Nikon D70s SLR Review
By Movable Type Admin
With the introduction of the D70s, Nikon has refined its most popular dSLR. There is no increase in resolution or responsiveness, usually hallmarks of new models, over the D70 we reviewed in 2004, but you'll find several improvements that add to its appeal, including a larger 2-inch LCD monitor, a higher capacity battery, faster image recording, improved autofocus system and the ability to attach a remote shutter release; while not revolutionary, Nikon's efforts have made an already good camera even better. With introduction of the entry-level D50, the D70s occupies the mid-range of Nikon's amateur dSLR line, competing directly with Canon's Digital Rebel XT.
The D70s is based on the same body as the D70; the fit and finish of its durable polycarbonate body has a professional look and feel, as do its switches, buttons and covers. The D70s ergonomic design is a comfortable fit for my hand, and the layout of its controls is identical to the D70, logical and convenient, having nothing positioned in a way that could be inadvertently activated. The D70s packs a more powerful battery than its predecessor; the 1500 mAH EN-EL3 had about 1/3 capacity remaining after powering the camera through more than 800 test shots, including extensive use of the LCD to explore and test the menu system.
The 2-inch (diagonal) 130,000 pixel LCD monitor might not seem like a great improvement over its 1.8-inch counterpart on the D70, but it represents an approximately 20% increase in viewing area. Its greater size benefitted both image review and menu navigation. The D70s sports a new menu design that is easier to read -- the good news for current D70 owners is that the latest D70 firmware upgrade will give you the same, new menu design too. Image review options are the same as the D70, with zoomed playback and pan, thumbnail review and several screens of camera and exposure data as well as a histogram display. The LCD was bright and resolute enough to be used in all conditions, but its use to field-check critical focus is limited by the 4.7x maximum playback magnification.
The eye-level viewfinder uses a less-costly penta-mirror rather than the pentaprism used the Nikon D100; it was pleasure to use, providing a 95% view of the frame and plenty of exposure information, allowing you to keep you eye at the viewfinder while changing exposure settings. Users of consumer digicams with Electronic Viewfinders that go blank under certain conditions will especially enjoy the D70s' optical thru-the-lens view; when shooting in continuous mode, the mirror return was fast enough to provide an essentially continuous viewfinder image. The top LCD control panel complements the viewfinder nicely, allowing you to set shooting parameters comfortably with the camera at waist level with your eye away from the viewfinder.
While it is an amateur dSLR, the D70s doesn't limit your creativity by imposing the use of automatically chosen settings. The D70s allows you to explicitly set shooting parameters such as Metering mode, Focus mode, and AF-area mode, giving you extensive control over the camera's auto exposure and auto focusing functions. Missing, however, is the ability to establish focus or release priority in continuous AF mode; the D70s imposes release-priority with continuous AF, meaning that it will release the shutter whether or not focus has been attained. Even in its automatic Vari-Program modes, the D70s allows the photographer to control focusing functions and ISO. In addition, the D70s provides 25 Custom Settings that allow you to personalize its operation to fit your shooting style and subjects.
Understanding the D70s Custom Settings can be a daunting task for inexperienced photographers. The D70s provides assistance in the form of a Help button that calls up an explanation of each Custom Function on the LCD monitor; think of it as a built-in camera operations guide that will help less-experienced users improve their shooting skills! But the D70s provides little help in remembering shooting parameters and Custom Settings; yes, it will recall the settings in effect before the last power-off, but it provides no memory where you can save several combinations of settings, each customized to different shooting conditions or subjects. And while the D70s allows control of some shooting parameters in its automatic Vari-Program modes, those settings are forgotten when you change modes, requiring you to re-set them the next time. Sports mode, for example, defaults to Closest subject AF-Area Mode, but allows you to set either Single area or Dynamic area via Custom Setting 3. If you exit Sports mode and return to it later, you'll find that your previous AF-Area mode setting has been forgotten, and you'll have to reset Custom Setting 3. The ability to override default Vari-Program settings is an excellent feature, but it can be improved by providing a memory area for saving and recalling those settings.
The single image shooting performance of the D70s is very good, essentially identical to the D70. You'll notice its responsiveness as soon as you turn it on; from power-on until capture of the first image took only 1/2 second. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was less than 1/10 second when pre-focused. Autofocus shutter lag ranged between 2/10 and 4/10 second, depending on the degree of focus change required of the attached Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens. In single-shot mode, I was able to capture images at 1/2 second intervals without flash, and between 8/10 and 4 second intervals with flash, depending on subject distance.
In continuous shooting mode, the D70s lived-up to Nikon's promise of 3 frames per second, capturing 10 images in 2.9 seconds; subsequent shots were taken at 4/10 second intervals. The D70s' buffer performance is improved from the D70, taking about 3 seconds to flush a full buffer of JPEG Large Fine images to the CF memory card. These measurements were made using an AF-S Nikkor 18-70mm lens and a fast SanDisk Extreme III 1GB CF memory card, shooting Large (3008x2000) Fine JPEG images. Nikon claims that dialing back image quality to Large/Normal allows the D70s to capture images at 3fps to a depth of 144 shots when using high-speed CF cards. I was able to capture more than 500 images at 3fps using those quality settings and a 1GB SanDisk Exterme III card, but not consistently; during some capture sequences, the remaining shot counter went to zero after 12 to 20 shots, and the capture rate then slowed to 2.5 fps.
The D70s showed marked improvement over the D70 when shooting NEF (RAW) images thanks to its improved buffer and CF card interface performance. In single-shot mode, 6 NEF images could be captured at 1/2 second intervals, while subsequent shots with the full buffer came at 8/10 second intervals. In continuous drive mode, 4 NEF images were captured at 3 frames per second, and subsequent shots could be taken at 8/10 second intervals. Impressively, it took only 3.2 seconds for the D70s to flush its entire buffer of NEF images to the CF card. In RAW+JPEG mode the D70s captured 4 images at 3 fps, with subsequent shots at 1.2 second intervals and the buffer flushing in 5 seconds. RAW+JPEG produces only a Basic quality JPEG; there are no other JPEG quality selections available.
I tested the D70s with Nikon's AF-S DX Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED lens. I liked the versatile focal length range of 27-105mm in 35mm-equivalence, providing a field of view wide enough for most small interior shots while offering a moderate telephoto focal length for pleasing portraits. It is lightweight without feeling cheap, focuses rapidly, and produces image sharpness that's sure to please. There is noticeable barrel distortion at its 18mm (27mm in 35mm equivalence) focal length, and a bit of pin cushioning at focal lengths of 38mm (52mm in 35mm equivalence) and greater. One of the few shortcomings I found was vignetting, or darkness at the corners of the image, at the 18mm end of the zoom range; it is quite noticeable at the wide-open aperture of f/3.5, but absent at apertures of f/5.6 and smaller. This lens complements the camera well, and I expect that most D70s buyers will opt for the D70s Kit which includes it for only $300 more than the body-only D70s Set.
The D70s' built-in flash, although limited in range to about 15 feet at ISO 200, performed well. It produced pleasing skin tones both when used as fill flash and as the primary light source. The flash coverage is wider than the D70, with good illumination from corner to corner at the lens full wide angle focal length of 18mm (27mm); vignetting will occur with the lens wide open, but this is a lens issue, not a flash coverage isue. If you need more flash power, the D70s' built-in hot shoe can attach external Speedlights. Nikon's powerful SB-800 worked well with the D70s, its zoom head controlled by the camera, its AF-assist lamp more effective than the D70s' built-in lamp, and supportive of Nikon's Creative Lighting System and i-TTL flash control. With a street price of about $300, some D70s users might find the SB-800 a bit pricey and opt for the $200 SB-600 instead.
The D70s' image quality was excellent. Its exposure and autofocus system complemented each other, producing sharp, well-exposed images. The 5-point AF system is fast and accurate, and its predictive focus tracking is able to keep up with fast moving subjects. Its metering system is accurate and versatile, even allowing you to specify the size of the image circle used in center-weighted mode. Highlight noise is detectable in images captured at ISO 800, and noticeable at ISO 1600; noise is detectable in shadow areas at ISO 400, and noticeable at 800 and 1600. Image noise at high ISO settings is not quite up to the standard set by Canon's Digital Rebel XT, but the D70s' image sharpness and contrast were better than the XT thanks to it's higher quality 18-70mm kit lens.
In our test of the D70, I complained of a phenomena known as moiré, a visible pattern that occurs when one or more halftone screens are misregistered in a color image. I'm happy to report that I was unable to reproduce the moiré issue on the D70s.
As with any digital camera, there are some "gotchas:"
As stated in the opening paragraph, Nikon's D70s is a refinement of one of the most successful amateur dSLR's ever produced. While its resolution falls 2-megapixels short of Canon's industry-leading Digital Rebel XT, the D70s offers very good shooting performance and excellent image quality. Users of consumer digicams will find that the D70s' responsiveness, viewfinder clarity, and image quality at high ISO settings overcome the limitations of their current equipment. And users of Nikon film SLR's will find a familiar look and feel, and compatibility with most of their inventory of AF Nikkor lenses. At an MSRP of $899 for the body-only D70s Set, and $1199 for the D70s Kit including the very nice AF-S DX Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED lens, Nikon is offering a very good value.
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D70s Sample Photos
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