Although it may not be obvious from a JPEG uploaded to the web, the 35mm f/2D Nikkor on my Nikon D7000 was able to resolve down to the twig level. Feel free to double-click on this photo to enlarge it to 800 pixels across.
Once I got the Nikon D7000 set up to my liking it was time to take it to the streets. I was particularly curious to find out how well its 3D color matrix metering system would handle high-contrast lighting situations. Would highlights blow out beyond rescue without intervention on my part? I was also paying close attention to how well the auto white balance did in mixed lighting situations. Again, almost any camera can do a decent job with enough intervention. It’s the great ones that get you so close you often don’t have to change a thing. And let’s not forget high ISO performance. Low noise is great, but not if it means sacrificing fine detail or color saturation.
Last but not least on my list was focus speed and accuracy in low light, even with older non-chipped AI manual focus lenses. Since I own a few AI lenses I thought I might as well try using them. Would the D7000’s 39 focusing points give me 39 times ways to get the focus right or 39 ways to get it wrong? Read on to find out.
The D7000's matrix metering system tends to overexpose in situations like this one, where dark tones predominate. With center-weighted metering I can cheat the point of emphasis downward, toward the sidewalk.
The Nikon D7000 offers three metering patterns: matrix, center-weighted, and spot. The metering spot is fixed at 2.5mm in diameter (approximately 2.5% of the frame), however, you can adjust the size of the center-weighted area from 6mm to 13mm, or even remove the weighting entirely for full average meter. Non-CPU lenses default to an 8mm center-weighted pattern. Unfortunately, these areas are all rather abstract because there’s no indication in the viewfinder of where the metering area is concentrated. A determined photographer armed with a small light source could probably figure it out, but I don’t have that kind of time.
My experiments indicated that matrix metering tends to be overly influenced by heavy shadows, with the result that skies and clouds are overexposed. This was much less of a problem with center-weighted metering, especially when I cheated the emphasis toward the highlights. That said, I most often used the D7000 in its Program or Aperture Preferred metering modes and, with few exceptions, got consistently good exposures.
Regardless of the metering pattern, usability was limited by the inability of metering scale in the D7000’s viewfinder to display anything greater than plus or minus two stops. There’s a digital indication (“+ 2.5” for example) in the viewfinder and other displays, but only when you’re pressing down on the exposure compensation button. I found that in the heat of shooting it was easy to forget whether I had set it and, if so, how much. I’ve consequently developed the habit of pressing the exposure compensation button simply to make sure it’s zeroed-out or set where I want it.
Situations like this one, where the foreground is lit by a different light source than the background, are tricky for any camera. Fortunately I could shoot raw, balance for the white counter in the foreground, and let the background colors fall where they may.
Raw shooters tend not to be very concerned about in-camera white balance because it’s so easy to correct later with one’s raw developer of choice. JPEG shooters need accurate balance from the get-go, because anything other than minor adjustments will cause posterization, blown color channels, and other irreparable issues. The good news is that D7000 has more than enough controls to allow a skilled photographer to get as close to perfect a white balance as one can get, either in-camera or in post. Better yet, the automatic white balance does a fine job of compensating for the most common indoor lighting sources such as tungsten/incandescent and fluorescent. Unlike some other brands I could name, photos taken under tungsten light look practically neutral. If you prefer a warmer rendition for tungsten, there’s an “Auto 2” option that will provide it.
One potential annoyance for those who change white balance often is that the button is located on the left side of the camera, along the edge of the LED monitor. It’s just above the ISO button, which as I mentioned in Part One of this review, isn’t conveniently located either. On the other hand, given that there’s no indication of white balance in the viewfinder, it’s probably just as well that you have to take the camera down from your eye to set it.
Let me be up front here: I’m not a high ISO junkie. I prefer to keep the ISO as low as possible while still providing a shutter speed I can use hand-held or that’s fast enough to stop most subject motion. If need be, I’ll even attach a portable flash unit to supplement or replace whatever light is available. That said, the Nikon D7000 produces better results at ISO 1600 than my Pentax K-7 does at ISO 800. (The K-7 is not known for its high ISO performance, however.) Its performance at ISO 3200 depends on what you’re shooting and how much you enlarge the resulting image. If you’re shooting detailed subjects in high- contrast situations, you’ll notice a loss of fine detail from noise reduction and an increase in shadow noise. This is less noticeable with bright, less detailed subjects and if you’re making prints 8x10-inches or smaller. ISO 6400 would be the limit for me, but it’s still better than most small digicams can produce at ISO 800.
The D7000 focuses quickly and accurately in bright light, the only limit being the AF speed of the lens itself. Some lenses are faster than others. Low light focusing speed is more determined by the maximum aperture of the lens. As light levels drop, the smaller the maximum aperture of the lens, the less responsive the D7000’s AF system becomes, especially if you opt to turn off the AF assist light, which is a small but bright white LED on the front of the camera. (Trust me, the last thing you want when you’re trying to take discrete photos in low light is to shine a blinding spotlight on your subjects.) Fortunately, even with the AF assist light off the D7000 can manage accurate focus in dim light in less than two seconds.
For those of you who are considering using the D7000 with your stash of manual-focus AI or AI-S lenses, I’m happy to report that it works better than you might expect. You can program in the focal length and maximum aperture so they’ll appear in the EXIF data, but even if you don’t you can focus using either the manual focus indicator in the viewfinder or Live View on the LCD. The manual focus indicator has arrows that indicate which direction to turn the focusing ring and a green dot in the center that lights when focus is “spot on.” The focusing screen alone isn’t accurate enough to use for manual focusing, especially with fast lenses.
Live View is more of a “what you see is what you get” proposition. It works well if the camera is on a tripod, you’re focusing manually and you’re not in a hurry. For anything else--especially video, which isn’t one of my interests—the plethora of focusing aids, the comparative slowness of the AF, and the limitations on how to control exposure make it more trouble than it’s worth, at least for me.
This was shot at ISO 800 and lit mostly by a Nikon SB-600 flash unit bounced upward and to my right. The lens was a 50mm f/1.8 AI Nikkor, manually focused. Aside from the clarity if the image, notice the absence of shadow noise and the excellent separation between the singer's various black fabrics and the black fabric drape in the background.
Some photographers almost never use flash. Others (wedding and event photographers for example) almost never shoot without it. I fall somewhere in the middle: I don’t use it often, but when I do I expect a flash system that can perform to professional standards without time-wasting intervention on my part. The D7000 combined with a rented Nikon SB-600 flash exceeded my expectations. In rooms that had enough reflective walls or ceilings to allow bounce technique I could get photos that looked as if I hadn’t used flash at all. Better yet, it took a short learning curve and minimal effort.
Here is where the D7000 excels. It feels great in my medium-sized hands; not too small, not to big, not too heavy. (Interestingly enough, even though the D7000 is 8.5mm taller than my Pentax K-7, both cameras weigh the same. Both feel durable, but the K-7, which is weather-sealed, feels more rugged.) The D7000’s controls are generally well located. Once I got used to the layout and what direction to turn the two main dials I could operate it quickly and intuitively. It always feels ready to shoot at a moment’s notice.
What I like most is the crisp feel and sound of the shutter combined with amazingly brief viewfinder blackout. In this respect it reminds me of my Nikon FM-3A film camera, which I keep around for exactly the same reason. Shooting with a camera that feels alert and responsive makes me feel the same way.
This photo of my son Cole was shot with the D7000 mounted on a tripod and lit with my Dyna-Lite studio flash heads. I used Live View to manually focus my 85mm f/2 Nikkor AI, which was set to f/11. The image is so sharp I can see flecks of dried milk around his lips. With some subject you might actually want to reduce the sharpness a bit.
You’ll need to visit the lab analysis sites for high-resolution pixel comparisons of the D7000 versus other cameras. My personal impression after using the D7000 with several of Nikon’s best performing lenses (the 35mm f/2D AF and 16-85mm f/.3.5-5-6G AF-VR among them) is that although the images can be impressively sharp, their micro-contrast is slightly lower than similar images from my Pentax K-7. This is the sort of thing you’d notice only if you pixel-peep or make huge prints, and then only if both cameras are tripod-mounted and accurately focused. It will be interesting to see how well the D7000 compares to the Pentax K-5, which uses a similar Sony imager.
Some might wonder why I would buy a Nikon D7000 if I already have a Pentax K-7 with several DA lenses. The answer is that I’m not a brand fanatic. I use whatever tools I like and have available to get the job done. Different jobs often require different cameras. I suspect I’m not alone in this regard.
As one example, Pentax’s flash system is not as well-designed and sophisticated as those from Canon and Nikon. The Pentax AF-540FGZ struggles in situations where comparable Canon or Nikon flash units produce consistent accurate exposures and color balance. When I’m covering a wedding or an event I need a flash system that makes the job easier, not more difficult. The Pentax flash system isn’t quite there yet.
I also have an occasional need for lenses or specialized accessories that are readily available to rent for Canon or Nikon but hard to find for Pentax. In this respect the D7000 is more of a replacement for my Canon EOS 30D than a replacement for the Pentax K-7. The K-7 is still my camera of choice when I’m travelling and want to be able to carry a variety of excellent lenses in minimal space. The D7000 also can’t compete with the fact that any lens I use on the K-7 is image-stabilized. Being able to use a 55mm f/1.4 in low light with shake-reduction is a wonderful thing.
So in the end I’m still on the fence about the D7000. It’s an excellent camera but not so wonderful that I’m willing to invest in hundreds of dollars of large, heavy Nikkor lenses, especially when rentals are so readily available. I guess I’ll just have to wait until I can beg, borrow or steal a Pentax K-5 to compare it to. That might just tip the balance. In the meantime, I plan to put the camera reviews on hold and go back to doing what I enjoy most, which is taking photographs and sharing the experience with you, my loyal readers. Cameras come and go but good photographs live on as long as there are people to see them.