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Nikon D70

The Nikon D70 is an "entry-level" SLR loaded with features at a sub-$1,000 price.

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Page 3:Executive Overview

Review First Posted: 04/14/2004

Executive Overview

In a bid to bring digital SLR photography into the mainstream, Nikon has introduced the D70. Looking much like a 35mm SLR, the D70 has a professional, though simplified appearance. Equipped with a 6.1 megapixel CCD, the D70 captures very high-resolution images with superb detail and excellent color. Replete with auto and manual exposure modes, the D70 is ready for whatever type of shooting its owner desires, with an instant-on feature for immediate picture-taking, and several scene modes that bias the settings for the best results in a number of common shooting situations.

Capitalizing on the broad line of Nikon optics, the D70 has a standard F lens mount that accommodates most of Nikon's 35mm lenses. This is one of the key advantages of SLR cameras: Interchangeable lenses offer greater flexibility than even high-end prosumer cameras, despite the latters' attachable accessory lenses. Use of the near-historic F mount means that a huge range of lenses originally developed for film cameras can operate on the D70, although older lens models may have quite a few limitations. 

The D70 offers several focusing options, including Manual, Single-Servo AF, and Continuous-Servo AF for moving subjects. A five point AF system can be used in three modes: Single Area, Dynamic Area, and Closest Subject. There is no analytical mode (to match Canon's "AI" mode), where the camera looks at the scene and makes decisions based on content, but Nikon chose to leave the photographer greater control over focus. In the first two modes, the user is free to pick a focus point. You can set the AF Point Lock switch to L to keep the focus point set indefinitely at the location you've chosen. Switch it to the dot, and it can be changed, but again only in Single Area and Dynamic Area modes. The user uses the MultiSelector nav disk on the back to move the focus point around in the viewfinder.

The D70 features a true TTL (through the lens) optical viewfinder, complete with information display along the bottom. This shows shutter speed, exposure compensation, flash status, focus point and mode, focus lock, and flash status among others.

The five focus areas are marked by round-edged rectangles that overlay the image. Whether chosen by the user or the camera, the active focus area is highlighted in red when focus lock is achieved under dim lighting, or turns black if the light in the frame is brighter. In either condition, the focus indication can be lost in the details. A brighter light would be better. Custom setting 8 activates an optional Grid Display, useful for matching to the horizon line in landscape shots, walls and floors in architectural shots, or when using a tilt or shift lens.

A diopter correction slider next to the viewfinder can be adjusted from -1.6 to +0.5 to accommodate eyeglass wearers; optional corrective lenses are available that extend the range from -5 to +3.

As is the case with most digital SLRs, the D70's LCD monitor is solely for viewing captured images and displaying the menu system, not for framing shots. (I'm careful to mention this for those potential users accustomed to composing pictures in point-and-shoot rangefinder-style digital cameras, who are considering moving up to a more capable camera.) Also important to know is that digital SLR cameras capture only stills, not video or audio.

In playback mode seven information screens are available, giving a great deal of detail, plus a histogram and highlight displays. The highlight display shows any blown-out highlights, flashing the overexposed areas from white to black. This is something we'd like to see on all digital cameras, including consumer models, to let you know when portions of a photo have been overexposed. 

Because this is meant as a consumer SLR, Nikon has added quite a few Scene modes in addition to the usual Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes that appeared on the D100. The D70 has a full Auto mode for point-and-shoot convenience, as well as Portrait, Landscape, Close Up, Sports, Night Landscape, and Night Portrait. All are quickly selected from the Mode Dial, which turns left or right with no limiter built in. In other words, you can turn toward the icon you want, no matter where you are on the dial, and not worry about whether you're going to run into a limiter, as we see on Canon's competing Digital Rebel model. A minor point perhaps, but one that makes mode selection that much faster.

In Program mode, where most intermediate photographers will probably spend a lot of time, rotating the Main command dial adjusts through the possible combinations of aperture and shutter speed while maintaining proper exposure. This allows the user to decide dynamically whether they want to emphasize depth of field or speed of capture based on the scene. It is not available in full Auto mode, or in any of the Scene modes. 

Using a combined mechanical and CCD electronic shutter, the D70 is able to achieve speeds from 30 seconds to 1/8000 second. This is twice the maximum speed of its brother the D100. In manual mode, Bulb is also available, up to a maximum of 30 minutes. Bulb exposures can also be controlled via remote, an important feature for blur-free long exposures. The shutter opens two seconds after the remote is activated, and doesn't shut until the remote is activated again, or the 30 minute maximum exposure time ends.

Nikon's trademark D color matrix metering is available by default when using G or D type lenses. It's considered "3D" because it gathers distance information from the lens to further optimize the meter's effectiveness. Inherited from the Nikon D2H and F5 is the very high resolution of this 3D matrix metering system. The Canon Digital Rebel has a 35 zone matrix meter, and the Nikon D100 has a 10 zone matrix meter, but the D70 has a 1,005 pixel metering sensor, separate from the main image sensor, that covers the entire frame. (Very impressive.) Matrix metering is useful for backlit subjects or when very dark subjects occupy a significant portion of the frame. Center Weighted metering is also available, which measures light from the entire frame, but places the greatest emphasis on a circular area in the center. Spot metering takes a reading from dead center of the image, best when using the AE lock function, because it lets you meter off of a face or other area of primary importance and then recompose. The spot meter on the D70 bases its reading on approximately 1% of the total frame area, providing very precise exposure determination. These latter two metering options are only available in the Program, Shutter, Aperture, and Manual modes; the camera defaults to Matrix in the full Auto and Scene modes.

Sensitivity settings range from ISO 200 to 1600. In testing, we found even ISO 1600 produced entirely acceptable results, with noise levels that were low, if not negligible. A special noise reduction mode can reduce noise in longer exposures with shutter speeds slower than about one second. When Noise Reduction is active, the time to process each image more than doubles, and "Job NR" blinks across the top of the status LCD while the processing is taking place. Surprisingly, my tests showed that having NR active also slowed continuous exposures even in bright lighting, regardless of the shutter speed being used. - This despite the fact that the NR processing is only supposed to apply to very long exposures. The amount of space in the buffer also decreases with NR on.

In Program, Shutter, Aperture, and Manual modes, exposure can be adjusted between -5 and +5 EV in increments of 1/3 EV. The camera can also be set to adjust EV in 1/2 EV increments, if you prefer. EV adjustment values show on the Status LCD only when the EV adjustment button is pressed, though in the viewfinder the scale is skewed on the exposure readout any time an exposure compensation has been specified. Exposure compensation can be immediately reset to 0--along with all other custom settings--via a two-button combination, both marked by a green dot next to both the Bracket and Exposure mode buttons. Hold these buttons down for more than two seconds and all settings are returned to default (see button listings later in this review to see which functions are reset by this process). This is a handy feature that I'd also like to see on other cameras, as it can be tedious resetting a large number of camera settings manually. 

Auto Bracketing can help you with EV adjustments of up to plus or minus 2 EV. The camera will take one shot underexposed by the amount you set, one at the "metered exposure" (determined by the camera in Program, Shutter, and Aperture mode; by the user in Manual mode), and one overexposed. The sequence can also be "metered," under, over. Three presses on the shutter are required to complete each bracketing sequence. The sequence can also be applied to flash exposures, and white balance settings. (White Balance Bracketing can only be done in JPEG mode.) In the case of White Balance, Auto Bracketing works a little differently. Instead of requiring three presses on the shutter to complete the sequence, only one press is required to produce the desired number of frames. Users choose between two and three frames and which direction they want to go. A little experimentation is required, as is a thorough read of the manual. The benefits of using this feature could be significant, however, when you're just not sure about the white balance settings and the shot is critical. 

White balance can be left in Auto, where the camera will adjust the color temperature from 3,500 to 8,000 Kelvin using both the 1,005 pixel RGB exposure sensor and the CCD image sensor. This is a wider range than the D100's Auto White balance mode offers (but I'd still really like to see it extend lower, to handle the incandescent lighting so common in US interior spaces), though both offer the same preset options, from Incandescent (3,000K) through Fluorescent (4,200K), Sunlight (5,200K), Flash (5,400K), Cloudy (6,000K), and Shade (8,000K). You can also preset a white balance by pointing the camera at a white or gray object, or it can be copied from an existing photograph. You can fine-tune the color balance of all white balance settings (except Preset) from -3 to +3 arbitrary units, for a more precise color balance. The D70 also offers Hue, Tone, and Sharpness adjustments. Tone curves can be set to Auto or set from Normal (0 adjustment) to Low Contrast (-2), Medium Low (-1), Medium High (+1), High Contrast (+2), and Custom. Custom allows the user to download a custom tone curve created in Nikon Capture 4 on a PC. 

There are three color modes, two of them sRGB, and one Adobe RGB. The first sRGB (mode Ia) is optimized for skin tones, and is the default setting. The second setting is Adobe RGB (mode II), offering a wider gamut than sRGB, meaning that it can capture and deliver more colors to a program like Photoshop, especially in the green range. It is recommended for photos that will be modified extensively on a computer. The second sRGB (mode IIIa) is optimized for landscape shots, and apparently more closely approximates the color space of the previous D100. 

In more than a few ways, the D70 is actually superior to its higher priced predecessor, and one of those is its continuous capture mode. It's not only faster at 3 frames per second compared to the D100's 2.5 fps, it also can capture far more frames without pausing. When using a fast Compact Flash card, like a SanDisk Ultra II (or presumably Lexar's forthcoming 80x cards, when they're available in another month or so), the buffer doesn't fill very quickly. One can watch the counter move down to about a five-frame capacity and slowly move down then back up. The faster the card, the more quickly the new buffer can offload the data, and in the case of high resolution images saved with the "normal" JPEG compression setting, the buffer may never fill at all. This is truly amazing, and a first with any digital camera we've seen. (Although forum poster RobN reminded Dave that the Kyocera/Contax "R" series of consumer cameras have this ability also. - But the D70 is indeed the first d-SLR that can do this. - Thanks Rob!) This effect requires a card with a speed rating of 60x or more.

The D70's built-in pop-up flash has an ISO 200 Guide Number of 15m/49ft (ISO 100 Guide Number would be 11/36; though the D70's ISO starts at 200, so this is only stated for comparison with other cameras and flash units). When a CPU lens is on the camera, Nikon's i-TTL is invoked, allowing complex measurements via low-power "almost invisible" preflashes right before the main flash, that the camera combines with distance information from the lens' CPU. This is excellent for fill flash, because the D70 uses its 1,005 segment Matrix meter to balance foreground lighting against backlighting. When a non-CPU lens is used, the built-in Speedlight supposedly only works in Manual mode, but my test unit showed no difference in flash behavior when I tried it with a couple of my older lenses.

Flash sync modes include Front-curtain sync, Red-eye reduction, Slow sync, Slow sync with red eye reduction, Rear- and Slow rear-curtain sync. In full Auto, Portrait, and Macro modes, Auto front curtain sync, Auto with red eye, and Off are the only options. In Night Capture mode, both Auto flash modes are of necessity Slow sync. Flash Exposure Compensation allows the user to adjust brightness from -3 to +1 EV, providing for very subtle fill-flash effects. 

The D70 uses Type I and Type II CF cards and MicroDrives. In addition to three JPEG compression levels, images can also be saved as NEF-format compressed RAW images, or simultaneously as RAW + JPEG files. Resolutions are 3,008 x 2,000, 2,240 x 1,488, and 1,504 x 1,000. When printed at 200 dpi, these can produce images as big as 15 x 10, 11 x 7.5, and 7.5 x 5 inches, respectively. A USB cable comes with the camera for uploads, as well as Nikon PictureProject software and a 30-day free trial of Nikon Capture. A video cable appropriate for the market (NTSC or PAL) is also included. 

One EN-EL3 Lithium Ion battery pack powers the D70, providing 7.4V at 1400mAh. Though the battery looks very much like the Canon BP-511, they're not compatible. The EN-EL gives very long run times in the D70, but unfortunately there is no battery pack/vertical grip planned for the camera, an advantage that both the D100 and Digital Rebel have. The battery door does not appear to be removable, and there also appear to be no controller contacts inside the battery compartment or camera bottom that would allow shutter and sub-command dial functions to pass through, only two battery contacts. (So don't hold your breath for a vertical grip to be announced later.)

Offering a 6.1 megapixel imager with beautiful tone and color as well as excellent resolution, a sturdy, competent build, capable of fast capture, and bundled with a very nice lens, all at an affordable price, the D70 is poised to be Nikon's next big hit. This is an amazingly capable camera, with excellent image quality and excellent optics, at a very affordable price. While more expensive than the Canon Digital Rebel, the D70 more than justifies its slight price premium with a plethora of enhanced features.


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