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Nikon D7000 - Exceptional value in an "amateur" level SLR

Pros Extensive and comprehensive control of image results, records to two media, build quality upgrade
Cons 1080p video limited to 24fps, limited buffer size, sluggish video AF.
Recommended it? Yes
The Bottom Line: 

Only build quality and buffer size separate Nikon's top enthusiast SLR from its pro ranks.

Nikon left the traditional video camera market years ago. It returned in a remarkable fashion by doing what many thought impractical if not impossible - producing a digital SLR capable of shooting video. The D90, introduced in the summer of 2008, started a revolution that heralded a video trend among film making enthusiasts and pros alike. Its prodigy, the D7000, is a well-considered upgrade from Nikon's still-in-production D90. New features recognize serious challenges from Canon and exploit technology from Nikon's pro line of products. The D7000 even leapfrogs the video-capable and near pro-level D300s in a number of features but doesn't quite lift itself up into the league of professional cameras where speed, brawn, and endurance reign. Regardless, the camera is better in every way compared to the D90 and may make sense for photographers wanting its particular features as an adjunct to or even replacement of the D300s. Because the D7000 is Nikon's most capable video camera besides it's being its best non-pro SLR, this review will focus much of its attention on the camera's video aspects. This review includes terminology exclusive to video production as well.

I tend to wait at least four years before replacing my primary SLR. As a video producer, I shoot stills in a number of applications. Location scouting, portraits, and product shots are among the photographs I use in my workflow and within the video products themselves. I also use the camera in collecting stock images. Four years tends to be reasonable turnaround for camera upgrades. The time equals a couple of upgrade cycles at Nikon. Whereas financially well-endowed shooters have the luxury of upgrading at every chance, intensive users of gear tend to develop a workflow and "muscle memory" of their cameras. That is, they have instinctively mastered the control of their tools and have integrated it into a process. Regardless of how much WOW there is in any upgrade, new gear always introduces a disruption in both use and in how it works into the entire operational process. Therefore, new stuff is a two-edged sword. As a media producer, my intent for this camera is as a primary still photography camera and secondary video camera where it will be used mostly for high quality, MOS B-roll and where shallow depth is needed.

For me, my decision to acquire new gear was suddenly prompted not by requirements but by a smash and grab break-in of my car. My primary SLR, a Nikon D300, was among the stolen items. As I considered how to replace it, one thing continued to bubble up in my thoughts: HDSLR video. Also, refuse any jobs in areas where I know I should avoid. If you are at all up on trends in still photography or video, you know the hottest is producing video on SLRs. The reasons include SLR's smaller size and lighter weight compared to traditional professional video cameras but mostly it's the look of SLR video especially its high quality image and shallow depth of field capability enabled by the inherently larger image-sensor area of SLRs compared to traditional video cameras. The look mimics that of the traditional film cameras of yore. 

What is the Nikon D7000
The D7000 sits atop Nikon's enthusiast/prosumer line of DSLRs. Its DX format means it has the APS-C sized, 16.2 MP image sensor that has a 1.5X crop factor as compared to the size of 35mm film to which Nikon refers as FX. File depth size is up to 14-bits in Nikon's NEF (RAW) format. Image files, photo and video, are recorded to two, same form factor SD, SDHC or SDXC cards. It shoots video at 1980X1080 (HD) resolution at a frame rate up to 24 frames per second or 1280 X 720 up to 30 FPS in the .mov video format. Because I mentioned video, it may be important for videographers to know that the sensor is CMOS based. That is unimportant for still photographers or for those who don't understand or care about rolling shutter effects. Still frame rates are as fast as 6 FPS for up to 100 frames but depends on quality and file size settings. A Live View feature allows seeing the image in the high-resolution 3-inch monitor while taking video. Curiously but happily, a tab near the mount engages with the prongs on AI-S lenses giving older Nikkors some auto-function capability with the D7000. While not immediately coming to mind, this seemingly retro feature has advantages to video shooters who have access to legacy, non-AF, fast, prime Nikkors that have become cheaper and suddenly more useful in the wake of AF cameras.

The competition
Nikon considers the Canon 60D and, to some extent, the Sony a580 as primary competitors. Some consider the several hundred dollar more Canon 7D another contender but its price difference and features put it in another league. The Canon 60D has slightly more pixel sites while the Sony has the same (and probably an identical) image sensor as the Nikon. Regardless, pixel count is but one of several important factors in determining the final image result. The Canon and Sony, however, beat the Nikon for video frame rate acknowledging that 30p is the "video standard" as most video is viewed on-line. The real competition, however, are those who may appreciate the move up from the Nikon D90 or the D300 or even the D300s. At the enthusiast level, as with pros, photographers rarely change brands. They normally have too much invested in system legacy gear such as lenses, batteries, and accessories.

In use / In the field
Unless I'm on a particular project, I normally carry the body fitted with my favorite lens of all time - the Nikkor 18-200mm (I now have the updated VRII model - watch for a review coming soon.) Together, it's a nicely balanced camera that feels every bit as good as holding the heavier D300. The slightly lighter weight, as compared to the D300, is welcome on travel treks and hikes in the hills. Fortunately, the Nikon ergonomics is similar among all its SLRs from amateur to professional which recognizes the need for familiarity as photographers progress up the line. For instance, the rounding off of the front corner by the left hand makes for a comfortable hold without it jabbing into the heel of the palm. Sadly, though, for the D7000 Nikon encourages an amateur "steering wheel" hold (how a so-called "professional photographer" holds a camera in Hollywood) by adding a nub on the front of the camera for gripping by left-hand fingers (where they can't participate in focusing or zooming). I'm not too keen on having an eyelet connection to the camera and separate triangular "ring" to which a strap is connected. Both parts are metal and their associated rattling noise is disturbing during video. It also seems overly complicated compared to the slotted tab onto which a strap can be directly attached. My guess is that the underlying structure may not have been able to accommodate another attachment design.

Camera controls are typical contemporary Nikon and are mostly logically placed. I miss the dedicated control array of my old D300 which clustered the separate white balance, quality, and ISO switches on the top of the camera. In its place, and on the plus side, a dial controls exposure and image control settings including a direct way to access user defined settings without having to dive into the menu. I like this a lot. More on that later. I welcome the dedicated exposure bracket button. I suspect including such a button is response to the increasing use of multiple-exposure HDR image gathering. Another acknowledgement that Nikon is recognizing the practice of shooters is that more and more video is shot by DSLRs. On the D7000 Nikon has replaced the awkward Live View activation as on the D300, once an operation that required setting the Live View shooting mode and clicking the shutter button to turn on, instead, with a lever on the back of the camera that activates the live view. The lever surrounds a dedicated video button that the user presses once to begin shooting and once again to stop - just like a regular video camera. Nikon has finally simplified the always-mysterious-to-me auto-focus switch below the lens release button. Rather than the C (continuous), S (single), and MF (manual focus) settings that Nikon users have been facing since the auto-focusing NXXX-model film days of the 1980s, the switch now has two settings: AF and M. I always wondered about the redundancy of having to select a continuous or single mode atop the camera and on the switch below in the days of yore. Yes, I understand that the camera allowed the shutter to fire in the C mode even if the subject was out of focus but focusing systems are so advanced today, that "need" went away long ago. Those wanting or needing to select those particular modes, however, have a choice via the AF mode selector which allows the user to select a focus priority mode that doesn't allow the shutter to release until focus is confirmed, a continuous (shutter priority) mode that allows the shutter to release regardless of focus confirmation and an "auto" mode that adjusts depending on the scene and other settings. The revolutionary 921,000 dot, 3-inch monitor that debuted on the D3 and D300 four years ago is today's standard. Its high resolution, brightness, contrast and accurate color make confirming focus during shooting and reviewing photos and video a pleasure. Also, it makes journeys into the necessarily complex menu system a bit less daunting.

Comprehensive control
No other camera, professional or not, Nikon or not, allows more control on operational or image management than the D7000 does. Whereas the "scene" selector has traditionally been restricted to the realm of the novice or consumer SLR, I can see how advanced shooters can take advantage of the feature. In the old days, the scene selectors (for shooting "portrait," "landscape," "sports," etc.) mainly biased the control of the iris and shutter speed and, perhaps, set the saturation. On the D7000, however, the scene control also sets focus area, focus points, auto-focus behavior, and other features making it a very smart if not presumptuous choice when a fleeting opportunity presents itself suddenly.

The pentaprism viewfinder is bright and adequately large by DX standards. Kudos to Nikon for its showing 100% of the picture taking area in a less-than-pro-level SLR. This really helps by reducing the number of "frame merger" crops in post as when you shoot with cameras that have lesser viewing systems. A diopter control ring adjusts for those with less than perfect eyesight. A soft but not obtrusive eyepiece cushion protects glasses. There are some ups and downs in the viewfinder display. A nice one is that if an exposure compensation is set, a meter indicator shows and lets the shooter know the degree of compensation. If no compensation is set, the meter indicator does not show at all. This display method helps notify knuckleheads like me that a compensation is set and, when I see the meter, alerts me that I'm shooting with compensation. I've ruined more than a few shots by forgetting I'm shooting with a previously set over- or under-exposure. On the down side is that I get no indication in the viewfinder what ISO the camera is using. For that, I have to consult the upper LCD panel or the monitor. That tends to slow me down.

My favorite feature
Better than that is the D7000's ability to allow a comprehensive mix of settings from exposure modes, picture settings, focus behavior, focus area and points, image size and quality, release priority and much more to be saved and recalled quickly in one of two detents which Nikon labels U1 and U2 with the mode dial rather than in the menu. This is undoubtedly my favorite operating feature on the camera. I can quickly change from shooting landscapes to shooting people with a single twist of a knob rather than having to go into a menu as is the case on the more "professional" D300.

Ports include a mini USB and an 3.5mm A/V socket that, unfortunately, does not let you monitor audio during recording. An HDMI (C-type) port allows you to view images on an HD TV or monitor. This is a plus for showing clients during a shoot. A GPS port allows a compatible receiver to input location information onto image metadata. Fortunately, a microphone mini-jack allows recording audio other than from the built-in microphone. There are no PC sync or remote ports. Users are expected to use accessory units or the pop-up flash to trigger remote strobes. An infrared remote, not supplied, can fire the unit from the front or the rear. I still don't know why Nikon or any other camera maker these days can't thread the shutter button to accommodate a mechanical remote release other than a cynical reason that forces users to buy the expensive electronic remote. On the bottom of the camera, under a completely removable and completely lose-able rubber cover is the connection socket for the optional Nikon MB-D11 multi-power battery grip (about $220 on line).

Video shooting
Shooting video is a matter of activating the Live View lever and pressing the record button. The viewfinder automatically crops to a 16:9 aspect ratio. Users have the option of displaying an artificial horizon on the display. This feature is highly useful in maintaining a level camera at the expense of the display blocking out a significant portion of the image in the central portion of the frame. Nikon could stand a lesson from equally effective but less intrusive displays that Sony uses in its professional video cameras. During recording, if face recognition is enabled, the camera places focus priority on faces and an illuminated box (yellow or green to confirm focus, red to show focus is underway) tracks the face. On its own, the camera body and lens make a less-than-ideal video camera system ergonomically. Serious videographers will have to outfit the camera with a shoulder or body mount for handheld use and a rail and rack focus. Also, a matte box, separate monitor and/or monitor loupe will no doubt be part of the rig. Fully equipped, the accessories will easily cost more than the camera and lens. Regardless, the practice is common and SLR videography will be popular for some time. Only when traditional video camera makers figure out how to incorporate large sensor size cameras into a small and affordable package will SLRs return to their exclusive role of shooting stills.

Image quality
No name-brand SLR shoots poor images today. Nikon, as with Canon, Sony, Pentax, Sigma, Lumix and others, makes a system in which features, familiarity and user legacy gear are more important than the subtle differences in image quality. On its own, the D7000 performs as expected. That is, it delivers all that the photographer puts into it. Testing in my favorite landscape locations shows exceptional color depth especially when shooting in 14-bit NEF (what Nikon calls its RAW files). However, and it's no secret, I shoot mostly in the .jpg format because of workflow speed. Essentially, I trust and am confident in Nikon's internal image processing just as much as when I'm making adjustments in post. Certainly I tweak images in an editing program and clients are satisfied. A modeling shoot featuring a young woman in various environments including urban and park backgrounds showed consistent high quality despite a variety of settings. The portrait scene mode was useful in situations where lighting was difficult. Results were surprisingly well finished. Again, I depended on Nikon image processing that made in a fraction of a second decisions that would have taken me minutes with Photoshop. Having larger, 16 megapixel files don't show me any greater sharpness but does allow me a bit more margin in cropping as compared to the 12 megapixel files I was getting from my D300. Most of my published images show up on the Web rather than in print so greater megapixel count is not that important to me.

Video quality was equally pleasing. In early testing, I learned quickly that my too-fast shutter speed along with the 24 frames per second frame rate made for a strobe-like look that was harsh and abrasive. Slowing to a 60th second, essentially the exclusive shutter speed I use on my professional video camera, I got video that was natural looking. I can see that I will need to use neutral density filters along with aperture control to manage depth of field. Especially pleasing is the accuracy of the color in playback and the sharpness. The lack of artifacts is actually superior to images I shoot with my professional video camera. However, one has to be looking for artifacts to notice them. I especially liked the look of rack focus clips even though rack focusing clips seem to overwhelm SLR video these days. Used judiciously though, it's a nice arrow to have in a shooter's quiver. Nikon records video onto an AVCHD format that some computers struggle with on ingestion into a video editing application. Fortunately, I've upgraded to a high performance Mac that handles the format without struggle. Owners of lesser systems may want to use software to convert the AVCHD into a more digestible one for use in their own editor. Audio recording is accomplished by a built-in microphone at the front of the camera. As with all camera built-in mics, sound quality is poor at best and abysmal most of the time. The mic will record indiscriminately including handling and camera process noise. For serious audio recording the user should use an external microphone or wired or wireless remote microphone such as a lavalier. Otherwise a separate field recorder can be used and synced in post production. Finally, to use the video function at its highest quality setting, the user must be recording to a Class 6 or faster SD card. 

Audio performance has been bumped up in the D7000 as compared to the D90. A higher sampling and deeper bit rate make the D7000 qualified to record if not necessarily capture sound for professional use. Again, I recommend the use of an external microphone and especially one not attached to the camera.

Reasons to like this SLR
Twin memory card slots can be ganged so that once the first card becomes full, subsequent image files are recorded on the card in slot two. For professionals who want to mitigate image-loss risk due to corrupt cards, the recording method can be configured so that image files are recorded to both cards at once. This is a first for a Nikon (and possibly any) brand, amateur level DSLR. I also like that I have now reached a point where I have no use for Compact Flash, CF, cards anymore. All of my image gear from my three video cameras, still cameras, and other electronics use SD-form cards and which I can mix and match. At one time I was using Sony sticks, Smart Memory, xD, and SD cards. Not to mention proprietary cards on pro video cams.

A 100% viewfinder, as mentioned above, is truly pro-level in specification in that what you see is what you get. Carefully composed images are rewarded without the need to crop the nuisance image elements that can show up at the edges in the recorded images.

While I can't measure it, my perception is that this camera has a better shutter lag performance than even the D300 had. While not particularly great for sports shooting due to its smallish buffer, the D7000 has proven to be a super grab-shot camera. The lag is barely noticeable and my deliberation is beating my luck in getting the "defining moment."

Nikon finally nails it. By allowing direct access to user definable settings via the "U1" and "U2" detents on the exposure setting dial rather than having to access settings in the menu, the speed potential is fully reached in switching back and forth between sets of user defined operational and image settings. I say, "Nikon, go all the way and get rid of the SCENE and No Flash detents and replace them with U3 and U4." This makes far more sense as you have to go into the menu anyway to set a particular scene mode and simply keeping the pop-up flash down keeps it from firing.

The virtual horizon indicator can be a wonderful assistant for those like me who, after 35 years of shooting photos, neglects to keep the horizon level. The indicator displays like an airplane's cockpit 8-ball and is intuitive in use. It is surprisingly accurate and can save all kinds of time using your photo editor's Image->Rotate->Custom capability.

It's not as bomb-proof as the D3 nor as tightly sealed as the D300, but the D7000 is slightly more ruggedized that the D90. Nikon uses a magnesium frame to provide structure and strength. The D7000 is heavier than its mostly plastic D90 ancestor but lighter than the beefy D300. While certain ports are nicely protected but definitely not hermetically so, the card and battery access doors - the ones most accessed - are only mildly protected from dust and splash. They have no O rings such as those found on the D300 and more expensive bodies. Again, as with the D300, it's too bad Nikon couldn't have beefed up the cover and hinge design for both the card slot and battery. When open, both appear vulnerable to damage but my years of constant and not so coddling use of the D300 has never resulted in damage. All in all however, the build strength appears more than enough to withstand the use for the market for which the camera is intended. It also feels and appears to be more solidly built and protected than its rivals, the Canon D60 and the Sony 580.

The dedicated bracket button is back! On earlier models, many Nikon users were assigning the exposure bracket function to the sole function button. Today, the bracket button recognizes the growing use of HDR and allows the shooter to set another pet assignment to the function button.

What I didn't like
Video frame rate is not up to the competition. While the claim that 24 FPS emulates the look of cinematic film, there is far more to a "filmic" look than frame rate. Unfortunately the D7000 tops out at 24 FPS rather than at 30 FPS which is the frame rate of on-line video. Sure, most video editing software performs a 2:3 pulldown to conform but it's not ideal to shoot in a frame rate inconsistent with the final delivery rate. Of course it takes a bit more processing effort to record at 30 FPS but Canon has been doing so and does so with the 60D. Nikon introduced SLR video in the D90 but immediately fell behind Canon whose SLR video capability and its growing DSLR video market share has surpassed Nikon in every way. In fact, Nikon may concede the entire market to Canon to the sad loss of the few still shooters like me who had hoped to leverage an investment in Nikon legacy lenses to shoot video. Still, Nikon's affiliation with Sony's imaging group may result in a surprise or two for video producers.

It's not published but the D7000 has an obvious limited buffer size as compared to the D300 and other pro cameras. This shouldn't affect most non-professionals but this is not the camera to get to back-up a D3X on the sidelines of a pro-sporting event. For me, most of my shots are taken deliberately one at a time. Buffer size is not a factor. However, and perhaps I'm being naive, but it seems buffer size is mostly a memory function and, with the cost of memory dropping faster than those who have faith in federal budget process, I would expect an ever-increasing ability to shoot non-stop. It's hard to believe Nikon is holding back just to save a few bucks.

Sluggish and not always accurate auto-focusing during video is probably par for the course. It's true, SLR video has restrictions and part of that includes contrast focusing limitations that are needed for "real-time" video shooting. However, Canon seems to accomplish faster and more accurate video AF. To be fair, I tend to focus manually while shooting video but my pull focusing isn't at the expert stage and I depend on AF in run-and-gun situations where I would not be using an SLR. Still, I like to depend on AF on casual shoots or during shots with an unattended camera such as during a wedding or other event.

For those wanting quality still and video images in a smartly designed and moderately rugged package in a DX format but do not need the build quality and endurance of a full-time professional camera should strongly consider the D7000.

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