Sensors and Sensibility: The Nikon D7000 is a video camera strong enough to keep Nikon a contender in the DSLR filmmaker market.
For some years after Nikon brought video to the DSLR world with its D90, the company pretty much ceded that market segment to Canon, which was first to market with the 1080 and 24p options that really made DSLR video a force in the indie feature and TV worlds. Since Nikon released the D7000, however, the company has almost closed the technical gap between the two companies in that regard.
The HD options and functionality on the D7000 are very similar to Canon’s crop-size sensor DSLR. (The Nikon D7000’s DX size refers to a 1.6x crop of a standard 35mm still frame.) Using essentially the same H.264 codec for video as all the DSLRs, the D7000 offers many flavors of HD, from 1920x1080 down to 640x424. At an MSRP of about $1,200, the D7000 falls right in between the Canon EOS 7D’s nearly $1,700 and that company’s $800 EOS Rebel T2i.
First and foremost, Nikon’s D7000 is an amazing still camera. Nikon has always made a point of not adding pixels just to add pixels, because of the quality costs in terms of noise and latitude inherent in decreasing pixel size to increase pixel number on an imager. I found virtually the same low-light capabilities with the D7000 as with my Nikon D700 and its astounding 12.1-megapixel FX-size imager. Scenes shot at ISO 2500 looked amazingly clean to me at 8x10, and shots appeared noisy but still crisp and with good contrast at settings higher than that, up to 6400. I did find that in a contrasty situation—I was shooting a DV Expo presentation with a bright screen and a person speaking in the shadows—when I had both cameras set with the same picture control settings, the D700 seemed to do a better job than the D7000 of holding both shadow and highlight information.
In the month I had to experiment with the D7000, I found that some of the magnificent qualities of the still images did not totally hold up to the line skipping and compression involved in recording video. I can’t say I did a true shootout between the Canon 7D I had earlier this year and the D7000, but I did shoot both at ISO settings throughout the range at each camera’s highest quality setting. I used similar optics—the kit lenses for each body, Canon’s 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 on the 7D and Nikon 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 on the D7000—and I zeroed out sharpness and contrast settings, and across the board I found a greater number of moiré issues in the D7000 footage at every ISO and more noise in material shot above ISO 800.
I was also frustrated with the D7000 by the fact that it’s impossible to change F-stop manually while recording in HD mode—unless you’re using one of Nikon’s older lenses with an actual F-stop ring, and then you can pull the aperture manually. (The D7000, unlike some previous Nikon models, can meter just about any lens the company’s ever made that fits the mount.) I was able to use a beautiful, ancient Nikkor 75-150 f/3.5 optic I bought on eBay for $100. It not only let me change aperture mid-take, it also has a throw much more useful for pulling focus than any modern auto-focus lens. Shutter speed settings can be changed while recording HD.
Overall, Nikon’s D7000 is an amazingly fast, efficient still camera with an incredible sensor, easy-to-use and customize controls, and some of the best metering and auto-focus available in the current crop of DSLRs (not merely in this price segment). As an HD camera, it has all the limitations inherent in the HDSLR world in terms of ergonomics, a very highly compressed signal and all the rest, with (in my experience) a tendency to moiré and get noisy faster than HD out of the 7D.
That said, the D7000 has kept Nikon in the HD game, and it rates very close to its Canon equivalents. At least until the long-awaited 7D and/or 5D Mk II sequels are announced.
Pros: Great sensor; superb auto-focus, customization and ergonomics. Any flavor of HD (compressed to H.264, of course) that you could want.
Cons: Has all the same limitations as an HD capture device that all DSLRs have (because video functionality will always be a secondary consideration in designing cameras used primarily for still photography). Some moiré and noise issues.
Bottom Line: An excellent still camera. An HD camera strong enough to keep Nikon a contender in the market segment Canon owned for some time.