Finally we come to image quality, and here is where the competition really heats up. All of the 10MP DSLRs I’ve tested so far have been outstanding, and the margins between than are so narrow that its almost down to personal taste as to which one is better. In terms of image sharpness the supplied AF-S DX 18-70mm F3.5-4.5 lens gives the D80 a slight advantage. Even at maximum aperture it provides razor-sharp clarity from edge to edge, with barely a trace of chromatic aberration or corner blurring. Stopped down to about f/11 or f/16 its performance is simply superb. The 23.6 x 15.8mm DX format 10.75 megapixel sensor, which is reportedly the same as the one in the D200 and the Sony A100, produces outstanding clarity and detail, so much so that it is virtually impossible to distinguish between shots taken on these three cameras.
The exposure system copes well with sudden and unexpected changes in lighting, but is occasionally fooled by very high contrast shots, such as shooting into the sun, and had a slight tendency to under-expose. Shadow detail is excellent however, so it was possible to correct these shots later in editing.
Shooting in RAW mode for maximum quality, colour reproduction is very naturalistic, but can be tweaked in Photoshop Camera RAW converter to produce rich vibrant hues. As with the D200 there is surprisingly little control available from the supplied RAW conversion software, so you’re going to need Photoshop CS2 to get the best out of it.
Having said that however, the quality of the JPEG Fine mode is outstanding, and it takes a keen eye to spot any difference between converted RAW and JPEG Fine images, especially in prints. The in-camera colour and image control makes this a viable option for all but the most demanding professionals.
Image noise control is very good, in fact there is no noise visible up to 800 ISO and only a tiny amount at 1600. As you’ll see from the accompanying sample shots, it has one of the best high-ISO results I’ve seen.
The D80 is another superb camera in Nikon’s increasingly impressive DSLR range. It is expensive and complicated, but it is also extremely well made, incredibly versatile and capable of fantastic picture quality. However it is surrounded by some very strong competition most of which is equipped with shake reduction, and although it may be one of the best 10MP cameras so far, it is not necessarily the best value for money.