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Nikon D70 and Sigma lens

By Cindy Creighton
September 2006

Nikon D70 and Sigma 170-500mm combo for bird photography on a budget

I purchased the D70 in December 2004, combined with a Sigma 170-500mm lens for the primary purpose of bird photography. I had a budget of around $2,000 to spend on my first DSLR and lens. I had narrowed down my choices to the Canon Digital Rebel and the Nikon D70. Both were excellent cameras, but extensive research influenced my decision to choose the D70 over the Digital Rebel.

The D70 was slightly more expensive than the Rebel, so I had to decide if the D70 was worth the extra money. One thing that was important to me was speed. With wildlife photography (especially birds), a second can make the difference between getting the shot or not. The D70 had a slight edge here, shooting 3 frames per second compared with the Rebel's 2.5 frames per second. Another big plus for the D70 is that when you turn it on it is instantly ready to shoot. The Rebel takes about three seconds to "boot up," and three seconds is a long time to wait when photographing birds. Another deciding factor is that the D70 has more manual control options than the Rebel, and allows you the ability to virtually override any of the camera's default settings which in my opinion puts it a step closer to being a pro camera rather than a consumer camera. The D70 also came with a far superior kit lens than the Rebel.

After shooting with the D70 for over a year and a half now, I am very impressed with the camera. I have made some terrific images using the Sigma 170-500mm with the D70. However because this is a slow lens (f6.3 at 500mm), capturing images of birds in flight or any other type of action shot is difficult, but not impossible. Therefore this lens basically limits me to "bird on a stick" style of photography. I find the lens very sharp in its middle ranges, but at 500mm the images are a little on the soft side. Stopping down a bit helps if there is enough light; and if that is not possible some post-processing in Photoshop using unsharp mask most often takes care of that problem. The Sigma does not have vibration reduction, so a tripod or car window beanbag is a must in most lighting situations (I have made sharp images hand-holding this lens, but only in very bright conditions). The use of proper long lens technique (one hand resting on the barrel of the lens over the tripod head, eye pressed firmly against the eyecup, hold your breath as you trip the shutter, etc.) is also a must with this lens. Although the lens does not produce the images that a prime lens would, it does produce good quality images. I have sold many of the images I made with this camera and lens. 

The following are some tips I use to manage the performance of my D70:

  • I shoot in single-servo mode (AF-S). This setting allows me to lock the focus on a bird's eye by holding the shutter button halfway down, and then recompose the shot while maintaining focus on the bird's eye.
  • I always adjust the white balance according to the lighting conditions. The camera has various presets you can choose from: sunny, cloudy, shady, etc. I prefer selecting the white balance manually because I have discovered that auto white balance is not accurate in all situations.
  • I use manual ISO, not auto. In good light I prefer ISO 200 as this will produce the least amount of noise. In low light situations I increase the ISO for a faster shutter speed. I have found that the D70 produces low-noise images up to ISO 800 (for full-framed images). Cropping will magnify any noise in the image, and if you plan to do a lot of cropping, the lower the ISO the better.  
  • I shoot in Aperture Priority mode. This allows you to select the lens' maximum wide-open aperture, thus ensuring that you will have the fastest shutter speed possible.
  • I use the D70's matrix metering system and dial in exposure compensation as required. I have found that the D70 does tend to underexpose by 0.3ev in some situations. I have discovered after researching this that Nikon has biased the metering to preserve the highlights, so the camera's default exposure is supposed to protect the images from blown highlights. However, this can result in flat-looking images. The quick fix is to adjust the exposure compensation. Post-processing can also correct the problem but is more time consuming. A more permanent fix would be to download a custom curve that can be found on the Internet and upload it to your camera using Nikon Capture. That way you will spend a lot less time with post-processing. I have read that underexposure is no longer a problem with the newer D70s.
  • One of my "tricks" for making sharp images of birds with a somewhat slow lens is using the D70's burst mode (hold the shutter down and it fires off three frames in one second). Although birds are constantly moving, there are often split-second moments when the bird will remain still. A person's reflexes are often not fast enough to trip the shutter when it appears the bird has stopped moving. However, out of the three frames you fire off in a second during burst mode, one of them is likely to have captured that split-second of stillness and thus produce a sharp image.

I am still exploring and experimenting with my camera's many features and "fine-tuning" abilities. Overall, I am very happy with the performance of my D70 and the images it produces. I plan to stay with Nikon and upgrade to a D200 (and hopefully a prime) sometime in the future, but will always keep my D70 as a backup.  

See more of Cindy's images and learn more about her photography in the All About Birds featured photographer gallery.