10.2MP and other powerful weapons at your command.
With the major camera makers drawing up battle lines in the 10MP DSLR war, Nikon just marched onto the field with a small but potent new weapon. As we noted in the October 2006 issue, the D80 ($1,000 street, body only; $1,300 with the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G kit lens) represents a major upgrade from Nikon's aging consumer DSLR, the D70s: a jump to 10.2MP from 6.1MP, plus equivalent boosts in processing speed, burst rate, AF performance, and in-camera image controls.
The test numbers are stellar. The D80, which uses the same CCD as Nikon's higher-end D200, has similar resolution, averaging over 2200 lines -- indisputably Excellent. Color accuracy squeaked into Excellent, and noise suppression was exemplary: Extremely Low or Very Low right up to ISO 1600, and Moderately Low at ISO 3200 -- where resolution was still at the Excellent level.
The D80's handling is quite similar to the D70's, which is to say very good. The chunky grip provides a secure handhold, and the front and back command dials, focus/exposure lock button, and four-way jog dial are within easy reach of index finger or thumb.
The view through the glass pentaprism finder, with its 0.94X magnification, is much improved over the tunnel-visioned D70. A trade-off, though: The larger screen image reduces eye relief a bit, so eyeglass wearers may have to shift their view to see the finder readouts outside the frame.
Sorting through the menus of the D80 proves how far DSLR monitors have come in the past few years: Big, clear lettering on the 2.5-inch LCD can be read at arm's length and off angle, with menu choices plainly spelled out in words, not mystery icons. Need more help? Press the "?" button to bring up an on-screen user's guide.
Not to say that the menus always make perfect sense -- a few of the items are oddly categorized. Why, for example, is the battery-condition gauge in the Setup menu rather than the Shooting menu?
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Also, the top LCD control panel has very small readouts. We found it nearly impossible, for example, to switch the white balance in dim light, even with the control panel illuminated. So it's good that many of the functions on the control panel -- like white balance -- can also be reached through the menus.
There wouldn't be enough real estate on a dozen D80's to give every control a switch of its own. Here's a rundown of operation and performance by subsystem.
Autofocusing: A real strong point of the D80, the Multi-CAM 1000 AF module ported over from big brother D200 is a benchmark for SLR speed and sensitivity. Focusing points are arrayed in the now-familiar Nikon pattern of a 3x3 grid of cross-sensors, plus a linear sensor on either side of the grid acting as sentries for motion across the frame.
AF speed is comparable to the D200, including the ability to focus at EV -2, a dimness level where most other DSLRs simply can't autofocus, in 1.5 sec or less. In fairly dim light (EV 1-2), it focused crisply at 0.75 sec or less, and in brighter light at consistently under 0.5 second. Note that these tests are done with the AF-assist lamp turned off; you'll get snappier performance with the bright (and obtrusive) assist lamp.
Image controls: Like a number of recent DSLRs, the D80 has presets for color/contrast/sharpness profiles in the Optimize Image menu. These are Normal, Softer, Vivid, More Vivid, and Portrait. Unlike Canon's Picture Styles, though, the Nikon presets can't be individually tweaked.
For that, you have to select a Custom profile, which we recommend -- not because we have anything against preset profiles, but because, strangely, this is the only way you can select Adobe RGB color space. (All the other profiles use the narrower-gamut sRGB color space.) And if you like to fiddle with your pictures in Photoshop, or make prints on a high-quality printer, Adobe RGB is the way to go. A Custom profile also lets you import a custom tone curve that you create in the optional Nikon Camera Control Pro software ($80, street).
Acknowledging that black-and-white photography is alive and well and increasingly popular among digital shooters, Nikon gave the D80 a monochrome image profile, too, and you can tweak this one to your heart's content: sharpness, contrast, filter effects, and toning.