As with Canon’s new 400D – which we’ll be reviewing next month – the Nikon boasts a 10-megapixel sensor, a significant boost from the six megapixels of the D70 it effectively replaces. From a practical viewpoint, a 10-megapixel sensor means you’ll have no issue printing A4-sized prints, even if you’ve done a little judicious cropping beforehand.
In use, what immediately strikes is just how easy it is to set the camera quickly for any shot, while barely having to take your eye from the viewfinder. Everything is at your fingertips; our favourite inclusion is the dedicated exposure-bracketing button, located on the side of the body where your left thumb naturally falls. Using this and a combination of the primary and secondary command dials – which fall under your right-hand index finger and thumb – you can activate bracketing and choose both the amount of compensation (between 0.3 and 2 stops) and whether to bracket either side, only under or only over. The two command dials make adjusting almost every setting completely intuitive: in fully manual mode, for instance, your index finger sets aperture, while your thumb sets shutter speed – no fumbling required.
Unusually, the default auto-focus-area setting for the most used shooting modes, such as Aperture Priority, is user-selected rather than fully automatic. But again, you can set this without taking your eye from the viewfinder. Focus point is selectable at all times via the four-way thumb-selector pad on the back of the body. A slider switch can lock this out to avoid accidental changes. There’s a focus-assist lamp for low-light conditions as well, a feature the competition lacks.
Another great feature missing from the competition is the ISO Auto mode. This isn’t simply a standard auto-ISO setting that wrests control from the photographer. It’s fully configurable, allowing you to set the minimum shutter speed at which the camera should begin to increase the ISO sensitivity, as well as the maximum allowable setting. This means you can set the ISO sensitivity to a low value for the best possible image quality, retain control over the camera, but not have to worry about camera shake if you find yourself in low light. ISO Auto will kick in at the shutter speed you’ve predetermined - it’s a brilliant inclusion. Incidentally, the D80 has a high-ISO mode to stretch sensitivity up to ISO 3200, although you sacrifice detail in favour of noise reduction in this setting.
Where Canon has abandoned the secondary LCD screen with its 400D, the D80 has a big, top-mounted LCD giving you a rundown of every important setting, including focus point and metering mode. When the camera is off, it reverts to a display of the number of shots available using the currently installed memory card; this alone makes it a worthwhile feature. When you do switch to the colour monitor, its 2.5-inch diagonal and very good brightness and resolution make it easy to judge your shots.
Nikon’s stock kit lens outdoes the one provided with the standard Canon kits by some margin. It has a longer zoom range – 18-135mm as opposed to 18-55mm for Canon. Not only that, but it feels better built and boasts full-time manual focusing. In other words, you can grab the focus ring at any time and the built-in clutch lets you override the auto-focus without fear of damaging the mechanism. It’s marginally sharper than the stock Canon lens, although we did find fringing in the corners of wide-angle shots that a more expensive lens wouldn’t display.
Drawbacks of the D80 are few and far between. In fact, the biggest one isn’t the camera but its software. Canon’s SLRs ship with the very capable Digital Photo Professional package, offering full RAW file adjustment, batch processing and metadata tagging. Nikon’s offering, Picture Project, is feeble by comparison, offering no decent response curve or white balance control and no batch facility. To get the most out of the D80’s images, you’ll need to spend more on a decent RAW editor (such as Bibble). Our only other criticism is the noise levels at high ISO settings. Although this has improved with the D80, Canon is still ahead of the game, with the 350D displaying lower levels despite being a generation behind. This difference is marginal, though, and Nikon has managed to keep what noise there is looking more film-like and grainy than blotchy. One final point to note is that it takes only SD card memory.
Some may argue that the price, being around $400 higher body-only than the new 400D and about $700 more for the kit, means that Canon still rules the roost. But for sheer picture-taking power, Nikon’s designers have thought of nearly everything. The significant advances over the previous generation of DSLRs is enough to knock Canon off its long-held A-List perch.
More expensive than its direct competition, but thanks to its brilliant features the D80 is money well spent.
• Nikon: www.nikon.com
• Price: $1894 (time of review) • Camera type: DSLR • Megapixels: 10.2-megapixel • Sensor type: CCD • Max resolution: 3872 x 2592 • Lens max aperture: f/3.5-f/4.5 • LCD size: 2.5in LCD • Metering type(s): matrix, centre-weighted, spot metering • Shutter speed: 1/4000 to 30 seconds plus bulb • ISO range: 100-3200 • Exposure compensation: +/-5EV exposure compensation • Battery type: li-ion battery • Dimensions (WDH mm): 132 x 103 x 77mm • Weight: 660g with battery • Manufacturer: Nikon • Supplier: www.skycomp.com.au