Nikon D80 Image Quality
Nikon D80 Imaging Characteristics
Imaging and file quality are where the rubber meets the road for digital cameras. Fortunately for Nikon, this is an area that the D80 does very well in. Evaluating the D80 in this regard is also a bit more straightforward than was the case with the D200. With the D200, Nikon took an extremely conservative approach to both anti-aliasing and in-camera sharpening, with the result that JPEG images straight from that camera are quite soft-looking. This let the D200's images accept post-processing unusually well, but the downside was that the D200's images really needed at least some post-processing to look their best. With the D80, Nikon sems to have tweaked the in-camera sharpening a little, to make its images a little more crisp straight from the camera. (While at the same time managing to hold sharpening artifacts to a very low level.) As a result, the D80's JPEG files look quite nice when printed without any added manual processing, a nice feature for a camera that's aimed primarily at high-end consumers and serious amateurs.
Nikon also seems to have fine-tuned their noise suppression processing in the D80 as well, as it turned in a very impressive performance at ISO 1600, and its ISO 3200 images were surprisingly usable. Read on for all the details!
Resolution & Detail
Very high resolution, 1,600-1,700 lines of strong detail.
Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,700 lines per picture height horizontally, and 1,600 lines per picture height vertically, with extinction not occurring until well past 2,000. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail. Beware that while you might be able to make out what looks like distinct lines at numbers higher than those we've mentioned here, the camera is just doing its best to continue interpreting the lines. If you zoom in and follow them from the wider portions, you'll see the lines converge and reappear several times, so the lines you see at 1,900 and higher are really only artifacts generated by the camera's imaging system.
|Strong detail to
1,700 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
1,600 lines vertical
Sharpness & Detail
Sharp images, though very slight edge enhancement. Minimal noise suppression visible in the shadows.
|Great definition of high-contrast elements, though very slight edge enhancement artifacts visible.||Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur detail in areas of subtle contrast, as in the darkest parts of Marti's hair here.
The Nikon D80 produced sharp images with very good detail definition. A very small amount of edge enhancement is visible in the crop above left, and the images straight from the camera are slightly soft in their finest details, but the overall detail handling is very good, and the D80's images take post-capture sharpening very well: To see the detail really pop, try applying 150% of unsharp masking in Photoshop, with an 0.3 pixel radius. (Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.)
Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears. The crop of hair above right shows some noise suppression-caused flattening in the darkest areas, but individual strands of hair are still discernible even in the darkest areas. The D80 overall seems to manage a very good trade-off between detail and noise suppression.
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Excellent color, with pleasing accuracy and saturation. Some oversaturation in strong reds and blues, but still good results overall.
|In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located towards the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center.|
Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life. The Nikon D80 pushes strong red and blue tones a little, and to some extent, strong yellow tones. However, results are still quite pleasing overall. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc. The D80 produced good, natural skin tones in most cases, though with a hint of a warm tint. Most consumers would rather a digital camera err on the side of added warmth rather than coolness, so the D80 performs well here.
Hue accuracy is the other important part of color rendition, and the Nikon D80 turned in excellent results here as well. Hue is "what color" the color is. Like many digital cameras, the D80 pushes cyan toward blue, and it also pushes red toward orange slightly, but the saturation-corrected average delta-E color error was only 5.6, placing it in the first rank of cameras we've tested.
|See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Good color with the Manual white balance setting, and less than average positive exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance +0.7 EV||Incandescent WB +0.7 EV|
|2,800 Kelvin White Balance +0.7 EV||Manual White Balance +0.7 EV|
The Nikon D80's Auto white balance setting produced very warm color in response to the household incandescent lighting of this test, and the Incandescent setting also produced images that were a bit on the warm side (though not nearly as strong). Both the 2,800 Kelvin and Manual white balance options resulted in more accurate color, and which you'd choose will be up to your personal preferences. I (Dave) happen to like more neutral color treatments, so personally prefer the results from the manual white balance setting, but other people might like the 2800K result better, as it preserves more of the warmth of the original illumination.
The camera required only a +0.7 EV exposure boost here, which is less than average. Even at that level, the overall image is just slightly bright, but I felt that the +0.3 EV results were too dark. Color looks pretty good throughout the frame with the Manual white balance, though the blue flowers in the bouquet are much darker and more purplish than in reality. (A common occurrence among digital cameras under this lighting.) Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.
Accurate color outdoors, and pretty accurate exposure as well. Slightly high contrast, but the optional low-contrast setting does an excellent job of preserving highlight detail. The D80 requires less positive exposure compensation here than average.
|4,800 Kelvin White Balance,
+0.7 EV, lower contrast
|Auto White Balance,
The Nikon D80 performed well outdoors under harsh lighting, though its default contrast is a little high. Even with the high contrast, shadow detail is quite good, with low image noise to interfere with definition. Highlights are a bit bright, but still within reason, and with a good level of detail. In the "Sunlit" Portrait above, the D80's lower contrast setting (accessed via the Custom option of the Optimize Image submenu) did a good job of taming the highlights and shadows, preserving more detail in both, and leading the D80 to a better performance with this very difficult subject than most cameras manage. Overall color outdoors was excellent, and very natural looking. The outdoor house shot looks pretty good colorwise, if just a tiny bit cool. Overall, the D80 handled these lighting challenges very well.
ISO & Noise Performance
Surprisingly low noise, even at higher sensitivities. A jump in noise level at the very highest settings, but excellent results overall.
|ISO 100||ISO 200||ISO 400|
|ISO 800||ISO 1,600||ISO 3,200|
Noise levels are quite low at the Nikon D80's lower ISO settings, and really quite reasonable even at the 400 and 800 ISOs. At ISOs 1,600 and 3,200, noise levels increase with more blurring in the fine details, but results are still better than what you might expect at such high settings, and compete very well with the performance of dSLRs in its price range from other manufacturers at these ISO levels.
ISO 1600 Comparison
A very strong performance against its principle competitor, the Canon Digital Rebel XTi.
While it sells at a lower price, with a lesser lens, the obvious competition for the Nikon D80 is Canon's Digital Rebel XTi. In the past, Canon's noise-suppression technology has generally been superior to that of other manufacturers, but with the D80, Nikon seems to have pulled even. Given the rivalry between these two particular cameras, we'll look at two sets of crops from them both, at ISO 1600.
In the first set of crops, we'll look at swatches from the MacBeth ColorChecker target, as an example of how each performs in areas with flat tints. We'll show both the RGB image, and the individual red, green, and blue color channels, so you can see what's going on in the individual color channels.
|ISO 1600 Flat-Tint Noise Comparison|
("Normal" high-ISO NR)
|Canon Rebel XTi|
|(click for full D80 file) -- RGB -- (click for full XTi file)|
The pixel-peeping crops above tend to favor the D80, both due to their enlargement, and because they're showing a relatively limited area. In the full images, the D80 shows some blotchiness when you look at larger areas (for instance, the dark border around the MacBeth chart) that isn't evident in the XTi's image. As noted in the Imatest Results section, this corresponds to a spike in the very lowest frequencies on the D80's noise spectrum, compared with a notch in the same area on the XTi's spectrum plot. (We speculate that this very low-frequency blotchiness is something that Canon's active-pixel CMOS technology is particularly good at dealing with.)
In the next set of crops, we'll look at some samples from our Still Life target, where the tone-on-tone coloring of the fabric swatches reveals much about the inner details of how cameras make the trade-off between subject detail and sensor noise.
|ISO 1600 Tone-on-Tone Noise/Detail Comparison|
("Normal" high-ISO NR)
|Canon Rebel XTi|
|(click for full D80 file) ---- (click for full XTi file)|
In the first set of crops, we saw that the D80 won handily in terms of noise present in areas of flat tint. In the second set of crops though, we see the price that's paid to achieve that, namely that fine detail in areas of subtle contrast, and some overall sharpness are lost in the process. In the crops above, we consistently see more fine detail retained by the XTi, albeit at the cost of higher image noise, particularly chroma (color) noise. It's also interesting to note how the noise processing varies as a function of the part of the color spectrum you're looking at. This is particularly evident in the D80's images, which give up detail in reds and yellows far more quickly than in blues and purples.
As always, it's important to note that we're engaged in some pretty deep pixel-peeping here, given that we're looking at images from 10 megapixel cameras 1:1 on a computer screen. Given typical computer display resolutions of ~75 pixels/inch, this corresponds to peering at printed images roughly 52 x 35 inches(!) in size. Not to totally dismiss the differences noted above though, you can see detail differences in the red fabric swatches even in 8x10 inch prints -- But you have to squint and look pretty carefully to make them out.
The bottom line is that we have two slightly different approaches to noise suppression here, one slightly favoring smoothness in flat tints, the other slightly favoring subtle detail. How you feel about either will depend a lot on your personal preferences, both cameras deliver really excellent images at high ISO settings.
High-ISO Noise Reduction Control
Good options for user control of noise reduction.
A nice feature of the D80 is that it gives the user control over how much high-ISO noise reduction to apply. Accessible from the Shooting menu, options for High-ISO noise reduction are Off, Low, Normal, and High. As we'll see below, "off" doesn't actually disable all noise reduction, but it does reduce its impact on your images quite a bit. High-ISO noise reduction kicks in when the ISO is set to 800 or higher.
|ISO 1600 Noise Reduction Options Comparison:
(Converted in Bibble, with zero noise reduction.)
|ISO 1600 Noise Reduction Options Comparison:
Flat Tints in Shadows
(Converted in Bibble, with zero noise reduction.)
As we can see from the crops above (click on any image to see the full-size file), the Nikon D80 offers a nice range of adjustment for high-ISO noise reduction, letting you choose the tradeoff between noise and detail that's most appropriate for your subject or your intended usage for the images. As we can also see though, even the "off" setting doesn't completely disable noise reduction. (Presumably, this setting is just disabling the additional noise reduction that's applied at higher ISO settings, as you'd expect from its naming.)
Extremes: Sunlit and low light tests
Excellent resolution and detail, and good exposure (though slightly high contrast). Less positive exposure compensation required than average. Excellent low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.
|+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV||+1.0 EV|
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here.)
The Nikon D80 performed well under the harsh lighting of the test above, though its default contrast setting was a little high. The shots above were taken with the contrast set one notch below neutral in the Optimize Image settings, which evened out the exposure considerably. Shadow areas some some noise suppression, but detail is still surprisingly good across the tonal range. Though some readers may prefer the slightly brighter exposure at +1.0 EV (which puts more of Marti's skin tones in the range that most consumers would consider about right), I personally found the +0.7 EV exposure more appealing, despite a few dark areas. (The highlights on the white shirt were a little too hot at the +1.0 EV setting. In "real life" though, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible.)
The Nikon D80 handled low lighting very well. The camera captured bright images down to the darkest light level we test at, equivalent to about 1/16 of average city street lighting at night. Images were just a a little dim at this lowest light level (the camera seemed to underexpose slightly), though still usable, with a slight magenta cast from the Auto white balance. The camera's autofocus system was able to focus on the subject well below the 1/16 foot-candle light level unassisted, a very impressive feat. With its AF-assist light enabled, it can focus on nearby objects in total darkness. Do keep in mind though, that the very long shutter times required by such dim lighting absolutely demand the use of a tripod or other camera support to get sharp photos. - And this is about more than just motion blur during the exposure: Any movement while the camera is trying to autofocus can result in the camera not being able to focus at all. A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy. This only helps with camera movement though, a moving subject can defeat a camera's AF system in dim lighting as well.
Excellent print quality, great color, excellent 13x19 inch prints. ISO 1600 images are only a little soft and surprisingly clean at 8x10 inches: Most users would probably find high-ISO shots acceptable even at 11x14.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon i9900 studio printer, and on the Canon iP5200 here in the office. (See the Canon i9900 review for details on that model.)
We were very impressed when we printed out images from the Nikon D80: JPEGs straight from the camera made very crisp-looking 13x19 inch prints, and manual sharpening on the computer (particularly working from its RAW files) will let you produce great-looking prints a good bit larger than that. (As noted elsewhere, one change Nikon seems to have made in the D80 vs the D200 is to tweak its in-camera sharpening slightly: Images straight from the camera are a little more crisp, and so more suitable for printing without further manipulation. This is a good call for a camera aimed at a consumer and advanced-amateur audience, rather than the pros who will be the D200's biggest customers.)
Our biggest surprise with the D80 overall though, was its excellent high-ISO performance, as it clearly challenges Canon's competing models in that respect. Our initial positive reaction to seeing its files on-screen was more than supported by the prints we made later. Printing to an 8x10 inch output size, its ISO 1600 shots looked only a little soft, and what noise we could find was surprisingly unobtrusive. Both noise and softness increased markedly at ISO 3200, but even there, we suspect most consumers would be perfectly happy with 8x10 inch prints made from such images. ISO 1600 settings have been available on dSLRs for quite some time now, but we've always winced inwardly when we've been forced to use them, because we knew that noise would be a factor in the final prints. With the D80 though, we'd feel perfectly comfortable shooting routinely under available light at ISO 1600, the prints looked that good.
Of course, this is a very subjective issue, and how you feel about it will depend on your tolerance for image noise, the size you most commonly print at, and what the typical viewing distance will be for your prints. Personally, the largest we tend to go is 8x10 or 8.5x11 inches, framed and hung on a wall or set on a table. Given those parameters, we'd be comfortable shooting the D80 all day long at ISO 1600.
Color-wise, prints from the D80 looked very nice spooling out of the i9900. Colors were bright but believable (although strong reds and blues do tend to get a little hot), and skin tones were rendered very appealingly: A little more pink than real life, but well within the range that would constitute "a healthy glow," rather than appearing unnatural. Bottom line, the D80 delivered beautiful-quality prints.