D70 Review

Killer Camera!

Nikon has turned a corner. Certainly the world of digital photography has. When Canon's Digital Rebel / EOS 300D / Kiss Digital camera appeared nearly a year ago, people naturally wondered what Nikon would do to compete with it?

The very capable Canon DR takes great looking pictures without punching a hole in your bank account. Its shots stand up to the best of them--and have you seen the price of those cameras these days? Some places are moving them out for less than $750US with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. That makes the whole concept of competition very tough. In order to go head to head with a deal like that, you'd better wear a pretty big hat.

So that's what Nikon did. The D70 is not just competition to the Canon DR, it's the team captain in an entirely different sport. Obviously Canon took the entry level market and delivered a great camera at a great price. But how great could things get if the price were just a tad higher? Nikon took aim at a slightly different demographic: everybody else.

The D70 may attract a huge audience of photographers, but not because it's the least expensive option. It will be because it is a supremely capable machine and the kit optic is better than it has a right to be for the price.

Sure, the Canon DR takes great looking pictures without punching a hole in your bank account. Its shots stand up to the best of them--and have you seen the price of those cameras these days? Some places are moving them out for less than $750US with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. That makes the whole concept of competition very tough. In order to go head to head with a deal like that, you'd better wear a pretty big hat.

So that's what Nikon did. The D70 is not just competition to the Canon DR, it's the team captain in an entirely different sport. Obviously Canon took the entry level market and delivered a great camera at a great price. But how great could things get if the price were just a tad higher? Nikon took aim at a slightly

t expensive dSLR on the block. Nikon's philosophy is more along the lines of "Take dSLR features, ergonomics, operation speed, image quality, flexibilities, technologies and customer satisfaction to the next level. Then deliver it at the price people can afford."

They didn't skimp. The in-hand feel, the weight, the control layout, the operational speed, the image quality, the core technologies and the price redefine what digital photography offers for a thousand dollars. Add three hundred more for the Kit Lens, the Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5 AF-S DX lens (27 to 105mm equivalent) and you have a very sweet initial digital instrument in your camera bag.

With the right CompactFlash card in the camera --the SanDisk Extreme -series is recommended by Nikon and me-- you can shoot continuous images at Large frame/Fine compression for over 16 shots at 3 fps. These cards are a little hard to find, these days, and I think it may be due to the popularity of the D70.

Change the compression ratio to Normal and you can shoot virtually continuously until the card fills to the brim. Nikon has included a huge internal multi-tasking computer and buffer in the D70 so it compresses while it shoots while it displays while it writes.

Images start with the 23.7 x 15.6 mm APS size Sony ICX413AQ image chip, just as it did with the D100. Beyond the image chip is THE fastest computer inside a dSLR.

You can't take your eye out of the viewfinder to see the shot you just made on the review monitor faster than the camera can put the finished picture there.

No waiting. Ever. Oh, well, I guess RAW pictures take longer, but you get the idea.

Reviewing and moving up and down through the stack of captured shots is instant. The camera is so very fast that when you pick up a different camera --any different camera-- the thing feels old, slow and so last year. Somebody must have screamed into the D70 designer's ear, "I don't WANT to wait for results, dagnab it!" (I cleaned that up) because the designers sure got the message. You can count the number of dSLR cameras that move this fast on the thumbs of one hand.

That feature alone will sell train-loads of D70s. But there are others. Yes, the Kit Lens is well worth the $300. Yes, the camera's buttons and controls make life easy. Yes, other optics are available. Check out the 12-24mm zoom. Wow.

Changing ISO: Direct and quick. 200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1000, 1250, 1600 all available without getting into a menu.

Changing White Balance: Direct and quick: Auto, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, Shade, Manual all available without getting into a menu.

Changing image size and compression: Direct and quick: SML / Basic, Normal, Fine. All available without getting into a menu.

Bracket setup: Direct and quick: 2 or 3 steps, ± 0.3, 0.5, 0.7, 1.0, 1.3, 1.5, 1.7, 2.0 all without getting into a menu --sort of. You will have to decide if you are a 1/3 stop person or a 1/2 stop person to start with.

Manual f-stop and shutter speed changes: Direct and quick: You can move BOTH settings at the same time, if you are that coordinated. Separate controls for each.

Jump between auto-focus and manual: Direct and quick: The control is right where your thumb attaches to your hand.

Trash a picture: Direct and quick: Just bap that trash button twice.

Protect a picture from deletion: Direct and quick: Just press the key button.

Jump to a different meter type: Direct and quick: We got your Matrix, your Center Weight (4 options for size if you like), and your Spot. No menu needed except for the Center Weight size choice.

Jump around five auto-focus points: Direct and quick: You can even lock to one of them. Menu options give three very different behaviors including "focus on the closest."

By the way, auto-focus is predictive. Hear that sports fans? Pre --freaking-- dictive! Meaning that the runner coming toward your big, honking telephoto lens is going to be sharp when using auto-focus!

Want front or rear curtain flash sync: Direct and quick: Just do it.

Want images that push the Bayer pattern CFA to the Nyquist limit? Every shot will show detail very nearly up to this wall. Night vistas, for instance, will include distant detail at virtually the single pixel level. Look for a feature, highlight or star so small or dim that it energizes a row, column or single pixel point far more than the next adjacent single pixels.

In the example at right, the single column palm tree trunk is the best example. [This is a 300% enlargement of a severe crop. The palm tree is about two miles from the camera.]

Note: Rarely, the D70's image processing can encounter a subject pattern that triggers a moiré artifact, but that's an extremely low-probability occurrence.

Want RAW images at a reasonable price? Price in this case means storage space. Nikon's NEF format goes an extra step beyond typical RAW. It's a "lossless" compressed RAW format so the lightly compressed data contents of the 12-bit pixel data lifted from the image chip won't take up the expected 9+ megabytes it could have. Typical NEF images store at about 5.x megabytes. They don't work faster in Photoshop, but they do take up a lot less room on your CF card.

With the D70's NEF file, every pixel is stored not at 12-bit's 4096 levels of differentiation but at a numerical equivalent of between 9-bit (512 integer) and 10-bit (1024 integer) numerical resolution. It's a compromise all the way around, but visually, it looks no different than results from hard-core 12-bit images and delivers superior results along with higher ceiling highlights, deeper shadow detail and virtually none of the rare pattern-coincidence moiré sometimes seen in JPEG shots.

Want to set the camera up for Lower Contrast + Higher Saturation + Type IIIa Color + Reduced Sharpening + a 3 degree Hue Adjustment? Not direct and quick: Things that complex can surely be done, but you will have to dig into the Optimize Image menu to do it.

Need to focus in the dark: Direct and quick: Instant focus assist light.

Need to see viewfinder focus brackets and grid lines in the dark: Automatic internal illumination.

Need to avoid TTL flash "blinkers?" Those are people who react to the probe TTL flash with half-lidded eyes during the exposure flash. There are at least two on-camera ways of doing this and several more when you add Nikon's SIB-600/800 flash units to the picture.

Dazzling Flash

Which reminds me: Got to say it, the SB-800 flash unit is equally killer. It has features, talents, power and authority that take weeks to fully integrate. Not because it's hard to use--you will be getting great results out of it in minutes--but because it is so darn rich and deep in its flexibilities, options, work habits and abilities. I've had it for over three weeks and it continues to amaze me.

With the SB-800 on the camera you can have four flash sources--the one on the camera plus three "groups" (A, B, C) of other SB-800/600 flash units remotely located all over the place without being wired to the camera or each other--and control all of them right from the D70. Tweaking and adjusting all those other units without ever having to move around the set is facilitated right on the unit sitting in the D70 hot shoe. Why the savings to studio photographers in terms of Lighting Assistant #2 is tremendous.

The SIB-600 is a stop dimmer and a few features shy of the SB-800 but also $100US less expensive. The 800 cost around $360 list and may well be the smartest, sanest flash you ever invest in. As I say in the eBook, there are photographers out there who are buying these by the six-pack!

No other lightweight unit comes close, but if you have any other camera besides the D70 or D2H (or coming D2X), forget it. It's made for these and these alone. And for whatever Nikon is cooking up for the future.

The Bad:

Where is the D70 deficient? There are places, but to list them sounds like so much whining:

  • It only shoots three frames per second. Why isn't it twenty-four?
  • It won't shoot flash and continuous frames at the same time. How come?
  • I can't add voice notes to my pictures. Why not?
  • It doesn't shoot black and white. What's with that?
  • RAW pictures take longer to store on the card. Do I look like I have all day?
  • It's possible to shoot a bad picture with it. What's the name of that tune?
  • There are only five focus zones. Why so few?
  • It doesn't have BSS. Is that BS?
  • The viewfinder eyepiece only corrects from +1 to -1.6 diopters. Are they blind?
  • The body is covered in plastic. Why not metal?
  • Shutter release speed is slower than the D100. Is anybody home?
  • The beep isn't very loud. Are they deaf?
  • It doesn't have ISO 100 or ISO 50. Hello?
  • How come no ISO 3200? iNova has a Photoshop Action that can do it, why can't Nikon do it in the camera?

Maybe a D75 will include some of these ideas. Or perhaps a firmware update will sort some things out. (Note: The D75 in this initial review turned out to be the D70s in 2005.)

Bottom line:

Spending $1300 on a camera is an exercise in capital investment for most enthusiast photographers. Professionals will see it as an expense that can probably be planned into a budget and to Bill Gates that's the amount of money he makes every time he takes a sip of water, so how it affects you as a purchase is highly variable.

It should be noted that no matter how much water Bill Gates sips, it won't make him a better photographer.

Whoever you are, the D70 stands out as a tremendous achievement in photography, digital or otherwise. It's not just last year's camera brought down to a great price, it's next year's camera brought out a year early at half the cost. Of course, I'm not one to exaggerate.

You know I like to grade these reviews using the US school letter grade system. In my misspent youth grades ranged from A to F with F being Failing and A signifying top-notch. Some teachers gave out plus and minus scores to shade the letter grades and I witnessed one English teacher who gave out an A++ just twice in her career for writing excellence. Just to show how limiting the sky was not.

I give the Nikon D70 the first, and perhaps only


in a digital camera for its incredible speed, quality, features, technologies, price and position within the range of other dSLRs that are out there today. Tomorrow's cameras will bring greater speed, more megapixels, smaller bodies, bigger menus, faster write times, louder beeps, better instruction manuals, smaller cash outlays and greater bragging rights, but compared to everything else out there right now, this is the only camera that goes the extra two miles in so many, many ways.

It's one of those rare products that takes not just first place in the current status quo but delivers extra factors that define the next status quo. By itself it excels. As the core of a large digital system of camera, optics and electronic lighting--it pushes back the sky.

SB-800 Speedlight:


A major leap forward in small flash units, it bristles with features, flexibilities and included accessories. I didn't get into the guide number (53/174 m/ft @ ISO 200), motorized zoom with lens follower, color filters, catch light diffuser, coordinated "modeling light" mode, fast repeat "motor drive" flash mode, bulb top diffuser, focus light, extra battery on board, wired options, balanced fill flash mode, SO-4 synchronized flash duration mode, manual flash range to 1/128 power, read in the dark illuminated data panel, included tripod / flat surface stand and included carry pouch that holds it all.

Yes, I can see this unit being improved on price and speed of set up. Some folks have found that by not knowing how to work the camera+flash system's less obvious options it is easy to get into befuddling images--the "blinkers" that have recently been widely discussed on Internet forums. (There are at least four ways of avoiding them, but it takes extra setup measures.)

After living with the flash long enough to tease out its secrets (and its manual is only basic help here) the thing turns out to be a top flight flash unit--nearly equally killer in its thinking compared to the D70.


Are you nuts? The D70 got an aye double plus! Go buy it. And buy the Kit Lens package, too. And the SB-800. Then learn how to make the whole system work.



The eBook

Speaking of writing, at this hour the new eBook, "dSLR: Nikon D70" is finally ready. It's out now, and you've already had a minor taste of it in the images above that accompany the review.

A huge--and I mean HUGE--amount of data, camera specific special techniques, problem solving procedures, operational short-cuts, headache prescriptions, shot achieving tips, smart camera tricks and D70 lore you've never seen anywhere else is within its pages.



Note: Photography and artwork by Peter iNova. ©2005 Peter iNova, all rights reserved.

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