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The D70: A Review

A review by Simon Stafford
All text and pictures by the author

Canon set a benchmark during 2003 when they introduced their EOS 300D (EOS Rebel in the US & Canada) as the first sub-$1000 (US) fully featured digital SLR camera with interchangeable lenses. Thereafter, for months, rumours were spawned over the nature of Nikon’s response until, finally, in December 2003 the company officially announced that the D70 was on the drawing board. Using feedback on their highly successful D100, Nikon’s design philosophy for the D70 has been, clearly, to produce a better camera than its predecessor whilst reducing the cost of production. The end result is a camera that in terms of speed and improvements to performance takes a quantum leap forward in many areas, adds a few new features, and retains most of those that still make the D100 a very capable camera.

Specification

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The D70 is available as a kit with the AF-S DX 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G

The D70 is assembled at Nikon’s modern production facility in Ayuthaya, just north of Bangkok, Thailand. It is no coincidence that a number of component parts in the D70 are shared with the F75, which is produced at the same site, alongside the F55, F65, and F80 cameras.

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The low-pass filter of the D70 is definitely less aggressive than those fitted to some other Nikon digital SLR cameras with the result that D70 images straight from the camera show a higher visual acuity.

It is a small, compact camera that weighs 595g (without battery or memory card) making it just 80g heavier than the F80, measuring just 140mm (W) x 111mm (H) x 78mm (D). The chassis and outer panels are made entirely of polycarbonate, and it draws heavily on the styling of the D2H. Pick it up and immediately it feels comfortable in the hand; the textured rubberised material that covers many areas of the outer surface provides a good firm grip. If you are familiar with the D100 I expect you would be able to use the D70 without hesitation.

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The 18-70mm lens supplied in the D70 kit option is a very capable, although it shows a noticeable level of light fall off at the frame edges at maximum aperture closed down by one stop it produces excellent results through to f/16. AF-S DX 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens (70mm), NEF RAW, WB-Cloudy (-2)

The camera features a new 6.1 mega-pixel RGB-CCD that provides 3,008 x 2000 pixel images at the largest image file setting. According to unconfirmed reports the sensor was apparently designed by Nikon/Sony, and is made by Sanyo (note this is not the same CCD as used in the D100). Whatever the case may be it has the same DX (23.7 x 15.6mm) format as previous Nikon digital SLR cameras beginning with the original D1. Due to the fact that the sensor is smaller than a 35mm film frame the angle-of-view covered by lenses for the 35mm format is narrower, providing the equivalent to a 1.5x magnification of their focal length.

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The D70 provides the greatest level of functionality when used with AF-D or AF-G type Nikkor lenses.
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The D70 is perfectly at home with close-up photography. It has resolved a very high level of detail in this shot of a young fern frond. AF Micro-Nikkor 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6D lens (95mm), NEF RAW, WB-Cloudy
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The rear LCD screen (shown here without the BM-3 protective cover) can be deceptively bright, particularly with high key subjects, giving the impression the shot is over exposed.

The D70 can store images using either the JPEG standard of compression at three levels (Fine, Normal, and Basic), or as Nikon Electronic Format (NEF) raw (compressed) 12-bit files (there is no option for uncompressed NEF files). Images can be sized to Large (3008 x 2000 pixels), Medium (2240 x 1488 pixels), or Small (1504 x 1000 pixels). A key feature is the ability to capture a RAW and JEPG file simultaneously like the D2H. However, on the D70 this is limited to a JPEG (Large) Basic size file, no other JPEG configurations are permitted in the dual file format mode. The D70 does not offer a TIFF file option. Again, akin to the D2H the D70 has an auto-rotation feature for images shot in an upright, or vertical, format and these are then displayed on the LCD of the camera, or on a computer in the correct orientation without further work being required. However, this does restrict the size of the image when it is displayed on camera due to the small size of the LCD monitor. The user has a choice of three colour spaces – Mode I (sRGB) is optimised for portraits pictures that will be used, or printed without further modification, Mode II (Adobe RGB) has a wider gamut of colours than the two sRGB colour spaces and is the best option for pictures that you expect to process extensively at a later stage, and Mode III (sRGB) is biased for the rendition of blue and green, and is ideal for landscape and wildlife pictures that you will want to use ‘as is’ without further modification.

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The storage media port is set at an angle to help reduce the depth of the camera body profile.

Data processing for the ‘lossless’ (Nikon’s word!) compression of RAW files has been speeded up (Nikon claim by about 200 times) compared to the D100. Rather than the disconcerting delay of about 40 seconds that it takes the D100 to process a compressed NEF raw file the D70 processes and displays them almost immediately (assuming Long Exposure - Noise Reduction function is switched off). Storage is to an EXIF 2.21 file system, using either a Compact Flash cards (Type I/II), or Microdrives, with FAT32 support for memory cards with a capacity in excess of 2Gb, and compatibility with Lexar Write Acceleration (WA) enabled cards. The camera’s various function menus are displayed on a 1.8in, 130,000-dot, low temperature poly-silicon Thin Film Transistor (TFT) LCD screen with adjustable LED backlighting. For connection to a computer the D70 has a USB 1.1 (12Mbps transfer rate) interface, and there is a video output option in either the NTSC or PAL format.

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The acuity of images straight from the D70 is noticeably higher compared with some other Nikon D-SLR cameras. Micro-Nikkor 70-180mm f/4.5-5.6D lens (180mm), NEF RAW, WB-Cloudy
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The D70 lacks a standard PC-sync socket so the AS-15 adapter must be used to provide one.

It has an ISO equivalent sensitivity of 200-1600 that can be set in increments of 1/3EV. The new mechanical-electronic shutter has a lag time of 100ms, and a speed range from 30 seconds to 1/8000sec in steps of 1/3, or 1/2EV, bulb (B), and a self-timer function with variable delay. Shutter speeds up to 1/250th second are controlled mechanically, for higher speeds beyond this point the shutter continues to open for 1/250th second but the CCD is switched on and off to simulate its operation. The benefit of this system is that the flash synchronisation speed can be raised, because it is no longer dependent on the speed at which a conventional shutter’s blades or curtains can be moved. Consequently, the D70 can be used with a flash unit at up to 1/500th second, which is a huge improvement on the 1/180th second sync speed of the D100, and makes it a far more versatile camera for daylight fill-flash. Unlike the D2X and D2H cameras, the D70 does not offer an Automatic FP High-Speed flash sync option when used with Nikon Speedlights. However, if you connect a non-dedicated flash unit using a standard PC sync lead, which will require an AS-15 adapter as the camera has no PC sync socket of its own, it is possible to use shutter speeds above 1/500th second with flash. I have not tested the possibilities exhaustively but I have certainly achieved success with flash synchronisation up to 1/2000th second.

There is an automatic noise reduction feature, and for longer exposures a noise reduction function can be selected via the Shooting Menu that Nikon claim is 20x faster than the system used in the D100.

To assist with the bane of every digital photographer’s life, dust collecting on the filter array in front of the CCD, the D70 has a mirror lock-up feature to enable you to clean it. Note unlike the D100 it does not require the EH-5 mains AC adapter to do this. Additionally, the D70 allows you to take a blank reference frame, referred to by Nikon as a Dust Ref Photo, which is applied to the Image Dust Off feature of Nikon Capture 4.1 software to clean up the worst excess of shadows cast by particles adhered to the filter array (NEF raw files only).

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The built-in Speedlight of the D70.

Three shooting modes provide single, continuous, or self-timer/remote control shooting. The highest capture rate is 3fps at which the maximum buffer capacity is 20 frames for JPEG files, and four frames for NEF files before the camera needs to write data to its the storage media. It is important to be aware that many camera functions such as Single Servo AF, AF-assist, noise reduction, and others all reduce the frame rate. Around 1.0 fps I have found the camera can run continuously recording NEF raw files until the storage media is full. The D70 has a built-in Speedlight with a maximum GN17 (ISO200, m), coverage for a focal length of 20mm and a fast three-second recycle time at full output with fresh batteries. As mentioned previously the flash sync speed is 1/500th second. Flash compensation can be set in increments of 1/3 or 1/2EV steps from –3 to +1EV.

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The SB-600 adds considerable versatility for flash photography with the D70, and can be used as a remote unit controlled by the camera’s built-in Speedlight.
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The D70 with SB-800 provides the most sophisticated level of features and functions for flash photography.
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It was asking a lot due to the scale of the subject but the built-in Speedlight of the D70 was able to provide sufficient fill-flash to lift the shadows in this shot of a Palladian bridge. AF-S DX 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens (18mm), NEF RAW, WB-Direct Sun

The D70 inherits a modified version of the TTL flash control system from the D2H. Using the same 1,005 pixel RGB sensor as the camera’s metering system, and in conjunction with either the built-in Speedlight, or the SB-800 and SB-600, the D70 supports Nikon’s new i-TTL flash standard for balanced fill-flash (note standard i-TTL flash is set if Manual exposure and/or spot metering mode are selected). One significant compatibility issue is the fact that the D70 does not support D-TTL flash control with earlier Speedlights such as the SB 28DX, SB 80DX, and SB 50DX. The camera offers five flash sync modes: 1) Standard Front curtain sync, 2) Red-eye reduction, 3) Red-eye reduction with Slow sync, 4) Slow Sync, 5) Rear curtain sync. If you mount an SB-800 on the D70 it can act as the command flash for full support of Nikon’s wireless multi-flash Creative Lighting System (CLS) that allows control of up to a further three individual, or groups of SB-800 and SB-600 units (note the SB-600 cannot be used as a command unit). That said I am not sure now many D70 users will be investing in multiple SB-800/600 Speedlights but for those who do the creative possibilities are plenteous.

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The D70 accepts the new DR-6 Right-angle Viewer which attaches directly to the viewfinder eyepiece frame but requires the rubber eye-cup to be removed first.
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The DR-6 offers a full view of the viewfinder image with an option of a 2x magnification.

The optical type fixed viewfinder eyepiece has a built-in dioptre adjustment of –1.6 to +0.5m -1, and the viewfinder offers approximately 95% coverage of the image area (note when reviewing images on the LCD monitor they are shown at 100%). Nikon have recently introduced a new style right angle viewing attachment, the DR-6, which slides directly on to the square profile of the viewfinder eyepiece frame (Note: The DR-6 will also fit other Nikon SLR cameras such as the F6, F75, F80, and D100). It provides either a 1x, or 2x magnification of the viewfinder image, and is a great tool for when you need to shoot from a very low angle, or use the camera in circumstances that make it difficult to place you eye to the viewfinder eyepiece in the normal fashion. The focus screen will display On-Demand Grid Lines similar to the D100 camera. The three metering options are: a 3D-Colour Matrix metering with 1,005-pixel RGB sensor, Centre Weighted metering (75:25 ratio), and Spot metering (sensitive over a 2.3mm diameter circle centred on the active AF-area brackets). The camera supports all types of Nikkor lenses from the latest AF-D and AF-G types back to the non-CPU manual focus variants. However, non-CPU Nikkor lenses restrict the D70 to Manual exposure mode and the exposure meter does not function, although the electronic rangefinder does work provided the lens has a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or faster. There is no meter-coupling ring around the outside of the lens mount. Instead, similar to the F55 and F65, the D70 uses a small lever that protrudes from the body beside the lens mount to engage the minimum aperture signal post on Nikkor lenses other than the latest G-types.

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The stop down button is located just beside the lens mount flange at the 7 o’clock position as you look at the front of the camera.
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The ability of the D70 to hold highlight detail in NEF raw files appears to be better than the D100. AF-S VR 70-200mm f/2.8G with TC-14E II (280mm), NEF RAW, WB-Cloudy (-3)

A depth-of-field preview button is mounted close to the lens mount flange at the seven o’clock position as you look at the front of the camera. The button is rather small but any button is better than no button at all! The large lens release button adopts the same elliptical shape first seen in the D2H, although it is not as big, and the focus mode selector switch is also on the side of the shoulder against the lens mount. It only has two positions, M and AF. To select either Single Servo or Continuous Servo AF modes you have to enter the CS menu.

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The AF mode selector switch has only two positions – AF and M. Note the sensor widow for the ML-L3 IR remote release just above the D70 badge

There are twenty-five Custom Settings options, some with sub-menus. A new feature on the D70 is a help menu available on the LCD display and operated by a button adjacent to it. Press it and a dialog box appears to explain the function of the selected Custom Setting – now you can leave the instruction book and those little laminated ‘aide-memoir’ cards at home. If the full CS menu is too much there this an option that will display a simple menu of just the first nine CS. Compared with the D100 handling has been further improved by re-locating the selection of the sensitivity (ISO), white balance (WB), and image quality/size to a set of three buttons down the left side of the rear LCD screen. The WB button doubles as the Help (?) button for the CS menu. This makes changing these settings so much easier compared to the Control Dial arrangement on the D100, which also disables the shutter release whilst adjustments are being made.

The five-sensor area auto-focus system with Dynamic AF operation uses the Nikon CAM-900 auto focus module, which has a detection range from EV-1 to EV19, at a temperature of 20º C, again similar to the specification of the D100. Only the centre sensor is a cross-type the outer four are line-type. There is an AF-assist illuminator lamp that has an effective range of 0.5 – 3.0m.

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Exposure modes are selected via the Control dial

The D70 has five exposure modes: for point and shoot photography there are seven Digital Vari-Programs, which include a totally automatic option and a further six subject specific options (Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sport, Night Landscape, and Night Portrait). The other four modes are the familiar Programmed Auto (P) with flexible program control, Shutter-Priority Auto (S), Aperture-priority Auto (A), and full manual (M) mode, with both the shutter speed and aperture adjustable in 1/3 and 1/2 EV steps.

A new feature that Nikon call Optimise Image offers a range of pre-set levels of Sharpening, Tone Compensation, Colour Mode, Saturation, and Hue Adjustment, with options for Normal, Vivid, Sharp, Soft, Direct Print, Portrait, Landscape, and Custom. For example if you select the Portrait setting the camera automatically adjusts colour for pleasing skin tones, sets a gamma curve for softer contrast, and applies a moderate amount of sharpening in camera.

To power the D70 it will come as a great relief to many that Nikon have chosen to use the venerable EN-EL3 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery, which has gained a well deserved reputation with the D100. So, no new battery means no new charger – thank you Nikon! Therefore you will be able to use the MH-18 quick charger for a single battery, the MH-19 multi-charger for two batteries that can use either mains AC or a 12v DC supply, and an AC adapter the EH-5.

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The venerable EN-EL3 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery powers the D70

There is no optional battery/grip available for the D70, and apparently no plans to introduce one, but the camera does accept three CR2 3V Lithium non-rechargeable batteries in the supplied MS-D70 battery holder. The use of this option does reduce the shooting capacity, and given the cost of the batteries I would suggest the purchase of a spare EN-EL3 would make far more sense. However, for those situations when a reliable mains power source is unavailable it will provide a useful backup.

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The ML-L3 can be used to release the shutter of the D70 remotely, as the camera lacks a cable release socket.
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The D70 accepts three CR-2 Lithium batteries in the MS-D70 battery holder as an alternative power source.
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Nikon also approve the ML-L1 for use with the D70 for remote release of the shutter.

The D70 has no mechanical cable release or electronic remote release socket. Instead, it relies on the infrared ML-L3 Remote Controller, which is also compatible with cameras such as the F65 and F75. Nikon have also confirmed that the camera does support the ML-L1 Remote Controller, should you have difficulties in acquiring an ML-L3 – both units accept a single CR2025 ‘button’ battery. Finally, there is no PC flash sync socket so you will need the AS-15 adapter if you want to trigger any flash unit via a standard PC-sync lead.

Handling

On the whole the D70 handles very well. The decision to move the controls for sensitivity, white balance, and image quality to buttons on the rear panel should be applauded, as it is so much more convenient and quicker than the Control Dial method used on the D100. Most buttons on the D70 have a dual function, which in the main are paired logically, and although this arrangement may be unfamiliar to many established Nikon users you soon become accustomed to it.

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Buttons on the D70 are clearly marked and easily accessible.

The menu displays are clear and concise. The Help (?) function for the Custom Setting menu will be a boon to novice and old hands alike, particularly for those options that you do not use frequently. You should be aware that some of the menu contents have been rearranged compared to those on the D100, as have some of the numbers used to identify the Custom Settings. There are a few subtle touches to the menu displays; the option to have a short or full custom setting list is one, and another occurs if you set an AF lens to manual focus or shift the focus mode switch on the camera to manual those menu settings pertaining to AF control are greyed out as a warning.

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The Custom Setting menu is clear and precise, with the added feature of a Help (? - button) option to remind users about each function.

In my opinion the Digital Vari-Program mode is more of a hindrance than help. I suspect that in many circumstances these options will fail to deliver results that match the expectations of many photographers, including novices. Cameras do not think – photographers do that bit! If you set the D70 to Auto mode, or one of the six scene specific Digital Vari-Program modes, the camera restores the default exposure setting for the selected mode. You surrender all exposure control to the camera, and have no say in the choice of metering system, or use of the flexible program, exposure compensation, bracketing, and flash bracketing functions. Furthermore, you have no idea of what settings or values the camera sets for essential attributes such as sharpening, white balance, tone, and hue. However, the auto-exposure lock feature does operate in these modes - one small mercy I suppose.

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The top LCD Control Panel of the D70 displays a wide variety of information about the camera settings. Note the shutter release lacks a standard ISO cable release socket.

Another handling improvement is the mirror lock-up for CCD cleaning that can be activated from the camera without the need to use the EH-5 mains AC adapter, although you must ensure that you use a fully charged EN-EL3 battery otherwise there is a risk that the mirror will return to its down-position if the camera loses power. As mentioned above if you shoot NEF RAW files the D70 has the option to shoot an Image Dust-Off” reference frame that you can use within Nikon Capture (v4.1 or higher) to facilitate the electronic masking of shadows caused by dust spots on the filter array in front of the CCD. This is certainly better than nothing but is only effective if no more unwanted material settles on the filter array surface between the time you make the reference frame exposure and finish shooting. Therefore, it is most appropriate when working in a stable environment such as a studio. Working in the great outdoors it may be prudent to make several reference fame exposures during the course of a day’s shooting just in case the distribution of dust spots on the filter array alters.

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The only method of selecting the Adobe RGB colour space is to set Colour Mode II in the Custom option of the Optimise Image menu. All other options use either of the sRGB options.
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On a long fast lens the diminutive D70 can feel rather unbalanced but the quality of its results are not in question. AF-S 500mm f/4D, NEF RAW, WB-Cloudy

On the downside my main complaint is the lack of a cable release socket – mechanical or electronic. I find having to point the ML-L3 IR Remote Release at the small sensor window on the front of the D70 very inconvenient, especially when you want to have both hands free to adjust settings between shots in a sequence. Likewise, using the self-timer control as an alternative ‘hands off’ way of releasing the shutter is not particularly friendly as it has to be reset for each exposure! I would also have liked to see a mirror lock-up facility for exposure, as well as CCD cleaning. The camera instruction book gives no indication of what values are set in the various automatic Optimize Image options, and the only way you can use the Mode II (Adobe RGB) colour mode is by selecting it in the Custom option of the Optimize Image menu – in all other shooting modes the camera operates in one of the two sRGB colour modes. Finally, it is a great pity that the D70 does not permit you to shoot uncompressed NEF raw files, especially as the sensor does such a good job, and this is compounded by the fact you can only record a Basic quality JPEG with the dual NEF+JPEG option.

AF Performance

If there is one area where the D70 disappoints me it is here! I say disappoints because after all the startling improvements Nikon have made to the D70 they have curiously fitted the same CAM900 AF module as used in the F80 and D100.

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The solid black lines indicate the approximate position of the AF sensor coverage provided by the D70’s CAM900 AF module. The outer four sensor are line type and are less sensitive than the central cross-type, particularly in low light situations.

The AF system works, and works well but it is important to be aware of its limitations. The cross-type sensor in the central position does a very commendable job in reasonable light, and with an AF-S lens the D70 is probably as fast as any AF Nikon camera produced to date. The problems start in low light, or with the other four off-centre AF sensors. As single line sensors these are simply not as sensitive as the central sensor, and if the subject detail is aligned in the same direction as the sensor (see diagram) it is highly likely that the AF system is going to ‘hunt’ as it attempts to lock focus. Tracking a moving subject tests any AF system but the D70’s relatively long mirror blackout time of 100ms compounds the problem, because of the reduced amount of time the sensor has to ‘see’ the subject. So if you are considering a D70 as a back-up body to a D2H you are going to find their AF performance are worlds apart. Although untested at this time, since the new D2X lifts its AF system straight from the D2H, I expect the same to be the case here as well.

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The D70 has an AF assist lamp, seen here to the right of the sub-command dial.

Exposure

The sensitivity of a CCD sensor to light is linear; there is no gentle levelling off to its response with increasing light intensity as with film or our eyes. So, used at its default settings the D70 errs on the side of caution when it comes to exposure – its metering system and subsequent exposure control are both biased toward preservation of the all-important highlight detail. This trait is not as strong as it is in the D100 but it is perceptible, so post-capture processing is going to be the order of the day if you want to maximise the tonality of your pictures. One option to remedy this is Nikon Capture 4 (v4.1), which allows you to write your own custom contrast curve and upload it to the camera. On the question of assessing exposure I would never advocate placing reliance on the image displayed in the LCD of any digital SLR, that should be left to tools such as the histogram window but I do find the screen image on the D70 has a tendency to be overly bright, which can give the impression that the shot is over-exposed.

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A wide tonal range, plenty of colour saturation, high acuity, and the NEF raw file format all combine in the D70 to produce images of extremely high quality. AF-S DX 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G lens (18mm), NEF RAW, WB-Cloudy

Noise is well controlled by the D70, at sensitivities between the base level of ISO200 to 400 performance is excellent, and for all intents indistinguishable. By 800 there is perceptible noise but it is not offensive, though by 1600 it is, and in my opinion should only be considered in an ‘any picture is better than no picture’ situation. The Long Exposure Noise Reduction feature is highly effective, and I have had no issues with exposures up to a minute, sometimes longer.

One potential pitfall is the occurrence of artifacts when shooting JPEG files, particularly if you have set a high shutter speed and level of sharpening. Occasionally, images have had an odd pattern appear in areas of continuous tone (e.g. a clear blue sky) but my results have not been consistent, in as much as consecutive frames did not show a similar result. However, my experience of this issue is limited since I almost always shoot in NEF raw format.

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D70 with the Nikkor AF-S DX 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED
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The storage media port door shown open to reveal a CompactFlash card inserted in the camera.

The high acuity of D70 images suggests its low-pass filter is somewhat weaker than the one in the D100, which tended to produce slightly soft results without any further processing. The penalty with the D70 is its increased susceptibility to moiré (false patterns, generated by the camera that occur in regions of fine detail in the subject). If you observe the effects of moiré it can quite often be resolved by just a slight change to the camera-to-subject distance, camera-to-subject angle, or focal length of the lens.

Conclusion

The D70 is selling like the proverbial ‘hot cake’ and that is no surprise! The projected production figure for the first year is 800,000 units, and I expect every one will find a home - Nikon have a great camera on their hands and should be congratulated. When it comes to image quality it can hold its own with almost any other digital SLR camera currently on the market.

Likes

  • Image quality – certainly on a par with the ‘flagship’ D1X and D2H cameras, and in some respects exceeding it, at a price point below most semi-professional film cameras (Note: at the time of writing images from the recently announced D2X is unavailable for comparison)
  • Excellent metering and flash exposure control with colour sensitivity.
  • Improved layout of controls makes handling more intuitive
  • Robust and high build quality
  • Lightweight and compact size
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The potential for flash photography with the D70 is extended by the new SB-600 and SC-29 TTL flash lead that has a built-in AF-assist lamp.

Dislikes

  • No cable release or mirror lock-up (for exposure)
  • No support for D-TTL specification Speedlights (SB-80DX, SB-50DX, and SB-50DX) – you will need to invest in either the SB-600, or SB-800 to gain full benefit of the new flash capabilities of the D70.
  • Limited compatibility with non-CPU lenses (manual exposure only, and TTL meter disabled)

(Note: You may wish to take a look at my article about the SB-600 and SB-800 under the Special Article section of this site.

© Simon Stafford
September 2004