Reluctant Retirement of a Workhorse – The Nikon D70s

d70s-01 A couple of weeks ago I put my faithful Nikon D70s out to pasture. A new and more powerful model had eclipsed it, and at a resolution of 6.1 megapixel, it had “grown long in the tooth” in the DSLR world. I bought the D70s in 2005. It was my transition to digital from film. Economically, it was the most successful photography purchase I have ever made. It paid for itself in savings within the first couple of months, and has paid for itself many times over in the succeeding years. It convinced me of the validity of digital photography – the speed, economy and quality of its production could not be ignored. If you would like to read a detailed technical review of the D70, click here.

In the past five years, the D70s has traveled with me everywhere and shot a bunch of pictures of which I am very proud. I have other cameras, and I have gotten some nice shots with them, but the D70s has been the dependable one that I could always rely on to come back with the picture. When there was work to be done, I grabbed the D70s. There never has been a “firmware update” for the D70s because it was the update for the original D70. It fixed the small bugs in the D70 and slightly increased the size of the view screen.

The internals of the D70s are sort of odd-ball. It has a CCD sensor rather than a CMOS sensor which gives it a flash sync speed of 1/500th. It has a 1,005 segment color meter which was unusual at the time. It also had the best automatic white balance of its time, with detailed white balance adjustments which were lacking in cameras costing four or five times as much. The net result of these unusual features is excellent color even in crummy lighting conditions. If you asked me why I have hung onto the D70s for so long, my immediate answer would be the color, but there is more.

So why did I leave it behind? It still shoots terrific photographs, and it rides in my bag now in the back-up role. With a maximum ISO of 1600, the low-light performance of the D70s is OK, but not great, and I shoot in a lot of low-light conditions. My photography is often printed at absurdly large sizes for show booth displays and banners, and I have run into situations where the D70s just did not give me enough pixels to blow up a photo to extremely large sizes. So, the time came when I knew I had to move on, but I didn’t really like it. I still love this camera, and wouldn’t sell it for any amount of money (well, if someone wanted to offer me a couple million…).

Beyond the inherent qualities of the camera, there is another, more fundamental reason that I have been reluctant to retire it, and that is familiarity. I know it like the back of my hand. I can change all of the adjustments in the dark – well, at least all that matter to me. I know how it behaves in particular conditions. I don’t have to think about it. It has become a physical extension of my imagination. Any new camera, regardless of how good it is, is a venture into the unknown, and a new learning curve. That comfy “old shoe” feeling is gone.

I see some photographers who never seem to shoot on the same camera. They always have something new and different and tout the virtues of the latest and greatest camera of the day. To do that successfully requires a lot of work, and I don’t want to spend my life with my nose in a manual. I want to learn an excellent instrument and shoot pictures. I don’t really have time to do a lot of new product testing. I admire those who do and I benefit from their work, but it’s not my style of operation.

Recently, I was researching Stevie Ray Vaughn, the great blues guitarist who was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 1990. The specific line of inquiry I followed was the obsessive attitude he had toward his guitars. He only played Fender Stratocasters built between 1959 and 1963. He owned a couple of custom built guitars which weren’t Stratocasters, but they were built to imitate the Stratocaster. Each of the Strats had names like “First Wife,” “Red,” “Yellow,” and “Lenny” (named for his wife). Stevie Ray would play particular guitars on particular songs, seldom varying in his choice of instrument for a song. Perhaps the pickup winding on Lenny gave just the right sound for “Crossfire.” Stevie Ray played hard on extremely heavy strings. “First Wife” a.k.a. “Number One” was re-fretted so many times that the neck could no longer accept another re-fretting. Most people would go to the store and find a new guitar, but instead, Stevie Ray got another maple neck of the same vintage so that First Wife could be returned to service.

I don’t propose to compare myself to Stevie Ray in any way except to say that I relate to that feeling of getting attached to an instrument that gives you the results you want. The D70s was that way for a long time for me. The new camera is a wonder, and I have no nostalgia to return to the days of yore. In thinking through this, a couple of thoughts did emerge. The hardware is just hardware, and it makes a lot less difference in our photography than we like to imagine. Great photography comes from vision and imagination. The particular model of camera is purely secondary. The greatest camera cannot produce a photograph by itself, and some great photographs have been produced on extremely primitive cameras.

I believe that it is OK, and maybe even necessary, to step away from the gear race. If you find that the 1959 Stratocaster makes the music you want, then that is your axe, and your job is to learn everything there is to know about it. It is a huge mistake to tell yourself that if you only had camera X, you could do the kind of photography you want to do. It probably isn’t true. While I wouldn’t want to take on the Madison Avenue fashion photography business with a $100 point-and-shoot from Best Buy, the hardware limits us far less than we think it does. If you have the vision, you can find a camera that will realize it. Hardware is our Number One Excuse.

Another thought that came to me about this question of familiarity is that if you are thinking about the camera, you aren’t thinking about the photograph. It really pays to become intimately familiar with your camera. There is a wonderful scene in the movie “Scent of a Woman” in which Colonel Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino, though blind, completely disassembles and reassembles his Colt .45 automatic pistol in about 30 seconds. That’s the kind of familiarity we need to attain with our cameras. Any kind of photography involving living beings and dynamic situations do not allow us the luxury of looking up camera functions in a manual. In a political rally, baseball game or fashion shoot, you really can’t be thinking about how to operate the camera. There just isn’t time. So, we need to shoot and practice enough that the camera operation becomes second nature to us, and we can focus on the scene in front of the lens. This means we shoot a lot and then shoot some more. Henri Cartier-Bresson said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” He was talking about practice, about getting the mechanics of photography hardwired into your nervous system so that the boundary between photographer and camera disappears.

Finally, time moves on. Technology improves. It’s important to be able to recognize the moment when a new instrument will help you to make a better photograph. There is something about the passage of time that makes us stiff. Once we have experienced significant success with a particular platform, it is hard to let go of it and move on. It requires effort to remain flexible and open to what is new. I have one camera that is older than I am. It still works, but with each passing day, spare parts and the film to use in it become harder to come by. Were I to take the position that this is the only camera for me, a day would come when I could no longer make photographs. My objective is to make photographs, not idols out of cameras. So there comes a time when even a camera which has served as well as the D70s gets lovingly packed away.

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7 Responses to Reluctant Retirement of a Workhorse – The Nikon D70s

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  • This is more like a requiem for your old ‘axe.’ What an endearing article about your experience and growth with the D70s and how much it still means to you! I am glad it’s not entirely out of commission but enjoying a relaxing retirement with an occasional jaunt for stretching that reflex mirror and proving to his master that he’s still got IT!!

    Really enjoyed reading it!!!

  • Syd says:

    Thanks, Jeff. Yes, I still love it and I guess there is a bit of “mourning” in it, even guilt, although that’s pretty ridiculous. Mostly I just wanted to do homage to a great piece of equipment that played a pivotal role in my journey as a photographer.

  • Roger says:

    Did I miss something? What did you get as a replacement? I recently upgraded my D90 to a D7000 and love it to bits.

    PS – did not even know there as an “s” version of the D70!

  • Syd says:

    Roger, I got the D7000 also. And, like you, totally love it.

  • Lavinia Leidich says:

    Nice, user friendly DSLR. The controls are simple enough, though some features require using menus and scrolling to get the results you would like.

  • Viisshnu says:

    Hi Syd great blog. I love this article abt D70s. I never had this camera but have a lot of regard. I am a professional and use a D200. I have a thing for CCD sensors. I like that anecdote of Stevie ray. Thanks for sharing. What other cameras do you own apart from the 7000? I am planning to buy a D70s as a back up and also a D700 as a main camera. The D200 will be there for as long as possible. Will never sell it. Cheers again. Keep up the good work…

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