Is The Nikon D7100 Going To Replace The D300s and The Pro DX Series? Maybe Not!
The D7100 Revolution
When the Nikon D7100 was announced, I was definitely impressed by pretty much every one of it’s features. (Click HERE to read the announcement and my initial impressions) Namely, this is by far the most affordable camera body to EVER have flagship autofocus, of any DSLR manufacturer ever. Nikon has taken the autofocus from a $6,000 camera, and put it in a $1,100 camera. This is totally new ground for any DSLR manufacturer, and yet it is in keeping with Nikon’s long-standing tradition of cramming as many high-end features into as affordable of a camera as possible.
To those photographers who currently shoot with maybe a Nikon D90, or a Nikon D7000, you may or may not be content with your current camera’s autofocus system. If you are, that’s great! You’ll feel much less excited about this, and that’s fine. However it is likely that if you are really pushing the envelope on your D7000 or D90, then autofocus is probably one of your main issues. Get the D7100, and prepare to be blown away with newfound focus accuracy!
Other than that, the D7100 is also a very well-rounded camera. It has many of the beginner-friendly modes and controls that the D90– D7000 lineup has previously offered, yet it also incorporates much more professional build quality, weather sealing, and advanced functionality such as backwards compatibility with all of Nikon’s lenses, from AF-D autofocus to even the old AIS etc. manual focus lenses from the 70’s and 80’s. If you are a videographer or other type of photographer who likes to use manual focus lenses, you know just how awesome it is to be able to never have to worry about adapters and such nonsense.
Basically, the only shortcoming of the D7100 is it’s buffer size, for high-speed sports action shooting. The camera does have a very respectable frame rate, at 6 FPS in 1.5x DX crop and even 7 FPS with 2.0x “extra crop” mode. With it’s powerful AF and DX crop it will be very good at shooting telephoto action, …if only the buffer were bigger! At 6-9 RAW frames for full-res RAW shooting, you’ll barely squeeze in 1-1.5 seconds of shooting before your buffer slows down. Ouch!
This may be a problem for hardcore action shooters, but what about the everyday kids’ sports shooter, or casual skateboarding / BMX / gymnastics etc. action shooter? Do you really need the massive buffers of the flagships (and the likes of the D300s) so that you can blaze away at 6-8+ FPS for 5+ seconds straight?
Absolutely not. Heck, I used to photograph air shows on a 3 FPS Nikon D70, which had a similarly worthless RAW buffer. Of course nobody wants to hear about “back in the day!” arguments from the oldschool DSLR folks who remember what 2004 was like. ;-)
Nikon D70, Circa 2004-2005
The bottom line is that if you’re considering the Nikon D7100 as an amateur or even as an aspiring pro, and you like to shoot action or sports, I still think you should give the D7100 very strong consideration. Here’s why:
- Nikon’s 1.3x crop mode (on top of 1.5x, so a total of 2X) offers you ~15 megapixel capture, offers you an 8-14 RAW image buffer. With a fast SD card, that’s two whole seconds of blazing at 7 FPS.
- Nikon has always offered RAW filesize options. You can choose between 12-bit and 14-bit capture, plus you can also choose between un-compressed, lossless compressed, and lossy compressed. Obviously, the “lower” RAW options will provide significant file size savings, in fact you can cut your file size almost in half by going to 12-bit lossy compression. In the past, RAW files of this nature have come out to be roughly 1 megabyte per 1 megapixel, often times a little less when shooting clean images at your base ISO. While some purists will scoff at such a compromise, they probably haven’t ever really tested the difference. I have, actually, and there is actually almost no difference whatsoever. The only time you will see a difference is when you go absolutely nuts with post-production, contorting your tones in ways that aren’t realistic for real-world shoting, editing, and publication needs. Bottom line? As a sports shooter, I can’t imagine shooting anything BUT 12-bit fully compressed RAW.
- (Purists, cover your ears!) …There’s also always JPG capture, if you need to really blast away. Say you’re photographing a knife-edge pass performed by the Blue Angels at an air show somewhere in America. You’d really like to blast away at 7 FPS for like, 5-10 seconds straight. Well, first jump over to 1.3X additional crop to hit 7 FPS, and then switch over to JPG capture. Next, get your white balance and exposure in the right place, and turn down your in-camera contrast and sharpening. (Or turn on Active D-Lighting) As long as you don’t blow your highlights, I absolutely guarantee you that the resulting RAW images will contain more than enough image data for any application. Again, the purists may be having heart attacks right now, but I’ve tested this extensively and with the right in-camera processing settings and assuming an easy exposure, a JPG image is awesome.
Anyways, that’s about it for the D7100. It’s an amazing camera that many types of photographers should consider. Off the top of my head, here are a few types:
- Beginner and advanced amateur photographers who plan to really push the envelope of general photography, but want to do it with a small and affordable package. (As opposed to the D600, which costs ~$1,000 more, (initial MSRP at least) and may only offer a slight advantage in image quality for general daylight and base ISO shooting, depending on how the D7100 sensor performs.)
- Landscape photographers who don’t plan to shoot fast, nor do they plan to shoot higher than their base ISO very often, yet they want as much resolution as possible. The D7100’s lack of an AA filter might make it an even better choice than the D600, again depending on how the D7100 sensor performs in real world testing. Either way, since most landscape and adventure photographers care more about portability and rugged construction, the D7100 is perfect.
- Action photographers who shoot telephoto sports and like having extra reach, or who don’t mind shooting in +1.3x DX crop mode and/or compressed RAW formats or JPG. For shooting your son’s baseball game, or your daughter’s gymnastics game, or your buddies skateboarding, this camera is one of the best options available. (As opposed to waiting to see if a Nikon D400 comes out, with a larger buffer. Such a D400 type DX camera would be larger, heavier, and more expensive.)
Nikon D300, 2009
The D300s and the Pro DX Legacy
But, hold on a second. This doesn’t entirely mean that we are done with true flagship DX camera bodies. Many pro sports shooters have wondered if a Nikon D400 is still on the horizon, over the past couple years as the D300s started to show it’s age. (Mostly just the sensor showing it’s age, the rest of the body is killer!) But now with the D7100 and it’s flagship autofocus plus many other features, …is there still room in the market for a D400? (Basically, a D300s body with the D7100’s sensor and other general improvements…) Will Nikon bother to develop a new generation of flagship DX camera bodies? IN my opinion, it is likely. Two reasons come to mind:
- Nikon is very big on tradition, and they are very hesitant to abandon loyal followers of their previous systems. That is why they still offer DX lens compatibility to their FX buyers, heck they offer AIS manual focus lens copatibility in many of their DSLR camera bodies, too! This is proof that Nikon will not hesitate to go out of their way to accommodate a select few loyal users of older systems and equipment, in my opinion.
As one more example, Nikon developed and proudly released the 35mm film F6 body, even after DSLRs had firmly taken hold in the professional arena.
Either way, I’m quite positive that Nikon has plans to continue a flagship DX DSLR model for at least one more generation, even if the D7100 is a much better value for most consumers.
- Tradition aside, the D7100’s buffer size seems to be a carefully calculated move by Nikon. They could have easily given the camera a very generous buffer. Such a camera would not have significantly harmed the sales of any other camera in Nikon’s lineup, yet it would have sold very, very well among Nikon owning telephoto sports shooters.
Another few aspects to consider: Though un-important to most, I did notice that Nikon often uses the inclusion of the TIF file format to indicate a flagship pro DSLR body. The D200 didn’t have it, but the D300 did because it was the continuation of the D2X line. Neither the D7100 nor the D600 have TIF capture, but the D700 and D800 do. Like I said this is un-important to 99% of photographers, since the NEF raw format is so incredible at a fraction of the file size. However it does seem to be some sort of indicator or status symbol for Nikon. Similar features are the PC sync port, and the inclusion of a CF card slot. The D300s and D800 both have CF+SD, while the D7000, D7100, and D600 are dual SD.)
Either way, Nikon is tactfully leaving a small gap in their lineup for an even better DX camera. Yes, it is a very tight squeeze between the D7100 and the D600, I already admitted that. But there is still the subtle hint of a gap in the lineup.
Think of it another way: Can either of those two new cameras, the D7100 or the D600, fully compete with the speed, focusing power, and buffer of the Canon 7D? Close, but not entirely.
The Full-Frame Factor
You might still have one last question: How does full-frame weigh into the possibility of a DX D400? Well, currently the only affordable full-frame Nikon body that goes past 6 FPS is the 12 megapixel, video-less D700. The D800 is a relative slug when it comes to shooting sports, and only offers 6 FPS in 16 megapixel DX crop mode. The D600 is stuck at 5.5 FPS.
To be fair, both the D600 and the D800 are more than adequate for general action shooting. However once a hardcore sports shooter gets a taste of 7-8+ FPS, it can feel hard to go back. The D700, with a vertical grip that allows 8 FPS full-frame, is the best choice. However 12 megapixels full-frame is not a lot of reach at all, for telephoto sports. In my opinion a D400 would make a lot more sense to anyone who is even remotely concerned about “reach”.
Of course full-frame will always offer slightly better image quality, on a per-generation basis. However in my opinion DX sensors have been providing more than adequate image quality for 90% of photographers for at least two generations now.
After all of this pondering, I have reached two conclusions:
- The D7100 is going to be the next ultimate camera for 90% of the Nikon crop-sensor market, and even some of the full-frame market might decide that the D7100 suits their needs better. I can think of many different types of D700 owners who would be a lot better off with a D7100, including myself for my personal work! (Landscapes)
- There may still be another DX camera out there, but it will only be worth waiting for if you’re very, very demanding of your telephoto action sports camera bodies. The rest of you can safely buy the D7100 and be thrilled.
Nikon D300, 2009
Of course, the D7100 hasn’t hit the mainstream market yet. As with any new camera, there could be problems. When I say “you can safely buy the D7100 and be thrilled”, I mean that personally, I would probably wait a few weeks after the camera hits shelves, see what the word on the street is, and then make a decision. But that’s just me. ;-)
You’re welcome to be an early adopter and jump on the pre-order bandwagon, of course… Good luck, to those of you who are!
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