Is the D70 really that good?

Is the Nikon D70 really as good as you claim?

Yes.

Are there not any drawbacks with it?

Of course there are, see other (upcoming) posts for details. But the point is that the advantages outweigh the drawbacks by a wide margin.

Is it really as good as new cameras?

Of course not as good as all new cameras. But considering ergonomics, functionality, and image quality together, it is not beaten by many in 2012. Again, there are better cameras but not that much better. Not so much that a D70 owner should upgrade unless he or she has specific needs.

But don’t take my word for it. And don’t read the majority of tests out there. They were conducted and written around 2004-2005 when the D70 was state-of-the-art. Instead, we could look at what highly regarded Nikon web writer Thom Hogan says about the D70 in 2011. On the subject of upgrading, he says about the D70: ”Realistically, nothing wrong with what you’ve got.” This is compared to new current cameras from Nikon, not the competitors back in 2004. If you should get a newer one, there are really only two to choose from: D90 and D7000. They most closely resemble the ergonomics and functionality specs of the D70 with some added capabilities.

The D70’s immediate successor, the D80, is out of the question. Again, don’t take my word for it. I never bought one – I was very happy with my D70 – but some friends did. They were all much less happy with their D80s than I or other D70 owners were with our cameras. This has also been noted on the web. Thom Hogan says: “In retrospect, I would now say that the D70 was an excellent […] product, the D80 less so. […] First, over time, I’ve found myself picking up the D80 less and less than I did my D70 […]. As I started playing with the new D90 I found myself thinking about why I’d fallen out of like with the D80. If I had to characterize the problem, it’s that it just didn’t quite perform up to its specifications. The matrix meter on the D80 is the least reliable of any Nikon matrix metering system I’ve ever used: it’s just too prone to picking up on the tonality of the thing under the current autofocus sensor, so exposures in matrix metering wander all over the place. This is weird, because if Nikon had been known for one thing since introducing matrix metering it’s that the Nikon approach worked more consistently than any other I know of. So in a crucial aspect, the D80 felt like a step backward into the world of center-weighted and spot metering. But the D80 had other weaknesses, too. In long exposures there is an amp noise pollution that’s significant, and every D80 I’ve tried has a strong tendency towards producing hot pixels at high ISO, in warm climates, or in long exposures. […] Now that I’ve used a D90 for a bit it’s very clear to me that in the D70 to D80 to D90 progression, the weakest of those is the D80. The metering, image quality, and focusing of the D80 all seems to sag when you map the D70, D80, and D90 on a chart.

This narrows your choice of serious amateur Nikon DSLR down to three: D70, D90, or D7000. Of those, D70 has no video, D90 has a rudimentary one, and D7000 has a little better one. But DSLRs are still not video cameras. In time due, they will become, but as of 2012, video is best shot by a video camera. They are not that expensive and a dedicated one is much easier to focus and to shoot, and has much better sound. The three DSLRs are ergonomically and functionally very similar, except that the D7000 is around 3 oz. (100 grams) heavier and has the defunct “new i-TTL” flash control system (see another post). It also has much slower flash sync, 1/250 compared to 1/500-1/4000 for the D70, while the D90 is more similar to the D70 in these respects. They have different megapixel counts (6, 12, 16) and thus a difference in image resolution. The difference is much less than you think (or the manufacturers would like you to think) but it is there and will be discussed in another post on the Nikon D70 sensor compared to current sensors.

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Nikon i-TTL flash system

In 2003, Nikon introduced the CLS flash control system – and there was light. CLS stands for the Creative Lightning System, and it is indeed a very good system. It brought Nikon in front of everyone and everything, until 2009 when a modification of i-TTL (a part of CLS) made the concept take a turn for the worse.

Rewinding a bit to film SLRs, Nikon had an – at the time – good TTL flash control system, that measured the light from the flash as it bounced off the film during exposure. TTL means through-the-lens, as opposed to measuring the general light level attained by firing a flash (which is what simpler flashes do). Nikon’s system was good, but for example Minolta had an as good system back then.

Then, starting in 1999 with the launch of Nikon’s first digital SLR (appropriately named D1), Nikon users were surprised at the modifications made to the flash system. The digital sensor and the anti-aliasing filter are more shiny and do not reflect light in the same way as 35 mm film. Thus, Nikon had to modify the TTL flash system as it was no longer meaningful to measure the exposure by the light reflected. Instead, Nikon had to rely on a set of pre-flashes to determine how much flash is needed. The new system was called D-TTL, as in D for digital. The pre-flashes are bounced off the focal plane shutter instead of off the film. To correct for the light in the scene, the shutter blades on D-TTL cameras are painted gray as a gray-scale card. This was an obviously kludgy solution, and Nikon knew early on that they had to design a new system for digital, not merely patching the old one. Another sign of this is the set of flashes that accompanied the D-TTL system. There were only three flashes ever produced that were compatible with D-TTL and they soon became obsolete as the new i-TTL system was quickly launched. To add insult to injury, Nikon decided that new cameras (except for the D2 series) would not be backward compatible with flashes only a couple of years old.

The new system called i-TTL (i for intelligent, implying that the old D-TTL system was indeed unintelligently conceived) was intended for the Nikon D100 in 2002 but was not ready in time for its launch. Thus, the D100 was left with the old dysfunctional D-TTL system. The first camera to incorporate the i-TTL system was instead the D2H in 2003 and the SB-800 Speedlight i-TTL flash was introduced with it. The D70 of 2004 was the first of the non-professional Nikon cameras to have the i-TTL functionality.

The i-TTL functionality was state-of-the-art and was essentially unmodified until 2009 when some engineers back at Nikon decided to “improve” the functionality without any notice to the user community. The “new i-TTL” system tends to choose extremely high ISO under the auto-ISO option when it is not called for to make a correct exposure. The reasoning behind the change is that as cameras became better at handling high ISOs, this should be used to make images have more exposed backgrounds. While this is not wrong as an observation, the mistake made was to force this into the functionality as a non-option. In the “original i-TTL” system, you could crank up baseline ISO for the auto-ISO option manually whenever you felt this was called for depending on the image effect you were after. You are in the driver’s seat, especially if you have a camera where the ISO is assigned to a button like the D70. In the “new i-TTL” system, this is done for you in a way you cannot anticipate or control. You have become a passenger in a flash unit driven by algorithms you cannot understand. A black box of lightning. A much longer argument against “new i-TTL” is made in this blog post. For example, owners of the Nikon D300s find themselves with a completely different i-TTL than those of the otherwise very similar D300. Those poor ones that have one of each are, to say the least, confused. What Nikon did was adapt the i-TTL behavior to novice users, trying to save some of their need to think. But they did this on all models, from toys like the D3100 to cameras targeted at advances users like the D300s. Big mistake. What they should have done? 1. either applied it only to toy cameras, or 2. better yet, made it configurable. “Original i-TTL” vs. “New unpredictable i-TTL”.

This is not a lecture on flash lightning, there are a number of good tutorials out there. Essentially, you must learn to master the balance between two kinds of light sources, flash and ambient. These can be of different luminance and color, even mixed. They have differing direction, duration, etc. But in all this, you want your camera to help you. The original i-TTL system does an excellent job of doing that provided you know how it works. Just like ordinary (non-flash) exposure, there are two modes of operation with flash. In non-flash exposure, you either use the PSAM modes where you, even though you could have some automation, it can be overridden since you are in the driver’s seat. Or you use the preconceived scene and green auto modes (scene modes are called vari-programs in the D70). The scene/green modes contain ready-made settings for exposure. These modes help inexperienced users to set the camera up and you are the passenger.

The same goes for flash exposure. Apart from the manual mode, there are two TTL modes. This is not well understood by most i-TTL users. Either you use Standard-TTL mode where you are in control and can apply corrections to the flash values. If you want -1EV for the flash compensation, it has the intended effect since you are the driver. Or you use TTL-BL (where BL stands for Balanced Light) where the camera logic does what it thinks is best for you regardless of what you asked for. Sometimes your corrections are applied, sometimes not. You are a passenger. This is unknown to many and explains some reports on erratic flash exposure by some Nikon DSLR users. It’s not an error but a design choice. One that has been poorly communicated, though. You need to know how you switch between the Standard-TTL and TTL-BL modes. The selection is implicitly done by your choice of metering and automation modes. If you select M = manual exposure or if you select Spot as your metering mode, Standard-TTL is selected for you. Otherwise, TTL-BL is selected for you. You cannot select the mode explicitly. This is of course a mistake by Nikon. It should have been selectable, just as exposure mode is.

To sum up: if you want control, use Standard-TTL mode. If you want to be a passenger (and sometimes you want), use TTL-BL mode. Make sure you know how to switch modes. If you want to be in control of ISO baseline values when using flash automation, stick with Nikon cameras designed prior to 2009 that have the original i-TTL system. If you don’t want to be in control, just being a passenger and accept what’s being handed to you, then you could be as happy with the new i-TTL system. This is much more important than you might realize at first. You should have the option to use flash as fill-flash in daylight scenes all the time, and that option is severely limited in the “new i-TTL” since you must go all manual to have control over the ISO value. In the “original i-TTL” you simple stay in automatic Standard-TTL and select baseline ISO for auto-ISO manually. I very much prefer the “original i-TTL” of the D70. Apart from TTL mode selection, the D70 is flash ergonomics at its best.

Ergonomics

Ergonomics. It’s not all about it, but it’s a very important aspect. If you don’t carry your gear with you, it’s not going to take any pictures for you. If you don’t instinctively find the controls on your camera, it’s not going to take any great pictures for you. The Nikon D3x fails in the first sense, the Nikon D3100 in the second.

The Nikon lineup consists of five different families of DSLR cameras, two targeted toward the ‘amateur’ and two toward the ‘professional’. The term prosumer (wannabe professional consumer) has been coined to cover the middle ground. If we accept the Wikipedia categorization of Nikon DSLR cameras, we can adopt the table at the bottom of that page a bit for this discussion. We add the highest ISO to each camera and a weight column to the right.

The entry level and mid-range consumer cameras in the table have (with the exception of the D50 which was actually a scaled-down D70) a screen-oriented interface, in which you need to navigate on the display on the back, sometimes even through menus, to reach, set, and modify key functions like ISO, white balance, motor drive, exposure meter, bracketing, and more. This is not a matter of getting used to; it will never allow your camera to operate as an extension of your mind. So the lack of dedicated buttons and controls is not possible to remedy – such cameras will always be toys. As it happens, this applies to all yellow cameras in the table. The yellow marking is intended for cameras without autofocus (‘screw-drive’) motor, an omission we will get back to in another post. But it is clear that these yellow cameras were never intended for the serious or interested amateur, no matter how good their sensor image capabilities are. Yellow stands for toys.

The professional cameras in the table are of two sub-categories: flagship and compact. The flagship ones are what should really be called professional cameras as they are targeted at and appeal to people that make a living out of taking pictures. At the same time, of course, they appeal to pro wannabes and some amateurs that think imitating the professional’s choice of gear would improve their image (as a person) or images. Of course, these cameras have all the dedicated buttons you need (well, almost anyway) and well-thought out controls. They are, after all, intended for everyday use by craftsmen. But look at the rightmost column, weight. The column contains a typical weight of that category of camera, in grams. Weight is one of the most important ergonomic considerations, as many professionals with back problems can testify. For serious amateurs, back problems are less of an issue, but heavy gear is either no fun or not brought at all. The overweight is not possible to remedy – such cameras will always be a burden. As it happens, this applies to all green cameras in the table. The green marking is intended for FX cameras (cameras mimicking old 35 mm film), something we will get back to in another post. It also applies to some old professional cameras (the Nikon D1 and D2 series), which although they are in grey are also too heavy to handle. Green stands for overdone.

This leaves us with the prosumer (D100, D200, D300) and advanced consumer (D70, D80, D90, D7000) series of cameras. Being in the middle ground, they offer similar feature sets with a few more features in the prosumer camp. Nikon’s strategy is to catch the serious amateur at the advanced consumer level and later upsell to the prosumer level. Equivalent sensors go into both categories. They have comparable feature sets. The main difference is in weight and durability. If you are going to heavily abuse your camera, you should opt for the heavier and more durable prosumer camera. Otherwise, the more lightweight camera is ergonomically to prefer and thus more fun. The ergonomically optimal series is the advanced consumer series, which is recommended for enjoyable shooting sessions – enjoyable in carrying and shooting as well as results.

It is not that Nikon are silly or ignorant. These are deliberate design choices that we have to live with. They know that the yellow ones are toys and the green ones tanks. Similar choices are made by any manufacturer, so this is not an argument against Nikon in favor of Canon, Sony, Leica, or whoever.

PS. Don’t confuse prosumer with serious amateur. The prosumer is interested in being like a professional, the serious amateur does not want to. The serious amateur is interested in creating images for the fun of it, not for selling or serving an organization. If the serious amateur sells an occasional picture or wins an occasional photo contest – then it’s just the icing on the cake.

Nikon D70 blog

Very welcome! This blog is about Nikon DSLR cameras in general and the D70 in particular.

I consider myself a serious amateur. I rarely make any money from photography. Even as an occasional wedding or graduation shooter, I do that for free and only for friends. My images range from nature to street, from buildings to ants, from cars to kids. I consider myself average among the serious amateurs as a photographer, just like most serious amateur photographers are – by definition. But as opposed to some of my peer friends, I have tended not to be that interested in the minute details of cameras. As the switch from film to digital occurred, I noticed that the number of people interested in camera technology increased dramatically. This was not, to my surprise, coupled with the same increase in interest in photographic images. Several times more discussions (online in forums, live in photo clubs, etc) are dedicated to equipment than to images. And of those that discuss images, quite a few tend to be pixel-peepers, more interested in theoretical aspects of image rendering than in the actual image conveyed by the photo. As a case in point, at the Photokina exhibitions, the halls full of gear are crowded while the image exhibition halls are almost empty. In all this, I have found that I have a somewhat different view on cameras, and thus, seemingly paradoxically, this blog is about equipment after all. But there is no paradox. I wish everyone acquires their own view on photographic equipment – and not the manufacturers’. Stick to that view and get on with creating great images instead. Don’t be misled by the manufacturers’ clever marketing. You don’t need even a fraction of what they claim you need. And when you upgrade, you should have an upgrade plan and purpose, not just jump on the latest bandwagon.

Somewhat to my own surprise (although I sensed it), I have discovered that the one camera I use the most, and have the most fun with, is not the one I (or my friends) thought. I applied the EXIF test to my images. That is, I looked at the EXIF image data on the pictures I have taken over the last years to discover which cameras and lenses I actually use for the pictures I like. Pictures that are appealing (to me) plus having good image quality (to others as well).

I regularly use a couple of DSLRs and some other cameras. More specifically, I use a Nikon D3x, a Nikon D70, and a Nikon D3100. The D3x was the state-of-the-art in resolution (24 MP) and image quality up until 2012 when the D4/D800 pair were introduced. But it is also very heavy and a bit clumsy to carry around. The Nikon D70 was the first affordable and really useful digital SLR that made me switch from 35 mm film to digital back in 2004. The Nikon D3100, finally, is a 14 MP lightweight DSLR that should be the easiest to carry with you. Apart from DSLRs, I also use a Leica M8, a Canon S100 pocket camera, and an iPhone 4S. But the discussion here will mostly be about DSLRs.

So what did the EXIF test actually show?

I use the Nikon D70 more often than the D3x and the D3100 combined. Remarkably more often. Why is that? How can it be possible? All Nikon’s marketing point to the D70 being almost useless and definitely outdated compared to the D3x and the D3100. Is it possible for a serious amateur to be satisfied in 2012 with an 8 year old camera?

Yes.

What properties of the D70 makes it such a good camera several years later?

Read on to find out why. And why you should think yourself about your needs, not anyone else’s needs or a view transplanted in you by a manufacturer.

I don’t have that much time to spare for blogging. I will make references to what others say, using some of the web sources I find credible. And I will reuse and adapt things I have written before in other places.

Stay tuned.