Nikon D80 DSLR digital camera

Take an air pump to Nikon’s D50 and start inflating, then surgically remove – and adjust – a large dollop of kit from the Nikon D200, mix in a smidgen of the Nikon D70s, stir briskly and you get … a Nikon D80.

The D80’s lineage builds on the base of the D70 (and of course the D70s) and some of the D50 and D200 for good measure; the new camera is a very nice mix of the old and new. It keeps (almost exactly) the control and handling of its predecessors with additions such as the user friendly and programmable FUNC(tion) button and nice big top plate data LCD, while including a host of new kit and features that make it even better than its undoubtedly excellent siblings.

The camera’s new 10.2-megapixel (effective) resolution CCD is of the same DX format of the earlier models but that extra resolution makes it much higher resolution, ideal for even larger prints or cropping into images for example. It sits in front of a new image processor designed for this camera.

The D80 is smaller than the D70s, almost the same size as the D50 but it’s new curvier handgrip and control layout makes it a pleasure to hold and use. A new 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel colour screen (the same as found on the D200 and D2x) has a 170-degree viewing angle plus a superb menu system, featuring anti-aliased fonts and neat colour coding making it one of the best menu systems I’ve used and seen on any camera.

Build quality is robust with a tough-enough plastic body surrounding a metal chassis, so the camera feels like it means business. Helping it get down to that business are some other new features that help get the most from the new pixels.

A new 11-area AF system is excellent (poached from the D200); fast, accurate and you can switch to a wide (central-zone) AF area as well if needs be, so all’s well here.

Metering is tweaked from the D70s using a 420-pixel RGB sensor and 3D Colour Matrix Metering II, which is a step up from the predecessors using enhanced focus, distance and colour information to help achieve accurate exposures with compatible F-Mount lenses.

And it works a treat, particularly with highlights where overexposure can loose detail is avoided nicely. The level of detail in both shadow and highlights on some of my more challenging sunrise-through-the-mist images is spot on and shows of the camera’s performance.

One (slight) disappointment is the new vertical run shutter has maximum 1/4000th second top speed (the D70s had 1/8000th second with a combined focal plane and CCD electronic shutter system, plus the top flash sync speed is slower at 1/200th second (from the D70s’ 1/500th second), but these are rare minus points.

White balance control is better enabled; auto, six presets (tungsten, fluorescent etc.), Kelvin colour temperature control and manual preset options provide plenty of choices. Sensitivity has been enhanced and includes an ISO 100 minimum and runs up to ISO 1600 plus a boosted option of ISO 3200. Helpfully, the auto ISO mode has extra dual controllability with a selectable maximum ISO setting beyond which it won’t go and a selectable minimum shutter speed usable with a given ISO range.

Continuous shooting is enhanced with an improved buffer offering 23 JPEG or 6 RAW files continuous capture. The D80 also has better noise control options. The D70s had a fixed noise reduction set up; the D80 has scalable noise reduction of Normal, Low, High and of course Off.

The D80’s viewfinder is another improvement; it’s bright and clear and provides a 19.5mm eyepoint (and extra 1.5mm over the D70s) making it an improvement for spectacle wearers among you. Another new bit of kit is some neat in-camera processing abilities such as redeye removal, D-Lighting (that can get more detail out of backlit or shadow areas of photos without affecting the highlights), a set of monochrome shooting filters, Image overlay and a Trimming feature.

You can apply these to images already shot on the SD/MMC external storage the camera uses and save a copy with the edits on, each flagged by a small paintbrush icon to show it’s a tweaked image.

In short, the D80 boasts a lot of user-friendly options that help your shooting experience, but what of the image quality? How does the camera perform at actually getting your shots?

The heavier pixel count has been handled well on the D80, the extra noise associated with a more densely packed pixels has been controlled well, although I found some of the more aggressive noise reduction systems a tad intrusive. And overall, noise is less well controlled than on rivals, particularly cameras such as the Canon EOS 400D.

White balance control is great overall as well but the incandescent preset struggled more than any other. However, I shot this test using the standard 18-70mm F3.5-F4.5G ED zoom (also available with the body as part of a kit) lens and captured detail is simply superb, highlights are packed full of detail too and shadow performance is excellent also.

Another bit of excellence comes in the shape of the built-in flashgun or Speedlight. Despite its top sync speed being slower than on the D70s (1/200th second rather than 1/500th second) but it offers a nice bonus the latter camera lacks, Wireless Flash control.

The built-in flash is both slightly more powerful with than the D70s with a GN of 13 and it can control up to two Nikon Speedlight flashguns with neat kit included such as a modelling light control, Auto FP High-Speed Sync, flash colour communication among others and using Nikon SB 800, SB600 and R200 accessory flashguns.

The new AF is both fast and accurate while the metering is sublime, putting nary a foot wrong during my test, even with some difficult and complex high contrast shots or when shooting directly into the sun.

Verdict

The D80 reveals and unusual level of attention to detail from Nikon, 32 customisable options mean the camera can be tailored to almost any user’s proclivities. Excellent handling and build, superb performance from the metering and the focus set up add to the confidence the camera builds as you lift it from its box.

The enhanced menus and the great Menu Help system that can be invoked to discover what any given menu is/does/means further boosts this confidence, as does the superb pentaprism viewfinder, which is clear, bright and crisp to use.

As an owner of a D70 and knowing what that camera is capable of, I can vouch for the improvements over that model and latterly the D70s. One demerit is the price, which looks, well, pricy when compared to the competition, but it is one few demerits for the D80, which means I can highly recommend this camera.


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