Some might say that Nikon has been a little slow to hitch up their skirts and get chasing Canon, Pentax, and Sigma in the production of decent a digital SLR camera that nips in under the £1000 mark. The launch of the Canon EOS300D, in August 2003, while not the first to market, personified the digital SLR camera that was compatible with an extensive range of existing lens and flashes, and set the mark for other manufactures to reach. Nikon may have been lingering around the starting line but they have certainly been hard at work while standing there.
The new D70, which is modelled on the older D100, is a magnificent digital SLR. It has a body which, while weighing only 595g without Compact Flash card or batteries, still feels solid and reliable. The bulk of the fuselage is toughened plastic, while stress points such as the hotshoe plate and lens ring are made of metal to offer increased strength. Power comes from a rechargeable Lithium Ion (EN-EL3) battery, which has an exceptional charge-life. Over the course of a 2-week trial I recharged it twice, more out of good practice than the cell running low on juice. Also supplied is a spare cage, which carries 3 standard CR2 batteries, so all is not lost if you are caught away from a 3-pin plug for any duration of time.
Like most of the digital SLR models the D70 uses CompactFlash to store it's images. Image size variations are three fold, large (3008 x 2000), medium (2240 x 1448) and small (1504 x 1000). Naturally there are also variations allowing you to select the type and quality of the image, with RAW and JPEG formats on offer. The standard image buffer is 10 shots and the cycle rate is fast enough to be acceptable to anyone except action sports photographers. It would be nice to get a small capacity CompactFlash card in the box, to get you going but you can't have it all.
The camera is fitted with the new style DX CCD censor and offers 6.1 million effective pixels. It's interesting to note that the lens offered as part of the standard package is the new Nikkor DX 18-70 mm zoom. Rather like the Olympus E-1 camera, Nikon's DX system is designed to maximise the relationship between lens diameter, focal length and CCD size to amplify the amount of light getting into the back of the camera. The lends mount itself is a standard Nikon F, this means that full AF / AE activities can be maintained with G and D type Nikkor auto focus lens, so at least you will not have to replace all your equipment if you go digital. Older type lenses will work but at a reduced capacity and in some case you will have to do without more advanced function such as 3D colour matrix metering, which is used by the AE system.
Dials, controls and buttons are simple and intuitive and the symbology on the camera body is the standard of newer SLR's, digital or film. The function wheels located by the shutter release on the front of the body and by the media door, under where the thumb would rest on the back of the body, are a little too slim-line though. These wheels are used to alter aperture and shutter speed, depending which shooting preset you are in, and could do with being a little more pronounced from the body. The program selector dial, on the left hand side of the body, offers 7 Digital Vari-program (Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Close up, Sports, Night Landscape, Night Portrait) modes as well as the more flexible settings of ‘full program', shutter or aperture priority and fully manual.
The function and status display window on the right had side of the body can become a little congested with data. I found it took a little while to separate out all the information on the screen and something, such as the beep tone on /off sign, doesn't need to be displayed all the time. The main menus that are displayed in the preview screen on the reverse of the body are simple to navigate and use. Being a man, I naturally opted not to read the instruction manual and thus it took me over a week to figure out why I couldn't get the camera recognised by the Nikon View imaging software, so I would preach diligence during set-up (remember to set the USB function to M for mass storage). The picture playback functions are particularly neat, with tiling, zoom and auto rotate, for those portrait shots, all coming in very handy. The one-button delete, for unwanted images, means that you can dump those duff snaps fast, without having to use both hands to fiddle with menus settings.
Auto focus, and auto exposure are both excellent with the standard options available (bracketing, weighting compensation, AF area-select) on both to fine-tune them to the situation. The Viewfinder has a diopter adjustment feature and the built in flash also has a number of presets. There is even the ability to activate a grid in the viewfinder to better compose the pictures you are taking.
Overall the D70 is a spectacularly good digital SLR. The speed of the drive, the size of image buffer and strange decision not to make an external booster battery to fit the camera are the only signs this is not designed for the professional market, well that and the price. This is the sort of camera that the masses are hankering to own and the professionals would be proud to turn to as a back up or a lighter ‘in-the-field’ body. The seals on the body could do with a little work, as I don’t think I’d like to risk the D70 in heavy rain. The only other point to mention is that you can get a shadow from the 18 -70mm lenses’ hood when at 18mm focal length using the internal flash, be wary on those wide shots kids.