Using the Nikon D7100

The D7100 is a well-designed and robust camera that brings to the table everything you'd expect to see in an enthusiast DSLR, whether APS-C or full frame. It's a very satisfying camera to hold and to shoot with. Picking up the camera for the first time, you're struck by a quality feel and construction that differs from the full frame D600 only in terms of a slightly shorter hand grip. Buttons and controls are well-placed for easy operation, and the few quibbles we do have - and will discuss below - will simply be of little concern to photographers outside of those using the D7100 as a second body alongside either the D7000 or D300s. In fact, with the D7100, Nikon has to a large degree now standardized the control layout and operability of all three of its enthusiast-grade DSLRs, a consistency which makes a great deal of sense.

According to Nikon, the D7100 features dust and moisture-resistance equivalent to the D600 and D800. While it's not a fully weather-sealed camera like the Pentax K 5IIs, the D7100 has performed without a hitch in the rainy climate of our Seattle location.

Nikon claims the D7100 offers the same level of weather-sealing as the much more expensive D800. Its seals are illustrated here, as yellow lines. The D7100's front plate is polycarbonate while the top and rear plates are magnesium alloy.

Overall handling and notable features

In your hand

The D7100 feels like an ever-so-slightly slimmed-down D600, a camera whose handling we quite enjoyed during the course of our in-depth review. The D7100's body shell is predominantly magnesium alloy, and thick rubber coats the hand grip. Buttons and switches are well-spaced and large enough for trouble-free operation even with thin gloves. As with all high-end Nikon DSLRs, the D7100 has two rubberized control dials, one on the front above the hand-grip and one on the rear, for operation with the right thumb.

Despite the camera's relatively modest weight - though physically larger than the Pentax K5 IIs, it's a lighter camera - it balances rather well with Nikon's top prime lenses as well as high-end zooms like the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR. Those with even medium to large hands may find that the height of the hand grip falls just shy of comfortably accommodating all three fingers, as you can tell by the protruding digit in the image below, but this is hardly unique among APS-C DSLRs.

The D7100 sensibly divides controls among both sides of the camera. With your hand in the shooting position you can easily lock focus or exposure, cycle through the camera's 51AF points, change metering mode, adjust exposure compensation and start/stop movie recording. Lockable shooting and drive mode dials prevent accidental operation when handling the camera.

'i' Button

While the camera has no shortage of external buttons for adjusting shooting settings between exposures, it's always nice to be able to change camera and image quality settings without a distracting trip to the main menu. In this regard the D7100 introduces a new 'i' button along the bottom of the camera back that makes it a bit easier to access at least a selection of these settings. This behaves like the quick menu buttons on other makers' cameras. With one press, the information display appears on the rear LCD and the two rows of camera settings are activated for navigation. On the D600 and D800, this access required pressing the info button twice, a requirement unlikely to occur to users who missed that page of the camera manual.

Things get even better in live view mode, as pressing the 'i' button here brings direct on-screen access to seven useful options including image size and quality, remote timer settings and monitor brightness. Set the camera to playback mode and the 'i' button calls up the Retouch menu, eliminating the need for the dedicated - and we'd suspect seldom used - retouch button found on the D600.

A new 'i' button gives easier access to onscreen controls for commonly used functions. For normal viewfinder shooting it directly enters Nikon's familiar active control panel to change settings.

Spot white balance

The D7100 debuts Nikon's new 'spot white balance' feature, which allows you to set white balance while in live view mode, by simply selecting a small area of the scene from which to take the reading. This is a very welcome contrast to the previous requirement of filling the entire frame with the object to be made neutral, which in studio-lit tabletop photography could often mean removing the camera from the tripod if you'd neglected to set the custom white balance before-hand.

A new spot white balance option in live view presents you with a small area (the yellow square) from which to set a custom white balance, insead of having to fill the entire frame with a target as on previous Nikon DSLRs.

To use spot white balance, set the camera to live view mode, press the WB button and use the front and rear dials to select the appropriate custom WB preset number. Press and hold the WB button a second time to call up on-screen a small white balance square which you can move around the scene via the multi selector. Once in place over your intended target, press the OK button to set the white balance. The process still retains much of the complexity any Nikon owner will be familiar with, but there's no denying that this is a more user-friendly approach than the standard Nikon method of selecting manual WB, choosing a preset, then pressing and holding the WB button and taking a test shot. In conventional (non live-view) shooting with the D7100, this method is unchanged.

Auto ISO

The D7100 inherits the same improved set of auto ISO sensitivity parameters we described in great detail in our D800 review. With Auto ISO enabled in the shooting menu or via the front dial, the camera will select a sensitivity between the current user-selected ISO and the maximum Auto ISO setting you have configured in the shooting menu. So setting ISO 100 and configuring the maximum Auto ISO to 6400, for example, will allow the camera to choose an ISO sensitivity anywhere within that range.

Set your camera's ISO to values much above ISO 100 though and you may get unintended results. That's because the standard 'ISO sensitivty' value you have chosen for non-Auto ISO mode will override any maximum Auto ISO setting you make. Here's an extreme example. If you set ISO 3200 in the ISO sensitivity menu option, but enable Auto ISO and set its 'Maximum sensitivity' to only 800, the camera will make every effort to meter and shoot at ISO 3200, setting a lower value only when choosing ISO 3200 would require a shutter speed that exceeds the camera's maximum of 1/8000. So if you'll be toggling Auto ISO on and off on a regular basis, it's always worth checking to make sure that you've got a low ISO value set when enabling it again. Curiously, this is the exact opposite of the behavior we saw in the D600, which under those same circumstances honors the (in this case) more appropriate Auto ISO maximum.

In addition to specifying a fixed, minimum shutter speed to ensure sharp pictures, you also have an Auto option for minimum shutter speed. In this mode - provided you are using a modern 'CPU' lens which transmits data to the camera - the D7100 automatically sets a minimum shutter speed value based on the focal length of the attached lens. This comes in particularly handy when shooting with zoom lenses.

In the ISO sensitivity menus you can specify the range of ISO values from which the camera can select. With the minimum shutter speed set to 'Auto' the camera will use the focal length of the currently mounted lens to determine a hand-holdable shutter speed. An 'Auto' sub-menu (highlighted here in yellow) allows you to bias the camera towards choosing slower or faster shutter speeds for any given focal length.

You can even fine-tune this automatic shutter speed selection. There is an adjustment slider in the sub-menu for 'Auto minimum shutter speed' that ranges from 'slower' to 'faster' in 5 steps. This lets you bias the camera towards higher shutter speeds of approximately 2x and 4x the current focal length, or to lower shutter speed values of roughly 0.5x and 0.25x the current focal length. This former is useful for freezing action with high shutter speeds (or simply minimizing any chance of camera shake with non-VR lenses), the latter for taking maximum advantage of image stabilization to keep ISOs as low as possible.

MB-D15 Battery Grip and external connectors

Photographers looking to add bulk for better balance with expensive, heavy zooms like the AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens, more comfortable portrait orientation shooting, or simply increased battery performance can opt for the MB-D15 grip. The grip allows you to add a second Li-ion battery or in a pinch, power the camera via AA batteries. Note that there is no speed boost when using the grip, with any battery combination. It is purely intended to aid handling.

An accessory grip is available for the D7100, providing vertical controls, and the option to power the camera with a second Li-ion battery or AA batteries. The MB-D15 grip costs $269.95 in the US and £279 in the UK.

In terms of accessory compatibility, the D7100 also offers an array of connectors seen on previous Nikon DSLRs such as HDMI and USB/AV outs, a stereo microphone input for movie recording, and a multi-function port that accepts both Nikon's optional GP-1 GPS unit, and the MC-DC2 electronic cable release. The camera also has also front and rear receivers for the ML-L3 wireless remote. One upgrade over the D7000 is a headphone socket for monitoring sound during movie recording.

Specific handling issues

That the D7100 manages the neat task of being immediately familiar in handling and operation both to D7000 owners making an upgrade and D600/D800 users looking for a more affordable backup camera, speaks well of Nikon's sensible design approach. The D7100 maintains most, if not all, of what we liked about the D7000 yet inherits elements common to both its full frame siblings, like the top-mounted movie record button and integrate stills/video live mode button/switch combination. The introduction of spot white balance, a quick menu-like 'i' button and brighter rear RGBW LCD all make positive contributions to the handling of the camera both in the field and in the studio.

The vertical placement of the zoom in and zoom out buttons have been swapped on the D7100 compared to its predecessor, the D7000. This will certainly involve a bit of unlearning for those making the upgrade, but outside of anyone who plans to use both cameras, this is an adjustment that can be quickly made. And D800 owners interested in a smaller APS-C second body, will find these buttons exactly where they'd find them on their main camera.

Our biggest gripe about the D7100 from an operational standpoint will be familiar to readers of our D600 review. Changes made to aperture settings while live view is engaged are not are not previewed on-screen. This can easily lead to focusing errors which is doubly frustrating since working in live view mode offers the most accurate way of manually focusing a camera. You can read about this issue in more depth on the live view page of this review.