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Nikon announces D80
Tuesday, August 8, 2006 | by Rob Galbraith

Nikon's 20-day teaser campaign has culminated in the unveiling of the D80, a replacement for the D70s that incorporates a number of the key features of the D200 in a body that is considerably more compact and less expensive than its midrange sibling. Features the two models share include a 10.04 million image pixel CCD sensor, 11-area autofocus system, sharp viewfinder, 2.5 inch rear LCD and full-featured Commander Mode for controlling external Speedlights. While the D200 is better-specified in a number of areas, we think there will be plenty of photographers who have had their eye on a perpetually-backordered D200 that will opt for the D80 instead. It may be a replacement for the D70s, but on the inside the new model is really D200 Lite.

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D200 Lite: The Nikon D80 and Nikkor AF-S DX 18-135mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED. Click to enlarge. (Photo courtesy Nikon)

Here's a quick summary of the D80:

  • It produces 10.04 million pixel photos from a DX-size 23.6mm x 15.8mm CCD sensor (the focal length cropping factor is approximately 1.5x, relative to 35mm film); each pixel is 6.05m square

  • It captures 12 bits per colour photos (converted to 8 or 16 bits per colour, depending on file format and processing)

  • The D80's image processing circuitry mirrors that of the D2X, D2Xs and D200

  • The camera has a similar overall appearance to the D70s, and a similar control layout too (though the D80's rear LCD, at 2.5 inches, is bigger). It also utilizes the same polycarbonate skin. But it's actually smaller than the camera it replaces

  • The D80 viewfinder has the same 0.94x magnification, 95% coverage area, on-demand grid lines, Type-B BriteView Clear Matte Mark II focusing screen and overall crispness of the D200's viewfinder. It includes a built-in diopter adjustment (-2.0 to +1.0m)

  • The camera will fire at up to 3 fps for a Nikon-specified 23 full resolution JPEG Fine, 6 RAW NEF or 6 RAW+JPEG frames at ISO 100. It's also spec'd to shoot 100 frames at any JPEG setting other than JPEG Fine

  • File format options include RAW (compressed only), JPEG (three different compression levels) and RAW+JPEG (the JPEG compression level and resolution is user-selectable in the RAW+JPEG pair)

  • The D80 has an ISO range of 100-3200 in 1/3 step increments (above ISO 1600, the settings are named HI 0.3, HI 0.7 and HI 1.0), plus ISO Auto

  • Shutter lag is rated by Nikon at 80ms; the startup time is 180ms

  • Its autofocus system is the 11-area Multi-CAM 1000 first deployed in the D200, though in the D80 only the centre AF area can be set as a wide-area autofocus zone

  • D80 ambient metering utilizes a 420-pixel RGB metering sensor and 3D Color Matrix Metering II algorithm; metering modes include Matrix, adjustable Centre-Weighted and Spot (2.5% of frame)

  • Shutter speed tops out at 1/4000, while the standard top flash sync is 1/200. With a compatible Speedlight set to Auto FP High Speed Sync, synchronization is possible right up to the maximum shutter speed. Because the exposure time is controlled by the camera's shutter, it's not possible to cheat the sync speed well above 1/200 with non-dedicated strobes, a nifty feat that is possible with the D70s

  • The D80 includes a built-in popup flash with a guide number of approximately 13/42 (ISO 100, m/ft.)

  • i-TTL flash exposure control is used for both the D80's built-in flash and compatible external Speedlights. The camera includes a Commander Mode for remote wireless triggering using the built-in flash as the master, with identical control options and range as the D200's Commander Mode

  • Among the exposure modes is one aimed squarely at the entry-level shooter or graduate from a point-and-shoot camera: Digital Vari-Program. Options for this mode are Auto, Portrait, Landscape, Macro Close Up, Sports, Night Landscape and Night Portrait

  • Picture review is via a 2.5 inch (diagonal), 230,000-dot, 170 degree viewing angle rear LCD (the LCD is the same component as is found in the D200 and D2Xs)

    d80_sd_slot_thumb.jpg
    SD Inside: The Nikon D80 eschews CompactFlash in favour of Secure Digital (SD) memory cards. (Photo by Eamon Hickey/Little Guy Media)

  • Storage media is Secure Digital (SD), including SD cards that adhere to the newer SDHC specification for official support of 4GB and larger capacities. In-camera write speed is rated at approximately 9.5MB/second, while read speed is approximately 12MB/second, says Nikon USA Senior Technical Manager Steve Heiner. These performance numbers suggest the D80 should be a much faster-writing camera than Nikon's other SLR with an SD slot, the D50

  • Connection ports include mini-B USB 2.0, NTSC/PAL video out with audio and proprietary remote (both the Remote Cord MC-DC1 and Wireless Remote Control ML-L3 are compatible). There is no PC sync socket, though the AS-15 Sync Terminal Adapter can be used. The D80 also lacks a 10-pin remote terminal (the D80 will not connect to a GPS unit) or Nikon Wi-Fi wireless transmitter option

  • Nikon rates the camera at 2700 frames per charge with the Rechargeable Li-ion Battery EN-EL3e; the optional Multi-Power Battery Pack MB-D80 will enable the camera to be powered by two EN-EL3e's simultaneously (or by six AA alkaline, NiMH, Lithium or Nickel-Manganese batteries). The D80 includes a detailed battery status menu screen

  • The D80 will record multiple exposures (up to a maximum of three exposures per frame)

  • The D80 has a programmable FUNC button on the front of the camera

  • Black and white JPEGs direct from the camera are possible, either by selecting the Black-and-White option in the Optimize Image menu before shooting, or by converting already-shot colour photos using the Monochrome function in the new Retouch Menu, discussed next

  • A first in a Nikon digital SLR is the Retouch Menu, which provides a range of in-camera image editing options including shadow-opening D-Lighting, red-eye correction, filter effects, cropping, resizing, black-and-white conversion, image overlay and more. It's clear from our briefings on the camera that Nikon expects the D80's Retouch Menu options to set it apart from the competition in the increasingly-crowded entry level digital SLR category

  • Slide shows from the camera can include Pictmotion pan-and-zoom effects and can be set to one of five pieces of included music

  • Long exposure noise reduction, when enabled, kicks in with exposures that are 8 seconds or longer. Like all earlier Nikon digital SLRs except the D2Xs, the burst depth decreases when long exposure noise reduction is switched on, even when shooting short exposures

  • Image review options include RGB histogram; new menus include a world time zone screen

Feature Highlights

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The Film: At the heart of the D80 is a 10.04 million image pixel CCD sensor. Click to enlarge. (Photo courtesy Nikon)

Sensor and image quality The D80's 23.6mm x 15.8mm sensor is CCD, with a pixel pitch of 6.05m square. At maximum resolution, its picture files are 3872 x 2592 pixels.

If this is sounding a lot like the D200, that's not a coincidence. Nikon USA's Heiner says that the sensors in the D200 and D80 are not identical in design and manufacture, but they are very similar, and in fact the number of image pixels is identical for each camera. Since the D80 shoots at a slower 3 fps, as compared to the 5 fps of the D200, Nikon opted for a 2-channel readout design for the new camera's sensor instead of the 4-channel readout of the D200.

The only other apparent sensor specification difference is total pixels: the D200 has 10.92 million, while the D80 has 10.75 million. Which, says Heiner, relates back to the number of readout channels. The data from both sensors is still distilled down to a 10.04 million image pixel photograph.

Downstream from the sensor is an image processing pipeline that mirrors the D200, which would suggest that the colour appearance of D80 JPEGs, and RAW NEF files processed through Nikon software, will be similar to the D200 as well. The camera can output JPEGs at three different resolutions and three different compression levels, plus compressed 12-bits per colour NEF (the camera does not have an uncompressed NEF option). It can also record RAW+JPEG simultaneously, with control over the JPEG quality.

The D80 includes the Nikon-standard array of options in the Optimize Image menu, including canned settings combinations (Normal, Softer, Vivid, More Vivid and Portrait) as well as direct control over the Color Mode, sharpening, contrast, hue and saturation. Choice of output colour space (sRGB or Adobe RGB) for JPEGs is chosen separately. There is also a black-and-white option, which has its own submenu of settings for contrast, sharpening and optical filter simulations (yellow, orange, red and green).

NEFs shot on the black-and-white setting retain their colour information, and can be processed to colour or black-and-white finished files later. JPEGs shot on the black-and-white setting are permanently grayscale. There is a Monochrome option in the D80's new Retouch Menu that enables a version of a photo already shot with the D80 to be converted to black-and-white, right in the camera.

There are a total of four options in the High ISO NR menu in the camera: Off, Low, Normal and High. Given the similarity of sensor and processing electronics in the D200 and D80, it's likely that the new model will be quite noisy at the upper ISO settings, like the D200. This may be the only significant area in which the D80 does not improve on the performance of the D70s, since the D70s is capable of producing usable photos at its upper ISO limits.

NEF processing options will include Capture NX (an update to the current 1.0 version will be required, and is being readied for release, says Heiner). The D80 will be bundled with PictureProject. We don't know if the camera will include a Photoshop plug-in from Nikon that will process NEFs from the camera. Nikon View can display both JPEGs and NEFs from the camera, says Heiner, though in the case of NEFs it will only show the embedded JPEG. The ship date for Nikon View Pro, which presumably will be able to render the RAW data in a D80 NEF, has still not been set. Third-party RAW converters, such as the Camera Raw plug-in in Photoshop CS2, Capture One and Aperture, will also presumably be updated at some future point to support RAW files from this camera.

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Through the Looking Glass: A look through the viewfinder of the D80, showing the centre AF area selected, the centre AF area set to wide-area coverage, and grid lines enabled. (Photos by Eamon Hickey/Little Guy Media)

Viewfinder With a magnification specification of 0.94x, the viewfinder image in the D80, like the D200, appears appreciably larger than that found in the 0.86x magnification D2Xs. Viewfinder frame coverage is about 95%. The display of AF area indicators, grid markings and other information shown within the image area is dynamic. Grid lines can be turned on and off, and indicators for an empty SD slot, low battery and black-and-white capture mode only appear as needed. The 11 AF areas are represented by small black outlined squares, with the selected AF area surrounded by a set of brackets.

The D200 has been the only digital camera from Nikon to date we've been truly comfortable using to manually focus off-centre subjects. That's because its size and clarity towards the edges is simply the best in Nikon's lineup. Given that the D80's viewfinder is a duplicate of the D200, it should join the D200 as having the clearest, largest viewfinder image of any Nikon digital SLR. Also, because of the way the D80 (and D200) display the AF areas, it wil also have one of the least-cluttered viewfinder image areas in a current Nikon.

Viewfinder information in the D80 is nearly as complete as the D200. The new model does not display the metering mode in the viewfinder (though it does on the top LCD), and the ISO will only display in the viewfinder when the programmable FUNC button has been configured to do so, and then only while the FUNC button is pressed. The ISO can only be viewed, not set, in the viewfinder.

Autofocus The D80 is the second model in Nikon's lineup to use the Multi-CAM 1000 autofocus component, the first being the D200. It has 11 AF sensors arranged in a diamond pattern clustered in the centre of the picture area. The centre AF area is cross-type, the remainder are a mix of vertically-oriented and horizontally-oriented AF sensors. In addition to a complement of autofocus configuration options (the camera's AF system appears to be somewhat less configurable than the D200 overall), the camera can also be set to widen the sensing area of the centre sensor. This is a feature pulled from the D200 too, though that camera extends the capability to the outer AF areas as well for a total of seven wide area zones, as compared to the D80's one.

Nikon bestowed the D80 with one autofocus trick the D200 doesn't have: Auto-Area AF. The D80 brochure describe the feature this way: "This new mode measures all 11 focus areas, automatically determines which of them are on the primary subject, and activates only those areas. During AF measurement, all focus areas that lie within the range of proper focus blink for easier confirmation."

The D80's focus mode selector on the front of the camera has only two positions: AF and M. Choosing between single or continuous AF is done via an on-screen menu. The camera has a built-in AF assist illuminator.

We've found the D200's autofocus system to be responsive and precise for relatively static subjects in a variety of lighting situations, but abysmal for even light-duty sports photography. The D80 brochure makes mention of autofocus algorithm improvements similar to those introduced in the D2Xs, which we hope will make the D80 a more capable camera than the D200 at tracking moving subjects.

d80_menu_06.jpg
Flashy: Command central for the Commander Mode in the D80. (Screen grab prepared by Eamon Hickey/Little Guy Media and Nikon)

Wireless flash The Commander Mode as implemented in the D200 is one of the coolest features of the Nikon system, and the D80 gains the same feature with all options intact. Commander Mode integrates the full range of remote flash control found in the Speedlight SB-800 (when it's configured to be the master flash) in an i-TTL wireless setup. With nothing more than the D80 and its popup flash running the show, any number of SB-600 and SB-800 Speedlights, as well as the newer SB-R200, can be triggered, with full control over the flash exposure mode (TTL, M or AA), flash exposure compensation and wireless channel.

The D80's built-in flash, when acting as the wireless master, supports all four channels of the i-TTL system. The one difference worth noting is the total number of wireless groups possible: four for the SB-800 as master, as compared to three when the D80's built-in flash is the master (one of those groups is always the built-in flash itself). The maximum triggering distance with the D80's built-in flash is expected to be the same as the D200.

One day, perhaps we'll see a wireless TTL flash system from Nikon that uses invisible and longer-range radio signals instead of the staccato of light pulses that provide the communication between strobes in Nikon's current implementation. Until then, Commander Mode in the D200 and now the D80 will be one of the niftiest wireless flash technologies around.

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Rear View: The D80 incorporates the same 2.5 inch rear LCD display as the D2Xs and D200. Click to enlarge. (Photo courtesy Nikon)

Image Review and Image Editing The D80 is the latest Nikon digital SLR to incorporate a 2.5 inch (diagonal) rear LCD. The component itself is the same one found in the D200 and D2Xs, which is a 230,000-dot, wide-viewing-angle TFT.

Turn on the LCD, navigate to the Retouch Menu, and you'll see what is all new to Nikon's digital SLR lineup: a small but useful collection of in-camera image editing controls, including several pulled from the company's Coolpix line. Right in the camera, it's possible to select a JPEG or NEF photo already captured and process one or more successive copies with various edits applied.

The editing options in the Retouch Menu are:

  • D-Lighting opens up shadows without impacting highlights. The camera has a control for adjusting the amount of lightening applied
  • Red-eye Correction
  • Trim enables photos to be cropped in the camera
  • Monochrome converts colour photos to black-and-white, optionally applying a sepia or cyanotype look
  • Filter Effects provide the option of applying two different optical filter effects - Skylight or Warm - or create a custom colour effect by choosing something akin to a colour temperature and tint combination
  • Small Picture downsamples the picture to 640 x 480, 320 x 240 or 160 x 120 pixels
  • Image Overlay merges a pair of photos to create a composite image

Either a D80 JPEG or NEF can be the source for all but Image Overlay, which works with NEFs only. The processing time for most of the edits is quick, says Heiner, quick enough to make the D80 a viable place to make these image adjustments for those inclined to do so. See the next page for numerous menu screenshots of the Retouch menu in action.

In addition to a standard slide show feature, the D80 can apply a pan-and-zoom effect called Pictmotion as the show runs. When the camera is connected to a video display device with speakers (the D80 doesn't have a speaker built in), the slide show can be accompanied by one of five pieces of included music. It's not possible to load your own audio track into the camera.

Conclusion

Nikon appears to have stuffed a lot of impressive features and pixels into a body designed to sell for less than US$1000 in the U.S. Though it will probably not deliver acceptable high-ISO image quality, and its AF tracking may come up short as well, the D80's many other apparent fine qualities will likely more than compensate for these limitations for most photographers considering the purchase of a camera like this. As we noted at the beginning of the article, the D80 has so much in common with the D200 it seems likely that the new model will siphon off sales of Nikon's current digital SLR darling, at least for those who can live without the D200's 5 fps, its superb feel in the hand or small niceties like being able to set ISO in the viewfinder.

The D80 is slated to ship in September 2006 at an estimated selling price in the U.S. of US$999.95. Bundled with the new Nikkor AF-S DX 18-135MM F/3.5-5.6G ED-IF lens, which Nikon has also announced today, the estimated selling price is US$1299.95 in the U.S. The Multi-Power Battery Pack MB-D80 appears to be listed at major U.S. online retailers for about US$150. The word to U.S. dealers we've heard from is that the D70s, which is almost certainly out of production now, will remain available for the next several months and will be as much as several hundred dollars less than the D80 at the time of the new camera's introduction.

Links

Thanks to Steve Heiner, Mike Corrado and Saurabh Wahi for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

Revision History
 Added various details about the D80 based on new information from Nikon (August 14, 2006)
 Added more pricing information (August 16, 2006)

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