Nikon Digital SLRs > D80 Guide
Published: May 2007

Nikon D80 Guide

Before I had the opportunity to use the Nikon D80 for this guide, I'll admit that I'd been wondering just who this camera was for.

  • It doesn't have any of the "extra" features like dust control, built-in image stabilization or a live view LCD
  • It's up against one of the most highly regarded and best-selling cameras: the Canon EOS Digital Rebel xTi
  • Its price is set higher than competing cameras, and is only a couple hundred away from Nikon's semi-professional D200
  • There are many other 10 megapixel digital SLR cameras to choose from

Faced with all of this, how does the Nikon D80 stand out from the crowd?

It stays competitive by borrowing some features from Nikon's line of professional cameras, including an autofocus system that locks on instantly and an internal image processor that never leaves you waiting to take the next shot.

nikon d80

Quick Overview

  • 10.2 megapixel sensor - for high-quality 16x20 inch prints
  • Compatible with Nikkor DX, G and D lenses
  • 3 photos per second
  • ISO settings from 100 to 3200
  • Maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th of a second
  • 1.5 times crop factor
  • 2.5" LCD
  • Stores photos on SD memory cards
  • 11-area autofocus system

Key Feature


The core of the Nikon D80 is an enhanced processor that makes the camera fast.

10.2 megapixel files are not to be trifled with - they are large images that produce large file sizes.

Since these photos are so large, it takes a lot of processing power to move them from the sensor to the memory card.

Nikon upgraded the processor in the D80 and it benefitted from the advanced technology that Nikon puts into their professional-grade cameras (like the D200 and D2Xs).

All this means that taking photos with the D80 is a seamless experience. You'll never have to wait for this camera to catch up, and it's always ready for the next shot.

Pair this with the advanced 11-point autofocus system, instant start-up time and zero lag time (the moment you press the button the camera snaps a photo) and you've got a camera that can capture even the most fleeting moments.

Put another way - if you miss important photo opportunities with the D80, you'll only have yourself to blame.

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Who The Nikon D80 is For

Given its sheer speed, I'd recommend the Nikon D80 for action photographers.

I've already touched on some of the elements that make this camera suited for action photography, but I'll focus on two features that really make this camera stand out.

The first is the autofocus (AF) system.

A superior autofocus system is a requirement for any type of action photography since you're going to be tracking subjects that are in constant motion.

There are several elements to a exceptional autofocus system:

  • Wide coverage - the autofocus points cover the majority of the viewfinder, which can capture subjects that aren't dead center
  • Fast acquisition - the AF doesn't hunt around trying to acquire focus: the moment you start to press the shutter, the focus locks into place
  • Continuous - when an AF system is set to continuous, it's able to change focus on a subject, even if the subject is headed straight at you

Simply put, the Nikon D80 autofocus excels in all of these categories - I'll go so far to say it's one of the best AF systems I've used.

Time after time I was impressed by not only how fast the D80 focused, but also how ACCURATELY it focused.

All digital SLR cameras focus fast, but this does not mean they always focus where you want them to. Many times you might find the camera focusing on the background instead of your primary subject.

With the D80, you can focus in on your subject, even if you only have a few seconds to get it right.


Case study: I was sitting in a park taking photos for this Nikon D80 guide, when I heard a flutter and chirp to my left. A small bird had landed on the ground close by.

I turned the camera to my left, pressed the shutter halfway down, focus locked, and I snapped one photo. It's a good thing too - a second later the bird had flown off.

While not the most captivating bird photo I've taken, it was a testament to the power and accuracy of the D80's AF system.

Buffer and Processor

The second reason that the D80 is ideal for action photography is because you never have to wait for it to save images to the memory card.

With its improved processor and a buffer capable of storing 23 consecutive high-quality JPG files, the D80 is always ready for the next shot.

In a short half hour in the back yard with my lab and son I blazed through dozens of photos and thoroughly enjoyed the speed and responsiveness of the camera.

Not all of them turned out - I would not expect them to - but I would up with a high number of keepers in the end where the focus was spot-on and the image was the exact moment in time I was trying to capture.

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In Comparison

In this section, I'll perform some analysis for you, and compare the Nikon D80 to other comparable 10 megapixel digital SLRs.

I'm comparing the D80 to other cameras with similar features and performance which also typically means that they fall within the same price range.

"Extra" Features

The Nikon D80 is notable because it does not include any of the "extra" features that are becoming more common on digital SLRs in 2007: dust control, image stabilization or a live view LCD.

The lack of image stabilization makes sense: if you want image stabilization with a Nikon camera, you'll have to buy a separate Vibration Reduction (VR) lens.

An LCD that doesn't display a live preview is also fairly common on digital SLR cameras (with some recent notable exceptions).

But the one feature that's really missing here and has become quite common on other digital SLRs in this price range is a dust reduction system.

Three other major competitors in this category - the Canon Rebel xTi, the Sony ALPHA DSLR-A100 and the Pentax K10D - all have sensors that "self clean". They either repel dust so it can't land on the sensor in the first place, or they vibrate to "shake" off dust already attached to the sensor (some do both).

A dust control system is not a necessity - the D80 takes beautiful photos without it - but it's a nice to have since dust can get into the camera body every time you change the lens.


I can safely say that this is one of the fastest consumer-level 10 megapixel digital SLRs that I've used.

While the 9-point autofocus systems on the Canon xTi and Sony A100 are certainly nothing to sneer at, the 11-point system on the D80 is a cut above. The new processor also seems to keep the camera from slowing down, especially if you're taking one photo right after the other.

If you use other digital SLRs will you miss the increased speed of the D80? Probably not.

But if you have the opportunity to try several of different cameras at the same time, I think that you'll get the same impression that I did that the Nikon D80 is just a bit more responsive the competition.


Sometimes, selecting the best digital SLR camera comes down to the tiny things that it does that other camera's don't.

I feel it's important then to go over some of the lesser-used features of the D80 that set it apart from other cameras:

  1. Viewfinder ISO - while you can change the ISO on every digital SLR, you can't look through the viewfinder and see what the ISO is set to - except with the D80. A small button conveniently located on the front of the camera allows you to see the ISO setting in the viewfinder whenever you like.
  2. Multiple Exposures - like film cameras before it, the D80 can take multiple exposures. While you can replicate this effect with software, it's worth noting that the D80 can take these types of photos with nary a computer in sight.
  3. In-camera Editing - If you're not completely satisfied with the image you just took, no problem. Just run the image through any one of the D80's in-camera effects to improve the image (see more on this in the "How It Works" section below)

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How It Works

The first thing that I noticed when I picked up the Nikon D80 for this guide is that it's one solid hunk of a camera.

Bucking the recent tradition of making digital SLRs smaller (examples of this include the Canon xTi and Olympus E-410 and E-510) the D80 is a large camera with a more professional feel to it.

The grip is wide and comfortable, and the controls are placed within easy reach of the thumb and index finger of your right hand.

In Use

The Nikon D80 features two rotating control dials: one on the front of the camera (under your index finger) and the other on the back (under your thumb).

This is a great setup for photographers who want to manually expose, allowing you to quickly set both aperture and shutter speed.

One-touch buttons for other common camera settings are arranged along the back left side of the camera. These include white balance, ISO and quality settings.

One of my favorite features of the D80 are two non-descript buttons on the front of the camera body right next to the lens.

The first falls nicely under your middle finger (assuming you've got your index finger on the shutter release button). Pressing this displays the ISO setting in the viewfinder, an invaluable feature for anyone who enjoys changing the ISO.

With one quick press of this button, you can ensure that you're not taking some important photos in plenty of light with your ISO accidentally set to 3200.

The second button is also fairly easy to reach, and that one is the depth of field preview.

The depth of field preview sets the lens to the aperture that you've selected, so that you can see the effect it's going to have in the camera's viewfinder.

This is an essential feature for close-up and landscape photographers, and the convenient location makes it easy to use.


I've always been impressed with how the Nikon digital SLR cameras capture color, and the D80 is no exception.

The Nikon sensors do especially well with primaries: reds, greens and yellows are deeply saturated and create photos with rich color pallets.

You also have the option to modify how the camera captures color (to either enhance or subdue): for example, selecting the "Vivid" mode makes neutral or bland colors really come to life.

While you don't have the same fine-grain level of control that you have with Picture Styles on the Canon EOS Rebel xTi, the D80's natural color and clarity will produce plenty of images with "wow" factor.

Black and White

Black and white Nikon enthusiasts may breathe a collective sigh of relief.

A black and white mode was notably absent from all of the previous consumer-grade Nikon digital SLRs including the D70, D70s and D50.

The D80 makes up for this with a native black and white mode along with the ability to convert any color image into black and white using in-camera editing.

And you're not just limited to black and white.

The in-camera editing feature also allows you to covert images into sepia and cyanotype. Cyanotype is an ancient printing process that gives photos a blue color tone (see an example).

The native black an white capture mode is exceptional, producing images with crisp whites, dark blacks and a wonderful balance of gray tones in the middle.

If you're really into black and white photography, then I'd recommend taking photos in black and white rather than converting them from color. I was more impressed by the quality and tonality of the original black and white photos than any of the images I converted either in camera or with software.

In-Camera Editing
nikon d80 sepia

One powerful feature of the Nikon D80 is its ability to edit any photo stored on the memory card.

You don't need a computer or photo editing software to perform standard tasks like brightening shadows, adding filter effects (warming, cooling, etc.) or removing red-eye.

Editing one of your photos is easy: select the effect that you want to apply, select the photo you want to apply it to, make some adjustments to the intensity of the effect and save. The D80 saves the edited version as a copy, preserving the original photograph.

One of the more powerful editing features is called D-Lighting. A limitation of all cameras - film and digital alike - is something called dynamic range.

The limitation typically occurs in high-contrast situations: a bright sunny day is the best example.

Imagine that you're trying to take a portrait of a friend with black hair wearing a white shirt. In bright sunlight, one of two things is going to happen: either the shirt will be correctly exposed and the hair will be pure black (with no detail) or the hair will be correctly exposed and the shirt will be pure white.

There's no way to get detail in both the shirt and the hair with high-contrast lighting.

The D-Lighting edit effect helps you get around this problem by ONLY brightening the shadow areas in the photograph. If you take photos that include strong shadows, you can bring some detail back to the shadow areas by using the D-lighting edit effect.

DSC_0047 nikon-d80-034

Before D-Lighting

After D-Lighting

I'll admit that for me, the in-camera editing is more of a novelty than a necessity. Part of the problem is the display: even though the big, bright 2.5 inch LCD on the D80 makes changing menus and reviewing photos easy, I would not trust it to evaluate the balance or color of any image I wanted to print.

I also find that it's much easier to make any type of edit on a large 19 inch monitor than on a 2.5 inch LCD, even if I'm just removing red-eye from a photo.

Think of it this way: in-camera editing is OK for quick one-off changes to your photos if you absolutely must edit an image without a computer or software.

But if you really want to maximize the quality of your photos (or edit many at a time), you're going to get better results in less time with a simple editing program like Google's Picasa than you are using the D80's built-in editing mode.


The built-in flash unit on the Nikon D80 is quite similar to the flash units on many other digital SLR cameras.

It pops up far away from the camera body, which helps to prevent red-eye.

While it will certainly help light a scene in a pinch, I would recommend that you go out and find a low-price external flash unit if you're going to be taking a lot of flash photography.

For about $100 you can get a Nikon-compatible flash (older units like the SB-24 and SB-26 are available on eBay) that will be significantly more versatile and more powerful than the small built-in unit.

Another flash that I recently picked up that's compatible with the Nikon digital SLRs is the Vivitar 285HV.

The control of this flash is completely manual (hence its low price) so it's not a good choice for the beginner or anyone who want an auto-everything flash.

On the flip side, this flash is extremely powerful, can be bounced off ceilings and walls, and is highly regarded for its durability by many professional photographers.

If you'd like to learn more about external off-camera flash, I recommend that you read through the Lighting 101 guide at


The EN-EL3e battery not only lasts a long time (up to 2,700 images per charge according to Nikon specs) it also has a real-time fuel gauge.

Most digital SLR camera batteries display three status levels: full charge, half charge and dead empty.

The problem with this setup is that when the camera is displaying a half charge, you have no way of knowing if this means it has 50% of a charge left or 10%.

There have been many times when I've had a battery with "half a charge" that died within 5 minutes of use. The real-time fuel gauge helps you tell exactly how much charge is left so you're never left with an expensive digital SLR that can't take any photos.

If you enjoy taking trips and don't want to be charging the battery all the time, a second is a worthwhile investment.

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The most typical Nikon D80 package comes with the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 ED lens.

While this lens is a HUGE improvement over many of the other standard kit lenses that I have used, it still has some flaws that you should be aware of.

First, let's tackle the benefits of this lens:

  1. Wider Zoom Range - most other kit lenses only go from 18 to 55mm
  2. Solid Build - this lens doesn't feel as cheap and light as common kit lenses (that are made almost entirely of plastic) and the zoom is smooth yet firm (so the lens won't accidentally "slip" from the focal length you have set

Unfortunately, it's in the area of optics where the lens starts to fall apart...a bit.

You won't notice any issues if you're taking photos of people, landscapes and other subjects that don't have straight edges.

But the minute you photograph a building it becomes apparent: even if you compose the image in the viewfinder so that the sides of the building are straight up and down, in the final image you'll notice that what should appear as a straight line is actually bowed.

The common term for this optical problem is pincushion.

More expensive lenses correct for pincushion to ensure that every line in your photo is perfectly straight (unless you're using a VERY wide angle lens, in which case the distortion is natural).

You might be surprised that a relatively nice kit lens like the 18-135mm would have a noticeable problem like this - but let's remember a few things:

  1. This is a KIT lens, which you get relatively cheap when you buy it packaged with the camera
  2. The distortion is only noticeable when you take photos of buildings - if you never do, then you'll probably never notice it

In the end, I'll let you be the judge. I used the 18-135mm lens to take many of the photos for this Nikon D80 Guide (the other lens I used was a Sigma 10-20mm, which is great for wide-angle work). Take a look at the sample photos included on this page (and the ones below). If you can't see the distortion, then this kit lens will be a good option for you.

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The Pros and Cons

Pros Cons
  • Ultra-fast response times
  • Wide-area accurate autofocus system
  • In-camera editing
  • Detailed battery fuel gauge and extensive battery life
  • ISO display in the viewfinder
  • Native black and white mode
  • Larger and heavier than other SLRs
  • No "extra" features
  • Kit lens has noticeable distortion

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Nikon D80 Photo Samples

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Price Analysis

The Nikon D80 comes in at an interesting price point.

Since it is so feature-rich, it makes sense that it's not the most inexpensive digital SLR that you can buy. At the same time, it does not land in the semi-professional class of cameras like the Canon 30D and the Nikon D200.

Its closest direct competition are other consumer level 10 megapixel digital SLR cameras, but the Nikon D80 is at the high end relative to the competition.

While the Canon Rebel xTi and the Sony ALPHA A100 come in right around $700, the Nikon D80 retails - with its kit lens - for a little over $1,000.

You get a lot of camera for what you pay for, but be sure that you need the extra speed the D80 offers before spending the extra cash.

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For Owners

Nikon Links
Digital SLR Lessons

The Nikon D80 is a powerful digital SLR camera that has a lot of features for you to leverage. If you're not already familiar with how you can use aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance and metering to improve your digital photos, I encourage you to learn. This is why I offer 5 online lessons that will help you master your digital SLR camera.

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