10.2MP and other powerful weapons at your command.
Noise reduction: The D80 additionally allows you to choose the level of noise reduction used in photos shot at ISO 400 and above. We performed our noise tests with the setting at Normal; you can also choose High reduction, Low reduction, or reduction off (which still performs some minimal noise suppression at the highest ISOs). It's obvious where noise reduction kicks in big time: at ISO 800, where noise is even less evident than at lower ISOs.
Typically, noise reduction comes at the expense of sharpness, but with the D80 that loss is minimal. At ISO 800 with Normal noise reduction, the camera can still resolve just under 2000 lines, which is nothing short of awesome. At ISO 1600, resolution was around 1825 lines, and at ISO 3200, it was around 1740 lines -- still good enough for an Excellent rating. Switching to Low noise reduction boosted resolution by a few percentage points; High noise reduction took resolution down by a few percentage points. We found there was no real advantage to switching noise reduction off.
In short, Nikon has made tremendous strides in controlling noise, and the D80 is an excellent available-light camera.
Metering: The D80 has 3D Color Matrix metering, the 420-pixel type developed for the D50. We found ourselves using it for just about everything, given that it could figure out exposures as well as or better than we could. Nice options for careful shooters; the 2.5-percent spotmeter (moves to whatever focusing point you're using. You can adjust the centerweighted metering's circle of greatest sensitivity to 6mm, 8mm, or 10mm. The narrowest is useful for those who shoot a lot of backlit or spotlit subjects.
Capture and storage: The camera uses an SD card rather than CompactFlash card, and will accept the higher-capacity SDHC cards, which is a good thing, given how quickly the D80 can capture big images.
With a relatively fast SD card in the camera (a 1GB SanDisk Ultra II), we fired off 100 highest-quality JPEGs at 10MP before the camera gave up -- and the manual says it should stop at 23. It maintained 3 fps for about 25 frames, at which point it slowed, but still managed 2.6 fps over the 100 shots. Impressive! Lowering the resolution and/or the quality enabled the camera to swallow up 100 images slightly faster than 3 fps overall.
And for those who want to relive the thrilling days of the '60s, the D80 can make multiple exposures -- three in one image, anyway, with the ability to automatically compensate exposures for the multiple.Power options: The EN-EL3e battery has a huge CIPA battery rating of 2,700 shots per charge, which can be increased with the MB-D80 battery grip ($150, street), which can take two EN-EL3e's or six AAs and adds a vertical shutter release. The fuel-gauge battery condition gauge is a great idea, but we wish it weren't two levels down in the menu.
Flash system: For those familiar with the D70's wireless Commander Mode and its limitations, the D80 is a welcome upgrade. The built-in flash can now control compatible Speedlights (SB-800, SB-600 and SB-R20) in any of four channels, and can operate two groups, which allows you to set different output levels on individual flashes. Moreover, the built-in unit can fire in a multiflash setup (and operate essentially as a separate group). The D70 limited the built-in flash to triggering only in Commander Mode.
Postproduction: There's lots of fun to be had with the D80 after you take a shot. In the camera, you can convert an image to monochrome, with conventional black-and-white tonality, sepia tone, or cyanotype blue tone. You can add a skylight effect or a warming filter to color shots. You can combine two RAW images into a multiple image, with adjustments to the relative opacity of the image.
Perhaps of greater use are the image fixes. D-Lighting can give a moderate boost to shadow detail in contrasty pictures; Red-eye Correction detects, then retouches, redeye; Trim lets you crop a picture in-camera, reducing the file size proportionally with your crop. Best of all, each of these fixes is saved as a separate file, so you don't lose your original.
Our favorite tool is Color Balance, which is hidden in the Filter Effects menu. This lets you color-correct an image within a two-axis graph using the jog dial. RGB histograms appear simultaneously to show the relative color levels in the image. You can fix lighting mismatches and white balance goofs (for example, the fluorescent greenies), or warm up or cool down photos to your taste. We wish, though, there were some way to zoom into the image during correction.
The Bottom Line: Perhaps you're thinking this is One Complicated Camera. Absolutely not. Pick it up, put it on Program, choose a resolution, and shoot. When you need advanced controls or after-shooting tweaks, they're there, but they don't intrude on the shooting experience.
After testing this camera, we began to suspect that the people at Nikon have simply gone crazy. The D80 in many instances equals the performance of the $700-more-expensive D200. Sure, the D200 has a tougher body and tougher shutter, but that's still quite a gap.
Should you buy it? If you're into the Nikon system, and want to move up from a D70 or D70s, absolutely. If you're a D200 owner and want a backup that can do it all, absolutely. If you're a first-time DSLR buyer, it gets murkier. The D80 is $100-150 more expensive than 10MP DSLRs from Canon, Sony, and now Pentax -- and the Sony Alpha 100 and Pentax K10D have in-camera image stabilization. Nikon still makes you pay extra for its good RAW converter software.
But given the image quality of the D80, we say it's still a sensational buy.