Nikon's powerful entry-level D80 DSLR camera

We look at the Nikon D80, the manufacturer’s premium consumer DSLR, and wonder whether the wealth of high-end features make it worth paying more for your first camera

“In use, what immediately strikes is just how easy it is on the Nikon D80 to quickly set the camera for any shot, while barely having to take your eye from the viewfinder”

Nikon has a solid entry-level DSLR line-up these days, ranging from the Nikon D40 right up to this, the Nikon D80. It’s pitched into the mix above the price point of the bulk of consumer-level cameras, but is still cheap enough that someone looking for their first digital SLR should give it some thought.

The Nikon D80 boasts a 10-megapixel sensor. Although even some compact cameras outstrip that these days, you’ll have no problem printing enlargements up to A3 size, even if you’ve done a little cropping.

In use, what immediately strikes is just how easy it is to quickly set the camera 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 tweak it to your needs in seconds.

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.

Elsewhere, the autofocus 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 too, a feature much of the competition lacks.

ISO Auto

Our favourite feature on the Nikon D80 – again 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 but not have to worry about camera shake if you unexpectedly find yourself in low light. ISO Auto will kick in at the shutter speed you’ve predetermined. It’s a brilliant inclusion.

Talking of low-light performance, the D80 has a high-ISO mode to stretch sensitivity up to ISO 3200. You sacrifice detail in favour of noise reduction in this setting, but it’s useful for emergencies.

Where Canon has abandoned the secondary LCD screen with its latest mid-range models, 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. When you do switch to the colour monitor, its 2.5in diagonal and very good brightness and resolution make it easy to judge your shots.

Good kit lens

Nikon’s stock kit lens outdoes the one provided with the standard Canon kits by a good margin. It has a longer zoom range of 18-70mm and feels better built. It has full-time manual focusing too, so you can grab the focus ring at any time, overriding the autofocus without fear of damaging the mechanism. It’s marginally sharper than the stock Canon lens as well, although we did find fringing in the corners of wide-angle shots that a more expensive aftermarket lens wouldn’t display.

Drawbacks of the Nikon D80 are few and far between. In fact, the biggest one isn’t the camera but its software. Nikon’s RAW processing software, Picture Project, is pretty feeble, 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, 400D and 450D displaying lower levels. This difference is marginal, though, and Nikon has managed to keep what noise there is looking more film-like and grainy than blotchy.

Some may argue that the price, being significantly higher than the like of the Canon EOS 400D, means that Canon still rules the roost. But for sheer picture-taking power, Nikon’s designers have thought of nearly everything. It’s simply a better camera than the less expensive competition and one to consider seriously if you have the cash.

Nikon D80 Info

Typical price: £499 body only; £659 with 18-70mm lens; £669 with 18-135mm lens

Powerful controls
Great-quality stock lens
Brilliant ISO Auto mode

On the expensive side
Noise performance isn’t the best

Verdict: It’s on the pricey side but the D80 is a superbly flexible camera that’s worth every penny.

Rating: 5 stars

More info: Nikon Website

Nikon D80 - rear view The four-way D-pad on the back of the Nikon D80 lets you set the autofocus point, and the slider beneath it locks your choice to prevent accidental change
NIkon D80 - top view The top-mounted LCD – not so common in mid-range DSLRs – gives a useful run-down of every setting, including focus point and metering mode