The D70's buttons and dials are intelligently distributed, and various combinations of them will give you access to almost every function. And the operation of some of the external controls is programmable within the menu system. For instance, the AE/AF-lock key can govern both or only one of those features, and you can choose which dials adjust exposure compensation. Be careful, though: It's possible to overcustomize and confuse yourself. On several occasions, we accidentally pushed the exposure compensation up to plus 4EV before we realized that we'd assigned the task to too many dials.
Though Nikon makes using this sophisticated camera relatively straightforward, you'll probably want to read the manual before you even pick up the D70. You definitely have to study the instructions before you start playing around with customization. In Simple mode, the screen displays fewer menu settings and context-sensitive descriptions, but Nikon's propensity for opaque naming conventions may still give you some trouble.
As you'd expect, though, the D70 really stands out for the breadth of features it offers the truly tweaky enthusiast. The camera supplies all the essentials: There are manual and semimanual exposure modes, and shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 1/8,000 of a second. You can choose from automatic, preset, and manual white-balance options, as well as spot, center-weighted, and 3D color matrix metering. You'll also find exposure, flash, and white-balance bracketing and continuous predictive 5-point autofocus.
In addition, Nikon offers you subtle operational control over all these features. For instance, you can use automatic white balance but program in an automatic color-temperature shift. Our favorite is the ability to resize the area with which the camera calculates center-weighted metering--a really handy way to shift the D70's exposure. For instance, by enlarging the measured area from the default 8mm to 10mm, we obtained slightly brighter exposures more suitable for direct printing.
Like the D100, the D70 works with a wide array of Speedlight external flashes and Nikon F-mount lenses, though naturally, you'll benefit most from the latest and greatest versions. Before pairing older Nikon equipment with the D70, research the exact feature trade-offs you'll be making. Also, the D70 doesn't support the D100's add-on battery pack, so you can't get a vertical shutter release, a 10-pin accessory plug, or voice-annotation capability.
The D70's feature set does suffer from two important omissions. First, despite the enormous number of possible setting combinations, there's no way to save custom configurations, though the camera will remember the last parameters you used. Even more annoying, Nikon charges you $99 for its Capture software, so there goes that sub-$1,000 allure. You need that application to adjust images without degrading them and batch-process files--the real benefits of shooting NEF (Nikon Electronic File) RAW photos. The supplied Picture Project program just lets you organize your shots and perform simple RAW-file conversion. Overall, the Nikon D70 performs just as well as its dSLR competitors. When we used the 18mm-to-70mm lens that Nikon includes with the kit package, the typical shutter lag was a minimal 0.4 second, just about 0.2 second longer than the Canon EOS Digital Rebel's. Thanks to that short delay, the camera got from power-on to the first snap in an exceptional 0.6 second. At a hair less than 1 second for high-quality JPEG photos and a hair more for RAW files, shot-to-shot time was closer to average, and the lengthy flash recycle dragged it out to 3 seconds, a relatively mediocre result.
Terrific continuous shooting, however, really distinguishes the D70 from the prosumer pack. Capturing best-quality JPEG photos to a 32X Lexar CompactFlash card, the camera took the first 20 shots at 1.6 frames per second, then dropped to a steady 1.4fps. Other models are quicker, but with the D70, you trade a little speed for a lot of frames, and we think that's a fair deal. More important, you get to choose the number of shots; you just lower the resolution to snap faster. For example, set to VGA resolution, the D70 maintained a consistent rate of almost 19fps. But we wish that zippy performance extended to the RAW format. Continuous drive was at its worst when we shot in RAW or RAW and JPEG simultaneously: the camera captured 3 photos at 3.2fps before slowing to 0.2fps.
The D70's autofocus is quite accurate, and as you can tell from the minimal shutter lag, it acts fast, though in low-contrast scenes, it occasionally hunts for something to lock on. Most cameras have the same trouble.
A comfy rubber eyecup surrounds the nice-size, bright viewfinder. Inside, the display shows focus and exposure information, as well as the number of photos the buffer can still hold. Though the D70 doesn't allow you to swap focusing screens, it can throw up a grid to help you align the horizon and compose your shots. When we discuss digital-camera photo quality, we're not given to superlatives, but the Nikon D70, which we tested in conjunction with the company's 18mm-to-70mm DX lens, tempts us to slip in a breathless comment or two. Overall, the D70's images are some of the best we've seen to date from a consumer-priced model. They're sharp, with excellent exposure and dynamic range, accurate colors, neutral white balance, extremely low noise levels, and practically no fringing or other artifacts.
The D70's light-sensitivity range begins at a high ISO 200, but while that would normally raise our doubts, this camera produces surprisingly good photos even at its maximum setting of ISO 1,600.
Nevertheless, the D70's image quality falls short of perfection. Despite a tendency to underexpose, the camera manages to blow out the detail in some highlight areas. It also displays a bit of subtle lateral chromatic aberration, which shows up as cyan and magenta fringing at high-contrast edges. In photos of our test scene, the focus dropped off radically toward the foreground, but then again, that shot has a large depth of field, and we snap it relatively close-up. The focus problem appeared far less severe in pictures we took in the field, in part because those more typical, real-world situations were photographed from farther away and had less detail in the close foreground.