Overall Performance

The Nikon D7100 is a very responsive camera, whether you're navigating through menu screens, zooming in and out of live view previews or using the command dials to change shooting parameters. Furthermore, its wealth of external controls can greatly limit the time you spend in the camera's voluminous menu system. To take advantage of this efficiency though, you'll need to spend some time at the outset configuring the camera's extensive array of custom settings to your liking.

If the D7100 is powered-up with the shutter button held down in manual focus mode, exposure is essentially instant, meaning that the only thing potentially in the way of capturing 'decisive moments' is AF acquisition. Overall unless you'll be doing a lot of shooting in burst mode, which we'll discuss below, the D7100 is ready to shoot when you are. The camera features dual SD card slots and you can configure the secondary card slot as overflow (default) or duplicate storage. When shooting in RAW+JPEG mode, you can also dedicate one card slot to each file format.

Continuous Shooting and Buffering

The D7100 offers two basic burst modes, with a number of options that can dramatically influence performance. A Continuous Low (CL) option is available that can be configured between 1-6 fps. Continuous High is always set to the camera's maximum shooting rate. In the default DX mode, the D7100 is spec'd at a 6 fps maximum. Switch the camera to its 1.3x crop mode (which because this is an APS-C sensor yields a 2x crop compared to full frame 35mm output) though and the D7100 can shoot at 7 fps while yielding a quite usable 15MP file.

As you'll see in the tables that follow, the number of images you can shoot with the D7100 before filling its buffer varies according to the crop size and, to an even larger degree, the image quality settings. And if you shoot action and sports, understanding the ramifications of these settings will go a long way towards getting the most out of the camera. When examining these numbers, keep in mind that you can still shoot single images as well as access all of the camera menus and shooting options - though curiously not the 'i' button screen - while data is being written to the card.

For the timing tests below we used a Sandisk Extreme Pro 8GB Class 10 SD card (95MB/s). Active D-Lighting and lens distortion correction were disabled. JPEG compression was set to 'Optimal quality'. Raw file output was set to the camera's default 14-bit, lossless compression settings.

DX Mode (24MP): Continuous Hi

JPEG Large/Fine
Raw+JPEG Fine
Frame rate 5.9 fps max 5.9 fps max 5.9 fps max
Burst capacity 50 images 6 images 5 images
Buffer full rate 4 fps 2.7 fps 1 fps
Write complete 33 sec. 5 sec. 5 sec.

1.3x crop mode (15MP): Continuous Hi

JPEG Large/Fine
Raw+JPEG Fine
Frame rate 7 fps 7 fps 7 fps
Burst capacity 100 images 7 images 6 images
Buffer full rate n/a 3.5 fps 2 fps
Write complete 1 min. 5 sec. 5 sec.

In DX mode, the maximum frame rate of the D7100 essentially matches that of its predecessor, the D7000. This is no small feat, as the D7100 is pushing out 24MP files versus the 16MP images of the previous model. We did find that the maximum 5.9 fps we measured was not achieved consistently throughout the burst, as times averaged between 5 and 5.5 fps.

In our tests, shooting JPEGs in 1.3x crop mode lets you maintain the maximum 7 fps rate the entire time your finger is on the shutter button. The 100-frame limitation is simply to prevent heat buildup.

In RAW mode on the other hand, the D7100 has a noticeably limited buffer capacity compared not only to its predecessor but to Nikon's full frame 24MP D600 and 36MP D800 models. Shooting in RAW or RAW+JPEG mode restricts you to a burst of only 5-6 images before the rate drops to a level insufficient for even casual action shots. For anyone using the D7100 to catch critical moments of fast moving athletes or vehicles, shooting in JPEG-only mode is, for all practical purposes the only feasible option - something that won't be all that surprising to sports and action photographers.

Continuous Lo at 3 fps: DX mode

The D7100 gives you the option of specifying the maximum frame rate when the camera dial is set to Continuous Lo drive mode. Interestingly, it can be set between 1 and 6 fps , omitting only the top rate for Continuous Hi in 1.3x crop mode. The table below shows results at the camera's default setting of 3 fps.

JPEG Large/Fine
Raw+JPEG Fine
Frame rate 2.9 fps 2.9 fps 2.9 fps
Burst capacity 100 images 100 images 5 images
Buffer full rate n/a 2.5 to 2.9 fps 1 fps
Write complete 1 min. 1 min., 2 sec. 5 sec.

As the numbers show, the only real benefit of shooting at a slower frame rate is that it allows longer shooting bursts at maximum speed when shooting in JPEG or Raw mode. With the camera set to Raw+JPEG, the burst rate is just as limited as when shooting in DX mode.

Autofocus area

One of our criticisms of the AF arrays of the D600 and D800 was that on those full frame sensors, the coverage area occupied a relatively small central area of the image area. On the APS-C D7100, Nikon's Multi-CAM 3500DX autofocus sensor module (nominally the same unit found in the D300s, although there are specification differences - for example the D7100's AF is rated down to -2EV, as opposed to -1EV) provides 51 AF points which cover a much wider proportion of the frame.

And that's just the start. Set the camera to its 1.3x crop mode and the AF array then covers a large majority of the entire frame, as you can see in the example below. Combine that with a 7 fps burst mode and AF tracking technology inherited from the pro spec'd D4 and there's a lot to like for hobbyist sports shooters.

DX mode (24MP) 1.3x crop mode (15MP)

In the rollover above, you can compare the difference in AF coverage with the camera set to its default DX mode and then with the 1.3x crop option which puts the majority of the image area within range of the AF points. In the 1.3x crop mode the D7100 delivers a 15MP image.

The D7100, like the full frame D800 and flagship D4 has an impressive focus sensitivity down to -2 EV, besting that of the the D7000 and D600 by a full stop. In practice, this means that you can acquire focus without a lot of hunting in low light scenarios like stage photography and nighttime street shooting. As you'd expect, the center-most AF points can outperform those at the edges in acquiring focus in low light, but with the extra stop of sensitivity, we find this to be less of an issue than we reported in our D600 review. The Canon EOS 6D and Pentax K-5 II/IIs still share the low-light AF crown with their -3 EV sensitivity rating. But for Nikon shooters, this is currently as good as it gets.

Autofocus performance

In terms of autofocus performance, the D7100 is very much a tale of two cities. On one hand it inherits the 51-point AF system of the flagship D4, with 15 cross-type sensors and a focus sensitivity limit of -2 EV. These are attention-grabbing specs on a camera in this price range. The D7100 also shoots at a respectable 6 fps in DX mode. Add to this the ability to switch to a 1.3x crop mode which, as illustrated above, allows the AF array to cover almost the entire frame and pushes the camera to a 7fps burst speed.

And as the table below illustrates, the D7100 can utilize the center-most 15 AF points with a lens whose maximum aperture is only F5.6. You could also put a 2x teleconverter on a lens like the very good AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm F4G ED VR and the D7100 could still use its center focus point at the F8 equivalent maximum aperture this combo would produce.

Maximum aperture F5.6 lens focus points Maximum aperture F8 lens focus point

For dedicated sports and action shooters, however, this is all tempered by the D7100's paltry buffer size in RAW/RAW+JPEG capture mode. A 6fps shooting rate becomes less appealing if you can only fire off 5-6 images in a single burst before waiting for image data to be off-loaded to the SD card. And that's the issue you'll be facing if you shoot in either Raw-enabled mode. Put simply, if you're going to be shooting sports you're essentially forced to shoot JPEG only.

While many action photographers may still reflexively reach for JPEG mode when shooting bursts, one of the more compelling features of a camera like the Canon EOS 7D or certainly the pro-level EOS 1D X, is the ability to shoot in a Raw-enabled mode and still be able to fire off an acceptably high number of frames. Make no mistake, in JPEG-only mode the D7100 can be a brisk performer, but you will need to carefully consider white balance, color and noise-reduction settings, before you begin shooting.

This limitation aside, the AF system itself works very well. Focus acquisition is very brisk and the predictive tracking modes, while not offering a 100% hit rate, have in our time shooting with the camera returned more than a fair share of acceptably focused shots in every burst, under both indoor and outdoor lighting conditions.

ISO 3200, F4 1/800 sec., 1.3x crop mode ISO 4000, F4 1/800 sec., 1.3x crop mode
100% crop, NR off 100% crop, NR off

The images above were shot in an indoor arena using the Nikkor 70-200mm F4 lens with continuous AF enabled and the camera set to its 21 point dynamic AF mode. The D7100's 1.3x crop mode was used as this allowed for a tighter in-camera crop and thus significantly greater scene coverage for the AF array. The D7100 was able to acquire focus very quickly whether using the center or outermost AF points.

In an effort to pull as much detail as possible form the JPEGs, the camera was set to NR off. This doesn't completely disable noise reduction, as the D7100 will always apply NR at ISOs of 1250 and higher, regardless of the user setting. This baked-in suppression is, however, less aggressive than the user-selectable NR Low setting.