Overall handling and operation
In terms of its operational handling, the D7000 is very close to the older Nikon D90. It might have a similar body shell to the D300S, but despite this and some other 'pro' touches, like a thicker rubber coating on the grip and the lockable drive mode dial, it will probably be a lot easier for a long-time D90 user to upgrade to the D7000 than it will be for a D300S user going in the opposite direction.
This is no bad thing - the D7000 is, after all, aimed at the upper end of the enthusiast market - and overall, we really like the way it handles. The D90 is a popular model for very good reasons, and in coming up with the design of the D7000, Nikon has not attempted to meddle too much with the formula. The few changes which have been made (like the addition of a direct video shooting button on the Live View switch), mostly make sense, and improve the camera's handling. We like the 'business-like' metal body and we don't mind the slight increase in weight, although with a fast-aperture lens attached, the D7000 does make its presence felt.
Specific handling issues
In general the D7000 handles well, as we'd expect from a camera which is essentially a hybrid (in ergonomic terms) of the D90 and D300S. There are a couple of issues though, which make using the D7000 less pleasurable than we think it should be.
One of the few serious problems with the D7000 from an ergonomic point of view is the placement of the ISO button, in the middle of the row of buttons to the left of the LCD screen on the rear of the camera. Although preferable to having no direct-access ISO button at all, this button cannot easily be located by touch, and is in entirely the wrong position to be accessed with your eye to the camera's viewfinder. In the D300S, the ISO button is located on the left hand side of the top plate - still the wrong side for easy 'blind' reach - but on the D7000 we'd really like to be able to swap the metering button, which is bizarrely prominent, just behind the shutter release - with ISO.
Maybe Nikon thinks that the majority of D7000 users will just stick with Auto-ISO, but quite apart from this we can't fathom why metering should be given such prominence. Surely more photographers adjust ISO 'on the fly' than metering mode? Likewise white balance, which languishes with ISO right over on the left-hand side of the camera, out of easy reach. This wouldn't be so much of an issue if the 'Fn' button on the front of the camera by the lens mount could be assigned to either function, but unfortunately it can't. There is a workaround though - the 'quick ISO' option in the shooting/display custom menu tab assigns ISO to whichever control dial is unused in aperture priority, shutter priority and program modes respectively. This is handy if you habitually work in a single one of these modes, but there is no escaping the fact that it is a workaround, rather than a fully satisfying solution to the problem. The unused dial is different from mode to mode, and it doesn't work in manual. It is also incompatible with the (arguably more useful) easy exposure compensation custom function.
Speaking of ISO, by default, ISO is not visible in the viewfinder unless you're in the process of changing it. Whilst not a major annoyance most of the time, this means is that in auto ISO mode, you have no idea at which sensitivity setting you're currently shooting. Custom option d3 in the shooting/display custom menu tab allows you to show ISO sensitivity in the frame counter display of the viewfinder, but annoyingly, as soon as you depress your finger on the shutter button, the ISO display reverts to showing frame count.
Actually, the D7000's auto ISO functionality - like all current Nikon DSLRs - feels a little half-baked in general. Within this dialog is an ISO selection window, the purpose of which is somewhat obscure unless you happen to have the user manual to hand. Contrary to appearances (and what the on-screen help dialog tells you), selecting an ISO setting here actually defines the lowest ISO setting that the camera will use in auto-ISO mode. This is simply confusing, but we'd question the logic of having a single 'minimum shutter speed' option (which in P and A modes raises ISO sensitivity if the shutter speed required for exposure falls below the selected value). A single shutter speed makes sense if you're shooting on a long telephoto prime lens, but since the majority of D7000 users are arguably more likely to shoot zooms (probably stabilized) than long telephoto primes, this is - to say the least - something of a blunt instrument. A 'set minimum shutter speed according to focal length' option would be more useful, and something that we hope Nikon will address in the next generation, because for now, auto-ISO is something of a kludge.
Also irritating, but of less importance overall is the design of the drive mode dial on the extreme left of the D7000's top plate. We like the idea of the lockable drive mode dial, but as we've already mentioned in the body pages of this test, it can be rather awkward to manipulate. Positioned beneath the relatively loose exposure mode dial, it seems more like a gimmick than a serious attempt to 'professionalize' the camera.
We were expecting the D7000 to be a fast and responsive camera, and in general it doesn't disappoint. We have no serious complaints about operational speed (we'd like the D7000 to have the D300S's buffer, but that's about it), and as we'd expect from a modern camera in this class, the D7000 feels swift and positive in general use. Even in live view mode, AF is reasonably fast, and very accurate. We stress this point because contrast-detection in live view mode is an area where DSLRs traditionally lag some way behind mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. The D7000 still isn't as quick as the likes of the Panasonic G series or Sony NEX, but Nikon has narrowed the gap considerably. Detailed timings can be found in 'Autofocus speed / accuracy', below.
Continuous Shooting and BufferingThe continuous shooting performance of the D7000 is midway between the D90 and D300S. The D7000 can manage 6fps maximum shooting speed, and can capture images continuously up to 100 JPEG frames (but not necessarily all at the same frame rate - see below). This is 1.5fps faster than the D90, but still some way off the maximum 8fps achievable with the D300S and MB-D10 grip. The D7000's buffer is smaller than the D300S as well. We found that even with a fast card, no more than 32 pictures can be taken in a burst at the maximum frame rate before the camera has to slow to clear the buffer. In JPEG (Fine) mode this drops to 22 frames before the frame rate slows.
Compared to the competition, the D7000 is pretty fast, but not class-leading. The Canon EOS 60D can manage a maximum frame rate of 5.3fps, but the Pentax K5 beats both cameras in terms of absolute speed, at a maximum frame rate of 7fps for an impressive 20-30 shots (depending on JPEG quality). The following figures are the result of our own timings - all operations are performed and timed three times, with the average given.
- JPEG (Fine): 6 fps for 22 frames, then 2 frames at 3fps captured every second (approx) up to 100 frames in total. Approx 10 seconds to recover.
- JPEG (Normal): 6fps for 32 frames, then 4 frames at 4fps (approx) followed by 2-3 frames at 5fps (approx) up to 100 frames. Approx 10 seconds to recover.
- RAW: 6 fps for 10 frames, then 2 frames at 2fps captured every 2-3 seconds. 16 seconds to recover.
- RAW+ JPEG (Fine): 6 fps for 10 frames, then around 0.5 fps. Approx 22 seconds to recover.
All tests conducted at 1/250 sec in AF-S mode with a 16GB Lexar Professional 133x Class 10 SDHC card.
Autofocus speed / accuracy
The D7000's 39-point AF system is new, and in use, it feels extremely similar to the 51-point system of its 'big brother' the D300S - we certainly didn't notice the 12 missing points. Nine of the 39 points are cross-type, which allows more accurate AF using wide-aperture lenses, especially in poor light. Compared to the D300S, the coverage of the AF array is very slightly smaller, but this difference is noticeable only by direct comparison.
In everyday photography, our experience of shooting with the D7000 almost exactly matches our experience of using the D300S. With a 'kit' lens mounted, like the AF-S 18-105mm, the D7000's AF system is reasonably quick and perfectly accurate, but with a faster lens like the AF-S 16-35mm f/4 or the 24-70mm f/2.8, the D7000 comes alive. The only niggling concern that we have with the D7000's AF system (and one which is by no means limited to this camera) is an occasional tendency in very poor light to decide that it has achieved focus, when actually it has not, irrespective of whether the AF assist lamp has fired.
In general though, AF accuracy is very high, in both AF-S and AF-C modes. We do not have any specific tests for AF tracking accuracy (although we are looking into it for the future) but in the shooting which we have done with the D7000, it is able to accurately track moving objects around its 39-point AF frame, with the same accuracy that we would expect of the D300S and D700. Autofocus tracking accuracy is helped of course by the new 2016-pixel RGB metering sensor for scene recognition, which facilitates 3D tracking by subject color/contrast, as well as aiding metering and white balance accuracy.
We have found however that autofocus speed is highly dependant on the lens used. Whilst beginners with no immediate ambitions to upgrade their kit lenses will be perfectly happy with the speed of the 18-105mm, more advanced users will be pleased at how much more responsive the D7000 becomes when paired with a lens with a faster AF motor. This is not a problem restricted to the D7000 - it is always the case that the AF speed of Nikon's D/SLRs is at least partly limited by the AF motor in the lens. In the case of AF-S motors, the designation alone is no guarantee of speed. Some (like the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8) are quick, and others (like the kit lenses and the AF-S 50mm f/1.4) are relatively slow. It is worth noting that older, D-series AF lenses achieve focus almost as quickly as the fastest AF-S models.
The D7000's contrast detection AF system, which is used in live view and video modes, is not as fast as the class-leading (in terms of CD-AF performance) Panasonic Lumix DMC-G2 and GH2, but it is a lot better than the previous-generation D90, and Nikon's current APS-C flagship, the D300S. We tested contrast-detection AF speed on two lenses which are representative of the 'fast and slow' models mentioned above - the AF-S 18-105mm kit zoom, and the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8.
With the 18-105mm at 105mm, the D7000's contrast-detection AF can move it from its closest focusing setting to infinity in 1.4-1.5 seconds (approx). This is only 20% longer than the time it takes for the same operation in phase-detection AF mode. Impressive performance. However, with the faster 24-70mm f/2.8 mounted, the D7000's phase-detection AF system essentially doubles in speed, achieving focus in 0.5-0.6 seconds (at any focal length). Live view (contrast-detection) AF is no quicker though, which means that it takes roughly twice as long as phase-detection AF with this lens.
Either way, it is certainly true that Nikon has made significant improvements to the D7000's contrast-detection AF system compared to its predecessors, and we're confident that the D7000 offers the fastest CD-AF of any current Nikon DSLR. It is also worth noting that its CD-AF is noticeably faster than the Canon EOS 60D.