Nikon D80 Review

 
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Nikon D80 Optics

Lenses
Like other Nikon SLRs, the D80 accommodates a wide range of Nikkor lenses, via the standard Nikon "F" lens mount. With very few exceptions, you can use the D80 with any F Mount Nikkor lens ever made, but older non-CPU lenses will significantly limit your exposure options. (Lacking from the D80 is the "Non-CPU Lens Data" menu item found in the D200 and D2Xs, for entering information about non-CPU lenses, as well as the aperture-indexing finger that the D200 has for wide-open metering with older "AI" lenses. If you have any AI lenses you want to be able to use the camera's metering system with, you should go with the D200.)

New Kit Lens
One notable upgrade from the D70 to the D80 is that the kit lens bundled with the D80 has a significantly longer zoom range, extending from 18-135mm. The official designation of this new lens is an alphabet soup of specifiers: AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 G IF-ED. (Whew) That long list of jargon translates into some pretty promising specs. Here's a breakdown:

  • AF-S - "Silent Wave" motor for fast, quiet focusing. This design also lets you adjust focus manually after the autofocus system has achieved focus, handy for manually tweaking focus to your liking in tricky situations.
  • DX - designed to mate with Nikon's DSLRs, smaller and lighter because its image circle doesn't have to cover the full 35mmm film plane.
  • 18-135mm - A pretty wide zoom range, 7.5x from wide to tele, equivalent to a 27-202mm lens on a 35mm camera.
  • f/3.5-5.6 - Well, this is the one parameter that's not terribly impressive, this is a fairly typical aperture range for consumer zoom lenses.
  • G - It has a CPU so it will work with Nikon's 3D Color Matrix Metering II system. The G also means no aperture ring, you set the aperture only through the camera's controls. Speaking of aperture, the diaphragm in this lens is a 7-blade rounded-opening design, for more appealing bokeh. (A more natural blur for out-of-focus objects.)
  • IF - Internal focusing, for a more compact design. IF also means that the front element doesn't rotate when focusing, so you can use it with circular polarizing filters, and the focusing won't mess up your polarizer setting.
  • ED - Uses Extraordinary Dispersion glass for better control of distortion, astigmatism, and chromatic aberration. This lens also uses 7 aspheric surfaces to improve optical performance.

Other features include the ability to focus to 17.7 in (45 cm) from the subject across its full focal length range. It's 2.9 inches in diameter by 3.4 inches long (86.5 x 73.5mm), and weighs in at 13.6 ounces (386 g). It accepts 67mm screw-in filters, and ships with lens pouch, front and back caps, and a bayonet hood to block stray light.

We've now received a production sample of this lens, and have run it through the full range of tests over on our sister site SLRgear.com. Our test results there show that the Nikkor 18-135mm delivers excellent sharpness for a modestly-priced long-ratio zoom, but at the cost of a fair bit of chromatic aberration and significant shading ("vignetting") in the corners at wide angle. Geometric distortion is also on the high side. Despite this, it's still a significant step up from the inexpensive "kit" lenses that are generally bundled with SLRs. (Higher distortion, vignetting, and chromatic aberration are unfortunately common characteristics of long-ratio zooms.)

Lens Compatibility
As noted above, functions and exposure modes available with a given lens will vary greatly with the lens type. More recent Nikkors (the G- or D-type models) include a microchip (CPU) that communicates focal-distance information to the camera. Lenses without the microchip won't support the 3D Matrix metering mode, and in fact all metering is disabled on the D80 when using a non-CPU lens.

We'll have full lens-compatibility information once the final specs are published in the D80's manual. The basics though are that all G- and D-type AF Nikkor lenses should work without restriction, with the sole exception of the PC-Micro Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D perspective-correction lens, for which the camera may not be able to meter properly if the lens is tilted or shifted, or if its aperture is stopped down. Most non-CPU lenses can be attached to the camera, but the shutter release will be disabled unless the camera is in Manual exposure mode, and AF, metering, electronic analog exposure display and TTL flash control can't be used. There is however a list of non-CPU lenses and accessories that can't be used at all, and these are listed below.

Incompatible Optics

  • TC-16A AF Teleconverter
  • Non-AI lenses
  • Lenses that require the AU- 1 focusing unit (400 mm f/4 5, 600 mm f/5.6, 800 mm f/8, 1200 mm f/l1)
  • Fisheye (6 mm f/5,6, 8 mm f/8, OP 10 mm f/5 ~6)
  • Old-model 21 mm f/4
  • K2 rings
  • ED 180-600mm f/8 (serial numbers 174041-174180)
  • ED 360-1200 mm f/I I (serial numbers 174031-174127)
  • 200-600 mm f/9.5 (serial numbers 280001 300490)
  • Lenses for the F3AF (80 mm f/2-8, 200 mm f/3.5, TC- 16 Teleconverter)
  • PC 28mm f/4 (serial number 180900 or earlier)
  • PC 35mm f/2.8 (serial numbers 851001906200)
  • Old-model PC 35 mm f/3.5
  • Old-model 1000 mm f/6.3 Reflex
  • 1000mm f/11 Reflex (serial numbers 142361-143000)
  • 2000mm f/11 Reflex (serial numbers 200111-200310)

Focusing Options

Given that the optical characteristics will depend entirely on the lens attached, we'll concentrate here on the focusing options and modes rather than lens characteristics. There's a lot to talk about, given the exceptional flexibility afforded by the D80's autofocus system, which incorporates many of the features and capabilities of the system in the D200. As we noted in the review section covering the viewfinder, the D200 has a total of 11 autofocus regions, arranged with 9 in an almost square matrix in the central area of the frame, with two additional ones positioned to the right and left of the central array. The D80 uses Nikon's Multi-CAM 1000 AF Sensor Module, which provides the same 11-sensor pattern as the D200's AF system, but with slightly lesser performance and only a single selectable normal/wide AF area in the center. Each of the 11 focus areas can be used individually, the center sensor can be switched to wide-frame operation for broader coverage, and a new Auto-area AF mode measures all 11 focus areas, automatically determines which of them are on the primary subject and activates only those areas. As with the D200, only the center sensor is cross-type, able to respond to subject detail oriented either horizontally or vertically.

The D80 lets you take advantage of auto or manual focus via a small dial on the front of the camera, next to the lens. Setting the switch to "M" puts the camera into manual focus mode, "AF" places it in autofocus mode. Single AF (AF-S), Continuous AF (AF-C), and Auto-switching AF (AF-A) options can be selected by pressing the AF button on the right side of the camera's top panel repeatedly, to cycle through the choices. Single AF simply means that the camera sets focus only once, when the Shutter button is first pressed halfway, and is best for stationary objects. Continuous AF means that the camera continuously adjusts the focus, as long as the Shutter button is halfway pressed, and is best for moving objects. In AF Auto mode, the camera begins focus operations in single-focus mode, but switches to Continuous Dynamic AF if it detects motion within the active AF area.

There's an important difference between Single and Continuous Servo modes: In Single Servo mode, the shutter won't release unless the lens is focused, or the lens itself is set to manual focus. (Focus Priority) In Continuous Servo mode however, the camera will fire regardless of the state of focus. (Release Priority) If you want to be sure that the camera is focused when you snap the picture, use Single Servo mode. Use Continuous Servo for moving subjects, and/or times when the instant of shutter release is more important to you than sharp focus.

The AF Area Mode option (02) on the Custom Settings Menu lets you select between Single Area, Dynamic Area, and Auto AF modes. Single Area AF simply means that the camera judges focus based on one part of the subject, and the user can manually select the AF point by pressing the arrow keys. Dynamic Area AF employs all of the autofocus points, though you can still manually select the main point. When Dynamic Area focusing is enabled, the camera first focuses on the subject in the primary focus area. When the subject moves to a different AF area, the camera shifts the focus to "follow" the subject. This is great for irregularly moving subjects. (Sports and kids come to mind.) The Auto-area AF option means that the camera first focuses on the subject in whatever single AF area is selected, but will switch to Dynamic Area AF if it detects subject motion. In any of the modes, you can change the primary focus area by unlocking the focus area selector (the Four-Way Arrow pad on the back panel) and then shifting the focus area using the up, down, right, or left arrow directions on the control rocker. You can lock the focus area selection by turning the switch back to the lock position. By default, the D80 does not "wrap" the focus area selector as you scroll between focus areas. Through the Custom Settings menu though (option 20), you can opt for a "Wrap" function. What this means is that if you press the right arrow key again, after the right focus area is already selected, the selection will immediately jump to the left focus area. The same thing happens when moving the focus area selection vertically as well.

The center focus area of the D80 can be set to either a normal or wide zone, through Custom Settings Menu option 03. The wider zone could be better for initially acquiring a moving subject, particularly when combined with the Dynamic Focus option.

There are three methods by which you can lock focus on the D80. The first is to half-press the Shutter button to lock the focus, placing your subject in the selected focus area, halfway pressing the Shutter button, then realigning the composition and firing the shutter. (This is the default behavior of the Shutter button, but if the AE-L/AF-L button is set to AF Lock, it will override the shutter button as long as it's held down.) Alternatively, when using Single Servo AF, you can press the AF-L/AE-L button to lock focus (and exposure, unless that button is set for focus only in Custom Settings menu 18). Keeping this button pressed will lock focus and/or exposure, even if the Shutter button is released. This lets you recompose the photograph without keeping your finger on the Shutter button, but on the AE-L/AF-L button instead. (Reducing the chance that you'll accidentally trip the shutter when you don't intend to.) The front-panel FUNC button can also be set (via Custom Settings Menu option 16) to set focus temporarily.

There are several options available for the AE-L/AF-L button, which can be set via Custom Settings Menu 18. You can program it to lock either focus or exposure separately, or both together (the default). You can also change its operation so a single press locks and holds the exposure setting. (No need to keep the button pressed down.) Finally, you can set the AE/AF lock button so it alone controls the autofocus system, meaning the autofocus won't actuate when the shutter button is half-pressed, only when the AE/AF lock button is pressed instead.

AF Performance

We don't have any way to measure autofocus performance directly, but on a subjective level, the AF system in the Nikon D80 did seem to be very fast and responsive. We particularly liked the Dynamic AF option, but could see where the Group Dynamic AF option of the D200 would be nice to have in some situations. (Group Dynamic AF handles the common situation where it's difficult to place a single AF point on a very active subject at the start of focus tracking. By having a larger area in which to position the subject, it becomes much easier to initially acquire focus.)

AF Assist

Like past Nikon DSLRs with built-in flashes, the D80's AF-assist light is a bright incandescent bulb that emits from the body near the handgrip. We thought to call particular attention to it, because some competing cameras (notably the Canon Digital Rebel series) use the flash as an AF-assist light. This would be fine, but they also require that the flash be used in the exposure, so there's no way to have AF assist for available-light shots. The D80 doesn't have this limitation.

 

Nikon D80: 18-135mm Kit Lens Optical Tests

Zoom
The Nikon D80's 18-135mm kit lens performs well.

18mm 135mm

The Nikon D80 digital SLR accommodates a wide range of Nikkor lenses. Here, we tested the performance of the 18-135mm kit lens, but zoom performance will of course vary with the lens in use. Results are very good at wide angle, with clear details throughout the frame. Some coma distortion is visible in the tree limbs at 18mm, as is some slight corner softness. At 135mm, details are very crisp, with little noticeable distortion. This lens is consistently very sharp across its focal length range, much more so than most long-ratio zoom lenses. The penalty paid is somewhat higher geometric distortion and vignetting, though. You can read our detailed test results for it here: SLRgear.com test of Nikon 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G

Macro
An average size macro area with fuzzy details from the 18-135mm kit lens. Flash performs well.

Standard Macro (135mm) Macro with Flash

The 18-135mm kit lens bundled with the Nikon D80 captures an average size minimum area of 3.47 x 2.32 inches (88 x 59 millimeters) at the 135mm lens setting. Detail and resolution were both high, though details are a little soft overall, even at the center of the frame. (It's possible that we'd pushed the focal distance a little closer than the optimal minimum.) Performance will naturally be better with a true macro lens, but the kit lens does pretty well in the macro area. The camera's built-in flash also produced good results here, with only slight falloff in the corners of the frame. (Helped by the greater working distance that a 135mm macro focal length provides.)

Distortion
High barrel distortion, and slightly high pincushion distortion with the kit lens.

This is the tendency for the lens to bend straight lines outward (like a barrel -- usually at wide angle) or inward (like a pincushion -- usually at telephoto). The Nikon D80's 18-135mm kit lens produced about 1.03% barrel distortion at the 18mm setting, which is high but not totally unexpected at the wide angle end of a long-ratio zoom lens. At the 135mm setting, pincushion distortion measures about 0.48%, which is also slightly high.

Barrel distortion at 18mm is 1.03%
Pincushion at 135mm is 0.48%

Chromatic aberration
High and bright at the extreme telephoto and wide angle settings, very noticeable effect on images at edges, not uncommon among long zooms.

18mm: high and bright,
top left @ 200%
18mm: quite bright,
top right @ 200%
35mm: slightly high but dull,
top left @200%
Tele: very dull,
top right @200%
135mm: high and bright,
top left @200%
135mm: very bright,
top right @200%

This is perhaps the most consistently noticeable flaw with the 18-135mm kit lens: Chromatic aberration is rather high at both 18mm and 135mm settings, showing 15+ pixels of very bright coloration on either side of the target lines. However, at 35mm, the distortion is lower, and pixels aren't nearly as bright. (This distortion is visible as a slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

Corner Sharpness
Slight to moderately high softening in the corners of the frame with the kit lens.

18mm: A little soft in the
corners (lower right)
18mm: sharper at center
135mm: quite soft in some
corners (upper right)
135mm: still slightly soft at center

The 18-135mm kit lens that accompanies the Nikon D80 showed some blurring in the corners, though the most noticeable effect was at the 135mm position. The strongest instance occurred in the upper right corner, though the other three corners at full telephoto were also fairly soft. (Apologies for the rough crops above, our alignment resulted in the D80 cropping the 3:2 frame slightly.)

 

The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D80 Photo Gallery.

Nikon D80

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