We are sure a lot of Nikon users will have looked to Canon when it released its groundbreaking digital SLR for the masses in the second half of 2003. The dilemma for many Nikon photographers then must surely have been to switch over to Canon and sell off their collection of Nikon optics or wait it out and see what Nikon would come up with eventually. History has shown that Nikon is not usually the first to break open the market with innovative camera design but when they then release a new model, they frequently go one better than the competition by offering a better set of specifications.
From our first impressions with the new Nikon D70 we can surely say that the waiting has paid off. What we have here is a truly excellent six-megapixel digital SLR with a full set of advanced features. It is certainly not a downgrade from the D100 as speculations lead us to believe and although the design is somewhat simpler than the D100 and some custom functions are missing, the D70 is as good as the D100 and in some cases even better. We are sure this new Nikon will satisfy many enthusiasts and will certainly be looked at by professional photographers as well. Have a look at our overview of all Nikon and compatible lenses for the Nikon D70.
using the camera
Contrary to Nikon's D100, which features a sturdy alloy frame, the new D70 body is completely made of polycarbonate. This sounds a lot better than plastic, which in fact it is. However, built from the ground up to be a digital SLR the Nikon D70 feels very robust with a comfortable, chunky handgrip on the right, with the on/off switch and the shutter release on top and the battery inside. When you pick up the camera your right hand thumb automatically rests on the main command dial at the back of the camera with your index finger on the shutter release on top.
Regular digital Nikon users will soon be familiar with the layout of the camera as many buttons and switches are in the same place as on the Nikon D100. Buttons for playback, menu settings, ISO and white balance are all located to the left of the LCD screen, with the four-way controller and delete button on the right. A few marked differences with the older model are that, apart from full Manual exposure and Aperture and Shutter priority, there are now several scene modes incorporated in the camera. These can be selected with the big dial on top of the camera on the left. Also the ISO setting has been moved from the top dial to the back of the camera, which is much more convenient since you don't have to leave the exposure mode you are in to change ISO settings.
Most settings are made by pressing the relevant button next to the LCD screen and then selecting them by turning either the main command dial at the back, or the sub command dial at the front. In use we found that we sometimes accidentally shifted the sub command dial at the front when picking up the camera and effectively applied exposure compensation without realising it. Of course this is indicated in the viewfinder but you should keep an eye on this. This function of the sub command dial can be disabled in the custom menu if that's more convenient for you.
The Nikon D70's menus have been designed to offer quick access to those features that are used most frequently. Apart from this, users have a choice of 25 custom settings to adapt the camera to their own personal preferences. A unique help button offers a short description for each custom setting to assist in clarifying them.
Should you find the large array of features and menu settings a bit intimidating at first, then you are advised to begin using the camera in Green Auto mode and slowly work your way upwards towards Program and Aperture/Shutter Priority settings before you get to Manual. Switch to one of the scene modes if you think an image situation calls for it and analyse your results. Take lots of pictures and try out lots of alternative settings. Analyse the image information and take notes for later reference. Take your time to get to know the various choices that can be made with each setting. Find out which ones you prefer and then stick to them. Above all enjoy the experience and have fun during your learning curve. This is the only sure way to get to know an advanced machine like this D70.
There are three metering modes, ranging from 3D colour matrix metering and spot metering that uses 1% of the image area, to centre-weighted average where you can vary the size of the central metering area from 6 to 12mm. The camera offers a range of shutter speeds between 30 seconds and 1/8000 and ISO settings between 200 and 1600. There are 8 white balance settings, including flash and preset and all settings can be fine-tuned to suit your own preferences. Autofocus can be set to Single Area AF with a choice of five focusing areas, Dynamic Area AF with predictive focus tracking, or Closest Subject Priority Dynamic Area AF. In low light focusing is aided by a focus assist light next to the lens. Images can be saved as JPEG with a choice of three settings plus Nikon's own compressed NEF (=RAW). Users can opt to save images as RAW and basic JPEG simultaneously. Connectivity is provided by a USB 2.0 connection with a (slow) transfer speed of 12 Mbps.
The fact that Nikon has included seven Digital Vari-Program selections shows that Nikon is not aiming this camera at the professional user but at the serious enthusiast who perhaps is making the switch from a digital compact to a digital SLR. Digital Vari-Program mode automatically sets not only aperture and shutter speeds for a certain scene, but also optimises white balance settings, sharpening, tone and contrast among others, to get optimal results suited to the type of picture you are taking. In Portrait mode for instance this would mean enhancing skin tones and applying edge sharpening and soft background focus to set the subject free from the background. A very advanced system that is supposed to deliver the perfect image every time.
At the same time as the D70, Nikon have released a brand-new AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor f3.5-f4.5/18-70mm G IF-ED lens. It is nice to see that this is a true wide angle equivalent to 27-105 mm in 35 mm terms. Naturally the camera has the traditional Nikon F lens fitting, which makes it possible for most older Nikkor lenses to be used with the Nikon D70, albeit with some restrictions. To be able to communicate with the autofocus and metering systems, older lenses must have a built-in CPU. Consequently old manual focus AI(S) lenses will fit the camera but only function in manual mode with no metering. When trying to select other modes the shutter release will be locked and no pictures can be taken. The electronic rangefinder can be used to assist manual focusing if the lens's maximum aperture is 5.6 or faster.
All AF lenses, except those meant specifically for the Nikon F3 - without a CPU - can be used in P, A, S and M mode and the Vari-Program scene modes, with most of the camera's functions available. It is only the newer G or D-type Nikkor lenses however, that can make full use of all advanced functions such as 3D-colour matrix metering or iTTL flash. Focal length will effectively be lengthened by a factor of 1.5 since the Nikon D70 uses the popular Nikon DX sensor, which has been newly developed for this camera. With an effective resolution of 6.1 megapixel it delivers images of 3008 x 2000 pixels. The new advanced Large Scale Integrated Circuit (LSI) processor guarantees images with vivid colour, accurate white balance and minimal noise.
Switch on the camera and it is ready to shoot instantly. There is no shutter lag time at all, autofocus is quick as lightning and capturing images is as fast as on a traditional SLR camera. Nikon's new dynamic buffer technology makes it possible to capture up to 144 images at three pictures per second when using JPEG normal compression and a fast CF card. Processing times for JPEG images and compressed NEF (= RAW) files have been vastly improved and writing images to memory is faster than ever before. When in playback mode, touching the shutter button instantly returns the camera to shooting mode. Clearly this new D70 has been designed to offer faster operation at nearly every level of performance.
The optical viewfinder on the Nikon D70 offers a clear overview of the scene. With its 18mm eyepoint and dioptre adjustment of -1.6 to +0.5 it covers about 95% of the image area. Across the bottom of the viewfinder you will find detailed image information with all exposure settings and camera info. There are five selectable AF areas that can be set to work automatically or set by the user. Horizontal and vertical grid lines can be superimposed in the viewfinder to assist in keeping horizons level or when capturing architectural shots.
The 1.8" colour LCD screen on the back is used for playback of images. With 130.000 pixels and the possibility to magnify an image by 5 times it is well suited to assess image detail.
A histogram helps to determine highlight and shadow areas while burnt-out highlights can be shown as blinking areas on screen. A clip-on protector with a completely transparent middle section will prevent the screen from getting scratched. Please note that the colour LCD screen on digital SLRs cannot be used to frame an image because the optical viewfinder uses a pentamirror to intercept the image and send it straight to the viewfinder. When pressing the shutter, the mirror locks up and lets the light through to the sensor to record the image. It is only then that it becomes visible on the LCD screen. The status panel at the top of the camera informs you about all camera settings such as battery status, image size, white balance and metering mode, plus exposure information such as aperture and shutter speed and number of images left on the CF-card.
It can be backlit by pressing the small button to the right of the panel.
The D70 built-in Speedlight - with a guide number of 11m at ISO 100 (14 at ISO 200) - has a number of new functions. It is designed to be part of Nikon's growing Creative Lighting system, which offers i-TTL flash control technology. This is meant to improve the accuracy of fill-in flash and white balance in a picture by integrating colour information gathered from the Speedlight's monitor pre-flash combined with information from the system's 1005-pixel RGB sensor. It can be set to automatically pop up or be raised manually by pressing a small button on the left just below the flash. The release button also doubles as the control button for all flash functions.
The flash will fire when natural light is inadequate or to add balanced fill-in flash when there is strong backlighting. In manual mode its output can be controlled from full flash to 1/64 power in 1/2 stop increments. With a maximum flash synchro time of 1/500 this should offer ample opportunities to balance flash with available light. Further there is the added possibility of flash exposure compensation from +1 to -3 EV. A nice addition is that users can opt for front or rear curtain flash, which will come in handy in action photography to show streaks in front of or behind the subject. The built-in Speedlight can also be used in Commander Mode to remotely control the all new SB-600 or SB-800 Speedlights, for even more creative lighting opportunities.
Third party flashes can be used in manual mode but Nikon warn that trigger voltage should not exceed 250 volts, since this can damage in camera electronic circuits. Check with a voltmeter if in doubt and also make sure no negative current is used.
In the box
The Nikon D70 is sold as a kit bundled with the new Nikkor f3.5 - 4.5/18-70mm lens, or you could opt for the camera body only. We think the kit including lens would be your best choice since the lens is reasonably priced if you buy the two together. It has a nice zoom range (27-105mm eq.) and could well double as the perfect standard zoom for most users. Optical and build qualities are quite good as well, as we will see later. The Nikon D70 is supplied with a comfortable, wide neck strap that "shouts" Nikon in bright yellow, body and lens caps, eyepiece cap and monitor cover for protection of the LCD screen. A 208-page printed instruction manual is included as a paperback.
The fact that the pages have been glued into the back entails that intense use will soon transform the booklet into 208 loose pages. Kudos to Nikon for numbering them . . .
There are video and USB cables and the MH-18 quick charger for the powerful Li-ion 1400 Mh EN-EL3 battery. A rather nice touch from Nikon is that they have included an MS-D70 battery holder, which will hold three CR2 lithium batteries to act as a back up power supply if your rechargeable battery runs out of power and you don't have a spare at hand. The idea is that lithium batteries will hold their power for years if not used and having a spare set in your camera bag can save the day in an emergency. Whether or not you really need a spare rechargeable battery depends on the sort of photography you plan to do, but during our tests we managed to capture almost 500 images before it was necessary to recharge the battery.
Software included varies in certain markets. For European markets Nikon include NikonView 6.2, while in certain other markets the new PictureProject software is included. Opinions about the two are varied. Some say the older NikonView provided more comprehensive possibilities although both programs can be set to automatically transfer images to your hard disk when a camera or card reader is connected and they can be used to convert RAW images to JPEG. Although PictureProject does not support output to TIFF, it supports plug-in files for added functions. Both programs act as a browser and will perform basic image editing tasks such as adjusting brightness, colour and contrast. We don't think you have much choice here as your country of origin decides what software you will get.
Nikon Capture 4.1, which is available as an option, is a much more advanced solution to convert and edit your images. It fully supports NEF (RAW), TIFF and JPEG data. It offers digital DEE, scene-specific automatic dodge and burn control, Image Dust Off sensor dust and particle shade removal control, among other features, plus the option to transform fish-eye images into ultra wide-angle pictures.
No doubt thanks to Nikon's newly developed CCD imaging sensor, images show a wide dynamic range with ample detail in highlight and shadow areas. Resolution and sharpness are excellent even at higher ISO settings where there is low noise and good tonal balance. Colours on the Nikon D70 are neutral rather than saturated as is sometimes the case on other consumer models, but should you prefer a bit more punch this can be set in the relevant menu section by changing image parameters to vivid colour. We took the camera on a model shoot with Marlou and we were very pleased with the way skin colours turned out using normal settings and a small dose of fill-in flash.
The new AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor f3.5-f4.5, 18-70mm G IF-ED lens shows some noticeable barrel distortion at wide angle (27mm eq.) although this will not be that obvious in day to day photography unless you plan tot take a lot of architectural shots. At 50mm barrel distortion disappears completely and is slowly replaced by some very small pincushion distortion when you zoom in towards the tele settings. Some vignetting is present at maximum aperture at wide angle but closing down one or two stops will get rid of this. Considering that this is really a budget lens, image quality is very good and it would make an ideal standard lens at moderate cost for most users.
When the Canon EOS 300D was released in the final quarter of 2003, it caused quite a sensation. Here was an all-new digital SLR that coupled excellent image quality to an affordable price. Everyone agreed that the end of film based photography was near. Now, with the Nikon D70, standards have been raised again.
The Nikon D70 is a terrific camera with excellent build quality that delivers near perfect images at a price that is superb value for money. Its specifications and performance are much more advanced than Canon's EOS 300D and even Nikon's own D100 will have a hard time competing against the Nikon D70.
If you are a serious enthusiast and have been in the market for a digital SLR but didn't dare to take the plunge, now is the time to buy as they don't come any better than this one, for now . . .