Nikon D7100 Review
April 29, 2013
By Jonathan Bird
You may find this hard to believe, but I have been shooting a Nikon D300 underwater since 2007. Five years is a long time for any camera, but in the age of digital, when cameras improve so quickly, this can only be described as an eternity. But I was waiting for the right camera before I wanted to upgrade from my beloved D300. I wasn't so much interested in more pixels (the 12MP of the D300 seemed plenty to get just about any job done) but instead I was waiting for some better video options. When the Nikon D7100 was announced, I put myself on the pre-order list immediately for 2 bodies, and crossed my fingers that they would arrive in time for a big trip to Indonesia.
With a little luck (and friends in high places), I managed to get not only my pair of D7100 cameras but the brand-spankin'-new Ikelite D7100 housing for the camera just in time for an epic 14 day trip traversing 1,200 miles across Indonesia from Raja Ampat to Alor on the live aboard MSY Seahorse. What better place to test a new system than far from civilization where there is no access to parts or repairs?
I am a professional filmmaker, and my main underwater camera these days is a rather bulky video rig. However, I started as a still photographer, and I consider this art my first love. I do not under any circumstances believe that DSLRs—especially Nikons or Canons—are currently capable of taking on the role of a serious underwater video camera. There are simply way too many compromises made. If you want to shoot professional video, use a video camera. But there are those times when a specialized lens on a still camera can do something on video that a video camera might not be as good at. Even more likely, however, are the times when I am diving with my still camera and witnessing something incredible that warrants video. I want the capability to shoot that on the still camera, even if it's not the ideal camera for the job. That was my prime reason for choosing the D7100. More on that later.
The image is clean, even at ISOs that give the D300 fits. And 24 MP is enough that you can crop a clean (10.6 MP) vertical from a sharp horizontal and still put it on the cover of a magazine. Put simply, this camera makes a picture that is so awesome that some of your lenses probably aren't even up to the task. It's an insanely great sensor.
I love the dual SDHC card slots. You can set them up as one for stills and the other for video, one overflowing to the other, or even redundant. And the cards are cheap as dirt, even fast ones. I'm using 32 GB class 10 cards that you can get on sale for $20! Heck, at that price, you could actually just put them on the shelf and never erase them. They are still cheaper than film ever was. Even in RAW, you get something like 1,000 images on a 32 GB card. (The lossless compressed 14 bit RAW files run 27-31 MB each).
The D7100 housing from Ikelite is everything you expect from an Ikelite, with every new feature that has been incorporated recently to make it in my opinion the best housing on the market. Let's start with the obvious. It's clear. You can see that there is no water leaking inside. I won't name names, but on my epic Indonesian dive trip, two different people—with two different high-end aluminum housings—experienced minor floods. The water alarm saved their bacon—barely—and they had no idea where the water was coming in. They missed valuable dives trying to troubleshoot the problem. In over 20 years experience, my Ikelites simply don't leak. But if they did, you can see where they are leaking and fix the problem.
Most importantly, this housing, like all the Ikelite DSLR housings before it, has the awesome Ikelite "twiddle wheel" (TTL circuit with exposure compensation knob/manual control settings all in one place.) It is a mystery to me how anyone can buy a fancy aluminum housing for 4 times the price of an Ikelite and still not get TTL. Sure, you say, "Pros don't use TTL." Keep telling yourself that. Yes they do. They know when it won't work or when manual is better, and switch to manual in those cases. But for macro, and for work with fast moving subjects at differing and unpredictable distances, (like sharks for example) TTL with a little compensation dialed in kicks butt. It's a tool in the toolbox. And if you don't have it, you are missing some tools (and probably a lot of lost action shots with grossly over and under-exposed images). You wouldn't want to be a couple screwdrivers short of a tool set would you?
Functionally this housing is so similar to the D300 housing that I didn't really notice much operational difference except for the addition of some controls for the video functions, and the fact that the camera focuses so fast that it boggles the mind. With the D300, I would often just tap the shutter release lever to "wake" the camera, allowing me to adjust the settings like aperture or shutter speed before shooting a picture. The D7100 focuses so fast that tapping the shutter release for the same purpose will often fire a shot of anything in the frame (in perfect focus)! I found that I often needed to point the camera out into the blue first to deprive the camera of anything on which to focus. This focus speed makes shooting macro incredibly easy. I can't believe how fast and accurately the camera can focus, even with a long macro lens. Nikon has really stepped up their focus game with this camera.
Another major improvement in the D7100 is the live view mode. It's fast enough that it's useful for many shots. Once activated, the focus is a little slower than SLR mode. But once focus locks, the camera fires almost instantly when you press the shutter release. There is a delay before it can shoot a second shot though. In live view, you can move the single focus point around the frame with the arrow buttons. I found this mode pretty darned useful for shooting macro in tight spots, where I couldn't get my head and the camera in the same hole, or low to the bottom where I just couldn't maneuver to see through the viewfinder. I nailed quite a few tricky shots using live view. However, this is not a mode for fast action—the focus is still nowhere near as fast as focus in traditional SLR mode. It's just another tool in the toolbox.
One perplexing bit of operational head-scratching comes from the apparently random delay in displaying the image/histograms after taking a shot. I like to have my image displayed after shooting, along with RGB histograms to help me dial in my exposure (whether TTL or manual). Sometimes the review info/image pops right up instantly. Other times it takes a few seconds and I get the "hour glass" icon. When you are trying to dial in the exposure on a critter that isn't sitting still, even a few seconds seems too long, and I still haven't figured out what the delay sometimes is. This would happen even with no images in the buffer. I am using class 10 SDHC cards and shooting in 14 bit RAW with lossless compression. I would assume the compression on some images is faster than others but this may or may not be the issue. This delay however doesn't slow the camera shooting. You can bang out shots as fast that the strobes fire and it will buffer them up and write them to the card no problem. The delay is only in the display/histograms.
One of the reasons I waited for the D7100 is because it's the first Nikon DSLR with a 1080/60i mode. Most people will not have much interest in the 60i mode. Myself I would prefer 1080/60p, but this seems to be exclusively a Sony feature for the moment. However, since my TV Program Jonathan Bird's Blue World (airing on PBS across the USA and available on-line at www.blueworldTV.com) is shot in 60i, I thought it would be great to be able to shoot video on the DSLR in the same format as we shoot for the show so it will all cut together nicely.
To make a long story short, Nikon has somehow massively goofed the codec in the 60i mode. It's actually writing redundant interlaced frames at 60p to the card, effectively halving the data rate from 24 Mbps to 12 Mbps—so the video in 60i mode looks like garbage. I am assuming that Nikon will fix this in a firmware update once enough people complain about it. However, the 1080/30p mode is very clean (if you don't mind the horrendous judder of the low frame rate).
Using the video mode in real life is clunky to say the least. Video mode is aperture priority. You must select your aperture and then place the camera in video live view mode. The camera will adjust the exposure by means of shutter speed and ISO. If the shutter gets as low as it can go (1/30 in 30p mode) and that's not allowing enough light, it starts bumping up the ISO. If you are not happy with the camera's exposure and decide to change the aperture in response, you must remove the camera from video live view mode, change the aperture, then put it back in live view mode. Then you can focus and start shooting. If you want to tweak the white balance, you need to put it in a quick menu and adjust that before going into live view mode too. That is to say, shooting the D7100 in video mode is not as simple as just hitting a button and shooting some video. You have to make a bunch of changes to the camera first, during which time your quarry may well have long since given you the slip!
That being said, on a beautiful morning dive, I left my video camera back on the boat and headed down to play with my D7100. What did I find? All the barrel sponges on the reef were spawning! I didn't have the ideal lens, nor did I have the ideal video camera. But I have needed some footage of sponges spawning for a while. I picked a decent aperture, slapped the camera in video mode, focused, turned on my DS161 strobes to video light mode, and shot the scene. My DSLR video saved the day. Truly. Instead of heading back to the boat kicking myself ("Damn! I can't believe I didn't have my video camera!") I went back smiling. I got stills and video. On the same camera! The video is not as good as I could have gotten with a dedicated video camera, but it'll get the job done.
So, I'm back from Indonesia with a couple thousand pictures to go through, some video, and a camera system that has exceeded my expectations. Who knows if the D7100 will last me 5 years like the D300 did, but I'm looking forward to the adventures to come, and if the pictures aren't great, it's certainly not the camera or housing's fault!
For more information on the TV series Jonathan Bird's Blue World please visit: www.BlueWorldTV.com
For more information on Jonathan Bird please visit: www.JonathanBird.net