If you're in the market for a higher-end (but still affordable) DSLR, the Canon 70D and the Nikon D7100 are two of the top choices. While these two cameras occupy similar spots in Canon and Nikon's respective lineups they really cater to different users. Read on to find out which is best for you....
The big story with the Canon 70D is its Dual Pixel CMOS AF focusing system, which really is a game-changer for video AF. Canon puts unique phase-detect autofocus (PDAF) pixels on the image sensor itself. Although the Canon 70D isn't the first camera with on-sensor phase-detect pixels, the 70D's imaging sensor includes these special pixels across 80% of its height and width, which is unique (other cameras have phase detect pixels over a smaller portion of the frame, so live-view focusing outside the center of the screen is either slower or non-existent). This lets you compose and frame using the touchscreen, with speedy autofocus, almost anywhere in the frame.
The best part about the 70D's on-sensor phase-detect is the incredible video autofocus opportunities it creates. Most DSLRs (like the D7100) use contrast-detect focusing during video, which can hunt back and forth for focus while recording. In contrast, the 70D video AF gives videographers smooth focus transitions -- 'racking' between near and far subjects like a pro. Additionally, use of the 70D's touchscreen LCD -- not found on the D7100 -- makes it simple to change the camera's focus during video recording.
On the other hand, the D7100, like many other DSLRs, uses only a contrast-detect autofocusing (CDAF) system for live view focusing (live view focusing uses only the image sensor itself for focusing, and is the only focusing mode available when shooting video). While CDAF is very accurate, it is significantly slower than Canon's on-sensor phase-detect AF, so video AF is neither as smooth nor as intuitive as on the 70D.
In concluding our review, we praised the 70D's "exceptionally fast (pro-grade) conventional autofocus lag." That's because Canon saw fit to pair the 70D's revolutionary video AF technology with a very competitive 19-point still AF system borrowed from the 7D (70D vs. 7D; D7100 vs. 7D). While the system is nearly 5 years old at this point, the pro-grade AF was a joy to use and did a great job acquiring and maintaining focus. In contrast, we concluded that the D7100's stills AF speed slightly slower than average for a prosumer DSLR.
On the upside though, Nikon saw fit to provide far more autofocus points on the D7100: 51 vs. 19. That gives a lot more flexibility to focus on subjects on the sides of the frame. While you can focus and recompose with the 70D, you could encounter problems with very wide angle or fast lenses, where you might put your subject out of focus after recomposing. If you want this sort of flexibility with the 70D, you'll need to use live-view mode and accept the significantly slower autofocus speed. Likewise, the D7100's both larger and finer-grained array of focus points gives it a better ability to lock on and follow a moving subject, although its not as fast-focusing as the 70D.
Perhaps the biggest selling point of the D7100 is its new 24.1-megapixel APS-C sensor that lacks an optical low-pass anti-aliasing (AA) filter. This type of sensor renders much sharper detail, but at the risk of unsightly moiré. Fortunately, Nikon appears to have done great work in this area, because we didn't find significant moiré issues until we really started hunting for them in earnest.
While issues may still crop up, it seems Nikon has delivered the benefits of a camera with no AA filter -- awesome sharpness and detail rendition -- while generally avoiding its drawbacks. Not only this, but the D7100's sensor gives you more resolution in terms of sheer megapixels compared to the 70D. Prints from the D7100 were superb, looking great at base ISOs up to 36x48". In fact, the fantastic, highly-detailed images even rivaled the output of full-frame DSLRs like Nikon's D610 (70D vs. 610; D7100 vs. D610)
With the new on-chip phase detect system of the Canon 70D, it goes without saying that they'd have to use something other than the 18MP APS-C sensor that graced many of their previous crop-sensor DSLRs, such as the 7D (70D vs. 7D; D7100 vs. 7D), T5i (70D vs. T5i; D7100 vs. T5i), and the 70D's predecessor, the 60D (70D vs. 60D; D7100 vs. 60D). However, the new 20.2-megapixel CMOS sensor of the Canon 70D, while stunning for it's Dual Pixel autofocus technology, doesn't provide a leaps and bound improvement in still image quality over the 60D.
To be clear, the Canon 70D still takes great pictures, just not ones that are exceedingly better than what the 4-year-old 60D or 5-year-old 7D can produce. The D7100 is especially strong relative to the 70D at lower ISOs, where it provides much better dynamic range (the ability to retain detail in both light and dark areas in the same frame). However, the 70D has improved noticeably at high sensitivities and, while the image quality of the Nikon D7100 still has a bit of an edge there over the Canon 70D, Canon closes the gap noticeably.
All told, the image quality of the D7100 is extremely impressive for an APS-C camera. Nikon appears to have chosen a near-optimal balance of detail and noise suppression. While the appearance of some grain in higher ISO images is a bit stronger on the D7100 compared to the 70D (at default noise reduction settings), the fine detail rendition is slightly better.
Both the 70D and the D7100 are in the mid-range DSLR category in terms of size and weight -- bigger and heavier than something like a Canon T5i (70D vs. T5i; D7100 vs. T5i) but certainly smaller and lighter than a full-frame Nikon D810 (70D vs. D810; D7100 vs. D810). Compared to each other, both weigh practically the same with their respective longer kit zoom lenses, the Canon EF-S 18-135mm and Nikon 18-105mm, and their sizes are nearly identical as well.
The eye-level pentaprism optical viewfinders differ slightly, with the Nikon providing full 100% coverage, and the Canon with only 98%, not a noticeable difference for many users, but important if you need really critical framing. The Canon viewfinder and the eyecup itself protrudes outwards from the body more than on the D7100, which provides a little more comfort and space for left-eye dominant photographers who also use back-button focusing, as it keeps you thumb from bumping your face. On the other hand, eyeglass-wearing users will find the 70D a bit more comfortable, with its higher 22mm eyepoint, vs the Nikon's 19.5mm.
One of the biggest physical design differences between these cameras is the vari-angle touchscreen LCD on the Canon 70D, which the D7100 lacks. The 3-inch LCD on the 70D features a wide range of angle and swivel adjustment that helps not only with shooting in tight or awkward angles, but also with video shooting and angling the screen away from glare when outdoors. The touchscreen is also very good with a nice, responsive touch experience. As we mentioned before, the tap-to-focus ability was a great asset for shooting video.
Another significant difference in these two cameras is the inclusion of Wi-Fi in the Canon 70D. While the Nikon D7100 is compatible with Nikon's WU-1a/WU-1b wireless adapter, wireless connectivity is not built into the camera itself. Straight out of the box, the Canon offers photographers the ability to remotely control the camera with the companion EOS Remote app for Android and iOS, as well as browse, copy and share photos and video from the camera.
The Wi-Fi on the Canon 70D is easy to setup and works really well, with the ability to not only remotely trigger the shutter, but also adjust exposure settings like aperture, ISO and shutter speed all from the mobile app. However, one big drawback with the Wi-Fi implementation on the 70D is the lack of remote video shooting, as well as a strange issue where video recording is completely disabled while the Wi-Fi radio is enabled in the camera. A big warning will be displayed on the screen telling you to turn off Wi-Fi before trying to record video.
Wireless shooting requires additional accessories and isn't as full-featured on the D7100. With the WU-1a/WU-1b wireless adapter (~$45) and the companion Wireless Mobile Utility app (Android/iOS), you can view and download photos stored on the camera's memory card, but you can't view or transfer videos. Remote shooting capabilities are also limited with no exposure adjustments like ISO or aperture available, and no remote video recording either. We did not have a Nikon wireless adapter to review alongside the D7100, however. Connectivity isn't a total win for the Canon, though, as Nikon saw fit to include dual card slots, a feature working pros will welcome.
Video features on both cameras are very strong. Both offer up to 1080/30p high definition video with full-time autofocus and shooting video was a blast with both cameras. However, their video talents are distinct: the 70D with its incredible video AF, the D7100 with the quality of its video output.
The Nikon D7100 produces high-quality HD video, with good detail, modest motion artifacts, and pleasing, accurate color. In our daytime videos, under bright sunlight, colors were accurate and high contrasts were handled well. The shadow areas weren't crushed down to black and retained lots of detail. The D7100 also excelled in our night video shots. Shooting at ISO 3200, image noise was low and the resulting footage still had good dynamic range. Shadow detail was present and fine details were still visible.
The Canon 70D HD video quality was generally good, with crisp detail and accurate color rendition, but it didn't do as well in high contrast situations. Scenes shot in bright daylight show quite a bit of contrast (a little too much for our tastes) and shadow areas were excessively dark with the Standard Picture Profile. Users looking to get the most dynamic range out of their clips should use a custom picture style with decreased contrast. In low-light scenes, the 70D did a great job, with nice detail overall and decent shadow detail. While there was visible high ISO noise in our nighttime test videos, it wasn't severe enough to significantly degrade the image quality.
Video moiré and aliasing -- a notorious issue for video on many HD-DSLRs -- wasn't a severe problem for either camera. Moiré artifacts were very well-controlled in the 1080p videos from the D7100, even in the usual problem areas of our test videos like roofing shingles, asphalt and window blinds. At 720p resolution, moiré was more noticeable in areas like roofing shingles.
On the Canon side, while we saw much-improved handling of moiré and aliasing effects in the 5D Mark III (70D vs. 5D Mark III; D7100 vs. 5D Mark III) compared to its predecessor, that doesn't seem to be the case with the 70D. In our test videos, a fair number of moiré artifacts could be seen in the standard problem areas like window screens, roof shingles, and fine patterned fabrics. Moiré and aliasing are even more pronounced in 720p video, which has been the case with other Canon DSLRs we've seen in the past. Overall, moiré artifacts on the 70D look very similar to those seen on the 6D (70D vs. 6D; D7100 vs. 6D) and 5D Mark II (70D vs. 5D Mark II; D7100 vs. 5D Mark II). While we'd give the nod to the D7100 in video quality, Canon did give advanced users a nod by offering both IPB and the higher quality pro-level ALL-I intra-frame compression schemes.
Though neither the 70D nor the D7100 are professional-grade sports cameras, the Canon 70D has the edge over the D7100 in shooting speed and buffer capacity. For an enthusiast DSLR, the Canon 70D's autofocus -- using standard phase-detect focusing -- was exceptionally fast. Its buffer depth was large for this class of camera and fast to clear, allowing the near-7fps burst performance to do its duty very well: large JPEG-only images averaged 20 frames with no sign of slowdown; RAW-only 14 frames; and RAW+JPEG 7 frames.
On the other hand, the Nikon D7100 had some issues here. As we mentioned before, the autofocus speed was a little underwhelming and slower than average for a prosumer DSLR. When using its higher-quality 14-bit RAW mode, the buffer filled very quickly, limiting the effectiveness of the 6 frames per second burst. In real-world shooting, we were only able to get about 5 frames of 14-bit RAW + JPEG images before the buffer filled at the best of times (ISO 100 with all image correction processing disabled for JPEG processing), however most of the time we found the buffer filled after about 3-4 frames.
Balancing some of these sports shooting drawbacks somewhat is the D7100's unique "crop mode." Typically seen on Nikon's full-frame cameras, where the normal 35mm field-of-view is reduced to an APS-C "cropped" view, this new mode on the D7100 lets you crop its APS-C field-of-view by a factor of 1.3x, functioning as a kind of digital teleconverter. Not only does the crop mode provide extra versatility with framing and composing shots, but also enables a little boost in the burst speed (from 6 to 7fps).
And using JPEG-only or the lower quality 12-bit RAW option, the D7100 was able to keep up with its burst rate more effectively. Note that while this performance more closely matches that of the 70D, the 70D manages the feat with 14-bit RAW, albeit with 20% fewer pixels. It's a bit of a tough tradeoff that may depend on who you are. If you're shooting fast action, you'll almost certainly prefer the 70D's quicker AF and deeper buffer. On the other hand, if your subjects aren't pro athletes or race cars shot with a long telephoto, the D7100's broader and finer AF coverage will help the camera follow your subjects more closely.
While the Nikon D7100 and Canon 70D are pretty much neck and neck in price, these two cameras cater to different users. This is a case where specs don't get to the heart of the matter: these are very different beasts.
Video AF is buttery smooth and precise on the 70D and we appreciated the modern features you won't find on the D7100, especially the built-in Wi-Fi and the articulating touchscreen. And the faster traditional stills AF and deep buffer made it a pleasure to use.
Whereas the 70D brings revolutionary new technology to the table in replacing the 60D (though not so much in the image-quality department), the D7100 offers a solid, more evolutionary upgrade to the D7000, with traditional amenities such as dual card slots and vastly more focus points for non-live view still shooting.
The D7100 really sets itself apart from the 70D in image quality, and we can't stress enough how great its images looked. You'll get more ISO headroom, much better dynamic range, more resolution and fantastic detail rendition. All of these attributes will be catnip to landscape photographers, who will love the D7100. In fact, anyone for whom performance and stills AF are not critical will adore the full-frame-rivaling image quality of the D7100.
If you are an action or sports photographer on the other hand, your decision is pretty easy. The D7100 gives you great image quality, many more AF points and a built-in crop mode for extra telephoto versatility -- all great features for sports and action shooters -- but is hurt by a poor buffer, particularly when shooting 14-bit RAWs. At the end of the day, the 70D's faster AF and deeper buffer will yield more sharp photos for action shooters.
If you're primarily interested in shooting video, your decision comes down to balancing the 70D's superior live view focusing and ALL-I high-bitrate video format versus the D7100's video quality and dynamic range. For many amateur videographers, the 70D's live view focusing will carry the most weight (it really is incredible), while those who mainly use manual focus may prefer the quality of the D7100's video output.
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Dual Pixel CMOS AF delivers full-time continuous autofocus (with phase detect at every pixel in framing area) for video and Live View still shooting; Full HD (1080p) video recording with pro-level features and quality; Improved resolution and good high ISO performance; Excellent Wi-Fi remote shooting with full exposure controls; 3-inch articulating LCD touchscreen.
Image quality only improved slightly over 60D; Dynamic range still lags behind competing models; May not feature enough upgrades to convince people to step up from 60D.
Solid, ergonomic body design; Stunning, highly detailed photos, thanks to 24.1MP sensor upgrade and removal of optical low-pass filter; Cool 1.3x crop mode extends reach to nearly 2x the full-frame equivalent; Records Full 1080p HD video at up to 30fps with full-time AF; Many pro-level features packed into a consumer-friendly body at reasonable price.
Shallow buffer that hampers continuous burst shooting; AF slightly slower than average for its class; No real-time aperture control while in Movie mode (among other quirks); More noticeable moire patterns and aliasing artifacts (but only found when shooting fabrics with strong, distinct patterns).
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