Initial: 4/10/04
Flash sync, minor fixes: 4/14/04
Fixed timeline: 4/15/04
Added photos: 5/1/04, AF lock pos.
Added D70s: 5/6/05
Updated D70s: 6/1/05
Updated sensor info: 9/26/07

  Nikon D70 and D70s Review

Nikons first attempt to dominate the consumer DSLR market.

  Add a comment or send Thom feedback on this article.

 

In August 2003 the Canon Digital Rebel sent warning shots over the bow of every digital camera maker: Canon meant business and was out to own the low-end DSLR market. Nikon's response was to turn their ship broadside and fire a full salvo from every gun onboard: the D70 (now D70s) tries to be a better camera than the Digital Rebel in almost every way while almost meeting it in price.

So the question is simple: did Nikon's return shots hit the mark? You bet they did, though Canon and Digital Rebel owners will claim otherwise (which is one reason I felt it necessary to use and review the Digital Rebel on this site; most of my comparisons between the original D70 and Digital Rebel are in that review; comments about the newer models are on this page). But let's back up a bit and make sure you're up to date on the battle that's been happening at the bottom of the DSLR marketplace.

Canon got the first shots in with the D30 in early 2000. At the time, Nikon owned the high-end DSLR market with the D1. The D30 was replaced a year later by the D60, and again the following year with the 10D, showing that Canon was very serious about getting the price/performance right for their low-end model. The Nikon D100 was announced at the same time as the D60 and the surprise was that Nikon was aggressive in price and essentially matched the price Canon set for the D60. Up to this battle, Canon essentially had the low-end DSLR market to itself, if one could consider US$2495 low-end. The D100 proved to be a considerable competitor, and has consistently sold well since it's introduction--for over two years many dealers sold out of every allocation they received from Nikon. When Canon introduced the 10D and later reduced the price to keep market momentum, Nikon responded by lowering the price of the D100 (though not as much as Canon did--since the D100 continued selling well at a slight premium to the 10D, this should tell you something about just how well the D100 was regarded).

The Digital Rebel, introduced in fall of 2003, was almost a bombshell, though. Dropping the price of a DSLR from US$1495 to US$895 while retaining essentially identical image quality is no mean feat, and Canon should be congratulated on being able to make such a large leap. This certainly had a deleterious effect on the late comers to the consumer DSLR market, such as Pentax and Sigma. The Pentax *ist D looked particularly overpriced by the time it finally started shipping, and the Sigma SD-9 needed a pretty drastic drop in price to remain saleable in the new conditions created by the Digital Rebel. The question on everyone's mind, though, was "would Nikon respond?" In December 2003 we learned the answer: yes, with a D70, though we didn't get any details. In February 2004 the details became clear, and in March the D70 started shipping.

The war has continued. In early 2005 Canon delivered an 8mp update to the Digital Rebel (350D) and Nikon followed with a modest update to the D70, the D70s plus an even lower cost model, the D50. While most of this review was written in spring 2004, a year later I've found I've had to change very little except adding more cameras to the opening history. When the D70 appeared, it immediately challenged the Digital Rebel as the "best" low-end DSLR. The D70s still manages to stay competitive with the updated Digital Rebel. But more on that as we get to it.

Note that when I compare the D70s and Digital Rebel in this review, I'm considering the D70s and Digital Rebel as a US$895 body. If you purchase the body+lens kits from either manufacturer, you get very dissimilar offerings: the Canon 18-55mm lens is what I'd call an average lens at best (it produces a great deal more chromatic aberration, to mention just one thing, though the second edition of the lens is slightly better than the original), while the 18-70mm Nikkor is an excellent performer at virtually everything. So don't fall into the trap of comparing the US$995 Canon kit with the US$1295 Nikon kit. Worse still, repricings and rebates keep changing the numbers here, so be sure to do a price check before making your decision. And when you do that price check, make sure you strip out the lens costs and evaluate the lenses separately.

Note added 6/1/05: In this review update process I'm going to use D70s to refer to the camera throughout most of this review. Even so, what I say applies equally to the D70, which is still available in some places and will become an eBay regular as early users begin to update to newer DSLRs. I'll call attention to the few things that are different on a D70s, but you can pretty much substitute D70 for D70s everywhere you see it unless it's one of the few sentences that outlines a difference between the older and newer model. None of the changes are what I'd consider functional changes, expect perhaps the ability to use a wired remote. For the record, the changes are:

  • The MC-DC1 wired remote capability. The D70s has a connector for this to plug into, the D70 doesn'.t
  • The D70s has a 2" color LCD, the D70 uses a 1.8" version.
  • Autofocus performance has been tweaked slighlty (though this is available in the free 2.0 firmware update for D70 users).
  • The menu system has been "modernized" to make it easier to read and understand (also available in the free 2.0 firmware update for D70 users).
  • The internal flash covers an area equal to an 18mm lens instead of 20mm.
  • The PICTBridge ability now allows you to change print size (also available in the free 2.0 firmware update for D70 users).
  • The D70s ships with an EN-EL3a battery, which has more capacity than the EN-EL3 battery that shipped with the D70. D70 users can simply purchase the new battery and charger if they want longer battery life, though.

As you can see, not many changes, and none in terms of image quality. I consider the D70 and D70s to be the same camera.

If you've handled a D100, you can pick up a D70 or D70s and start shooting. A few subtle twists will show up (and I'll get to those), but Nikon didn't bother to try to fix things that weren't broken. Better still, they did fix things that were broken.

Indeed, from the front and back, the only things to distinguish a D70s from a D100 are some minor cosmetic changes and some slight variances in size. It's only on the top panel where you'll find clear differences: the Mode dial is just about exposure modes and has seven new "scene" exposure modes; the metering method button is back on the top plate (it used to be there on the N90s, for example); the top LCD has new icons.

Regardless of the minor changes, the primary visible DNA comes from the D100. Not so the internal DNA, though. Nikon appears to have done quite a bit of shuffling and new design internally. The body structure, for example, is all plastic (though structurally rigid and dense). The shutter is slightly different. The flash and exposure metering system are adapted from the D2h (!) not the any inexpensive consumer camera. The sensor, memory buffer, and digital electronics have all had a pretty thorough redesign, which has resulted in some startling performance changes over the D100. Overall, I suspect even the Canon engineering team is probably impressed with the substantive changes Nikon threw into their low-end DSLR. The D70 and D70s design mantra was not "lower the cost of production even if that affects performance." No, I'd say it was "make something better than the D100 in every way you can while reducing the cost of manufacturing it." Impressive. I get the distinct impression that no holds were barred in engineering the D70s. But, after all, Nikon is an engineering-first company, so such an effort isn't surprising. What is surprising is how comfortable the D70s feels in almost all respects. If it weren't for a few niggling points, I'd just say "Nikon has created the perfect consumer DSLR" and not bother writing a review at all.

Since I mentioned the D100, let me review a few of the changes the D70s incorporates:

  • The D100 has a 1/180 flash sync speed compared to the D70's 1/500. This has implications on flash use in outdoor situations (the D70s is better).
  • The D100 has an older style 10-sensor matrix meter while the D70s uses the D1’s 1005-element color matrix meter. The D70's metering is more accurate and more able to take into account subtle issues.
  • A vertical release, extended grip, and 10-pin remote connector are only an option (MB-D100) on the D100; the D70 has none of these (though it does automatically rotate vertical images, which the D100 doesn't), while the D70s adds a new wired remote, the MC-DC1. Note that third party vertical releases are now available for the D70, the most notable one being from Hoodman.
  • The D70s is much faster at clearing the buffer than the D100. Indeed, with some cards, you can essentially shoot JPEG images at 3 fps until the card fills up. Likewise, Compressed NEFs on the D70 save faster than Uncompressed NEFs on the D100 with state-of-the-art cards. I can at a continuous >1 fps with NEF files on most of my cards on the D70.
  • The D70s has additional scene exposure modes (which, in my opinion, aren't useful).
  • The D70s simplifies the autofocus controls (closest subject priority is a separate autofocus setting, for example), but it also buries the controls in the menu system. Note that while the controls are simplified, the abilities are basically the same as the D100.
  • The D70s supports I-TTL and CLS flash (internal, SB-600, and SB-800), which provides the ability to use wireless and multiple flash TTL once again (the D100 can only use one flash in TTL modes). Just as important: the flash exposure setting is controlled by the 1005-pixel CCD on the D70s, not a five-segment sensor that lives in the bottom of the mirror box. Flash work seems more consistent and more accurate in difficult situations.
  • The font used in the menu system has been enlarged, making it easier to see, but the font is seems a bit more crudely fashioned than before, robbing a bit of that clarity.
  • ISO, White Balance, and Quality can be changed using a button and command dial--no more moving the Mode dial or dropping into the Menu system.

Overall, Nikon has generally kept things that worked well on the D100 the same on the D70s, added faster/better performance on many features, and made controls a little more straight-forward or simpler. Considering that they could have simply taken a D100 and tried to cost reduce it, the D70s is a remarkably re-engineered camera, and I applaud Nikon for taking a clean-slate approach to creating it.

Table of Contents

Need a book on the D70?
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D70 specifications are here.

Kit or Body Only?
You can get the body-only version for US$895 or the body plus 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G ED AF-S DX Nikkor for an additional US$300. This lens is quite good, and a bargain at US$300. The equivalent focal length range is 27-105mm, which is a nice "walking around" range. Nikon delivers the kit with the lens separated from the body, a full set of caps, and even a soft pouch to store the lens in. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised to see that Nikon hadn't "de-contented" the D70 offering to reduce costs. You still get a Nikon camera strap, you get a CR2 battery holder, and other things that could probably have been dropped to save a few bucks.

And that idea carries over to the lens. Instead of a cheap consumer lens (non AF-S, no ED glass), Nikon has provided a somewhat upscale design with the D70 kit. Unlike the Canon kit lens, this Nikkor has a full focus ring and comes with the required lens hood. I'll eventually get round to writing a separate review of the performance of this lens, but my initial impressions are quite favorable in every respect.

In short, if you don't have an AF-S lens that gets you to something less than 24mm, strongly consider getting the kit instead of the body only (assuming you can find a kit--they seemed to have sold out faster than the body-only units that each dealer received). You'd spend more adding an 18-35mm or even a third party 17-35mm lens to your collection, and I don't think you'd get better performance.

 

The Basics

Curiously, the D70s has a basic feature set that is almost exactly that of the D100, yet sold for US$500 (one-third) less at introduction. In a few places performance has been improved, and only a very few things were removed or crippled.

The autofocus system is still fast on central subjects, and features five sensors (CAM 900) that can track rapidly moving objects, or direct autofocus to a specific area of the frame. Autofocus detection works from EV –1 to EV 19 (specified at ISO 100, though the camera doesn't shoot at that speed! Nikon should have restated this into ISO 200 values if the ISO rating makes a difference). The metering range extends from EV 0 to EV 20, plenty wide for virtually any shooting you might do. Note that the spot metering range is slightly lower, from EV 3 to EV 20. Unless you make a habit of spot metering in unlit situations at night, you're not likely to encounter that limit. While the D100 meters to EV 21, the slight loss doesn't show up in practice, both because you're not likely to encounter such bright scenes very often and because the 3D metering starts devolving to a simpler method at around 17 EV anyway.

Shutter speeds can be controlled in 1/3 stop or 1/2 increments from 30 seconds to 1/8000, a slight improvement over the D100 (1/4000 top speed on the older camera), and the ability to change increments a clear improvement over the Digital Rebel. All shutter speeds up to 1/250 are handled mechanically on the D70s, all faster shutter speeds are handled electronically (e.g., the shutter opens for 1/250 and the sensor turns on and off to create the shutter speed effect). This arrangement first appeared on the D1 and provides one very useful side effect: flash sync speeds are increased substantially (arbitrarily limited to 1/500 on the D70s, just like the D1 series). Single shot and continuous firing at 3 fps is supported, though it's relatively easy to (inadvertently) turn on features that would make motor drive even more leisurely in pace; obviously you can't get 3 fps if the shutter speed is 1/2 second, but Single Servo AF, red-eye reduction, autofocus assist and host of other things can eat into the maximum frame rate if you're not careful.

Like the D1 series and D2h, the D70s manages matrix metering via a 1005-pixel sensor in the viewfinder. Not only does this provide a more sophisticated matrix system, but it also allows the exposure to be adjusted for color. The 1005-pixel array covers perhaps 80% of the frame, meaning it also isn't sensitive to bright/dark edges the way some of the older Nikon meters were. Likewise, the white balance is set by a CCD in the viewfinder. And if that weren't enough, flash metering is done using this viewfinder meter. Indeed, off-center subjects are now measurably better handled when using flash because of the way the flash metering is done.

The matrix metering also incorporates information about the focus point you’re using if you’ve mounted a “D-type” or "G-type" lens. Nikon also lists “subject positioning,” “overall scene brightness,” and “scene contrast” as factors in the matrix metering calculations. In short, it’s hard to second guess the camera as there are so many factors being considered. If simplicity suits you, the spot meter option is a better choice. Centerweight is 75/25, which is more centered than the D100, and can be adjusted to primarily cover 6 to 12mm circles centered on the frame. In short, there's absolutely nothing to fault in the metering of the D70s: the metering is as good and versatile as any Nikon built to date, including the F5.

Unfortunately, Nikon has bowed to the "amateurs need idiot modes" mentality that the Japanese companies seem to like so much. Besides Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual exposure mode we get an "all automatic" and six additional "scene" exposure modes (portrait, landscape, close up, sports, night landscape, and night portrait). I've written at length before about how little I like these so-called beginner's exposure modes (see my N90s review, for example), but besides the "effect isn't dialed in strong enough" complaint I usually have, I've got an even stronger negative reaction to the way Nikon is doing these modes now: loads of features are turned off and made unavailable. Want to bracket or set exposure compensation? Forget it when using the scene modes. So, not only do they lock in modestly chosen settings, they lock out other options. I can see why you should have an all-automatic exposure mode on the camera (I call it the "waiter" exposure mode, as in put the camera in Auto and hand it to the waiter to take your picture--he or she can't change anything, they can only take the picture). Moreover, the D70s is rich in manual controls--indeed one of the things that distinguishes it from the original Canon Digital Rebel is that the D70s allows the user to easily get in and override virtually everything the camera might set. Thus, I don't see the scene exposure modes as anything valuable--they tend to detract from what makes the D70s such a good camera.

Exposure settings in Program exposure mode are easily adjusted by spinning the Rear Command dial, something Nikon calls "Flexible Program." There's also an automatic adjustment of the program due to focal length of the lens used; thus there is no “Program High” or other special automatic modes as there are in some other Nikon bodies. That's more than enough automation for 95% of the potential D70s users out there.

An exposure compensation button gives you a +/- 5-stop range in 1/3-stop or 1/2-stop steps. A built-in bracketing system allows two or three shots at one-third, two-thirds, or half-stop values. Exposure (as well as autofocus) can be locked by on-camera controls (though this takes some reading of the custom functions to understand completely). ISO values from 200 to 1600 in one-third stops can be set directly. All this is a bit more flexibility than you'll find on the Digital Rebel.

Flash sync, as noted, works to 1/500 of second (see right column if you use an AS-15). Flash metering uses the viewfinder CCD and can be balanced, slow-synced, and synchronized with the rear shutter curtain. The Slow Sync cut-off point can be adjusted from the usual 1/60 to any shutter speed you want. However, if you want to shoot in any TTL mode, you'll need either the internal flash, the SB-600, or SB-800. Older flash units, such as the SB-28DX, SB-50DX, or SB-80DX Speedlight will not perform TTL on the D70! Ouch. If you're buying the D70 to supplement your existing D100, you'll be purchasing a new flash (fortunately, the SB-600 and SB-800 will perform D-TTL with the D100). The new I-TTL system allows you to control a remote SB-600 or SB-800 wirelessly by triggering it with the internal flash (called Commander mode). While many of the features of the new flashes are supported by the D70, the one that is not is High Speed Sync TTL (only available on the D2h at present). No biggie, that, since you can still sync at 1/500.

It's important for those migrating from Nikon 35mm SLRs to the D70 (or any Nikon DSLR) to understand the operational differences in the flash system. With a I-TTL type flash on the D70, the camera performs the same matrix and pre-flash adjustments as, say, an F5. However, the D70 doesn't alter any flash decision once the shutter is opened (i.e., it doesn't monitor the light reflected back during exposure to fine tune when to shut off the flash). This difference is subtle, but can show up if you have a moving object with high reflectivity in the scene (e.g., jewelry, metal surfaces). Also, rapidly changing light conditions can produce strange results. For example, in a situation with lots of other flash photographers with my F5, I found that rarely did another photographer's flash mess up my exposure (well, at least not too badly). With the D70 (and other Nikon DSLRs) in the same situation, I've had troubles I didn't have with the film bodies (or the S2 Pro). In short, you've got to be a little more careful when you've got moving subjects with high reflectivity or rapidly changing light conditions.

On the plus side, the new Speedlights perform pre-flash and full TTL capabilities even when the flash head is set to a bounce position (on 35mm bodies, setting the flash head to any angle other than normal or down -7 degrees cancels some of the more advanced TTL features). The internal flash also supports advanced TTL modes (as well as Manual flash at user-settable powers and a special Commander mode that allows you to wirelessly control a remote SB-600 or SB-800).

Flash is one area where the D70 shines over the Digital Rebel. The D70 has an extraordinary flexibility in flash control (much better than even the D100). When amateurs start getting wireless, multiple flash setups correct you know that something's changed for the better.

In the viewfinder, you'll see 95% of the full frame, which means you're not seeing between 50 and 75 pixels worth of information at every edge. Shutter speed, aperture, exposure mode, metering method, focus indicators, exposure compensation, flash ready, and frame counter are all visible in the viewfinder, even to eyeglass wearers like me. On the color LCD on the back of the camera, you'll see 100% of the image. Nikon allows you to optionally rotate the review of vertical images, but doing so makes the thumbnail extraordinarily small.

Probably of most use on the color LCD is the ability to see a histogram of any picture you take, allowing you to tinker with exposure to get every last bit of dynamic range out of the sensor (like slide film, always expose so that the brightest highlight doesn't blow out--you can often recover shadow detail that blocks up, but blown highlights are obnoxious to the eye and not easily fixable). One thing Coolpix users will complain about when they switch to a D70 is that the color LCD on the back doesn't display a preview of image before you take the shot (the D70's CCD is blocked by a shutter curtain and mirror, after all). Frankly, I don't find this to be a drawback at all, and a bit of a plus (the power-hungry color LCD is only on when you're reviewing pictures or making camera adjustments). The regular viewfinder is just fine for determining composition and focus, though the image is a bit smaller and darker than the N80's.

The D70 takes any Nikon F mount lens (well, lenses earlier than the AI manual focus Nikkors damage the mount if you try to put them on the D70, and a few specific lenses won't work on the D70, usually because they have elements that stick into the mirror box and require mirror lock-up). Non-CPU lenses (AI and AI-S manual focus lenses) don't allow metering and must be used in Manual exposure mode. When you mount a lens on the D70, the effective focal length is increased by about 1.5x (e.g., a 20mm lens shows roughly the same angle of view as a 30mm lens would on a 35mm body; note that the 1.5x is a rounded figure, the actual increase is slightly more). The Digital Rebel has an increase of 1.6, making finding a wide angle lens that gives you plenty of view harder to find.

Apertures aren't affected by the angle of view change. Because only the central portion of the image circle formed by the lens is used, if you've been making any exposure adjustments at maximum aperture to account for light falloff, you should not do that on a D70 (the exception is some DX lenses, such as the one that comes with the kit, which does have a bit of light falloff when used wide open). The field of view change has several good points, and a couple of bad ones:

  • Free teleconverter-like effect. Your 300mm f/4 lens now produces the horizontal angle of view of a 466mm f/4 lens! Wildlife and bird photographers love the extra "oomph" the D70 gives to their lenses. (Hey, wait a minute you say, how come 300mm x 1.5 = 466mm? Well, the horizontal change is almost 1.52x, actually.)
  • Better optical quality. The fact that only the central area of the image circle is used on regular 35mm lenses means that chromatic aberration is lessened, light falloff is reduced, corners are sharper, and even consumer-oriented lenses (such as the 18-35mm Nikkor) produce professional-looking results. Even the DX lenses with the smaller image circle seem to have been designed conservatively in this respect: the 12-24mm Nikkor DX, for example, has an image circle large enough to cover the full 35mm from 18-24mm. The one thing I do note about the kit lens for the D70 is that it has visible light falloff in the corners at wide angles, though.
  • Wide angle options are limited. The widest rectilinear lens made is the 12-24mm DX, which produces basically the same results as a 18-36mm lens on a full-frame (e.g. film) SLR. Beyond the 12-24mm, the only other very wide angle option are the 14mm f/2.8 and the 10.5mm DX full-frame fisheye. This is an adequate selection, but your choices are limited and there are few third-party options that get you true wide angle.
  • Depth of field judgment isn't quite right. The real key here is that you're likely to blow up the original image area (sensor size) by a greater magnification than you would with 35mm, so you shouldn't use the 35mm standards, despite the fact that it may appear that you should (Nikon doesn't address this issue in their documentation or marketing materials; I do in my book).

The CCD sensor the D70 uses is unique. It's labeled a Sony ICX453AK on the back. It's not one of the Sony-produced 6-megapixel sensors that the D100, Pentax *ist, and other cameras have started using (ICX413AK), though it ise derived from the same technology. The D70 sensor consists of a 3008 x 2000 array, and it has massive (compared to consumer cameras such as the Coolpix) 7 micron pixels. That's just one reason why the D70 can produce 12-bit RGB images with rich color and low noise. Like virtually all digital cameras, a filter array is placed over the D70's CCD. This filter has four purposes:

  1. Provides the Bayer pattern. The Bayer pattern is named after the Kodak engineer who invented it. Basically, this is a set of color filters that results in an alternating pattern of RG (on odd-numbered rows) and GB (on even-numbered rows) pixels. The final image is rebuilt by interpolating the actual pixel values at each position.
  2. Filters out infrared. CCDs are sensitive to infrared light, and to keep infrared energy from affecting image quality, most (but not all) of this light is filtered out.
  3. Realigns the light. CCDs don't like light hitting them at any angle other than 90 degrees, so the filter also focuses the light rays from the lens directly into the sensors using a set of what are called microlenses.
  4. Provides a low-pass anti-aliasing filter. Digital sampling is subject to color fringing (artifacts) when high frequency detail in a scene approaches that of the sensor pitch.

The D70 produces two types of files: JPEG and Compressed NEF. The JPEG options work as you'd expect, but you pay a significant penalty for using that format: the files are compressed and lose a bit of detail, plus they are converted to 8-bit format, losing some of the D70's tonal range in the process. Unlike the D100, the D70's JPEG engine doesn't seem to soften the edges a bit from what you'd get with an unsharpened NEF file.

The Compressed NEF format is the only one that comes close to retaining the full data set the D70 is capable of acquiring. I say "close to retaining" because the compression scheme Nikon uses is not lossless. Basically, the camera takes the highlight data and places them into groups (essentially a rounding of many of the data points), producing the equivalent to somewhere between 9 and 10 bits of data. When this is returned to 12-bit form, there's a bit of posterization in the highlight data. The reason this works as a visually lossless scheme is that our eyes really can't resolve more than about an 8-bit value can produce (and our eyes aren't linear in response to light, either). For the most part it isn't a big thing that the compression loses data, though there may be some post-processing manipulations that will render slightly differently because of the data rounding.

The NEF format contains the compressed data that came from the CCD, with no interpolation or camera processing. Unfortunately, you need an extra software program to fully use this format (typically Capture 4.1). At least the Photoshop import filter supplied with the camera allows you to do some of the post exposure adjustments users like to do with their NEF files (exposure, white balance, and rotation, in this case). To get the most from NEF files, you need a converter program such as Nikon Capture, though. For those of you using Photoshop CS as your converter, yes, Adobe is working on updating their converter to accommodate the D70. I understand that it will be available later this spring.

In the US, the D70 comes with the required EN-EL3 lithium rechargeable battery pack and the MH-18 quick charger (same battery and charger as the D100; the D70s comes with the EN-EL3a and MH-18a, though these are interchangeable with the originals). You'll want at least one extra EN-EL3. Battery life is quite dependent upon a number of factors, and can range from a couple of hundred shots to a thousand. Note that IBM Microdrives use more power than CompactFlash cards, and thus, exhaust the batteries faster. Still, battery life is impressive by any standard of measurement. With a nonvolatile CompactFlash card, I can often shoot all day without worrying about changing batteries; only the D100 and D2h can match that in my Nikon DSLR arsenal.

The camera weighs in at 21 ounces, and that's without a lens or the battery, so it's a lot lighter than the D1, and only a few ounces lighter than the D100.

 

Handling

The D1 was like a Mack truck compared to consumer digital cameras. I rated the D100 at the heavy duty Dodge RAM pickup level. The D70 fits into that same category, though it seems like the interior (menu system) has been upgraded. For the most part, the D70 is rugged and reliable. I left my D70 unattended on a tripod at a recent workshop while helping a student, and a gust of wind knocked it to the ground. Not only is there no visible indication of this fall, the camera still works perfectly fine. During the following workshop, student D70's dropped to the ground a foot or more three times. Same thing: no damage, no visible signs of the drop. Those of you who lambaste the plastic nature of the D70, stop moaning--Nikon's choice of materials and the way in which they're put together is excellent. The plastic color LCD cover, the autofocus sensor direction pad, and the door over the CompactFlash slot do seem a bit "cheap" relative to the rest of the camera and more prone to damage, but I said the same thing about the D100 and after two years of dragging it through the back country the only thing that failed was that the LCD cover cracked.

While most of the controls fall naturally under my fingers and can be easily found by touch, the overall grip on the body seems to be like the D100: a bit unrefined. You only have to pick up a Fujifilm S2 Pro to see what I mean. The ridge on the CompactFlash door just doesn't "fit" my hands, as it does on most Nikon bodies. Moreover, the location of the autofocus sensor direction pad (and the use of the same small, stiff controller as the D100 and some Coolpix models) wasn't a good choice.

All camera controls with multiple settings (flash mode, metering mode, exposure compensation, etc.) are set by holding down the appropriate button and rotating one of the knurled command dials. Unlike the D100, ISO, image quality and white balance don't use the Mode dial--you either set them by menu, or, if nothing is displayed on the LCD, you can manipulate them directly with one of the "dual nature" buttons and the Rear Command dial.

While this dual purposing of buttons--the button does one thing if you're doing X, another if you're doing Y--is convenient, it will catch loyal Nikon users by surprise. Nikon generally doesn't use much "button overload" in their interface design, but the D70 has it in many places. Flash options, flash exposure compensation, and flash activation (popping the internal flash up for use) all use the same button, for example. You'll have to get used to context controlling what a button does. Fortunately, the choices Nikon made in this regard are pretty sensible. For example, if the menu system is already active, setting white balance with the menu system is the more direct route. If you're reviewing an image on the LCD you're not likely wanting to change ISO simultaneously. I suspect that the dual nature of some buttons will become second nature to you after a few hours of heavy use.

Some subtle changes have been made to the menu system--ones that I haven't seen written about anywhere. For example, if you have a lens that has a Manual Focus/Autofocus switch, when you set the switch to Manual, the autofocus options in the menu system are grayed out! A lot of Japanese manufacturers (including Nikon) have considered menu systems as just a big scrolling list of toggle buttons in the past; I'm glad to see that they're finally starting to understand that context needs to be taken into account, too. Again, it's a subtle thing, but changes like this show that Nikon is carefully examining the user interface and trying to do the right thing. I don't get that feeling from the Digital Rebel (though some of the other Canon products do better in this regard).

The color LCD position is less vulnerable to scratching and nose prints than the D1, but it's still vulnerable, what with it's sticking out the backside of the camera. The cheap cover Nikon supplies is easily cracked, and fits a little less securely than the one on my D100. On the plus side, you can easily see the LCD through it.

A lot has been written about the issue of CCD cleaning. Unlike a film camera, where the photosensitive surface is replaced every image, the CCD just sits there, shot after shot. In dusty and dirty environments, you'll end up with some of that ending up on your CCD (heck, the sealed F5 prism eventually gets dust and grime in it). The question is, what can you do about it? Nikon's manual warns against using anything except a manual blower (the turkey baster type, with the rubber bulb): "under no circumstances should you touch or wipe the filter." Curiously, Nikon's authorized repair centers use pretty much the same cleaning methods I do, which require you to touch the CCD. A case of "do as my lawyer's say, not as I do." Heck, Nikon even sells a CCD cleaning kit in Japan! I'm pretty sure that some of the dust you get on the CCD will not be easily dislodged using the low-power bulb Nikon suggests. Check out my article on CCD cleaning for the best advice to date. Unfortunately, Nikon hasn't really improved the access to the CCD chamber, it's almost as tight as the D1. By comparison, the S2 Pro's filter is easily reached, and gives you plenty of room to move swabs off the edge.

My primary handling complaints on the D70 are these:

  1. Button shift. Once again the buttons are playing Musical Chairs. The second button behind the shutter release is now the Metering Method button (on various different models it has been the Mode button, the Exposure Compensation button, the Flash Exposure Compensation button, and yes, the Metering Method button). For those of us who use multiple Nikon bodies (hey, aren't we your favorite customers, Nikon?), this incessant button migration just gets to be a minor annoyance. I guarantee that it will help you miss a picture someday.
  2. Menu shift. And the same thing happens with menus: functions drift in position on a menu, custom setting numbers change, and sometimes new names are used for the same function. This wouldn't be anywhere as annoying if you could download new software for an older camera to make it's menus "look and feel" like those of your new camera, but unfortunately Nikon seems to never look back...
  3. A few miscues. Giving us only compressed NEF was bad enough, but we also don't get to choose the size and type of JPEG when we want to shoot with NEF+JPEG (you only get JPEG BASIC). The Optimize Image menu uses nomenclature that is new and not very well described (e.g., what exactly am I setting when I set this to Landscape?). Not having a mechanical remote release is frustrating (I don't want to have to hold the IR remote in front of the camera to remote release the camera). The D70s has fixed this, but it is a proprietary cable (MC-DC1).
  4. Flip-flops. The D70 Autofocus Area Direction pad lock button has the Lock position in the down position, while the D100 has it in the up position. Go figure.

 


 

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What about the new 8mp Rebel?

Canon has also updated their Digital Rebel, giving it many of the features of the much more expensive 20D, including an 8mp sensor. The new Rebel is better in most ways than the original, but it strikes me that, for most amateur shooters, they're just not going to see significant impact from those extra 2mp. Instead of 3000 pixels across the horizontal axis you get 3400. I really doubt most users would be able to tell the difference in prints up to the size any consumer printer can produce (13x19"). I've heard some say that the extra 2mp gives them "extra cropping ability," but not as much as they seem to think. The bottom line still boils down to which camera handles better. The margin is narrower than before since Canon has addressed many of the complaints users had with the original DR, but I'd still tend to say the D70s is the preferred choice. The D70s is more responsive, seems better built, and fits in the hands more nicely.

But as I hope I made clear elsewhere, if you're taking bad pictures with either a D70s or a Digital Rebel, it's not the camera that's the problem. Both are capable of quite nice images, especially up to about 11x14", but even beyond that in capable hands.

When pressed on the Canon or Nikon issue these days, I'm back to where we were in the film world at the low end DSLR choice: try both. Pick the one whose user interface and ergonomics fit you and learn how to use it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flash sync is normally 1/500 on the D70. But as with the D1 series, if you use a "dumb" flash you can sync all the way to 1/8000.

One way to get a dumb flash is to use the AS-15 to connect your flash. The other way is to simplify the connection down to the fire and ground pins (some third party flashes are already that way, gaffer tape on the other three contacts is the "pro" alternative).

However, all isn't a bed of roses with an AS-15 and high shutter speeds. You have to be careful that your flash duration fits into the shutter speed window. The SB-80DX and SB-800 both would require that you use 1/16 power or lower at a shutter speed of 1/8000, for example. If you don't know what any of what I just wrote means, then ignore it all, you shouldn't be experimenting with higher speed flash sync ;~)

 

 

Exposure

A common complaint from new D100 users was that they believe that their camera underexposes. What they were seeing was not underexposure, per se, but both a metering preference to not blow out highlights and an exposure linearity that was weighted towards preserving highlights. The D70 continues both those things, though I think that it has a slightly better exposure ramp than the D100. Still, a "well exposed" D70 image is likely to be made to look better with post processing, just like the D100.

Like all Nikon DSLR models before it, the D70 tends to "bunch up" values at the dark end of the spectrum. This is a common problem of CCDs, and has to do with the linearity curve that's applied against the data coming off the ADC. It's nothing that a little bit of Curve manipulation in Photoshop (or something like Fred Miranda's linearity action) can't easily fix (at the expense of a little more noise). If you have Nikon Capture, you can also come up with your own Custom Curve to change the linearity--samples of that were provided in Issue #4 of my newsletter.

Unlike any prior Nikon DSLR, the D70's tendency in this regard is somewhat less pronounced, and some of the Optimize Image settings Nikon provides produce better looking JPEGs out of the camera than the D100 did. Still, overall, there's nothing inherently better about the D70's exposures than the D100's (or the D1's or the D2h's). I find I expose pretty much the same way as I did on the D100 and get pretty much the same results (though note that I usually shoot with things like sharpening OFF and only in NEF format).

My preliminary assessment is that the D70 doesn't have trouble holding the same highlight detail as the D100 with NEFs. Also good news is that the dynamic range hasn't changed , nor has the spectral response changed enough to talk about. If you shoot with a D100, you can pretty much work with the D70 exactly the same way that you've been doing, exposure-wise.

Where there is a difference is in the noise tendencies. The D100 produces the cleanest looking JPEGs I've ever seen from a digital camera, at the cost of some loss of acuity. But a D100 JPEG just doesn't have JPEG artifacts in it. The D70 isn't quite the same. While JPEG artifacts are usually well controlled and invisible, there are situations that seem to trigger them. In particular, the electronic shutter speeds (1/500 to 1/8000) seem to produce curious grid-like patterns in plain tonal areas in bright light, and I think this is made more obvious by the JPEG engine's artifacts (especially if sharpening is ON and aggressive). While I can't say that the D70 has less noise than the D100 at ISO 200, the character has changed a bit, and bright light JPEGs are one place where I see this. Plain skies still look a bit cleaner on the D70 than on my D1x, which is to say, very good. ISO 400 looks slightly better on the D70 than on the D100--it's so good I'd have no qualms using ISO 400 at any time. ISO 800 is usable, though ISO 1600 has enough embedded noise that you'll want to avoid it unless you absolutely need the sensitivity boost. Noise reduction programs, such as Neat Image, seem to be able to deal quite well with the noise the D70 does produce, though they are less successful at removing that strange grid-like pattern at the high shutter speeds.

With long-exposure noise reduction on, the D70 can also handle very long exposures without throwing in stray hot pixels. I'm comfortable shooting one minute exposures with the D70 (especially with noise reduction ON), but beyond that I start to see some slight patterns that must be heat profiles from the electronics. The D2h does somewhat better than the D70 with very long exposures, but the D70 is still quite good. (For those of you considering the Digital Rebel, it does better than the D70 in very long exposures. At least my DR does.)

Color rendition is accurate with AdobeRGB, a little less so with sRGB. The special sRGB mode tends to help greens a bit, but none of the color modes produce anywhere near the green saturation I see in the Fujifilm S2 Pro (and you may not want that, anyway). I like the D70's subtle and accurate color rendering better than that of my Digital Rebel's, which seems to be a bit too saturated at times.

 

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Autofocus

Using the central autofocus sensor only, the D70 is as fast at autofocus as any Nikon body. AF-S lenses "snap" to focus using the central sensor. The only times you'll see a difference between the D70 and the D1 series or D2h is in low light and off center subjects. Unfortunately, that's a big difference when you compare an off-center subject shot with a D2h and a D70. I only mention that because I've seen a lot of posts and heard a lot of comments about how the D70 is the "poor man's" sports camera. Yes, the card write speed means that you can shoot with abandon right to the limits of the 3 fps the shutter can handle, but you're going to find an incredible difference in autofocus ability. Even with the center sensor active the D2h runs rings round the D70 in continuous action. That's because the finder blackout time (and the time the AF sensors aren't getting information) is so much lower with the D2h than it is with the D70.

Still, autofocus is not a weak point of the D70, it simply is in the consumer rather than the big league.

Other Performance Issues

A few other performance factors need to be addressed. If you've read any of the Internet forums after the D70 hit the streets, you may be perplexed about the myriad "flaws" the D70 has in its image quality. First, every new DSLR has provoked similar torrents of problem posts (the Canon 10D couldn't autofocus correctly, the D100 was soft, the 1D had banding, the D2h had near infrared problems). The way I look at things is this: every DSLR has a few problems, just like every new film stock had a few issues the photographer needed to be aware of. A natural reaction when you encounter some new potential liability is to complain loudly about it. A better reaction is to learn what conditions produce the problem and learn to control that.

For example, when Velvia slide film first came out, some photographers complained that the ISO value was rated incorrectly (right, the manufacturer doesn't know how to read density values correctly) while others complained about it being too contrasty. What I think both camps were reacting to is the way Velvia drops to a rich black in the shadows at about 2.5 stops under middle gray. Yet Velvia went on to be one of the most successful slide films ever. That's because photographers eventually got a handle on what it did, how it did it, and started changing their shooting habits slightly to deal with it.

So let's keep that in mind as we examine the so-called shortcomings of the D70:

  • Moire. When the digital sampling frequency is close to, but not exactly, the frequency of detail in a scene, digital cameras tend to produce moire. It's clear to me that the D70 uses both slightly different anti-aliasing filters over the sensor and has a different JPEG rendering engine. These two things conspire to put the D70's moire into a frequency that's more likely to be encountered in casual shooting. But let's put this into perspective: all Bayer pattern cameras produce moire at some frequency of detail. You've got to learn what that frequency is and learn to recognize it in scenes you photograph. Even moving a few feet backwards (or changing the focal length) can sometimes get the detail out of the "beat zone," where moire is produced.
  • Color Shift. The D70 has a tendency to produce a very slight side-to-side color shift at shutter speeds of 1/2000 to 1/8000. Fortunately those aren't shutter speeds that are used often (if at all--I can't remember the last time I used even 1/2000, let alone 1/8000). Moreover, I don't think this shift is going to be visible unless you do some drastic post processing on the image.
  • Grids. As already noted, sometimes the D70 produces a grid-like artifact in constant tone areas. If in-camera sharpening is ON and you're using JPEG and Normal to High contrast settings, it may become visible in your shots. This, too, appears to be a high shutter speed problem.
  • Blooms. If you overwhelm the CCD with light, as you might by shooting directly into the sun, you'll see vertical extensions that are essentially blown highlight extending into adjacent data. It appears that this only occurs when you use the electronic shutter speeds (1/500 to 1/8000), so try using a small aperture if you see a condition where this might happen.

Remember, there's no perfect DSLR. Learn what triggers each problem and work to avoid that in your shooting.

Finally, we come to battery performance: in a work, excellent. I've gone two days of regular shooting with a single battery, and the new EN-EL3a (available as an option for existing D70 users) should extend that signficantly. People like exact measurements, such as X number of images on one charge, but so many factors enter into the equation to make such statements even more unreliable than EPA estimates for cars. Suffice it to say that you should measuring your battery life in hundreds of images, perhaps even thousands. I regularly shoot a couple hundred of images a day demonstrating things at workshops and use the color LCD extensively when doing so. I've yet to exhaust a D70 battery in doing so.

 

 

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Drawbacks

  • Those few missing features. No mirror pre-release. No mechanical remote release (fixed in the D70s).
  • No extended grip. While I don't miss having the vertical release, the MB-D100 provided a 10-pin connection, which I do miss. And with two batteries in the grip, you could probably shoot forever with your D70. Alas, we'll never have the chance to find out.
  • Manual lenses. AI and AI-S lenses and accessories can only be used in Manual exposure mode, and the meter is inoperative.
  • D-TTL is MIA. Buy a new Nikon flash or be relegated to Automatic and Manual flash mode. It's silly that D-TTL isn't supported by the camera.
  • Some performance issues to be aware of. Moire, bright light blooming, and bright light grid noise can rear their ugly pixels if you're not paying attention. If you go above 1/250 shutter speeds, be aware of what triggers the latter two.

Positives

The drawbacks are all minor compared to the pluses. The D70 takes beautiful photos when used well, and can give almost any digital SLR on the market a run for the money in image quality. We may quibble about slight differences in color, or noise, or aliasing between different models, but these discussions are no different than the Provia versus Ektachrome type of debate. In short, expect to produce darn good results out of this camera.

  • D1x image quality at a Best Buy price. Just like with my D100, I'm getting results out of the D70 that equal or exceed those from my D1x (though sometimes that takes a bit of post processing I don't have to do with the D1x). The more I use the camera, the more I discover how to eek out a bit more quality.
  • Feature-itis. If the original Digital Rebel was a crippled 10D, the D70 was an enhanced D100! Love the meter, love the flash, like the improved controls and menus, not missing much of anything (realistically, only the missing mirror pre-release is a functional thing that I miss).
  • Light, small, mostly comfortable. The D70 is small and light enough to carry all day in casual situations. The D70 kit (with 18-70mm lens) and a 70-300mm ED lens may be the perfect vacation DSLR combo: long battery life, compact size, capable of great images.
  • The plastic takes a beating. Say what you will, but I've already seen plenty of evidence that the D70 can shrug off bumps, drops, and scrapes.

D70 Summary

A step forward from the D100, with few compromises despite the significantly lower price. A true consumer DSLR.

 

Features:

Reliability:

In the field:

Value:

Bottom line: The D70 is the digital SLR for the masses. A very well-rounded camera that will make many a digital newcomer happy. Considering that you can control so much more with a D70 than you can with the Digital Rebel, those that prefer manual to auto won't have any troubles paying an extra US$100 for the privilege.

 
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