First impressions are that this is a hulk of a camera. And it is, but that suits us and our calloused, manly hands, making it fantastically comfortable to grip. It also feels imperturbably solid in build – sturdier than the Canon EOS 350D and making the Sony A100 seem brittle and twiglike.
Around the back, the 2.5in LCD is sharper and brighter than any we’ve seen before on a DSLR, and comes with a clear snap-on screen protector that doesn’t seem to pick up fingerprints so readily, which is a bonus, although it doesn’t reduce glare.
The control layout will be familiar to ardent Nikon users, although the OK button has swapped over to the same side as the D-pad. Personally, we’d prefer it in the middle of the pad instead, but at least you can use the same thumb for both.
Picture storage comes from the new SD format, SDHC, which currently goes up to 4GB – enough for about 750 JPEG shots at normal quality. Fear not, it can still take your old SD cards, though.
Cutting to the most important aspect of any camera, image quality from the 10megapixel sensor is superb, offering up superior levels of detail to the A100 and 350D, and on par with the Olympus E-330 and Canon 30D. The overall colour balance is a little cold, especially compared to the Olympus, and purple fringing occurs very rarely, although it’s quite pronounced when it does pop up.
The most remarkable thing about the new DX sensor is the performance at high sensitivity – even at the maximum ISO 1600, there’s a phenomenal lack of grain or blotchiness in the images.
Using the excellent 18-70mm f3.5-4.5G ED lens, the autofocus occasionally ‘hunted’ for a split second longer than we’d like – mostly in sunlit rooms, rather than outdoors – but it was rarely a problem.
The on-board flash is quite impressive, but no better than we’d expect from an SLR. An add-on flash unit will give more natural results, if you can afford the extra and take enough low-light shots to bother.
For adding a little extra sparkle to non-flash shots, try the on-board D-Lighting option after you’ve taken the image – it boosts the brightness and contrast a little to brighten the highlights without losing shadows. Nothing you can’t do in Photoshop, but it’s a handy quick fix.
Overall, the solidity, image quality, fantastic range of lenses – both by Nikon and third parties such as Sigma, Tamron and Tokina – and handling all take the D80 to the pinnacle of sub-£1000 DSLRs.