Some of the improvements are hardware based, such as the beefier lithium-ion battery, a color LCD expanded 10 percent diagonally to 2 inches, the more comfortable eyecup, and a socket for an optional wired (not infrared) shutter remote. Other upgrades are firmware improvements (more legible menus, better autofocus tracking of moving subjects, and a more accurate frame counter); as such, they're also available as updates for owners of the original D70 model. A few changes are purely cosmetic, including the substitution of a charcoal shutter-release button for the brushed-chrome original.
At a time when camera manufacturers are stripping out features to achieve a lower price point with cameras such as the Pentax *ist DL and Nikon's own D50, a more function-rich camera at a slightly higher price is especially appealing for serious amateur photographers and pros looking for a spare body. Anyone who's used any 35mm-film or digital SLR will feel right at home with the Nikon D70s's shape and control layout. At 2.5 pounds with battery, CompactFlash card, and 18mm-to-70mm zoom lens (27mm-to-105mm equivalent on a 35mm camera), this camera feels like a serious tool in your hands. The handgrip is sized right, making it easy to support the molded plastic camera body while your thumb spins the main command dial, and your right index finger hovers over the shutter release or slides to the front to manipulate a second command dial. Depending on the shooting mode selected, you can quickly choose an f-stop or a shutter speed or adjust the EV setting for both exposure and flash, even with your eye glued to the viewfinder.
A mode dial at top left lets you select programmed automatic, fully automatic, manual, shutter-priority, or aperture-priority mode, or one of six additional scene modes that include Portrait, Landscape, Close-up, Sports, Night Landscape, and Night Portrait. The most common functions, such as resolution and compression, ISO, white balance, drive modes, and metering modes, can all be set by using dedicated buttons in conjunction with command dials, without a visit to the menu system.
Some settings require monitoring the top-mounted monochrome status LCD as adjustments are made. That can be inconvenient when the camera is mounted on a tripod at eye level or in dim illumination, although a backlighting button makes the settings more legible. In true electronic-SLR tradition, the D70s bristles with other controls, including a sliding diopter-correction lever, a four-way cursor pad, delete and bracketing keys, a lever that locks the focus area, a depth-of-field preview, and a button that can be customized to lock the autoexposure, the autofocus, or both when pressed.
While there are a lot of controls, once you've memorized what everything does, this camera can be adjusted very quickly for any shooting situation. It's a good idea to study the manual, though, because many functions can be customized, and not all of them work exactly as you would expect. For example, once we'd gotten into the habit of holding down the drive button and spinning the main command dial two clicks to the right to activate the self-timer, we discovered that the actual number of clicks can vary depending on the drive mode used last.
Most of the time, photo enthusiasts will end up relying on the manual, shutter-priority, and aperture-priority modes or a programmed mode that allows easy overriding of most of the camera's selections. Control freaks will appreciate the ability to tweak the center-weighted metering spot to 6mm, 8mm, 10mm, or 12mm. They'll also like that white balance can be fine-tuned, adjusted with presets, set manually by snapping a target, or set to the balance of an existing photo on the memory card.
Available shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to a hyperfast 1/8,000 second, which may be overkill from an action-stopping standpoint but can be useful when you want to open your lens up wide to control depth of field; the lowest sensitivity setting is ISO 200. In addition to center-weighted metering, you have your choice of spot or 3D-color-matrix metering. Autofocus options include single and continuous predictive autofocusing using fixed-area (from five user-selectable areas), dynamic-area (the camera takes into account moving subjects outside the selected focus area), and closest-subject (the camera focuses on the object nearest the camera) modes.
Flash photography is another of the D70s's strengths. Flash syncs at a commendably high 1/500 second, giving you greater control over how much ambient light you want in your photo. Slow sync--both with and without red-eye control--is available should you need to change the balance between flash and existing illumination. Both front- and rear-curtain sync and conventional red-eye reduction are also available. You'll have to purchase an adapter if you want to connect to studio lights with a PC-sync terminal, but you can mount flash units such as the Nikon SB-600 or SB-800 on the camera or connect them via a cable that slides into the hotshoe. External flash units can also be controlled wirelessly from the camera via Nikon's iTTL system, which uses an almost-imperceptible preflash to exchange data between the D70s and the off-camera speedlights.
Nikon aficionados have been vocal about missing features since the original D70 was introduced, and this upgrade fills a few of the holes. A new wired-remote option allows triggering the camera from any angle (the infrared remote can be used only from the front), while the frame counter no longer underestimates the remaining raw exposures by half. You can also now set picture sizes when specifying prints for PictBridge output. However, there's still no preshot mirror lockup, vertical/battery grip with shutter release, or storage of multiple custom configurations.
Nikon's Capture software, which includes useful features such as tethered time-lapse photography, "de-fishing" of fish-eye photos, and advanced raw-file manipulations with batch capabilities, costs an extra $99. But for advanced photographers, it's far superior to the supplied Picture Project tool. One of the chief reasons to graduate to a digital SLR, aside from gaining lens interchangeability, is improved performance, such as reduced shutter lag. The Nikon D70s doesn't disappoint, turning in particularly impressive figures in the continuous-shooting arena. If sports and action photography are your meat, this camera's frisky near-3fps drive mode is pure gravy. With a standard CompactFlash card installed, we were able to squeeze off 9 full-resolution shots in a hair more than 3 seconds using the Fine JPEG compression setting. Swapping in a SanDisk Extreme III card upped the total to 14 shots in 4.5 seconds before the camera's buffer filled. At 1,504x1,000-pixel resolution and JPEG Basic (the lowest-resolution/highest-compression settings), we were able to take 70 shots in about 25 seconds.
In normal shooting mode, the D70s captured images at a roughly 1fps clip when we pressed the shutter release as rapidly as we could. As photos are written to the card, a counter in the viewfinder updates to show you how many frames remain in the buffer before you'll need to pause. Flash photography slowed things down a bit, with shot-to-shot times averaging about 2 seconds. Initial wake-up-to-first-shot time was a speedy 0.6 second; shutter lag was an excellent 0.35 second under high-contrast lighting and a decent 0.6 second under more challenging low-contrast illumination, thanks to a brilliant-white focus-assist lamp.
Some samples of early models of the D70 were notorious for back-focus problems, but our D70s was accurate and speedy with the 18mm-to-70mm kit lens. Focus speed with digital SLRs depends on the focus mechanism built into the particular lens, so your mileage may vary.
The big, bright 2-inch LCD contains the same 130,000 pixels as the 1.8-inch version on the D70. It proved easier to view and still adequately bright under direct sunlight. Unfortunately, one of the features the D70s shares with its predecessor is a relatively small optical viewfinder. That's not unusual in this class of camera, but better viewfinders can be found among the competition, notably in Pentax's *ist DS. One reason why the 6.1-megapixel Nikon D70s will continue to compete well against 8-megapixel rivals such as the Canon Digital Rebel XT is that the older D70 on which this camera is based had such good image quality to begin with. The 18mm-to-70mm kit lens produced sharp images with little in the way of chromatic aberrations, other than some magenta fringing at the edges of backlit subjects. It's notable that while Canon's Rebel XT is capable of besting this camera with the right glass, the kit lens supplied with the Nikon is clearly superior to what Canon throws in when you buy the XT package.
Our images had good exposure and dynamic range, although the D70s tends to underexpose slightly to capture extra detail in the shadows while avoiding (often unsuccessfully) blown-out highlights. Colors were accurate and neutral, but we appreciated the ability to season our images to taste with a little extra saturation and sharpness, along with custom tonal curves we were able to upload to improve rendition under certain conditions. The D70s's light-sensitivity range begins at a high ISO 200, but, like its predecessor, this camera produces surprisingly good photos, even at its maximum setting of ISO 1,600. Noise was not a problem at ISO 200 and ISO 400, it was low enough at ISO 800 that we didn't hesitate to use that setting, and although it was quite noticeable at ISO 1,600, this camera's noise pattern has a not unpleasant look.