Nikon N70: It’s like a digital camera for film

Nikon N70 front
From the front, the Nikon N70 looks an awful lot like the digital SLRs that would come fairly close on its heels. It maintains much visual styling descended from the F3, too, including the all-black body with the red vertical line on the grip. (Daniel J. Schneider)

That really is how it felt to me in so many ways. It’s so automated and electronic, and it’s made of solid … plastic.

These days, a lot of film photographers are at the point of joking about how, once it’s widely known that we use old film cameras, people start giving them to us. I don’t have as many of those stories, but that’s how I got the Nikon N70.

Kate and I had some tasty hand-tossed, wood-fired artisan pizza at Homegrown Tap & Dough one evening last summer, and decided to walk over to Washington Park for a stroll around the lake. I had the Pentax 6×7 over my shoulder and was running an early test roll through it.

Colorado State Capitol from Civic Center
The Colorado State Capitol as seen from Civic Center Park. Decorative grasses dry up and unfallen leaves hang from the trees on this late autumn day. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I stopped to take a picture of a decaying garage door and some other pedestrians stopped to wait for me. As I always do, I motioned them to continue and said, “Go ahead, I’ll be a minute.” They hurried on past and I finished evaluating the light, focusing and making my exposure.

As soon as the Pentax made its hearty KA-CHUNK, the group stopped again and a man turned around, asking if I was using film (the Pentax is so big and black, I think a lot of people confuse it with a digital SLR if they’re more than a few feet away — until they hear it). I said yes and a brief discussion about the 6×7 ensued.

Then he said something like, “You know, I’ve got a stack of old cameras in the closet I’ve been needing to get rid of. I just live a couple blocks over. Do you want to take them off my hands?” Of course I did.

We followed the family home and waited on the porch a few minutes, and he handed me a shopping bag full of cameras … several old 127 Kodaks and an Instamatic 804 in its hard plastic never-ready case and with its box (since gifted to a friend, since I already have a nice one).

And the Nikon N70 body (his friend wanted the Vivitar zoom lens that was on it). As luck had it, I still had a Nikon 28mm f/2.8 AF lens I’d gotten from Dean Krakel with the Nikon FM2n.

This review isn’t going to be as deep as some of mine, but I wanted to share my experiences and some test photos taken with the N70.

Specs

Let’s start by pointing out that the N70 was called the F70 in most of the world outside the U.S. — this may be helpful in finding specs and tips. It was introduced in 1994 and discontinued in 2003 as digital started to outsell film SLRs.

The N70 features all the major exposure modes — shutter priority, aperture priority, program and manual. It has a built-in flash and can sync as fast as 1/125 second.

Nikon N70 LCD
The Nikon N70 LCD, on the right side of the top cover, may be a bit busy, but it’s the central component of the entire control system and fairly crucial to using the camera. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Light meter with matrix, center-weighted and spot modes, and exposure compensation from -5 to +5 stops in ⅓-stop increments. Nikon’s “Eyepoint” illumination turns on the viewfinder display lighting when the meter is on and the camera lifted to the eye. Auto-exposure lock function.

Single servo and continuous servo autofocus modes. Automatic film advance and powered rewind. Will shoot 2.0 or 3.7 frames-per-second in two continuous shooting modes (low- and high-speed, respectively).

The viewfinder displays flash status, shutter speed and aperture, as well as the metering, exposure and focusing modes, and more. Diopter adjustments can be made with accessory covers.

Nikon N70 viewfinder
In the Nikon N70’s viewfinder is a display that indicated flash status, shutter speed and aperture, and some of the various modes selected. The green illumination turns on automatically when lifted to the eye. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The N70 takes two CR123 lithium batteries and uses 35mm film. The electronically-controlled focal place shutter fires at a maximum speed of 1/4000 second, and slows all the way down to 30 seconds.

The various functions of the camera’s setup are controlled by several buttons and a knob, with a large LCD readout on the right-hand side of the top cover. The camera can even store several saved setup schemes which can then be switched between quickly.

Basically, it might help to consider that the N70 has most of the features (though some may be more prototypical) found on mid-range digital SLRs as recently as five years ago. For a much more exhaustive list of specs, check out the Nikon F70 Technical Specifications on mir.com.

Notably absent from the N70 are depth-of-field preview, illumination for the external LCD, and any kind of multiple-exposure capability.

Impressions

When the N70 came to me it still had the factory rubber coating that graces the right-side hand grip and the entire film door. Unfortunately, the rubber on the back was deteriorating and felt very sticky.

I had to scrub it off the camera with 91-percent rubbing alcohol, because it just felt too gross in my hands otherwise. Fortunately, the black plastic underneath the rubber (which was easy to remove with some elbow grease) is shiny and smooth, and quite comfortable. The rubberized portion of the grip seemed to fair better and is still in place and useful, keeping the camera from slipping from one’s hand.

Civic Center walking path
Long shadows and browning leaves on the trees overhanging a walkway in Civic Center Park in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I didn’t have very high expectations for a camera that I discovered was only barely worth what it would cost to ship it domestically, especially after I felt the plastic and sticky rubber coating. But it turned out okay.

Again, though, it feels like using a digital camera. Autofocus felt completely alien to me after several years without using it. The digital readouts, too. LCDs and function buttons and selector knobs and pop-up flashes were all like stepping weirdly back to my years with a DSLR. I didn’t like it that much.

Civic Center grasses
Tall decorative grasses are carefully laid out in Denver’s Civic Center Park, bending and waving in a gentle breeze on a late fall afternoon. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Among the most common complaints with this camera and its siblings with the same control setup is that it’s difficult to handle the settings. The button combinations aren’t very intuitive, and the limitations of the display in the viewfinder necessitate taking the camera away from your eye to use the external LCD for a lot of things.

Another complaint I found in a few places was that the auto exposure was inconsistent, which seems to be true in some of my test shots. It’s not too difficult to override the DX coding and set the film speed a little slower, or just use exposure compensation. In my case, it also could have just been the film, which was likely very, very expired — note the grain and color shifts. A little compensation for that would’ve helped, too.

That said, the placement of the controls is generally good, with the camera feeling comfortable and ergonomic in the hand and the buttons presenting themselves conveniently to your fingers. The N70’s weight — not heavy, but not notably light — is a good match for its fit in the hand, which is meaty and secure with the large molded grip on the right.

The biggest thing that bugs me about this camera is how easy it is to trigger the shutter release. A feather touch is more than enough, and it’s very possible to waste frames if you’re not being very careful.

Cherry Creek Trail sign
A sign indicates the path of the Cherry Creek Trail as it winds through downtown Denver near Colfax and 15th avenues. (Daniel j. Schneider)

Not a complaint — more of an observation — but the film advance motor is really quiet. In fact, I accidentally wasted a roll of film trying to determine if it was actually advancing the film correctly (it was).

The autofocus motors also are very quiet. Rather than hearing the N70 working to focus, it’s more like you feel it as the stepper motors hunt back and forth a bit. In addition to that, autofocus is pretty slow compared to modern digital cameras — but that still feels really fast if you’re used to manual focus for everything.

Overall, I’d say it’s a fine camera for the money. If you have Nikkor AF lenses hanging around, the N70 will be a a lot easier way to get some use out of them — and cheap! In spite of all that, though, it just doesn’t excite me. It’s too much like a digital camera for my liking.

Here are a couple more test photos:

Civic Center Park
Overlooking Civic Center Park in Denver from The Denver Post building on an autumn afternoon. Tower cranes have sprouted all over the Metro Area as Denver’s population booms. (Daniel J. Schneider)
City and County Building in color
Denver’s City and County Building is lit blue, white and red in support of France in the days following the Paris attacks that claimed 130 lives and wounded nearly 400 more people in November, 2015. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Nikon N70 SLR camera
Author Rating
3
  • I hear you about the donated cameras! Recently donated to my collection: a Yashica D, a Certo Super Sport Dolly, and a Kodak Retina IIc. And someone who reads my blog just wrote to offer me two Nikon Fs he no longer shoots!

    I’ve owned a Nikon N65, which I assume is similar in many ways to your N70. It worked fine, but like you, I had a hard time feeling any love for it.

    • Well, if you’re running out of space, I have a hole about the size of a Nikon F in my collection. >.>

      I’ve never tried an N65, but I think one of the more common complaints about the N70 was that its menu system was totally unique.

      • Oh yeah, the N70 menus. The N65 had a more conventional scheme.

        • Your silence on my offer to help you out with your preponderance of Nikon Fs is deafening! ;-)

          I actually needed a couple years to really get used to the menus on my Canon DSLR, so I can see how a unique system would frustrate users who’ve learned a period version or something. In this case, though, there were just too many options. I’ll stick to The FM2/F2/F3.

  • satrain18

    “It’s too much like a digital camera for my liking.” Of course it’s too much like a digital camera for your liking. you’re a retro-loving hipster…

    • One need not be a hipster to appreciate doing things manually. That’s why there are still cars sold with manual transmissions.

      • satrain18

        But you are a digital-hating hipster.

        • “Digital-hating” is a bit strong. I know and respect lots of photographers who use digital. It’s just not for me. And, since I blog specifically about film photography, I expect most of my readers agree.