Nikon D80 DSR



What do you get when you breed a D50 with a D200?

My cameras grew up. Had a kid. Went to school. Got a Degree. Settled in for a career in picture taking.

Life happens.

It was inevitable. That sexy D200 started dating the D50 and pretty soon sparks were flying.

Kids these days. You try to tell them all about the risks and dangers of the world. You try to give them a sense of right and wrong. You hope for the best and you take a deep breath as they go out on a date...

You tell them all about the cards and the batteries--but no matter what you say or do, they're the ones who inherit life on their own terms, after all.

One day they come to you with a bouncing newcomer and say, "Dad, there's something we want to show you," and rather than get all senior on them, you pick the baby up and hold it. And it hits you. I mean, what were we doing when the world was new and full of sunrises and opportunities? Same sort of shenanigans*. Ah, life.

Or in this case, a new camera.

* I think this is the first time I have used this word in print. I even guessed its spelling right. A milestone or millstone? Where was I?

With the D80, Nikon has given us the sweet spots of not just the D50 (SD Card, exposure mode macros, value-added pricing) and the D200 (big 2.5-inch monitor, 10 MP chip, 11-point focus) but some of the welcome heritage from the D70 (IR remote, fast-everything, Commander-mode flash control).

Really this camera is the successor to the D70/D70s camera that I've known and appreciated so well. And, of course, the D50 was the direct junior sibling to the D70, minus a few features, but minus a major quadrant of the price tag, too.

Where the D70 served me the most, of recent, is as a very capable studio camera. One of its major features was in its ML-L3 IR (infrared) remote trigger that came in the box. While the D70 never had a wired remote release, the IR triggering ability is almost as good. And in some situations, even better than a wired release.

I would often be holding two pieces of foam core around my subject with numerous SB-800 and other flash units all carefully positioned while under my thumb, the ML-L3 release would be telling the D70, "It's okay. You can trip the shutter now." Some days it paid for itself over and over every hour (do you know what an assistant can cost at 10PM?).

Now the D80 has BOTH inputs for a wired MC-DC1 release and the IR ML-L3. Whatever floats your cork. The remotes don't come in the box, but the ML-L3's recent price is only $13.95 on Amazon. But I seem to have digressed.

Images from the D80 are strong. Real strong. Break resistant. Tough image warrior-class. Here's a shot with no alteration (except shrunk to 800 pixels wide). Hidden tonalities are well defined, though not immediately obvious. The camera is pointed directly at the sun, with only a leaf between the nuclear furnace in the sky and the lens. Roll your mouse over the image to see the detail lurking in those deep, contrasty shadows. I lifted the deep shadow range of this shot way farther than one would normally take them. Click for a 100% chunk right out of the center of the shot. Considering that this is a camera pixel-direct reproduction, you have to be on your feet for a standing ovation to those image designers. On my 101 ppi monitor, the shot at 100% scale would be about 1 meter wide.

When the D70 appeared the biggest news was how much of the D100 was inside. Professional 6MP image, large continuous strings of shots, matrix metering, 7-point auto-focusing, menu ergonomics, intuitive handling--in all, a machine worth its salt and its bread.

When the D200 appeared, the biggest news was its 10MP image chip plus all the inherited characteristics from the D100 again. Here is a camera with a huge, satisfying monitor with wide viewing and exceptional image, a weather-sealed magnesium frame, professional features out the gwank (an idiosyncratic technical term, but it suggests a Good Thing in this context) and a tremendously versatile Commander mode for remote SB-800/600 Nikon flash units.

Just to be clear: The SB-800/600/R200 flash units under camera Commander mode control represent the top apex peak of small flash unit control, versatility and evolution in today's off-camera flash gear. In other words: The Best. You control remote flash units without wires, fuss or confusion right from menu settings you make AT THE CAMERA!

Want unit A to be 2/3-stop brighter? Never mind that it's mounted up in the rafters--just set the camera menu to tell it to run a bit hotter. Want unit B to start using its own Auto Aperture mode, thus putting out just the right amount of light for whatever the iris on the lens on the camera happens to be set at? Make that setting without ever leaving the camera. Then if you don't like the result, change the remote unit to Manual power or back to camera-computed iTTL exposure. All without leaving the comfort of your menu.

Nikon doesn't pay me to say these things. Notice that there are no ads on this site. I'm telling you this because you deserve to know what's real and what's a Good Thing.

In the D80, the same depth of Commander mode one finds in the D200 is available. That's enough of an incentive to get a D80 if you shoot with remote flash a lot.

Which brings me back to the studio and my D70 once again. The D70 controls one channel of remote flash. You can always use a SB-800 in its hot shoe to control up to three exterior SB-800/600s if you wish, and many photographers have bought these by the six-pack because they're so versatile, but the D80 gives you two selectable channels of flash control, plus its own. It does things you simply can't do even with a Nikon D2Xs (no on-camera flash, can you believe it?).

As we shoot images for the D80 eBook, we keep coming up with interesting things. Oops, here's one now, a product of the deeply integrated Nikon CLS (Creative Lighting System) that the D80 has inherited.

Buffy At Sunset. You don't think we would fail to bring you more from this shoot in the coming D80 eBook do you? Photographer Natasha Rhodes captured this while I played the part of light stand. Nikon's SB-800 provided the back photons on demand, exactly as dialed in on the D80's menu. Keen observers will see that there is fill flash illuminating this side of Bufffy. That's the dialed-back camera flash giving a -1.0 stop fill.

The physics of the D80 are cut along D70 lines. Smaller than the D70 by an almost imperceptible degree, it's slightly squarer in shape in a few places, but fits my average-size hand just as well and positions some controls more ergonomically. Its body plan and control layout are considerately evolutionary.

On the camera exterior, 25 dedicated buttons, switches, dials or controls give access to functions in an intuitive manner. Few are obscure in their function. One notable improvement: while the DOF preview button is out of the way at the lower right of the lens (as visualized from the back of the camera) another button that wasn't on the D70 has shown up. It's the programmable FUNC (-tion) button, and is easily reached by the right middle finger. This is even better positioned than it is on the D200. Most of us rarely need that DOF button, but we assign something essential to the FUNC button, once we learn how to make the camera sit up and speak.

Where the D70 had 25 Custom Menu Settings, the D80 has 32, hinting at greater functionality overall. If you have used a D70/D50, this camera will feel familiar but improved, which it is.

The menu items have expanded to include the D2X/D200's battery meter that gives you exact +/- 1% understanding of remaining power. The battery is the same EN-EL3e intelligent lithium-ion type used in the D200. No, your old EN-EL2 cells from the D70 won't fit.

Just for grins, here's the skinny on the EN-EL3es: Nikon has recalled some of the original EN-EL3 cells, but none of the ones they want to replace are the EN-EL3e versions. These 3e batteries are hard-working, long lived and very smart. They tell the camera how much power is left and all three of the ones I've been using with the D200 are still showing their Life Status as "New"--even after tens of thousands of images shot for the D200 eBook.

With the MB-D80 battery pack/ vertical grip, two EN-EL3e cells can be used--first one, then the other in sequence, allowing power replenishment without even having to shut down. This battery/vertical grip accessory also takes AA cells of several different types. Menu details allow you to inform the camera what kind you loaded into it, so the camera can predict their performance with greater accuracy.

ISO normally ranges from 100 to 1600. With ISO Auto > Off, one can set H 0.3, H 0.7 and H 1.0, taking camera sensitivity into the Woah-Zone.

At H 1.0, you're shooting ISO 3200, and while it's grainy, it's not bad at all, unless your definition of bad includes grainy. I don't know what the Nikon Colorimetry and Grain Department did, but it's an improvement over the D200 at this Outer Limits, Twilight Zone of camera sensitivity. Throw the Optimize Image menu into B&W, tweak the Sharpening, Contrast and in-camera Filter (yellow, orange, red or green) into the mix and blast away. Here's a hint about using the extreme H 1.0 setting: small enlargements of 8 x 10 or 5 x 7 size will diminish the grainy effect cosiderably and in B&W, the grain lends the image a gritty, photojournalistic quality.

An endearing quality to D80 images is the improved ISO 3200 performance. Sure, it's grainy, but anything at ISO 3200 is grainy. Here's a slice representing about 9% of the Large Frame area reduced to 50% as reproduced here.

Downsampling the image helps reduce grain, but what's outstanding about this is that the shadows are not gritty and limited in tonal depth.

At this scale, you'd easily print a slightly grainy 8 x10 that most experienced photo editors would mistake for something more like Tri-X film.

This B&W image was shot using the in-camera Orange filter unique to the D80's B&W menu. Rollover the shot for a color shot made from approximately the same vantage point, also at ISO 3200 (H 1.0).

Notice that there's a pen in that cup with bright yellow markings, which have been almost completely erased by the Orange filter effect, as it significantly deepened the tone of the green pen.

Just what you want from color filters when shooting black and white. I wish the D200 had this B&W setup.

(ISO 3200, f/4.5 @ 1/40 sec in dimmed incandescent light. Preset WB with the 18-70mm Nikkor set to 70mm. Hand held.)

At ISO 3200, the camera flash suddenly has a guide number of about 58/190 (at IS0 100 it's 13/42), so shooting with a fast f/2 lens could get your scene illuminated about a hundred feet from the camera.

Not kidding. I've taken shots with it with just those constraints. Set the camera on Manual M flash mode, and run the power all the way up to Full, and suddenly things closer than 60 feet will be so filled with light they'll overexpose.

The basketball hoop is about 120 feet from my feet. 50mm f/1.4 set to f/2.

I literally had to darken the shot because the midnight clear mountain air in front of my house exhibited enough atmospheric back-scatter to slightly fog the image, lowering its contrast.

Large images are the same as in the D200 at 3872 x 2592 pixels. Medium frames are 2896 x 1944 and Small frames are exactly half the Large at 1936 x 1296 pixels.

As we noted in our D200 Preview (items that are the same on both D200/D80s):

> The chip itself has 10.92MP of photosites, but some of those aren't playing ball. They're sitting on the sidelines under a mask reporting to the computer things like, "This is what black looks like under current thermal conditions," and stuff like that.

> Almost nobody is jumping up and down with the next Hot Flash, but they ought to: The Medium frame from the D80 is 2896 x 1944 pixels big. That's 96% of the size of the D70's Large frame. In other words, the D80 Medium frame is a PERFECT D70 (6MP) frame after the downsampling.

> Somewhere in the far flung past somebody realized that having a light inside your refrigerator was a good idea. If they had required you to snap a separate switch to activate the light, you would have sent the fridge back to Sears with an angry note. Odd, don't you think, that it has taken until now to apply that 1937 Frigidaire thinking to a digital camera? But once the idea is out of the bag, it's going to be nearly impossible to convince other manufacturers not to copy Nikon.

> Here's what we mean: With the D80, pressing ANY button that has anything at all to do with altering an idea that is being tracked on the camera-top LCD data display, the camera does the logical thing: it turns the backlight ON so you can immediately see what you just did--or tried to do.

> B'b'b'but what if you are in broad daylight? The light comes on. So what. It's an LED. It draws a gnats worth of power. If you need to quench the light, a menu item, 17; Illumination, turns it off.

Who Needs It?

Good question, and inevitable given the same size images from the D200 and all. Where the D200 is structured physically to be a workhorse professional camera, the D80 is made to be the enthusiast's pride and joy.

Depending on your level of expertise and need to shoot in inclement weather with legacy Nikkor lenses while capturing fast sequences of action or doing time-lapse acquisition, the D80 might not be your cup of tea. But if you shoot in decent weather conditions, don't have a closet full of Nikkors from pre-1990, aren't gathering storm cloud movie frames and rarely need 5 fps, you might wish to go to a camera store and handle one of the D80s.

If you can find one.

My hands and eyes say this: After spending eight full months digging into the D200 for our DSLR: Nikon D200 eBook, I know that camera inside and out, and this camera is at minimum 82.5% of the D200, having subtracted:

  • CompactFlash cards--a professional standard
  • Legacy lens interconnect for semi-auto exposures
  • Menu intervalometer for incredible time-lapse shooting
  • RAW and JPEG refinement compression options
  • GPS data integration
  • Professional Color Space choices (sort of)
  • Easy Folder system/File Name conventions
  • Four separate internal Shooting menu banks
  • Four separate internal Custom menu banks
  • Weather seals all around
  • Major focus options and combinations
  • Bullet proof metal body (D80's plastic is still rugged, though)
  • Custom Menu ergonomic organization by topical categories
  • Matrix meter density (420 segments instead of the D200's 1005 segments)
  • Selectable Beep frequency (ears age faster than photographers do)
  • Most recent menu item tracking
  • Display mode data items preferences
  • After Delete scrolling direction options
  • Multiple Continuous frame rates
  • 10-shot Multiple Exposure (D80 only does 2 or 3)
  • 5, 7 and 9-shot brackets (D80 only goes up to 3 shots per bracket string, ±2.0 stops)
  • Rubber base plate where tripod meets camera
  • Stabilizing mass and the balance that helps long lenses

(list amended 11-2-06)

But then again, the D80 has some unique things that the D200 doesn't:

  • In camera effects (red eye reduction, after the shot filtering, cropping, superimposing, etc.)
  • Simple, convenient $15 IR remote accessory (ML-L3)
  • Menu simplification setup (different from D200's)
  • Auto exposure macros (Portrait, Sports, Full Auto, etc.)
  • Image quality at the top ISO 3200 extreme is a tad better than D200's
  • B&W shooting gives Sharpening, Contrast and Color Filter options
  • Lighter, smaller footprint, even with the MB-D80 pack installed
  • Automatic freeing of SB-800/600 FP high shutter speed sync
  • More intuitive Review mode Zooming
  • $700 less expensive
  • A lot quieter per shot
  • SD card memory format. RiData 4GB 150X card: $82US. Nice.

By the time you add all these up, some of the value is recapitulated. Call this about 87.5% of the D200 when all the comparing is done. Then factor this in: it costs 59% of the D200.


I know you want me to simply say something rash like "This Is The One, So Buy It" or "Save Your Money, It's A Dog," but neither would be true for you. Go see it for yourself and resist the temptation to throw your credit card at it this weekend over the Internet.

The D80 is a huge improvement to the D70, and not just in pixel count. That monitor. Those features. That power system.

One of the Good News items is this:

All those D200 iNovaFX Actions that were developed for the last eBook. Every single one of them--and a few more--will be in the D80 eBook. Here's one now:

The bright, shining Disney Concert Hall in Los Angles, here interpreted though he Nikon D80 and the 12-24mm DX Nikkor lens, hangs on to an impossible range of tonalities through a combination of a -4, -2 and 0 -stop bracket combined with the iDRV3toTasteSuper Photoshop Action.

Although the image above looks perfectly normal, it conveniently hides its central secret. There is no such thing as a digital camera that can shoot a subject like this and get away with it, not even with a RAW exposure. In fact, no film can digest this subject cleanly and every image you see of this structure tries to avoid putting the camera in the direct focus of the extreme tonal glare of the stainless steel in direct sun.

The fierce sun glare off the stainless steel finish is 1600% too bright to capture in an image. But a bracket of images--easy to capture in about 1 second with the D80--can absorb the tonal range a slice at a time, and the iNovaFX Photoshop Actions that are included in the DSLR: Nikon D80 eBook also include the latest tweak of the iDynamicRangers Actions that make shots like this possible, along with the steps required for their capture.

It's easy to be lulled into thinking your camera can do everything you ask of it, but that's not reality. Rollover the image above to see what the "normal" or uncompensated exposure of the building looks like. Click to see what the -4-stop image looks like. Hey, that's a very interesting image on its own!

Professional advisory:

Professional photographers: If you have the D200, your camera is rewarding you every day with its greater range of features like legacy optic adaptation, weatherproofing, solid feel and faster continuous modes. But when it comes time to buy body #2 for your road kit, take a good, hard look at the D80 body.

Nikon made this camera for the high-end enthusiast, but they put the heart and soul of the D200 in there. Minus the appendix and tonsils.

So throw the $700 savings towards one of those killer 18-200mm VRII Nikkors or the 12-24mm IncrediZoom.

As always:

I suggest that you should buy your D80 from a local live human dealer, just in case your camera reveals an "issue" and will need to be immediately swapped for a better working sample.

I did. In the past this has saved my bacon. And Kimura Photomart in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles also has some D200 eBooks behind the counter. If you live in L.A., you may find a D80 there. I'm just saying.

Is there going to be a DSLR: Nikon D80 eBook? Yes. We're hoping by the holidays.

That's what we said in September. The eBook is available now, having delivered on December 15, 2006.

Actions for the D80 are the same ones you would use for images from the D200 and all are included plus some new ones exclusive to the D80. Here's some information on them in general. In the D80 eBook the number of Actions has grown to 639, and the book itself has over 630 large-scale letter-size pages. Our information pages on the D200/D80 may help visualize these.

Physically and ergonomically, the D80 camera is a truly great successor to the D70 and its siblings.

The image size increase passes the "worth upgrade" threshold by being 129% larger than its predecessor.

That's the proportional difference between a 3 MP and 5 MP compact digital camera, too, and has been a Rule of Thumb with me as the flip point of size upgrade ergonomics since the early days of digital photography, way back in yestermonth.

A huge number of people are going to want this camera and push it through an incredible range of paces. It can do a whole lot more than the Instruction Manual can or will tell you about. Like the full-circle Nikon Fisheye trick we invented here at iNovaLabs, for instance. Yes, you can do that with the D80, too.

The included Instruction Manual is as much of an improvement over the D70's as is the image chip. Good going, Nikon. It tells you what everything is and how to make it work. Our job is to tell you why you would even need to think about that function now, how it will affect your image and how it might be combined with other things to get a better shot.

D80 Discovery:

About that IR remote.

In full, flaming, noon daylight I was able to trigger the camera pretty reliably from 50 feet (measured across my back yard) even with sunlight glaring right into the IR receiver port (which is near the D80 badge).

But what about in the post-sunset twilight... Well let's just take a peek.

Here I am on a road as seen with the 18mm setting of the 18-200mm VRII Nikkor, around 86 feet* (26 meters) from the camera, popping the shot with that ML-L3 infrared remote.

That's it in my right hand. See?

I wonder how far I could have gone with a fresh battery? This one was two years old.

Rollover for a closer peek.

* Measured with Google Earth Plus.

So far, the camera seems to be getting another rare A+ in my estimation. But this is getting boring. The D70 got an A++ (compared to its environment of competitors) and the D200 did just as well. But the competition is heating up.

As I said to the head of National Geographic a while back when he delivered a really good take to my video camera, "Le Grand Fromage est sur la croissant!"

In English: "The Big Cheese is on a roll."

More, later...



Having experienced both the D200 and D80 intimately, my personal conclusion is that more highly advanced enthusiast photographers are going to get the D80 and save the $700 or simply convert that into more optics. Not a bad strategy at all. D80 shooters will miss out on CF cards, faster shooting and numerous operational features but the evolution of digital camera features is ongoing.

Nikon has shown the ability to think through the nice touches as well as the Major Ideas. The LCD light (camera top data display) popping on with any related button press is better than merely good. Compressed RAW files--another Major Clever Move. Of course, these have been around since the D70. No need to waste data space on blue and red images when they're only 11% or 29% of the green image's significance, respectively. Yet there's work to be done.

Here are a few features that should NOT be ignored by camera designers, especially the folks in the Nikon DSLR Camera Design Department:

  • Flash. No doubt of it, the on-camera flash is a HUGE pro feature. Top end cameras of the future should have it. Every time I pick up the D2Xs, I cringe because you guys failed to install that $10 of parts it would have taken to outfit this totally pro camera with a Commander-capable flash. Shame on you. Avoid future shame. I mean wasn't the move to digital an act of embracing the Right Ideas? On-camera basic flash unit inclusion is one of them.

  • Camera memory buffer transfer. If you set the camera up to shoot images without a memory card in it, make sure that by inserting any card, the camera immediately can transfer the buffer into it if the photographer wants to. Go ask your Coolpix people how to do this.

  • Best Shot Selector. Ask your Coolpix guys about this one, too. Put it into the DSLRs, guys. Why make me go search for the largest file after transferring things into my computer when you could implement this right in the camera. BSS is a Coolpix gem that identifies the sharpest image [file size does it], saving that and discarding softer [smaller] files from its buffer. There is no reason it can't be in a DSLR with even more capability.

Further Reading:

From the source. (Nikon's own brochure pdf.)

From Imaging Resource.

From CNET (Prize Fight with Canon XTi)

Note: US school grades run from F=fail to A=top grade. Some teachers add plus and minus notation to further differentiate their responses.