When it comes to mid-to-high-end dSLRs, it takes quite a bit to float my boat these days. I'm not looking for whizzy new features, bold redesigns, or insane burst rates for either myself or the shoppers I advise; to me, the perfect camera just gets out of the way between my eye and the final photograph (and perhaps video). That's a lot more elusive than you'd expect. But shooting with the Nikon D7000 frequently came close to delivering the photographic tinglies in a way I haven't felt in way too long--I think since I gave the Canon EOS 5D Mark II an Editors' Choice Award almost two years ago. Of course, the usual caveats apply: it's not the right camera for everyone and it's not best at everything. But its combination of design, feature set, performance, and photo quality for the price is hard to beat (and will be especially so once the street price starts to drop).
There's a variety of new Nikon tech in the D7000 over older models, including a new Nikon-designed 16.2-megapixel sensor coupled with its Expeed 2 processor; with this pairing, Nikon ups its analog-to-digital conversion to 14-bit processing. There's also a new metering sensor and more sophisticated autofocus system. It's also Nikon's first dSLR to rise to 1080p HD video--albeit only 24fps--with the "added bonus" of full-time autofocus during video capture. And the body's construction, though not quite as tanklike as the D300s, incorporates an all-metal chassis with magnesium alloy covers (the rest is polycarbonate), and is sealed against dust and moisture like the D300s.
Photo quality is first rate, and, despite the resolution increase, stands up very well against the D300s as well as most competitors. Though I'd probably say the D7000's JPEG photos are clean up through only ISO 800, they remain very good through ISO 1,600. By ISO 3,200, shadow detail gets pretty noisy. You can eke out about a stop more of usability out the D7000's medium-high ISO sensitivities by using raw instead of JPEGs, or at least by tweaking the default camera settings. Granted, the images aren't noise-free, but the monochrome-grain appearance is more attractive than the in-camera err-on-the-side-of-color-noise approach, and there seems to be enough dynamic range that there's still shadow detail and little loss of sharpness.
Exposure and metering are solid and consistent, and it reproduces color faithfully when you want it to. Nikon pushes the saturation a bit in its default Standard Picture Control, but it doesn't display the wholesale color shifts we tend to see on lower-end models. However, when you compare the Neutral setting with all the others, you can tell it pushes the contrast to the point where you actually lose shadow detail.
The video looks solid, but not standout. It's sharp, but there's a little more color noise and moire than I like; I didn't have much problem with rolling shutter, though, which can usually be produced on demand. The full-time autofocus is pretty useless. Not only is it too easily confused, like most contrast autofocus systems--if your subject is moving it hunts a lot--but you definitely need an external microphone with it because the lens noise is very obvious.
Some users have reported issues with dead/colored pixels in low light video; we didn't experience any problems, though we'll definitely keep a watch on the issue. Update, 2/2/11: Nikon released a firmware update to address it.
Update, 12/6/10: Nikon has acknowledged user complaints about the problem. It claims this is normal behavior, but that it will release a firmware update--eventually--to compensate. As I don't consider the video a compelling reason to buy this camera, and don't think it's up to really low-light video shooting, anyway, I didn't factor the problem into my evaluation. If it's important to you, however, I suggest you search the Web for updated information prior to purchasing it.
For all intents and purposes, with the exception of burst shooting, the D7000 runs neck and neck with the 60D for speed--and they're both really fast. Time to power on and shoot for the D7000 is negligible, much like it was for the D90. It takes a mere 0.3 second to focus and shoot in good light, rising to only 0.5 second in dim light. It typically takes about 0.6 second for two sequential raw shots (0.5 for JPEG), bumping up to 0.7 second with flash enabled. Shot-to-shot time is the only nonburst speed where the D7000 is slower than the more expensive D300s, but only by a bit and that's likely because the D300s uses faster CompactFlash. And the D7000's 5.7fps burst rate is quite good for a nonpro camera.
There are a bunch of autofocus options: Single-point AF; 9-, 21- or 39-point dynamic; 3D tracking; and full auto. Shooting with standard single-point autofocus feels almost instantaneous most of the time, and though the automatic AF is equally fast, it's just as bad as all other auto AF systems, chronically picking the wrong subjects. I couldn't thoroughly test the various dynamic AF options, but AF during continuous shooting seems to deliver similar performance to the D90. It's very good, but with the same problems that typically plague tracking AF systems; you have to carefully choose your settings based on the scene (such as going with the 9-point mode instead of the 39-point mode), for example, to prevent it from sliding off the subject and locking on something in the background, and it's not terribly effective for subjects moving toward and away from you, just those moving laterally.
In the D7000, Nikon tends to offer a lot of useful options on core features rather than whizzy but less essential capabilities. It's got two saved settings slots on the mode dial--less powerful than the settings banks in Nikon's older mid-to-high-end dSLRs, but with a more practical, straightforward implementation that means they're more likely to get used. I'm hoping that in the future (probably in a more expensive model) Nikon manages a combination of the two systems: saved, named banks of settings that you can mix and match and assign to the dial.
There are two SDXC card slots, which is both unusual and welcome, and you can configure them in functional ways: for overflow, backup, raw vs. JPEG, video vs. still. I was a little annoyed with the card-to-card copy, though. Thrilled to have it, but when it's done it just stops and goes dark. I copied a directory three times thinking the camera had died in the middle before realizing that it had, in fact, worked the first time.
Though it offers a maximum of three-shot exposure bracketing, it can handle up to a two-stop interval, which is unusual. Plus, it has a novel two-frame under/over bracket, which I imagine can come in handy. You can also set manual white balance from saved images on a card or by the typical measuring method--and they can be annotated and up to five presets stored; most cameras, especially in this class and down, offer only a subset of those capabilities. For video capture, you've got full manual exposure controls and a handful of microphone sensitivity settings.
Other, more common but nice to have capabilities include a relatively powerful intervalometer, user-definable spot sizes for center-weighted metering (6, 8, 10, or 13mm), and Eye-Fi enable/disable support. (You can read a full accounting of the D7000's features and operation by downloading the PDF manual.)