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DCRP Review: Nikon D80  
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: September 12, 2006
Last Updated: January 23, 2012

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The Nikon D80 is the long-awaited replacement the the best-selling D70 and D70s digital SLRs. It's basically a D200 with a slightly different CCD sensor (though still 10 Megapixel) and a slower burst rate. And at $999 for the body only and $1299 with the new 18 - 135 mm lens, it's also substantially cheaper than the D200.

Some of the new features on the D80 versus its predecessors include:

  • A new 10.2 effective Megapixel CCD (versus 6.1MP on the D70's)
  • A much larger and sharper 2.5" LCD display (versus 2.0")
  • Now uses Secure Digital and SDHC memory cards (versus CompactFlash)
  • Faster performance in all areas
  • New autofocus sensor offers better performance and more focus points (11 vs. 5)
  • Support for wireless flashes
  • Improved battery life; new battery meter menu option shows vital stats
  • New Image Retouch menu offers D-Lighting, redeye removal, cropping, image overlay, and other features that have been on Nikon's Coolpix cameras for years
  • Refined menu system (just like the D200 now)
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

Is the D80 worth your hard-earned cash? Find out now in our review!

What's in the Box?

As I said above, there are two kits available for the D80. Here's what you'll find in each:

  • The 10.2 effective Megapixel Nikon D80 camera body
  • F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 135 mm Nikon DX zoom lens [lens kit only]
  • EN-EL3e lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Body cap
  • Eyepiece cap
  • LCD protective cover
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROMs featuring Nikon PictureProject
  • 149 page camera manual (printed)

The first thing you'll need to go along with your D80 is a lens. If you got the lens kit then you're ready to go. If not, you can use most Nikon F-mount lenses with the D80 without issue. Do keep in mind that there's a 1.5X focal length conversion, so a 50 mm lens has the field-of-view of a 75 mm lens.

As for the kit lens itself, it's just fair. While it covers a very nice range, it's not terribly sharp, especially around the edges of the frame. If there's one thing I've learned about lenses it's that you (usually) get what you pay for. There's a reason why this lens only adds $300 to the price of the camera.

Something else you'll need to pick up is a memory card. Unlike the D70's before it, the new D80 uses Secure Digital (as well as high capacity SDHC cards), and I'd suggest a 1GB card as a good starter size. Buying a "high speed" card is absolutely a good idea.

The D80 uses the same powerful EN-EL3e battery as the D200. This battery packs 11.1 Wh of energy, which is about as good as it gets. Since Nikon doesn't supply battery life numbers that use the CIPA standard, I can't tell you how it compares to other D-SLRs. I can tell you that Nikon gives battery life numbers of 600 and 2700 shots (obviously with very different conditions), and I'm guessing that the CIPA number lies closer to the bottom of that range.

When it's time to charge the battery just snap it into the included charger. It takes a little over two hours to fully charge the battery. This isn't one of those handy chargers that plugs right into the wall -- you must use a power cable.


D80 with optional battery grip; image courtesy of Nikon USA

If you want to squeeze more life out of your D80 then you'll want to check out the MB-D80 battery grip ($150). This uses two EN-EL3e's or six AA batteries, giving you twice the battery life of the camera alone. You'll also get a few extra buttons and dials that you can use while shooting in the portrait orientation.

The beauty of a digital SLR is that nearly any accessory you can think of is available. First and foremost are lenses, and Nikon has tons of them. Same goes for flashes. The SB-600 ($185) and SB-800 ($315) are fully compatible with the camera's i-TTL flash metering system. The wireless SB-R200 flash is also fully compatible. The D80 supports both wired ($25) and wireless remote controls. Other accessories include an AC adapter, an angled viewfinder, and a hard carrying case.

Nikon includes version 1.7 of their PictureProject software with the D80, and it's good, but not great. The interface is reminiscent of Apple's iPhoto, and I found the software to be responsive and stable. For those of you with Intel-based Macs, I should mention that PictureProject is not a Universal application.

Anyhow, above you can see the standard thumbnail view that you'll get when you first start up PP.

A view showing exposure info is also available. Double-clicking on an image enters the image edit window:

Here you can adjust things like brightness, color, and sharpness. You can also straighten images or use Nikon's D-Lighting feature to brighten up dark areas of your photos. Auto image enhancement and redeye removal features are also available. PP also makes e-mailing and printing your photos a snap.

One thing you can't do, amazingly enough, is edit RAW (NEF) images. For those who don't know, the beauty of RAW is that you can adjust image properties like white balance, exposure, sharpness, and color without affecting the image quality. It's like being able to take the shot again. Unfortunately PictureProject only views the NEF file (and saves it to other formats) -- if you want to actually edit the image you'll need Capture NX (see below) or Photoshop CS2, which should support the D80 soon.

One piece of optional software that is worth a look is Nikon's new Capture NX software ($150). Capture NX is a unique photo editor that is hard to describe, but I'll do my best. Capture NX starts out innocently enough, with a pretty standard thumbnail view and numerous editing tools (click here to see those). It can open NEF files and let you edit most of the RAW properties -- unlike PictureProject.

But that's not what makes Capture NX interesting. The software lets you define "control points", which can be placed in your photo and manipulated. In my product shot above I set a "white point" on the background (to get the white balance just right) and a "color point" near the I/O ports (in order to brighten them up a bit). For the color points you can adjust the size of the area you want to affect, plus the brightness, contrast, and saturation. If you have a bunch of control points near each other the software automatically blends them together so everything looks right.

Another cool thing you can do is "brush on" things like unsharp mask. Using my example above, I brushed on some unsharp mask on the various labels on the camera. A "show selection" option shows you exactly what areas have been affected by all your messing around -- mouse over the above image and you'll see where I clumsily applied the unsharp mask brush.

There's also a comparison feature which lets you see before (top) and after (bottom) views of a photo you've edited. Best of all, if you save the image as a NEF file you can go back later and tweak any of the things that you modified along the way.

What's not to like about Capture NX? It's pretty difficult to learn, for sure. I got the grand tour from Nikon and I'm still pretty lousy at it. Secondly, the software runs like a snail with lead boots on my Mac Pro -- they need a Universal version of NX badly.

Another product you might be interested in is Nikon Camera Control Pro ($80). Just as it sounds, this software lets you control the D80 over the USB connection, saving the images directly to your computer. This software should really be included with the camera -- Canon's bundled such a program for years with their D-SLRs.

Nikon includes a pretty thick manual with the D80. It's not the easiest to read manual out there, but it should answer your questions. The manual for the PictureProject software is on CD.

Look and Feel

The D80 is a fairly large digital SLR that has impressive build quality (save for a few plastic doors). Under its plastic and rubber shell you'll find a strong (yet light) metal frame. From the front the D80 looks a lot like its predecessor, with the most noticeable changes on the back of the camera.


The D80 is larger -- and easier to hold -- than the Rebel XTi

The large right hand grip makes the D80 easy to hold. While the important controls are easy to reach, the D80 suffers a bit from "button clutter", which buttons scattered all over the camera body.

Now let's see how the D80 compares to other D-SLRs in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon Digital Rebel XTi 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6 in. 48.1 cu in. 510 g
Canon EOS-30D 5.7 x 4.2 x 2.9 in. 69.4 cu in. 700 g
Nikon D200 5.8 x 4.4 x 2.9 in. 74 cu in. 830 g
Nikon D50 5.2 x 4.0 x 3.0 in. 62.4 cu in. 540 g
Nikon D70s 5.5 x 4.4 x 3.1 in. 75 cu in. 600 g
Nikon D80 5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0 in. 64 cu in. 585 g
Olympus EVOLT E-330 5.5 x 3.4 x 2.8 in. 52.4 cu in. 550 g
Olympus EVOLT E-500 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6 in. 48.1 cu in. 435 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1 5.7 x 3.4 x 3.1 in. 60.1 cu in. 530 g
Pentax K100D 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.8 in. 51.4 cu in. 560 g
Samsung Digimax GX-1S 4.9 x 3.6 x 2.6 in. 45.9 cu in. 505 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 5.3 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 58.4 cu in. 545 g

As you can see, the D80 is closer in size to the D50 than the D70s which it replaces.

Enough about that, let's move on to our tour now!

The front of the D80 has a lot in common with Nikon's other D-SLRs. The lens mount is an F-mount, and virtually all "CPU" Nikkor lenses will work. If you have some ancient Nikon lenses you may want to check with tech support before assuming that they'll work with the D80. Just don't forget about the 1.5X focal length conversion that I mentioned at the beginning of the review.

Deep inside the lens mount -- behind the mirror -- is the D80's new 10.2 Megapixel DX-format CCD. This is apparently not the same sensor that the D200 uses, but it may be the same one as on the Sony DSLR-A100.

Directly above the lens mount is the D80's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. This flash has a guide number of 13, which compares to GN 13 for the Canon Rebel XTi and EOS-30D, GN 13 for the Olympus E-500, GN 15 on the Pentax K100 (albeit at ISO 200), and GN 12 on the Sony A100. If you want more flash power then you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe that you'll see in a bit.

To the right of the lens mount is the lens release button. Below that is the focus mode switch that I'll discuss later.

On the opposite side of the lens mount are two more buttons. The one on the bottom is the depth-of-field preview, while the top one is the customizable Function button. I'll tell you what options you can store in that button later in the review.

Above the Function button is the AF-assist lamp. Unlike most D-SLRs these days, the D80 has a dedicated AF-assist lamp, instead of using the built-in flash for this purpose. Just to the left of that you'll find one of the two command dials on the camera.

The most noticeable differences between the D80 and its predecessors can be found on the back of the camera. The thing that jumps right out at you is the large 2.5" LCD display, which is the same one that you'll find on the D200. That means that it has 230,000 pixels and a remarkable 170 degree viewing angle, and it's just a sight to behold. Everything is so bright and sharp that you'll wish that every camera had an LCD like this. Like most D-SLRs, the LCD screen is for reviewing photos and menu operation only -- it's not for composing pictures.

It's worth mentioning that Nikon includes a very nice LCD cover in the box with the camera. One of these saved my behind when I was testing the D200 -- the plastic cover cracked instead of the much more expensive LCD!

Directly above the LCD is the D80's optical viewfinder, which shows 95% of the frame. The viewfinder magnification goes from 0.75X on the D70s to 0.94X here, which is the same as on the D200. I found the viewfinder a pleasure to use: it's big and bright. Below the field-of-view is a line of data, covering everything from shutter speed to aperture to shots remaining (and much more). You can also turn on a focusing grid, which helps you compose your photos. On the upper-right of the viewfinder you'll find a diopter correction knob, which adjusts the focus on the VF.

Let's talk buttons now. To the left of the viewfinder is the delete photo button, while on the opposite side you'll find the AE/AF lock button. Continuing to the right we find the main command dial.

To the left of the LCD are five more buttons. They include:

  • Playback
  • Menu
  • White balance + Help + Image protection
  • ISO + Playback zoom out + Thumbnail view
  • Image quality + playback zoom in

Since I'm lazy I will talk about the white balance, ISO, and image quality options in the menu section later in the review. I do want to talk about the Help feature, though:

Just like the D70s before it, the D80 has a handy in-camera help system. When you're at the top level of the menus, pressing the Help button gives you a brief overview of what the selected option does. Go down a level and press the Help button again and you'll get an even more detailed explanation. This comes in especially nice when you're looking at the rather confusing Custom Settings Menu.

Over on the right side of the LCD you'll find the four-way controller (complete with lock) and the OK button. I found the four-way controller to be too small and kind of stiff -- it could be designed better in my opinion. You'll use this controller for menu navigation and selecting one of the eleven available focus points.

Our Tour de Buttons moves on to the top of the D80. On the left you'll find the mode dial, which has these options:

Option Function
Auto mode Point and shoot with some menu options locked up.
Program mode Still automatic, but with access to all menu options. The Flexible Program feature lets you scroll through several shutter speed / aperture combinations by using the main dial.
Shutter priority mode You choose shutter speed, camera picks aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Aperture priority mode You choose aperture, camera picks appropriate shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. For the kit lens it's F3.5 - F36.
Full manual mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself (same ranges as above). A bulb mode is also available for super-long exposures: the shutter will remain open for as long as the shutter release is pressed.

Night portrait

These are all scene modes

Night landscape

Sports
Close-up
Landscape
Portrait

You shouldn't be surprised to see that the D80 has a full suite of manual controls plus a bunch of scene modes. If you're new to photography you can start out easy with the auto modes, and move up to the "hard stuff" when you're ready.

At the center of the photo you'll find the D80's hot shoe. While it works best with the SB-600 and SB-800 Speedlights, third party flashes will work as well. If you use those Nikon flashes you can take advantage of the camera's i-TTL flash control system, and you can even control up to two sets of flashes wirelessly -- cool. If you're using a third party flash you'll most likely have to put both the camera and flash in their respective manual modes, which isn't nearly as much fun.

Continuing to the right we find the D80's LCD info display. I won't bore you with the list of everything it shows (there are plenty of other places to read about that), other to say "just about everything". If you flip the power switch past the "on" position you'll turn on the screen's backlight, so you can still see what's going on when you're shooting in the dark.

Next I want to mention the four buttons that surround the LCD info display. They include:

  • Metering (3D color matrix II, center-weighted, spot)
  • Exposure compensation (-5EV to +5EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Shooting mode (Single frame, continuous, self-timer, delayed remote, quick response remote) - see below
  • Autofocus mode (Auto select, single-servo, continuous-servo) - see below

The D80's continuous shooting performance will depend on the speed of your memory card. I used both a 50X and 133X SD card and noticed a substantial difference between the two when it came to how many shots I could take in a burst. For example, the camera slowed down after about 35 shots using my 50X card, while it kept going all the way to 100 with my 133X card. Anyhow, with a really fast card you can take 6 RAW or 100 JPEG images at just under 3 frames/second -- pretty darn nice. While the new Canon Rebel XTi can take more RAW shots in a burst, the D80 blows it away when shooting JPEGs.

What are those autofocus modes? Single-servo mode locks the focus when you halfway press the shutter release button. The continuous-servo mode goes a step further, continuing to adjust the focus even while the button is halfway pressed. The auto select mode detects whether a subject is stationary or moving and chooses the appropriate focus mode for you.

The last thing to see on the top of the D80 is the shutter release button, which has the power switch wrapped around it.

Now onto the side of the camera. Just to the right of the lens mount are three buttons. They include:

  • Flash release + flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +1EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Bracketing - see below
  • Focus mode (Auto, manual)

The bracketing feature is pretty advanced, as you'd expect on a camera like this. By default you'll be bracketing for exposure and flash exposure: the camera takes two or three shots in a row, each with a different exposure value. You can choose an exposure interval ranging from 0.3EV to 2.0EV. You can also bracket for exposure and flash exposure separately -- it's an option in the custom settings menu. Finally, you can bracket for white balance, assuming that you're not shooting in NEF (RAW) mode or using a manually selected color temperature. While three images are saved, only one photo is actually taken.

On the far right of the above photo you'll find the D80's I/O ports, which are protected by a rubber cover. They include USB, DC-in (for the optional AC adapter), video out, and remote control. Unlike the D70s, the D80 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, which is what you'd expect from a D-SLR in 2006.

On the other side of the D80 you'll find its memory card slot. The slot supports SD and SDHC memory cards, and probably MMC cards as well. The plastic door covering the slot feels quite flimsy compared to the rest of the camera.

On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount as well as the battery compartment. The door covering this compartment also feels a bit flimsy.

The included EN-EL3e battery is shown at right.

Using the Nikon D80

Record Mode

Like with Nikon's other recent D-SLRs, the D80 is ready to start taking pictures as soon as you flip the power switch.

While autofocus speeds depend on what your lens was using, in general they were lightning fast. The camera takes 0.1 to 0.3 seconds to lock focus, and not much longer at the telephoto end of the lens. Low light focusing was excellent. The camera uses its dedicated AF-assist lamp to focus quickly and accurately.

As you'd expect on a digital SLR, shutter lag was not an issue. Shot-to-shot speeds were great as well: you can shoot as fast as you can compose the next shot, at least until you hit the buffer limit, which takes a lot of work.

After you take a photo, you can hit the delete button to review and/or delete the shot you just took.

Now, let's take a look at the image size and quality choices on the D80:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 1GB card (optional)
Large
3872 x 2592
RAW + Fine JPEG 17.2 MB 44
RAW + Normal JPEG 14.8 MB 50
RAW + Basic JPEG 13.6 MB 54
RAW 12.4 MB 60
Fine 4.8 MB 133
Normal 2.4 MB 260
Basic 1.2 MB 503
Medium
2896 x 1944
RAW + Fine JPEG 15.1 MB 49
RAW + Normal JPEG 13.8 MB 54
RAW + Basic JPEG 13.0 MB 56
Fine 2.7 MB 233
Normal 1.3 MB 446
Basic 700 KB 876
Small
1936 x 1296
RAW + Fine JPEG 13.6 MB 54
RAW + Normal JPEG 13.0 MB 56
RAW + Basic JPEG 12.7 MB 58
Fine 1.2 MB 503
Normal 600 KB 918
Basic 300 KB 1500

That's a lot of options! As you can see, the D80 can record in JPEG and RAW (NEF) format, or both at the same time. I explained why RAW is cool way back in the first section of the review. The TIFF format is not supported on the camera.

Images are named using the following convention: DSC_####.JPG for sRGB images and _DSC####.JPG for AdobeRGB images, where #### is 0001 - 9999. File numbering is maintained ever if you switch or erase memory cards.

Let's move on to the menu system now.

The D80 more or less has the same menu system as the D200. Like on that camera, the menu looks amazing on the big, sharp LCD screen. The menu is divided into five tabs: playback, record, custom setup, and retouch. Here's what you'll find in each of those:

Playback menu
  • Delete (Selected, all)
  • Playback folder (Current, all) - that first option shows all images created by the D80
  • Rotate tall (on/off) - automatically rotate images taken in the portrait orientation
  • Slideshow - I'll cover this in the playback section later in the review
  • Hide image (Select/deselect, deselect all) - does just as it sounds
  • Print set (Select/deselect, deselect all) - for DPOF print marking
Shooting menu
  • Optimize image - some powerful tools are buried down here
    • Preset (Normal, softer, vivid, more vivid, portrait)
    • Custom
      • Sharpening (Auto, normal, low, medium low, medium high, high, none)
      • Tone compensation (Auto, normal, less contrast, medium low, medium high, custom) - the custom option lets you use a tone curve that you created in Nikon Capture
      • Color mode (Ia, II, IIIa) - the first one is for portraits (sRGB), the second one is AdobeRGB and for images that will be retouched, and the third one is for landscape shots (also sRGB)
      • Saturation (Auto, normal, moderate, enhanced)
      • Hue (-9° to +9° in 3° increments)
    • Black and white (Normal, yellow, orange, red, green) - those are digital color filters that give your B&W photos a tint
  • Image quality (see above chart)
  • Image size (see above chart)
  • White balance (Auto, incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, color temperature, preset) - see below
  • ISO sensitivity (100, 125, 160, 200, 250, 320, 400, 500, 640, 800, 1000, 1250, 1600, H0.3, H0.7, H1.0) - see below
  • Long exposure NR (on/off)
  • High ISO NR (Off, low, normal, high)
  • Multiple exposure - see below
Custom settings menu - the full list is only shown when the CSM/Setup menu option is set to 'full'
  • Menu reset
  • Beep (on/off)
  • AF area mode (Single, dynamic, auto-area)
  • Center AF area (Normal zone, wide zone) - you'll want to use the latter when your subject is moving
  • AF-assist (on/off)
  • No memory card (Release locked, enable release) - whether you can take a picture without a memory card inserted
  • Image review (on/off)
  • ISO Auto (Off, on, max sensitivity, min shutter speed) - for shooting in the auto modes
  • Grid display (on/off) - shows gridlines in the viewfinder
  • Viewfinder warning (on/off) - shows low battery, no memory card, and black & white warnings in the viewfinder
  • EV step (1/3EV, 1/2EV)
  • Center-weighted (6, 8, 10 mm) - size of the metered area
  • Auto BKT set (AE & flash, AE only, flash only, white balance bracketing) - described earlier
  • Auto BKT order (Default, under > MTR > over)
  • Command dials (Normal, reversed) - what dial does what
  • Func button (ISO display, framing grid, AF-area mode, center AF area, FV lock, flash off, metering) define what this button on the front of the camera does
  • Illumination (on/off) - when the LCD info display backlight is on
  • AE/AF-lock (AE/AF lock, AE lock only, AF lock, AF lock hold, AF-on, FV lock, focus area selection, AE/AF lock + AF area, AF lock + AF area, AF-on + AF area) - define what this button does
  • AE lock (on/off) - whether the shutter release button locks focus
  • Focus areas (No wrap, wrap) - whether the focus points "wrap around" when you're selecting them
  • AF area illumination (Auto, off, on) - whether the focus point is highlighted in the viewfinder
  • Built-in flash (TTL, manual, repeating flash, commander mode) - see below
  • Flash warning (on/off) - warns you when the flash should be used
  • Flash shutter speed (30 - 1/60 sec) - the slowest shutter speed that can be used with the flash
  • Auto FP (on/off) - high speed flash sync for use with a Nikon external flash
  • Modeling flash (on/off)
  • Monitor off (5, 10, 20 secs, 1, 5, 10 mins) - how long the LCD stays on when camera is idle
  • Auto meter off (4, 6, 8, 16, 30 secs, 30 mins)
  • Self-timer (2, 5, 10, 20 secs)
  • Remote on duration (1, 5, 10, 15 mins)
  • Exposure delay mode (on/off) - mirror lockup to prevent blur
  • MB-D80 batteries (Alkaline, NiMH, lithium, Ni-Mn) - select the battery you're using in the optional battery grip
Setup menu
  • CSM/Setup Menu (Simple, full, My Menu) - see below
  • Format
  • World Time - set the time zone, date, date format, and daylight savings time setting
  • LCD brightness (-2 to +2)
  • Video mode (NTSC, PAL)
  • Language (German, English, Spanish, Finnish, French, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Russia, Swedish, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Japanese, Korean)
  • USB (PTP, Mass Storage)
  • Image comment - attach text comments to your photos
  • Folders (Select, new, rename, delete) - folder management
  • File number sequence (Off, on, reset)
  • Mirror lock-up (on/off) - for cleaning the CCD
  • Dust off reference photo - for the dust removal feature in Nikon Capture NX
  • Battery info - see below
  • Firmware version
  • Auto image rotation (on/off) - whether camera orientation info is saved in the EXIF data
Retouch menu
  • D-Lighting (Moderate, normal, enhanced) - see below
  • Redeye correction - more on this later
  • Trim - crop photo
  • Monochrome (Black & white, sepia, cyanotype)
  • Filter effects (Skylight, warm filter, color balance) - see below
  • Small picture (640 x 480, 320 x 240, 160 x 120) - make a smaller version of e-mails
  • Image overlay - combine two RAW images into one

The D80 has more white balance choices than almost any camera on the market. You've got your usual presets, plus two custom settings. One lets you use a white or gray card to teach the camera what you want "white" to look like. Another option lets you manually select the color temperature, with a range of 2500K - 9900K. If that's still not good enough for you, you can fine-tune the WB presets from -3 to +3, in 1-step increments. Lower values give a red/yellow cast, while higher values are blue.

There are quite a few ISO settings as well, since the D80 moves in 1/3-stop increments. The "H" or high options let you boost the ISO as high as 3200. I'll show you how well the camera performed at those settings later in the review.

The multiple exposure feature lets you combine two or three exposures into a single image. The camera can adjust the exposure automatically so the photos blend together better, if you wish.

Buried deep within the custom settings menu is a "repeating flash" option. Here you can set the flash output, the number of times the flash fires (from 2 to 35) and how many times it fires per second (from 1 to 50). The resulting effect is similar to a strobe light.

In the setup tab you'll find a "My Menu" option. This allows you to customize what goes in the menus, so you won't have to scroll through features you'll never use.

The retouch menu has a lot of things that were borrowed from Nikon's point-and-shoot cameras. The D-Lighting feature will brighten up the dark areas of your photos, with a slight increase in noise as the after-effect. Here's an example:

D-Lighting off D-Lighting on (normal strength)

Quite a difference, eh? The retouched image is saved as a new file, so you can always go back to the original if you want. Do note that, as with all of the Retouch menu items, the resulting file is a JPEG -- even if it was originally shot as RAW.

The Filter Effects options let you "cool" or "warm" a photo, and you can adjust the color balance using the tool you see above. Just use the four-way controller and you can increase the amount of red, green, blue, or magenta in a photo.

The last thing I want to mention is the battery info screen, which displays battery life, "charge life", and how many photos you've taken. This feature was first seen on the D200.

Enough about menus, let's do our photo tests now. I used a variety of lenses for each test, so look at the text below the photo to see which lens I used.

I took the macro test photo with the Nikon F1.8, 50 mm lens. Our test subject is tack sharp, with very saturated (read: consumer-friendly) colors. The subject has the "smooth" look that you'd expect from a D-SLR.

The minimum focus distance will depend on the lens you can use. Nikon makes lenses specifically for macro shooting, which you'll probably want to look into if you're serious about close-up shots.

Getting the night test photo was an ordeal, and none of it was the D80's fault. Let's just say that summers in San Francisco aren't like most other cities.

Anyhow, when I was finally able to take the photo, I got pretty nice results. The camera took in plenty of light thanks to the manual shutter speed controls. Things are a bit soft here, and I blame the 18 - 135 mm kit lens for that. Noise and purple fringing are non-existent.

I have two ISO tests in this review, and the first one uses the night scene you can see above. Here we go:


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

There isn't much of a difference between the ISO 100 and 200 shots. At ISO 400 we see a slight increase is noise, but the photo is still usable for typical print sizes. Details start to get muddy at ISO 800, and it just gets worse at ISO 1600. Despite that you should be able to get a 4 x 6 inch print out of either of those settings. One nice thing about the D80 is that you can adjust the ISO in small increments (1/3-stop to be exact), so you can find the setting that works best for you.

Here's our distortion test, and I naturally used the 18 - 135 mm kit lens for this one. There's strong barrel distortion at the wide end of the lens, and you can see the real world effect of this in shots like this. The chart also shows some vignetting (dark corners), and I saw this pop up in a real world photo as well (example).

There was no redeye in our flash test, and I wouldn't expect any on a camera with a big popup flash like the D80. The camera has a software-based redeye reduction tool, but there was no need to use it!

Here's ISO test number two. This one is taken in our studio and the results can be compared to those from other cameras. I used the Nikon F1.8, 50 mm lens for this test.

The crops below give you a good overview of the noise levels at each ISO setting, but I encourage you to look at "the whole picture" to really see the differences.


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200 (H1.0)

You'd be hard-pressed to see any difference between the first four shots (yes, that includes ISO 800). Even at ISO 1600, things are very clean, with just slight amounts of "grain" in the image. You should have no problem making a large print at any of those settings. Only at ISO 3200 (H1.0) does noise become a bit of a problem, though with some post-processing you should be able to get a midsize print.

The D80 will obviously be compared to the new Canon Rebel XTi, and since I had both of them here at the same time (and with similar lenses), I did a little side-by-side comparison using the above test scene. I also threw in some crops from the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 for good measure.

SInce all three of those cameras perform similarly at low ISOs, I'm only including the high ISO settings here.

ISO 800

Nikon D80

Canon Rebel XTi

Sony DSLR-A100
ISO 1600

Nikon D80

Canon Rebel XTi

Sony DSLR-A100

The first thing to notice in the above comparison is just how much sharper the Canon and Sony cameras are straight out of the box (which is what people moving up from point-and-shoots expect). In terms of noise, the D80 holds its own compared to the Rebel XTi -- and, as you can see, the DSLR-A100 lags behind at ISO 1600.

Overall, the D80's photo quality was excellent, especially with a decent lens attached. Photos were well-exposed, with saturated colors (which, again, is what the D80's target audience wants). Noise levels were quite low, as the tests above hopefully proved, and purple fringing wasn't a huge problem either.

The only real complaint I have about the D80's photo quality is that photos are on the soft side, especially when you're using a not-so-great lens like the 18-135 kit lens. I noticed a substantial improvement in sharpness when I used a 50 mm "prime" lens. The cliché "you get what you pay for" holds true with lenses -- at least most of the time. I did notice that if I shot in RAW mode the results were a bit sharper -- and you can of course adjust the sharpness manually using Capture NX or Photoshop. The easiest thing to do, though, is to visit the Optimize Image item in the Shooting Menu and increase the in-camera sharpening to your liking.

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our extensive photo gallery, printing the photos if you'd like. Then and only then can you decide if the D80's photo quality meets your expectations!

Movie Mode

Digital SLR cameras do not have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The D80's playback mode is more-or-less like the one found on the D200. The one exception is the slideshow feature, which has been enhanced to include transitions and background music -- though, since the D80 has no speaker, you'll have to hook into a television to hear that. Other features are pretty standard. You've got thumbnail view, DPOF print marking, image protection and hiding, and the ubiquitous"zoom and scroll" feature. This lets you blow up your image by up to 25 times, and then move around in the zoomed-in area.

I mentioned the "Image Retouch" options in the previous section, but just in case you missed them, they include redeye reduction, D-Lighting, color filters, and image overlay. You can also crop and downsize photos that you've taken.

Deleting photos is easy, as there's a button right on the camera for that purpose. By using the playback menu, you can select a group of photos to delete -- a feature I always appreciate.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but if you change the "display mode" item in the playback menu you can get screens full of useful information, complete with fancy histogram.

The D80 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode.

How Does it Compare?

The Nikon D80 is a fairly inexpensive digital SLR that packs spectacular performance and excellent (though somewhat soft) image quality into a well-built, solid camera. . For under $1000 you get quite a lot of camera, and it will certainly make people think twice about spending hundreds more on a D200. The D80 was a joy to use, and I'm certainly going to miss it when it goes back to Nikon. In other words, the D80 easily earns my recommendation.

The D80 is a midsize digital SLR with very good build quality, except for the flimsy plastic cover over the memory card slot. It has a nice, large right hand grip, and it's easy to hold, unlike another entry-level D-SLR that will remain nameless. The camera has a large and bright viewfinder to compose your shots with, and the 2.5" LCD display is truly a sight to behold. It's so bright, so sharp, and the viewing angle is great. Really! I was pleased to see that Nikon didn't get rid of the LCD info display on the D80, which seems to be a trend as of late (e.g. Canon Rebel XTi, Sony DSLR-A100). As far as expansion possibilities go, the sky's the limit. You've got a huge selection of Nikkor lenses, plus external flashes (including wireless ones), remote controls, and finally, a battery grip. The camera supports the new SDHC format, so it's "future-proofed", at least for a few years.

The D80's feature-set is a mix of point-and-shoot and pro. It's easily the most consumer-friendly camera out there, with many features carried over from Nikon's Coolpix cameras. Those include numerous scene modes, D-Lighting (which brightens photos), redeye reduction, digital color filters, and a fancy slideshow feature with transitions and music (though you'll need to hook into a TV to enjoy that). There's also a handy in-camera help system, which explains all of those confusing custom functions. If you're a more experienced shooter than you'll have plenty of manual controls to play with. Besides manual shutter speed and aperture control there are also several white balance options (including color temperature adjustment and fine-tuning), ISO sensitivity that can be boosted in 1/3-stop increments as high as 3200, and support for the RAW (NEF) image format. It's too bad that Nikon doesn't include some decent RAW editing software with the camera, though.

Camera performance is very impressive. The D80 starts instantly, focuses without delay -- even in low light -- and shutter lag is not a problem. Shot-to-shot delays are practically nil, and with a fast memory card you can take up to 100 full size JPEGs or 6 RAW images in a row at 3 frames/second. Battery life is very good, and Nikon includes a handy "battery meter" that allows you to keep tabs on the battery, including how much life it has left before it needs to be recycled. As you'd expect, the D80 supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard, for fast data transfer to a Mac or PC.

Photo quality is excellent, especially with a decent lens. The D80 took well-exposed photos with consumer-friendly saturated colors, very low noise, and minimal purple fringing. Photos were soft straight out of the camera (and the so-so 18-135 kit lens doesn't help matters), but you can adjust the in-camera sharpening if that bothers you. I didn't find redeye to be a problem, but if you encounter it you can use the built-in redeye removal tool to get rid of it.

I pretty much snuck in the negatives about the D80 in the preceding paragraphs. This is a heck of a camera, and one that should be at the top of your list if you're buying your first D-SLR. If you have a D50 or D70 then I'd strongly consider upgrading. And, unless you need a faster burst rate and even more custom functions, then you can save hundreds by skipping the D200 and getting the D80 instead.

What I liked:

  • Excellent photo quality, very low noise -- though see issue below
  • Very solid for the most part; easy to hold
  • Super fast performance: fast autofocus + excellent continuous shooting mode
  • Large, bright, and sharp 2.5" LCD
  • LCD info display with backlight
  • Full manual controls, and then some
  • Customizable menus and button
  • Useful features for beginners like D-Lighting, redeye removal, help system
  • AF-assist lamp
  • Superb battery life
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support
  • All the expandability you'd expect from a D-SLR

What I didn't care for:

  • Images on the soft side straight out of the camera (in my opinion)
  • Flimsy door over memory card slot
  • Included software doesn't allow for RAW image manipulation; Capture NX costs $150 more
  • Suffers a bit from button clutter; can be difficult to use

Some other digital SLRs worth looking at include the Canon Digital Rebel XTi and EOS-30D, Nikon D200, Olympus EVOLT E-330 and E-500, Pentax K10D, Samsung Digimax GX-1S, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100.

As always, I strongly recommend trying the D80 and its competitors before you drop the big bucks on a camera!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery!

Want another opinion?

You'll find another review at CNET.com. There are still previews available at Digital Photography Review and Imaging Resource, both of which should be completed in the near future.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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