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Nikon D70 Test Review and Users Guide
© 2006 KenRockwell.com
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Nikon D70

The D70 has pretty much evaporated from stores.
Today it's replaced by the almost identical D70s.

FLASH back to top of D70 review

General    How It Works    Built-in Flash   External Flashes   Studio Strobes

SPECIFICATIONS (Built-in Flash)

Guide number: 38 feet; 11 meters (ISO 100). This is the same as the D50, D70s and D200.

GENERAL Back to top of Flash section    top of D70 review

The D70 has the best flash system of any camera I've ever used.

Nikon completely redesigned the D70's flash exposure system from scratch. This new system is called i-TTL. The older, crummier system for digital SLRs was called D-TTL. The good news is I get perfect flash exposures almost every time, just like with my film cameras. Nikon's previous digital SLRs had a completely different and inferior flash exposure system called D-TTL. If you, like many photographers, have not owned a digital SLR before you would be in for an unpleasant surprise with most of the previous models. Unbfortunately for my freinds who use Canon point out that the newest Canons, like the 1D-MkII, are also awful. I appreciate how much better the D70 is from previous digital cameras since I used to use the other ones which cost me four times as much.

What makes the D70 good is that the flash exposure is right on. What makes the others so bad is that every time you make a differerent shot you often have to twiddle with flash levels to get the right look. This is crippling in most kinds of photography.

With the D70 you can reset the default slowest shutter speed with flash. Previously most cameras, as well as the D1 series, set themselves to 1/60 in some modes and that was it, unless you went to SLOW SYNC mode. On the D70 you can choose your own slowest speed, like 1/15, if that's what you'd prefer in the regular sync modes. This is often very useful. For instance, in A mode with slow sync you might have a dark shot that locks up the camera for a 12 second exposure, or have to use regular sync which gave 1/60 and a totally black background. With this new setting you can limit the camera to, say 1/4 second, and still get some sense of ambient light without having to revert to manual exposure. This new setting takes effect in P and A modes with regular sync. It has no effect in SLOW sync mode.

The D70 adds a Flash Exposure Lock, called FV Lock, which maintains a measured flash value so you can recompose the shot. You pop the flash to make a measurement and lock it in for the live shot.

TRICK: The new iTTL system gives the best flash exposures I've ever gotten on a digital camera. Unfortunately since the preflash is now much brighter and earlier than older systems it's very visible and will make some people blink, almost guarantying their eyes will be closed in EVERY shot! You can see the preflash go off through the viewfinder just after you press the shutter. You have this problem with both the built-in or external flash used in the latest and greatest i-TTL mode. It isn't a problem with flashes used in non-TTL "A" mode or studio strobes. To fix this you have to do anything that will eliminate the preflash. Several options are:

1.) Use any flash in the non-TTL A mode. You can use your old SB-28DX or a classic Vivitar 283. Just be sure if you use an old non-Nikon brand flash from the 1970s that the trigger voltage isn't too high. You can use a voltmeter on the PC or hot shoe. Some old flashes used a 300 Volt trigger and that could fry newer cameras. If closed eyes are your problem then a 30 year old flash bought at a garage sale could work far better than a brand new $350 SB-800. (You should also be able to set the SB-800 to A mode to fix the problem, but for that you don't need the SB-800.)

2.) Use the Manual mode with any flash. This works with the built-in or external flash, including studio strobes or 50 year old flashbulbs!

3.) The best thing is to use FV (flash value) lock by setting the D70's AE/AF-L button in custom function #15. This fires and measures the flash separately and uses that reading for subsequent exposures without a pre-flash. Watch out; I use CSM 15 for AE hold so this gets confusing since you have to change it around depending on conditions.

TRICK: The electronic shutter actually syncs at all speeds up to 1/8,000 so long as you can trigger your flash without the camera detecting a Nikon dedicated flash. You'll lose light from most flashes unless they are making a burst of 1/8,000 or less. You can get a flash burst this short with most flashes with a manual 1/8 power (or lower) setting or in the non-TTL "A" mode and not more than about 1/3 the maximum flash distance according to the flash's computer. You can trick the camera into this with a dedicated flash by covering the smaller flash contacts. Try all this as an experiment and don't come complaining to me if some old non-dedicated flash blows out your D70's sync system. Good luck!

TRICK: The blinking "please use flash" idiot light in the viewfinder is far more than a slow shutter speed warning. It's controlled by the matrix meter and also lights when the contrast range is so great that fill flash will help correct the contrast range and fill in the shadows to look natural. Pay attention to the idiot light; you'll see it come on even in daylight if the image will benefit from flash. This meter is much smarter than anything I've ever used. Nikon saved a nickle and this viewfinder flash indicator is green, not red as I'd prefer on other cameras. Thus you can't see it out of the corner of your eye when shooting fast.

TRICK: The original D70 firmware v. 1.00/1.01 had a design flaw with fill flash in dim light if you set the ISO to AUTO. The ambient light will be overexposed if the light is so dim the camera has to increase its ISO automatically. (The flash exposure itself is always correct.) The only way to fix this is to disable the AUTO ISO function each time you use fill flash in dim light. The programmers forgot to have the D70 recalculate the ambient exposure time when the ISO is boosted, WHOOPS! Nikon seems to have fixed this in the July 2004 firmware version 1.01/1.02 available here. Nikon for some odd reason has two sets of firmware, A and B, in the camera, each with its own version number, thus the 1.01/1.02 nomenclature. I updated my camera in just a few minutes; it's really simple.

HOW IT WORKS  Back to top of Flash section    top of D70 review

The previous D-TTL digital systems used whimpy guestimation preflashes after the mirror flipped up to guess the flash exposure. It never worked well for me and gave inconsistent exposures which often required different manual compensation for every shot.

The new i-TTL system instead fires a guestimation preflash with the mirror still down, so the entire 1,005 pixel viewfinder meter can see and process the flash information. This preflash is bright and obvious and visible through the finder as you make the photo. It is far more accurate than the previous system because 1.) it uses the camera's 1,005 segment meter (instead of a single sensor inside the mirror box), 2.) it seems to use a brighter preflash which is better at being measured against bright ambient light, and 3.) the camera is allowed more time between preflash and exposure to compute the exposure more accurately.

BUILT - IN FLASH  Back to top of Flash section    top of D70 review

The built-in flash is wonderful. Exposure is always dead on and it even covers the ultrawide 12mm lens quite well for use in interiors where the sides of the image are usually walls or ceilings closer to you. Watch for shadows as I show here if the flash is a main source of light. TRICK: if you don't want a dark shadow in the foreground with the 12mm lens simply turn the camera upside down! Now the shadow is cast up into the sky or ceiling where it doesn't matter! You'll have to rotate the image manually later, since the auto-rotate function isn't this smart.

To improve the range of the built-in flash the camera usually shifts the program to faster shutter speeds to take advantage of the very fast sync speeds.

The D70 even has a Manual mode with power control for the built-in flash. You can select down to 1/16 power in full stops.

It has easy to use flash exposure compensation to change the brightness of the built-in flash in the auto TTL modes. You can do this without taking your eye from the finder.

The built-in flash works great: it gives far more consistently balanced fill than than my $5,000 D1H/SB-28DX combination. Nikon has really done their homework here.

Therefore I waited six months to buy an external flash. This isn't the 1970s anymore. You don't need to buy an external flash unless you have a very good reason. Back in the 1970s you needed a big external flash since you had no good ISO 1600 film for available light, cameras had no built-in flashes and sync speeds were too slow to allow energy efficient flash use. In the 21st century this has all changed. You only need an external flash if you like to bounce, need more than 20 feet of range or extra fast recycle time. The built-in is perfect for most uses.

The biggest drawback of the built-in is red eye. Like all built-in flashes it's close to the lens. The only decent way to fix red eye is with an external flash. The red-eye reduction modes are the usual obnoxious blinding lights we can all do without.

The built-in flash doesn't recycle as fast as an external one. If you are shooting fast the camera will lock up if the flash has not recycled. At close distances this is no problem, but at longer distances it may take a few seconds since the flash used more power for each burst. By all means if you're a pro newspaper photographer get an external flash. The camera's little battery can only recycle the flash so fast.

You can even use the built-in flash as the controller for easy wireless control of an off-camera SB-600 or SB-800 flash, way, way cool! This means you can just hold the big flash off to the side and the D70 talks to it by magic. Be sure to set the D70's purple CSM setting for flash to Commander TTL mode and the external flash to slave mode, otherwise nothing happens in the default setting! Also rememebr to set this all back when done, otherwise you'll go nuts using the camera alone since the flash will seem to go off but you'll get nothing in your photos.

I have not bothered to try it with more than one external flash. I'm not smart enough to set this all up and only have two arms. When I need a fancier light setup I simply use my Novatron studio strobes.

EXTERNAL FLASHES   Back to top of Flash section    top of D70 review

The great news is the D70's new flash system is superb. The bad news is the ONLY flashes that work properly with all the D70's modes are the built-in or the new SB-800 or SB-600.

The SB-800 and SB-600 are as good as each other. The SB-600 costs $100 less and is a little smaller and has a tad less power, which is still more than enough. The SB-800 is usually what salespeople and Nikon will push on you because it sells for more money. It just has some features none of us will use (like repeating strobe) and can take longer to recycle and can run its batteries down faster and weighs more than the SB-600.

Here's a promo piece on how to use some of the flash's crazier features. Good luck, most people never figure out how to get things like multiple flash to work since it's not documented well. For instance, you have to use channel 3 when controlling the SB600 or SB800a remotely. I just use my Novatrons when I need more than one flash; they work much easier, better and cheaper.

All the other flashes we already own won't work with the D70 except in primitive manual and non-TTL "A" modes.

That's right: your new SB-80DX or SB-50DX has just been rendered obsolete and won't work in any TTL mode with the D70, period. This is OK with me; the older D-TTL system worked so poorly I'm happy to see it go. The good news is any old Nikon flash will work as well with the D70 in the manual and non-TTL A modes. Your dad's old SB-16 will work as well with the D70 as your newly obsolete SB-80DX does. Even I was amazed my SB-28DX doesn't even communicate the basics with the camera: I needed to set the ISO manually (requiring a power on/off/on cycle!) on the SB-28DX for calculating exposure and you have to hit the illuminator button on both the camera and flash to get each of them to turn on. On other cameras hit either of the buttons and both light up.

I am the first to cry "conspiracy," but in this case it's for our own good. I'm happy to see the old D-TTL flash mode go away. Good riddance. The D70 is a great improvement.

If you still think there's a conspiracy, remember:

1.) What conspiracy? The built-in flash, thrown in for free, works great. You honestly don't need to buy a flash for most purposes. Remember unlike a film camera that the images made even at ISO 800 or 1,600 are quite nice, so you can just crank up the ISO for free if you need more power.

2.) You can use your SB-50DX in a special manual mode with the D70's built-in flash by changing CSM #19. (No other flash will work for this.)

3.) Of course you still can use your 20 year old flashes in the manual and non-TTL "A" auto mode, which often worked better than the old D-TTL mode on the D1H.

STUDIO STROBES   Back to top of Flash section    top of D70 review

See my page on Studio Strobes. You can get real studio lights that work better and easier but cost the same as struggling with multiple battery-powered flashes.

D70 vs. D1X (vs. D100 here)

As of September 2004 a used D1X or D1H is about the same price as a new D70. Personally I sold my D1H and prefer the D70! Many professionals are also dumping their old cameras in favor of the D70, which is why so many are available used. Here's the scoop:

D1X and D1H
Advantages:

Faster autofocus
Very high professional durability; you feel like you could hammer nails with them
Disadvantages:
Poor battery life per charge, only about 250 images.
Poor battery life; requires constant babying and special charge cycles. Should not be recharged unless completely dead (Ni-MH).
Heavy camera and huge heavy batteries, of which you always need to carry spares
No built in flash
Poor flash exposure control (D-TTL), so who cares if it works with your old DX flashes?
Poorer image quality (D1H only 2.7MP; D1X is about as good)

D70
Advantages:

Very light weight
Superior battery life (about 1,000 shots/charge)
Superior battery convenience, just charge when you want to. (Li-ion)
Superior exposure meter and superior flash metering (iTTL)
Better image quality: more pixels and better highlight rendition (D1X is about as good resolution wise)
Disadvantages:
Plastic; unknown durability
Autofocus not as fast as D1X/H, not as well suited for sports, only 3FPS (same as D1X)

D70 vs. D100 back to top

The D70 is better, two years newer and less expensive. There is almost no reason to prefer the D100 and quite a few reasons to prefer the D70. Here's what I've found:

D100 has and D70 lacks:

• Ability to use a vertical grip with vertical release and AA batteries. No grip is available for the D70. (D70 can run on CR2 throw-away batteries if you are off backpacking for a few months, D100 can't.)

• D100 can go to ISO 6,400 and ISO 3,200 very easily in the PUSH+1 and PUSH+2 modes. D70 stops at ISO 1,600. Honestly, all the cameras get pretty noisy at 3,200 and above so you probably didn't want to use those PUSH modes anyway, and the Nikon DSLRs are all quite good at ISO 1,600, which you can use all the time. TRICK: you can get the same ISO 3,200 and ISO 6,400 images from the D70 by setting the D70 to ISO 1,600 and -1 or -2 exposure compensation and then either 1.) shooting in RAW and opening the files at +1 or +2 exposure, or 2.) shoot in JPG mode and use Photoshop's Levels or Curves command! The curves command can give better results than an in-camera or RAW push because you can introduce a valuable film-like shoulder to the curve to improve highlight rendition.

• D100 has a standard cable release socket. The D70 only works with a $16.95 dedicated ML-L3 infrared wireless remote you can get here. You are in luck, however; if you wanted to have the same wireless remote ability with the F100, N90 or F5 you'd have to buy a set including the IR receiver (included free inside the D70) for $165 for here.

• D100 has a switch, like almost every other Nikon, for selecting AF-C (continuous AF) or AF-S (single AF) modes. D70 requires a menu operation. This could be a pain on the D70, but all the other pluses outweigh this one by far. On the other hand, the D70 has a slew of silly selectable amateur point-and-shoot modes, and these modes include the focus mode as part of their presets. If these modes, which are simply selected by rotating a knob, are custom programmable I'm going to be in Heaven. That would both solve the AF-C / AF-S switching dilemma AND allow the equivalent of preset modes, key to fast operation.

• D100 can record TIFFs directly, D70 can't. This is good; no sane person records TIFFs in-camera and all TIFFs do is slow up and bog down the operation of the camera when well meaning but inexperienced users would select the TIFF mode of the D100.

D70 has and D100 lacks:

• Semi-automatic vertical image rotation, for both vertical orientations. Requires special reader software, and can be very important!

• Critical White Balance, ISO and Quality settings all have dedicated buttons just like D1 and D2. You push the button, look at the top panel and rotate a knob; just perfect! On the D100 instead of having a dedicated button you have to rotate the same knob that controls exposure program, and then remember to return that knob to the same setting before you can shoot. On Canon you have to press one or even two buttons at the same time to change ISO.

• More selections for sharpness, contrast and saturation than D100.

• Ability to set the slowest shutter speed to other than 1/60 with conventional flash sync. This again is important for effective use with fill flash in available light; you used to need an F5 for this or you had to revert to the old manual exposure mode the hard way.

• Real auto ISO setting. You can program how it works; you tell the D70 the slowest shutter you'd like, and when you get to that slow shutter the camera automatically ramps up the ISO as far as it can as the light fades. This is brilliant.

• The clever CR2 battery adaptor works in the D70 but not the D100. The only reason for throw-away batteries is if you are on a three-month backpack trip. Even people I know who go to third-world countries for weeks at a time find AC power with which to charge their batteries.

D70 vs. Canon 20D, 10D and Rebel 300D    back to top

click for explicit comparison to Canon 20D

I have not done an exhaustive search of all the minute specs. You can if you want, but here's why the choice is so obvious to me:

1.) The D70 turns on instantly just by tapping the shutter. The Rebel and 10D take a few seconds which drives me nuts and would cause me to miss photos. A few seconds is OK if you're an amateur, but ridiculous for taking real photos. The 20D is perfect.

2.) The D70 has a combination electronic and mechanical shutter, while the Canons only have the old style mechanical shutter. Thus the D70 has a flash sync speed two to three times that of Canon. The Canon's fastest shutter speed with flash is only 1/180 to 1/250, and it's 1/500 on the D70. This is critical to good photography with the built-in and fill flash. This is a huge help in stopping action, getting more shots per charge, faster flash recycling, more frames per second and longer flash range. More here on why this is critical to real photography.

3.) The D70 has trims to fine tune each white balance preset, the Rebel and 10D don't. The 20D is OK. Read here why this is again critical to good photos.

4.) The D70 is much easier to set and use in the field, which is paramount in my ability to get great images right when I shoot them.

5.) The D70 has a rear LCD protector that can be snapped off and replaced for about $20 when you scratch it up enough. The Canons lack this so you'll need to replace the whole camera once you scratch up the rear screen from carrying it around. You ought to be able to get generic ones for either camera at Hoodman.

6.) The Rebel is a nasty amateur fake chrome color, and the Nikon is professional black. I prefer the subdued and less visible black to the shiny, stand-out silver paint. I also put black electrical tape over my NIKON and D70 logos to subdue them further. Cameras used to come both colors back in the 1970s. If you show up to shoot a wedding for pay with the Rebel the bride will probably ask you "have you seen our photographer yet," and with a black camera they'll know it's you.

7.) Presuming you go for the kit with the special lens for each camera, the Canon's 18-55mm f/3.5 - 5.6 lens has a smaller zoom range and is slower (f/5.6 at the long end) than Nikon's 18 - 70mm f/3.5 - 4.5 lens. Likewise, the competent Canon 17 - 85mm f/4-5.6 is slower than the similar Nikon lens.

Hey, your opinion may differ from mine. These reasons, as well as the fact that I already shoot with Nikon, are why I got my D70. If you already own all the Canon gear by all means get one.

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