The New Nikon D80 DSLR

Commentary about what the D80 specifications tell us.

Written the week of the D80 introduction:

Let's get right to the heart of the matter: how did Nikon come up with the D80? Simple, take a D50 body, stuff some D200 components into it, then add a few firmware and UI odds and ends. Presto change-o, you've got a better-than-D70 camera.

That scenario sounds very clear to me. The D80 has the basic shape, size, and feel of the D50 body. Moreover, a look at some of the basic components tells us the same thing:

So what D200 components did Nikon add to the mix? Well, the primary ones are:

Curiously, though, there are a couple of extras thrown into the mix (which also help push this camera up above the D70s in the lineup):

One thing that should be obvious is that the D80 really doesn't have any "new" parts. It's a clever almalgomation of things Nikon (and Sony) already had in the parts bin. Thus, engineering on the model could concentrate on the integration of these parts, not the engineering of them. That has two results: faster to market and better economies of scale. While the D200-like viewfinder may imply a slightly higher cost, the fact that it's now spread over far more cameras actually lowers the cost. Ditto the LCD, autofocus sensor, and battery. Nikon, like Canon, is using the fact that they are producing lots of cameras as a lever to push their margins back up and give them pricing flexibility as new competitors emerge. For example, let's take the Sony Alpha 100 and D80 side by side: Nikon is using and reusing parts in the millions, plus they don't have the expensive anti-shake mechanism to deal with; Sony has a higher parts cost for the same basic camera right now and has to advertise and market heavily to gain share, giving them less pricing flexibility. Even if the Alpha 100 is a rousing success, it doesn't have enough sales volume to lower costs on its own. Thus, I think the D80 should do nicely against the Alpha 100, but if for some reason the Alpha 100 nibbles away at the Nikon market share, Nikon has plenty of pricing flexibility and would likely offer rebates or price cuts to stop that erosion. Since I estimate that Nikon is starting with a higher margin, they can easily cut prices and not become unprofitable in doing so. And note that the D80 makes a dent in the higher-priced Canon 30D as well--more megapixels at a lower price, with little other compromise. Nikon's engineering is producing clear winners (the D2h notwithstanding). Though some keep complaining that Nikon's DSLRs are too late or coming too slowly, personally I'd rather they get things right like they've done rather than push their already onerous schedules up any more.

What I think is interesting about the D80 is that it essentially replaces the D70s even though Nikon currently says it is an "addition to the lineup." Personally, I see no reason to buy a D70s any more. The D50 produces better JPEG images than the D70s at a lower price, and the D80 outfeatures the D70s in so many ways at not much more price that it becomes the new high-end amateur camera to get in the Nikon lineup (the D200 would be a prosumer camera; you really don't need anything in the D200 that the D80 doesn't have unless you have some specific higher-end need, like speed for sports shooting, use of older high-end manual focus lenses, etc.). That has implications. If I'm right and the D70s goes away, then look for the D50 to go away with the next consumer camera. In other words, within 12 months down the road I expect a D40 to replace the D50. Take a D80, remove some of the features (DOF preview, Func button, Front Command dial, multiple exposures, wired remote, optional battery grip, simplify the AF a bit more, slow it down by a fps or so) and put a renewed firmware emphasis on squeezing out some more JPEG quality and you've basically got a D40. Something else would have to give to get some more margin, so perhaps the shutter and/or viewfinder will simplify. But basically, a D40 would be to a D80 what a D50 was to a D70.

Meanwhile, we also got another new DX lens, the 18-135mm DX AF-S (that's a 28-200mm equivalent for those who haven't mastered the 1.5x field of view alternation yet). This looks like the D70s kit lens class of AF-S: manual override of focus, ED glass, regular AF-S speed (unlike the 18-55mm and 55-200mm, which are a crippled form of AF-S). I really wonder where we're going with all these wide-angle to telephoto zooms. We've now got five, and that's more than enough in my book. Personally, I would have preferred the 18-70mm be made into a VR lens for the D80. Getting that extra 70-135mm range in a kit lens doesn't seem to make a heck of a lot of sense when the two primary long options at the consumer end are going to be the 55-200mm lens supplied with the D50 and the also announced-with-D80 70-300mm AF-S VR. At 135mm and f/5.6 on a 10.2mp camera I'm going to be worrying about camera shake if I'm not on a tripod (which is how most people are going to be using a D80, IMHO), thus I'd almost certainly want either VR on the kit lens or to switch to the 70-300mm AF-S VR (or perhaps just buy the 18-200mm VR instead of the lens Nikon introduced with the D80). What's worse, of course, is that each new consumer DX zoom Nikon introduces means that some other necessary niche DX lens isn't getting produced. And those of us with D200's and D2 series bodies have been waiting too long already for some of those specialty lenses. Pity.

So, now we're down to the final analysis. The Nikon Europe teaser countdown for the D80 mentioned a camera that wouldn't disappoint. The American version had the following statements: "more power, more control, more versatile, more excitement." Did the D80 deliver? Well, let's take the satisfy/disappoint matrix for a moment:

Satisfies Disappoints
  • 10.2mp imaging sensor
  • 3 fps
  • CAM1000 AF sensor
  • EN-EL3e battery
  • D200 viewfinder
  • 2.5" color LCD
  • optional MB-D80, WT-3
  • D70s wired and wireless remotes
  • Full Commander Mode flash control
  • RGB histograms
  • Mirror delay
  • All the in-camera imaging options (multiple exposure, B&W optimizations, in-camera editing, etc.)
  • DOF Preview, FUNC button, Front Command dial (if you're coming from D50 mentality)
  • 420-pixel metering sensor
  • SD card usage
  • No anti-shake in camera
  • No anti-dust
  • Smallish buffer (6 NEF)

Not bad, really. The primary disappointment is the lack of anti-shake in the camera, which, coupled with the lack of VR in the new 18-135mm kit lens, makes the D80 slightly less enticing featurewise than the Sony Alpha 100 at the same price. The satisfaction list, however, is probably bigger than most people envisioned for a US$999 camera. Overall, most people are likely to say that Nikon Europe's teaser wasn't unrealistic.

The Nikon USA teaser is a little more problematic, in that you have to define a starting point first. If your starting point is the D50, then yes, the D80 is more powerful, has more control, is more versatile, and probably is more exciting a camera. If your starting point is the D70s, things get a lot cloudier. And if your starting point is the D200, well, no, none of those claims seem fulfilled. But the teaser did say "Integrating quality and affordabilty," which would tend to indicate that we should consider it as a camera that would slot under the D200, not above it. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, though the vagueness of all the teasers left a mighty big door for the eventual product to squeeze through.

Overall, Nikon appears to have the right followup to the D70 now in its line. They've made moderate pushes forward in capability (autofocus, viewfinder, megapixels, flash, in-camera processing) while also taking moderate pushes forward in getting back margin in ways that don't really compromise the final product. Coupled with an eventual D50 replacement done the same way, and Nikon should have three consumer DSLRs that are competitive for the current generation of product. | Nikon | Gadgets | Writing | imho | Travel | Privacy statement | 2007 Thom Hogan. All rights reserved.