(Pocket-lint) - Cameras are evolving. The Nikon D7100 is testament to that - it not only employs enough top specs to rival even the well-established D300S from Nikon's own range but, and much like the Nikon D800E, has removed the low-pass filter from its imaging equation. This trick - if it can be called that - cuts out diffusion that said filter would otherwise serve to function and, therefore, images should have improved sharpness straight from camera.
With the same 51-point autofocus system as found in the Nikon D4 and paired with a revamped version of the D5200's 24.1-megapixel APS-C sensor there's a whole lot to like about the D7100 on paper.
Does all this high-tech spec truly add up to the real deal out there in the big wide world to make the D7100 the new king of the mid-range or are there underlying issues that hold it back?
Whatever the weather
Our D7100 review took us to the highs and lows of Scotland - namely the lows presented by cold, wet and rainy weather. But that was "nee bother" for this camera; a good dash of rain proved to be no issue as the D7100's weather-sealed top and base panels - which are to the same standard as the professional D800 - meant a thorough splashing was all part of the fun. Having a camera that's never a worry to use out in the wilds is one big tick in the box for a DSLR at this level.
READ: Nikon D800 review
There's nothing particularly unconventional about the D7100's design - but that's a good thing. Nikon users of old will by and large be familiar with the button layout, while newcomers will be able to pick up the layout with little fuss.
A lockable mode dial sits on top of the camera with a secondary lockable dial to its base to control the drive mode. Although pressing to release either lock mechanism can be fiddly - particularly with glove-laden hands - it does ensure that the selected mode stays in play. It's quick to make those physical adjustments without the faff of menu digging in virtual land.
Much the same can be said about the arrangement of other buttons around the camera. To the front left-hand side there's an AF switch which can be toggled between auto and manual focus, while a button encased by this same switch can be held and used in conjunction with the camera's rear thumbwheel to adjust focus type - continuous (AF-C), single (AF-S) and the mixture of the two, Auto (AF-A) - and with the front thumbwheel to chop between the 5, 9, 21, 51-point and 3D tracking auto area options. That's an impressive spread of options at this level - as we'd said before, it matches up to the top-spec Nikon D4.
READ: Nikon D4 review
Quick-access buttons for bracketing, flash and other assignable function buttons each show up as quick-reference icons on the camera's top display panel which is great for that quick flick-of-the-eyes reference too.
On the rear of the camera is a new "i" symbol function button that jumps into the new-look quick menu on the rear LCD screen. This screen, which lays over the top of the standard information display, brings up a variety of options - namely the ability to assign function buttons and quickly adjust noise reduction levels and so forth. It looks crisp and clean and is easy to navigate.
There's a lot of detail in controls; bags of options are available to dive into and it's rare that any one is hard to find. The exception is the minimum shutter speed control which is hidden away among the depths of the Auto ISO section within the menus system.
Size-wise the camera is a reasonable wedge that positions well to the hands; the D7100's got a smaller footprint than its D7000 predecessor and also weighs less. The body weighs in at 675g so it's really down to the additional lens' mass which adds any significant size and weight.
READ: Nikon D7000 review
We've been using the Nikon D7100 endlessly since it arrived on our desk, and it's not been short of stamina. Of its five-bar battery life display even two whole days of shooting in between sleeting spells - around 400 shots - only cut through around a third of this beast's battery life. Not even the cold slows this DSLR down.
From morning through to noon and into dusk we've been shooting and that's an area where the 51-point autofocus system is more than capable of showing its worth. It's not just because it's quick either, but highly adaptive too. We've focused on some subjects with subtle levels of contrast and handheld snapped ISO 6400 shots in evening light without issue too because the D7100 system can operate in conditions as dim as -2EV. There are competitors out there, such as the Canon EOS 6D, which push that figure to -3EV, yet both models are impressive.
READ: Canon EOS 6D review
The fact that a near-£1,000 camera body has such an AF system - which is arranged over a wider spread than the D7000's 39-point version - is nothing short of great. The 51-point system isn't all about its mass of focus points though, the 15 cross-type sensors - which have heightened sensitivity in landscape and portrait orientations - carry a lot of performance weight to the centre portion of the viewfinder. It's a lot wider than the D7000's 39-point AF system was.
However it's not felt completely perfect in operation: when it comes to those nuances of focus, those crucial millimetres of focus point placement, we've found that even our preference for a central single-point focus point wouldn't always confirm focus, while on other occasions focus was slightly off. In part that's a lesson that machines can't always perform to perfection, and as we used two D7100 bodies and three different lenses we're confident that it's not an isolated lens or camera issue. When it is on point, however, the D7100's shots are wonderfully sharp.
One feature we're particularly keen on is the D7100's inclusion of a new 1.3x crop mode. This not only trims the D7100's standard 24-megapixel "DX" image down to a 15.4-megapixel crop but also means the autofocus area is almost entirely to the edge of the frame. The viewfinder also shows a wider-than-100 per cent equivalent in this particular crop which, while it may take some getting used to, is useful when shooting fast-moving subjects and watching them enter the finder before they enter the frame. Unlike other competitors that offer in-camera crop modes, the D7100's 1.3x crop can also be used to capture raw files and it even opens up the burst mode to be a step quicker - increased from six frames per second maximum up to seven frames per second.
However the burst mode's numbers don't match up to the maximum consecutive shots that can be snapped in a single shutter depression. Select raw & JPEG Fine and our Class 10 SD card topped out at three shots; shoot JPEG Fine only and we snapped five frames at full speed before the speed dipped to around 2.5fps. In the 1.3x crop mode each of those reads increased by one - raw & JPEG topped out at four shots, while JPEG Fine achieved six frames before the pace slowed. There's on odd ongoing trait here however: the D7100's consecutive burst is outperformed by the lower-spec D5200 model, and the latter model is also outperformed by the entry-level D3200. Huh?
READ: Nikon D3200 review
A DSLR is all about its viewfinder which demands ongoing use and the D7100's 100 per cent field-of-view with a 0.94x magnification makes for a large, all-encompassing view. What you see in framing is what you get; the finder is large to the eye and rests comfortably on the face. The focus points show up in black and, when in dim conditions, illuminate red to confirm focus. No complaints here.
The rear LCD screen also sees a number of improvements compared to the previous D7000's offering. The D7100's panel is not only 3.2-inches in size, but now also features a new white layer for a brighter view to withstand stronger light sources. This 1000:1 contrast ratio WRGB panel is 1229k-dots which, while it may sound higher resolution than the typical 921k-dot LCD screens, that's not the case - each of the white, red, green and blue layers compiles four dots to one pixel.
There are other future-proof features including Wi-Fi and radio controlled control via the WU-1a and WR-1 adaptors respectively. Nothing's built into the camera body however so it'll cost an extra chunk of cash if such features are of interest.
The big kahuna, so to speak, is image quality; that's what a camera's all about. The D7100 sure does a lot of talking the talk when it comes to that "newly developed" sensor and removal of the low-pass filter. But can it walk the walk?
The sensor is the very same as that found in the Nikon D5200. It brings with it the same issues, then, that we found with that camera: banding can be found in shadow areas, particularly when exposure levels are pushed. The D7100 exhibits exactly the same results as the D5200 on this front, meaning manipulated results can look a little bit "printer running out of ink" like in the finer areas. We're only talking a couple of stops of adjustment too, as in this +2EV exposure below:
That's the bad news out of the way. Then there's the good news: the D7100's removal of the low pass filter does mean it pips the D5200 in the sharpness stakes. We're yet to counter any moire issues, but then there's no reason that such patterns won't rear their head in specific conditions. One to look out for; if you like snapping pin-stripe suits then the D7100 might not meet expectation.
Quality-wise results are otherwise much the same as the D5200 in our opinion. Now that's a good thing - large output size, crisp resolution, and little image noise at the lower ISO sensitivities.
Image noise isn't a huge issue considering the 24-megapixel resolution and we found that ISO 100-200 sensitivities produced decent results where sharpness was optimum. There's some presence of a subtle yet patchy colour noise that can be seen in some gradient areas hereafter which continues to rise as sensitivity increases.
More impressive are the camera's raw files which aren't significantly grainier than their JPEG counterparts, but without the D7100's in play processing they've got discernibly better sharpness. This is the way to make the most out of the removal of that low-pass filter as the D7100's JPEG processing seems to diffuse shots in its own process-based way - fine enough in general, but not for the pinnacle of imaging that this camera can produce. There might be presence of some chromatic aberration in raw shots, but otherwise we say stick to raw files for those special shots. It gets the best out of the D7100 for sure.
We found there to be some slight overexposure from the 2,016-pixel RGB metering sensor from time to time too, while colour and vibrancy leans on the subtle side - again, both good reasons to shoot raw so that files can be tweaked into striking perfection.
Just like the D5200, the D7100 does also come equipped with a variety of effects options - including silhouette, selective colour, high/low key, night shot/black and white and more - should you want to get creative. If raw & JPEG is selected then you'll retain the original, untouched image in addition to the altered JPEG file, so playing around with these effects can be fun. We'd still like to see more options and adjustments per effect put on offer, however, as Nikon lags behind the likes of Olympus and its art filter range. A small thing that's unlikely to sway buying this camera or not, but a thing nonetheless.
There's a lot to love about the D7100: comprehensive 51-point autofocus - despite the occasional non-focus glitch - is great to use through the large, 100 per cent optical viewfinder and we're big fans of the new 1.3x crop mode too.
Image quality is also good in the main, but this is the same sensor as found in the D5200 - despite its "new developments" - and, therefore, comes with the same banding in shadow areas issue as we found in that other Nikon model. It tends to only be an issue when pushing images in post-production, but that can still be a problem.
To get the most out of images and, indeed, the fact that the low-pass filter has been removed from the design, we'd definitely suggest working on the raw files as the D7100's JPEG shots soften images at all sensitivities by their comparison. As the lower ISO sensitivities don't suffer from much image noise at all this is the way to get the most out of this DSLR - and that's when the D7100's images really shine.
All in all we're impressed with the D7100 - it delivers great images, has an extensive autofocus system with 1.3x crop option, a long-lasting battery life and both the viewfinder and LCD screen are decent. What we'd like to see is yet more sensor improvements and a more capable buffer for burst shooting in the future - that would elevate this series to the next level. As it stands those two points hold backs the camera from perfection, alongside one or two other niggles, but - and as we've listed at length - what this DSLR does do right it does oh so well.