A couple of folks who are in the market for a camera have asked me about my experience with the new camera (a Nikon D70s) and whether it’s helped me to take better photos. The answer to that is so far my experience with the camera has been mostly positive. As to whether it’s made me a better photographer, I’d say yes, but with a few caveats.
To give a quick recap, the D70s is a slightly-better-than-entry-level digital SLR camera, which means it’s got the capability for more options than your basic point-and-shoot digital camera, but will also quite happily do snapshots for you if that’s what you want or need. The resolution of the camera is 6.1 megapixels, which is less than some cameras in its price range (there’s a comparable Canon model with 8 megapixels), but the various reviews I’d seen of the D70s suggested that the picture quality was as good as or better than other cameras with slightly higher resolutions, and nothing I’ve seen out of the camera leads me to believe this is not the case.
In any event 6.1Mpx is more than enough for an 8×10 print, which is about as big a print as most of us are going to get out of the local photo shop, and for technical reasons at this point in time more megapixels aren’t necessarily better (it’s not only the number of megapixels that matter but the size of your camera’s sensor, the quality of its lenses, so on and so forth). The D70s seems to hit a fair balance between the size of the picture and the quality of the picture it makes. At the very least there’s nothing I’ve tossed at the camera that a full-sized blowup of the picture in Photoshop doesn’t show pretty impressive detail.
The color response of the camera has been very good — it does an accurate reproduction of the colors I see with my eye most of the time, although I tend to boost up the saturation of sunsets and shadowed pictures in Photoshop. Aside from that, usually the only time I have to fiddle with a picture in Photoshop is when I’ve done something dumb, like take a picture of someone when their face is in shadow. It’s also really good at color gradiations; when I snap a picture of the sky I hardly ever see the sort of pixelated graininess you can get with a digital camera. The camera’s built in flash is very good — I’ve read pro photographers who say it’s one of the best integrated flash systems around, and the camera is generally good at estimating when a flash is needed.
The majority of the pictures I’ve taken with the camera have been in its auto mode, and it’s done a fine job of making me look competent; I have to go out of my way to take a bad picture with it. The only major complaint is that the autofocus sometimes needs to be convinced that it needs to focus on what’s directly in front of it, but this happens only in about one picture in 20. I’ve been fiddling with the other various modes of the camera with varying success; I get more bad pictures with those, but the limiting factor there is me, not the camera.
Has the camera made me a better photographer? In a limited sense, yes, for two primary reasons. The first is that the camera is smarter than I am with it comes to judging what it needs to do in any given situation, and thanks to its SLR heritage, its large and superior lenses, and its depth of field focusing ways, it creates pictures that look more "professional" than a snapshot digital camera would. The final picture in this entry, for example, is not one I’d've gotten with my Kodak EasyShare, and the fullsize version (3008×2000 pixels) is just gorgeous.
The second reason I’m a better photographer with this camera is that the camera encourages multiple photographs via a memory card that can store more than 500 photos at the resolution noted above, and it also a "continuous shooting" mode that can fire off three frames a second. The entry I pointed to in the above paragraph features three photos of Athena on a tire swing, but I took 66. Most of those have Athena with her eyes closed, or turning away from the camera, or just acting like a goofy six-year-old. When you can take as many pictures as you want with no penalty, you’re almost assured of getting a good picture, by sheer dumb luck if nothing else. This doesn’t actually make one a better photographer, but it certainly allows one to give the appearance of being one.
As to whether I am genuinely becoming a better photographer with the camera, the answer is yes, although rather more slowly than I would like. Having the capability to do more with a camera opens up a lot of options, and I’m becoming more aware of the things I need to do to make good pictures and not just snap away and rely on statistic to pop up the occasional really excellent photo. In the short run, the D70s makes me look like a good photographer; in the long run, I have the potential of actually becoming a good photographer, thanks to having a useful tool to work with.
The drawbacks to the D70s: Well, digital SLRs, like all cameras of their type, are susceptible to dust and other stuff, and I’m already seeing that; when I take pictures of the sky I can see little dust motes in the same place in each picture. It’s minor, but it’s there (you don’t see them in the pictures I post because I Photoshop them out). Eventually I’ll need to take the thing in to be cleaned. The camera is great for serious pictures but it can be bulky and inconvenient for fast, spur of the moment photos; if I just need to take a snap, I find it simpler and easier to grab my little Kodak digital camera. Likewise, I’m not all that likely to take the D70s with me to an amusement park or other such outing; for those places the Kodak does just fine.
Moving away from the camera to the processing end, the pictures themselves are large enough (1.5MB each) that loading a couple hundred of them up on the card reader I’ve attached to my computer takes a fair amount of time (another reason I use the Kodak for snaps — pictures from the Kodak load up super quick). The other thing I’ve noticed is that the pictures I take with the Nikon seem to make large files after I’ve trimmed them down for Web display than the ones I took with the Kodak, although I don’t know if that has something to do with how the camera writes data or just that I’m taking more ambitious pictures (read: more information in each picture) and that I’m making the pictures a bit larger these days (450 pixels width rather than 400 as I used to do). I do try to keep the photos under 70k whenever possible; I don’t want to antagonize my dial-up readers too much.
Overall, however, I’ve been having a great time with the D70s and I think it’s a very good camera both for what I need today, and what I’ll want to do for the immediate future. If you are in the market for a digital SLR, I do recommend trying one out.