At a Glance
Professional photographers have been buying Nikon's digital single-lens reflex cameras for several years, but at $1000 (body only), the 6.1-megapixel D70 is the company's first SLR that's affordable for the advanced consumer. If you own a recent nondigital Nikon, your existing lenses should work with the D70. Beginners might prefer the $1300 D70 Outfit, which comes with a 27mm-to-105mm lens.
The D70's rugged black body looks professional, but our thumb often rubbed against the latch on the CompactFlash card door--that could get uncomfortable over time. The camera powers up so fast, you're ready to shoot almost instantly. We found the eye-level viewfinder cramped and awkward to use, but the 1.8-inch color LCD is bright and easy to see. The camera locks onto its five autofocus points quickly. Many common adjustments, such as setting white balance, exposure, and image quality, have dedicated controls. You set aperture size and shutter speed via two separate dials in the appropriate manual modes.
For more complex operations you must press the Menu button and navigate using a four-way thumbpad. When you press the Help button, you get a short explanation of each item's purpose. The other Nikon digitals we looked at this month (the Coolpix 8400 and Coolpix 8800) have the ability to store collections of your favorite settings for retrieving later--it's surprising that the D70 doesn't have similar custom modes.
The D70 has a built-in orientation sensor, so your portrait shots are automatically rotated. A Rotate Tall option turns on or off all rotation of portrait images during playback. But we were confused by the full playback function. You have to enter a special zoom mode to check detail and focus, and you must hold down the Thumbnail button while turning the main dial to zoom in and out. A small version of the image appears in the corner of the LCD with a red outline showing you the portion currently displayed. This seemed overly complicated.
We took a first look at an early-production D70 back in June, but we weren't happy with its image output results. Subsequently, we received a model with the latest firmware revisions (versions A1.01 and B1.02), so we tested it alongside our current batch of advanced digital cameras. We saw some improvement, but the D70 still fell short of our top scorers. The camera was weakest in producing indoor shots of our mannequin using the camera's built-in flash, and in our still-life composition under studio lighting. Colors were dull, and exposure was too dark. We saw a lot of color interference in our resolution test, and maze effects developed in areas of close parallel lines. The D70 fared better on our outdoor shot, which had good detail though a greenish cast.
It's worth remembering that our tests are designed to use a camera's default automatic modes and settings. But with a digital SLR outside of a lab setting, you'll probably make adjustments to suit your shooting conditions. The manufacturers also tend to set up an SLR to underexpose images. They assume you';; able to capture more detail and bring it out later with a photo editor than if the shots are overexposed. To test this theory, we ran the D70 through our test suite a second time, taking seven shots of each test while adjusting the exposure compensation in 1/3-stop increments. We thought the images with 2/3-stop additional exposure generally came out best, and were closer to the results from the other cameras, such as the Canon PowerShot G6. We also took the uncompensated shot of our mannequin and edited it in Adobe Photoshop CS. With just a simple use of the Shadows/Highlights adjustment, we found we could get similar results to the +2/3-stop image, but with more natural and colorful skin tones.
The D70 allows you to capture photos as RAW image data, saving 12 bits per pixel from the sensor (JPEG files store only 8 bits per pixel) and delaying any processing until you import it into a photo editor. RAW files are much larger, but you get the ability to make finer adjustments using Photoshop or the rather unsophisticated Nikon PictureProject software that comes with the camera.
We did some informal testing side by side with the more expensive Canon EOS 20D we also reviewed this month. We thought the colors were more vivid with the D70; the difference was similar to that we used to see among different film types in our predigital days. Outdoor portraits on a bright, sunny day came out well, but scenes of trees and buildings looked less natural. The D70's maximum ISO equivalency is 1600, requiring longer exposure times than the 20D, which has a maximum ISO equivalency of 3200. The D70 did produce less image noise in shots taken with high ISO settings, which should be better for printing at smaller sizes or when editing an image for posting on a Web site.
The D70's rechargeable battery was still going strong when we stopped testing after 500 shots. It also comes with a converter for use with three disposable lithium CR2 batteries--an expensive option, but handy for emergencies. You get no media card with the D70, so you'll need to buy a CompactFlash card or Microdrive separately.
Confirmed Nikon aficionados with an existing investment in lenses and accessories will love the D70, but it definitely takes some getting used to.