Nikon D80 verdict
The arrival of the Nikon D80 completes the trio of high-profile 10 Megapixel digital SLRs. Of course more 10 Megapixel DSLRs are already on their way, but it’s fair to say the greatest attention right now is focused on the D80, Canon 400D / XTi and Sony Alpha A100. So the fair question to ask off the bat, is how does the D80 measure-up?
In terms of features, the D80 doesn’t actually look particularly strong against the competition. Unlike the Canon and Sony rivals, it has no physical means to combat dust, and indeed its software solution only works with RAW files and demands a program you’ll need to pay extra for. Its standard lens kits also don’t offer Vibration Reduction to eliminate or reduce camera shake. So if you’re ticking boxes, the D80 already falls behind Canon and Sony’s offerings, while additionally costing more.
At this point, many buyers would unsurprisingly eliminate the D80, but it’s crucial to look beyond these features. At its core as a photographic tool, the D80 is simply a superb performer. The build quality and handling are a step above the Canon and Sony and its viewfinder experience (for a cropped sensor DSLR) is rivalled only by the D200. The metering and flash systems are excellent and there’s a wide degree of control and customisation for the money. And while a pricier option, the kit with the new DX 18-135mm delivers considerably greater reach than rival lens bundles.
Ultimately the D80 takes great photos and handles very well, but is it worth paying extra compared to the Canon and Sony, especially considering there’s no physical anti-dust or anti-shake? Before our final verdict, here’s how it measures up against several key models.
Compared to Nikon D70s
Despite being closer in many respects as a successor to the entry-level D50, the D80 officially replaces the D70s. There’s certainly many reasons to upgrade from the D70s including considerably higher resolution, superior viewfinder, 11-area AF based on the D200, a 2.5in screen with superbly-designed menus, 3200 ISO, RGB histograms and a battery with feedback, along with in-camera retouching and, ahem, the option of cheesy music to go with slideshows. The body’s also smaller and lighter without compromising comfort or handling.
Switching from a D70s to a D80 isn’t all good though. You’ll lose the quick 1/8000 shutter and 1/500 flash sync for an average 1/4000 shutter and 1/200 sync, and downgrade from a 1005 pixel metering sensor to the 420 pixel system of the D50. In many respects, serious D70s owners looking to upgrade would be better-off considering the D200, but if it’s a stretch too far, the D80 delivers much of its benefits at a more affordable price.
Compared to Nikon D200
Sporting the same 10.2 Megapixel resolution, 2.5in screen and viewfinder, many will view the D80 as a ‘baby’ version of the D200, but there’s many key differences in the favour of the higher-end model. For starters, while the resolution’s the same, the D200’s sensor features double the data readouts, allowing 5fps continuous shooting compared to the D80’s 3fps.
Physically speaking the D200’s weather-sealed magnesium alloy body is a big step-up in build quality over the D80, and some may prefer its use of CF cards over SD. The D200 also supports many more external options including GPS, Wifi and PC-Sync lighting.
In addition, the D200’s top shutter and flash sync speeds are 1/8000 and 1/250 compared to the D80’s 1/4000 and 1/200, and for the metering, the D200 boasts a 1005 pixel RGB sensor as oppose to the D80’s 420 pixel RGB system. The D200’s power-up and shutter lag are also fractionally faster, there’s more information including ISO shown in the viewfinder and it additionally has a mirror lockup function.
So overall there’s sufficient differences for the D80 not to be simply viewed as an ‘affordable’ D200 in a plastic body. They may have the same resolving power, but the D200 is a considerably more sophisticated camera which continues to lead the semi-pro market. For more details, see our Nikon D200 review.
Compared to Canon EOS 400D / Rebel XTi
The D80’s biggest rival will arguably be the Canon EOS 400D / Rebel XTi, and despite them sharing essentially the same resolving power and 2.5in screens, it doesn’t take long to realise they’re quite different propositions.
The D80 features a far superior viewfinder and feels more comfortable and built to a higher standard, but the 400D / XTi is smaller and lighter – and this could be crucial if you travel light. The Canon also exploits its main 2.5in display to show a greater range of shooting information, but the Nikon’s separate info screen will be preferred if you tend to work in very bright conditions.
The D80 has more custom options, greater flash control and better metering, but the Canon boasts several means to combat dust without incurring additional cost and also comes with decent RAW processing software. Crucially the Canon’s also comfortably cheaper, but its 18-55mm lens bundle lets it down compared to the – admittedly pricier – Nikon lens kits. For more details, see our Canon 400D / XTi review.
Compared to Sony Alpha A100
The second big rival for the Nikon D80 is of course the Sony Alpha A100. Again both share the same resolving power and sport 2.5in screens, but again there’s several key differences.
Like the 400D / XTi, the Sony uses its main 2.5in display to show a greater array of shooting information, and cleverly flips it by 90 degrees for portrait shots so it’s always upright. Again though, very bright conditions will see the D80’s traditional separate info screen preferred.
Additionally the D80’s viewfinder experience and overall build quality is preferred, and while the Sony boasts a wide range of customisation, the Nikon takes the lead. But then there’s the A100’s trump card: built-in anti-shake which is genuinely effective and works with any lens you attach. The Sony’s 18-70mm kit lens is also a good match for the Nikon bundles, and like the Canon it’s cheaper overall. For more details, see our Sony Alpha A100 review.
The Nikon D80 is without a doubt a very classy camera. It feels great, handles well, performs superbly and has one of the best viewfinders around. At times when rivals struggled with various lighting conditions, the D80’s metering remained unfazed and quite simply delivered great-looking images every time.
In terms of traditional photographic respects it’s the best quality ‘budget’ 10 Megapixel digital SLR we’ve tested. But it’s crucial to note the market’s maturing quickly and many buyers expect support for new features. For example, while the anti-dust systems of the Canon 400D / XTi and Sony A100 were far from 100% infallible, at least they were doing something about it. In contrast the D80 only eliminates dust on RAW files using software, and that’s software you also have to buy.
Then there’s anti-shake. Like Canon, Nikon strongly believes in lens-based optical stabilisation. This is all very well, but both companies urgently need to offer a budget kit lens with stabilisation, as both are losing out to Sony in this respect. The Sony A100 boasts built-in anti-shake as standard which works with every lens. In contrast, adding an optically stabilised lens to either the D80 or 400D / XTi will significantly increase its overall cost.
Which brings us to the bottom line: price. The D80 may be a classier camera than its rivals in traditional respects, but has fewer of the key features most buyers are talking about right now – and it costs more too. As such, those on a strict budget who aren’t bothered about the D80’s superior build, metering or flash capabilities will be better served by the Canon and Sony models.
Of course all three 10 Megapixel DSLRs have their pros and cons. If support for specific features has you siding towards one, we’d still advise personally checking out all three in the flesh. Handling each of them in person to see how they look and feel could well sway your decision far more than comparing a list of features. And don’t forget forthcoming models from Pentax and Olympus to name but two.
If however you value the D80’s superior build quality and accurate metering and would also exploit its more powerful flash and customisation options, it’s worth spending the extra. The D80’s a step above the 400D / XTi and A100 in terms of build, metering and flash capabilities, not to mention its superb viewfinder. As such, even without physical anti-dust or an anti-shake kit lens, we can whole-heartedly recommend it.
Check out our 10 Megapixel DSLR group test to see how the D80 compares against the Canon 400D / XTi and the Sony A100 and visit our Budget DSLR Buyer’s Guide for an update of the best buys around right now.
NEW: Wondering which lens goes best with a new D80? Check out our Nikkor kit lens group test which compares the DX 18-55mm, DX 18-70mm, DX 18-135mm and the DX 18-200mm VR, complete with a video tour around all four.
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