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Nikon D80 User Review
by zo5o -  6/7/2007

Released in 2006, the Nikon D80 was Nikon’s follow up to its successful predecessor the D70, both of which are Nikon’s competitive response to Canon’s entry level DSLRs the Rebel XTi and XT. The Nikon D40 and now the D40x were also recently introduced 2006 and 2007 respectively and these now constitute Nikon's primary entry level DSLRs priced more closely to the XT and XTi. Although there are entry level DSLRs offered by Sony, Pentax and others, the Nikons and Canons were what I primarily considered when looking at buying a DSLR.

nikon d80
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Coming from a Canon S60, I was impressed with the durable metal build and customizability offered by the S60 – even though it is very much a point and shoot. After using the S60 for a few years and enjoying messing around with the manual mode to some success I felt it was time to plunge full on into “real photography” and get a DSLR. As such I didn’t want to get a entry level camera that would limit me as I explored photography further and perhaps got more lenses and further upgrades. I viewed the camera I was purchasing in that light rather than solely on its out of the box performance. As a friend I had talked to told me, you are buying the body as a platform and for its ease of use. I definitely agree, because at the end of the day, if your camera can take the phenomenal photos, it comes down to your ability to rapidly adjust settings to get the right photo and usability to me was a key factor.

Build and Controls

View Finder / LCD

With a DSLR the LCD isn’t live, in other words you cannot see what you are taking a shot of through the LCD, consequently the viewfinder is key. The D80’s viewfinder is very large and crisp, using a pentaprism over the somewhat cheaper pentamirror produces a clear and easy to see image. I have been very impressed so far with the viewfinder's performance, as with most DSLRs the viewfinder captures 95% of the image. A depth of field preview is also available through a button on the bottom right of the barrel, a nice remnant from the film days, but depth of field can easily be seen on the LCD. The viewfinder also displays key information like f-stop (aperture) levels, shutter speeds, exposure levels, the need for flash, and ISO levels (by pressing the FN button if you have it programmed to display ISO). Most DSLRs have this as it is vital to be able to adjust settings without leaving the viewfinder.

nikon d80
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The LCD is a very crisp 2.5” 230,000-dot TFT screen. It’s performed very well in even bright light and the included screen protector is a definite bonus. All in all, it's a great screen that makes it easy to review pictures and make adjustments through the built-in “creative in-camera effects and editing functions”.

The top control panel is a nice addition as it saves on battery life (by not needing to leave the LCD on to see settings) and allows you to quickly see a number of crucial settings, a few of the cameras now have the LCD display this information (D40, XTi), which to me is frustrating but others seem to enjoy having all the needed information in the same place. 

nikon d80
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Lens

I have been using the kit lens, the AF-S DX 18-135mm F3.5 - F5.6G ED, 27 - 202.5 mm equiv. FOV, 7.5x zoom, along with a Nikon AF 50mm f/1.8. Using both of these lenses has given me a great deal of versatility in the shots I need to take. The kit lens is great for good lighting, outdoor shots that might need zoom or a wide angle and don’t really need a higher aperture. The 50mm provides a greater depth of field through its higher aperture and is better for low light and portrait shots. Together they cover 99% of what I need to take pictures for.

nikon d80
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Compared to the kit lenses offered with the XTi, XT and D40x the D80’s lens is much better. It feels a lot sturdier, provides a focus ring that is located farther back and easier to use. But more than simply more ergonomically pleasing the, optics are far better as well. The ability to adjust for manual focus even though auto focus in enabled is also a clear advantage as you can rapidly achieve a focus on a subject and compensate to blur the background.

Focus

With 11 AF points the D80 out-does its competition and provides a greater degree of versatility as to where it can focus. In my general use of the camera however, I’ve tended to use manual focus so the 11 AF points haven’t been that important, but they are definitely useful when using some of the more automatic shooting modes the D80 offers.

As with the D40 there are 3 AF settings. AF-A, automatic autofocus, chooses between the other two modes, AF-C and AF-S. AF-C, or AF-Continuous maintains focus on the subject as it moves. AF-S or AF- Single, focuses once on the subject and locks that focus. I generally use AF-A.

There is also an option for single or dynamic focus areas. Single is the default on P, A, S, M modes. Dynamic focus is the default for the other Automatic modes. I’ve been using single for the most part.

Flash

The flash automatically pops up when needed if you are on the automatic shooting modes. When on the P, A, S, and M modes the flash can be engaged by pressing the flash button on the right, the viewfinder also displays a flashing lightning bolt to tell you if you need flash on the manual modes (P, A, S, M).

nikon d80
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The flash has an i-TTL mode which automatically adjusts the flash’s power based on the ambient lighting. The D80 also comes with the option of a manual mode that lets you set the flash’s power as well as a repeating flash that fires repeatedly while the shutter is open. There is also an option for flash exposure compensation which is nice as it gives you some control over how much lighting the flash produces.

The D80 can also be a wireless commander for other sets of speed lights, a feature I probably won’t use for a while but nice none the less.

Memory Card

The D80, like the D40x, uses a SD or SDHC card. For some this is a step backwards as many DSLRs use CF cards but for me this is a great features as most laptops don’t have built in CF readers whereas many have SD readers. CF cards are also rapidly becoming obsolete where as SD cards are being widely adapted to other devices, such as PDAs and so on. This means you can simply take your card from your camera, put it in a Palm and show off your pictures to friends. A nice feature in my mind, although for the die-hard digital photographer who has already invested a significant amount in CF cards this might be frustrating. But honestly that segment isn’t really what this camera is targeting anyway so it really shouldn’t be a problem.

nikon d80
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Image File Formats / Shooting Options:

RAW
JPEG Fine
JPEG Normal
JPEG Basic
RAW + JPEG Fine
RAW + JPEG Normal
RAW + JPEG Basic

The several format options are a standard among DSLRs, RAW allows you to adjust the exposure settings etc after taking the picture with the needed software. RAWs take up significantly more space. I generally use JPEG fine, although after considering some others’ opinions I think I will be switching to normal or basic as the compression really doesn’t the affect picture that much and allows you far more pictures on a card.

Connectivity

There is a USB 2.0 connection as well as a TV-out and a DC in. A wired remote can also be used and connected on the same left hand side panel. The D80 offers a nice slideshow option complete with music, some of which might be corny but hey at least its there. There is also a Pictbridge connection option, something I’ll probably never use, but there nonetheless.

nikon d80
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Power

Included is a Lithium-Ion 7.4 V, 1500 mAh. It’s a fairly powerful battery and lasted a whole day of shooting without a problem. There is also an option of using the MB-D80 grip battery back that allows AA usage or 2 L-Ion batteries. Charging from a fully used battery to a full battery takes about 2hrs, 15 mins. Although if the battery is partially charged or charging to below full would be much shorter, the last few percentages take a disproportionally long time to charge.

Exposure

As with most DSLRs and many point and shoots, there are several shooting modes: Auto, Portrait, Landscape, close up (macro), sports, night landscape, night portrait, along with the usual programmed auto (P), shutter priority (S), aperture priority (A), manual (M). All of these are easily accessed through the dial on the top of the camera. If you are spending this kind of money for a DSLR I would assume that most would probably have some basic understanding of adjusting shutter speed and aperture so using the P, S, A, and M modes are probably the most likely options when starting with a DSLR.

nikon d80
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Metering

Sporting the 3D Color Matrix Metering II found in its D40x cousin, the D80 metering has definitely been a joy to use. I haven’t really had to deal with many issues, at times it gets the wrong level of exposure but that can easily be corrected by adjusting exposure. I generally keep it at -.03 as it easier to lighten the image rather than face lost areas due to overexposure. Overall a great metering system. Center-weighted and spot metering are also options. There is also a bracketing function that allows you to take 3 pictures with varying exposure levels, a definitely useful function if you are not sure what exposure level to use at the time but don’t have time to play around with different options.

White Balance

I generally tend to use auto white balance which has not failed me yet. There are however, several other set modes to choose from (incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade). There is also the option to manually set white balance based on a reference point either in a current picture being taken or a picture already stored on the camera. The option to adjust the numerical white balance is also available and adds a nice touch, although realistically this would probably be rarely used.

ISO Sensitivity

One of the reasons DSLRs are a major step up from P&S cameras is their ability to produce images with less noise at high ISO levels. The D80 also sports a noise reduction option that definitely helps. ISO levels can be set from 100-3200 (Hi 1) with graduated intervals, a nice from the usual 100 unit increases. Noise at high ISO levels (1600) is definitely present but acceptable considering you are avoiding blur that would be far worse.  The auto ISO option is also nice, allowing you to set a max ISO as well as a minimum shutter speed before kicking ISO up to its fullest. This allows you to focus on either setting aperture or shutter speed without really worrying about the ISO level.

In-Camera Image Adjustment

A nice gimmicky feature to have perhaps, but to me I don’t really feel comfortable editing on a 2.5” screen with far less color reproduction than a computer screen and so I have yet to really use the in-camera editing tools. I can definitely see the advantage of having this as an option however, and I might use it if I am not able to access my computer for some reason, but I see this more as an advantage to the casual user and not really the majority of individuals using this camera. There are several options you can adjust with the editing tools that might be of interest:

D-Lighting Compensates for low lighting or back lit subjects
Red-eye correction Corrects red eye…
Trim Allows you to crop the image.
Monochrome Create B&W, sepia or cyanotype effects
Filter Effects Add a color filter effect
Small Picture Create smaller copies of the selected picture
Image Overlay Combine 2 RAW images

Controls, Design, Engineering & Ergonomics 

The first thing that struck me about this camera was its intuitive user interface. It was very easy to figure out the controls and rapidly make adjustments to things that mattered. The dual dials located on the front and back of the grip are superb, making the changing of any setting and even navigating the menu simple and effective. The location of the exposure, ISO and flash are also very easy to access. The FN button is by default programmed to display ISO which is a nice feature, although as I have heard mentioned, it is kind of frustrating that when manually changing ISO there is no viewfinder display. You have to look at the display to see what ISO you are at or change ISO by pressing the ISO button by the screen and then press the FN button to show the ISO on the screen. Its not a huge problem but slightly frustrating that they couldn’t have made the ISO button simply display the ISO setting rather then needing the FN button to be pressed.

nikon d80
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nikon d80
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The overall feel is very sturdy, the grip is the perfect size for me and I have no problem holding the camera in just one hand. The kit lens itself, with its focus ring closer to the camera rather than a ring near the end of the barrel, makes adjusting focus more effective.

The SD latch can open at times unexpectedly, but honestly isn’t really a big deal but is something that is commonly mentioned as a minor quirk. The screen protector is great and a nice add-on. The menu interface is easy to understand and many features are easily customizable through the menu system, like the FN button or length of self timer. The viewfinder as mentioned earlier is superb and the screen fulfills its function well.

I can’t really find anything to fault ergonomically about the camera, some have said it is slightly large, but honestly by DSLR standards its on the small side. Its not as small and light as a D40, but for the features and dedicated buttons you get, I wouldn’t sacrifice form for function. The functionality of the D80 along with its superb customizability and performance with kit lens are definitely what pushed me over the edge.

Tech Specs:

Kit Contents:

D80 body, AF-S DX Nikkor 18-135mm f3.5-5.6G IF-ED Zoom Lens, Strap, Video Cable, USB Cable, En-EL3e Li-ion Battery, MH-18a Quick Charger and Nikon Picture Project CD-Rom. 

Performance

Image Quality

I have been amazed at the quality of photos produced from this camera so far. Although that is compared to my S60, so to be fair there could probably other DSLRs with comparably better results. However I have had nothing but bliss and I will let my sample pictures let you decide.

Adjusting all the settings to come up with superb pictures is straight forward and the auto modes produce great results. Flash toggles down appropriately; however there is definitely a need for compensation at times. White balance and metering has been fine so far. At times AF gets confused based on the shot composition, but this is easily compensated for and rare.

The ISO performance can be seen below along with the effect of noise reduction. Noise is definitely acceptable up to around ISO 1600 at 800 it’s definitely visible but not hugely so.  NR’s effect is marginal but it does help somewhat. All pictures were taken with NR at High unless stated and with the same level of exposure.


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Timing / Shutter Lag

The D80 shines here. Virtually instant start up to picture readiness (<.1 seconds). There is also very little shutter lag and everything feels snappy. The 3 frames per second at Fine Jpeg mode is also great, this can be sustained to about 110 pictures. The auto focus is very rapid and the auto focus lamp helps, although it can be annoying for your subject in low lighting environments.

Sample Pictures 

nikon d80 sample images
Advantage of 3 fps (view medium image) (view large image)
nikon d80 sample images
Night Shot, ISO 3200, High NR, 135mm, Full Zoom (view medium image) (view large image)
nikon d80 sample images
Depth of field demonstration (view medium image) (view large image)
nikon d80 sample images
Color reproduction (view medium image) (view large image)
nikon d80 sample images
Color reproduction (view medium image) (view large image)
nikon d80 sample image
Another good depth of field demonstration (view medium image) (view large image)
nikon d80 sample image
Space Needle @ Night, ISO 1600 (view medium image) (view large image)
nikon d80 sample image
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nikon d80 sample image
22mm wide-angle (view medium image) (view large image)
nikon d80 sample image
Night Landscape, ISO 800 (view medium image) (view large image)

Conclusion

The D80 is definitely a great entry DSLR that still provides future growth. It allows the use of any Nikon compatible lens as it had a AF motor unlike the D40x. The kit lens is above the alternatives at this price level (XTi or D40x). Overall performance is great, ergonomics is superb and it’s really a joy to use. The dedicated buttons and high level of customizability are definitely an area the camera shines. Some have complained about the metering but I find it to be fine and the i-TTL flash throttles its power effectively.

The pictures this camera produces is phenomenal and especially with the 50mm lens it's extremely versatile. You can easily take quick pictures with automatic modes or spend a bit more time composing an artistic shot with manual (although it might frustrate your friends / subjects).

I haven’t really had any gripes yet with the camera, the downsides such as size and complaints that it might not compare to higher end DSLRs is really fine to me. I think that has as much to do with lens usage as camera body. I feel I found a great camera that will last me the next several years as I explore photography further and begin to accumulate enough skill to warrant a higher end DSLR or several new lenses. The only real downside to this camera is its price, which honestly is fairly reasonable considering what you are getting compared to the competition. I feel if you are going to plunge into the DSLR world why hold back to get a D40x which has much less future expandability, both in terms of overall feature richness and its in ability to use lenses that do not have their own AF engines.

Pros

Cons