After a few years of accumulating gear here are some of my thoughts about what I own. Remember your mileage may vary…
Nikon D80 –
In general this has been my workhorse for these three years, and other than a slight mechanical issue (see below), it has been trouble free. Here are some points to consider with the D80:
Camera settings are visible on the top of the camera – This is a very nice feature. Most lower priced cameras demand that either you use the view finder or the LCD screen on a back to look at and adjust your settings. This is a problem because flipping through menus wastes time. This really adds up if you shoot a lot especially in changing situations.
Speed – While the D80 is quicker than almost any point and shoot camera it doesn’t perform at the speeds needed for serious sports photography. Undoubtedly I am responsible for a good portion of my camera’s performance lag since I only use inexpensive CF cards. There are a number of high peforming cards on the market that ensure that the slowest part of the process IS NOT the writing to the card. But with the type of photography that I normally shoot speed is not an issue, but low light capability is.
ISO and Noise – Going past ISO 500 does generate a good deal of noise, or at least more noise than I care to have. Now, how much noise is too much noise? Undoubtedly the photography beats himself over the head about issues that a customer never notices, but excessive noise leads to undue feeling of softness in an image. Occasionally I shoot up to ISO 800 and normally just deal with it. Lately Lighroom 3 has come to my aid since its noise reduction capabilities is quite phenomenal and provides a fairly clean image without savaging too much detail.Shooting at high ISOs without noise is a big deal. This is perhaps the single biggest issue I have with my camera. I like to shoot with available light, but often the conditions mandate the use of a flash otherwise the ISO levels would trash the image.
Sensor Size – The D80 has the standard size sensor which means that for a standard lens there is a “magnification effect” of about 1.5. Because the sensor is smaller than the standard piece of 35mm film ((2/3 the size actually) the sensor is catching only a portion of the scene that the lens provides. There is no discernible difference between what the photographer sees through the viewfinder and the image captured but it does affect the nature of the lens. For example, my 50mm prime lens actually acts like a 75mm lens. This is good news for those that want to extend the “effective” focal length of their lenses, but I actually prefer to go the other direction. I am more of a wide-angle shooter than telephoto.
Dedicated Buttons – Higher end cameras have buttons to control a variety of functions. The D80 uses a combination of buttons and dials to make quick changes to the camera settings. All the major settings have a dedicated buttons except one. ISO. I would really dig being able to have that function. The ISO shares the same button as increasing image viewing size. This is a huge hassle because the time I want to make an adjustment is right after viewing a picture on the display. When I hit the ISO button I am actually affecting the display on my camera back instead of what I want it to. Then I am forced to hit another button to turn the back display off so I can then use the ISO function. This isn’t a deal breaker but I definitely want my next camera to have a dedicated ISO button.
My one lingering problem – I did have one constant problem though, my onboard flash does not always pop up and so I tied a piece of string to the latch to make sure I could manually pop it. Apparently some piece of dirt got lodged which interfered with the proper function.
So, where to go from here? The next step in the upgrade is the D90. This has HD video capability and better handles noise at higher ISOs. This is a sweet camera and is at about the same price as my D80 was when I purchased it. But the features are not great enough for me to upgrade.
The D300 is on the next rung. I am not sure that the cost difference between it and the D90 is worth it since they both have the same standard sensor and both shoot HD video. There are other features that may make it more attractive to others but not to me.
The next step up is the D700. That is my camera of choice. It has the same full frame sensor as the D3. Great noise handling at high-ISOs and being able to get rid of that focal length multiplier is something I dream about. It is definitely pricey and it will be a while before I purchase it.