Nikon D70 operations

One of the most important things is to know in detail how to operate your camera. Otherwise, you will not get the most out of it. It is not enough to read the manual from cover to cover or to buy one of the how-to books about your camera. You must know how each function operates and how to configure and activate them. In a series of postings, I will show how the D70 functions operate in the various camera modes. The D70 (as well as other Nikon DSLRs) operate in two sets of general modes: PSAM modes, where you are in control of all parameters and settings available, and Scene/Green modes, where the camera designers have bundled preconceived settings together in themes like sport or landscape. In the Scene modes, some settings are possible while others are not. In the tables, there will be different columns for PSAM and Scene so that you can see what is available in each mode. Further, the functions are divided into field settings (that you will do in the field between shots) and configuration settings (that you will do between sessions, not shots). The sign of an ergonomically well-designed user interface is that most of the first category settings are available through buttons, thus you don’t have to go through menus to change frequent settings. The less common configuration settings should be available in menus – otherwise you would drown in buttons. Any function available through a button is labelled Button in the operations tables, and any function available through menus is labelled CSM X for the number X is has in the Custom Settings Menu or labelled Shoot if it is found in the Shooting menu. The more Button and less CSM you find in the ordinary settings, the better designed the user interface is. Of course, it cannot all be buttons, there would be too many of them and that’s not good interface design. But my D3100, for example, is practically devoid of buttons. Well, no it’s not, but it feels like that with no ISO, QUAL, WB, etc. accessible through buttons, instead having to click through settings on the LCD screen.

The tables that looked really nice in the publishing tool used for the photo club magazine look awful on this blog. My apologies for that, but I don’t have the time for now to remake the tables into a format suitable for this blog editor.

Edit: the table posts have been removed for now. They will reappear in a more readable format later. In the meantime, you can view the tables without commentaries in a pdf file.

Exposure and tone curves

There are two different ways of creating image files with the D70 (or any other DSLR). Either you shoot in JPEG or you shoot in RAW/NEF. (Yes, you can set the camera up to produce both kinds of files at the same time.) A good camera should support both ways equally since they are for different purposes and occasions. If you shoot in JPEG, the camera does the image processing, converting pixel read-outs from the sensor to an image file. This involves operations like interpolation, demosaicing, white balancing, image correction, and more.

For one thing, you want the image to be exposed correctly. Nikon cameras, especially the early ones, have been accused of underexposing. This is of course not an error but a design choice. Among the serious amateur cameras, it was especially evident on the Nikon D100 which tends to underexpose down to −1/2 stop. The D70 rather tends to underexpose about −1/3 stop on average. This is inconvenient for JPEG shooters since the images often wind up darker than expected and you have to constantly apply exposure compensation to deal with it. This also leads to not paying attention to the compensation symbol +/− which would otherwise warn you about non-standard settings. For JPEG, this is a poor design choice (not a manufacturing error or malfunction). On the other hand, if you shoot RAW/NEF, the meter’s behavior is made for you. Underexposing preserves highlights which can be recovered in post-processing. You can bring the skies, for example, up in post-processing and recover details that would have been lost in a standard exposure. In 2000, Nikon were newbies in digital and worried too much about lost highlights. They designed the D100 with too big a margin. They shrunk the margin with the D70 but it is still there. I would say they got it right for RAW on the D70 but not for JPEG. The real mistake made was not making the exposure behavior configurable with each image file format. There are times when you want to shoot one format or the other. It’s not that one format is “better” than the other. They are different and made for different purposes. I would like more standard exposure when shooting JPEG but keeping the underexposure behavior for RAW/NEF.

So what did people do? Some clever people tried to use a function in the D70 called a custom tone curve to obtain an overexposuring offset to the inherent underexposure. In essence, a custom tone curve is a new contrast curve that replaces the in-camera contrast curves. At first, the idea might seem good. Back in 2004-2005, there was a number of curves being created by those people and discussed on several web forums. After some initial fuzz, they fell into oblivion because they didn’t work as intended. A longer discussion on tone curves (primarily for the D100) is found here.

There are two uses for a tone curve, the first being to offset exposure tendencies and possibly try to change the dynamic range as you go along. This is unfortunately bound to fail; the D70 does a better job than you can in automatically selecting contrast according to the image and the exposure. Thus, the only way to handle the JPEG underexposure tendencies of the D70 (and others) is the good old exposure compensation button and dial. Even toy cameras like the D3100 have that accessible through a button on the top close to the shutter release button.

The other use is much more interesting when you want to shoot JPEG and have reasonably ready images out of the camera that requires a minimum of post-processing. The D70 (and some other Nikons) have been accused of having a “dull” rendering. I would rather call it accurate, but it is not always that you want a very accurate rendering. Sometimes, you rather want a more colorful, vivid “slide film like” rendering, although not as extreme as for example Fuji Velvia which I personally find too bold and punchy. There are a lot of options possible on the D70 when it comes to image rendering. These options are called Image Optimization by Nikon and are found in the menu system. While the settings available are not bad, they are a bit conservative. The Vivid option, for example, is not very vivid. This led people to develop tone curves for this second purpose, and they can again be found on the web. Here is an example of a repository for curves for both purposes. Many of the curves available at that time mixed the two purposes up – adjusting exposure and changing the tone. Others went, in my opinion, either too far (for example trying to mimic Velvia) or missed the target. Another misconception at the time was that it should be possible to find a curve that fitted all shooting situations. There will never be such a curve.

All this led me to develop a curve with the single purpose of changing the tone balance, not compensating the exposure system of the D70. The neutral rendering of the D70, being an asset in some images, needs to be supplemented in some situations with a curve that feels more like slide film without going to Velvia extremes. The curve has been developed over many years and is, to my knowledge, the only curve still being maintained today. The curve has been derived from thousands of images of all kinds. In my view, it works well with everything from nature to street, from buildings to ants, from cars to ships, but not for people, products, or paintings that require either duller or as neutral rendering as possible. For the latter ones, it is easy to select other image options on the D70 and still keep the custom tone curve for later. The curve is called D70 Chrome and is available for download.

If you have a D70, try it and enjoy. The download to the camera requires Nikon software (Camera Control Pro) and the USB cable that came with the camera. You need not buy Camera Control Pro, the trial version is enough. You are given a 30-day trial period of which you need a couple of minutes. Once downloaded to the camera, the tone curve stays there and you need only to activate it when you want to use it just like any other, built-in tone curve.This is the way to download it from a PC:

1. Download Camera Control Pro 2 from a Nikon website to your PC. Any version from 2.5 up to 2.11 will do. From 2.12, the D70 (along with the D2-series, D200, D100, D80, D50, and D40) are no longer supported. Note that you cannot have multiple versions installed, such as 2.11 for your D70 and 2.12 for your D600 (which is only supported from 2.12 onwards). A catch-22 if you have an older camera (such as the D70 or D200) and a newer (such as the D600 or upcoming models).

2. Install Camera Control Pro and accept the trial period. If you have Windows 7, make sure the application runs in Vista SP2 mode, or you might get problems with connecting to the camera. Drivers are not fully compatible with Windows 7.

3. Restart the PC to have all drivers installed properly.

4. Download the D70 Chrome custom tone curve and save it in a directory on your PC.

5. Before connecting the D70 to the PC, make sure you use the PTP protocol. You select PTP mode under USB in the tools menu on the D70. This is a two-way protocol that allows the PC to actively talk to the camera, not only receive files as you can do also in Mass Storage mode.

6. Follow these instructions. Never mind the Japanese, your dialogue windows will look the same except for the text.

7. Enable the custom tone curve in Shooting menu > Optimize Image > Custom > Tone comp. > Custom. After this selection, you MUST select Done or your setting will not have any effect! Enjoy your shooting.

Sensors in deep

Let’s assume for a moment that you mostly agree with me on the ergonomics of the D70. Quite a few people actually do. Further assume that you mostly agree with me on the functionality of the D70. Again, quite a few people actually do. Sure, we all miss some function, but that is true of all cameras. The D70 fills the spec of the serious amateur surprisingly well. Nikon learned a lot in designing the D1 series and the D100 which they benefit from all the way until today. The learning curve was much steeper back then since digital was relatively new. Not that much happens functional-wise today. Finally, assume that you find the body housing, the grip, the mirror, the prism, etc to be reasonably ok. Sure, the finders of FX cameras are nicer but their weight offset is not.

Now we come to the last factor, the sensor. Here, most of you agree on the sensor of the D70 being outdated. “Everyone knows” that sensors go out of fashion every two to three years. Last generation’s sensor is today’s backyard technology. Some even claim that the best pocket cameras of today can match “old” DSLR sensors like the D70’s. In the film days, models lasted ten years or more. The Nikon F was introduced in 1959, its successor the F2 in 1971, and then again its successor the F3 in 1980. You could use any kind of film (slide or negative, color or b/w, any brand) in any camera body, making updating your equipment a matter of ergonomics and functionality. In the digital era, the sensor is what the film was, but it is fixed. Thus, to the delight of the manufacturers, it seems that you must replace your camera ever so often since sensor progress is so swift. Or is it?

Let’s turn to one of the premier and most well-known sensor labs, DxO, and their sensor (and lens) testing facility DxOMark.  There, you can compare camera sensors in an interactive fashion. Comparisons can be made in two ways that relates to two different aspects of sensor quality, both being important. First, you can compare pixels to see how far the development of individual pixels has come from 2004 until today. Second, you can compare sensor areas, where sensors with higher pixel density will have higher readings since more pixels can contribute to the results. In both comparisons, you compare signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic range, tonal range, and color sensitivity. DxOMark has far more elaborate explanations of these concepts, but essentially, signal-to-noise ratio is how much noise there is in the image, dynamic range is how much lightness and darkness can be accommodated in an image at the same time, tonal range is how many different shades of gray the image can contain, and color sensitivity is the number of reliably distinguishable colors in an image.

Beginning with comparing pixels, the D70 is compared to the newest and most high-tech Nikon at the time of writing, the D800, and the current Leica flagship M9. Looking first at the signal-to-noise ratio, the three sensors are almost indistinguishable. The D800 has a wider range of ISOs, but for any given ISO the results are the same. The D70 performs as well as the two rivals. Noticeable is that the “purist” M9 does a lot of noise smoothing behind the curtain, smoothing that is impossible to turn off. Only having used the M8, I was not aware of that.

Next, looking at dynamic range, the D800 stands out with 2 stops better performance, while the D70 is almost exactly as good as the M9. Which is not that bad since the M9 is considered one of the top cameras which satisfies very high demands.

Continuing with tonal range, it is indistinguishable between the three sensors. Pixels from the three cameras can contain equally many different shades of gray.

Finally, color sensitivity is almost equal, with D70 and D800 being a bit better than the M9. The number of reliably distinguishable colors in pixels from the three sensors is close.

To sum up the pixel comparisons, all cameras perform almost equally except that the D800 has a better dynamic range. The D70 and the M9 are practically equal on all grounds.

Moving on to comparing sensor areas, we compare the D70 to the Leica M8 instead of the M9 since it has about the same sensor size as the D70, and to one of the best pocket cameras, Canon S100, since it is sometimes claimed that today’s pocket cameras have caught up with eight year old DSLRs like the D70. Looking first at signal-to-noise ratio, the M8 is slightly better than the D70 but the S100 is far behind. The difference between the M8 and the D70 is about 1/2 stop while there is a more than 2 stops distance to the S100.

Continuing with dynamic range, the three sensors are fairly equal. The M8 is slightly better at lower ISOs, and the S100 compares surprisingly well to its rivals. Almost equally many levels of light and darkness can be accommodated in images from the three sensors.

Next, looking at tonal range, it is again fairly equal between the D70 and the M8. Images from the two cameras can contain about the same different shades of gray. The S100, though, is almost two stops behind.

Finally, color sensitivity is almost equal between the D70 and the M8. Images from the S100 will suffer a lot from a lesser number of reliably distinguishable colors than the former two.

To sum up the area comparisons, the D70 and the M8 perform almost equally while the S100 pocket camera is far behind. And to sum it all up, the D70 pixels do as well as a new top-of-the line DSLR except in dynamic range, where it lags behind the D800, although it performs equally to the Leica M9. The D70 sensor area does almost as well as the Leica M8 and easily outperforms one of the most highly acclaimed pocket cameras. Through field use of the D70, M8, and S100, I can safely confirm these scientific lab measurements in real shootings. I definitely miss some dynamic range in the D70 compared to, say, a D3x, but other than that, the D70 sensor is doing very well.

The most common reaction I get to all this is disbelief. Can the D70 really measure up to these modern rivals the way it is displayed here? Surely, all the hype about newer and newer sensors cannot be untrue? Surely, the manufactures are not taking us for a ride? Well, the scientific results from DxO tell something else.

As I say in other places too, don’t take my word for it. Listen to others that spend much more time and effort in finding things out. DxO is an organization I find credible and objective. But they are cautious, too. They have a popularized simple overall score that is derived only from some extreme values of their measurements. This overall score greatly amplifies small differences to make it more “interesting” and in line with expectations. The way the score is calculated is not published, so we cannot know exactly how it works in detail, but it’s obvious that is works more like the common perception of sensor development. Thus, the Nikon D800 and D800E receive the highest scores ever, 95 and 96 respectively. The Leica M9 receives 69 and the Nikon D3100 67. The D70 obtains a score of 50 which is exactly what the Canon S100 also does. But it is evident from the graphs above and from shooting them that the S100 is clearly inferior to the D70 in terms of image quality. Thus, the DxOmark measurements are very interesting but their popularized overall scores are not. Rather, they are misleading.

But again, although DxOMark is a fascinating site, I wish for you to spend more time creating great images than comparing camera sensors. My main point here is merely that you need not worry about your equipment aging, just go out and have some fun. Nobody will ever be able to tell whether you used a D70 or something newer (unless they peek into your EXIF data).

All graphics come from the DxOMark website, thus their copyright.

Megapixels and diffraction

The D70 is a 6 megapixel (MP) camera as was the norm some years ago. Since then, the manufacturers have nourished the megapixel myth – that pixel count correlates more or less exactly to image quality. On the web, many have written about the myth. Ken Rockwell, who I find a bit flamboyant at times, has written a page on the myth which also contains some fun pointers to a megapixel street test and a completely bogus site that fuels the megapixel myth by an untrue interactive zoom function. The differences in image quality from differences in pixel density are of course nowhere like what they try to imply.

Every pocket camera nowadays has 10 MP or more, phone cameras have up to 5 MP. But their image quality is not up to the standard of any modern DSLR like the D70 or newer. It has to do with a number of factors, photo site size (pixel size) being one of the most important.

The concept of picture element is also being misused in the manufacturers’ world. Pixels are not interesting, picture elements are. It takes four pixels in a Bayer arrangement (two green, one red, one blue) to make up a true color picture element. Thus, a 12 MP camera using the Bayer pattern (which most sensors do) does have 6 million green pixels, 3 million red and 3 million blue. This makes up 3 million true color picture elements, but interpolation and demosaicing brings this up approximately to around 6 million. If you shoot JPEG, this processing is done in-camera and you are totally dependent on the manufacturer’s algorithmic skills. Different manufacturers are differently skilled, fortunately Nikon are top-of-the-form. If you shoot RAW (NEF), you do the processing outside of the camera which widens your choice of algorithms

There is a trade-off between pixel count, resolution, and image quality. At first, it seems that more pixels should be attained at any cost. And it is true that more pixels could bring more resolution. But it also brings a number of drawbacks. First, more pixels will increase the file size of your images. This is the easiest drawback to live with; it will eat up more disk space and require more primary memory and processing power for your image handling. Second, more pixels on the same sensor area will decrease the size of each pixel, making it more susceptible to noise. With fewer photons captured, natural variance plays a larger role, which gives you noise. Since of course this noise can be interpolated away, you will never get worse image quality from more pixels on the same area, but not as much better as you thought (and the manufacturer seemed to promise). Third, diffraction limits your usable apertures considerably.

Of these, diffraction is probably the least understood one. There is a nice website that explains diffraction much better than I have the time to. On the new Nikon D800, diffraction limits the image quality of any lens at f/8 and smaller apertures. Which is the majority of available apertures for most lenses! And since most lenses perform at their best stopped down a couple of steps, many lenses are unable to perform their best at any aperture on a D800. Nikon is not very keen on telling you this. For a D70, diffraction starts hurting at f/16 while for cameras with the same sensor size, more pixels lead to more diffraction. The D90 is affected at f/11 and the D7000, having a very similar pixel density to D800, is affected already at f/8. Thus, while the D90 and the D7000 in theory have clearly better image resolution than the D70, this is diminished in practice by diffraction. Diffraction does not ruin the image but eats into the advantage of high pixel counts. And it does not show in the reports on new sensors.

Lenses

Your choice of lenses is an entirely personal affair. It depends only on your needs (and wallet), and as long as you have good reasons for your choices, they are the right ones. Some commentators spend a lot of worry on the fact that there are not enough Nikon “DX” lenses for the DX cameras. Further, they claim that there are a wealth of “FX” lenses for the FX cameras sold in much less quantities. And the conclusion should be that Nikon is mismanaging the DX lineup.

Of course there are no “FX” lenses. There are Nikon F-mount lenses, of which most have an image circle (the area that produces reasonable images) that fit the original 35 mm film format, which is the same as the digital FX format. Those lenses then by definition also fill smaller image circle needs like DX. Thus, there are no “FX” lenses, but there are DX lenses. Those lenses fill a smaller image circle, around 16 x 24 mm compared to 24 x 36 mm for 35 mm film. The “around” comes from most Nikon DX sensors having slightly differing sensor sizes but none larger than 16 x 24 which is what a DX lens must cover.

There is no shortage of lenses for DX cameras; they are not just all DX-only lenses. Thus, some of them can at first sight be considered a “waste” since they have a larger image circle than required. But many F-mount lenses have a larger circle than required for 35 mm film (and FX) but there have not been any outcries about that. Some lenses are less well-suited for DX, including some very wide angle lenses and for example the 35 mm wide angle which needs to use a retrofocus design to attain the larger circle while the 35/1.8 DX does not have to. Retrofocus lenses are more complicated and heavier. This is why the 35 mm comes in a DX version and standard F-mount versions.

My choice of lenses is the following:

Wide angle: Sigma HSM 10-20/4-5.6

For me a better choice than Nikkor 10-24, Nikkor 12-14, Tokina 11-16, or the newer Sigma 10-20/3.5. Smaller and lighter than the others, better range than some. Compared to the other Sigma, it’s less expensive and I don’t need the extra (half) stop that often. Thom Hogan reached the same conclusion regarding Sigma vs Nikkor.

Normal zoom: Nikkor 18-55/3.5-5.6

Came with the D3100. Some will frown at this since it is a kit zoom. But the image quality is among the best of the normal zooms. I think I have tried them all, but one who certainly has tried them all ranked the 18-55 VR top among the 18-xx zooms (one of three with four optics stars and the only one with four value stars). Very low weight, and as always – the less weight you carry, the more you carry it.

Super zoom: Tamron 28-300/3.5-6.3

Has the mnemonics XR Di VC LD Aspherical IF… Despite that, a very good lens considering its range. To me, this has a better range, even on DX, than the 18-200 and much better image quality. Easily better than the Nikkor 18-300. And it works on FX as well. It isn’t really 300 mm, especially not at close distance, rather 270 mm (the same goes for other super zooms like the Nikkor 18-300). Superior size and weight, only 84 mm and 15 oz. (420 grams). In my view, the only super-zoom small, light and good enough to stay on all the time for general shooting. It has very good ergonomics and good enough image quality (which is not always the case with super zooms). I didn’t use to believe in super zooms but got the idea from Thom Hogan who uses this lens as his walkabout lens for the Nikon D700.

Prime: Nikkor 50/1.8 D

Very light, very small, very cheap. Of course excellent image quality since it’s so easy to build optically and mechanically. The fast aperture is useful for depth-of-field isolation in portraits. This lens costs just about nothing and is a very good portrait lens (on DX) and a very good normal lens (on FX). The comparable portrait lens Nikkor 85/1.8 for FX cameras is much heavier and more expensive. I find the overrated Nikkor 35/1.8 DX to be much less useful. It is a normal lens on DX but the fast aperture give too little depth-of-field for ‘normal’ shots so I use the 18-55 and its VR instead for the same available light and better DOF. And for portraits, it’s too wide anyway.

Sometimes used: Tamron 200-500/5-6.3

The Tamron 200-500 is excellent when reach is the primary selection factor. But it is indeed big – both in size and weight. And it lacks VR (VC as Tamron calls it) and is thus used mostly on a tripod (or at least a monopod). The tripod collar is in the right place to make it balance nicely with a D70 as well as a D3x. For slightly less reach and superior handling, the 28-300 is used much more often.

Seldom used: Nikkor 24-70/2.8

Came with the D3x and has very good image quality but weighs a ton and is ergonomically a disaster. Doesn’t even have VR, so the practical image quality in dim light conditions is clearly not so good. The size and weight of a major telephoto lens but a very narrow range for its appearance. The opposite of the Tamron 28-300 above.

Not used: Nikkor 18-70/3.5-4.5

Came with the D70 but is heavier than the 18-55 and lacks VR. Not fun wide open due to heavy vignetting.

Again, lenses are a very personal choice. The best overall review of Nikkor lenses is, in my opinion, this one. Make sure you have the lenses that suit your needs and interests, not those of the manufacturers, camera testers, or other photographers.

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.

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.