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Nikon D80. enlarge
Memory Card and Download Speed Tests, featuring the D80 and D70.
Camera LCD Monitor Comparisons, featuring the D80 and D70.
WHICH SHOULD YOU GET?
(see also my D80 versus D200 Comparison.)
Thankfully they all use the same batteries, chargers and lenses. (Earlier EN-EL3 batteries from the D70/s/D50 won't work in the D80, while the newer EN-EL3e battery works in everything.) The D70 and D70s take the big CF cards while the D50 and D80 take SD cards. I never change cards: I use a 2GB card and never take it out, so it doesn't matter to me what sort of cards it takes. Cards are cheap, anyway.
If cost is an issue, just get a D70s or D50 on close out. Used properly, they all will make the same quality pictures, even on 12 x 18" (30 x 40 cm) prints. Put your money into a great lens like the Nikon 18-200mm instead. The added resolution of the D80 doesn't do anything, except fill up hard drives and memory cards, unless you're printing at 20 x 30" (60 x 90 cm) and larger (or if you're a geek who puts a loupe up to his prints). Heck, I've been on CBS TV with fantastic 12 x 18" prints I made from a camera with one-half to one-third this resolution!
If you want to afford it (as I did, and I already own a D70), the most obvious difference is the D80's LCD monitor. The D80 has a big, bright 2.5" monitor which looks great from any angle. It has higher resolution (per inch) than a computer, so by comparison images on my D80's LCD are so detailed they almost look three-dimensional. The D70, D70s and D50 have much smaller monitors. Luminance (per square inch) is the same, but there's twice as much area on my D80 so it puts out more light. See my LCD Monitor Comparison.
Colors are much warmer on the D80. I prefer it. I get the exact color balance I want on the default white balance settings on the D80. On the D70 I had to use an 81A glass warming filter and set the white balance trim to -3 to get the same look.
Color is different on the D80 from the other Nikons, even after you've dialed-in the white balance. I always run my cameras in the most saturated settings. In that setting (MENU > Shooting Menu > Optimize Image > Custom > Color Mode III and Saturation +) the D80 takes reds and blues and saturates them even further than my other Nikons.
Exposure is different on my D80. It exposes for the darkest part of the image, meaning it often makes images lighter than I want. No big deal, I set the exposure compensation (the +/- button) to -0.7 to darken to taste.
My D70 erred on the side of safety, or under exposure.
I have to keep an eye on my D80, or it blows out images (to my taste). Many beginners may prefer the lighter images from the D80, since many beginners thought the D70 was too dark in contrasty light. To each their own taste - this is art, you know.
No camera knows what you want 100% of the time, so all cameras require this adjustment depending on the subject.
The D70/s and D50 only have black-and-white histograms, which are worse than useless for gauging exposure for color photos. My D80 has a fantastic color (RGB) histogram, which lets me make accurate exposures regardless of the color of the subject. I can't use the histograms of my D70/s and D50 for color photography. That's what I mean about them being ancient in digital-camera-years.
My D80 has a much bigger image in the viewfinder than my D70/s or the D50.
The D80 and D50 have a magic mode to select automatically between AF-S, single AF, used for still subjects, and AF-C, continuous, used for moving things like sports and kids. I use this automatic selection mode all the time. This mode is logically called AF-A, for Automatic.
The D80 has a button for easy manual selection between AF-S and AF-C, as well as the magic mode, AF-A (auto).
None of the D70, D70s or D50 have any buttons or switches for any of this. One of my biggest whines about them is that I have to go into a menu every time I point my D70 at moving or still subjects. Menus waste time and miss photo opportunities, buttons are fast. At least the D50 has the AF-A mode, almost eliminating the need for switching it manually between AF-S and AF-C.
All three have the same built-in flash. The faster flash sync speed of the D70/s and D50 let you let a little more range and battery life, as explained here.
The tables below go into minutiae. The words above have already covered what really matters.
I use these features daily. Your prioritization will vary. Notice how many of these items are identical on all three cameras. This table follows the form of my D80 vs. D200 Comparison, where there were differences. This goes to show you how similar these are, and why you shouldn't worry if budget suggests the D70 for you.
Why I care:
LCD: I don't know about you, but I spend as much time looking at this as I do shooting. This is important.
WB Trims: WB, white balance, is the critical adjustment which, set correctly, gives you great color. Set this haphazardly and you get crap. Most Nikons have an easy adjustment to allow you to fine-tune (trim) this adjustment for perfect color. The D50 doesn't. Most people don't know how to use this, but if you do, the D50 can be frustrating. The D50 can be set to WB bracketing, which would let you sort it out later. All said and done, if you don't adjust these, I greatly prefer the color from my D80.
AF Sensors: No big deal, but it's nice to have the additional ones of the D80, since they more often are where I want them.
AF-S / AF-C Switch: This selects between AF-S, single AF, use for still subjects, and AF-C, continuous, use for moving things like sports and kids.
Auto AF-S/AF-C Mode (AF-A): This selects between the AF-S and AF-C modes magically. I use this mode all of the time on my D80, it's as easy as pressing the AF button on the top. On the D50 you find it in Custom Function 02.
Flash Sync: Fastest shutter speed with flash. Read Why Sync Speed is Important.
Battery Life is how many shots I get in real use, which will vary all over the map from charge to charge. My D200 is much worse, only about 450 shots. Don't pay too much attention between the D80/D70/D50, they are all about the same as far as I can tell, which is more shots than I can make in a day.
Rear Nav Thumb Button: My D200's button is a zillion times better than any of these. In playback my D200 can toggle between full zoom at my favorite magnification and the full image. On the D80/70/50 I have to count six pushes of the zoom button to zoom in, and the OK button to return.
This button alone makes the D200 the choice for pros: time is money. The center click of the D200 is settable to do many other things; these are my preferences.
ISO in Finder: I use this all the time on my D200, but none of these cameras do it as I have them set up. It lets me know what Auto ISO is doing, and lets me set manual ISOs without taking my eye from the finder. The default setting of the D80 lets you press the FUNC button to see the ISO, but I prefer to use the FUNC button to Flash Exposure Lock, which keeps people from blinking. You can't do this at all with the D70 and D50.
Exposure mode in finder: P, S, A and M are shown in the D200 finder so I can adjust this with my eye on the finder. The D80/D70/D50 require taking the camera away from my eye, or gambling and setting it by feel and cunning.
Meter mode in finder: This lets you change the meter mode without taking your eye from the finder. I always use Matrix, and this lets me know if I moved the meter mode switch by accident. None of these cameras do this, but the D200 does.
Exposure in full stops: I prefer to change f/stops and shutter speeds in full stops, except in manual mode. Full stop increments save me many clicks. The D80 and D70 only offer 1/3 or 1/2, but not full stops. The D200 offers all three choices and the D50 offers only full stops, my favorite.
ISO in full stops: I only adjust ISO in full stops. Being able to adjust in full-stop clicks saves me time spinning dials. Thee cameras only offer the tedious 1/3 and 1/2 stop options. The D200 offers full stops.
Playback auto-zoom to AF area used: None of these cameras do this. A secret feature of the D200 is that it's smart enough to center your playback zoom on the AF area used for the shot.
AF Area Mode switch: None of these cameras have this switch (it's in a menu). The D200 does.
ISO, WB and QUAL buttons: These are all shared with playback functions on the D80/D70/D50. You must remember to tap the shutter button first, otherwise you might not get the ISO, WB or QUAL functions you expect when hitting them. The D200's buttons have only one function. This always bugs me on the D50, D70 and D80. It's not as much of an issue if you turn off automatic image review.
Wireless Flash Control? The built-in flash of the D80 and D70/s can talk to and control the SB-600 and SB-800 flashes, for free. See How. The D50 can't do this unless you use an SB-800 or SU-800 atop the D50 to serve as the commander.
Moderately Important Items
These are minor features. They may be more important to you than they are to me.
You'll see that these cameras are identical in almost every way. I used the same table as I used for my D80 vs. D200 Comparison, where there were differences. This goes to show you how similar these are, and why you shouldn't worry if budget suggests the D70 for you.
Memory It used to matter what kind of cards a camera used, because cards were expensive and small. You needed a pocket full of them. Today cards have grown far faster than camera resolution, so I can shoot all day on one card. Camera connections are faster, so I download directly from my cameras instead of a card reader. Therefore I rarely take cards out of my cameras, so I don't care what sort of memory they take. You may. I like SD cards - they're tiny!
Manual Lenses: These all lack an aperture feeler, so they won't work with manual focus lenses. The D200 works great with them, and has an easy way to enter lens data to get full metering and lens info in the EXIF data.
B/W Mode: Some let you shoot in B/W. I get better results, with more work, shooting in color and carefully converting to B/W in Photoshop. See How to Make Great B/W in Photoshop.
Color Filters in B/W Mode: Some have B/W modes. The D80 adds the ability to record the B/W image as if it was shot through your choice of colored filters. Choose the RED option for the most stunning results. I don't shoot B/W, and if I did, I'd shoot color and convert later in Photoshop to give me even more options. If you shoot this way in-camera you eliminate options. See also Making great B/W in Photoshop.
RGB Meter Segments: This spec doesn't mean much by itself. 420 segments is plenty. What matters is the firmware which interprets all this input and derives an exposure from it. Oddly my D80 has the worst meter. It's the least consistent and requires the most tweaking of exposure compensation (the +/-, or lighten/darken, button) for each shot.
AF Area Trick Modes: These are all the same. The D200 adds Group Dynamic, CSP, and wide/narrow sensor options at all positions. I don't use this stuff. I explain this here.
Mirror Lock-Up: None of these have it. The D200 has this mode as explained at D200 Mirror Lock-Up.
What is called MLU in the menus of these cameras is actually only for cleaning the sensor.
Exposure Delay Mode: The D80 and D200 have an "exposure delay" mode, which is a 400ms delay for shutter release after mirror up. This is D80 Custom Function 31.
I don't care about or use any of these. You may.
Max Shutter Speed: I never use above 1/2,000 for anything.
Flash GN: Too close to call.
Max Write Speed: too close to call, and doesn't matter since these cameras all have big buffers.
Uncompressed NEF: You don't want to use uncompressed anyway.
Shutter Lag: Too close to call. When shooting sports you need to anticipate your body's own perceptual offset, and you take shutter delay into account along with this.
AF Area Display: The D200 can show you which AF areas were used when you shot an image. So what?
Select What's Displayed on Playback: No big deal, none of these have enough superfluous playback screens to warrant needing to alter which ones show or not.
Meter Mode selection: I always use Matrix. I prefer these because they requires two fingers to set, while I can knock the D200's meter switch by accident. if you change this setting often you would prefer the D200.
Authentication Support doesn't work with any of these. It works with Nikon's pay-for software to try to prove that an image hasn't been altered after it came from the camera.
Display Image w/o text means a screen which has no numbers on the top right of the playback image. Not a big deal, but all of these always have at least a frame counter overlayed at the top right of the image that looks like "21/38." The D200 can get rid of this, letting you see the entire image.
In-Camera Editing allows cropping, resizing, shadow lightening, redeye reduction and other tricks. I think these are silly. I prefer to do this on my computer.
"Image Comment" on top LCD: I always have my cameras add my contact info to each file. None of these do, but the D200 lights up a "COMMENT" indicator on the top LCD when you do this. So what? I always have this on and all the Nikon cameras can add this comment as you can read here for the D200.
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