Sunday, August 6, 2017

Nikon D7500 Review and Buyer's Guide

A little bit of old, a little bit of new. The Nikon D7500 with hte AF-D 50mm f/1.4.

The usual logic of DSLR upgrades is to wait at least two generations before upgrading if value for money is the main consideration. As such, there is an easy case to not upgrade to the Nikon D7500 if you already own a D7200. In fact, there is a solid case to still go for the older camera in 2017, as the D7500 isn't so much of an up-grade as it is a side-grade. In years past, Nikon came out with the metal-bodied semi-pro version of their serious DX bodies first, then the lighter enthusiast-grade plastic bodies later. The business sense behind this is that cameras like the D100,  D200 and D300 bring in more margin by virtue of the higher price point and the fact that users of these cameras tend to be willing to by that the start of the model life-cycle without the benefit of instant rebates or discounting. Once the sensor generation was established, the platform gets migrated to the broader D70/D80/D90 level where sales volume takes over.

That was a predictable pattern until the D7000, which split the difference between the enthusiast and semi-pro levels. While many waited (not so) patiently for the D400 (eventually to arrive as the D500), the D7xxx series became the unified face of serious enthusiast and semi-pro, and did so credibly. Even if they weren't as rugged as the D300, the D7000 and it's successors were nonetheless more capable by the sheer fact that time had moved on, and along with it the underlying technology.

During this time Nikon did everything it could to steer what used to be D300 users up to full frame; from the ill-fated D600 up to the well-rounded D750. However, there is only so much money to go around, and only so much of it that can be spent on full frame. Nikon's commercial viability depends the enthusiast/semi-pro class of DSLR's, as this is a large portion of their total sales volume.

So is the D7500 the step-down of the D500? Yes, very much so... but just as the D7000 broke the predictable 1-2 roll-out pattern, the D7500 is yet another fork in the product pathway for Nikon.
 
If these were days of old, the D7500 would be the straight-up consumer-grade version of the D500, and the D7200 would be relegated to the "previous generation" bin. Eventually that will be true, but for the first year of the D7500 the older cameras will sell beside it as its contemporary step-down. If you think the D7200 looks like a great deal now... well, that's by design. Even though it hasn't shipped there as a certain level of negativity on the net regarding the D7500, most of it ill-informed. This is most certainly not the "step-up" to the D5600. Don't kid yourselves; in a year's time when supply of the D7200 winds down, the D7500 will most certainly slot in as the de facto camera under the D500. One way you amortize the cost of the D500 is by spreading its production cost  across a related line, just as in the Pro-Dx/enthusiast-DX days before; for the line to make any sense from a an economic stand point, the 20.9MP sensor ought to find a home in the larger volume enthusiast class. The D500 is a year on the market; all of the early adopters have gotten one, manufacturer rebates will start kicking in reducing its profit margin.... time for the unit volume play. 

Changes Between the D7200 and the D7500 That Matter Less



Shorter Battery Life

Battery life has dropped from  1100 shots in the D7200 to 950 in the D7500 (CIPA rated). This is a minor step back, as it still puts it on par with D7100, and still  better than the Canon 7D Mark II (670), and substantially more than the A6500 or X-T2. While being able to cross 1000 shots CIPA per charge was a nice bragging right, few causal users will reach that many shots in one go (bird-in flight and event photographers not-withstanding)


No Metal Frame

The D7500 uses a carbon-fibre frame/shell construction, much like the D5600 and the D5500. This really isn't that much of a detraction for this class of camera. Despite the forum Luddites rumbling about how "plastic" it is, we stopped using metal for tennis racquets and skis ages ago. Even the D500 isn't a full metal shell like the D300, only the top and back use a magnesium alloy frame. Composites are lighter and can be engineered to be more shock-resistant than their metal counterparts. (This was sometimes a problem with the D800, as dead-on strikes transmitted from the lens through the front of the camera could result in damage at the back of the camera near the LCD assembly.) If you use a D7200 back to back with the D7500, it's not that the D7500 feels less sturdy, it's that the D7200 feels bulkier.


Less Megapixels

One might be tempted to label the D7200 the "landscape" camera and the the D7500 the action specialist. The difference of 4 megapixels is a 14% difference in terms of total number of pixels, but only a 7% difference in terms of actual linear resolution.  To put that in perspective, most people would struggle to pick out a 10% difference in resolution with pictures presented side-by-side. Put in another way, 20.9 MP is still enough resolution to print at 13" x 19" with an enthusiast photo printer like the Canon Pro-100 with a reasonable quality file. This is more than enough resolution for any serious hobbyist and most general-purpose event shooters. If you need more resolution than this, you don't need the modest bump  from 20.9 to 24 megapixels to make an appreciable difference, you need to jump to at least 36MP (D810) or more to actually make it worth the while.

ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/250s

Like the D500 and the D7200, the sensor does not have a low-pass optical filter. This is now the expected norm for high-end APS-C. If you are coming from the D7000 or older, don't expect miracles of sharpness. What you will find is that if you nail the focus, you hardly need to do any sharpening at all compared to an older camera.

ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/250s


Base Dynamic Range

Like the D500, the D7500 has a tad bit less dynamic range at base ISO than the D7200. It's not enough to matter in real life, as it is still near the top of the APS-C pack and most people add in a fair dose of contrast after the fact in post (or tune their cameras that way), which takes away dynamic range anyway.

ISO 100, 1/250s, f/6.3, shooting upstream into the afternoon sun.

Once again, if dynamic range is your thing, the incremental differences between the top APS-C cameras won't amount to much real-world impact on your shooting. You need to go up to full frame for there to be a meaningful difference.

ISO 100, 1/80s, F/5.6

Image Noise

Ah, but bigger pixels means less noise I hear you say. Not necessarily. Less noise per pixel, yes, but but there is also the amount of signal relative to the noise. Since the D7200 takes in more information, the images are fairly comparable at mid/high ISO once you re-scale to the size of the D500/D7500. If anything, the smaller pixel output of the D500 sensor is more about reducing the amount of data per shot in order to achieve the blazing fast burst speeds that the D500 is capable of. For all real-world practical purposes the resolution output is roughly the same between the D500 sensor and the D7200; they are merely two different interpretations of what can work in this general space. What is different is the quality of the noise at higher ISO (1600 and up). Like the D500, there is less chroma noise than with the D7200, meaning that there is grain in high ISO shots, but the subjective quality of it is more pleasing than with the previous camera.... not by much but it is apparent if you view images side-by-side.

ISO 320, f/13, 6.6s

Put in a simple way: like the D7200 and the D500, the real world difference in image noise for the D7500 is roughly 1 stop worse than the D750. If you only compare it on JPEG terms, the difference is less than a stop with the Sony A7 Mark II, and if you compare it in overall terms, it's only 1/2 a stop behind the Canon EOS 6D. This is a point that's lost in the current discussion of Nikon's decline; they've always managed to get the most out of their sensors, no matter what the camera is.


Vertical Grip

As of launch, there is no vertical grip option for the D7500. This tells you a lot about how Nikon sees the sub-D500 space; as vertical grips and flashes seem to be ebbing away. Notice the term "vertical grip".... yes, these are traditionally extended battery chambers, but if you want more battery life, you simply carry more batteries. Vertical grips are useful but primarily benefit portrait shooters, and while at one time the D200 and D300 cameras were workhorses for weekend wedding shooters, those photographers have solidly moved on to full frame, if not 4k video with another brand.  Vertical grips are like speed lights; the sales of of which have also slowed down over time.

Offset Strap Lugs

Nikon de-contented the D7500 by using the Canon-style non-articulated strap lugs. Except for some unsightly bunching where the straps hook into the camera, there is significant difference between these and the traditional Nikon strap mounts before

With the AF-S 35mmf/1.8 DX. Please Nikon, make more DX primes.

The offset mounting points of the strap lugs appear to give the camera an unbalanced appearance, but in real world usage the camera essentially hangs vertical from your neck strap. The real crime is that the offset placement just plain looks odd.  In fact, your author prefers this kind of strap lug. The traditional Nikon articulated lugs tend to rattle. It's not much, but it does make you feel self-conscious when shooting during an event like a lecture or wedding service.

Snap Bridge (For Now)

Despite the market reception, there isn't anything fundamentally wrong with the concept of SnapBridge. However, it's biggest barrier to success is Nikon's historically weak implementation and maintenance of software and anything that isn't related to the hardcore optical guts of a camera. Though theoretically easier than the cumbersome process of pairing a camera by WiFi, the function of the file transfer and camera control is not particularly more advanced the than the rudimentary state of the older Nikon WiFi app era. The problem is not with design, but the implementation.

Only One SD Card Slot

This one has been a favourite for the for the detractors. Does it have one less card slot than the D7200? Yes. Did you actually use the second card slot? Be honest.... Herein lies the problem: if you only go by the DPReview crowd, then yes, everybody used the second slot and swears that it metaphorically saved their lives. This is, as the statisticians say, a self-selected sample. The vast majority of users functionally operated out of one card slot only, or if they used two, there wasn't a case where one would have equally sufficed.



Here's a question: How many card slots do the high-spec D810 and D500 have? The technically correct answer is two: one compact flash and one SD in the first case, and one XQD and one SD in the second. The practically correct answer is one: if you are serious about using those cameras, your storage needs would be primarily built around the CF or XQD formats, with the SD slot being a nice-to have. The unpopular answer is that yes, one is less than two, and more is better than less, but it is something that can be worked around with minor inconvenience.

Use as a Dedicated Video Device



Let's face it, if you are serious about video, you would likely be a Sony or Panasonic user, or a hold-over Canon user for the heydays of Magic Lantern. Her'es a nice surprise: the D7500 outputs competent 1080p video, which is primarily what casual hobbyists would use. The 4K video is decent quality, but hindered by a severe crop factor as it samples off a tight central portion of the sensor. Ther are better ways of shooting in 4K, but if you had to shoot in 4K with the D7500, the output would be ok after finding ways to work about the focal length challenge.

For all of the flak that Nikon has gotten about cost cutting, it's nice to see the headphone jack still in place. ("Better" video cameras like the Sony A6000 and the Panasonic G85 do not have headphone jacks for you to audibly monitor sound levels.) The downside is that the mic and headphone inputs aren't grouped together; it would have been so much more elegant to only have to open one flap during video shooting than both.

The electronic image stabilization works for static shots, but you will need to turn it off for anything that involves panning, as the firmware does not have anyway to compensate for camera motion. Attempt to pan during recording an you end up with a jerky stutter-step motion as the image stabilization grabs and re-sets during the pan.

Just like before, focus peaking is nowhere to be seen. This is an inexcusable omission; the camera is internally using some process to decide what is in focus and what isn't (high pass-filtering), visually displaying that process would be an extra small step. This is just a bizarre oversight; it would have already been overdue on the D7200; the lack of it on the D7500 is woefully behind the times.

Automatic AF Fine Tune

The D7500 inherits the auto AF fine-tune function from the D500. It's.... a start. You have to be extremely precise with your setup, as the results that you get aren't pin-point precise. If you repeat the procedure a number of times you will get a certain amount of variation in what the system thinks the adjustment factor should be. In fact, it's very possible to get complete outliers. Auto fine tune is good for emergencies when time is a factor but which you can have a proper setup (stable camera, high contrast target that is facing dead center).

Note: Auto fine tune seems to work with third-party lenses but but it doesn't seem to properly report that it is finished after you run the procedure. With a Nikon lens, the camera will tell you that it is finished, you then drop into the fine-tune menu and see the recorded adjustment value. With a third-party lens, the camera seems to skip the completion message, but if you go into the menu you will see that an adjustment value is recorded.

Things that Will Tend to Matter More



Lighter Weight

The lighter weight of the D7500 is a subtle but long-terms consideration. With the rise of capable serious-minded mirrorless cameras, the majority of users are looking to or have considered reducing the amount of gear that they carry. As a reminder, airline carry-on restrictions are not getting more permissive as the years go by. Anything that encourages you to pick up a camera more often than not is a good thing, as too many people leave their DSLR's behind when packing becomes an issue.

ISO 100, 1/800s, f/6.3

The Nikon faithful might not think of this as a light-weight day-camera in the same vein as the Fujiflm X-T2, but with a smaller lens set, it is exactly that. Once you drop the (justified) expectation that the D7500 is a D500-lite, it reminds you that the mid-range Nikon enthusiast cameras have always been capable all-arounders. This is a svelt camera that is dying for some appropriately-sized DX primes. (Insert Thom Hogan's "buzz buzz" comments here.)

Deeper Grip

Though late to the party, the D7500 brings with it the deeper handgrip style of the D5500/D5600 and the D750. Though Nikon's are usually comfortable to hold, most find the deeper recess more so. If your hands are of average size, then the D7200 is fairly easy to use and hold to begin with, but people of larger stature seem to appreciate the extra cutout. This works with light and medium weight lenses, but for heavier lenses the D500 is more comfortable still as the front lip on which your right middle finger hooks onto is very pronounced.


The position of the Fn1 button will be strange to some; it isn't that far off from where it was on the D7200, but the shape of the D7500 gri[p puts it right at the tip of your middle finger. Depending on the shape and length of your fingers you may like or dislike this. For average-sized hands, the tactile sensation of the button will be strange but easily adapted to. For others, it will be frustrating.


However, there is an ergonomic logic to it's placement. Forget back-button focusing, you can move the AF-ON function onto Fn1 and accomplish the same thing in what might be an ergonomically superior position.Think of how the bottom triggers on a Sony PS4 controller are placed in relation to the top buttons and you'll have a fair idea of how Fn1 works in conjunction with the shutter release from an ergonomics standpoint.

Faster Speed / Deeper Buffer 

This is ostensibly the headline reason of why you would want a D7500 over the D7200. The D500 is a rugged professional assignment camera; the lighter and smaller package of the D7500 is more consumer friendly, but the autofocus and shutter performance are clearly from the same family. Imaging a professional at the sideline of a sports game and now image a parent capturing their child's minor hockey game. That about sums up the difference... both are fast moving dynamic situations but the cameras are built to differing degrees of capability. The difference is that the D7500 pairs well with the AF-S 200-500mm, whereas the D500 handles an AF-S 500mm f/4 better.

ISO 640,  1/500s, f/6.3

Even if you don't think of yourself as an action shooter, the greater ability of the D7500 opens up more creative possibilities. Faster frame rate and improved autofcous means that you'd be able to capture more fleeting facial expressions in your candids that might have been missed before.

Tilt Touch Screen

It may come as a surprise to learn that Nikon has generally made good touch screen interface and the D7500 isn't an exception. Menu's scroll by quickly and smoothly, and the touch-to-focus/touch-shutter function is familiar from the D5500.


If anything, you may find yourself using the touchscreen more often than anticipated, as the direction pad feels undersized for its mission, and is placed a bit low for comfort. Bending your right thumb to reach the control pad means having to shift grip to accommodate; this is where the joystick nub as seen on the D500 is ergonomically superior. The touch menu is fairly intuitive to work out; if you know how the traditional Nikon menu works with the button controls, you'll get a hang of it using the touch screen. However, this is an adapted menu structure rather than a purpose designed one. Every menu item is active by touch, but the spacing of the items is a bit tighter than it should be for a truly native touch-screen experience. If you find the traditional control pad to be too small for comfort, the touchscreen is a viable alternative.

Buyer's Guide




If You Have a D7000

Coming from the D7000, the D7500 is a substantial upgrade. The high ISO image noise is cleaner and the colour rendition is better. The D7000 was extraordinarily clean for its time and stood the test of time, but past ISO 1600 the colours tended to take on a plastic-like quality. The switch to a OLPF-less sensor is also an improvement, though the benefit tends to be more during post processing.

If you are trying your hand at astrophotography, the D7500 is also an improvement. This isn't just because of improved image quality, but because the D7000 was one of the last Nikon's on the "old" method of sensor output where the black point was clipped. The newer Nikons after the D5300 are better at pulling out faint stars and deep sky objects (this is unrelated to the the famous Nikon "star eater" hot pixel suppression algorithm).

Undoubtedly, the primary reason to upgrade from the D7000 is the improved autofocus system. For whatever reason (probably due to the size of the physical AF sensor relative to the size of the indicator in the viewfinder), and deservedly or undeservedly, the D7000's 39 point AF system has a reputation of not being as precise as the 51-point system. Your author tends to agree, switching to the 51-point system takes away much of the missed-focus anxiety of the older camera.

If You Have a D7100

For casual users of the D7100, not upgrading is a perfectly valid option. The camera is competent and capable, but it is no longer cutting edge. The primary reason to upgrade from the D7100 is the low-level file quality; the D7100 was something of a letdown in this regards as it has higher amounts of low-level pattern noise than either the D7000 before it or the D7200 after. RAW files aren't as malleable as other Nikon cameras; maybe a 2-3 stop push is the comfort level, but you can even make out the pattern noise in deep shadows of well-exposed high contrast scenes.  Truth be told, the D7100 was never your author's favourite generation of DX cameras. It was an iterative step forward for it's time, but the pattern noise was a bit of a let-down compared to the D7000, and in the same way that the D810's many subtle changes added up to a meaningful improvement over the D800, so was the D7200 compared to the D7200.

If You Have a D7200

This one should be obvious; no compelling reason to upgrade. You are always better served by skipping at least one generation or moving up a sensor size; that hasn't changed. Functionally, the D7500 is an improvement, but it's an improvement at the extremes of use; slightly better subjective quality at high ISO, a little bit faster shooting, a bit better AF tracking (Group Mode is added), an improvement in metering difficult lighting conditions. Video shooting is still not great, but the file output is competent and things like image stabilization and the ability to shoot 4K (though with a high crop factor) are added benefits. In other words, the lack of dual card slots or a vertical grip option are not particularly credible reasons to not upgrade to the D7500, as the D7200 already obviously does everything so well. The issue is not one of de-contenting on the D7500 (of which there is ostensibly some), but of value for money when comparing back-to back generations of camera. If you have a D7200 and want to stay in the DX system, you are liking better served by upgrading your lens collection,

If You Have a D500 

Can the D7500 serve as a backup camera to a D500? Yes, absolutely. However, the hand position is different, and the control layout is the consumer mode-dial scheme instead of the D500's pro-style layout. If you work for a living, the cost difference from a D7500 to second D500 body is irrelevant compared to the fact that you could just switch bodies without having to make any mental adjustments with how you physically interact with the camera.

Note: Check the Nikon Professional Services (NPS) requirements in your country. As of summer 2017 in my home country, the the D500 is the only qualifying DX camera body for NPS Canada.

If You Want to Switch to Canon

There are two viable alternatives in the Canon world to the D7500.

Believe it or not, the 7D Mark II is not one of them. It is more rugged, has Dual-Pixel phase detection on-sensor focusing and a superbly soft high-speed shutter mechanism, but the majority of its benefits exist in the D500. You would want to switch if there was a lens in the Canon ecosystem that you needed, but if you have a full Nikon lens set, the D500 is the obvious alternative.

The first true alternative is the EOS 80D. In terms of of still image quality and action shooting, the D7500 is superior, but the 80D with the Canon on-sensor AF and fully-articulated LCD screen make for a better video platform. In other words, at least for 1080p shooting, the 80D is a more viable package. The only thing it is missing compared to the Nikon is 4K, but if you needed that you would be looking at either Panasonic or Sony.

The second Canon alternative is the EOS M5, which is basically an 80D in a mirrorless package. This a weak choice but deserves some mention as the EOS M series is clearly the future of the Canon APS-C lineup. The lens selection is mediocre as of 2017, but the potential is definitely there and Canon has made large strides with the EOS M5 and M6, which are large steps forward from the EOS M3 and its predecessors. D7500 users will likely not have the EOS M5 on their radar, but it does deserve some mention if you are cross-shopping against the EOS 80D.


If You are Looking at Mirrorless

The Fujifilm X-T2 is probably the nearest competitive alternative to the D7500 outside of the Nikon world. This is if you want something stills-centric, as the Sony A6500, while every bit as competent (perhaps even more compelling with in-body stabilization) is hampered by a limited native lens selection. The Sony is easily the best choice for videographers. Still image quality is good, but in terms of default colour rendering Sony tends to not have the neutral rendering of the Nikon, nor the crowd-pleasing colour presets of the Fujifilms. In terms of video work, the Sony is easily the best of the three, and benefits from the growing ecosystem on of Sony E-Mount adapters with third-party lenses, particularly Canon EF.

The X-T2 is a closer competitor to the D7500, as anybody looking outside of Nikon DX will likely be looking for a APS-C primes to match the system, something that Nikon is woeful at. However, the X-T2 is a more focused camera than the D7500, which is much more of an all-around camera. The control layout is retro-film-esque, which is useful for street-shooting styles but is not as good at managing settings during quickly evolving lighting circumstances. If you've used Nikon's for a lengthy amount of time, Fujifilm's X-Trans sensor will likely be a detracting point as it means a change to your image processing workflow. The film simulation modes are undoubtedly pleasing, but in general the Nikon's are more colour neutral ("accurate") and do not have the artifact quirk's of the Fujifilm's (waxy skin textures, fractal patterns on some high-frequency textures).

However, most people who adopt the Fujifilm X-system appreciate the JPEG renditions, so the deciding difference to the D7500 isn't likely to be with the output. Rather, the biggest strength of the Nikon, autofocus speed and tracking accuracy, is superior on the X-T2. Autofocus with the X-T2  is much better than with mirrorless cameras of the past, but is not a replacement for DSLR's in dedicated high speed shooting.

An outlier alternative might be the Olympus OM-D EM-II, which is extremely capable for a Micro Four Thirds camera. This is for somebody who truly wants to downsize their equipment, is okay with the image quality of the smaller sensor, but who does not want to give up the control and customization of a serious semi-pro style camera. That said, the cost of completely switching systems is uneconomical, so doing so is a significant commitment. (Also true for Sony and Fujifilm.)

Conclusion


While it is easy to look at the D7500 as the "junior" version of the specialist D500 (which it is), it is actually more proper to think of it as the little brother of the generalist D750. Both are lightened slimmed down versions of their respective form factors, both have tilt screens and both use the newer-style abbreviated top LCD display.

The D7500's initial lukewarm reception boils down to two things: a) The high MSRP and b) that the D7200 still exists. Eventually the D7200 will fade and the DX landscape will be back to the traditional consumer/semi-pro split based on the D7500 and D500. As for the price; there doesn't seem to be much relief in that regards, as all camera manufacturer's are pushing their average selling prices up as world-wide volumes decline. There are three ways to move the price of a product line upwards:

  1. Raise the base price. This is the worst way to do it as the customer receives no tangible benefit in exchange for the higher cost. It is almost always better to bring the item in at a higher cost and...
  2. Mange the effective selling price through instant rebates and other promotions. Canon in particular is very regimented in this regards; they have a number of low-end and older DSLR's in their lineup that have absurdly high base MSRP, but which are sold at an effectively lower price after instant rebates. If the price needs to be raised, the way to do it is to offer a lower discount on the instant rebate.
  3. Leave the current price alone but refresh the model at a high price point.

This is essentially what has happened with the D7500; when the D7200 finishes it's life-cycle, the D7500 will (most likely) sit in its place, but at a higher price point, periodically adjusted downward through natural seasonal discounting. This is the unfortunate way of things at the moment for all the manufacturers, as they have clearly decided that tthe low end of the market isn't as viable as it used to be. However, if price is the issue consider this: if you are going to overspend on a camera, overspending on DX is still more sensible than overspending on FX. Outside of price and based purely on its own merits, the D7500 is an excellent camera for the serious enthusiasts,  class-leading in several respects. If you were to compare cameras to cars; the D7200 is like a Honda, solid, dependable, having a known quality and broad appeal. The D7500 is more like a Subaru, competent, appealing to a smaller niche of users, but those who like it will like it a lot. Definitely not a "Best Pick" recommendation, but solidly a "highly recommended".




5 comments:

  1. excellent guide!! many thanks for taking the time. I'm looking into the 7200 to return back to photography and I'm finding it hard to go all the way to the 7500.

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    Replies
    1. Value for money the D7200 is by far the better deal right now, though Nikon has been unusually stingy with manufacturer's rebates this summer. If you are big into sports, there is a tangible benefit to the D7500, but for overall general photography both are good, so it will come down to price for most people.

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  2. another sharp minded evaluation and serious review. Thank you.

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  3. Thanks very much for a great review and sensible conclusions. The whole "the D7500 is the worst camera ever because it has one card slot" nonsense needs to be put to bed. Well done realistic and sensible critique of this and other features. Cheers

    ReplyDelete