Friday, December 17, 2010

In-Hand Feel: D7000 vs. D300s

For many current and prospective Nikon shooters, the company has created quite a dilemma in that its new D7000 ($1,200) out-specs. the older D300s ($1,700) in terms of imaging power, but not in terms of the control layout. So, time for the question of the day: am I willing to sacrifice user-friendliness for better pictures? Answer: that's up to you, but why not examine the differences first?

The D7000 and D300s are clearly different.

The key issue for current Nikon shooters is that the D7000 is different in user interface than the Dx00 and up line of cameras. So, for anyone with an old camera/looking for a backup body, there will be differences, so is the extra imaging power worth the learning curve? Also, Nikon's full frame cameras are laid out different than the D7000 in that they are virtually identical to the Dx00 line. So, for anyone coming to Nikon or upgrading from a lower level camera, the question of whether one will ever go FF should come into play as well.

So, how big are the differences?
Starting at the upper left, on both the D7000 and D300s, the two buttons (enter playback mode and delete) are absolutely identical, no differences (or learning curve) here.

The back left side of the cameras
Moving down the left side of the camera, one notices that the D7000 has 4 buttons (3 of which are dual function) while the D300s has 5 (only 1 of which is dual). First off, the easy part, the 'ok' button on the D300s (bottom on the left row) has moved to the center of the multi-selector on the D7000, which is a good thing in that this button is used to confirm menu settings, which means that the operation of changing menu selections on the D7000 is a one-thumb operation. On the D300s, there is some redundancy as there is both the 'ok' button and another unmarked one in the center of the multi-selector. Now, onto the remaining buttons, they're identical in their playback functions on both cameras. Unfortunately, the bottom 3 on the D7000 are dual function and have different functions in shooting mode. On the D7000, these buttons, when in shooting mode, control ISO, white balance, and file quality, all 3 of which are controlled by single function buttons on the top left of the D300s. Now, this is better than Canon where what dual function buttons do is dependent on which wheel you spin, but not as good on the higher-level Nikons where there are no dual functions at all.

The back right of the cameras, notice the fewer controls on the D7000

Looking at the right side of the camera and working from the top down, one notices that the 'AF-ON' button on the D300s is missing on the D7000. In my opinion, good riddance, why would anyone use the rear button to focus when the same thing can be done by half pressing the shutter button? In terms of functionality, it's a mixed bag with the 'AE-L/AF-L' button. Both D7000 and D300s have this function. Unfortunately, the D7000 loses the control over metering that the D300s allows by turning this same switch. On the D7000, metering is controlled by a button on the top right of the camera, which means having to look at the top side LCD display when changing metering modes. Moving down, the multi-selector and live view control (button on D300s and spring-loaded switch on D7000) have flip-flopped positions, no big deal there. The greatest difference lies with the second switch. On the D7000, it is merely a multi-controller lock switch. On the D300s and up, though, this identically-placed switch transforms into an AF area mode selector because the multi-selector lock is built around the selector itself. At the very bottom, both cameras share a dedicated 'info' button.

The top rights are almost identical.
Moving to the top right of the camera, things are more alike than different in that both cameras have the identical shutter/power/LCD light switch control setup. Also, both D7000 and d300s share an exposure compensation button nearest the right side of the camera, too. The difference comes with the left button, which has an exposure mode function on the D300s and a metering one on the D7000. Okay, mode button missing on the new camera, so where have these controls gone? Answer: on the front of the camera. Like on other Nikons, the AF-MF camera switch is on the left of the lens mount. However, it has been tweaked a bit, though. Now, instead of just a lever, there is a lever-button combo switch. The button is AF/MF and pressing it allows the front dial to control AF area modes (all points, some points, single point) while the back dial controls focus modes (single, servo, continuous). While this is more confusing than on higher-level Nikons, the plus is the fact that all of these mode changes can be seen in the viewfinder as you make them.

The biggest differnces come on the top left.
Coming to the top left of the camera, we see some other differences. First, the similarity is that both D7000 and the D300s share the drive mode dial, which includes functions like frame rate, self- timer, quiet mode, and mirror lock up. The letters on this dial are also easier to see than on older implementations (like on the D300s), too. However, on top of this advance dial, things get different. The D300s has single-function buttons for ISO, white balance, and file quality while the D7000 has a more amateurish mode dial (the ISO, WB, and quality functions are moved to the rear of the camera via dual function buttons on the left of the LCD). The good news is that the D7000 has, for the first time in Nikon, user-defined settings where you can save all your shooting parameters to the camera's built-in memory, essentially making your defined settings a shooting mode! So, good or bad? For me, a trade-off. Yes, the single function buttons of the D300s are nice, but having to look at the top LCD to see what mode you're in is a pain. Likewise, just turning the dial for mode and forgetting it on the D7000 is great, but those 3 dual-function buttons on the back of the camera can be a pain. Personally, I'd like to see Nikon put the ISO, WB, and quality buttons just behind the shutter and move the exposure compensation and metering/mode buttons over to the left, put them on a dial, and stack this new one on to of the drive dial both cameras already share.

Finally, onto the front of the camera. Both cameras share a flash pop-up button in the same location. However, the new D7000 adds a dedicated flash bracketing button below the pop-up button, a nice touch owners of older cameras probably wish they had. Below this, there is the front focus switch, which selects focus mode on the D300s and does, in addition to AF/MF, controls AF point selection and focus mode when used with the dials on the top right of the camera. Off to the left, you'll notice that the D7000, unlike the D300s, has no connection ports on the front, as all have been moved to the left side of the body on the newer camera. On the right side of the camera, both models are virtually identical in that they both have 2 buttons which can be assigned various functions.

So, after reading all of this, where do we get clear-cut advantages one way or the other?

Pros for D7000
No pointless AF button on back of camera
Dedicated flash bracketing button
All connection ports are in the same place

Pros for D300s and up
Less dual-function buttons
Multi-selector lock is built into the selector itself
Metering control is on rear of camera, no need to look at LCD screen
AF area mode selector on rear of camera

So, which camera to buy: D7000 or D300s?

For me, yes, the more expensive D300s is the better camera for user interface. However, the D7000 is no clunker, it's 90% of what the D300s is. Now, if that was all there was to the story, the D300s would be the better camera, but there's a lot more. On the spec sheet, the D7000 equals or betters the $500 more expensive D300s in areas like high ISO performance, resolution, video capability, AF capabilities (those extra 12 points on the D300s don't matter), build quality, frame rate (D7000 can go 6fps in 14 bit while the D300s can only do 2.5!), file storage/backup, AF microadjust, and a built-in intervalometer. Looking at the complete package, there's no reason not to buy the D7000 unless you absolutely must have the metering dial, AF point selection lever, and the dedicated ISO, WB, and file quality buttons. If this is you, then get the soon to be replaced, essentially 3 ½ year old D300s. If you can live with the few shortcomings, get the latest and greatest by buying the D7000.

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