Nikon D7100 review

If you're in the market for a serious D-SLR, but don't want to go full-frame, the Nikon D7100 is the way to go; it's our Editors' Choice camera in its category.
Photo of Nikon D7100

The Nikon D7100 ($1,199.95 direct, body only) is the latest enthusiast-oriented APS-C D-SLR from Nikon. The 24-megapixel camera is a snappy performer with an excellent optical viewfinder, a great control layout, and an image sensor that holds its own in all kinds of light, both dim and bright. Focus performance is very quick, even in live view, when compared with other D-SLRs with optical viewfinders. We like it enough to award it our Editors’ Choice for top-end APS-C D-SLRs. It ousts the Sony Alpha 77, which is still a good camera if you aren’t turned off by its electronic viewfinder design.

Design and Features
The D7100 is available in a black finish with Nikon’s classic red highlight on the front grip. This is a design that has existed in one form or another since 1980′s F3 35mm SLR. It’s fairly compact, measuring just 4.2 by 5.3 by 3 inches (HWD), but heavy at 1.5 pounds. The weight comes from a couple of places—its body is constructed of durable magnesium alloy, and it uses a glass pentaprism viewfinder. The information displayed in the viewfinder is lit using OLED technology, rather than the more common LCD. This results in crisp blue lettering that is easy to read and easy on your eyes; standard shooting settings are displayed at the bottom of the finder. The Sony Alpha 77 is a bit larger (4.1 by 5.75 by 3.25 inches), and just a smidge heavier at 1.6 pounds.

The D7100′s viewfinder is one of the best you’ll find in an APS-C camera. The pentaprism design uses a solid piece of glass to direct the image from the camera’s lens and mirror to your eye. Lesser cameras, like Nikon’s own D5200 often skimp here and use a series of mirrors, dubbed a pentamirror. You end up with a slightly dimmer, noticeably smaller image when you bring the camera to your eye. Aside from current Sony D-SLR models, all of which use electronic viewfinders, the current D-SLRs priced above the $1,000 mark all use a pentaprism. Magnification varies slightly from model to model. The D7100 delivers 0.94x magnification when a 50mm lens is mounted and focused to infinity, but the Pentax K-5 II is just a teensy bit smaller with a 0.92x magnification. The difference in actual use is negligible; both cameras have excellent viewfinders. Canon also offers a pair of APS-C cameras with pentaprism viewfinders, but both have been on the market for a few years and are due for upgrades soon—although that means you may be able to find the EOS 60D or EOS 7D if you’re a Canon shooter.

Nikon has packed the D7100 to the gills with control buttons and dials. On the front of the camera, below the lens mount and operated with a finger on your right hand, is the Fn button. Its default function requires you to turn the front control dial while holding it down in order to toggle between the standard DX (APS-C) shooting mode and a 1.3x crop mode, which gives you a little extra telephoto reach and moves the autofocus area out to the very edge of the active frame. You can reprogram it to perform a number of functions. Some, like activating the virtual level in the viewfinder, require only a press. Others, like toggling between stored entries of older non-CPU lenses that you’d like to use with the D7100, require you to turn the command wheel, just as you do with the with its default setting. In total, there are about two dozen available functions to choose from, most of which require just a press of the button.

Above the Fn button is the Pv button. By default it activates depth of field preview, which stops down the lens to the shooting aperture in order to show you just how much of your frame is in focus. It can be reprogrammed in exactly the same manner as the Fn button. The other front controls are located to the left of the lens mount. There’s a button that raises the pop-up flash; holding it down and turning the front command dial allows you to adjust the flash compensation, which effectively lowers or raises the power output of the flash. Using it conjunction with the rear dial allows you to select from default flash output, red-eye reduction, slow sync, and rear curtain sync modes. Below that is a bracketing control, which lets you set the camera to take multiple exposures at different exposure levels. This is good for working in tricky lighting, or if you want to capture multiple images in order to merge them into an HDR photograph. Finally there’s a toggle switch to change between manual and autofocus. It’s got a button that gives further control over focus. You can use it to change the focus lock mode—continuous, single, and auto are options—and to activate some of the D7100′s more advanced focus features, including 3D tracking.

On the top of the camera you’ll find a standard mode dial; underneath is a second wheel that controls the drive mode. Integrated with the grip is the power switch, which can also be used to illuminate the top information LCD display. There’s a button to change the metering pattern, another to adjust exposure compensation, and one to start video recording.

With so many controls up top and on the front of the body, rear controls are fairly minimal. As far as shooting controls go, there’s a rear control dial, an AE-L/AF-L button, and a control pad that can be used to navigate through menus or to select the active focus point. Buttons are available to adjust the white balance, image resolution, and ISO. There’s a switch to change between still and video live view modes, as well as to activate it. And there’s the “i” button, which allows you to adjust certain shooting settings via the rear LCD. The other buttons don’t give you control over image capture, but there are the usual ones to launch the menu, change the amount of information shown on the rear LCD, enter playback mode, and delete photos.

The rear LCD is excellent, one of the best we’ve seen on a D-SLR. It is fixed, unlike the tilting screen on the Sony Alpha 77, but its 3.2-inch size and 1,228k-dot resolution make up for the lack of a hinge. The display is bright and sharp; I had no issues using it outdoors on a bright summer day. The menu system is largely text based, and gives you access to an exhaustive list of settings. Thankfully it’s well organized, and there’s a page that shows recently accessed settings, which will give you quick access to frequently used settings.

Performance and Conclusions
The D7100 is a great camera for capturing fast action. It starts and shoots in 0.2-second, and its shutter lag is a short, short 0.05-second, including the time to confirm focus in good light. When shooting in dim light it does slow down a bit; on average it took about 0.9-second to lock and fire a shot in very dark conditions. Live view focus is good for an SLR; it takes about 1.7 second to confirm focus and fire a shot in good light, and stretches to 2.5 seconds in dim light. Compare this with the Pentax K-5 IIs; that camera requires 0.8-second to start and shoot, and about 0.1-second to lock focus and fire in good light when using the finder, and about 1.9 seconds in live view. Focus time extends to 1.7 seconds in low light using the optical finder, and about 2.8 seconds in live view mode.

The D7100 has a few different modes for continuous shooting. If you shoot in Raw or Raw+JPG mode, you’ll be limited to capturing images at 5 frames per second. The D7100 can only manage 6 Raw or 5 Raw+JPG files before slowing down. Writing all that data to a SanDisk 95MBps memory card requires 3.6 seconds for Raw, and 5.6 seconds for Raw+JPG. Shooting in JPG only improves capture speed to 6 frames per second, with 22 shots captured before the camera slows. It requires about 2.4 seconds to write those to the card.

There’s also a 1.3x crop mode, which downsizes images to about 15 megapixels and extends the reach of your telephoto lenses. This improves Raw+JPG and Raw shooting time to 6fps, and extends the burst capability just a bit—6 shots for Raw+JPG and 8 shots for Raw, both with about 3 seconds required for the buffer to clear. Shooting in JPG mode in this setting really lets you reap its benefits. It improves capture time to 7 frames per second, and the camera manages that pace for about 100 shots, with only 1.8 seconds required to fully clear the buffer. That’s a huge boon for sports shooters and nature photographers, and not just because of the faster shooting speed. The crop effectively gets you closer to the action, albeit at the cost of resolution, and it makes it so the focus points go right up to the very edge of the frame. This is helpful when tracking a subject in motion—it won’t leave the view of the D7100′s 51 autofocus points.

Pro-grade cameras like the Nikon D4 still outperform the D7100 in terms of burst shooting. And if you don’t mind an electronic viewfinder, the Sony Alpha 77, which also earned our Editors’ Choice award when we reviewed it, uses a fixed-mirror design that provides full-time phase detect autofocus, managed 10.3 frames per second in our tests; but it only can keep up that pace for 12 shots, regardless of file format.

We are looking at the D7100 as a body only, but it’s also available in a kit with the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR zoom lens. We took a look at the lens when paired with the D7100, and found that it delivered impressive sharpness. According to Imatest it scored better than 2,500 lines per picture height at the four focal lengths we tested, even at its maximum aperture. This is better than the 1,800 lines required for a sharp photo. For more detailed results on that lens, click through and read our review.

The D7100 continues a recent trend in D-SLRs; it omits the optical low-pass filter, which is sometimes referred to as an anti-alias filter. Most digital cameras, including the D7100, use an image sensor with a Bayer color filter; this repeating four-by-four grid of red, green, and blue pixels allows the camera to capture color images. But its design is prone to producing color moiré effects when shooting certain textures and fabrics. To counteract this, the optical low-pass filter was developed. It introduces a slight blur to details, which eliminates moiré. Because of higher sensor resolutions, advancements in software processing, and a desire for more detail in photos, more and more camera makers have developed cameras without this filter. We had the opportunity to test two otherwise identical cameras—the Pentax K-5 II with the low-pass filter and the K-5 IIs without—a while back. We saw a definite increase in detail when shooting with the IIs. Moiré can still be an issue, which may make fashion shooters wary of the D7100, but for most photographers the lack of a filter is a boon rather than a detriment.

Imatest also checks photos for noise. The D7100′s 24-megapixel APS-C image sensor keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 1600 when capturing JPG images at default development and noise reduction settings. Pushing the ISO to 3200 increases it slightly to 1.7 percent, and the camera is a bit noisier at ISO 6400, showing 2 percent there. The D7100 is one of the better enthusiast D-SLRs that we’ve looked at in terms of noise control; it recorded just a smidge more noise at ISO 3200 than the 16-megapixel Pentax K-5 IIs, but the Nikon wins the battle in terms of detail captured when viewed side-by-side on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display. Even at an ISO setting as high as 12800, where noise approaches 2.8 percent for both the Nikon and Pentax, the Nikon delivers images with more detail.

If you’re a Raw shooter you’ll have to deal with a bit more noise; side-by–side comparison between NEF files captured by the Nikon and DNG from the Pentax show that the Nikon’s images display more noise. The K-5 IIs is one of the best cameras we’ve seen in terms of noise control in Raw format; it equals Sony Alpha NEX-6, one of the best mirrorless cameras we’ve seen for high ISO performance, in terms of detail and noise control.

Video is recorded at up to 1080p30 or 720p60 quality in QuickTime format. The quality of the footage is excellent; it’s sharp, with accurate colors. If you set the camera to its 1.3x crop mode you can also record in 1080i60 or 1080i50 quality. The D7100 can be set to focus continuously during video, but you can also set it to autofocus only when pressing the AE-L/AF-L button, or to switch to manual focus mode. The sound of the 18-105mm lens refocusing is quite audible on the soundtrack when using the camera’s built-in microphone, but there is an external mic input connector available. There’s also a headphone jack for audio monitoring while acquiring footage, and a mini HDMI output to connect to a field recorder or HDTV. If video is your primary concern, you may want to consider the Alpha 77 as an alternative. Its autofocus is faster and smoother and it records footage at up to 1080p60 quality in AVCHD format.

Other ports include a headphone jack and a proprietary USB connector, which is compatible with the WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter. There’s an accessory port for an add-on GP-1 GPS module ($265); it’s not built-in like it is on the Alpha 77. Images can be recorded to SD, SDHC, or SDXC memory cards. There are two slots, which can be configured in a variety of ways—the second slot can be used for overflow storage when the card in the first slot is filled, you can send JPG files to one slot and Raw to the other, or you can mirror your photos to both slots, giving you a real-time backup in the field. The lens mount includes an autofocus screw drive system, and lens data for up to 9 non-CPU lenses can be stored in memory, making the camera a good choice for those who have older Nikkor lenses.

There is no PC sync socket, which pros with studio strobes or a more complicated flash setup will find missing. If you’re interested in using the camera with non-dedicated off-camera lighting, you can use a wireless trigger like the PocketWizard PlusX; but if a sync socket is a requirement you can go with a camera that uses another lens system—the Sony Alpha 77, Pentax K-5 II, or Canon EOS 7D. If you’d like to stick with Nikon, you’ll want to look at the older D300s for APS-C, or move up to the full-frame D800. There are also hot shoe accessories, like the Wein SafeSync, that can be used to add a sync socket to a camera that lacks one. If you use i-TTL Speedlights, the D7100′s pop-up flash can act as a remote control for off-camera strobes. The maximum sync speed is 1/250-second.

The Nikon D7100 is an impressive camera. Its focus system is excellent, with 51 points to choose from, and delivers faster performance than the 11-point system found in the Pentax K-5 II; the K-5 II features top-end weather sealing, but the D7100 is also protected against dust and moisture. Image quality is excellent, as is the viewfinder, and it gives you access to Nikon’s extensive lens system. The control layout is excellent, with almost every shooting control available right at your fingertips, and the rear LCD is impeccably sharp. If you’re more of a video shooter, or if you prefer an electronic viewfinder to an optical one, you may want to consider the previous Editors’ Choice in this category, the Sony Alpha 77, but we think that the D7100 is the camera for advanced photographers who are looking for a serious body, but aren’t ready or desiring of a full-frame camera. As such, it earns our Editors’ Choice award.

Specifications
Dimensions 4.2 x 5.3 x 3 inches
Interface Ports Proprietary, mini HDMI, Mic, Remote, Headphone
Megapixels 24 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.17 seconds
LCD dots 1228800
LCD size 3.2 inches
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 25600
Type D-SLR
GPS No
Boot time 0.2 seconds
Sensor Type CMOS
Weight 1.5 lb
Lens Mount Nikon F
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization None
Shutter Lag 0.05 seconds
Sensor Size 23.5 x 15.6 (APS-C) mm
Viewfinder Type Optical

Verdict
If you're in the market for a serious D-SLR, but don't want to go full-frame, the Nikon D7100 is the way to go; it's our Editors' Choice camera in its category.
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