Saturday, 25 February 2012

My Nikon D80 five years on

Well, here's a piece of consumer electronics that's passed every test. My Nikon D80 is five today, and although it's a bit frayed at the edges (shutter sounds a bit tired), it's still working fine (as my photos of the Palace of Culture) will attest. While the D80's older and lighter brother, the D40 has become my camera of choice for carrying around on an everyday basis. However, the D80 works with my long 80-400mm zoom; the D40 won't autofocus this monster glass, and the D80 has a grid in the viewfinder than allows you to square up the verticals when composing a shot.

Most important to me is the way the cameras are perceived by passers-by. I do a lot of street photography; the camera's around my neck in crowds. The D80 with 18-200mm attracts attention; it looks like the equipment of a media professional. The D40 with 18-55mm doesn't. With the former I'm taken for a professional photographer, with the latter, for a tourist. Obviously, the latter makes it easier to move about a crowd snapping. Having said that, the 18-200mm is better for landscapes and architecture, the 80-400mm for aviation and wildlife (though I have issues with the slowness of its autofocus).

If there's one huge advance in photography over the past decade or so, it's Vibration Reduction ('VR' as Nikon calls it) or Image Stabilisation ('IS' as Canon calls it). VR allows you to take a sharp photograph with a shutter speed up to four stops slower than usual. The general rule (for 35mm or full-size sensors) is that the longest shutter speed at which you can take a sharp photo is a reciprocal of the lens's focal length. So for a 50mm lens, 1/50th sec will give you a sharp photo, a longer exposure (1/25th sec, for example) will result in overall blur caused by camera shake. Four stops means that you can hand-hold at 1/6th sec. With a 28mm lens, you can get away with 1/3rd sec. And zoomed in to 200mm, an amazing 1/25th sec. is still good. Now, for DX sensors, where the effective focal length increases 1.5 times, it means that you need to multiply the above times by 1.5, so for 200mm it will be 1/38th sec, for 18mm it will be half a second. Still very impressive. For night-time street photography without a tripod - that makes a huge difference to image quality.

Above: photo taken at 1/5th sec, f3.5, 320 ISO, Nikon D80 with 18-200mm VR lens zoomed out to 18mm. Below: a crop on the detail, more than five times magnification. Neither photo tweaked in Photoshop or Lightroom. Click to enlarge and look at the crispness of the word odjazdy ('departures'). Incidentally, from the departures board below you can see that the photo above was taken during the height of the evening rush hour.

Unfortunately, the 18-55mm kit zoom that came with my D40 does not have VR. I am toying with the idea of buying a 16-85mm VR zoom to go with both Nikons; this will offer the much-needed VR for night photography, plus it gives a wider angle (equivalent to 24mm on a standard 35mm film camera). This lens should do for me; the D80 should do me for many years as a body for use with the longer lenses. As for the D40... there are rumours that the D40 current replacement, the D3100, is due itself to be replaced by the D3200, with 24 megapixel sensor.

I had been contemplating Fuji's raved-about Finepix X100. Being a rangefinder enthusiast (a Leica M owner since 1981), I love the inconspicuous retro appearance (it looks like some old FED or Zorki to the average passer-by) and ease of use. However, it feels flimsy compared to a Leica M, a lens filter is an expensive and non-standard add-on, its battery is poor compared to those found in Nikon DSLRs and the software is non-intuitive. I've taken several shots with the X100 and I'm not immediately impressed. Maybe a longer test is in order; right now I feel that sticking with a light-weight Nikon DSLR with a VR lens as standard is the way forward.

In the meanwhile, if you are thinking about buying a second-hand D80 (or indeed its successor, the D90) - if you can get one for a good price (ie half the price of a new D90, for example), it's a reliable and thoroughly decent digital camera, if a bit heavy for carrying around your neck all day long. The batteries are long-lasting (on a scale of 0-4, where 0 = factory fresh and 4 = spent, after five years, mine is 1). My main gripe about the 18-200mm lens - that when carrying vertically, the lens zooms out to the longest focal length - has been addressed by the newer 18-200mm VRII lens, which can lock into the 18mm position.

This time last year:
My Nikon D80 four years on

This time three years ago:
My Nikon D80 two years on

This time four year ago:
My Nikon D80 one year on


Christian said...

Congratulations on your D80 reaching 5 years.
I just have a small nit to pick.
Your reciprocal of the lens's focal length is correct for Fullframe cameras only.
For cameras with smaller sensors (1,5 x) like the D80 or the D40 the correct formula is 1/(1.5 x focal length) ie. 1/75th sec for a 50 mm lens.

Otherwise you'd do well to get a 18-55 VR or 16-85 VR for walkaround lenses. They're both very good.
If you are looking to replace the D40, I can recommend the D5100 as a great compromise between price and quality.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Christian - many thanks for the info! (I shall have to be less relaxed about hand-holding in future)

I'm waiting until April for the D3200 to come out :)

Anonymous said...

I'm still debating whether to get another lens for my D40x.

I have always wanted a prime lens for low light photography. Quick holiday photos taken in low light are usually disappointing. The sigma is pricey but the Nikon 50mm option is tempting.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anon -

A second-hand Nikkor 50mm f1.8 or f1.4mm would be a good buy.