I am not a videoist, so I invited Peter Rowlands to join me on the Red Sea leg of the trip to help me assess the video capabilities of the D7000. As editor of Underwater Photography Magazine, he is used to reviewing cameras. Perhaps less well known, is that he is also a highly accomplished videographer. Peter has directed and was main camera operator on two history documentaries on the second World War wrecks HMS Royal Oak and HMS Dasher, and his footage has been used widely on the BBC, such as recently in series Coast. Sadly, he couldn’t reprise his normal role of large object in the background of my pictures, as our dive guide Cath provided a far more appealing silhouette.
The good news is that D7000 video image quality is really impressive. On our last trip to the Red Sea in June, Peter used both Nikon D300s and Canon 7D cameras. The 7D wiped the floor with that Nikon. The D7000 levels the playing field with Canon, shooting 1080p at 24 frames per second (with H.264/mpeg-4 video compression). Peter’s impression having been editing lots of his 7D footage recently, is that the D7000 edges it marginally on the definition in the underwater footage (both shot with the Tokina 10-17mm) over a range of ISO settings. Such statements are rocket fuel to fanboys - so don’t get carried away. The take home message is that the D7000 is the first Nikon to be on a par with what Canon Video SLRs can achieve underwater.
Of course that is only part of the story. Peter is keen to point out that the major failing of Video SLRs is not their image quality, but in their ability to actually get the shot. All stills photographers know that our images sell because of what is in them, rather than what we shot them with. And he tells me that with video this is perhaps more true. He explains that video is about immersing the viewer in the story and anything that jolts them out of it, such as small technical issues (wobbly shots, focus dropping out, abrupt jumps in exposure) interrupt the illusion of the story. This is often where video SLRs fall down compared with true video cameras. Peter remarks that the best image quality in the world has little value when you cannot nail the sequence due to handling limitations. The strength of video SLRs is in highly controlled shooting situations (on a tripod in controlled or unchanging conditions). Underwater filming is, most of the time, the exact opposite.
This goes some of the way to explain some of the other frustrations with the video handling of the housing, as no SLR housing manufacturer is currently going to sacrifice stills capability for video ergonomics. The SLR wobble at the top and tail of each clip, or a general lack of smoothness in hand-held tracking or panning shots is often the giveaway.
That said the D7000 does have some features to get excited about. A new introduction is that autofocus can be active during filming. There are two modes: AF-S (Single servo for static subjects) and AF-F (Full time servo for moving subjects). I took a couple of test clips with the D7000 and 60mm macro lens to demonstrate its effectiveness with static subjects and moving subjects. With static subjects the autofocus did an excellent job in moving between and foreground and background subject (like most video cameras do) which is very useful for establishing or reveal shots to start sequences. To achieve a similarly smooth focus pull with only manual focus would take considerable skill. Much of the time, I can see users just leaving this focus mode activated with wide angle and it taking care of most subjects.
I also tracked a moving fish, a challenging flitting butterfly fish, the D7000 did a reasonably impressive job, but ultimately when focus is lost, so is the viewer from the story. Maybe a more skilled videographer might be able to get more from it than me – as I am not used to tracking fish like this. So there is potential here, but I don’t want to draw a strong conclusion either way. I will simply post a clip below – so your more experienced eyes can judge if the capabilities of AF-F look suitable for your needs and how they compare with your current system.
Peter’s preference is typically for AF-ON (push to refocus) rather than continuous focusing during video - but he found the D7000 as disappointment in this regard with the 10-17mm and filter. His footage is very nice though, so I think he’s being fussy. I set the camera up for him to try this mode (on his request), rather than the AF-F mode and given the lack of time he didn’t get to try that. We only had three diving days in the Red Sea, and on the one dive he shot video the light was very hard. Manual focus is also possible with focus gears.
Another annoyance with the D7000’s video mode underwater is that manual white balance cannot be set in live view mode. You must turn off live view, activate preset white balance and take a photo to set it. Then return to live view and start recording. The D7000 also does not have a full manual exposure, although the manual movie settings do allow both shutter speed and ISO to be adjusted manually. In the Auto exposure mode, AE-L can be used to hold the exposure during a clip (the well positioned lever on the Nauticam stops this from being another wobble moment) and exposure compensation can be used.