It is interesting to see history repeating itself. Last year Canon released an affordable and innovating digital SLR - the 300D, to be followed by the new Nikon D70 only a few weeks later. Now again, after the arrival of Canon's 350D, Nikon storms the market with not one, but two new models, the D70s and a brand spanking new D50. The former is a replacement or upgrade of the D70 of last year, while the latter is an entry-level model aimed at those upgrading from digital compacts. In this article we will look more closely at what the D70s has to offer and whether it is worthwhile to trade in your "old" D70 just yet.
Using the camera
At first sight the D70 of last year and the new D70s look exactly alike. This is hardly surprising if you realise that the old D70 and the new D70s are essentially the same camera. So all the good things are still there. The strong polycarbonate body with that chunky handgrip to ensure a firm hold. The well-organised lay out of controls with clearly marked buttons so their function immediately becomes obvious. The "instant" on/off switch, which ensures the camera is ready the moment you switch it on. The large command dial at the back for fast function changes. And let's not forget the Nikon F lens mount which has been around for ages and is shared by all Nikon cameras, for seamless compatibility with all existing AF Nikkor lenses as well as all present DX Nikkor lenses.
A closer look however reveals that there are a few marked differences. Just like some other DSLR manufacturers, Nikon have replaced the 1.8" monitor on the back by a 2.0" model which makes reviewing images much more comfortable. When switching on the camera - which is lightning fast as already mentioned - you will notice that the menu system and its lay-out have been slightly redesigned, employing a larger type-face making items easier to read. The blue-white colours of old have been replaced by a grey background with highlighted items in bright yellow. Intuitive help dialogues are available for on-the-spot reference to respective menu selections. A large and comfortable rubber eye cup, the DK20 is now supplied as standard, as opposed to being an optional extra on the D70.
All other controls, dials and buttons are in exactly the same place as on the D70, with controls for reviewing images, entering the menu system, ISO, WB and image quality on the left and the 4-way dial, together with the delete button on the right. Not changing these items means users of the previous model will instantly know their way around the new camera, which is of course a good thing.
Image quality should be identical to the older model as the D70s employs the same 6.1 effective megapixel, Nikon DX Format sensor and advanced System LSI processor as its predecessor. This should guarantee vivid colours with maximum detail and a wide dynamic range, while at the same time optimising the speed of file compression, memory buffer handling and near instant LCD display. Auto focus still features a cross-type sensor with broad frame coverage, but AF has been improved to deliver greater precision with fast consistent focusing and improved focus tracking. The AF-assist light on the front of the camera aids focusing in low lighting conditions.
There is a full range of exposure modes, from fully automatic programs to semi-automatic scene modes and manual modes, plus a long list of overrides such as bracketing and exposure compensation. The seven Digital Vari-Program modes - or scene modes to you and I - not only set aperture and shutter speeds for a certain scene, but also optimise white balance settings, sharpening, tone and contrast among other variables, to get optimal results suited to the type of picture you are taking. In Portrait mode for instance this would entail enhancing skin tones and applying edge sharpening and a large aperture to set the subject free from the background. We have come to appreciate this system on the D70 as a very advanced system that delivers perfect images every time.
The D70s employs three metering patterns ranging from 3D colour matrix metering and spot metering, to centre-weighted average where you can vary the size of the central metering area from 6 to 12 mm. The advanced 3D colour matrix metering system measures brightness, colour, contrast and subject-to-camera distance for each shot and then compares the results to an onboard database of 30.000 scenes from actual photography to deliver the correct exposure for every image. Shutter speed range is more than adequate with a top speed of 1/8000 going down to 30secs, and with ISO settings between 200 and 1600, you can be sure the D70s can handle every imaginable image situation. Add to this the capability of shooting 3 frames per second for a continuous burst of 144 frames and there is now no more excuse for missing those action shots. There are 8 white balance settings, including flash and pre-set,
and all individual settings can be fine-tuned to suit varying lighting conditions or to be adapted to your own preferences.
The built in Speedlight - with a guide number of 14 at ISO 200 - is part of Nikon's Creative Lighting system and offers i-TTL flash control. This improves 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. 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 reduced up to 1/64 of its power in 1/2 stop increments and there is a maximum sync time of 1/500. It will automatically pop up in green "Auto" mode or can be raised manually by pressing the small button on the left just below the flash. This also doubles as control button for all flash functions such as slow or second curtain flash, or adjustment of flash intensity over +/- three stops. The built-in flash now covers the full picture angle of lenses up to 18 mm as opposed to 20mm on the D70.
It can also be used in Commander Mode to remotely trigger other Nikon Flashlights such as the SB-600 or SB-800 Speedlights for even more creative options.
In the box
The new Nikon D70s is sold as a kit with the Nikkor f3.5-4.5/18-70mm lens. You get a comfortable wide neck strap as well as body and lens caps. Two nice additions are the clip-on cover to protect the LCD monitor from scratches and the large rubber DK-20 eye-cup, which is very comfortable to use. On the D70 the latter was available as an optional extra and it is good to see that Nikon now supply this as standard. Apart from the usual array of USB and video cables there is an elaborate, printed manual of 208 pages, which is available in 11 languages ranging from English to Spanish, Japanese or Dutch, so chances are your language will be featured as well. No memory card is included, so go out and buy the largest CompactFlash card you can afford. With 1Gb cards now being available at very reasonable prices there is no need to run out of space while being out in the field taking images.
The compact MH-18a quick charger and new, more powerful Li-ion 1500 mAh EN-EL3a battery take care of the camera's power supply. Its capacity has been increased and - when not using flash - you should be able to take up to 2500 pictures between charges as opposed to roughly 2000 on the D70 of old. With that kind of stamina, Nikon have deemed it unnecessary to add the additional MS-D70 battery holder (standard with the D70), which held three CR2 lithium batteries to act as a back up power supply if the rechargeable battery would run out. Keep in mind though that as soon as the display shows the battery to be anything less than full, it will only take another 30 to 50 images before the battery runs out completely. So high time to have a spare one ready.
Software supplied with the camera consists of Picture Project 1.5. This program allows simple and seamless transition of camera images to your PC. Its entirely new, intuitive user interface lets you browse image files and perform some basic editing tasks. It also supports plug-in files for added functions. For more enthusiastic users or professionals a trial version of Nikon Capture 4.2 is included. This program allows for much more advanced solutions to convert and edit your images. It fully supports NEF (RAW), TIFF and JPEG data. It offers functions like automatic dodge and burn control, removal of image dust and particle shades, plus the option to control your camera via the USB connection.
Nikon have added an extra connector on the side of the D70s to support the optional MC-DC1 remote control cord, to operate the camera from a distance. Cable-free operation is also available with the optional wireless Remote Control ML-L3 while a third option would be the use of Nikon Capture to operate the D70s from your computer.
The Nikon D70s kit comes with the AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G IF ED. A lens which we have come to respect on the D70 as a very good lens for its price and one which would certainly make an ideal standard lens if you plan to start a Nikon system later. Image detail is excellent with nice neutral colours and excellent sharpness across the range. At 18mm at full opening there is some vignetting in the corners but this disappears when closing down a stop. No light fall off is visible at other focal lengths. There is some barrel distortion at wide angle, which slowly shifts to some very slight pincushioning from 50mm onwards. These are perfectly good values for this type of lens.
Thanks to Nikon's 6.1 megapixel DX Format sensor and advanced System LSI processor, images taken with the D70s show a wide dynamic range with excellent detail in highlight and shadow areas. Even at higher ISO settings pictures have plenty of detail, low noise and good tonal balance. Exposure was spot on all the time and white balance did a perfect job under all lighting conditions during our tests.
Seeing that Nikon already had a very good DSLR in the D70, it is interesting to see that they still managed to improve the camera with a number of welcome features. Among these is the new 1500mAh battery with a capacity of up to 2500 images per charge. Flash angle coverage has been improved to cover lenses up to 18mm and a comfortable rubber eye cup is now supplied as standard. Best of all is that existing D70 owners do not have to trade in their "old" camera but can bring it up to D70s standards by installing the new free firmware. With this the same performance updates that make the D70s stand out from the crowd become available to existing owners. These include improved auto focus, easier to read menu system and an in-camera menu page to support PictBridge direct printing.
However, if you consider yourself to be an enthusiastic photographer and are looking to buy a DSLR, you really can't go wrong with the Nikon D70s. After all what manufacturer has proved time and time again that its existing customers are as dear to them as their new ones. A mentality which is becoming increasingly rare in today's hectic consumer society.