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Nikon never seemed to be able to make a decent mid-range AF camera. You could buy a camera with a good feature set (F601) but the AF was poor and the motordrive painful to hear. The F70 improved the AF and was quieter but alienated buyers with it's quirky control panel (actually really simple but once people had decided it was complicated that was it). The F401 was an awful camera and the F50 very awkward to use. The F60 was short of features and AF speed. Yet the other manufacturers could all provide cameras which did the lot. The only reason to buy a Nikon was the lenses and the very accurate exposure meters.
Then they made the F80. Oh boy.
Nikon must have listened to a lot of people before designing this camera. It has 5 AF sensors, the centre one being "cross ranged" - meaning it can detect horizontal lines as well as the vertical lines standard sensors need. Not only this but they can be selected by a Nintendo style joypad on the back of the camera, or the camera can decide which one to use!
This would all be useless if the AF module was no good, but happily it works very well. Longer lenses (especially ones with a lot of glass to move) do slow things down but it locks on very well, even in low light. There is occasional hunting but it depends on the contrast in the subject. Generally it doesn't struggle (compare it to a mid-range Canon in low light!)
Power comes from a pair of CR123A batteries and these can be expensive to replace. You can find them online for a pound or two each though. Nikon sell the MB-16 grip/battery pack, which takes AA cells, for this camera. I think it would have been better if the F80 could have used either type from the outset. It would have to have been bigger but that would have been a good thing.
Shutter speeds are from 1/4000 to 30s plus the "bulb" option, where the shutter stays open as long as you press the button. This is enough range for virtually everyone. You can alter the shutter in 1/2 stops, which is useful for fine exposure control. This is done via a thumbwheel on the rear of the body. There is a "finger wheel" at the front which alters the aperture of the lens in 1/2 stops as well.
There are three exposure options - 10 segment 3D matrix (The subject distance is taken into account), centre weighted and spot. The spot meter zone is a 4mm circle around the AF sensor and actually moves to the sensor chosen by the user. A spot meter is far preferable to the partial meter of some other cameras, making this a very useful landscape camera.
You will also notice that the shutter button has a threaded hole in it. Yes, this camera takes a standard cable release - no shelling out a ridiculous amount for an electronic one! A big thumbs up to Nikon there.
But that's not all - there are 18 custom settings which allow the user to tailor the camera's functions to their preference. By far the most impressive one is function 4. Set this to "1" and the viewfinder will now sport gridlines - which ILLUMINATE in the dark (as do the AF sensors). This is the only camera which currently does this. Some cameras with interchangeable focussing screens can have a gridded one fitted but this is touch of a button(ish) stuff! Actually you can also turn the illumination off if preferred!
Why is it useful? It lets you keep the horizon straight! (or buildings etc)
I have yet to get a badly exposed picture from this camera using matrix metering. It's that good. Spot metering is accurate too but you have to know how to use such a meter to avoid errors. The matrix metering is just superb. Probably not perfect in all situations - just most of them!
And it's quiet! Very quiet in fact. The AF can get a little noisy with big lenses (Nikon have used a less powerful motor than in the pro models but that's what you pay for!) but the shutter and mirror are beautifully damped.
The viewfinder shows 92% of the final image, which is pretty standard at this price point. It can be a little on the dark side but that is because of it's special design. It brightens a little when batteries are fitted but it's still darker than, say, a F601. Viewfinder info is good, with a focus indicator (works when manual focussing), mode and metering indication, flash ready indicator and exposure meter. This is particularly useful as it extends 3 stops either side of the middle - great when you're trying to assess brightness around a scene! There is also a dioptre adjustment slider on the viewfinder eyepiece - no need for correction lenses for most glasses wearers!
And there's still more! It's missing from so many mid-range cameras but the F80 has a depth of field preview! Don't let anyone tell you it's not needed - when you're close focussing you need to know exactly what's sharp and what isn't. Too many cameras are missing this feature.
The pop-up flash rasies to a good height (minimising red-eye whilst not eliminating it) and has a guide number of 12, which is OK for general use and fill-in. Fit a proper flash and the F80 will control it, even with second curtain sync if required (flash fires at the end of the exposure rather than the start). Flash control and metering is without equal in this price bracket. Nikon have got flash well and truly sorted.
It's not the perfect camera though. It's too small for one thing. The older F70 fits the hand much better than the F80 does. Many people prefer to buy the MB-16 battery pack to give the body more substance, especially for use with long lenses.
The AF motor could be more powerful. It's a range / price point issue but still valid in my opinion.
An important consideration if you own MF lenses is that they will fit on the F80 but you can't meter or use the rangefinder with them. This is probably the camera's biggest failing for MF users wishing to buy an AF body.
And they should all have been black! Mine is silver as it was all i could find at the time but the colour marks and rubs off too easily, and looks cheaper than the black version too.
Flash sync is 1/125s. It should really be 1/250 for a camera at this price point. Important for daylight fill flash.
I recommend a rubber eyecup for the viewfinder as well. It keeps stray light out and makes the viewfinder easier to concentrate on.
Any gripes are minor ones though. I would recommend the F80 to almost anyone who wants a Nikon camera, beginners and advanced users alike. You can start in "point and shoot" mode and let the camera grow with you as you grow with it. It's not for the pros though - they need the F100, F5 or F6.
Well done Nikon - now lets see the F85 get a better AF motor and a brighter viewfinder to make things perfect!
PS I've given a 5 for picture quality based on the accurate exposure meter. The image quality comes from the lens used, not the camera.
I have a canon, and find that takes lovely photos, but since going digital can't be bothered to get the film developed, this one looks good though, Nikkon are certainly ironing out their problems aren't they? Sue