Nikon D70 SLR Review

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Nikon D70

Steve's Conclusion

With the introduction of the D70, Nikon has redefined the amateur dSLR market. While Canon limited the features of its Digital Rebel to prevent competition with its own higher-end EOS 10D camera, Nikon equipped the D70 with versatile features and equal or better shooting performance than its more costly D100. Nikon also included seven "Vari-Program" shooting modes that optimize camera settings for frequently found shooting conditions, addressing the needs of less-experienced users. The D70 is Nikon's answer for amateur users of film-based SLR's looking to move to digital, and for digital photographers who are tired of accommodating the limitations of consumer digicams.

The D70 is Nikon's smallest and lightest dSLR, weighing several ounces less than the D100. But its size and weight do not impart any sense of cheapness; the fit and finish of the D70's durable polycarbonate body is professional in look and feel, as are its switches, buttons and covers. The D70's ergonomic design is a comfortable fit for my hand, and the layout of its controls is both logical and convenient, having nothing positioned in a way that could be inadvertently activated. Despite its small size, the D70 packs a powerful battery; the EN-EL3, the same battery used in the D100, lasted through nearly 600 shots during our testing, including extensive use of the LCD to explore and test the D70's menu system.

The 1.8-inch 130,000 pixel LCD provides a clear view of menu's and image playback, but the monitor can't be used as a live image viewfinder. The Playback options mimic those found on the consumer cameras with zoomed playback and pan, thumbnail review and several screens of camera and exposure data as well as a histogram display. 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 D70's optical thru-the-lens view; when shooting in continuous mode, the mirror return was fast enough to provide a seemingly-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 Nikon's entry-level dSLR, the D70 doesn't limit your creativity by imposing the use of automatically chosen settings. Unlike the Canon Digital Rebel, the D70 allows you to explicitly set shooting parameters such as Metering mode, Focus mode, and AF-area mode, giving you complete control over the camera's auto exposure and auto focusing functions. Even in its automatic Vari-Program modes, the D70 allows the photographer to control focusing functions and ISO. In addition, the D70 provides 25 Custom Settings that allow you to personalize its operation to fit your shooting style and subjects; the Digital Rebel provides none.

Understanding the D70's Custom Settings can be a daunting task for inexperienced photographers. The D70 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 D70 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 D70 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 2. 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 2. 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 D70's shooting performance is very good. 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, a performance closer to Nikon's professional D2H than it's D100. 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 was 4/10 second for the first shot, and 2/10 second for subsequent shots at the same subject distance. In single-shot mode, I was able to capture images at 1/2 second intervals without flash, and at between 1 and 3 second intervals with flash, depending on subject distance. In continuous shooting mode, the D70 lived-up to Nikon's promise of 3 frames per second, capturing 11 images in 3.3 seconds; subsequent shots were taken at 7/10 second intervals. The D70's buffer performance is very good, taking only 10 seconds to flush a full buffer of JPEG Fine images to the CF memory card. These measurements were made using an AF-S Nikkor 18-70 mm lens and a fast Transcend 1GB CF memory card, shooting Large (3008x2000) JPEG Fine images.

Things slow down only slightly when shooting NEF (RAW) images. In single-shot mode, 4 NEF + JPEG Basic images could be captured at intervals of 7/10 second , and subsequent shots at 2 seconds. In continuous drive mode, 4 NEF + JPEG Basic images were captured at 3 frames per second, and subsequent shots could be taken at 2 second intervals. Impressively, it took only 8 seconds for the D70 to flush its entire buffer to the CF card, again a performance closer to Nikon's D2H than its D100. If you select the RAW+JPEG mode the D70 captures only a Basic quality JPEG, there are no other JPEG quality selections available. We hope Nikon will change this with a future firmware upgrade but for now that's the way it works.

I tested the D70 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 focal length, and a bit of pin cushioning at focal lengths of 38mm and greater. I also noticed a slight amount of chromatic aberration (purple fringing) at wide-open apertures, diminishing as the lens was stopped-down. 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 diminishes as the lens is stopped-down to f/5 and smaller apertures. This lens complements the camera well, and I expect that most D70 buyers will opt for the D70 Kit which includes it for only $300 more than the body-only D70 Set.

The D70's 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. Its coverage was adequate for lens focal lengths of 50mm (35mm-equivalent) or greater, but produced dark edges at wider focal lengths. If you need more flash power, the D70's built-in hot shoe can attach external Speedlights. Nikon's SB-600 and SB-800 should complement the D70 well, supporting Nikon's Creative Lighting System and i-TTL flash control. Unfortunately, the D70 is not backward-compatible with the TTL mode of its older flash equipment. In fact, if you attempt to use TTL mode on an SB-50DX, the shutter button will lock and prevent you from taking an exposure. Your non i-TTL flash equipment will have to be used in non-TTL automatic mode or, in the case of the popular and relatively inexpensive SB-50DX, manual mode.

The D70's image quality was excellent, with one exception. 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. Noise is detectable in images captured at ISO 640, and noticeable at ISO 1250 and 1600. That said, the Nikon Capture 4 software did a very good job of removing noise from images captured at high ISO settings, although at the cost of some loss of sharpness.

The exception to excellent image quality is a phenomena known as moiré, a visible pattern that occurs when one or more halftone screens are misregistered in a color image. I was consistently able to reproduce this effect using a fabric known as "seersucker", having a texture with fine parallel lines. Nikon Capture 4 has a Color Moiré Reduction tool that was fairly effective at reducing, but not eliminating, moiré; it can only be used on NEF images, however. We also tried Fred Miranda's Moiré Reducer Photoshop Action; it was less effective than Nikon Capture 4, but costs only $12 and works on JPEG images. Please have a look at our sample images for an example of moire and the effectiveness of these two tools in reducing it.

As with any digital camera, there are some "gotchas:"

  • Even though Nikon claims the D70's USB port is 2.0 it only transfers data at USB 1.1 speeds, we expected more from a dSLR made in 2004.

  • Unlike the D100, Nikon does not offer an optional vertical grip / battery pack for the D70. Somebody else did though, be sure to see our information about the VG-D70 from Harbortronics.

  • Users of fixed-lens digicams will eventually discover another problem, keeping the imager clean. It's a problem with all interchangeable lens digital SLR cameras, and not specific to the D70. No matter how careful you are when changing lenses there's always the chance of dirt or other contaminants getting onto the imager's low-pass filter. You know you have this problem when you start seeing little dark spots in your photos, most noticeably in the large areas of blue sky in outdoor scenics shot at small apertures. Nikon Capture 4 software ($99 optional purchase), has a feature that removes the effects of dust on the Image Sensor from NEF (RAW) images by comparing them with a previously captured reference image. But sooner or later the camera will require a trip to a Nikon service center for a thorough cleaning.

As stated in the opening paragraph, Nikon's D70 has redefined the amateur dSLR market. It offers excellent shooting performance and image quality, while providing the photographer with fully-functional auto exposure and auto focusing controls. Users of consumer digicams will find that the D70's 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 $999 for the body-only D70 Set, and $1299 for the D70 Kit including the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED lens, Nikon has produced a high quality, reasonably priced dSLR whose results translate into a great value.

Go to our
D70 Sample Photos

We highly recommend these two D70 books!

Click here to buy your copy of DSLR: Nikon D70!

Nikon D70 Firmware 2.0 Update Available

May 16, 2005 - As promised earlier this month, Nikon USA has today made available the D70 firmware update v2.0 that ehances the functionality of the D70 camera. The issues addressed by this new firmware are as follows:

  1. Performance of the 5-area AF system has been improved (Dynamic area and Closest subject AF-area modes).
  2. Changes have been made to the design of menu displays.
  3. Page-size settings can now be applied from the camera with direct printing from a PictBridge-compatible printer.
  4. The number of exposures remaining, displayed in the control panel and viewfinder, when shooting at an image-quality setting of NEF (RAW) or NEF+JPEG Basic has been changed (the number is calculated based on the size of compressed RAW file).
  5. The default setting for camera clock has been changed from 2004.01.01 to 2005.01.01. Now you cannot set the clock back to a date before 2004.12.31.
  6. A problem that sometimes caused communication between the camera and computer to be unexpectedly terminated when using Nikon Capture Camera Control has been corrected. (Windows)

Download the update from the Nikon USA D70 firmware page

Users outside of the U.S. should visit their regional Nikon web site for the appropriate firmware update and information on how to install it.

Want a second opinion?

LetsGoDigital's D70 First Look

Imaging-Resource's D70 review

DC View's D70 review

DC Resource's D70 review

DP Review's D70 review's D70 review

Thom Hogan's D70 review

No End Press' D70 review

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