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Short of committing to a full-frame beast, the D7100 (MSRP $1,199.95 body-only or $1,599.95 with the 18-105mm VR kit lens) is the most advanced Nikon camera money can buy. Replacing the D7000 and aging D300s at the top of Nikon's DX format lineup, the D7100 offers no less than 51 phase detection focus points (15 cross-type), a 24-megapixel APS-C sensor with its low-pass filter removed, better video options, and a few improved usability features like a larger LCD.
Of course, whether or not the market still demands an APS-C model of this caliber remains to be seen. Full-frame cameras have become remarkably affordable lately, and this begs the question: Will a photographer already prepared to spend $1,600 on a camera really be averse to spending an extra $1,000 for full-frame image quality?
The D7100 feels thick, heavy, and serious—just like the D7000 that it replaces (though D300s owners will find it's quite a bit smaller and lighter). The body leaves plenty of surface area for the palm and fingertips, and extensive rubberization makes handholding totally stable. In fact, scant little about the body design has changed since the previous model. The button layout is almost exactly the same, save for the relocated video recording button—which now resides on the top panel—and a few tweaks to the rear panel control scheme. In particular, we like the newly emphasized live view button, which should make videography a little less tricky. We also like the less prominent focus selector lock, which we never gave a lot of play anyway.
Actually getting out there to shoot with the D7100 will likely kick off with a long learning curve. If you haven't shot with a Nikon yet, it helps to know what you're in for. While Canon cameras are more intuitive to newbies, Nikons are more focused on manual control.
At first, this makes Nikon operation slow and confusing, but after you start memorizing the interface, the process actually becomes much faster, since more options are closer at hand. Like most Nikon DSLRs, the D7100 expects you to be an expert, and if you aren't one yet, you soon will be.
Whether it's swapping drive modes on the fly, adjusting exposure with only a single button, or adjusting white balance without entering the terrible menu system; photography with the D7100 eventually becomes efficient.
After subjecting the D7100 to our gauntlet of lab tests, none of the results were particularly surprising, but none disappointed either. Sharpness was very strong, even with the kit lens, and the excellent color accuracy we've come to expect from Nikon is back again. Noise reduction can be subtle or pronounced, and behaves predictably according to user settings, without any image noise spikes.
One of the few performance drags is white balance, which Nikon has struggled with for years. Although the D7100's color rendition is accurate, getting a proper white balance reading can be a challenge. Nikon makes it impossible to choose a specific sampling zone of a given frame. So if you're shooting with a small handheld white card (like we were), the camera may choose to white balance the wall behind your card, or something equally useless.
Back on the plus side, the D7100 does the best job handling video of any Nikon under $2,000. Motion is clean and remarkably smooth for 30p (a new feature this year), and video content remains beautifully sharp in both bright and low light.
We're equally impressed by the camera's dynamic range, which maxes out over eight stops at ISO 100, and actually manages to hold this value at ISO 200 as well. From there dynamic range falls off softly, but the camera still offers a respectable five stops at ISO 800, and nearly three stops at the maximum native sensitivity of ISO 6400.
Other than the D7100's biggest new feature, the brand-new 24 megapixel sensor, the video mode is home to this year's most important changes. A selection of new full-HD recording options are available this year, including 30p, 60i, 25p, and 50i, plus fast 60p and 50p options for 1280x720 recordings.
Unfortunately, while video performance is improved, video controls are still cumbersome. You can't do anything video-related without first swapping to live view; the camera will not do so automatically. Once that's done, it's possible to adjust shutter speed and ISO, but not while a recording. It's also not possible to adjust aperture in live view at all. In video mode, aperture can only be adjusted by switching out of live view, making the change, and switching back—even if you're shooting video in aperture priority or full manual. Weird.
Outside of video, the changes are less notable. For example, the LCD has been bumped up to 3.2 inches and 1.2 million dot resolution. Still, this is a very compelling hardware package as a whole. The new 51-point autofocus system is incredibly useful and responsive, with enough focus areas to almost cover the entire frame.
In fact, if you're shooting in the new 1.3x crop mode, those focus points will cover the whole frame horizontally (while also boosting maximum shooting speed to 7 frames per second). Since that's a crop on top of the inherent 1.5x DX crop, total crop factor can be 2x. This is an important point, since aspiring action or wildlife photographers can save themselves the cost of exotic super-telephoto lenses. For example, instead of springing for the $10,300 Nikkor 600mm f/4G, D7100 users can get very similar results from the excellent $1,495 300mm f/4G. Not to mention the 7 lbs. of weight saved.
We also appreciate conveniences like the backlit secondary display, which makes shooting at night much easier. The D7100 also features a built-in internal focus motor, which (unlike the D5200 for example) unlocks Nikon lens compatibility all the way back to roughly the time that dinosaurs walked the Earth. Nikon has also upgraded the shooting information panel at the bottom of the viewfinder window to OLED, though this change makes little practical difference.
As the most expensive current Nikon camera that doesn't have a full-frame sensor (discounting the old D300s), professionals might be tempted to write off the D7100 as "the best of the rest." Bad idea. This camera is just as professionally-oriented as the entry-level full-frames, for almost $1,000 less than the next model up. When a pro is just starting out, even the cheapest full-frame cameras may be financially unjustifiable. For them, the D7100 is an outstanding alternative.
While Nikon has made precisely zero effort to improve its main menu system, button layouts have received small refinements year after year. After conquering the initial learning curve, you'll find that the D7100 is powerful and versatile, yet precise enough to nail down the exact shot you want. We simply had a blast using this camera in the field.
Of course, control is nothing without great image quality. While none of the D7100's test scores jumped out at us individually, the camera proceeded undaunted through all our tests, systematically returning above-average results in almost each one. Sharpness, color accuracy, noise reduction, dynamic range—if we have a test for it, chances are the D7100 passed.
Except white balance. Why does every Nikon SLR struggle with this? C'mon guys, get it together.
Aside from white balance, the D7100 leaves us with little to complain about. Videography is definitely improved over previous models, but there are some strange control quirks, and plenty of better video-oriented SLRs already exist on the market. Nikon could also do a much better job communicating its "unique" control techniques to new users. Holding the WB button to set a preset, for example, isn't something a beginner is going to discover on their own, and it would be nice to be able to leave that thick instruction manual at home.
These are just minor quibbles. Ultimately the Nikon D7100 is a powerhouse camera, accessible to general consumers and legitimate to professionals. Streamlined yet detailed controls make it a joy to shoot with, and resulting photographs are gorgeous. If you need to save money, and don't mind a smaller sensor, consider this camera instead of the D600.
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