Nikon D7000 at High ISO

As usual, I annoyed the extended family by taking photos of them all night during our Thanksgiving gathering. It gave me a good chance to put the 10-day-old D700 through its low-light paces along with the rented 28-300mm zoom and my trusty 70-200mm. To get a little light in our rather dark living room, I set up one SB-900 and one SB-600 bounced off the white walls in remote TTL mode and used the built-in flash as the commander and -2EV fill. I shot everything wide open (f/5.6 and f/2.8 respectively).

I’ve been meaning to retract my statement of last week that “ISO 3200 is very usable.” After doing some post-processing on some of those images, ISO 3200 on the D7000 is just too noisy for typical work. I’d also retract “ISO 6400 will even do in a pinch” You’d have to be pinched really hard. So last night I decided to shoot everything at ISO 800, and after post-processing in Lightroom 3 and looking at the images 1:1, I can say that ISO 800 is clean enough for closeup people shots. (I wouldn’t call my candid photos “portraits”.) My sense now is that in terms of noise, the D7000 is somewhere between one and two stops cleaner than the D90. I look forward to another evening of tests at ISO 1600.

Comparing the Nikon 11x Zooms, one of my favorite vendors, is running a special deal for Thanksgiving: week-long rentals for the price of a usual three-day period. Whenever they do that, I get suckered into trying out some new gear. This time it’s the new AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 G VR lens. Perhaps because I live in the S.F. Bay Area, FedEx delivered the lens on Friday instead of Monday, so I got a ten-day rental instead of seven (or three) and an extra weekend. What else to do on a Friday night? Run tests!

When Santa Claus delivered a new Nikon D90 two years ago he had the foresight to include the upgraded kit lens: the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED VR. Although I’ve added a number of better lenses to my collection since then, the 18-200mm has remained my go-anywhere lens. So this zoom was the basis for my comparison.

This isn’t a thorough evaluation by any means. In fact I only tested one configuration: 200mm at f/5.6. That’s it. And just to make things fun, I tossed in a third lens: my favorite AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II, also at 200mm f/5.6. Here’s what I found.

  • The old 18-200mm is a relatively lightweight lens. It feels a bit flimsy even. Let it hang front-element-down as you walk, and it will elongate on its own. I had it adjusted and checked by United Camera, but it didn’t get any better. It’s a DX-only lens. You can’t use it on a full-frame body. Compared to the other two lenses, it’s a bit soft, but only very slightly so. (I’m only looking at the center of the frame.) You really need to look closely at 1:1 to be sure. It really holds up in terms of color saturation. But what’s really strange is that its 200mm setting is nowhere near what the other lenses call 200mm. In fact, for the purposes of these tests I had to set both of the other lenses to 160mm in order to match the crop of this lens at 200mm. That’s a big difference!
  • By comparison, the 28-300mm feels more like a pro lens even though it has more plastic than the 70-200mm. Not only doesn’t the lens self-extend when you carry it, the copy I have is actually too tight. And to be extra sure, the lens has a lock for the 28mm position. (You’ll never use it!) The 28-300mm is also heavy. It’s 43% heavier than the 18-200mm and half the weight of the 70-200mm. The big difference is that the 28-300mm is compatible with Nikon’s FX (full-frame) bodies. But it only costs $200 more than the 18-200mm ($1,050 list vs. $850 for the newer VR II 18-200mm and $785 for my VR model.) The quality of the image (frame-center) is nearly as good as the 70-200mm, and that really impresses me. You really have to look hard at my 160mm f/5.6 test images to see any difference at all. Of course the huge difference is that the 70-200mm opens wide to f/2.8.
  • And of course the 70-200mm is absolutely gorgeous, particularly at f/2.8. That’s why it’s worth 2x the price and 2x the weight of the 28-300mm.

Bottom line: As a general-purpose lens the 28-300mm is excellent. If you have an FX body or you think you might get one anytime soon, you really don’t have a choice. The 18-200mm just won’t work. But supposed you have a DX body? In that case you need to think about your need for wide-angle coverage and whether you want to add another half pound to your kit. Remember that a 28mm lens on a DX body is like a 42mm lens on a full-frame camera — in other words, a mid-range lens. For me, I’d probably carry the AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm f/4 G ED (DX only) that I just bought used on eBay. I’d have to change lenses for wide-angle shots, so I guess I’d be outside of the “walk-around” criteria, but I think it’s a good two-lens combination for DX shooters.

For now though, the 28-300mm is going back to in ten days, and I’ll stick with my 18-200mm. Still, if I continue to bond with the 28-300mm over these next ten days, one could be on my wish list for Santa next month.

Nikon D7000 Review

Here are my thoughts on the new Nikon D7000 after 48 hours. For perspective, I’m comparing to my trusty old D90.

  • The weight and feel are very close to the D90. The other reviews I’ve read oversold the differences.
  • What they don’t tell you is that the D7000 is quiet. The mirror bounce and shutter are much quieter than the D90’s. At first it’s a little spooky, actually.
  • The high ISO sensor is terrific. ISO 3200 is very usable. ISO 6400 will even do in a pinch. This is the primary reason I bough the camera, and I’m quite happy with it.
  • The new autofocus system is also great, with 39 focus points, nine of which are cross-point type. This is another of the main reasons I bought the D7000. I usually select focus points manually, and I felt limited by the 11 focus points (only one of which is cross-point) in the D90. I guess I was spoiled by the 51-point D3s I rented for a while.
  • The two User Setting modes (U1, U2) are yet another feature that’s important to me. For example, I like to shoot HDR and there are multiple settings I have to change to go into and out of my HDR configuration.  The U1/U2 settings make it much easier. I only wish the user settings included the continuous-release (6fps) option.
  • The external GPS can now be used to keep the internal clock on time. Couldn’t do that on the D90.
  • I was actually happy with the 12.3 megapixels in the D90. The D7000’s 16.2 megapixel RAW files are more than twice as large, about 25MB uncompressed using 14-bit depth. I can only get 461 shots (RAW, 14-bit, lossless) on a 16GB card. 682 using the lossy compression. By comparison the RAW files from the D90 are only 10.8MB. I’ve ordered a 32GB SD card (SanDisk Extreme III, $170!) to handle the more than 2x larger files on the D7000. I have yet to determine the impact of using (a) 12-bit RAW instead of 14-bit, and (b) the lossy compression, but I plan to test those options.
  • Having two SD slots is going to come in handy! Not sure if I’ll use #2 for backup or overflow.
  • I like to program my FN button to bring up My Menu. It worked great on the D90. But on the D7000, it takes you directly to the first item in My Menu instead of the menu itself. I understand why they did that, but it means you’ve got to exit that first option if you want to get to any of the others. I like the way the D90 did it better.
  • Using the built-in flash to trigger remote Nikon flashes still (like the D90) only supports two groups, A and B. I don’t know why Nikon doesn’t allow their cropped-sensor cameras to use group C.
  • The exposure bracketing is also still limited to three shots with a max of +/- 2 stops. We HDR folks would love to see a total range of six or eight stops like the more expensive Nikons rather than just four.
  • The viewfinder seems brighter than the D90’s — I’m not sure if it really is — but the focus points aren’t quite as easy to see. (Other reviewers like the new less-obtrusive focus points in the viewfinder.)
  • Because of the huge files, high-speed continuous shooting is still somewhat limited when using RAW, but it’s better than the D90. I tested using the same Class 6 SD card on both bodies.
    • At high speed (6fps) shooting 14-bit RAW files, I can get ten shots off before the buffering kicks in.
    • At low continuous speed (3fps) I get 14 shots until it starts to slow.
    • On the D90 I can only get five RAW shots off at 4.5fps before it starts to slow down, so the D7000 certainly is an improvement particularly considering that the files are larger and they’re coming faster.
    • Using the highest-resolution JPEGs, I can get 33 shots at 6fps before it starts to slow down. At 3fps, you can shoot high-res JPEGs continuously.
  • Although I haven’t used it much yet, the video is way (!) better. It wasn’t really usable on the D90 except in full-manual mode. But the D7000 has what appears to be excellent continuous autofocus and exposure while it shoots true 1080p video. Very nice.

Yes, I’m really happy with the D7000. It’s a terrific upgrade (at a good price) for D90 users.

FYI, I downloaded the release-candidate (RC) version of Lightroom 3.3, which supports the D7000’s RAW file format. Otherwise, I’d be shooting RAW+JPEG for a while.