My friend Herman asked earlier today about potentially switching from Canon to Nikon, and what model might make an appropriate replacement for his current 30D. Apparently there was a spectacular (sounded too good to be true) deal on a D7000 kit valid till the end of the day Thursday, but he had to run before we finished the discussion. But in case he’s not already the proud new owner of a D7000, I’ll share a few thoughts – also because I know quite a few others with D90s, with whom I’ve had this discussion!
Like me, Herman is definitively in the amateur category (although having seen “amateur photographers” organize dedicated photo trips, either Thom’s term ‘consumer’ or perhaps even ‘non-photographer’ would be more appropriate – more on that later). In particular, he’s going to mainly be capturing memories of places he goes and things he does with his family, not trying to make a living some day through photography. Still, this is a significant enough want for him that spending over $1,000 on a camera body is in the realm of possibility.
Now, I can’t comment on any offering other than Nikon (and I’m sure there are good choices from other brands), but let’s consider which Nikon DSLRs might be a fit. First, we can quickly throw out those that aren’t:
- D3100 – well received, but ergonomically it’d be a step down from the 30D, and lack of an AF motor prevents use of some of the lenses that Herman is interested in.
- D5000 – aging and due for a replacement, it’s probably not a great pick right now and also lacks the focus motor.
- D300s – for non-photographers, I just can’t see any reason to get the bigger, heavier, more expensive D300s over the D7000 at this point. It’s faster shooting speed, better weather sealing, and other particular pro features just won’t see that much use by non-photographers.
- D3s/D3x – prohibitive size, weight, and perhaps most importantly, cost. I’m sure they’re great cameras!
That leaves three cameras in the current lineup – the D90, D7000, and D700. Conveniently, I’ve used all three, even though my time with the D700 was the most limited.
The D700 is a fantastic camera; you’re at the threshold of being able to call yourself a non-photographer when using one, but in my opinion it produced the best images under a given set of conditions (often less-than-ideal light levels) of the cameras I’ve owned, and I’d recommend it to anyone. I bought mine used for around $2,000, and have seen a few for less than that; the gap between $1200 + tax (for the D7000) and $1800 for a used D700 is not that huge. Still, it’s price (and size) make it tough to recommend for most people until they’re really sure they’re going to make good use of the equipment. This is especially true because full frame lenses for the D700 cost a fortune. But if money were totally no object, it’d be worth considering.
Now we’re down to the title of the post, D90 vs. D7000. Lots of photography sites run down the difference in specs and features; for instance, the excellent D7000 review at dpreview.com does a good job of highlighting the differences between both cameras. What might be less obvious is which of these actually matter to the non-photographer; here’s my take:
- More resolution (16MP vs. 12MP). Perhaps a headline feature, but in reality, makes a minimal difference. A D7000 image is 4928 pixels across; a D90 is 4288 pixels across. In practice, I don’t notice the difference except perhaps with extreme crops.
- More auto-focus points (39 vs. 11). The D7000 is definitely better at auto-focus (and the D90 wasn’t bad), but oddly enough I still usually use single-point AF and recompose, so no big deal for me. But I think most fellow non-photographers will find this to be a real upgrade. AF fine tune (on the D7000, but not the D90) could also be a life-saver if you have a lens that consistently front/back focuses on your camera.
- Base ISO of 100 (vs. 200 on the D90). Wow! When you’ve got enough light to actually shoot at ISO 100, it looks really awesome as the images are really clean. I completely underestimated the significance of this. You can really recover from under-exposure when shooting at ISO 100. When I first got the camera and was taking useless shots to try it out, this shot convinced me – though you’ll need to click for the bigger version and zoom in on the eyelashes to see why (note: limited depth-of-field at f/3.5 limits sharpness elsewhere, and warning, the original image is huge!):
- Better high ISO. It’s not quite a full stop better – but let’s face it, good quality at higher ISOs is *the* reason for most non-photographers to get a DSLR in the first place. Compact cameras are often fine out in the sunshine, but your family is usually indoors as are your gatherings, birthday parties, and various other things that the non-photographer wants to take pictures of. People also don’t hold still like landscapes or models, and we don’t lug tripods around, so decent shutter speeds are needed. Indeed, high ISO is probably more important to the non-photographer than to most pros (those that aren’t doing indoor sports, concerts, weddings, or other low-light events). For me, ISO 800 was the limit on my D90, until Lightroom 3 noise reduction came along and bumped that to ISO 1600. By default, I use auto-ISO up to ISO 3200 on the D7000 – so it is effectively a stop higher for me. It’s no D700 at ISO 3200, but it’s good enough for shots you otherwise wouldn’t get. And even though you can see some visible noise in the output, it’s less blotchy and annoying than the D90 (in my opinion). Here’s a recent ISO 3200 example:
- Better manual focus. The D90 works with manual focus lenses, but can’t meter with many of them, and can’t input data for non-CPU lenses. The D7000 not only meters, but has a three-segment focus indicator which *really* helps; I talked about this in an earlier post. Most non-photographers won’t care about this – and I admit, it was nice to play with this but I don’t actively shoot with manual lenses. It’s nice to have that freedom, though, and I really liked the ones I tried.
- Dual memory card slots. I’m paranoid about data loss (whether uncontrollable or caused by my own errors), so I love this feature, because the two slots can be used in backup mode.
- Better video (1080p H.264 vs. 720p MJPEG). The D90 was occasionally interesting but mostly unusable for video. The D7000 isn’t great, but it is much better. First, it has an external mic slot that the D90 lacked, which is mandatory if you want decent sound. Second, it records 1080p with a better codec. Third, it does have AF during recording, but it’s still not very good. Honestly, I don’t care that much about video, an HD camcorder from two or three years ago still performs better in most respects (unless you want to get creative).
- Built-in intervalometer. I’ve yet to use this, and I think most fellow non-photographers will rarely use it too. But, during an amazing lightning storm when I had the D90, I really wished I had this, because I was clicking the shutter manually to get about 300 shots, hoping for one that worked. I’m way too lazy to try and do a time lapse with this.
- 100% viewfinder. Surprisingly nice; now you really can see when vignetting occurs (with some hoods or filters), and you really know what’s in the frame or not.
- 1000+ shot battery. The D90 wasn’t too bad, doing 500+ shots on a single charge, but the D7000 is just amazing in this respect. I haven’t even bought an extra battery yet. When you see the warning indicator, you have something like 200 shots left, which is more than I’d usually shoot in a day! It’s nice not having to bring extra batteries or a charger on many trips!
After such a long list of things I really like about the D7000 over the D90, you’d think at this point in time I might say it’s a no-brainer to go with the D7000. And in one of two cases, it might be:
- Money is truly no object. For some non-photographers, even if you had an infinite amount of money the D7000 might be the optimal choice, as it’s the best available DX camera and much lighter than a full-frame setup.
- You already have all the lenses and accessories you want. Perhaps you wisely got a D40 years ago and all your subsequent money went into a nice set of lenses. In that case, if you can spring for the D7000 over the D90, there’s a lot to like.
However, few people fall into either of the above categories, and that makes things a lot more complicated. A used D90 is $600; there aren’t many used D7000s, and a new one costs $1200+tax so it’s a $700+ difference. That’s enough for a decent telephoto zoom like the 70-300 VR, a nicer general purpose zoom like the 16-85mm or 18-200mm, and even comes close to some specialized things like the 105mm f/2.8 VR macro lens, the 10-24mm DX ultra-wide, or a used 85/1.4 portrait lens. Indoors, a D90 with an extra 35 f/1.8 for low light and a SB-700 flash will do a lot better than a D7000 with the kit-lens and pop-up flash. So if you’re buying a whole Nikon kit on a fixed budget, I’d actually recommend the D90 with better lenses/accessories over the D7000 and skimping on lenses.
For me, I had a set of lenses and accessories that I was already very happy with (this page has a list of my stuff), and I take enough pictures every year that the upgrade to the D7000 seemed worthwhile. Now that I’ve used the D7000 for a while, I’m really glad that I did, and found more to like than I had anticipated. But every situation is unique – and in many cases the D90 really is a great choice if it means you have cash left over for lenses. Both are great cameras and either way, you’ll definitely be happy.