Best lenses for the 24M-Pix Nikon D7100: Part I

Introduction

Introduced in February this year, the D7100 is the update to the maker’s mid-to-upper range 16.2M-Pix D7000 DX (APS-C) model from 2010. Outwardly it shares a similar (but not identical) design and control layout but it’s on the inside where several key enhancements over its predecessor have been implemented.

First, the D7100 adopts a 24Mpix CMOS minus the optical low-pass filter, which promises even finer detail at low ISOs than previous offerings with the same pixel count. 

Second, as well as a pentaprism viewfinder with 100-percent coverage, the D7100 also benefits from the 51-point Multi-CAM 3500DX AF system of the D300s with sensitivity down to -2 EV and a center cross-type sensor capable of AF at f/8.

This ensures AF compatibility with the recently announced AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 fluorite-based telephoto lens with its matched 1.25x converter, as well as the existing AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 with a 2x converter.

Maximum continuous shooting is 6fps at maximum resolution (6000×4000 pixels) or 7fps with a 1.3x crop mode. Capture at 14-bit is limited to 5fps, but that’s a significant increase in processing power over the 1.5fps of the D300s at the same bit-depth. Besides that, the key points for our lens evaluations, of course, are the effects on image quality of the new 24-Mpix CMOS sensor and the absence of an‘anti-aliasing” filter or optical low pass filter (OPLF). With the blur filter removed, we’re interested to see just what the benefits are, and perhaps if there any downsides besides moiré or color artefacting.

Nikon D7100 lens database: 126 models from both Nikon and third-party makers measured!

The labs have carefully analyzed the optical performance of nearly 130 models from both Nikon and third-party makers, ranging from the ultra-wide, yet relatively compact DX format Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM through to the full-frame stabilized Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4G ED VR and expensive Nikon AF-S 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II.

Other new models DxOMark have analyzed include the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED and the Sigma 30mm F1.4 DC HSM A.

We’ve not yet tested the new high-speed Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 in Nikon mount (it was produced in Canon mount first) or the recently announced Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, but both those models should be available soon and they will be added to our database.

The resolution of a camera describes the ability of a sensor and lens to resolve fine details but the role of the OLPF is to reduce aliasing by lowering the sampling frequency of the sensor. The trade off is a reduction in sharpness

Manufacturers have for a long time specified different ‘strengths’ of OLPF in the sensor’s filter-pack from model to model but it’s only recently we, as consumers, have been offered the choice in some models, such as the 36.3Mpix Nikon D800 and D800E. Now we’re only just beginning to see models emerge with no anti-aliasing filter.

The high pixel count of the Nikon D7100 along with the complete removal of the OLPF promises optimal sharpness and resolution. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that some aliasing or color artefacting may be present in both stills and, more importantly, video (as it’s far more difficult to contend with). As far as stills are concerned, moiré removal is included in most good editing apps and is often quite simple to deal with.

While the effects can occasionally be seen with man-made structures, particularly cityscapes for instance, regularly repeating structures aren’t often found in nature. Sometimes the patterning effect of moiré can be seen with bird feathers but it occurs only when the detail, or in fact spatial frequency, exceeds the resolution of the lens and sensor.

Some low cost, lower-performing super zooms will never achieve a high enough resolution for images to exhibit moire, but on the other hand should also allow the lens to achieve its highest potential sharpness.

There are a few other potential performance issues regarding higher resolution capture to be aware of.  With good quality lenses, of course, very high sharpness levels are possible but both discipline and good photographic technique are required to achieve decent results. Focus accuracy is crucial of course, while even the slightest camera shake, can lead to substantial image blurring.

Please refer to our glossary for the definitions of sharpness and resolution.

From analyzing the 126 lenses on the D7100 the results are impressive; they’re simply the best we’ve seen from an APS-C camera to date. We compared the data between the D7100 and the older D7000 and as one might expect, the resultant increase in sharpness in the high-grade lens models was dramatic.

In the best case, sharpness increased by as much as 50-percent over the Nikon D7000. Some moiré was noticed, however, though it can be reduced quite effectively with a good quality Raw converter.

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From our tests, a dramatic increase in sharpness (measured in P-Mpix) was observed over the Nikon D7000 with the best performing lenses

Models that had performed well in the past such as the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G see an impressive gain but other, slightly less capable performers have seen more substantial improvements in acutance

Models such as the current AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR II show similar levels of sharpness as do the AF-S DX Micro Nikkor 40mm f/2.8G and the Zeiss Distagon T* 25mm f2 ZF.2.

The sensor of the Nikon D7100 is capable of extracting hitherto unknown levels of detail from a wide variety of lenses.

It’s not just the expensive high–grade lenses that benefit from the high-resolution sensor of the D7100, the results for the more accessibly priced models was also impressively high. We measured improvements in sharpness of over 30-percent with some basic kit zoom models and super-zooms. 

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Improvements in sharpness of over 30-percent can be achieved with the D7100 when compared with its predecessor

A number of zooms see an increase of over 30-percent in overall (averaged) sharpness when used with the Nikon D7100 over its forerunner, the 16Mpix D7000.

While there are a number of models such as the popular AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II kit zoom that see a significant increase in sharpness (equating to around a 30-percent increase), the more substantial increases are seen with some higher grade models such as the now discontinued AF-S VR 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED – a lens that wasn’t known as being a good performer.  Sigma’s 18-250mm models and the 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 also perform well on the D7100, all three achieving a similar 60-percent gain in sharpness as the previous Nikkor AF-S VR 24-120mm model. It’s impossible to say whether these models may show improvements with an even higher resolution sensor.

As for the best performing models, we can reveal the new Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM A continues to do well with it achieving the best overall optical performance of those tested, very closely followed by the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 G, which now sits ahead of the accessibly priced 85mm f/1.8G model slightly, based on sharpness scores.

 

Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM A Nikon 899 32 16
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G 2199 30 16
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G 690 30 15
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2G ED VR II 5899 29 17
Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T 100mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon 1840 27 13
Sigma 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Nikon 969 27 12
Carl Zeiss Distagon T 25mm f/2 ZF.2 Nikon 1700 27 15
Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G 195 26 12
Samyang 35mm F1.4 AS UMC Nikon 599 26 11
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherique IF Nikon 328 26 14
Sigma 30mm F1.4 DC HSM A Nikon 499 26 15
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 400mm F2.8G ED VR 8999 26 17
Nikon AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF 1230 25 14
Carl Zeiss Distagon T 35mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon 1005 25 13
Carl Zeiss Planar T 85mm f/1.4 ZF2 Nikon 1280 25 14
Carl Zeiss Distagon T 35mm f/1.4 ZF2 Nikon 1843 25 13
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 35mm f/1.4G 1797 25 14
Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D 329 24 14
Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Nikon 499 24 13
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24mm f/1.4G ED 2200 24 13

Some of the high-grade pro-oriented Nikon models, such as the current AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2 ED VR II and the 400mm f/2.8G ED VR have slightly better sharpness scores than either the full-frame Sigma 35mm or the 85mm Nikon, indeed on the D7100 they’re the sharpest lenses of all the models tested.

As with the primes, a number of zoom models have also seen their sharpness scores improve dramatically with the D7100. At the top of the rankings, the upgraded DX format only Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC APO HSM and the current AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II full-frame model sit beside the new Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD with a DxOMark score of 23 points. The Tamron had the slightly higher (averaged) sharpness score before we amended the list, adding the updated Sigma 50-150mm to our findings. We’ll look more closely at the individual performance of those lenses at different apertures and focal length settings and reveal how they affect the rankings in part III. If based on sharpness alone, though, the Sigma is the better performing model of the three and claims the top spot in this group of focal lengths. It also happens to be very modestly priced, but bear in mind it’s not a full frame lens and can only be used on APS-C bodies, potentially limiting its usefulness in dual format systems.

 

Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC APO OS HSM Nikon 999 23 17
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II 2699 23 15
Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD Nikon 1699 23 16
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO Macro HSM II Nikon 949 21 12
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR 1399 21 13
Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM S Nikon 3599 21 16
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM Nikon 1699 20 12
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED 1850 19 11
Sigma 50-150mm F2.8 EX DC APO HSM Nikon 469 18 11
Tamron SP AF 70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD (IF) MACRO Nikon 770 17 6
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO HSM Nikon 880 16 10
Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED 196 16 8
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO-M DG Macro Nikon 209 15 9
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED 669 15 9
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR 2700 15 9
Nikon AF-S DX VR Zoom-Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6G IF-ED 249 14 9
Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR 365 14 8
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS Nikon 359 14 9
Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM Nikon 1659 14 10
Nikon AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED 170 13 8

It’s no secret that third-party lens makers, Sigma, Tokina and Tamron have established a wide-range of zoom models in Nikon mount and they continue to perform well against their Nikkor branded counterparts. We’ll compare the best performers against the Nikon models to see how they differ in optical quality.

We also chose to compare the performance of one lens (the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 HSM A) on various Nikon DX format models dating back to 2004 to see just how the different sensors perform and influence. Back in 2004 the pro-oriented 4-Mpix D2H was still current, and was joined that year by the 6-Mpix Nikon D70 (indicated by the first plot) and later in 2005 by the 10-Mpix D200 and the 12-Mpix Nikon D2X in 2006.

The penultimate dot is that of the D7000, with the D7100 being the last shown (2013) reveals that the improvement in image quality has been substantial. Whether such large gains are to be seen again over the coming months and years is anyone’s guess.

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We also thought it would be interesting to compare the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 lens on Canon APS-C bodies (and the best performing model across both mounts) dating back over the same period.  While there have been steady improvements over the years, often with the two makers leapfrogging each other, the results are somewhat sobering for Canon users when comparing models against the D7100. The new Nikon D7100 is quite clearly ahead in image quality but there’s much more to a camera than that.

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However, while Canon are innovating in sensor technology they do appear to be lagging in absolute performance terms, though who can say what new models lie ahead.

In part II of this guide, we’ll be looking at the best performing primes and zooms covering wide-angle and telephoto focal lengths.

If you have a Nikon D7100 and a favorite lens, we would very much like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below, stating what lens it is and why you like it.