Nikon D70 Digital Camera Reviewed

by Bjørn Rørslett  

2. Appearance and Handling

The first impression of the D70 is that of a neat, dandy little camera. When you pick it up, the light weight further underscores the initial impression. Since the outer casing of D70 is polycarbonate moulding, the camera doesn't give the same "professional" impression as with my workhorses, D1X and 2H. Construction is neatness itself and the workmanship seems better than I'd expect from the price alone. As a professional user, I'm always a little uncertain whether or not to focus on the limitations inevitably found on a lower-end model, or try to view the camera in a more "normal" perspective. I selected the latter option, realising that most users would be keen amateurs attracted by the competitive pricing of the D70. (On my own, I'd scrutinise the capabilities first, and won't pay attention to the asking price unless it's outrageous. But here I speak only for myself).

D70 front view

Nikon D70: Small, nice, and neat

A 6.1 MPix CCD resides inside camera and you can opt to record images in NEF (raw format, compressed) or in a number of JPG versions, or NEF + JPG combined (but in two separate files numbered identical). The camera responds very quickly once the release button is pressed, even from a "sleep" mode, and I didn't got the shutter-lag feeling which in past times has upset me many times with lesser cameras (and lost me some nice shots, too).

Compared to its logical predecessor, D100, the new model stands out as even smaller, neater, and lighter. They both employ Li-Ion battery technology, and the batteries (and chargers) are interchangeable, have small viewfinders, and quite similar approx. 6 MPix CCDs. Much of the weight loss evidently stems from the increased use of polycarbonate moulded parts of the D70. Obviously you cannot pare down a camera this much and still maintain a robust framework able to withstand every strain the user or fate throws at it. I have to remember that next time I stumble across something to end up with my camera beneath me.

In use, the camera handled with ease once I got through all the menus and set up the D70 as suited me best. I couldn't get all options to work concurrently due to the multi-purpose design of some of the controls. Thus, while I managed to set up the rear button as an AF-ON control, it simultaneously was disabled as an exposure lock. And so it goes. You can't get everything and are reminded this is not professional gear.

Data transfer is over a USB port, safely but - in my opinion - not conveniently placed on the camera's left hand side. Nikon officials stated that the decision to replace Firewire connectivity with USB had been based upon the much wider frequency of USB-enabled computers and laptops. I'd rather prefer FireWire to USB of any kind, but realize my voice isn't heard here. And I still can transfer images using my CF-cards of course. Since D70 is FAT32-aware, I believe there is no practical upper limit to the size of the cards you can deploy with it.

The ports for connection of mains and video are located on the left side, a solution I personally dislike but which rapidly seems to become the standard for new Nikons. Nobody listens to me anymore. Drat. The D70 lacks a PC flash outlet, but the functionality is provided by the AS-15 adapter inserted into the hotshoe. There is a sweet, but rather pathetic, pop-up flash situated in the viewfinder head, which I finally managed to get disabled. I eventually did add a few drops of epoxy glue to ensure this bliss continues. I haven't tried D70 with any of the newer flashes, not because I'm lazy, but because I almost never use flash anymore for my normal photography. I did however hook up my SB-140 flash and it functioned perfectly up to the 1/500 sec max sync speed.

D70, rear view

The rear of D70 appears with a plethora of control buttons, still nicely organised, but some controls are multi-purpose and this slows down operational speed compared to the bigger, professional relatives. The LCD is quite small, here shown without the BM-4 transparent hood on it.

Of course all the trendy new AFS and VR technologies are supported by D70. The focusing speed with my AFS lenses is fast and responsive, but not entirely up to the standard set by D2H. The "kit" lens (18-70 AFS) thus performed on par with AF lenses on my D1X, D1H, and D2H cameras. The new "pro" calibre AFS 17-55 mm f/2.8 did however focus about as swiftly on D70 as it did on my D2H.

The viewfinder is, frankly speaking, the weakest point on the D70 and something I'd rather see be replaced by something better. Being a pentaprism design, it is bright enough, true, but otherwise simply is too small to make me feel entirely comfortable using it for manual focusing or critical frame composition. Going back and forth between my D2H and the D70 isn't pleasant at all. On the plus side, you can have a gridded groundglass, to facitilate making horizons horizontal for a change. The grid is activated by electronic means and I have it permanently switched on. With the grid activated, there is a disturbing flash of red light in the viewfinder once you press the shutter or focus by the rear AE/AF control, a minor annoyance yes but I could do without it. The diopter of the finder is regulated by a slider to the right of the eye-piece, and although it worked less precisely than the rotating control on my D1/D2 cameras, it did the job and stayed positively put as well.

You have a range of white-balancing options as normal for newer DSLRs, and the camera will allow obtaining a custom balance either from a test shot or earlier taken frame. I made a habit of putting the white balance to "Flash" on all my DSLRs and accordingly left it there on the D70, too.

D70, top view

Top view of D70 with the AFS 18-70 "kit" lens attached to it.

On the left, you can set the camera to the usual exposure modes (P, S, A, or M), or to any number of silly "programs" intended to make you wonder why simple operations of a camera can be made into such complexities. Suffice to say I never would dream of using anything else than M or A myself. The user manual spends the better part of its content on how to use the "programs", so anyone interested should read there and not listen to me, because I'm not going to say anything at all about these (to me, truly useless and braindead) features

The EN-EL3 battery employs Li-Ion technology and yet a new battery charger (MH-18 or MH-19) or mains supply (EH-5) have to be purchased to satisfy the D70's need for electricity. Evidently there is no upper limit to the diversity and multitude of auxiliary paraphenalia I'm going to have to bring with me for future digital sessions in the field. Of course, if you already own a D100 (which I don't), you can share the charger and other equipment. Also, you can use the MS-D70 holder, taking 3 x CR2 batteries, to provide power. Battery performance of my D70 has been quite good and I get around 200 shots per charge, but whether or not this is a typical figure has to await a longer duration of my using the D70. Later on I've gotten more certain that the 200 shots estimate applies for my kind of photography. That's not a very high number in terms of battery capacity and what's worse, the camera will drop dead nearly instantly after the battery indicator goes off the "Full" mark. Bringing with you a spare battery (and remember to have charged it) is mandatory with the D70, but fortunately, a new battery is not very expensive.

The metering system of D70 is sophisticated enough to employ colour matrix metering by means of a 1005-element RGB sensor embedded in the groundglass. This would, and indeed does, imply you only get metering when a CPU-fortified lens is mounted on the camera. All AF, AF-D, AF-S, AF-I, G, or AI-P lenses qualify to this end. Manual lenses without CPU don't and you have to live with the crippled "compatibility" of these Nikkors on your D70. I'm certain this will be an issue for some users, but clearly not for the majority of intended buyers, who wouldn't know a MF Nikkor from a dinosaur anyway. I have plenty of CPU-modified lenses myself, so have no problems at all except for AI or non-AI lenses. Exposures achieved with the D70 set to "A" and colour matrix metering were excellent with any compatible lens, so even inexperienced users should be able to get quality results straight away.

I have run a significant number of images through my D70, and the camera has functioned vey well. I did once or twice get an "Err" message flashing on the camera display, though. The mirror hung in a raised position, and the camera needed to have the battery pack removed before it "booted" normally again. For us computer geeks, this is standard fare anyway, but newbies might get a trifle scared by such an incident.

Nikon D70 Reviewed

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Last update 28 July, 2004