Nikon D70

Nikon D70 Digital Camera Review
Introduction

Well after a long wait Nikon have finally released their first sub £1000 D-SLR, the D70. The question is how does it compare to the more pricey D100, both in terms of usability and image quality. Hopefully this review will give you my views on both - I've deliberately structured it to consider the technical issues first closely followed by the images taken with it and my views on them as a cynical pro.


In the Box

The basic D70 box contains the following:

• Nikon D70 body;
• N-EL3 Li-ion rechargeable battery;
• MH-18 quick charger;
• Nikon View Software CD-ROM;
• AN-D100 strap;
• Video cable;
• USB cable;
• LCD monitor cover & BM-4; body cap;
• MS-D70 CR2 battery holder;
• Neck Strap AN-D70, and Eyepiece cap.
• D70 manuals

In addition Nikon have offered a second option with the AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-70 f3.5 – f4.5G IF ED lens included in the box. Since this is a very attractive package to Nikon users my review will be based on this option.


Basic Specifications

The basic specifications are as follows:

• 6.1 effective megapixels
• 7 Digital Vari-Program modes for easy and quick shooting
• 3 fps motordrive
• Buffer allows 9 JPEG FINE and 4 RAWs (NEFs) to be shot consecutively before lockout
• 5-Area Dynamic autofocus
• 1.5x lens crop (effective 1.5x lens focal length increase)
• Compact and lightweight (595g)
• Built-in Speedlight (GN11) with i-TTL flash
• Maximum shutter speed 1/8000th sec.
• Maximum flash synchronisation speed 1/500th sec.
• ISO range 200 – 1600
• Custom functions – 10 simple and 25 detailed contained in easy to navigate menus with large letter font.

Phew that’s quite a package.

 

First Impressions

When I picked up the D70 for the first time I was surprised at how light and easy to handle it was. Being a Canon man I am completely unfamiliar with the layout of a Nikon camera, but found that within a few minutes I was confident to start shooting with the D70. As usual I didn’t refer to the manual once, which must be a plus point. All the controls seemed to be well though out and I really liked the way that it sat it my hand, making shooting comfortable and more importantly, quick.

 

Out in the Field

As my choice of lenses was extremely limited, i.e. to the supplied 18-70mm, I decided to test the camera in the same way that 99% of you would. I call it the “Walkabout Test” and no I don’t put on a corked hat and walk around muttering “Rippa” or “We lost the world cup” all day. I simply took the D70 out with me, slung around my neck, and took pictures with it. Forget all those lab tests etc, this is what most of you will do with it. Straight away I found the camera really responsive, with power up time being almost instantaneous. Unlike earlier models there was no detectable delay between pressing the shutter and the shot being taken. After each shot the LCD displayed the image and it’s histogram almost immediately (an option which I’d turned on for safety but which you’d turn off in real life to save the battery). The metering seemed very accurate, with little compensation required on my part, something which I know is hardly breaking news with a Nikon camera but it was an important part of the test.

Nikon claim that the D70 produces much quicker pictures out of the box than any of their others and on the evidence of my walkabout test I’d have to agree. The LCD shooting menu contains an option called “Optimise Image”. When a Digital Vari-Program mode is selected (you know the ones with the images of sprinter, mountains etc on them) these parameters are pre-set by Nikon. If you shoot however in P,S, A or M, seven pre-customised modes are provided to allow a default setting of all these parameters – Normal, Vivid, Sharp, Soft, Direct Print, Portrait or Landscape. These modes have pre selected values for sharpening, saturation, contrast, colour reproduction and hue; for example the landscape setting produces images that have vibrant greens and blues with increased sharpness whilst Soft produces images with smooth, natural looking flesh tones that can be sharpened later. These modes are great for anyone that wants to shoot out of the box and I found that they produced more than acceptable results. If you want slightly more control over your image then a Custom option is supplied where you can set each parameter to your own choice. Just for the record the default value for all of these settings is “ON” to some degree, unlike the D100 which had a very hands off approach. This is an important point for JPEG users who want to get sharp images straight from the box; leaving the default settings will deliver this whilst giving you the only to be more in control at a later stage. A final point to mention is that the colour reproduction option supports both sRGB and Adobe 1998, depending on whether you want to process the image further or take it straight to print.

 

Performance

Being a RAW junkie I set the D70 to shoot NEFs (Nikon terminology for RAW) using the LCD menus, which I found quick and easy to use. I’ve said already that the shutter button was responsive and allows 4 NEFs or 9 JPEG LARGE files to be taken before lockout. The following timings are only approximate:

Time after lockout that next NEF could be taken – 3 seconds
Time after lockout that buffer is cleared of NEFs – 11.5 seconds

Time after lockout that next JPEG FINE could be taken – 1.2 seconds
Time after lockout that buffer is cleared of JPEG FINEs – 11-12 seconds

So to summarise, when using NEF, 3 seconds after the camera locked out I could take another NEF and 11.5 seconds after lockout the buffer was cleared and I could take another sequence of 4. Predictably the results for JPEG FINE were slightly better although the time to clear the buffer was about the same. Although a 3 second lockout sounds a lot it isn’t, and only manifests itself when using the motordrive. What I really liked about the D70 was the speed at which it wrote the images from the buffer to the card with small bursts of 1 or 2 shots; in a very short space of time the buffer was back up to its full compliment of shots.

So is this performance a problem? Well to be honest this camera is not designed for the sports / high action enthusiast; if you want that then the Nikon D2H is the camera for you. To be perfectly honest I rarely found it a problem on my walkabout test, since shooting landscapes and statics is not about blasting away with the motordrive. Sure there will be times when lockout happens at the most inconvenient times, but like I have always said, if you know it’s going to happen then you can avoid it happening by picking what images you want to take rather than relying on the motordrive. Or you can simple choose to set the D70 at JPEG FINE rather than NEF and get 9 shots before lockout instead of 4. At the end of the day I didn't get any lockouts that caused me to miss an image.

 

Batteries

The camera is supplied with a N-EL3 Li-ion rechargeable battery. Initially I was very sceptical about it as I know from experience how power hungry DSLRs can be. During all my shooting tests, which happened over several days, I did not recharge the battery once and it was still showing full power when I returned the D70 to Nikon. I did use some power hungry lenses like the VR 80-400 and the 300 f2.8 but I’m sure that with a 500mm lens I’d have seen greater battery drain. All in all the D70 battery life was impressive and Nikon have clearly worked on this area of the camera.

 

Image Quality
The bulk of the test was carried out by setting the camera to NEF, using Auto White Balance (deliberately as some reviews have found odd results with this), Aperture Priority and with the exposure compensation set to 0. The images have been processed using the latest Nikon Capture and no adjustments have been carried our. All images are completely unsharpened.
House and Road
A typical walk around shot and one that the D70 metering has coped well with. Good contrast between the highlights and dark areas and an accurate respresentation of the brickwork colour.
Field
Field Zoom
A track on the downs above our village, the D70 has coped with this well considering the challenging light situation. To show quality I cropped this image at the end of the track, which was effectively at 500%. This was the first image that I really looked at in detail and was really surprised at the detail captured at such a high magnification. That sign and fencepost is barely visible in the main image, yet is amazingly well detailed at such an extreme crop.
2nd Field
Field Zoom
Again from the hill above our village, it's a nicely exposed image considering the difference between the highlights and shadows. To show any noise in the dark and dingey areas I cropped as shown right into the dark areas at 300%. On my Lacie 22" monitor, which shows up noise on my 1Ds images readily, I could not see any noise. Not any at all, just pure pixel detail. I would suspect that the noise would become more apparent at a higher ISO but since most of us rarely go about 400 the signs bode very well indeed for the D70.
Post Office Box
Post Office Box Zoom
Our local postbox, again to show quality but also how the auto white balance copes with strong colours. To my eye this is exactly how the scene looked and the postbox is exactly the right shade of red. Again zooming in to 300% the writing has excellent pixel detail.
Brickwork
Brickwork Zoom

Same tests as before but with a JPEG this time. The settings in this case were all set to NORMAL (sharpening etc) as I wanted to check how the "out of the box" JPEGs looked with regards to quality. Looking at the 200% cropped version the image details and sharpness was every bit as good as a NEF that I took for comparison.

Time now for a change of scene. Armed with a 90mm macro and VR 80-400 I managed to grab a few moments on one of my courses at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire.

Rhino Hide
Rhino Hide Zoom
The perfect quality test was provided by Sula the rhino as she rubbed against the fence inches from my head. I would expect the Auto WB to produce a good result here as the subject is so grey and it didn't disappoint. Exposure too was spot on, so how good was the quality? Zooming in to 300% the quality was again superb with no vsible traces of noise and great detail.
Aminal

Inside the red-ruffed lemur enclosure I attached the 80-400 lens and used the pop-up flash on the D70 to provide some fill-in flash for the darker areas of the lemurs face. I was pleased to see that the flash had several options including slow synchro and second curtain sync. although I did not test any of these for the review. The magnifyng factor of the D70 gave the lens some much needed range (to keep me from being bitten) yet the small flash had enough power to reach and put some highlights in the eyes. I've always been critical of these pop-up flashes as being useless and causing too much burn-out in the final image. Well the sequence that I took were all well exposed and not one was over-flashed.


The Ultimate Field Test – Black Grouse
OK, those are the standard pictures, how would the D70 fair in a real wildlife situation? At the moment I’m working on a Black Grouse lek and decided to take the D70 along for a morning to see how it performed under pressure. I’ve taken two weeks to get the hide close enough to the lek for a 500mm lens as the last thing I want to do is to cause the grouse any stress during this important time. For this reason I enter the hide at about midnight, crawl into my sleeping bag and try to catch some sleep before the grouse arrive at just after 4am. There is no chance of my sleeping after that as they immediately start lekking with an amazing array of sounds that would wake even the deepest sleeper. The light finally comes up at around 6:30am, which means I have about an hour of decent light to work in. So far in 8 days in the hide I’ve had three sunny mornings, three cloudy mornings and two with thunderstorms and howling winds. The grouse don’t mind these conditions but life inside the hide is damp, miserable and cold – at least the grouse always bring a smile to my face.

None of the lenses that I had for the test were remotely useful for this application as they weren’t long enough, so my thanks go out to Nikon for loaning me a superb 300mm f2.8. With the 1.5x effective lens increase this would give me a 450mm lens, which should be close enough for anything.

So, on the morning of the test, I entered the hide as usual, set up the D70 and lens on a beanbag and retired to the sleeping bag. I was vaguely aware of the grouse arriving at 4am but didn’t really wake up until closer to sunrise. I kept the D70 settings as “Normal”, Adobe 1998, NEF and with exposure compensation set to 0. I knew that this would challenge the metering as the black grouse have really dark, light absorbing feathers which constantly confused my 1Ds. The first thing to report was that the exposure was spot on as I checked it constantly from a bare patch of grass. I double checked by using the histogram display on the D70’s rear LCD, which is activated by using the rocker switch on the rear. I found that the autofocus locked on straight away to static subjects, even using the outer focussing points, but didn’t have the chance to test it with movement as all the fights that morning were behind my hide! Anyway here were my favourite three pictures from the morning, all have been converted in Nikon Capture without any image enhancement, exposure compensation or sharpening:

Shot 1
Shot 2
Shot 3
As you can see they are all well exposed, nice and sharp and with a good colour balance. Again I checked all the dark shadowy areas and was still amazed to find no discernable noise in any, everything was just pure pixel detail.

This application was an extreme test for the D70 as I couldn’t afford to get it wrong. I’m glad to say that it passed with flying colours. If you are interested both my hide and double beanbag are manufactured by Wildlife Watching Supplies and available from Wex Photographic.


A Word about software
As I write this review the only software to support the D70 is the Nikon supplied software that is supplied with it. For the more advanced NEF user only the latest version of Nikon Capture (which must be downloaded from their support website) supports the D70, as I found out to my cost. Note this software is a chargeable extra. Hopefully products like Capture One DSLR and Adobe RAW will quickly have options available for the D70. Anyway all the images shown here were converted with the Nikon Capture software and they look superb, so perhaps you should consider this software worth a look.

Comparisions with the D100

One question on most user’s lips is how the D70 compares with the D100. Well I am no expert on the D100 but these are the features that the D100 supplies over the D70 (my comments are in red):

1 MB-D100 handgrip – vertical shutter button, voice annotation and 10 pin remote terminal – Andy’s comment – vertical fire button is nice to have but not essential for shooting and who needs voice annotation?

2 Brighter viewfinder – Andy’s comment – the D70 viewfinder was perfectly bright enough for me!

3 Built in flash is GN 12 as opposed to GN11 for the D70 – Andy’s comment – these built in flash units are always wayyyy too powerful anyway so I see this as a bonus and not a negative. The test results held up this view too.

4 ISO settings 100 to 6400 (D70 is 200-1600) – Andy’s comment – perhaps the biggest issue, is ISO 200 low enough for most users? Well it all depends on how good the image is at ISO 200 and I can truthfully say that to me it looked excellent. Certainly the fact that the D70 cannot go above 1600 is a benefit and not a hindrance.

5 TIFF and Compressed NEF formats supported – Andy’s comment – not supporting TIFF is a major step forward for the D70. Storing TIFF images on the camera is really silly since they take up enormous space (17 MB as opposed to 5 MB for a NEF) and have all the shooting parameters applied. Choosing the TIFF option would just be like re-electing George W for president, pointless and a waste of space. Compressed NEFs on the other hand are a great idea by Nikon and I wish that my Canon system had this. It’s not a big issue for the D70 but one that the D100 scores points on.

6 Nikon Pro User accreditation – Andy’s comment – I suspect that this does not apply or interest the target audience for this camera.

So as you can see, not a lot really. In fact the D70 scores points because it produces better images out of the box and is much cheaper. Also I would never have had the confidence to take the D100 to the Black Grouse, which should speak volumes for the D70.


Conclusion
Nikon have a real winner here with the D70. The only negatives as far as I can see are the restrictions of 4 NEFs before lockout (negated by the new, much faster buffer processing) and the internalisation of the Autofocus options. Other than that the rest are just niggles that should not even be commented on as they do not obstruct a photographer from getting shots. The image quality is cracking at ISO 200, really superb and much better than I have seen from a Nikon DSLR before (I haven't tested the D2H though). Using the Auto White Balance did not give me any blue results during the review and all colours were reproduced accurately. I have seen other reviews that have commented on the odd performance of AWB and the inaccurate colour reproduction, all that I can say is that during my tests I saw none of these. The D70 performed perfectly during the tests and I think will satisfy the need of both experienced and novice photographers. Certainly it is the entry level DSLR of choice at the moment and would give quite a few more expensive DSLRs a run for their money.