Nikon D80 SLR Review

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Nikon D80

Steve's Conclusion

While the D50 and D70s continue to be some of Nikon's most popular dSLR models, this year they have complemented this line of "affordable" dSLRs with the new D80 model. While this model shares many features with its siblings, the D80 is a bit more advanced with an increased resolution of 10.2-megapixels, a larger 2.5-inch LCD, smaller body design as well as a broader ISO sensitivity range, a new 11-area AF system (compared to the D70s' five area AF), and the use of Secure Digital (SD) memory cards; which are seemingly enough, becoming the industry standard, especially in the consumer digicam market. Occupying the top-end of Nikon's amateur dSLR line, the D80 competes directly with Canon's Digital Rebel XTi.

While Nikon claims a "slimmer and more compact body," when you compare specs you'll notice it amounts to about 15 grams (0.53 oz) and 17mm (0.7 in.) As with previous models, the ergonomic design offers comfort while the durable polycarbonate chassis has its very own professional look and feel. The controls are laid out similarly to the D70s, however the ENTER has been replaced by OK, and we have a new Zoom/QUALity button on the back. The drive and AF mode buttons have also been relocated to the top near the data LCD. The inclusion of a larger 2.5-inch 230,000 pixel LCD has made the menu text a bit more legible as well as offering a slightly larger view of your captured images during review. Overall, I found the display was bright enough to be used in most lighting conditions, however the surface is reflective and very prone to fingerprints. Luckily, Nikon includes the BM-7 lens cover; which also protects the display from scuffs and scratches.

The Menu system is much like that of the D70s (or the D70 with the latest firmware upgrade), however, the D80 sports a new Retouch menu that offers image correction tools like that found on an inexpensive consumer camera. This new menu will be an appealing feature to users who made the jump into a dSLR, but don't want to spend much time post-processing their captured images. You can use Nikon's exclusive D-Lighting, remove Red-eye from you flash portraits, and also use filter effects, etc.

While the viewfinder for the D70s used a less-costly penta-mirror, Nikon has chosen a pentaprism like that used on the D100. I felt the viewfinder was a pleasure to use, offering about a 95% view of the frame and a comfortable rubber eyecup. This allowed me to keep my eye glued to the viewfinder while shooting a local high school soccer game, and there's plenty of exposure information while changing camera settings. Users that are accustomed to the EVFs (Electronic ViewFinders) found on consumer digicams, will appreciate the optical thru-the-lens view that doesn't go blank while following a subject in burst mode; when shooting in continuous mode, the mirror return was fast enough to provide an essentially continuous viewfinder image. The top LCD control panel complements the viewfinder nicely, allowing you to set shooting parameters comfortably with the camera at shoulder (chest) level with your eye away from the viewfinder.

The D80 is labeled as an amateur dSLR, but don't let that fool you. You can let your creativity run wild with this model's wide range of manual controls. Parameters such as Metering mode, Focus mode, and AF-area mode, Center AF area mode, give you extensive control over the camera's auto exposure and auto focusing functions. Even in its automatic Vari-Program modes, the D80 allows the photographer to control focusing functions and ISO. In addition, the D80 provides 32 Custom Settings that allow you to personalize its operation to fit your shooting style and subjects.

For the less experienced photographer that doesn't quite understand many of the D80's settings, the D80 provides assistance in the form of a Help button that calls up an explanation of each menu function on the LCD monitor; think of it as a built-in camera operations guide that will help users improve their shooting skills! Another great improvement I found over the D70s, is the D80 remembers shooting parameters and Custom Settings after the camera is powered off. However, it still does not provide memory where you can save several combinations of settings, each customized to different shooting conditions or subjects. And like the D70s, the D80 does allow control of some shooting parameters in its automatic Vari-Program modes, but those settings are forgotten when you change modes, requiring you to re-set them the next time. Sports mode, for example, defaults to dynamic AF-Area Mode, but allows you to set either Single area, Dynamic area or Auto-area via Custom Setting 2. If you exit Sports mode and return to it later, you'll find that your previous AF-Area mode setting has been forgotten, and you'll have to reset Custom Setting 2. While, the ability to override default Vari-Program settings is an excellent feature, it can be improved by providing a memory area for saving and recalling those settings.

The D80's shooting performance was very similar to the D70/D70s, when shooting in single exposure mode. From power-on until capture of the first image took only 5/10 of a second. Shutter lag, the time delay between depressing the shutter and capturing an image, was less than 1/10 of a second when pre-focused. Autofocus shutter lag ranged between 2/10 and 5/10 of a second, depending on the degree of focus change required of the attached 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens. In single-shot mode, I was able to capture images at 1/2 second intervals without flash, and between 6/10 and 3.1 second intervals with flash, depending on subject distance.

In continuous shooting mode, the D80 was a bit disappointing as it did not live up to Nikon's promise of 3 frames per second. I was able to consistently capture 10 images in 4.7 seconds. At first I though this noticeable drop in continuous performance might be due to the SD memory card I was using (PQ1's High-speed (150x) 4GB card, however when I switch it out with a Sandisk Extreme III 1GB card I got the exact same results. The best time I could achieve was 10 images in 4.3 seconds, by pointing it directly into a light. These measurements were made using an AF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens, shooting Large/Fine JPEG images, using Program AE mode with the ISO set to 100. Nikon claims that dialing back image quality to Large/Normal allows the D80 to capture images at 3fps to a depth of 100 shots when using high-speed SD cards. I found under normal use I was not able to achieve 3fps. I did however capture 100 images at 2fps using those quality settings and a fast PQI 4GB SD card.

    NOTE: After posting this conclusion we were made aware that the default setting for "Long exp. NR" is ON. As this setting is only useful for exposures of 8 seconds or longer it should be set to "OFF". Noise Reduction adds considerably to the image processing time. When it's set to "OFF" the D80 achieves the claimed 3fps burst rate.

When shooting NEF (RAW) images in single exposure mode, I was able to capture 7 NEF images at 1/2 second intervals, while subsequent shots with the full buffer came at 1 second intervals. In continuous drive mode, 7 NEF images were captured in 2.9 seconds, and subsequent shots could be taken at 1 second intervals. Impressively, it took less than 4 seconds for the D80 to flush its entire buffer of NEF images to the SD card. In RAW+JPEG/Fine mode the D80 captured 6 images in 2.5 seconds, with subsequent shots at 1.4 second intervals and the buffer flushing in 6 seconds. Unlike the D70s, the D80's RAW+JPEG image mode allows you to choose Basic, Normal, or Fine quality JPEG.

I tested the D80 with the available "kit" AF-S DX Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens. I liked the versatile focal length range of 27-202.5mm in 35mm equivalence, providing a field of view wide enough for most small interior shots while offering a moderate telephoto focal length for pleasing portraits and bringing distant subjects a bit closer. It is lightweight without feeling cheap, focuses rapidly, and produces image sharpness that's sure to please. I did see noticeable barrel distortion at its 18mm focal length, and a bit of pin cushioning at the telephoto focal lengths. However, I was surprised that there was almost no visible vignetting, or darkness at the corners of the image, at the 18mm end of the zoom range. This lens complements the D80 very well, and I expect that most buyers will opt for the D80 Kit which includes it for only $300 more than the body by itself.

The built-in flash has a guide number of 13/42 (m/ft.) Using the kit lens, the maximum flash range is about 12 feet at ISO 100. When shooting indoor portraits, I found it produced nice results with good exposure and natural skin tones. If you need more flash power, the D80's built-in hot shoe can attach external Speedlights and supports Nikon's Creative Lighting System and i-TTL flash control. I used the powerful SB-600 flash unit and it worked very well. The D80 controlled its zoom head, and used the SB-600's much more effective AF-assist lamp. Overall, I think the SB-600 or SB-800 would make an excellent accessory choice for those like myself who enjoy portrait photography. Be sure to take a look at our samples page to see several comparison shots using the built-in flash and the SB-600.

I was very pleased with our image quality results. The D80's 10.2-megapixel sensor captures beautiful photos that, when using the in-camera JPEG/Fine mode, show accurate exposure and pleasing color saturation. The 11-area AF system was fast and accurate, and combined with the very nice 18-135mm kit lens, produced nice sharp images. Image noise was low, especially at ISO speeds below 800, becoming more noticeable as the sensitivity is raised. Luckily the D80 features in-camera High ISO noise reduction which helps reduce these negative effects. To see the D80 really shine, you need to shoot in RAW formatand then use a program like Nikon Capture NX. You can see on our samples page two converted JPEGs, where I used Auto Levels as well as the Medium High sharpening option.

Software is very important with any dSLR, allowing you to quickly edit your photos, especially when using NEF (RAW) mode. The included PictureProjet 1.7 doesn't offer very many editing options for NEF files, only allowing you to adjust sharpening, brightness, color booster, etc. However, Nikon Capture NX is a very useful tool in the editing process, offering a wealth of adjustment options for NEF files as well as JPEG and TIFF formats. The only thing that discouraged me was that they only give you a 30 day-trial of the software. So, if you plan on shooting a majority of your photos in RAW mode, be sure to get Capture NX or one of the alternative RAW applications or plug-ins (Bibble, RawShooter, Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw) as soon as possible.

Bottom line - I was very impressed with the D80. It can be a powerful photographic tool with its Manual, Aperture priority, and Shutter priority modes, however, even the least experienced photographer can pick it up and capture beautiful photos using the Auto, Program or one of the Digital Vari-Program scene modes. With an MSRP of US$1299.95 for the body and 18-135mm lens outfit, it's a bit more expensive than its competitors, however we feel it offers an outstanding value for such a capable model.

Firmware Update For Nikon D80

Modifications enabled with upgrade of A and B firmware from Ver. 1.01 to Ver. 1.10:

  • The product will be "Certified for Windows Vista"
  • Support for the new USB Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) has been added. The
  • PTP option in the setup menu will be modified to MTP/PTP. The icon will also be modified.
  • The effects of noise reduction processing performed at shutter speeds of 1 - 8s with shutter speed set to "bulb", when ON is selected for Long Exp. NR in the shooting menu, have been approved.

Please visit Nikon's Support site for more information and to download this new firmware version.

DSLR: Nikon D80, 634 large-format pages. Thousands of images. 18 chapters. 630 original custom Photoshop Actions. Plus a 38-page D80 image Gallery. Two volumes including RAW Materials by Uwe Steinmueller.

Order this new eBook for just $49.95 US
($6.50 shipping discount for Steve's readers)

Go to our
D80 Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

DC Resource's D80 review

DC View's D80 vs Rebel XTi Comparison

Imaging-Resource's D80 review

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