Nikon D80 – first impressions

It is way too late to be posting “first impressions” of the Nikon D80 as it is a two year old model and has just been superseded by the D90 so the chances of anyone being interested are negligible. Still, I’ve never been one to let things like people yawning hold me back!

I was recently overwhelmed by the urge to own another SLR to replace my rather shabby and unused D70. I valiantly resisted the urge to own the latest and greatest (D90, D300) and also steered clear of the better (than D80) but more expensive D200 on the basis that it does more than I’ll ever need or use, plus it’s 250g heavier to carry around. A serendipitous visit to the poorly named ‘Canon’ shop in Złote Tarasy brought me face to face with the exact combo I had in mind and at good prices so the decision was made for me and I purchased a D80 and the Nikkor f/3.5-5.6G ED DX VR lens. The same camera and lens as my blogging colleague, Michael, who’s shots and comments were part of the reason I went for this combination. The investment was almost exactly 50/50 between the camera and the lens, slightly more for the lens, which is a sensible balance.

The new kit had its inaugural session in Spain and came through it pretty well. Like any new camera, there are things I like and others I don’t so it’s going to take a while before we are comfortable with each other but we’re off to a good start.

I’ve just been reading a few on-line reviews and discussions about the D80, because I’m struggling with the “colour space”, and it hit me for the first time just what a bunch of nutters amateur camera addicts are! It’s quite embarrassing really, the way many of them go on. You can always tell the nutters, they’re the ones with a stupid quote under their name at the bottom of forum posts, usually something like “A Nikon is for life, not just for Christmas”, or, “Enjoying life 1/100th of a second at a time”, “I may be flash but at least I’m synchronised” and so on. Anyway, enough of that, let me tell you what I think of the D80.

BODY

In the hand it feels very familiar and so I assume it is not too dissimilar to the D70, a little smaller perhaps but still with a very good grip. All the buttons are in familiar places but they’ve added a FUNC button at the front. It has taken me ages to find it because it does not have FUNC written on it and it is in the same place as the depth of field preview button on the D70 (more or less). Anyway, I read the manual at last so now I know where it is. This button can be set to perform a number of different tasks to suit your own style of photography. I think I’ll set mine to spot metering. The viewfinder is bigger and brighter than the D70 although I have to say I never really had a big problem with the D70 one. I similarly had no issue with the D70 LCD screen even though at 2″ it is considered rubbish by today’s standards. The D80 has a 2.5″ screen. The D90 has a 3″ screen and also ‘live view’ so you can look at the picture on the screen instead of the viewfinder. My Canon G9 has a very good 3″ screen. I’ve never met a screen yet that gives you a good sense of how the shot will really look and I always end up checking the histogram and the flashing “overexposed” option to get some idea whether it will do or if I need to shoot again. I can do that on 2″ as well as I can with 3″.

I don’t like the rubber door to the sockets area, they call it the “connector cover”. It is quite large and not easy to get it fully closed/sealed. You have to use it a fair bit because that’s where you connect the camera to the PC to download the photos.

EXPOSURE

It overexposes, often quite badly. This was a big surprise because the D70, and most other Nikons, do the opposite. Overexposing is really a Canon thing and pretty annoying because when you overexpose you lose a lot of data/detail for ever, when you underexpose you can often recover the detail when you process in the PC. I can only assume they have gone in this direction because there are so many people who use the jpgs straight out of the camera? I don’t like it and have the camera set permanently to -1/3 exposure comp and have often used -2/3 and even -1. There’s a custom setting that allows you to set the exposure compensation directly from the front command dial (without having to press the exp-comp button first), on the D80 this is a very helpful feature.

COLOUR SPACE

This is a fancy, but shorter, way of saying “the way the camera interprets the colours in the scene photographed”. I’ve been having some trouble with this and I think the answer to what is best for you is that it depends how much processing you’re intending to do. Before going to Spain I read Ken Rockwell’s notes on the D80. Having found much useful information on his site before I foolishly took his advice regarding colour mode and saturation and shot everything in Spain on colour mode IIIa and with saturation at +Enhanced. The results were surprisingly varied but almost always with colours so vivid and violent that it just looked unreal. In most cases the photo looked nothing like what I saw, which is most of the time what I’m aiming for, not some kind of Disney version of what I saw!

When using the D70, I had it set to colour mode II Adobe. This gives subdued colours but gives a file that is better able to manage post-processing in the computer, especially with RAW (NEF) files. Boosting the saturation was therefore part of my workflow and the files generally needed between +5 and +20 but they did brush up nice. These Spanish shots almost all need the opposite, reducing the saturation by about the same amounts, first time I’ve ever had to turn the saturation down. I’ve now turned the saturation setting back to 0 Normal and am experimenting between IIIa and the default Ia. Here’s a shot of Zosia and some grass using IIIa, which is recommended for landscapes. It still looks like a false green in the grass to me so I expect I will end up back at the default and adjusting in the PC when needed. The default mode is recommended for portraits and most general shots and I think that’s about right if you’re going to be shooting JPEG. For RAW you might consider II Adobe.

BATTERY / ELECTRICS

Battery life seems to be very good and the meter is supposed to be very accurate. Not like the D70 where it would report full for ages and then sink like the Titanic shortly afterwards. I have had one or two worrying glitches though and I’m not sure if they are just settling-in pains or problems with the battery or the camera. Once on holiday it just died completely, nothing worked. I removed everything, including lens and battery and then it was fine again. Once or twice it froze for a while after pressing zoom a few times to get a better view of something on the screen and once since I’ve been back the battery meter suddenly went from say half-power to dead and then came back again. I’ll keep an eye on all that. Must say that I started cursing myself for not taking the G9 with me on holiday when the D80 died! Thank goodness it came back to life, I think this was the day BEFORE the Alhambra visit so….a bit worrying and a lesson for the future – take both cameras!

SHOOTING

Not experimented too much yet. I’ve not used, and probably never will, any of the “scenes” like Portrait, landscape, etc. I’ve used Auto a few times and it was okay but I don’t like the limitations and the insistence on using the flash too hastily. Most of the shots have been P, S or A. How good they are you can see from the results!

Struggling with the focusing as well a little bit. It was set to some mode that took a kind of spatter-gun approach to focus and lit up a whole bunch of focus points when I pressed the trigger. This has led to a few shots where the focus point is not where I wanted it to be or even where nothing really seems to be well focused. I’ve changed the mode and hopefully we can get this thing back under my control!

FILE SIZE

Until now I have always shot at LARGE-FINE. I like this combination because it means I can get a decent size crop like this

from an original shot like this

However. It does seem silly to take huge pictures and then shrink them back down to the size of a MEDIUM or SMALL shot for uploading to the gallery and for use in here, which accounts for the vast majority of my output.

I have tested the results at everything down to SMALL-BASIC and they are all surprisingly good. If you think you’re not going to want to do too much cropping or straightening then smaller sizes would be perfectly acceptable but I can’t help feeling safer with the flexibility that a large file gives me. I’ve now got the camera set to MEDIUM-NORMAL and we’ll see how the first results at that setting look. I’ve got an 8GB memory card so whatever setting I use I’m unlikely to need to change cards. In Spain I took on average 30 LARGE-FINE shots a day for two weeks and still had room for over 800 more of them!

LENS

Most of the reviews of this lens say it is a lifesaver, a thing of beauty, a king amongst lenses. Well, it is good but is is not the sharpest lens in the box, there’s a fair amount of distortion and the “bokeh” is nasty. BUT, none of those problems are really really bad and the good points mean it is a hard lens to ignore.

One of the reasons I got this lens is that I intended to use this combination like a “compact SLR”. In other words put it all together and then don’t change anything other than the settings. The lens stays put (saves time and weight, also limits dust), the memory card never needs changing. You just lug it around and take photos. You have most of the advantages of a compact (apart from compactness) but you have better output.

To do this, you need a lens with a wide range and this lens has that. Here are two shots taken from the same cafe chair in Antequera:

First at the wide end of the lens

and now a crop from a shot of the very top of the fountain taken at the 200mm end

Not once did I find myself wishing I had a wider angle or a longer zoom. Of course, both those shots could be taken better with two different lenses but is that worth the money and the hassle required to buy, lug around and change those lenses? That’s the question. I think for me, the answer is, no.

I’ve not owned a VR (vibration reduction) lens before so I was interested to see how it performs. The answer is that it seems to perform very well. I took a number of long shots where the chances of shake were high and none of them are blurred. I did have the advantage of the Andalusian sunshine though so it was not difficult to get high shutter speeds. I’ll know better about the VR in normal mode as we get into darker days here in Poland.

I was very pleased with the results of VR in ‘active’ mode. Fortunately I read about the difference before I left for the holiday and they say that ‘active’ mode is for shots taken from moving vehicles, trains, cars, safari jeeps, etc. When in Seville, I set it to ‘active’ while on the bus tour and although the bus was not exactly racing along the results below are certainly better than I would otherwise have got as rushed shots from a moving vehicle.

Almost full frame

and two crops to see the detail and writing

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BOKEH

The appearance of out of focus areas in the image. This lens has pretty poor bokeh in that the out of focus areas tend to be annoying and can interfere with the main subject rather than acting as a good backdrop for it. Bokeh is primarily of interest with medium or long zoom portraits. The best example I have so far is to look at this portrait of a bull statue and see how annoying the tree in the background is. (best viewed at a larger size – click the photo) Not the best example because it was not a full long-zoom shot but from what I’ve seen so far (and read from others) this is not a good-bokeh lens!


I can’t find a great bokeh shot in my collection but this one below is definitely better. The background, despite being potentially distracting with the angular blades of grass, does not confuse the eye and you can focus quite easily on the dandelion.

CONCLUSION

My main conclusion is that I need to spend more time with it before I make any conclusions! That said, it so far shows great potential to be the super compact camera I wanted it to be. It has all the good parts of the D70 and has improved in various areas. The lens is a compromise but a good one. The results are better than all my compacts but can be even better when I’ve got everything worked out. I think I’ll be happy to take this with me when I want to get some “serious” shots.

If you can resist the need to have the latest release and the other desire to have a better camera than you are a photographer then this has to be a good budget price option. I don’t know what they are pricing the D90 at, but I’d be happy to pay a maximum of 3-500 PLN for that versus the D80 and I’ll bet the actual difference is much closer, if not over, 1,000. It’s just not worth it because frankly none of the latest releases are a quantum leap from what went before and all of them are out-dated after a year, certainly after two years.

Hope this is of help to someone. I’ll do more when I can.

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2 thoughts on “Nikon D80 – first impressions

  1. Aha. The bottom line, eh? Well you should be able to pick up the body, lens and memory card as per my post for 4,000 PLN. Which is not all that bad when you consider that the Canon G9 compact (closest I’ve had yet to good performance from a compact) costs 1,400 PLN. All these would be cheaper outside of Poland of course.

    I’m guessing the D90 will be on sale for about 3,000 to 3,500 for just the body, or with a so-so kit lens. Can’t see any Polish prices for it yet.

    The D300, which would be the next logical step up, is 4,500 (on promotion) just for the body. The D700 is 7,500 for the body. If you’re really serious, you’ll need the Nikon D3 which is 12,500 PLN for the body alone!

    There are various Canon cameras along similar lines and prices. I might also consider the Sony or Olympus cameras as the results I’ve seen have been quite nice.

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