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.
Meanwhile, in the "not keeping up with the Joneses" department, Nikon continues to charge extra for its Capture NX software. PictureProject software is included for free, and will do rudimentary raw conversion, but if you want full raw control you'll have to shell out the extra cash for Capture NX. To their credit, Capture NX does include more image-editing functionality than that of the free software included with other manufacturers' dSLRs, but most buyers expect full raw conversion to be included with the camera.
Because of some nasty problems with third-party batteries in recent years, the camera will accept only Nikon's official EN-EL3e batteries. However, the company's new batteries let you see more detailed info. If you look under battery info in the setup menu, you can see remaining battery life as a percentage, as well as how many pictures have been shot since the last charge, and a loose gauge of how many times the battery has been recharged. It would've been nice to see average minutes or pictures remaining, as Sony's InfoLithium batteries provide, but we're not complaining about this extra info from Nikon, and the charge meter is a well-conceived idea.
Performance was among the fastest we've seen so far. In our lab, the D80 took 0.1 second to power up and capture its first image. Subsequent shots took 0.3 second without flash and 1 second with the flash turned on. Raw shots were just as fast, with a shot-to-shot time of 0.3 second. In our lab's high-contrast test, the shutter lag measured 0.45 second, slowing to 0.9 second in the low-contrast test. Continuous shooting yielded nine fine-quality 10.2-megapixel JPEGs in 2.7 seconds, for an average of 3.33fps and turned in about the same performance on basic-quality 2.5-megapixel JPEGs, capturing 99 images in 33.3 seconds for an average of 2.97fps.
The built-in flash has a Guide number of 13 at ISO 100, up from the D70s's Guide number of 11 at ISO 100. The extra power was noticeable in our lab test shots. Plus, the D80 did an excellent job of balancing the camera's fill flash with our scene's incidental lighting. In the field, we also noticed that fill flash from the D80 was consistently even.
Image quality from the Nikon D80 is quite impressive. Colors were accurate and neutral and the camera's meter did an excellent job of reading the scene and providing an accurate exposure. At times, mostly in extreme cases when the scene was dominated by darkness, the Matrix metering tended to preserve detail in the shadows at the expense of highlights, though typically, this is what one would've intended in that situation. Plus, switching to selectable zone metering or using the camera's massive plus or minus 5EV exposure compensation should help in those situations.
The 18mm-to-135mm, f/3.5-to-f/5.6 kit lens, which pushes the suggested price well above $1,000, performed well. We saw almost no colored fringing and were impressed with the lens's sharpness given its affordable price. Despite its plastic lens-mount, it feels more solid than many of the kit lenses on the market. Our only complaint was a slight amount of vignetting noticeable at the wide end of the zoom range.
Images from the D80 showed very little noise in our tests. At ISO 100, ISO 200, and ISO 400 noise was practically nonexistent, with only an extremely fine grain beginning to become apparent at ISO 400. Even at ISO 800, noise was a little more noticeable but still no more than a fine grain. At ISO 1,600, noise became noticeable but lacked the many off-color speckles that characterize many cameras' noise profile, and was similar to what we've come to expect at ISO 800 on some other dSLRs. At ISO 3,200--Nikon calls it H1.0--noise was obvious, resembling a coating of fine, snowy grain. A fair amount of detail was obscured by the grain but plenty still remained, and prints as large as letter size--and possibly even larger--should be acceptable, though far from perfect.
Buying an SLR is a complex process, which should include not only the camera body, but also a given manufacturer's--and third parties'--complement of lenses and accessories. That's exactly why manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, and KonicaMinolta have built up such a large following over the years. Now that Sony has bought KonicaMinolta's know-how and released the DSLR-A100, which is compatible with past KonicaMinolta lenses and accessories, the consumer electronics giant has gained entrée into this market in a meaningful and substantial way. The same can be said for Samsung and Panasonic and their respective licensing of Pentax's and Olympus's technology. That means that big players, such as Nikon, have to continue to refine their technology if they want to remain competitive.
With the D80, Nikon has proven that it is very much still pushing ahead strongly. With 10.2 megapixels, lightning-fast performance, high-quality images with very low noise, and a heaping pile of convenience features, Nikon's D80 will not disappoint. We're just eager to see how it stacks up to Canon's Rebel XTi, which is due to hit stores just weeks from now. But, if you already own some Nikon lenses and have been waiting for an affordable 10.2-megapixel dSLR, this one is a sure winner.