Frequent visitors to this blog know that I rarely review camera gear. In fact, most of the 500-plus posts on my site fall into one of two general categories… the process of seeing or the biology of what is seen. While I’m not known for reviews, there are times when I feel compelled to share my thoughts about a piece of photographic equipment. Prompted by the dearth of field reports on the Nikon D7200, the following might be useful to those contemplating its purchase.
For the sake of some background, readers need to know that I am a fairly recent convert to Nikon DSLR’s. Having been a shooter since the film era, most of my digital work has been with Canon cameras. In September 2014, I had the opportunity to acquire a Nikon 200-400mm f4.0 VR at an incredible price, and used this as justification for switching brands. Prior to moving to Nikon, my primary wildlife kit included a Canon 1D MkIII or Canon 7D paired with a Canon 300mm f2.8L IS and converters. The combination of this gear served me well throughout the United States, Canada, Central America and Africa. My decision to change systems was solely based on a desire to work without tele-converters and gain the flexibility that a high-end “super-tele zoom” could offer.
The transition from Canon to Nikon for landscape work was surprisingly smooth. Trading a Canon 5D MkIII for a Nikon D800E was a win, as the Nikon has more resolution and a wider dynamic range. Having spent most of the equity in my Canon gear on lenses and the D800E, relatively little was left for the purchase of a high-end wildlife camera. For the better part of eight months, my wildlife photography was done with a pair of 12MP D300’s. Revolutionary at the time of its introduction in 2007, the D300 now seems somewhat primitive with respect to modern DSLR’s. Although the build and frame rate of the D300 and D300s make these cameras relevant in 2015, the relatively shallow dynamic range, low sensor resolution and high ISO noise are sources of angst for wildlife photographers seeking a Nikon DX (crop) camera option. In May 2015, I decided to give up the rugged build and fast frame rate of my D300’s in favor of a smaller and less robust “prosumer” camera.
Enter the Nikon D7200 - The Good
Rather than a review, mine is a wildlife photographer’s reflection on the D7200’s strengths and weaknesses when pursuing active subjects. If you are interested in a list of specifications, new features and the function of buttons, I suggest you follow one of these links: review by dpreview or review by Thom Hogan.
In mid May I traded two D300’s towards Nikon’s latest DX offering with an equal mix of pro and consumer features. Designed around a Sony 24mp sensor, I knew that the dynamic range and relatively low high-ISO noise of the D7200 would best my prior Nikon wildlife cameras. The need to move and bin 24mp files was a serious problem for Nikon’s prior model (D7100), which famously had a very shallow buffer. Now that I’ve use my D7200 to photograph flying birds, aquatic mammals and rainforest wildlife, I can safely say that the D7200’s buffer is capable of holding and moving files rapidly enough to photograph active subjects. In nearly three months of fairly heavy shooting, I have only hit the buffer limit on two occasions. By relying on high speed and modern SD cards, the D7200 matches the processing speed of my prior D300 bodies.
The autofocus performance and accuracy is a definite upgrade from the Nikon D300. Like the D300 and other professional Nikon bodies, there are 51 AF points that stretch across most of the viewfinder. With so many autofocus points, I have little difficulty placing an AF target on the spot that meets my compositional goals. The AF system is fast and accurate, especially when set to Autofocus Continuous Single-point mode (AFC-S). For moving subjects like flying birds or running animals, I will I set the camera to AFC-S, and use the joystick on the back of the body to follow my subject. Whenever I am faced with an erratically moving animal like the elegant tern pictured below, I’ll migrate from AFC-S to AFC-9. By doing this, the autofocus system uses nine autofocus points in a 3x3 grid to maintain critical focus. While this sounds useful in theory, I rarely shoot in expanded AF mode because the focusing speed slows and critical focus is easily lost. In expanded AFC-mode, the user selects a specific target with one AF point, and the surrounding eight points assist to maintain focus. If the chosen point drops off, one the surrounding eight points re-establishes focus on the subject. Unfortunately, those surrounding points might lock onto a wingtip, beak or whisker rather than the eye that was originally selected. It is not until you begin your edits on a computer will you realize that most of your images are not as sharp as you expected. Admittedly, the deliberate decision to rely on a single AF bracket results in some missed opportunities, however my in-focus rate increases dramatically by shooting in this more conservative and less automated manner. To summarize, when shooting in AFC-S (single point continuous autofocus) mode, the camera readily locks onto a moving target and maintains focus at the cameras maximum frame rate as long as the autofocus bracket is accurately placed on the intended target.
The sensor in the D7200 has exceeded my expectations for resolution, noise control and dynamic range. When compared to the D300, the seven-plus years of technological improvements are quite clear. The D7200 produces detailed pictures due of its 24 megapixels packed into a 1.5 times (DX) cropped area. The result of this high-resolution cropped sensor is many more pixels per feather than the D300. These resolution gains allow for flexible cropping and greater compositional control. Comparing this sensor to the one in the D300 seems unfair. Both the dynamic range and relatively noise-free images allow me to comfortably shoot between ISO 100 and 800 without substantially degrading the image. Usable at ISO’s of 1600 to 3200, the D7200 produces high ISO photographs that clean up nicely with just a bit of noise control. The latter is in stark contrast to the D300, where I find that any image shot beyond ISO 400 was unacceptable due to noise which causes the image to degrade substantially. When compared to the Canon 7D’s that I once used, the key difference is the absence of pattern noise. The 7D always had difficulties with blue skies, blacks and fog. When photographing animals against a reduced color palate, bands of noise and unnatural splotches were common artifacts in my files. The Nikon D7200 has far better noise control at high and low iso than did my Canon body, all of which allows for more flexible shooting, as well as processing in underexposed regions of an image. To me, the sensor improvements alone are enough to justify my purchase of this camera.
The Nikon D7200 - The Bad
All is not ice-cream and candy with the D7200. In many ways, the camera is a placebo for what many Nikon wildlife photographers want… a D400. As it stands, given the opportunity, there would be a small army of us who would gladly adopt a Canon 7D MkII if it were made with a Nikon mount. Where the 7D MkII is a clear replacement for the original 7D, the same cannot be said for the Nikon D7200 when compared to the D300. Ad a wildlife photographer, there are two downgrades in the D7200 that directly impact me in the field. The D300 has a robust weather sealed body that follows the design ethos of Nikon’s professional cameras. Picking up the D300 feels good in the hands and its mass balances nicely when mounted to a high-end telephoto lenses. Changing ISO, white-balance and shooting modes on the D300 is essentially the same as on my D800E. In contrast, I often find myself fumbling or looking through menus to make these same basic changes on the D7200. Furthermore, the D7200 feels light in the hand, lacks a deep grip and does not balance well on my ball head or gimbal when mounted to the 200-400mm f4.0 VR. While I do not have the confidence that the D7200 can withstand the abuse of a D300, I do know that it performed well in the humid and often heavy rains of Costa Rica. At one point, I was stuck in a downpour and did not cover the camera or lens adequately. As the rain pounded on the body, I did what I could to shield vulnerable spots. The D7200 survived the experience and was ready to use in spite of the rain. So, while it might not be as weather tight as a D300, so far, the camera’s weather seals appear to be adequate.
My second key concern with the D7200 is related to its frame rate. The camera has the ability to shoot five 14-bit images per second (5 fps) or six 12-bit images per second (6 fps). When compared to the D300s, my current body body has a slower frame rate. Using the D300s with an MB-D12 grip and the high performance/high capacity EN-EL4(a) battery, this 6 year-old camera still manages to shoot eight 12-bit images per second (8fps). This difference in frame rate can be substantial if you are hoping to photograph the nuances of a subject. A burst of 8fps creates the opportunity to catch a bird landing on its nest with the feathers displayed just right, or a brief expression that might be otherwise lost when the frame rate is slower.
The Nikon D7200 - The Ugly
There is not much “ugliness” to the D7200, however there is a characteristic in the autofocus system that is a source of great frustration. To be clear, I am not sure that Nikon produces a camera that would resolve my issue, but after 25+ years of autofocus technology, the solution should not be unobtainable. Specifically, I find that the D7200 and other Nikon bodies have a high AF-failure rate when photographing low-contrast subjects. Because most wildlife is active at dawn and dusk, low-contrast conditions is much of what I see. When trying to lock onto a dark eye against relative dark fur, as in the beaver pictured below, the autofocus failure rate is very high. In fact, a careful look at my files will reveal that less than one-half of the images meet my sharpness criteria. The inability to lock-on or maintain critical focus of moving subjects under these conditions just drives me crazy!
The Nikon D7200 - The Bottom Line
As I survey the landscape of Nikon cameras that could meet my needs, most fall short in one way or another. I am a “simple kit” guy with a fairly limited budget. Buying the Nikon 200-400mm f4.0 VR was a stretch for me. With a maximum aperture of f4.0 and focal length of 400mm, this lens is the most affordable long fast glass available for the Nikon system. The Nikon 500mm and 600mm lenses are out of budget, while the Tamron or Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3 lenses are too slow for my needs when extended to 400mm and beyond. My solution to these limitations is the use of a high resolution crop sensor camera. As a result, the faster full-framed Nikon D700, D3, D3s, D4 and D750 are unsuitable bodies that would require extensive cropping to meet my compositional goals. Because of these limitations and the lack of a modern high-end crop body (like the mythical D400), the Nikon D7200 provides the image quality that I am seeking with just enough speed to meet my wildlife photograph objectives.
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