The Nikon D80 digital SLR, with its 10-megapixel sensor, borrows much technology from the more expensive D200 model. Is it the enthusiast photographers dream? The What Digital Camera Nikon D80 review investigates...
Nikon D80: Features
Nikon D80 Review – Unique Sensor
Nikon was the first to put a 10MP chip into a DSLR with the D200. The D80 uses a different sensor, two channel instead of the four in the D200, and 10.2 million pixels. The sensor is reportedly designed by Nikon, so is unique to this camera.
Nikon D80 Review – New Processor
Nikon has also built a new processor for the D80, offering faster processing and lower power usage. This results in a fast start-up time of 0.18 seconds, and continuous shooting of 3fps, at medium sized JPEGs with Fine compression. The processor also offers colour-independent analogue pre-conditioning and high-precision 12-bit digital image-processing algorithms. Nikon claims that this reproduces faithful colour and tones, for natural images.
The D80 has inherited the newer technology of the D200. This includes the large viewfinder, which is a vast improvement over the older camera. The viewfinder also offers a red LED grid overlay for aiding composition and aligning verticals. Again from the D200, and even in the D50, Nikon has included its latest metering system: 3D Colour Matrix Metering II. This evaluative system also uses colour information in achieving accurate exposure. Of course, the camera also offers centreweighted and spot metering options. There’s a variable EV compensation option, allowing you to select half or 1/3 stop intervals, up to ±5EV, which can also be tied into the Auto Bracketing mode. Auto white balance is improved too, with the camera adjusting the White Balance from the entire image area. There’s also a fairly standard set of six preset WB modes, as well as a user-defined preset, and the option to dial in the colour temperature in.
Nikon D80 Review – AF System
One of the biggest changes from the D70 is the AF. Rather than the fairly slow and dated four-area AF module of the past, the D80 has a spanking new 11-area AF, dotted around the central area of the viewfinder. This system is adapted from the Multi-CAM 1000 AF Sensor Module of the D200.
Nikon D80 Review – In-Camera Editing
Nikon has also added some in-camera editing features to the D80, including some digital filter effects, such as a warm-up filter and skylight filter, as well as a colour balance adjustment. What’s different about these – compared to those on other SLRs – is that they are retroactive and work on images after they’ve been taken, and produce a second file so the original remains intact. This also works for other modes, such as monochrome and the image overlay mode, which is like a double exposure mode.
The Nikon D80 also includes some features from Nikon compacts: D-Lighting is included, which balances backlit or contrasty images, and redeye reduction, for example. The camera has a range of flash options, including a built-in flash as well as a hotshoe. The camera offers wireless multi-flash operation for two SB 600 or 800 flash units.
Nikon D80 Review – Multiple Exposures
The Nikon D80 is also one of the few cameras with multiple exposure options, of two or three shots. Nikon has also increased the noise-reduction control, with an option for long exposure noise reduction, and three levels of control over high ISO noise reduction.
Lastly, one of the biggest changes from the D70s is the camera sensitivity. Nikon has finally seen fit to allow us to shoot at ISO 100, instead of ISO 200. Low-light subjects are taken care of by the top speed of ISO 1600, plus an extended boost range of up to one stop, bringing it to an effective ISO 3200.
Design & Performance
Nikon D80: Design
Nikon D80 Review – Dimensions
A cursory glance at the D80 doesn’t give away too much; it looks similar to the D70s, but there are differences. The D80 has softer, curvier edges. It is slightly smaller, in all dimensions, and yet it still manages to pack in a bigger viewfinder, a larger LCD of 2.5 inches, and more buttons.
Part of this has been achieved by the switch from CF media to SD cards. Nikon first used SD in the D50 and, with the D80, this indicates a dedication to the smaller format. I have heard some complaints about this, but SD capacity is increasing and, at the end of the day, it’s just a recording medium. Certainly we’ve had no issues with SD’s reliability over Compact Flash – in fact we’ve probably had more corrupt CF cards. I have a habit of losing SD cards more often, though.
Nikon D80 Review – Handling
In terms of handling, the D80 is similar to the D70. It feels comfortable and the controls are comfortably to hand. Nikon is sticking to the dual command dial, front and back, and I prefer this to the single-dial system of other cameras, especially in manual mode, which I use a lot. Like the Panasonic L1 also reviewed in this issue, having two controls for aperture and shutter is much quicker than dialling in shutter, then holding another button while you change aperture.
Nikon has changed the location of a couple of buttons. The drive mode, which was on the back of the D70, is now on the top plate, along with the AF mode button, for auto, single and continuous. The LCD light button is now on the power switch around the shutter release button, and the WB and ISO buttons have swapped positions. We have no idea why Nikon would think this preferable.
Nikon D80 Review – Viewfinder and LCD
One of the biggest changes, possibly in the history of photography, is Nikon’s decision to change the Enter button. Moved to the right of the LCD monitor, the button is now called the OK button. Radical. By far the most pleasant development for users of previous DSLRs is the viewfinder and LCD. Both are larger, the viewfinder offering 0.94 magnification, with the LCD boosting up to 2.5 inches. Both changes make viewing subject and image better, and this is also enhanced by the LCD’s reported 170° viewing angle. It’s certainly easier to see at wide angles, and is a bonus when you’re showing photos to a group of people. Similarly this is one of the better LCDs to view in sunlight, always a moot point, but most times it was easy to view.
Nikon D80 Review – Menu System
The camera’s menus have been updated, with a better font, and better font rendering thanks to the increased resolution, as well as a darker background making things easier to read. The menu’s new additions of in-camera effects is welcome and all are easy to use. The D-Lighting especially is useful in overly contrasty conditions, while the black & white after-effect is great for checking whether b/w images will work or not.
Nikon D80: Design
Nikon D80 Review – Faster AF
The biggest noticeable difference when compared against previous models was the AF. The new system is faster and more accurate, and – in Dynamic mode especially – pretty much spot on every time. Moving subjects were easily tracked; the AF picked out the right subject most of the time if I was shooting off-centre and did it quickly. The extra AF points help this no doubt, but the speed of the module is very impressive in itself.
A word of caution regarding the AF Assist light though – it’s bright. I found it almost blinding in dark areas when your subject’s pupils may be dilated anyway. If you’re trying to be discreet – say shooting a wedding in a church – it’s probably better to turn it off (via the set up menu) and either attempt low-light AF or revert to manual focus. The camera is responsive too: not just the AF but the shutter release time is minimal, no doubt thanks to the new silver button. Nikon quotes the shutter time as 80 milliseconds, which is probably faster than your eye to brain to forefinger reaction, so if you miss a shot, it’s probably your fault.
Nikon D80 Review – Burst Shooting
As for continuous burst, we managed to rattle off 173 frames of large JPEGs at 3fps in a minute (based on San Disk Ultra II SD), which exceeds Nikon’s claims. Admittedly this slowed down in the field, using a different brand and slower card, but the lab performance is still better than any other camera in this category.
Another impressive aspect of the D80 is its White Balance performance, as reflected in its colour rendition. While the lab tests showed some added warmth, the grey-toned WB results show the camera to be within 20°K throughout the range, which really is as close as it gets (our lights are rated at 5500°K, and the test is based on Auto White Balance).
Nikon D80 Review – Battery Life
The D80 proves its mettle in battery life too: despite the higher processing power, bigger screen and increased electronic functions, the battery lasted several days and several hundred shots, without being recharged once.
Image Quality & Value For Money
Nikon D80: Image Quality
Nikon D80 Review – Consistent Exposure and Colour
The D80 produces good Raw files, and the new NX software can really help to optimise these. Exposures throughout the test were consistent and the Raw files, before processing, demonstrated this admirably, with few images needing too much correction. In all the images have good colour, consistent exposure and plenty of detail. Which is all we could ask for.
Nikon D80 Review – Noise Control
The D80’s image noise is good throughout the ISO range, though obviously worsens as the gain is raised. At ISO 1600 and beyond it is quite severe, which we’d expect, but again, the in-camera noise reduction is good at reducing this, though we gained better results later on the computer. It’s nice to have control over the noise reduction, though.
Nikon D80 Review – Tone and Contrast
Pictures from the Nikon D80 have a very nice tonality, with smooth transitions, good shadow detail and, if exposed correctly, excellent highlights. JPEGs are practically ready to print, with very little adjustment needed.
Nikon D80 Review – Colour and White Balance
In terms of colour, the images from the Nikon D80 tend slightly to the warm side in the Normal setting, but not overly so, but the in-camera controls can help to correct this if necessary. There’s so much control within the camera, that minor niggles can be easily fixed.
Nikon D80: Value For Money
Nikon D80 Review – Nikon Delivers Again
While the D80 is not the cheapest model on the market, the results and handling from this camera speak for themselves. Nikon has done itself proud to offer this much control and quality for a price that’s not unreasonable. It also has access to the massive Nikon system, which for upgraders is a strong reason to stick with Nikon and consider the D80 for higher-resolution images.
Nikon has produced another winner with the Nikon D80, reinforcing the strength of its DSLR line-up. The D80 is a worthy successor to the incredibly popular D70. If you are keen to progress your photography with a DSLR, or even want to produce better-quality images than you could with your previous Nikon, the D80 offers a cheaper alternative to the D200.