Nikon D80 Review

 
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Nikon D80 Flash

Flash photography has been a particular expertise of Nikon's for some time now, and is arguably one of the D80's strongest suits. The D70/D70S could interface with Nikon's excellent wireless Creative Lighting System, but could only control a single channel of remotes, and its built-in flash couldn't contribute to the exposure when running in Commander mode. We were thrilled to see that the D80 incorporates the full flash capability of the D200, and so is able to control two groups of remotes, as well as have its own flash contribute to the exposure. This is a huge capability upgrade, and is sure to sell loads of Nikon's excellent remote speedlights. (The non-commander SB-600 units are quite attractively priced.)

Like the D200's flash, the built-in strobe of the D80 operates in one of five main modes: Front-Curtain Sync, Red-Eye Reduction, Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync, Slow Sync, and Rear-Curtain Sync. Front-Curtain Sync fires the flash at the beginning of the exposure, with every shot. Red-Eye Reduction mode fires the (very bright) AF-assist light before the main flash exposure, to reduce the Red-Eye Effect in shots of people. Red-Eye Reduction with Slow Sync works in a similar fashion, but combines the flash with a slower shutter speed for night portraits. (This reduces the harsh effect of nighttime flash shots, allowing more of the ambient illumination into the picture.) Slow Sync mode works with shutter speeds as slow as 30 seconds to preserve color in night shots. Finally, Rear-Curtain Sync fires the flash at the end of the exposure, producing light trails that appear to follow (rather than precede) moving subjects. In all flash modes, the flash fires with every exposure. Closing the flash disables it completely. Holding down the Flash Mode button while turning the Sub-command dial adjusts the overall brightness of the flash from -3 to +1 EV in one-third-step increments.

One significant difference between the D80 and earlier D70/D70S that might seem like a step backward is its x-sync shutter speed. The D70/D70S apparently used electronic gating of the CCD chip to produce its higher shutter speeds. In that approach, the entire surface of the CCD sensor is exposed to incoming light for some relatively long period of time (we don't know just how long, but certainly longer than 1/100 of a second). Rather than being controlled by a shutter, the actual exposure time was determined by sending a signal to the CCD chip, telling it just when and for how long to collect light. This let Nikon create very high "shutter speeds" (short exposure times) quite inexpensively, and the x-sync speed (the maximum shutter speed at which the entire surface of the array is exposed to light from the flash) could be a very high 1/500 second. In the D80, exposure is determined solely by a conventional metal-curtain focal-plane shutter, so the top shutter speed is 1/4,000 vs 1/8,000, and the maximum x-sync speed has dropped to 1/200 second. This will come as a disappointment to some, as it reduces your ability to drop out ambient light in flash shots. While it does result in slower x-sync speed and a lower maximum shutter speed, having a true focal-plane shutter does avoid a really serious imaging problem when dealing with overly strong highlights. (See the discussion of shutter control vs CCD "gating" on the main exposure page of this review for more detail and examples of this.)

Another note relative to the x-sync speed on the D80: Its built-in flash is not FP-capable. Basically, this means that the on-board flash can't sync at shutter speeds greater than 1/200 second. If you need to do flash photography at higher shutter speeds, you'll need to purchase an SB-800 or SB-600 external strobe unit. These devices will be able to sync successfully all the way to the maximum shutter speed of 1/4,000 second. (If you do this, note that you'll want to set flash sync to front-curtain, and turn on Custom Settings Menu option 25, so the camera will automatically switch the external strobe to FP mode when necessary.)

Besides the main flash modes listed above, the D80's onboard speedlight can also be used in manual mode, as a repeating flash, or as a commander in Nikon's Creative Lighting System. (See below for more on that last item.) The D80's internal flash is fairly powerful, with a guide number of 12 meters or 39 feet at ISO 100 in auto mode, extending slightly to 13 meters (42 feet) in manual mode. (The greater range in manual mode is because it doesn't have to expend energy on the metering pre-flash.)

Repeating Flash Options

While we've never personally felt a need for a stroboscopic flash on a camera, we can imagine it being used for a variety of creative effects, as well as being highly useful for scientific applications. Once again mirroring that on the D200, the D80's onboard speedlight can be used as a stroboscope, using the Repeating Flash option on custom setting menu 22. Through this menu, you can set the power level from 1/128 to 1/4 power, the number of flashes from 2-35, and the frequency of flash pops from 1 to 50 Hz (1-50 pops/second). As you might expect, the number of times you can have the flash fire varies inversely with the power of each pop: At the maximum 1/4 power, you can only get two pops in rapid succession. The maximum of 35 pops in sequence is only possible at the 1/128 power setting, moving up to 1/64 power decreases the maximum number to 25, and so on. Also note that you'll of course have to have a long enough shutter time to accommodate your flash series, so you'll likely have to visit custom setting menu 24, to change the maximum shutter time permitted with the flash.

Also included on the D80 is an external flash hot shoe, just behind the pop-up flash compartment, but there's no separate PC-style sync terminal as found on the D200. The hot shoe accommodates Nikon accessory flash units, as well as a wide range of third party flashes. The full range of flash sync modes remains available for compatible flash units, but third-party models may not support all modes. Different Nikon speedlights offer different features when used on the D80 as well though. The table below (again by courtesy of Nikon) shows the features available when using current Nikon speedlights with the D80.

Compatibility notes:

  1. Functions as remote flash only.
  2. Can not be mounted on camera accessory shoe. Can be used as remote flash if camera is in commander mode or SB-800 Speedlight is mounted on camera and SB-R200 is controlled by optional SU-800 wireless Speedlight commander.
  3. Non-CPU lenses may not work properly with I-TTL Balanced Fill-Flash for Digital SLR.
  4. Standard i-TTL for Digital SLR is used with spot metering or when selected with Speedlight.
  5. Not available with non-CPU lenses.
  6. Use Speedlight controls to select flash mode.
  7. Available with non-CPU lenses, set lens aperture on lens aperture ring.
  8. Enable Auto FP via Custom Setting 25. Not available if built-in flash fires.
  9. Available only when SB-800 is used as master flash or optional SU-800 wireless Speedlight commander is used.
  10. Available with AF CPU lenses only.

That's it for current Nikon speedlights, but about older models? Most older Nikon speedlights can be used in non-TTL auto and manual exposure modes, but if they're set to TTL, the camera shutter-release button will lock and no photographs can be taken. They'll by and large work as expected in auto-aperture and manual modes though. Here's a list of older-model Speedlights and the flash modes they can be used with. (This table once again courtesy of Nikon):

 

Compatibility notes:
  1. When an SB-27 is mounted on the D80, the flash mode is automatically set to TTL, and the shutter-release will be disabled. Set the SB-27 to A (non-TTL auto flash).
  2. Autofocus is only available with AF-Micro lenses (60 mm, 105 mm, or 200 mm).

As you can see, while many older Speedlights are usable with the D80, you'll really want to use more current models to take full advantage of its advanced flash capabilities.

3D Color Matrix II Flash Metering
The "3D" aspect of the Nikon metering system is that it uses subject distance information from the lens (only available with G or D-type lenses) to guide its exposure decisions. This is particularly key with flash exposures, because flash illumination falls off quite strongly as the subject gets further from the camera. The "Color Matrix" part of the name refers to the use of a 420-segment RGB sensor for exposure determination, which significantly improves the accuracy with which the camera can determine various scene types, for lookup in its 30,000-image exposure database. We at IR are huge fans of Nikon's flash technology, it's really a case of technology working perfectly in the service of creativity. The camera just quietly does its job, so you can focus on composition, color, interacting with your subjects, etc. It doesn't remove the creative decisions of how you want to light your subject, it simply removes the technical legerdemain from the equation. It won't by any means turn a duffer into a pro photographer, but it'll certainly take an average shooter a long ways in that direction.

The D80 with Nikon's Creative Lighting System
Nikon has long been a leader in flash technology, but in late 2003, they significantly upped the ante, by announcing their Creative Lighting System. This system of flashes and supporting camera bodies lets the photographer control up to three separate groups of remote flash units, with an essentially unlimited number of individual strobes in each group. The exposure and operating mode of each group of flashes can be controlled independently, and exposure is metered through the lens (TTL) for all units.

Previously, the only Nikon SLR bodies that could directly act as a controller for the Creative Lighting System were the D70 and D70S. Both those cameras were restricted to only controlling a single group of external strobes, could only talk to them via channel 3, and their own internal strobes could only act as the controller, not contribute themselves to the exposure. The more recently-announced D200 greatly expanded this capability though, and the full functionality of the D200's improved system has been brought over to the D80 as well.

Flash Commander Mode Options

On the D80, the internal strobe can both act as a controller and also contribute to the exposure, it can control two groups of remote strobes, and can use any of the four available channels to communicate on. The screenshots above give some idea of the options available. The built-in flash can operate in either TTL or Manual exposure mode. In TTL mode, you can vary its exposure over a range of -3 to +1 EV. In Manual mode, you can vary its power from full power (1/1) to 1/128 power. Each of the two groups of remote flash units can be operated in either TTL, AA (Auto Aperture), or Manual mode. Auto Aperture mode is the exposure mode that will be familiar to users of non-TTL metered autoexposure flash units, in which you set the camera at a given aperture setting, and then the flash measures the light reflecting back at it and adjusts its output to produce a given level of reflected light. The remote flash groups can be adjusted over the same +/- 3EV exposure level or 1/1 - 1/128 power levels as the built-in flash unit.

This degree of control directly from the camera is really remarkable, and can save you some serious money if you're planning on taking advantage of Nikon's Creative Lighting System. If you don't need to control more than two groups of external strobes, you won't need to buy an SB-800, saving you at least $300 at retail. If you're interested in macro flash photography, you also won't need the SU-800 controller that comes as part of Nikon's R1C1, going with the simpler R1 kit instead. - That'll save you a good $200-250 at retail. Likewise, compared to Canon's wireless flash system, there's no need for a separate controller with the D80, again saving you several hundred dollars.

A full treatment of this system is beyond the scope of this review of the D80, but we have a bit more detail on it posted as a separate article: See our Nikon Creative Lighting System review for more info.

 

Built-In Flash Test Results

Coverage and Range
Bright exposures even at the default exposure setting, with good color in the Normal flash mode. Good range as well.

18mm equivalent 135mm equivalent
Normal Flash, Default Exposure Night Portrait

Flash coverage was slightly uneven at wide angle and telephoto, with some falloff at the edges and in the corners. Indoors, under incandescent background lighting, the Nikon D80's flash proved surprisingly bright at the default exposure setting, and some users may actually prefer a slight decrease in exposure (say, -0.3 EV). This exposure accuracy was as welcome as it is unusual: Cameras almost always underexpose this shot, usually by a full f-stop (EV) or so. Nikon has always been proud of their 3D Color Matrix flash metering, and its performance on this difficult shot amply justifies that pride. Overall color looks good, without any strong color casts. The camera's Night Portrait mode uses a slower shutter speed in combination with the flash, which results in a strong orange cast from the background incandescent lighting. However, the exposure is more even here, and results are again fairly bright at the default exposure. This is a good thing, as the Night Portrait mode disables your ability to adjust the flash exposure. (If you want to take control, it's easy enough to put the camera in Manual mode and fiddle to your heart's content. That said though, it'd still be handy if the camera let you adjust flash exposure in Night Portrait mode.)

Flash Range: Wide Angle
6 ft 7 ft 8 ft 9 ft 10 ft 11 ft
Click to see D80FL06W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL07W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL08W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL09W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL10W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL11W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
12 ft 13 ft 14 ft 15 ft 16 ft
Click to see D80FL12W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL13W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL14W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL15W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL16W.JPG
1/60 sec
f3.5
ISO 100

Flash Range: Telephoto
6 ft 7 ft 8 ft 9 ft 10 ft 11 ft
Click to see D80FL06T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL07T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL08T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL09T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL10T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL11T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
12 ft 13 ft 14 ft 15 ft 16 ft
Click to see D80FL12T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL13T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL14T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL15T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL16T.JPG
1/60 sec
f5.6
ISO 100

The Nikon D80's flash was powerful and bright. At wide angle, the flash maintained a constant exposure out to a distance of 12 feet, with slight decreases in exposure from that point onward. Its range at maximum telephoto is somewhat limited by the small f/5.6 maximum aperture of the kit lens at the 135mm focal length, and the exposure started falling off somewhere around 8 feet or so.

Manufacturer-Specified Flash Range
Wide Angle Telephoto
Click to see D80FL_MFR120WM0100.JPG
12.0 feet
ISO 100
Click to see D80FL_MFR075TM0100.JPG
7.5 feet
ISO 100

Our standard test method for flash range uses a fixed setting of ISO 100, to provide a fair basis of comparison between cameras. We've now also begun shooting two shots using the manufacturer-specified camera settings, at the range the company claims for the camera, to assess the validity of the specific claims. In the shots above, and based on our own standard tests, the Nikon D80 seems to perform exactly to its specifications, producing good exposures at the rated distances with its ISO set to 100. (Some cameras have their flash range specified with the ISO set to Auto, but as it happens, Nikon rates the D80's range the same way we do, based on a reference ISO of 100.)

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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