last update: Jan 25, 2002

  Nikon N80/F80 Review

Pro features, consumer body. Do they mix well?

 

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This camera is no longer produced

Previously, I was never a fan of the lower-priced Nikon SLR bodies. The F50/N50 was remarkably featureless, the F60/N60 had the nagging problem of hiding what it was doing (like switching to center-weighted metering when you pressed the exposure lock button!), the F65/N65 doesn't allow use of older AI-S lenses, and the F70/N70 featured a funky user interface and lacked depth of field preview. Virtually everywhere you looked, Nikon's inexpensive bodies lacked a key feature, didn't provide enough control, or did things automatically that you didn't necessarily want them to.

 

With the introduction of the F80/N80, (almost all) that's all behind us. Nikon has finally produced a lower-cost body with a remarkably wide range of useful features, and they managed not to cripple it in the process. Already you see people referring to it as "the poor man's F100."

The F80/N80 indeed looks a bit like a slightly smaller F100, though even a cursory examination reveals that the build quality is nowhere near the impecable sealing and control build of the pro model. Since the F80/N80 and F100 share so many features and controls, Iíll concentrate on the differences between the cameras in this review (you might want to read my F100 review before continuing).

The primary things the F80/N80 sacrifices over the F100 are:

  • Poorer build quality throughout. You'll find lighter weight materials and less weather sealing. The F80/N80's controls seem somewhat flimsy compared to the F100, and I'd be worried about dust and rain getting through the spaces around many of the camera's controls.
  • The F100 can meter with manual focus (AI and AIS) lenses, the F80/N80 cannot.
  • The F80/N80ís top frame rate is 2.5 fps compared to the F100ís 5 fps.
  • The F100 has a wider exposure compensation range, and does so by 1/3 stops (the F80/N80 uses 1/2 stops)
  • The F100's faster shutter speed is 1/8000, the F80/N80 stops at 1/4000.
  • The viewfinder of the F80/N80 covers 92% of the frame, the F100 covers 96% of the frame.
  • The F80/N80 uses two CR123A or DL123A lithium batteries, while the F100 uses ubiquitous AAs.
  • The F80/N80 has 1/125 maximum flash sync versus the F100's 1/250.
  • Rewind is about 15 seconds for the F80/N80, while it's slightly more than half that (9 seconds) with the F100.
  • The F100 supports a PC connection and download of data; the F80/N80 does not.

Benefits of the F80/N80 over the F100 are:

  • The F100 weighs a hefty 27.7 ounces, compared to 18.2 ounces for the F80/N80. (Those are the weights sans batteries; the differences skew even more towards the F80/N80 when batteries are considered)
  • The F80/N80 has a built-in low power (GN 40 [12m]) flash.
  • The F80/N80 accepts a manual cable release (!).
  • The F80/N80 has "on-demand" horizontal grid lines in the viewfinder.
  • Cost!

Minor things that are different on the two cameras:

  • Controls have moved or been modified slightly. The metering selector is just to the right of the viewfinder eyepiece (as opposed to the side of the prism), the focus area selector has moved a bit closer to the viewfinder, the main setting dial on the left side of the camera has been substantially changed, and so on.
  • The F80/N80 uses a slightly different autofocus sensor. Instead of three cross-hatched sensors (left, center, and right), it has only one in the center. The left and right sensors are slightly angled to improve performance.

Thom Hogan's Complete Guide to the N80 is now available. Click on the cover, below to find out more.

  The Basics

Amazingly, the F80/N80 has nearly every feature a pro would demand of a camera (with perhaps the exception of build quality).

You get Program, Shutter, Aperture, and Manual exposure modes; diopter adjustments for the viewfinder; a wealth of useful information in the viewfinder, including a frame counter; excellent, though not-quite-state-of-the-art autofocus; 10-segment matrix, spot, centerweighted (75/25) metering; exposure compensation and two or three shot autobracketing; manual ISO override or DX auto sensing; TTL flash control, including Slow and Rear Sync; depth of field preview; and even a minimal set of custom functions. All this plus the usual features you'd expect in a camera.

Handling

The first thing you notice in picking up an F80/N80 is how light it is (at least if you've been using an F100 or F5, as I have). It also is a bit smaller in most dimensions, so it feels quite comfortable in my smallish hands. Like virtually all recent Nikon SLRs, it has an oversized grip that facilitates holding the camera with your right hand (sorry lefties). On the downside, you're fully aware that you're holding a plastic camera. Even my Coolpix 880 and 990 have a slightly beefier feel than the F80/N80.

Of course, these days plastics are just as sturdy as most metals, so it isn't body sturdiness that's an issue. What bothers me most about the F80/N80 is the apparent vulnerableness of the controls. Moving the metering method selector from the side of the prism where it isn't accidentally brushed against to the rear of the camera next to the viewfinder seems a questionable decision, especially since the control itself doesn't seem as rugged. The plethora of buttons and controls coupled with less weather sealing doesn't bode well for sustained use of the F80/N80 in inclement conditions, either. In short, the features may be professional, but the build quality is mid-level consumer.

While many of the controls have migrated or morphed from the F100, I didn't find this a problem at all. Virtually every control was where I expected it, and clearly labeled. We're talking minor changes, and nothing that would slow you down when switching back and forth between an F80/N80 and an F100. However, I'm not overly thrilled at the migration of so many controls to the back (flash sync, rewind, bracketing, and metering selectors), as I believe that every control of a camera should be usable while looking through the viewfinder. Nevertheless, iin practice I've only found one thing I felt was objectionable: Nikon moved the exposure compensation control from being the rightmost button behind the shutter release to being the leftmost! Every other Nikon body puts that button in the same place, so when you move back and forth to the F80/N80, expect to be pressing the wrong button (and it's even worse in that the flash exposure compensation button is the one that's in that position, so looking through the viewfinder you might think you're dialing in regular exposure compensation when you aren't).

One thing I haven't seen written about elsewhere is the adaptive viewfinder. In bright light, the current focus bracket shows up as black brackets (like the F5). In dim light, the current focus bracket displays in bright red (like the F100). Perfect! The on-demand grid lines, however, are controlled by a custom function, not by an accessible external control. Nikon should have made the LCD illuminator button do double duty here.

In short, the basic handling of this camera is comfortable and practical. Unlike the F70/N70, this camera doesn't ever get in your way or slow you down. Unlike the F65/N65, this camera doesn't do anything unannounced. In general, it behaves just like a low-cost F100.

Nikon still hasn't gotten around to fixing a couple of minor mistakes, however. As with the F100, you get a plastic eyepiece cap instead of a built-in viewfinder shutter. This is perhaps forgivable given the price of the camera, but we still have those crazy custom functions that require either a cheat sheet or memorization.

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  Exposure

The F80/N80 meter is dead-on to my F100's. I'm talking about nearly zero difference in virtually every situation I tried. However, there's a small "gotcha": the F80/N80 uses 1/2 stop increments instead of the 1/3 stop increments of the pro cameras. That means that, while the meter is every bit as accurate, the camera can't always set an exact exposure--your exposure could be rounded a sixth to a fourth of a stop. If you're shooting print film, this difference is not enough to even spend ten seconds thinking about. However, if you shoot slide film in the F80/N80, you need to account for even this slight difference in exposure setting.

That said, I didn't find any slide exposures that I was uncomfortable with. And you can always dial in exposure compensation or turn on the auto bracketing, if you're really worried.

Center-weighted metering in the F80/N80 biases 75% of the exposure evaluation on the 12mm diameter circle in the viewfinder, as do most of the newer Nikons. And the spot metering is exactly the same as the F100 and F5: five spot meters that coincide with the five AF sensors, each approximately 1% of the frame.

Manual exposure hounds will appreciate one change in the F80/N80 over previous Nikons: you get three full stops of metering information on each side of 0 instead of only one.

Autofocus

Go read the section on autofocus in my F100 review. With a couple of caveats, it all applies equally to the F80/N80.

The caveats have to do with the use of the CAM900 sensor instead of the CAM1300. The F100 and F5 have much better low-light and horizontal sensitivity in the left and right sensors. On those pro cameras, this translates into less focus hunting in a few situations. But coupled with the N80/F80's slower continuous drive, I found that the less-sensitive left and right sensors resulted in sometimes missing a shot that had cross frame motion. If you shoot wildlife, the F100 is a better choice. If you mostly shoot static shots, this slight difference isn't going to bother you.

 

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Drawbacks
  • Build Quality. Ya gets what ya pay for. I've managed to scuff up my F100 in my backcountry forays, but I've never worried about dust and water getting into the camera. I'm going to have to be very careful with the F80/N80, though, as it won't stand the beating the heavier camera takes, nor will I feel comfortable shooting with it in dust storms or light drizzle.
  • Flash sync is only 1/125. That, coupled with the weak internal flash don't make for as much flexibility as I'd like. Example: at ISO 100 with an f/2.8 lens on the camera, your maximum shooting range is 14 feet (4.2m). Moreover, the built-in flash can't be used with virtually any zoom that goes wider than 28mm due to its position so close to the prism.
  • Manual lenses. If you've got AI or AIS lenses, you won't be using them very often on the F80/N80, as it can't meter with them. That's a shame, as I'd love to take my Series E lenses with this body to save weight on backpacking trips.
Positives
  • Bang for the buck! Nikon has finally given us a fully featured, remarkably advanced SLR at a consumer, not pro price.
  • Depth of field preview and gridlines in the viewfinder. Both features are remarkably useful.
   
 

Best Book for Photographers

Well, I'd humbly suggest that my Thom Hogan's Complete Guide to the N80 is the best of the bunch, but the bunch only consists of two at present (the other being the ubiquitious Magic Lantern Reference (a German book translated into English and published by Silver Pixel Press in the US). The Magic Lantern book, however, has a bunch of mistakes in it, including passages lifted directly from their F100 book that don't apply to the F80/N80. I don't recommend it now that my book is out (;~), but if you're interested in it, type in N80 in the Amazon search box on the right and you'll be taken to the Magic Lantern book.

 

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Naveed Haider writes:

I usually try to get more camera than what I need. I have an F3 and it is comforting to know it'ts overengineered for my needs. I wanted to get an autofocus Nikon and settled for the N80. As I try to look after my cameras, I think it will last, at least in my hands. I think to be able to do what the F100 does at a fraction of the cost is a good thing. The main drawbacks are that the camera cannot make good use of my manual lenses, and the camera is not as dust resistant as I would like it to be. Much criticism has come the N80's way. Mainly it centers around the fact that it is not a pro camera. However it was never meant to be and as you stated in your article; it is making the lower end more user friendly, as have been most of upper priced Nikons.

Thom's response:

The N80/F80 is a fine camera, and plenty enough for most users if they take care to keep it protected. Several site visitors have complained about my apparent snub of polycarbonate in the text of the review. I've gone back and clarified that section--it's not the use of polycarbonate I object to, it's the flimsiness of the control pices. The number of reports I hear of these pieces falling off is disturbing. The N80/F80 would not be my choice to take into the backcountry, for example (I'm currently using an N65, which has fewer moving control parts).

Derek Figueira writes:

I have owned several Nikon SLR bodies in the past (FE, FE2, FM2, F3, and F70) and now the F80. Each of these bodies had one or two useful features of its own, but never have I seen all the features that I really want from Nikon in one body. That said, I have to say that although the F80 isn't perfect, I really enjoy it. However, there are a couple of things that I've discovered about its personality that really annoy me. Interestingly, no review that I've come across to date has ever mentioned these, and a call to Nikon Canada didn't help resolve these issues either. (1) When you press the Depth-of-Field preview button and hold it, the F80 does not allow you to perform adjustments to the aperture as you can with bodies that have a mechanical DOF lever. This is annoying when you are doing portraits, or need to get critical about DOF. (2) In Program AE Mode, unlike the F70, the F80 does not permit you to choose really slow shutter speeds in low light. Why not? (3) When the Custom Setting 11 is set to option 3, AE locked until button is pressed again, but when you press the DOF button, the AE-Lock is cancelled. What's up with that? (4) When the Program-Shift feature is used by rotating the dial in one direction, you have to be careful about continuing to turn it after you hit its limits. If you continue to rotate the dial in the same direction, you'll find that you're now at the opposite aperture/shutter speed combinations. I don't think I'm being picky. I believe the four problems I outlined above are serious flaws that somehow slipped through the testing phase at Nikon. I hope the next update to the F80 addresses these flaws. If so, I'd buy into it. As I mentioned earlier, I've never seen any reviews that caught these flaws. It's not just my F80, as I have tried other F80's at several camera stores, and all had the same problems. I'd really like to know if you have any insights into these problems.

Thom's Response:

(1) The depth of field preview on most of the newer Nikon bodies is electrically activated, not manual. It sends a single signal to the lens to stop down to a specific aperture, as opposed to a continuous signal, possibly because it's simpler to do that, possibly to save battery life during DOF preview. Personally, I don't find it much of a problem to let go of the button, dial a new aperture, and press the button again.

(2) Be careful you're not comparing apples and oranges. The N70 and the N80 do have different program curves (see page 51 of the N80 manual). The program, however, will vary somewhat depending upon the film's ISO value and the maximum aperture on the lens. I believe that the N80 has a slow shutter speed limit of 2 seconds in Program exposure mode, but you may not be able to reach that with some film/lens combinations. Actually, I find the Program mode has a real problem at the other end of the spectrum: bright light. You hit the limits of the matrix metering with Program mode at f/12.7 and 1/500 (at ISO 100). A sunny day in a sandy or snow-covered area easily exceeds that limit.

(3) The fact that DOF cancels exposure lock is either an error in programming or it may be impossible to correct due to the way the internal circuitry is designed (I suspect the latter, though the F100 doesn't have this problem). DOF preview uses the same mechanism to close down the lens aperture as does the shutter release (it just doesn't fire the shutter and film advance mechanisms). Thus, the camera is doing exactly the same thing as it does when the shutter is released, and AE-L is cancelled. Personally, I'd argue that the behavior of the AE-L button is incorrect. There should be a way to lock exposure until you want to unlock it. Nikon tends to avoid controls that are continuous, though, as they fear that photographers will blame them when they forget to turn off a feature (anyone who has accidentally continued to shoot with multiple exposure active on an F5 will know what I'm talking about). So, I don't expect Nikon to fix this problem. You'll need to rearrange your shooting habits, unfortunately, and do your exposure setting after previewing DOF.

(4) I agree that it would be nice to have more control over when the command dial allows values to "wrap around" and when it doesn't. Unfortunately, the custom settings that Nikon has implemented for each of their cameras are a real hodge-podge, and show very poor product management practices. Nikon does seem to react to complaints by altering a few confusing or unwanted settings in each new camera, but this is causing those of us who carry multiple bodies real grief (I guess it's good for sales of the The Nikon Field Guide, though ;-).

Greg Poulsen writes:

I have used most Nikon bodies made in the last 25 years, and agree with the points in your N80 review. My wife uses this camera as her primary body for travel since it is light and works efficiently (while I mostly use an F100, or increasingly, a D1X).

I would add one major negative to the N80, however. There is a distinct shutter lag compared to the pro bodies. This is not a big issue in most scenic photography, but for sports, wildlife or virtually any type of people photography I find it MUCH more difficult to capture a precise moment than with the F5 or F100. I don't recall the specs, but I know that I feel I miss a much higher percentage of shots with the lag. Surprisingly, the lag seems to be notably longer than the N70, at least to me.

 
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