The last time Nikon updated its sub-$1,000 mid-range dSLR, a handful of minor, but certainly welcome, updates gave us the D70s. Now, Nikon has given the camera a serious overhaul, including a new 10.2-megapixel CCD imaging sensor, an 11-area AF system (up from 5), the obligatory larger LCD screen (2.5 inches, up from 2 inches), and a pile of in-camera editing and custom functions. With this newest revision, Nikon has put the camera more in line with its expected audience, which spans lower-end enthusiasts, all the way down to SLR newbies who crave more power than they can get with the company's entry-level dSLR, the D50.
The only downside to this slight shift in focus, is a slower top shutter speed--the D80 tops out at 1/4,000 second instead of 1/8,000 second--and a slower flash-sync speed of 1/200 second instead of the 1/500 second that the D70s offers, which was significantly faster than its competitors' in the first place. This may irk sports shooters, who may appreciate the extremely fast shutter of the D70s, or other action shooters, who like to freeze movement with a fast burst of flash, but the majority of photographers won't notice the difference. But, given that more advanced enthusiasts now have the Nikon D200 to quench their needs--a D200 equivalent didn't exist when the first D70 came out--the advances in almost all other areas of this camera should outweigh these couple of changes.
The camera body is technically slightly smaller in all dimensions compared to those of the D70s, but current owners will find the design very similar. Most of the buttons are the same and in the same places, and there are dedicated buttons for many commonly used functions. For example, a cluster of buttons next to the shutter let you change metering mode, exposure compensation, drive mode, and AF mode. Meanwhile, the buttons to the left of the 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD screen let you change white balance, ISO, and image size and quality settings without diving into menus. About the only function without its own dedicated control is AF zone selection, though the camera's programmable function button can be programmed to cover that if you so choose. The default for this button is to display the current ISO setting.
Three dials adorn the camera body. The mode dial lets you choose between program, aperture- or shutter-priority, full manual, full auto, or any of six preset exposure scene modes. The other two dials, located on the front and back of the grip, let you change aperture and shutter speed. Together, they make full manual shooting quick and easy.
Nikon's menu system is straightforward and, for the most part, intuitive. An option in the setup menu lets you hide some of the menu items by either selecting Nikon's preshortened Simple menu, which displays only what Nikon thinks are the most commonly changed menu items, or My Menu, which lets you choose which items the camera displays in each of the playback, shooting, custom setting, and retouch menus. Never heard of the retouch menu? That's because it's new.
The retouch menu lets you edit your photos in camera. Choices include resize, crop, red-eye reduction, filter effects, or monochrome. The coolest is probably the overlay option. It works only with raw images, but it lets you superimpose one image on top of another and even lets you choose the opacity, so the pictures can blend more smoothly. It won't replace Photoshop, but for simple overlays, it's pretty fun. Plus, since all the retouch menu functions save a new version of your image, you can always go back to the original later, and, in the case of overlays, you can lay more photos on top of already mashed-together images.
Other fun options include creating your own tone curves using the included Camera Control Pro software, as well as adjustable hue control, and a black-and-white mode with options for virtual yellow, orange, red, or green filters. A multiple exposure mode lets you shoot as many as three frames, which are then combined into one image by the camera. Of course, like most dSLRs, the D80 includes selectable white balance, as well as the usual metering and autofocus options. The image-processing and AF system are the same ones that come in the D200, while the 3D Color Matrix Metering II included here is the same as the one in the D50.
Like the D70 and the D70s, the D80 includes Commander Mode, which lets you control compatible Nikon Speedlights without the need for a separate wireless trigger, such as Canon's ST-E2 Speedlight Transmitter, which must be purchased separately to allow you the same level of control from Canon cameras and flashes. Unlike the D70s, which could only control one group of Speedlights on one channel, the D80 can control as many as three groups on any of the four channels Nikon offers.
In the "keeping up with the Joneses" department, Nikon has included SD-HC support, so you'll be able to use SD cards with capacities larger than 2GB. Also, Nikon will offer an optional vertical grip for the D80 called the MB-D80 which will hold up to one or two EN-EL3e rechargeable lithium-ion batteries or as many as six AA batteries. That means you won't be stuck buying a third-party grip as were so many D70 and D70s users. Without the grip, the D80 runs on one EN-EL3e battery.