Love doing the research and looking at all the different permutations of what's available out in the market. While I was mulling over full frame bodies from Nikon, Sony and Canon yesterday I ventured over to look at the sensor scores for each camera at DXOmark.com. DXO tests sensors and while some people think that the test scores don't always correlate with visual reality I've found them to be pretty spot on in terms of what I'm seeing with various cameras.
While comparing different cameras I had the disquieting thought (occasioned by the list) that there might actually be something in the APS-C range that tested close to what some of the FF cameras deliver. I started looking at the descending order of wonderfulness as it related to sensors and I was pretty amazed to find one or two APS-C cameras that really stuck out. Of these the camera that seemed most correspondent to my needs was the Nikon D7100. Now, I know I started yesterday's column with the premise that the only reason to buy a full frame camera would be to use the 85mm to 105mm lens range as it was intended to be used when it came to depth of field, depth of focus decay and angle of view.
The reality is that I'm doing fine with the M4:3 cameras and recently had a lovely shoot with great results using a Samsung NX30 camera and the NX 85mm 1.4 lens in a manner than made the system look great. The portrait assignment was with 12 different people at outdoor locations where shallow focus was part of the assignment. We shot in open shade and mostly with apertures at f2.0 to f2.8 and shutter speeds in the 1/320th range. The lens is magnificent. I wish I could adapt it to every camera I own....
But when I looked at the DXO numbers for the various cameras I was struck by the fact that the Nikon D7100, using a brand new Toshiba sensor, was a cool 83 score. Almost ten points ahead of my GH4 and almost on par with the Canon 6D. The score also places the 7100 only one point under the current Leica M. The score of 83 is close enough to the Sony a99 and Sony a7S cameras (both in the high 80's) that the differences become minute.
This led me to do a more thorough researching of the camera and as I continued reading I became more and more excited about what I'd found. First of all the 7100 does away with the anti-aliasing filter over the Toshiba chip and ends up yielding possibly the sharpest and most detailed APS-C sensor implementation on the market right now. If you need endless detail coupled with high sharpness and you aren't in the high dollar market for cameras this is the ultimate machine.
I also wanted to know how it would play with my collection of older Nikkor lenses. The bottom line is that it's the least expensive, new Nikon camera body that has a built-in focus motor which makes it compatible with all AF Nikon lenses. It also is capable of mounting and shooting, with full matrix metering, any of the Nikkor Ais or AI lenses. You must set the focal length and the maximum f-stop but once you do that (and you can save the setting in memory) the camera is ready to rock. Finally, there is a digital rangefinder built in, a la the Nikon F4, that shows you which side of sharp focus you are on with your manual lenses and when you've hit the sweet spot. Very nice-----if it works as advertised.
So, lots of sharpness and detail, class leading dynamic range, lots of "legacy" lens helpers, lots of resolution, and a good long battery life. It all sounded good to me but I thought, in the interest of buying science, that I should investigate what Canon has to offer in the same model range. The short answer? Not much. Seems like every camera in their APS-C line is using the same 18 megapixel sensor that's been in the stable for the last four or five years. Not a single Canon APS-C camera crests the 80 line in DXO and most fall down badly in dynamic range. None of them are anywhere near the level of sharpness now being delivered by pretty much the entire new line up of AA-less sensored APS-C cameras from Nikon. It's a pretty stark difference.
Now, I have owned both the 7D and 60D a lot (having owned both) and found them to be well built cameras that were a pleasure to handle. And both of them (and pretty much any of the current 18 megapixel Rebels) will do a great job for 95% of the photo tasks to which they are set....but we left the realm of rationality in camera desire years ago. Now we're looking for cameras that will handle that last 5%, all the time. Doesn't make sense mathematically or financially but as avid photographers we left those credentials at the door long ago.
Okay. If this 7100 is all wonderful and glorious it must cost a fortune, right? Weeeeelllll--- no. It clocks in (naked of lens) at around $1100 brand spanking new. A tiny little more than half of what we set our ultimate budget to in our hypothetical full frame camera quest yesterday. That means we'd still have cash left over for Frappucinos or college funds...
I'm sure none of you grizzled pros believe in unicorns so let's rush in here and do some bubble bursting. The number one fault, according to a little over half of the VSL readers might be this: The camera doesn't accept Canon lenses. The second fault (more grievous) is that the quality of video coming out of the camera sucks hard. Same soft video we seem to get from most Nikon cameras. The third fault is a bit of a skimpy buffer which means fast cards are a must! And the final fault is that there are some reported operational issues with live view.
If there is an ultimate and long term deal killer it has to be this: The camera uses one of those old fashion, optical viewfinders. Yuck.
All of a sudden I see a dark horse stumbling into the race between my previous three candidates---and at such an affordable price point. If only there was a way to prevent system creep....
Or you could ignore all this equipment strum und drang and just curl up on the couch with my devastatingly good novel, The Lisbon Portolio, and spend a couple of days following the adventures of our photo hero, Henry White. Might be a lot more rewarding for both of us than spending more time on DXO. Or at the camera Store.