Way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and I got started in photography, my first camera was a Nikon D80, a 10 megapixel DSLR that hit the market back in September 2006
The Nikon D80: compact, light and functional
Most people look at me funny when they hear that I still use a Nikon D80 in 2017. But the simple truth is, the D80 by Nikon is still one of the best models to have in your arsenal. It comes loaded with a whole bunch of features that the newer “entry level Nikons” (such as the 3000 series) never picked up. And whether you’re an amateur photographer or a professional, you’ll find this camera outperforms any expectations of an entry-level Nikon by far.
The D80 is a DX format digital camera, which has a 10 megapixel CCD sensor, that operates at 3872 x 2592 pixels maximum. DX is a scaled-down sensor size, it’s not the full frame “FX” size. But it’s more than enough for someone who wants to take great photos, without spending a bundle on an intermediate or professional-level Nikon camera.
ISO on the D80 goes from 100 to 3200, the camera can do auto ISO, or you can set the ISO manually through the dials and buttons. That’s one thing I love about the D80: dials and buttons. This camera lets you control and configure shooting parameters without having to go into the menu. That means you don’t take your eye off the viewfinder to make adjustments, which is extremely useful in fast-action shots.
Photos are recorded onto an SD card (with support for SDHC format), the camera can record both JPEG and RAW format images. The RAW format is Nikon’s own version, which is called NEF and requires either Nikon’s specialized software to process, or Adobe Photoshop’s Camera RAW.
The camera weighs 585 grams, and is 132 x 103 x 77 mm. It’s much smaller and lighter than its intermediate and professional format counterparts, namely the Nikon D200 and the Nikon D2. But don’t let the small size fool you because the Nikon D80, as we’re about to see, is packed with features that you wouldn’t expect from an entry-level camera!
The D80 has a Nikon F lens mount, and can take most of the Nikkor lenses on the market, both motorized and non-motorized. This means that if you have a D80 you can use modern lenses from Nikkor as well as vintage lenses that you might pick up in a used store. That’s a huge advantage over other lines like the “D3000’s”, which can only take a certain type of Nikkor lens and that leaves you hanging with those great-value and performance vintage lenses. On the D80 I’ve only found a couple of lenses that refuse to work, and they were something that you would expect to see working with a modern-day camera anyway.
To give you an idea of how versatile the mount is, my lens arsenal includes a Nikkor 80-200mm F2.8 lens (which is my flagship zoom and I absolutely love!), a Nikkor 50mm F1.8 prime, and the kit 18-55 mm f3.5 lens. Quite frankly I can’t complain. The D80 has works perfectly with those lenses and hasn’t backed down a single time in the decade or more it’s been shooting.
One thing you should take into account is that the D80 has a DX sensor on it, as I mentioned before. So if you put an FX type lens on it, sensor crop is going to make your pictures look bigger. It makes for an “additional zoom” factor of sorts on your photographs. For example my Nikkor 50mm lens actually behaves more like a 75mm.
That can be good or bad, depending on your specific scenario. In my case where I do a lot of portraits, some landscapes, and such, it works for me. Having a little bit more zoom, in my case, is more an advantage than a disadvantage. I can’t complain.
Flash mount and strobes
One of my favorite things about the D80 is the support for Nikon CLS (creative lighting system). That’s a feature you normally don’t find on entry-level cameras. But the D80 has it!
CLS lets you use the D80 with Nikon’s proprietary remote flash technology. As you become a little more advanced, you’ll start to realize the benefits of using off camera flash, in order to direct the light exactly the way you want it. And this is where wireless systems like the CLS come in extremely handy.
With CLS you don’t have to be running cables all over the room! It turns out the D80 has controller features for CLS, and you can fire and calibrate your flashes directly from the camera, without having to run from one spot to the other. When you press the shutter button, the camera fires some quick flashes, that tell the other flashes in the room when and how to fire. CLS works wonderfully on the D80, no matter if you’re doing portraits, architectural photography, product shots, or just taking pictures around the house.
And don’t think I’ve stopped there. I’ve put the D80 through it’s paces! In recent years I’ve gotten a bit more creative with the lighting system, and have started to combine different technologies. I have a few budget flashes (those $40 Neewer you find on Amazon), which use light sensors to tell when they should fire The light sensor feature works perfectly with the D80 and the Nikon SB600 strobe I have for it. I’ve also tried wireless triggers (those budget pocket-wizard clones from Ebay) for my lights. No problem at all!
My only complaint? I should have bought more budget lights and triggers when I had the chance!
Let’s get to the point that everyone is interested in, which is image quality. For a decade-old 10 MP sensor, the Nikon D80 does quite well even in modern times. The image quality is good and sharp, and can even compete with modern compact cameras, given the right lens and light conditions. You’re probably not going to be shooting a cover for Vogue using a D80, but for everyday photography, when you don’t want to pull out a huge professional level camera, it’s going to do quite well
One disadvantage though: noise. What you do want to watch out for when using the D80 is the noise levels. Unfortunately the sensor on this camera is noisy, especially at ISO over 800. At 400 you’ll start to see some noise, at 800 it’ll be pretty apparent, and anything over 800, forget it. That’s the major pitfall with the D80, the darn noise on the sensor.
Auto focus and light level sensors are alright on the D80. The camera has a continuous focus mode, if you want to use it for Sports Photography. The light level sensors and auto color temp are a bit wonky, and you always have to tweak your photographs a little bit, an important reason to shoot RAW format if you’re using the D80.
Continuous shooting mode on the D80 is nice. That’s about it: nice. About two to three shots per second on RAW, and the memory buffer is a bit small, so the camera stalls after 5 or 6 shots. Using a class 10 SDHC card helps a bit, but it still doesn’t bring D80 to the continuous shot speeds of more modern Nikon cameras.
Battery life with the Nikon D80 is really quite good. The original Nikon battery has never died on me while shooting, despite all my antics with the built in flash. I keep a second generic battery around just in case, but I can tell you that 98% of the time I haven’t used it. One advantage with the D80 is that it uses the standard EN-EL3e battery packs, which now have clones available on the internet for a minimum price.
Beyond the fact that the light sensors are a little bit wonky and the sensor is noisy, the Nikon D80 is a great camera. Vintage? A decade old? Don’t worry! If you can find the one that’s in good condition on the market, at a reasonable price, I suggest that you pick it up.
You’ll find that the Nikon D80 has many excellent features, which make it an absolutely wonderful camera if you’re just starting out in DSLR photography, or if you need a great back up camera to keep on hand.