Nikon D80 Digital SLR Camera

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, February 2007
Manufactured by: Nikon USA, Nikon Canada
Requires: An interest in digital photography
MSRP: US$999.00 (body only), CAN$1139.95 (body only)

The digital camera manufacturers have now got the proverbial technology 'bit' between their teeth. They're running at full gallop, releasing a succession of digital SLR cameras which offer significantly better value every six to 10 months. The Nikon D80 Digital SLR is no exception to this new rule. Consumers of all stripes—home, business, hobbyist, amateur photographer—are well served by the choices available from Nikon, with a comprehensive lineup of cameras covering every conceivable need or interest. The D80 is styled as a consumer-friendly model, but with aspirations to greater things through a feature and function set which, for now, leads the race. We're still trying to figure out how Nikon's designers made the D80 so easy to use.

The Nikon D80 Digital SLR is a 10.2 megapixel camera which uses Secure Digital (SD) cards for image storage. It is designed to accommodate the needs of point & shoot users as well as amateur photographers, photography hobbyists and even professional photographers. If you're skeptical about the pro photographer use, consider that a number of pros have already purchased the D80 to use as a backup or a second body to avoid having to change lenses.

We've looked at competing models from the top five manufacturers over the past three months (October '06 through January '07) and we've only seen a few models which impressed us. The Leica M8 is wonderful, but with a surreal price of US$4,500. The Canon 5D is a full frame CMOS sensor marvel, but at $3,300 (body only) is also overpriced. The Sony A100 is fairly priced at only $999, but it suffers a bit from odd ergonomics, a slight power on delay and a lack of lenses unless you're willing to use older Minolta AF lenses (Sony uses the old Minolta K mount). The Pentax K10D is arguably one of the most feature-packed digital SLR bodies among the new crop of ~10 megapixel models, and it's competitively priced, but suffers overall because of operability issues and the fact that Pentax lenses, while competent, simply don't compare with notably better Nikon and Canon lenses. The Olympus E-330 at $999 is an ergonomically challenged competitor which produces images of average quality and offers little else but a lot of unrealized potential. The Canon 400D XTi is arguably the best overall offering from Canon these days, priced reasonably, features Canon's best processor, and boasts excellent, compact ergonomics.


Except for the 5D and EOS-1DS MKII pro models, Canon's digital SLR legacy is traceable from the D60 up through the 10D, 350/400D, 20D and 30D — lots of heritage but little else that's new except that wonderful Digic II processor. Nikon digitals, by contrast, had been bringing up the rear in recent years, but finally woke itself up with the D70, following on with a series of new designs for the D50, D200 and then this D80. When you add Nikon's cornucopia of high quality lenses to the mix, it's hard to deny that Nikon has taken its turn to spank Canon. The consumer is the winner. Even the non-Nikon choices I've panned are not really bad — they're just not up to the standards being set by Nikon.

I tested the D80 during two weeks of active shooting in Toronto and in several small towns in eastern Ontario and western New York. The first thing I noticed and relished was the light weight, a camera body that is physically smaller than my D200, a prominent and hand-filling right grip, and ergonomics which lead the industry right now. The feature and function set is spectacular, one of my favorites being the option to limit the ISO range when shooting in full auto mode. Low light performance in terms of image noise is another shining example of Nikon rising to demands of its loyal (and some not so loyal) critics. The new processing tweaks and CCD sensor improvements produce low light and long exposure performance that is very clean through ISO 800 and very good through ISO 1200. For those of you who want a direct comparison, there's essentially no noise performance difference between the D200 and D80 compared with the Canon 5D and 400D XTi through ISO 1200. Professional photographers and digital photo editors care about this stuff to some degree, but in all honesty even the most meticulous pro will admit that Nikon's performance is nothing short of excellent. The D80 benefits from decades of photography and imaging experience at Nikon and the results are there for all to see. As long as you can operate a shutter button properly, results from the D80 are often shockingly good.

The Nikon D80 offers a number of features not found in any of its competitors in this price range. One of the most interesting and misunderstood features is weather sealing. The camera is not waterproof—that's a whole different product category. But like its professional big brothers, the D80 offers lots of moisture proofing. In other words, mist, excessive humidity and a variety of other related conditions aren't going to have much effect on the D80. Couple it with a pro lens and go trekking somewhere, or prowl the urban canyons of whatever city you call home, hang out in back alleys looking for weird and wonderful lighting and textures, visit a local park and shoot the wildlife, or find a river or stream and wander the banks. If you find yourself in the midst of a swelteringly humid summer day, you can step out of a cold, air conditioned car and completely ignore the effects of instant condensation. Wipe off the front element of your lens and away you go.

Making quick White Balance adjustments takes only a few seconds. Using the camera's built-in range of preset shooting modes is delightful in a camera of this quality. Shooting modes are found most often in point & shoot pocket cameras. Having access to them through the main selector on top of the camera is absolutely wonderful. Pros can use it to check their manual settings against Nikon's suggested setting. Best of all for hobbyists, casual shooters, travelers and anyone else with a penchant for photography, the D80's configuration menus are a tweaker's and customizer's delight. Menu organization is excellent and the settings you need most often are always no more than a click or two away.

The D80 is well built. The body is solid, well sealed and feels tight and grip-able with all working surfaces covered in textured synthetic rubber. The rear LCD is bright and very accurate. Like its older siblings and its bigger brothers, the D80 has an LCD that is genuinely useful for accurately reviewing shots. At 2.5" in size it's also big enough to actually see important details. Most important for many people, the D80 uses Nikon's F mount and is fully compatible with all of Nikon's huge assortment of AF-S and AF-I lenses.

Nikon supplied us with the D80 kit for this review. It includes the new 18-135 AF zoom lens. While it will never be mistaken for a pro lens, the 18-135 does one thing extremely well—it takes razor sharp pictures. That's my bell ringer by the way. Sharpness. I can live with all sorts of vignetting (corners that are slightly darker than the rest of the photo) and chromatic aberration (faint color fringing that's visible when you blow things up real big), but sharpness is the big deal for me. The 18-135, again, is sharp. It's also color accurate, with good glass coatings which help to reduce flare and other problems. On the other hand, the lens does not do well shooting across the light. If you buy the kit, don't walk out of the store without a polarizing filter or without making sure the lens hood is in the box.

Cons: The standard D80 kit (body + lens) includes the Nikkor 18-135mm zoom lens. Do yourself a favor and pay for a lens upgrade. The 18-135mm zoom is competent enough and even razor sharp, but the D80 will excel when paired with the Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens or the 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 kit lens and almost all of the huge line of Nikon lenses. The 18-55mm and the 18-200mm VR cost more, but the results are clearly worth every penny. I ran into some minor metering inconsistencies from shot to shot and had to use +/- EV compensation more often (at least compared to metering with a D200). There's nothing wrong with SD cards for storage, but I've already got a sizable investment in CF cards which I've used in my Nikon's since purchasing a D70 quite a few years ago. Apparently, the SD card was used in the D80 design simply because of the smaller port requirement compared to a CF card. Grrr. The 18-135 lens supplied with the D80 kit is good but not great and it's not quite up to the standard set by the D80.

Pros: We were not expecting so many professional features in what is presented as a consumer-friendly enthusiast digital SLR, but there they are nonetheless. With customizability rivaling that of the much more expensive and clearly professional level Nikon D200 and Canon 5D, in our opinion the Nikon D80 is a hands-down choice over the rival Canon 400D (Rebel XTi). Nikon seems to have worked very hard to shake off accusations that its digital images were slightly soft because the results from the D80 are among the best we've ever seen from any digital camera. Add a good quality Nikon lens to the D80 — the 18-200mm VR zoom is a brilliant choice — and the only thing that will prevent you from getting great photos is you. Excellent battery life. I spend almost as much time looking at the LCD as I do looking through the viewfinder, so the D80's LCD screen was a bit of a revelation—large, bright, remarkably sharp and genuinely useful for shot analysis. Very bright pentaprism viewfinder makes competing SLR models from Canon, Pentax, Olympus and Sony look somewhat dark and small by comparison. Well designed with comfortable and intuitive ergonomics. If you're a photography enthusiast or hobbyist or harbor a secret desire to be a great photographer, get the D80. If you're an engineer, designer, project manager or work in one of a thousand other skills that require accurate photographs, get the D80. Nikon has hit another home run with this one. Highly recommended.

KSN Product Rating:




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