by Dave Etchells
and Shawn Barnett
Review posted: 08/09/2006
Update posted: 10/21/2006
Nikon D80 User Report
by Shawn Barnett
The new Nikon D80's combination of high-end features and its 18-135mm DX kit lens make a killer photographic tool for the amateur and intermediate photographer who can't afford or justify the extra cost of the Nikon D200.
While it is very similar to its predecessor, the Nikon D70s, and sports the higher 10.2 megapixel resolution of the D200, the Nikon D80 is replete with new features and advances in overall quality that make it a great upgrade for D50 and D70 owners, plus a compelling "other choice" for those who've been looking at (or waiting for) a Nikon D200. Finally, because its controls are so similar to the D2X and D200, pro photographers may want to pick up a D80 as a second or third body to take along instead of their heavier pro cameras.
Though it's changed somewhat, the grip of the D80 is enough like the D70 that I still like it. The change in weight distribution as well as the mild trimming of the bulk matches the grip change; it's more subtle than the change made by Canon as they went from the Digital Rebel to the Digital Rebel XT, which left the otherwise excellent XT with an anemic grip.
Speaking of grips, consumers will be able to purchase a Nikon-branded battery grip for the D80, which was unavailable for the D70. The MD-80 vertical grip/battery pack will be compatible with two EN EL-3e batteries (no EN EL-3), or six AA batteries. Price for the MD-80 is expected to be around $166.
Silhouette. When I first saw Nikon's teaser ads for the D80, which went up 20 days before the announcement date, I thought the silhouette looked a lot like a close competitor: the Canon 30D. From the fall of the shoulders to the height of the pentaprism mound, they're remarkably similar. After looking at the two cameras side-by-side from the back, the location of the diopter adjustment wheel helps complete the impression. It's a far better location for the diopter adjustment, by the way, appearing here on every mid-range Canon digital SLR since the original D30, as well as the Digital Rebels. On the D100 and D70 models, the diopter control was a vertical slider nestled behind the viewfinder's rubber eyepiece, requiring removal of the eyepiece to adjust the slider. Whether this is imitation of a good design or just the most natural place for diopter control, Nikon D200 owners will feel right at home. I think it's safe to say that the silhouette similarity is just a coincidence, however noticeable to my eye (after all, saying one SLR looks like another is like complaining that all sedans look alike).
Where the D70 bulged out in the back, left, and front, the D80 has been tapered and flattened. The D80 is shorter left to right, contributing to the balance equation. While the D70 was excellent in its day, it now seems bulky compared to more recent competitors that are smaller and yet higher resolution. The D80 brings Nikon's mid-range digital SLR into compliance with the industry trend toward smaller bodies with bigger LCDs. The overall impression is one of greater quality than the Nikon D70. It feels more solid, and still big in terms of features and capability, yet it takes up less space and is easier to bring along.
Views and Displays. The 2.5 inch display from the Nikon D200 comes to the D80, but perhaps the best news is that the D200's bigger optical viewfinder has also been brought along, with a 0.94x magnification, a welcome relief to the eyes. As a result, you'll squint less when composing images and adjusting menu settings, and be able to show off your pictures more dramatically than before. The greater magnification to the optical viewfinder really does make a big difference, and the large LCD is beautiful.
One complaint I've had about other Nikons that I must repeat, however, is about the large "screen protector" that comes standard with all Nikon digital SLRs. I shot with it in place, since I think most users will; but I found that the extra glare introduced from the two additional optical surfaces made me misjudge the resulting images, and I was inclined to make adjustments that I didn't need. I've never scratched an LCD display on an SLR, so I will always remove these covers. But those who wear their SLRs around their necks should leave the screen cover in place to avoid scratching the LCD surface with their shirt buttons. The good news is that screen covers are optional on Nikon digital SLRs, but there's no place to mount them on the competition.
The Nikon D80's Status LCD display on the top deck is largely the same, not as big as the monstrous display on the D200, but it's a little wider left to right and a little narrower top to bottom. The illumination button for the Status LCD has been moved from just right of the LCD to the power switch surrounding the shutter button.
Speaking of buttons. Controls on the Nikon D80 will be familiar to most Nikon users, but some functions have been moved around. The White Balance and ISO buttons on the left side of the camera's back have been swapped, for example. The delete button (a trash can icon) has been moved from the lower left corner of the LCD display to the upper left where the Bracket and Drive Mode buttons were on the D70. The Bracket button (BKT) has been moved to the left of the lens on the front of the camera, just under the Flash button, oddly. And button position on the top deck has been refined, for the better, I think. In place of the Status LCD illumination button are the Drive mode and AF mode buttons. Pressing either button cycles through the available modes, changing the icons and words on the Status LCD.
One of the few contributions from the Nikon D50 to the D80 is the AF-A mode, which automatically switches from AF-S (single autofocus) to AF-C (continuous autofocus) if subject movement is detected. This feature has been on Canon digital SLRs for some time, and is welcome on the D80.
Finally, a Function button has been added to the D80, which appears between the grip and lens. This arrangement will cause a little confusion for D200 users, because this is where the DOF button resides on the D200, with the Function button beneath it; but D80-only users will be happy to have such easy access to this reprogrammable button, which can be used to for a number of different functions, like quickly turning on the framing grid, or switching temporarily to spot metering mode.
Memory shift. Looks like the days of CompactFlash are numbered, at least in consumer cameras. The D80 uses both SD and the new SDHC (High Capacity) cards. The SD standard only allowed up to 2GB capacity, but the new SDHC standard will allow up to 32GB. (That should be plenty for the next year or so--maybe.) That makes the D80 a great upgrade for D50 owners, which also uses SD, but not so great for D70 and D200 owners who want a second camera and want to use their existing cards. More peripherals are compatible with SD these days, though, so I suppose the move was inevitable. Perhaps the best news about SD is that it uses only 10 contacts, which are less prone to damage than the CompactFlash's array of 50 straight pins, which can bend in certain circumstances. Unlike other Nikon memory door arrangements, the D80 is no-nonsense: just slide the door toward the back and it swings open toward the front. Press down on the card and it pops up for easier removal.
Sensor. Not only did the camera get smaller while the LCD and viewfinder got bigger, the pixel count went from 6.1 megapixels on the D70s to 10.2 megapixels on the D80. This is the same basic number of pixels as are in the D200, but the sensor isn't identical. They're both CCD, but the difference, as far as we know at this date, has mostly to do with readout speed. The D200 has a four-channel data readout, while the Nikon D80 has only a two-channel readout. This means data can't be read off the sensor as quickly, hence the difference in maximum frame rate: the D80 is limited to three frames per second and the D200 can capture up to five. Put another way, the D80 sensor's speed is matched to the shutter's ability, and delivers more pixels at a lower price than its bigger brethren, the D200 and D2X.
Kit lens. The D70's 18-70mm kit lens was unusually excellent for a kit lens when it debuted. But the D80's kit lens adds unprecedented versatility to the excellence equation, with a focal length of 18-135mm, equivalent to a 27-202.5mm lens on a 35mm camera. It used to take two lenses to cover this range, but now a single, relatively small lens covers the entire range of 7.5x. I think 10x gives most users just what they want in terms of capturing all that their mind's eye can conceive without a lens, but 7.5x is pretty close. Sure, it would be better optically to have the excellent 18-200mm VR lens, but that weighs more and costs several hundred dollars more than this new kit lens. Build quality of the 18-135 is very tight, and it's only a little longer than the 18-70mm.
This non-cheap kit lens has a long list of fine features, including ED glass, a silent wave motor (SWM), digital-specific design (DX), a rounded seven-blade diaphragm for smoother bokeh, manual adjustment after AF in AF-S mode, and it focuses as close as 17.7 inches (45cm) regardless of zoom position. Add a non-rotating front element and an included lens hood, and you have quite a lot for the effective $300 price when purchased with the camera.
Flash. X-sync speed has been reduced from 1/500 on the D70 to 1/200 second on the Nikon D80. However, the D80's master flash control capabilities have been markedly improved, with an expanded Commander mode. Whereas the D70 could only control one group of remote or slave flashes using its built-in strobe, and couldn't add its own flash to the exposure, the Nikon D80 can control up to two groups of SB-800 and SB-600 flashes in addition to contributing to the scene. With the addition of an SB-800 flash, the D80's capabilities increase to controlling up to three groups of flashes independently, and also allows fill flash sync at up to 1/8000 second.
In short, the D80 has more complete access to Nikon's Creative Lighting system than any of Nikon's consumer-level cameras to date. See the Flash section under the Exposure tab for more on the improved flash capabilities in the D80.Shooting. Our experience with the D80 prototype model left us quite impressed, and additional time with a production sample did nothing to change our minds. The camera was nimble. Controls were well placed and familiar, and the menu usually presented what I needed on the first screen. The camera's trimmer figure made it easier in the hand than the bulkier D70, and its soft shutter sound drew less attention, so I felt a little more stealthy than I do with some digital SLRs. The 18-135mm zoom is relatively short when retracted, but zooms to its full 135mm with just a quarter turn, offering excellent speed for candid photography.
Candids become even more fun when you have confidence that your camera is getting what you want, and the large LCD helps build that confidence (though more so without the screen cover in place). Zooming in on captured images is now as easy as pressing the big QUAL/Zoom button on the lower left of the screen repeatedly. You're able to check focus in seconds, then zoom back out with the button above it (ISO/Zoom out) and check the next shot.I really like that Nikon moved the AF and Capture mode buttons to the top deck just right of the LCD. Continuous mode used to be on the back beneath the mode dial, but this positioning makes a lot more sense, because I can be looking at the Status LCD as I watch the setting change. AF mode used to be limited to a menu item where you could switch between AF-Single and AF-Continuous, but it's such a common item it really should be adjustable via a button within sight of the Status LCD, and now on the D80 it is. Pressing the button cycles through three options instead of two, including AF-A, which detects subject motion and changes from AF-Single to AF-Continuous when something starts moving. I found that particularly beneficial in an amusement park, where there's an assortment of subjects that change from static to dynamic at random. For shots where I figured the camera would guess wrong, I switched it back to Single or Continuous with a few presses of the AF button.
The large viewfinder and 11-point AF system made composing images easier, and it seems Nikon has made the LCD/LED arrangement a little brighter; at least I didn't run into the normal trouble I have in half-light detecting the selected AF point. The Nikon D80 made all the necessary AF decisions very quickly, which allowed me the versatility to take the shot or else release and half-press the shutter again for another pass. The D80 would always choose the center point on that second pass, which I could use if I wasn't happy with its first AF point selection. The Nikon representative told me that was a feature designed into the D80. I'm curious to see whether it will make it into the production unit, because it seems like a good idea.
The production sample we ultimately received didn't seem to offer this return-to-center behavior, or the subjects we were pointing the camera at had more dominant/obvious areas of interest close to the center of the frame. When faced with subject elements all at close to the same focal distance though, it would frequently choose slightly different sets of AF points on successive actuations. We also found that we could get the camera to focus on a subject closer to the camera that was more on the edge of the frame just by slightly moving the frame towards that subject a little. This was sometimes handy for getting the camera to select an off-center subject for its AF, but I personally prefer to manually select AF points in such situations.
On that bright, HOT, summer day, I found I needed to use fill flash a lot, and the onboard flash was happy to oblige. I just pressed the flash button on the left side of the lens housing and turned the front mode dial. Here's where the screen protector induced more adjustments than were necessary, which I didn't find out until I got back to the computer.
I also liked the Nikon D80's Auto ISO mode, which is available in most modes, not just Full Auto. Not only is that unusual for an SLR at this level, you can set a threshold shutter speed for it to activate, and also limit how high it will automatically adjust the camera if the required shutter speed goes below, say, 1/40 second. That's smart use of digital technology.
Modes. The Nikon D80 has the usual complement of scene modes, called Vari-program settings, but I seldom use them on any camera, save for night modes. You can also bias the color settings in a number of ways, and even take multiple exposures; but the best addition to the D80 is its more comprehensive Black & White modes. Like other leading SLRs, the Nikon D80 can simulate a number of common filters that are traditionally used with black and white film. While reviewing these modes, it would have been nicer if the settings weren't buried so deeply in the menu, but once you know what effect you're looking for, you won't mind so much. Like other offerings from Canon and Olympus, you can also tint the images you capture.
Taking it further. But unlike the Canon and Olympus digital SLRs, you can do more than just tint the images or apply a filter before you capture. You can tint them post-capture, and do a whole lot more.
Post-capture image editing, available via the new Retouch Menu, is limited to one adjustment per type of adjustment, but can include a combination of tinting and cropping, for example. Other options include several Coolpix favorites, like D-lighting, to improve shadow and highlight detail, and heretofore-unaddressed essentials like Red-eye correction are now possible in the camera. Changes are not applied to the original image, so you can make several versions with different changes to see what you like, and still have the original to edit later on the computer. You can also combine two images with Image overlay, a feature that first appeared on the D2X.
Color balance is among the more interesting filters (skipping right past Skylight and Warm filter). While Nikon didn't put this tool to use like Canon does to set and bracket white balance, they did put it here where you can fix images post-capture using the two-axis color chart. Regrettably, you can't use the resulting settings to set a white balance once you've achieved it. Could be patents, perhaps, but the Color balance filter is quite useful to fix a worthy shot if you forgot to set the proper white balance; then you can go back and use the conventional tools to white balance the shot properly.
Slideshows. Another Coolpix feature to make the jump to the Nikon D80 is the more elaborate Pictmotion Slideshow, which can include music in the mix. The music selection is limited to a handful of well-known songs. It's good they're well known, too, because you can't actually hear the music you've chosen from the D80 as the camera has no built-in speaker; but hook it up to a TV via the included AV cable, and you'll have nice musical accompaniment to your effects-driven slideshow. While this functionality falls under the "nice but non-essential" category, it begs the question why more cool features that have grown up in the digital all-in-one camera aren't included on today's crop of digital SLRs. Nikon has thrown down, so we'll see if the other majors will have time to react to this consumer-friendly move for the upcoming holiday season. Even if the consumer never uses any of it, it'll wow them at the sales counter for sure. Maybe the next version will include that speaker they're missing to complete the package.
More time. Shooting with the Nikon D80 was a blast. I didn't want to put it down, but time constraints limited my experience with the prototype. Now that I've had more time with a production sample of the D80, I'm even more impressed.
My first impression was that I was pleasantly surprised by the Nikon D80's easy nature. "Easy" doesn't really do justice considering the depths you can explore with the D80 if you want to, but I'm referring more to its ability to reach out and get the picture you want in the way that you want it. Even after just a few minutes, I quickly felt comfortable and could concentrate on composition while exploring the special features, with none of the awkwardness that usually accompanies complicated new SLRs. (This is particularly impressive, given that I've historically been a Canon shooter, so am much more familiar with Canon controls and operating details than those of Nikon cameras.)
Nikon has hit on the right combination of camera capabilities and zoom range, to the extent that I'd call the Nikon D80 a near-ideal camera. I'm not sure the competition could have seen this one coming, especially the ground-breaking inclusion of a very good quality 7.5x zoom. Add a bigger viewfinder, more integrated access to the Nikon Creative Lighting System, a 10.2 megapixel sensor, excellent image quality, very fast performance, and some of the best enhancements from the Coolpix line, and Nikon has another potential runaway best seller on its hands.
Nikon D80 High Points
- 10.2-megapixel CCD delivering a maximum image resolution of 3,872 x 2,592 pixels.
- SLR design with true, TTL optical viewfinder.
- Large, bright viewfinder, thanks to pentaprism design and 0.94x magnification factor
- 2.5-inch TFT color LCD monitor.
- Interchangeable lens design, accommodates a wide range of "F" mount Nikkor lenses.
- Manual and automatic focus modes, with adjustable 11-point AF area selection.
- Program, Flexible Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, and Manual exposure modes.
- Shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, with a Bulb setting for longer exposures.
- X-Sync speed of 1/200 second
- Depth of Field Preview mode.
- TTL exposure metering with three modes.
- Adjustable sensitivity from 100 to 1,600 ISO equivalents, plus three boost settings to a maximum of 3200.
- User-selectable white balance with nine modes and manual fine-tuning.
- Three Color modes (actually, two in sRGB, three in Adobe RGB color space).
- Hue, Contrast, and Sharpness adjustments.
- Built-in, pop-up flash with five sync modes and exposure compensation adjustment.
- External flash hot shoe.
- Onboard flash works as a Commander, to control itself and up to two groups of remote slaves, using the Nikon Creative Lighting System.
- Continuous Shooting, Auto Exposure Bracketing, and Self-Timer modes.
- JPEG and RAW (NEF) file formats, as well as NEF+JPEG options.
- Image storage on SD and SDHC memory cards.
- USB cable for connection to a computer or PictBridge-compatible printer.
- Included CD-ROM loaded with Nikon Picture Project software and 30-day trial of Capture NX.
- NTSC video cable for playback on a television set (PAL for European models).
- Power from lithium-ion battery pack, optional AC adapter, or optional Nikon Multi-Function battery pack/vertical grip.
- Optional remote control accessory.
Nikon D80 Included Software
The D80 ships with the Nikon Picture Project software, which provides basic manipulation and cataloging capabilities for images captured by the camera, and which can interpret the raw CCD format "NEF" files. More advanced packages called Nikon Capture and Nikon Capture NX are available separately. A thirty-day trial version of Capture NX is included in the box. (Read our review of Nikon Capture NX for more details on an excellent image-editing application.) Users will also want to check out the third-party applications Bibble and Qimage Pro, both of which offer enhanced interpolation of NEF files, for even higher image resolution. Bibble also offers very sophisticated noise-reduction processing and highlight recovery algorithms, making it a particularly capable RAW-file processor.
Nikon D80 Components: In the Box
Included in the box with the D80 are the following items:
- Nikon D80 body with body cap, eyepiece cap, eyecup, and LCD monitor cover.
- AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IF ED lens (in "kit" versions)
- Neck strap.
- USB cable.
- Video cable.
- Battery and quick charger.
- Nikon Picture Project CD-ROM.
- User guide.
- Registration kit.
- Large capacity SD memory card. These days, a 1GB or 2GB card is inexpensive enough.
- Camera case for protection
- Accessory lenses
- Accessory flash: SB-600, SB-800
Nikon D80: Conclusion
Having now thoroughly tested a production sample of the Nikon D80, all our initial impressions have been confirmed, and we can give it our wholehearted endorsement. By any measure, the Nikon D80 is a superb photographic tool, offering value well beyond its relatively modest price point. It delivers a huge step up in virtually every parameter relative to the earlier D70/D70S, and even the D100 owner on a budget may want to consider it over the the higher-priced D200. It's solidly built, well-balanced in the hand, highly responsive, and delivers excellent image quality. It's not a cheap camera, selling in "kit" form for a good $200 or so above its nearest rival, the Canon Digital Rebel XTi. Even taking the $200 differential into account though, the Nikon D80's combination of build quality, image quality, extensive configurability, rich post-capture processing features, and excellent kit lens make it a genuine bargain. This is a camera that's quite approachable for complete novices, thanks to a very capable fully automated "Green" zone and handful of Scene modes, yet offers the serious amateur a range of creative control and sophisticated operating features unparalleled in its price class. Very highly recommended, and a slam-dunk for a Dave's Pick nod as one of the better cameras on the market.