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...
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.