D80 Impressions

I was in Toronto this Wednesday tying up a few loose ends. Although I anticipated a “get stuff done” day with few highlights, come 7pm I was unhappy to return to Waterloo for Thursday’s classes. While downtown I popped into Henry’s to try out the Nikon D80, successor to the aging D70 series. A combination of gear-lust and curiosity drove me there; I’d heard so much about this camera, seen the same question – “Should I trade my D70 for a D80?” – repeated ad infinitum, that I simply had to see one in the flesh. And that’s why I found myself standing at the Nikon counter asking “Can I take a look at the D80?” I requested the 18-135 kit lens as well for kicks.

18-135:

I didn’t test the 18-135 image quality. Frankly, testing lens image quality in a camera store is a poor call. The lighting’s bad, you’re using high ISOs, camera shake may be an issue – the list goes on. I usually do quick spot checks for obvious focus problems, mechanical issues and lens-body incompatibilities. I sweat the image quality at home using a series of tripod and real-world photos.

That said, I was disappointed in the tactility of the 18-135 and felt it paled in comparison to the 18-70. The zoom ring doesn’t feel as damped; the focus ring is extremely thin and on the copy I had, wasn’t flush to the surface. Subjectively the AF-S motor focused slower. Surprisingly the AF selection switch on the side shows only two modes – A and M – unlike the A/M and M on the 18-70. I wonder if Nikon used the cheaper AF-S motor here. Although the 18-135 has the longer zoom range, I was surprised that the 18-70 outweighed it.

I wouldn’t replace my 18-70 with the 18-135, but, depending on image quality, the lens may be a great buy for beginners. The budget kit zooms (18-55 and 50-200) for the D50 were universally decried for the cheap build that befitted their price range but turned in surprisingly good photographs. There’s no 1:1 relationship between build and image quality.

D80:

It’s tighter, smaller, lighter and holding it, I wanted it. If there’s one word I’d use to describe the change from the D70 to the D80, it’s refinement. Picking it up, I felt it belonged in my hand. The viewfinder was obviously improved, being noticeably brighter and larger than the D70’s. It could still be better however. I noticed the 11 AF points immediately, but again, they’re clustered in the center of the frame. I’d rather Nikon spread out them out to improve coverage of the top, bottom and corners.

Another obvious change was the rear LCD – larger than the D70’s. It’s great for image review and the extremely useful RGB (instead of luminance only) histogram. The dedicated zoom buttons were surprisingly convenient – I hadn’t expected that – and as a result, my image reviews were much faster.

I was disappointed with how the delete and shutter mode buttons were positioned. The delete button is well out of the way in the top left corner. Makes it harder to press accidentally, but I had to constantly move my left hand to delete images. I often review and delete in the field, so this is very inconvenient. The shutter mode button is flush with the grip, making it extremely hard to press. There’s also no viewfinder indication that I’m cycling through the modes – I’d hoped to see this change from the D70.

Taking a few photos I was immediately struck by the improved metering and color “punch”. One complaint I’ve had with the D70 was its overly conservative default saturation and exposure. Great for post-processing, but not so hot for out-of-the-camera JPEGs. The D80’s definitely better and I’d be comfortable using it for JPEGs and auto modes. ISO 1600 noise and color saturation showed significant improvement over the D70 (both images reviewed on the LCD) though I’d have to do monitor comparisons to confirm.

There’s much more to say about the D80, so much so that it’s probably best to summarize…

I like it a lot”.

How’s that for sophistication? :) There are detailed reviews online and visiting the popular photography forums will give you a slew of user impressions. In the end however, there’s no substitute for going out and trying it yourself.

I’ve put together a short list of improvements, disappointments and features I wished the D80 had below.

Pros:

  • Lighter, trimmer body
  • Brighter, bigger viewfinder – a huge improvement over the D70’s
  • Noticeably cleaner high ISO noise compared to the D70
  • Noticeably improved metering
  • Expanded ISO range (100 – 3200, or two extra stops)
  • Better shutter release placement
  • 2.5” LCD screen
  • Full RGB histogram
  • Six additional AF points
  • In-camera B+W filter modes
  • In-camera color balance
  • Easier zoom-in and zoom-out buttons
  • Intuitive picture scrolling

It wasn’t all smooth sailing and my “disappointments” and “wishes” section reflects that. With the announcement of the Pentax K10D, I hope Nikon is pressured to release a prosumer between the D80 and D200 that incorporates some of these features.

Disappointments:

  • No top-mounted ISO button
  • AF and shooting-mode selectors are flush, making them difficult to press
  • No viewfinder indication of AF or shooting mode
  • Viewfinder eye point doesn’t seem to have improved from the D70.This is relevant to eyeglass wearers, because we have to shift to read the viewfinder status line; both frame and status line aren’t simultaneously viewable.
  • Poor “Delete” button placement

Finally, some things I’d like to see in a D80 successor (in fact, in a dream D80!).

Wishes:

  • Even lighter, thinner body
  • Weather sealing
  • Improved low light AF performance
  • More cross type AF sensors
  • Even better high ISO performance – especially in RAW
  • Increased dynamic range
  • Weather sealed lenses to complement a weather sealed body.This isn’t body specific, but it’s a long standing wish.
  • Softer shutter sound
  • Less intrusive low light AF assist system.In all fairness, Nikon’s system is better than most out there, relying on a separate spot AF assist light. Other than Sony’s “hologram laser assist” I don’t know of an alternative. At least Nikon’s bodies don’t use the flash.
  • In-body sensor dust removal (*)
  • In-body anti-shake (*)
  • Customizable auto-ISO range.Like the Pentax K10D, I’d like to specify the high and low ISO thresholds in auto ISO mode.
  • TAv modeLike the Pentax K10D, I’d like to specify both shutter and aperture and let the camera select the appropriate ISO (linked to above?).
  • Custom settings bank accessible on one-button reset.Nikons have a “one-button reset” that resets the camera to factory default settings. I’d like a similar option that resets to my personal settings batch.

(*)

Sensor-based stabilization’s effectiveness reduces as the focal length increases. The thought of having an expensive and crucial component wiggling around would give any mechanical engineer nightmares and conjure visions of multiple failure scenarios.Dust removal only designs on the other hand, can leave the sensor fixed and vibrate another, less-crucial component.Based on existing designs, cameras that combine both features make serious compromises. They use the sensor stabilizers to shake dust off, but initial impressions are mixed; they aren’t anywhere as effective as the stand-alone dust removal designs.From my point of view, the ideal scenario would be lighter, cheaper in-lens VR across Nikon’s entire lineup – both primes and zooms – ranging from wide-angle to super telephotos, but this is highly unlikely.So…what’s the alternative? Which of the two features would I like to see? Depends on what Nikon’s future lens plans are.

Did I buy the D80?No, but that’s not because I didn’t think it a worthy upgrade; the viewfinder and improved high ISO noise alone are significant.

There’s a certain temptation to believe that it’s the camera standing between me and better photographs – that its lack of features X, Y and Z are constraining my vision. It’s good to be honest however. Photographers have done exceptional work with poorer equipment. That doesn’t mean that my camera is inconsequential – good equipment allows me to focus on the image – but it isn’t the bottleneck in the creative process. That bottleneck is me.

I’ll continue to work with my D70, improving my technique and field process. Being more aware is also something I’ve yet to master. Finally, both my post shoot review and processing workflow need a lot of work. Maybe then, after Nikon brings out the D80 successor and addressed some (many!) of my wishes/disappointments, I’ll have improved enough to move on. Till then my D70 will have to do.

Comments

  1. Allen George - October 3, 2006 @ 08:29

    [sighs]

    I hate WordPress and its retarded formatting.

  2. Laurens - November 3, 2006 @ 03:41

    Nice review and especially interesting to me because I also have a D70 and have come to the same conclusion: I don’t need a better camera, first I have to become a better photographer myself.

    I do aim a bit higher with that future toy: why wait for a D80s which will be smaller than my D70? Let’s go for a D250, the bigger and more rugged model!

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