonie goo goo good! The resolution here rivals what I saw with my D800 and D600 testing, but I didn’t have an EXACT comparison so I will not show it here. I can certainly say that in terms of image quality, this is up there with the best of the best. This camera has insane amounts of resolution that you’ll only appreciate on your computer as the camera LCD (despite all of its megapixels) just doesn’t do it justice.

f/10 @ 26 mm, 1/13,ISO 25600

High ISO Performance

The high ISO performance that Nikon’s are legendary for just isn’t there with this camera, so I put it in the same camp as the D800 where you should try to avoid ISO’s above 3200 when possible. The High ISO modes (12,800 and up) are nasty useless to me.

Raw (Lightroom 4.4) vs In-camera JPEG Fine (camera default settings) Comparison

If you had to shoot in the higher ISO’s you’ll be a lot better off turning off the in-camera noise reduction and using Noiseware to clean your image up. The higher ISO creates so much noise that Nikon’s noise reduction destroys the detail.

HDR Mode

Mouse over to see NO HDR, mouse out to see IN-CAMERA HDR
D7100, f/8 @ 26 mm, 15s, ISO 100,No Flash, HDR High (in-camera HDR)
Mouse over to see non-HDR and mouse out to see in-camera HDR version

I was very satisfied with the HDR mode, but terribly disappointed with the fact that you only get a JPEG result of the HDR series. On my 5D Mark III I can still do HDR while shooting in RAW and all the intermediate files are kept so it makes it fun to use HDR to see what the camera will get, but you still have the real RAW files for Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro 2. With the D7100 that is NOT the case, so people who are serious about HDR are going to have to either decide to go JPEG only and except the file the camera gives you OR ignore this feature and just shoot bracketed shots with RAW files (recommended).

With that disclaimer out of the way, I was very impressed with the in-camera results. Except for the HDR High* setting (example), all of the other settings seemed very realistic / natural feeling. What’s more, the Auto setting did a great job but is conservative to avoid that overdone HDR feeling. I can see this being a useful feature for casual consumer shooting when RAW files aren’t going to be needed or desired (rare).


This is a very good camera. It’s a worthy successor to the D7000 which it not only surpasses but literally obliterates in terms of overall image quality. While the in-camera noise levels are pretty good, I still feel like I prefer the higher ISO noise handling of the last generation of Nikon cameras. It just seems that Nikon pushed the megapixels so far on this camera that it followed the same pattern as the D800 where more resolution equals more noise.

For the price, this is a very nice camera for Nikon shooters – especially those who are interested in staying in the DX Format family. For bird hunters on a budget, I’d highly recommend it for the AF performance but the frames per second are going to drive you insane. Nikon advertises 6 fps, but that is only if you are shooting JPEG only I think as RAW felt like about 3 fps.

This camera didn’t capture my instant love like the D7000 or the D600 did, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps I’m just getting numb from the very good cameras I’ve been testing lately. I thought I might love this one so much that I’d get one, but I find myself being happy with the cameras I already own. I still highly recommend this camera for existing Nikon owners looking to upgrade (including D700 and D300s owners), and I think most will be very satisfied with its performance.

Where to order

Click here to order the Nikon D7100 on the B&H web site. Adorama may also still have some bodies (only) in stock here.

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Anonymous said...

I tried out the D7100 with an 18-200 zoom, 35mm f1.8, and 55-200 zoom. I expected great results, but I was disappointed with the image quality. Most of the images weren't as sharp as I had expected. Should I be using better (expensive FX) lenses?

I'm really puzzled about what to buy, and I'm thinking about dumping Nikon and going to Fuji XE2. I would appreciate your advice.

ronmartblog.com said...

Buyers remorse is very common in anything electronic, but nothing more so than photography because we look at other peoples photos with a less critical eye than we look at our own. What's more, we see our images without any editing and many others with post processing/sharpening that makes us think that there must be something wrong with our product because others images look so much better than ours.

While I need to update it, my which lens should i buy article offers some lens suggestions to get the most out of your camera.

Remember, if you put the best lens on your camera you'll get the best result that your camera can give. If you put a $100 lens on your $1500 camera you'll get $100 results. Try out the Sigma 35mm Art Series lens against your 35mm f1.8 and you'll quickly see a HUGE difference in the quality of images coming from your camera.

Super zooms like your 18-200mm and 55-200mm are handy, but they have very poor image quality. While it is expensive, the Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 is a good all purpose lens that is going to delight you with the image quality that you would get from your D7100.

If you went with the XE-2 and still tried to be a lens bargain hunter, you'll get the same poor results - but you'll have a camera that doesn't focus anywhere near as good as your D7100 - especially indoors.

Don't be penny wise, and pound foolish - buy one good lens (even if it is just the 50mm f/1.4) and stop wasting money on cheap lenses that will disappoint.

The D7100 is a very good camera.


George Beinhorn said...

Hello Ron. I'm particularly grateful for your remarks about not falling in love with the D7100 as much as the D7000. For me, that's a very real and valid indicator. For example, I absolutely loved the quality I got, about 20 years ago, from the Nikon F4 top-end film camera. Could never tell exactly why. It just did its job wonderfully and felt great to use. Same for the D3 - I don't know why I love the images more than those taken with some much more technically advanced cameras, e.g., the D7100. And it's not just because of the FX sensor; I like the D3 images over anything taken with a comparable Canon. Same for comparisons of the D7000 and D7100; to my eye the D7000 images just look better.

I have to disagree when you note that the Nikon 55-200 is not a good lens. In real-world results I find it's simply outstanding.

Finally, big thanks for the bookshelf shot at ISO 25,600. I shoot virtually everything in "degrees of darkness" as a handiman generalist school, church, and community photographer. Looking at the ISO 25,600 photo, I immediately thought, "I can make that look really good, very easily, in Photo Ninja - my low-light amazing lifesaver; though I also use Athentech Perfectly Clear for well-lit shots; both tools save me huge amounts of time.

At any rate, thanks again. I enjoyed your comparison.