Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
The Nikon N80 is all the camera that 99 percent of people need, 99 percent of
the time. It has an accurate 5-sensor autofocus system, 10-sensor matrix
metering, spot metering, a dedicated depth of field preview button, autofocus
start that can be moved from the shutter release to a thumb button on the rear of
the camera, and a built-in flash. This is probably the best Nikon body for casual
travel where weight is a concern.
Note that this camera is called the "F80" outside the United States.
The N80 offers extremely predictable autofocus right down to extremely low
light levels. This was a refreshing change from
the Canon Elan 7 that I'd been using for 20 or so
rolls previously. The N80 does not sound impressive in the AF department. There
are only five sensors. The camera does not promise any artificial intelligence in
choosing which one to use; either you fix the camera to one sensor or it chooses
the closest subject that is underneath any of the five. But in light levels where
the Elan 7 was hunting and giving up, even with a 50/1.4 lens mounted, the N80
was unfazed. This is especially remarkable given that the N80 was tested with a
24-120/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, three f-stops slower than a 50/1.4. The published specs
on the N80 and Elan 7 indicate that the Nikon body is good down to EV -1, two
f-stops lower light than the Elan 7's EV 1. However, the difference in low-light
autofocus performance seems substantially larger than the specs would
The N80 facilitates simultaneous use of manual and auto focus with a handful
of lenses. Using a custom function, you can shift autofocus from the shutter
release to the exposure lock button on the rear of the body, which falls very
naturally underneath your right thumb. If you have a lens with a "Silent Wave"
motor, you can leave the lens in AF mode for AF or MF. When you want to focus,
turn the ring on the lens or push the button under your thumb. You make a
conscious decision. If your subject stays at the same distance and you don't feel
the need to refocus, you need not. If the custom function is set, the camera will
never run off wildly and unexpectedly to hunt for focus. Keep in mind that this
important feature is not available with most Nikon lenses, including the 24-120
zoom that we borrowed for testing. There are a handful of Nikon AF-S and Sigma
HSM lenses that work smoothly. If you don't happen to be using one of these
lenses, the N80 will force you to flip the body around and flip a control wheel
next to the lens mount from "S" to "M" when switching from auto to manual
This is not the ultimate camera for sports photography. Continuous AF works
only up to about 2.5 frames per second.
If you've been accustomed to the Canon EOS system, the noises made by the N80
when focusing a standard lens will be unnerving at first. You can hear the little
screwdriver blade in the body driving gears in the lens. When hunting for focus
this is a whirring sound like a child's radio-control toy. When adjusting focus,
this is a little crunching sound.
The viewfinder displays about 92 percent of the image plus an LCD display on the
bottom. Eyeglass wearers may have a tough time seeing to the corners of the
frame, especially if looking at the readouts. This may lead to overly centralized
image compositions. Even with a slow wide-angle zoom, it is easy to focus
manually on the ground glass. A built-in slider offers diopter adjustments from
-1.8 to +0.8. If you have a fantastic memory for trivia you might be able to
recall the custom function number that will turn on composition-aid grid lines in
Exposure on the N80 is controlled with two wheels. One falls under your right
index finger, just in front of the shutter release. The second is on the
upper-right-hand corner of the back of the camera. You can operate it with your
thumb scrunched up a bit. In manual exposure mode, the finger (front) button
controls aperture, the thumb (rear) button controls shutter speed. In
aperture-priority mode, the finger button controls aperture; the thumb button
does nothing. In shutter-priority mode, the thumb button controls shutter speed;
the finger button does nothing. In program-autoexposure mode, in which the camera
picks both shutter speed and aperture, the finger button does nothing and the
thumb button shifts the program, e.g., to be biased to use a substantially slower
shutter speed because you know that the camera is on a tripod and the camera's
computer isn't smart enough to know. The is one of the glories of the Nikon
system compared to Canon. Instead of the camera forgetting your program shift for
the next picture, it does into "P*" mode. Your bias is remembered until the
camera is turned off or switched out of program mode.
Exposure compensation, by contrast, is handled clumsily. On a Canon EOS body
you set exposure compensation by turning a convenient thumb wheel. The viewfinder
display then shows graphically exactly how much compensation has been set. On the
N80 you press a tiny little "+/-" button while simultaneously turning the thumb
wheel. This is a bit awkward. What's worse, however, is that to see how much
compensation has been set you have to press the tiny little button again.
Exposure compensation persists even if the body has been turned entirely off and
then on again.
The spot on a Canon EOS body that is given over to the 2nd exposure wheel is
here on the N80 devoted to a four-way paddle. This is roughly in the middle of
the camera back and is the easiest to reach spot for one's thumb, no scrunching.
Nikon's paddle enables you to quickly change AF sensor. Personally I very seldom
wish to change the AF sensor but am always toying with exposure or exposure
compensation and therefore I prefer the Canon layout.
Depth of field preview is accomplished via a small button, perfectly placed on
the center right of the lens mount.
The camera does not have "portrait, sports, landscape, etc." idiot modes like
its mid-range Canon counterparts.
The N80 has excellent compatibility with
all previous Nikon AF-system flashes. The built-in flash has a guide number of 39
and a fixed coverage angle of 28mm, i.e., because the flash cannot zoom you're
wasting most of your flash power if you use it with a 50 or 85mm lens. The flash
pops up at the press of a small button on its left side.
Maximum sync speed with a standard flash is 1/125th of a second.
The brilliant Nikon D flash exposure system ensures that whatever you focussed
on is correctedly exposed. For example, in the image below the lens was focussed
on the flowers. A standard through-the-lens (TTL) flash exposure system would try
to keep dumping out power until the whole frame was nicely illuminated. Since the
flowers occupy only a small portion of the frame they'd be blasted white. Nikon
is smart enough to compute the appropriate flash duration from subject distance
(read from lens) film speed, and aperture:
(Yes it is a terrible picture, like most taken with on-camera flash, but it
illustrates a point.)
Probably the most desirable version of this camera is the "F80-S". This is
grey-market only. It imprints data in between film frames. You won't run the risk
of your images being ruined by a huge in-frame set of numbers. Yet if you are
willing to pull the negs out of the filing cabinet you can find out what f-stop
and shutter speed you were using. Avoid the US-market "Date" version of this
camera. This simply prints data inside the frame.
Do not get the N80 as part of a kit with a cheap zoom lens, Nikon or
otherwise. The Nikon 50/1.8 is a great starter lens, rated by optical experts as
one of the best 50mm lenses ever designed. The best user experience is provided
by Nikon AF-S ("Silent Wave") lenses and Sigma HSM lenses. These include motors
similar in principle to those in the extensive Canon EOS Ultrasonic line.
Unfortunately, though both AF-S and HSM date back to 1998 or so, very few lenses
are actually available.
The pair of CR123 lithium batteries in the body should last for 30 rolls or
so, with some use of flash. If that isn't enough or if you expect to be traveling
to remote regions where only AA batteries are available, consider the MB-16 grip.
This lacks a vertical shutter release but it may make camera handling easier for
those with large hands.
The latest round of camera reviews has forced me
to switch bodies every month or two. All of these bodies, including the modern
plastic ones, are usable in some sense without reference to the owner's manual.
However you can't get the full value out of a modern wonder unless you have a
prodigious memory or the manual in your pocket. For example, Nikon proudly
proclaims that the N80 has 18 customer functions. How much good will these do
you? If you can remember the meanings of "5-0", "5-1", and "5-2", quite a lot of
Consider a Leica M camera. You buy it. You read the owner's manual. For the
rest of your life you can use the camera's three controls (focus, aperture,
shutter speed) and two readouts (frame counter and exposure LEDs). You will never
have to read the owner's manual again.
Let's go back to the
custom function idea. This was introduced by Canon in the late 1980s as part of
their EOS-1 body. The EOS-1 was Canon's top-of-the-line body and intended for
daily use by photojournalists. There weren't that many custom functions. The
photojournalist could be expected to carry a reminder card listing them all. The
photojournalist could be expected to remember from one day to the next what CF5
was for. Does it make sense to pull a feature from a working photojournalist's
daily tool and uncritically stuff it into a consumer's weekend or vacation
What could Nikon and Canon be doing? For one thing, the custom functions could
be indicated by mnemonics, e.g., "gl" for grid lines. Instead of "0" and "1", how
about "on" and "off"? This drives up the cost of the top-deck LCD display but it
seems worth it (see the Minolta Maxxum 7, for example, which has a big
plain-language display on the back). Or if these companies are truly determined
to freeze photographers into the late 1980s Canon EOS-1 user interface, how about
putting owner's manuals on the Web? Mamiya and Minolta have managed to do it (see
Virtually ever other camera manufacturer seems to be stuck in the "brochureware
uber alles" theory of Web site design and determined to offer nothing to existing
Why Buy A Bigger Body?
Nikon sells several more expensive bodies than
the N80. Given that the N80 is so capable, why would anyone want to burden
themselves with extra expense and weight?
Room for improvement 1: viewfinders. The
shows 96 percent of the image and is easy for eyeglass wearers. The F5 shows 100
percent of the image to be captured. This is ideal for those who will be scanning
and presenting their work digitally. The F5 also has a tremendous amount of eye
relief for eyeglass wearers and big-nosed photographers.
Room for improvement 2: water sealing. The bigger Nikon bodies are sealed
against inclement weather. The N80 tested for this review was subjected to some
rain drops and suffered no ill effects but it is not intended for use in
Room for improvement 3: vertical grip. With the F4 body, released in the late
1980s, Nikon was a pioneer in making camera handling neutral. The F4 has an
integrated vertical grip and second shutter release. Your right index finger is
always on top of the shutter release, regardless of whether you are holding the
camera vertically or horizontally. The F5 continues this tradition with a
built-in grip and extra shutter release. The F100 offers an optional MB-15 grip
with secondary controls. The N80's battery pack MB-16 does not have a shutter
release, much less a control wheel. This makes it inferior in this regard to the
Canon Rebel. If you do a lot of portrait photography, you may wish to consider
the F100, a used N90 with grip, or one of the low-end Canon bodies.
Room for improvement 4: mirror lock-up. If you're using lenses longer than
300mm or doing macro photography, you'll get higher quality images with a body
that can lock its mirror up well before the exposure is made. This reduces
vibration of the camera/lens/tripod system.
In the two weeks during which I tested the N80, I stumbled upon an
installation of a sculpture entitled "Escaping Flatland". This was designed by
information design authority
Tufte. As this was a photojournalism project, the N80 was loaded up with
classic Kodak Tri-X.
(If you want one of these sculptures for your own backyard, you can order one
We tested this camera with the 24-120 Nikon lens, a good choice for travel
photography, especially if supplemented with a 50/1.8.
Here are a few snapshots from the Wilmington, Delaware area. Almost everything
worth seeing in Wilmington stems from the immigration of the du Pont family from
France around 1800. They came with utopian dreams but settled down to making
gunpowder. The modern du Pont corporation was built by Pierre S. du Pont
(1870-1954). He was an MIT-educated engineer. For five years, Pierre du Pont was
simultaneously president of DuPont Corporation and General Motors Corporation. He
was America's hardest core gardener and created
Charm City (Baltimore, Maryland) has some nice buildings on the Inner Harbor
a good public aquarium (notice how the
last picture demonstrates that 120mm is too short even for captive wildlife; it
is also another triumph for Nikon D flash metering):
If you're sick of the gentility and snobbery of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard,
and Nantucket, the mid-atlantic coast is for you. There are boardwalks at
Atlantic City, Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach (small), and Ocean City.