Monday, October 1, 2007

Long overdue update on my Nikon D80

You may recall that I received a loaner Nikon D80 from Nikon earlier this year, part of their “Picture This” campaign. Absolutely no conditions were placed on the loan – it was an opportunity to put a sophisticated camera in the hands of a decidedly unsophisticated photographer. And I’ve pretty well lived up to that lack of structure – what with an acquisition, a sudden move, and untold upheaval, I’ve been a pretty poor test case. That said, some of my pictures from the past four or five months are on Flickr, and I uploaded a bunch last week. I’m excited about next week, when Robin and I (and the kids) will head to Yosemite for a short vacation to celebrate our 10th anniversary. I’ll have a ton of good pictures to share from that trip…

Before getting into my thoughts on the camera so far, one thing that is unique for me that I think added immeasurably to my early experience with the camera had nothing to do with the camera: the Flickr group that 25 of us joined to exchange ideas, answer questions, and showcase our favorite pictures so far. More than any other aspect of this experiment, this was a revolutionary process for me: instead of experiencing the camera in a vacuum, I had access to a similarly situated group of camera users (mostly enthusiasts, but all of different abilities) who had an interest in helping each other out.

The only other time I experienced anything remotely like this was a (short-lived? I don’t know) experiment Gateway tried 15 years ago with their phone support line. Callers were put into a party-line phone queue, so instead of listening to hold music, as many as 5 of us would be connected to a tech at once. The result wasn’t the cacophony you’d expect, it instead led to a number of people connecting – and helping – independent of the tech. It was fascinating.

Back to the Nikon. Whether or not it was Nikon’s goal (or their PR firm, MWW group, who’s organizing this project), it seems to me that this could be a huge step forward in creating and cultivating passionate users. Think of it as communities developing around the products you love – you get to meet others who can help, suggest hacks, or offer critiques/praise on techniques as you ramp up. In the first month or two, I didn’t feel like I was playing with a camera so much as I was joining a community: and that was incredible. (Then I went radio silent, and am only just now emerging… sorry guys!) I have no idea if Nikon plans to expand this – the Flickr group was, I believe, started independent of Nikon or MWW and may have been a happy accident – but if they’re looking for feedback as a result of this experiment, let me be clear: this had a huge, positive impact on my ability to get value from the camera. More like this, please.

Back to the camera. As you may remember, I received a D50 just months prior to this as a Christmas present – so I was already familiar with the Nikon DSLR in general. Moving to the D80 was easy: much like buying an Acura after owning a Honda, it felt familiar while also being obviously “upgraded”. The first thing I noticed was the lens: the 18-135mm lens really made a difference: In the months I’ve owned the camera, I’ve never once felt the need to use the 55-200 I had for the D50. 135mm is plenty for most zoom situations, and the quality of the optics, not to mention the convenience of not having to change lenses, made it an easy choice to leave the lens in the bag.

The camera feels wonderful in your hands – if you’re looking for a point-and-shoot this isn’t your gig – and the start-up time and focus are nearly instantaneous. As another project participant noted over the summer, it’s impossible to take a bad picture. But as you get more advanced in learning the ins and outs of the camera, it’s also possible to take some really remarkable shots.

I’ve kept a set at Flickr of my favorites, and all of the recent additions are taken with the D80. In particular, here are some of the pictures from our recent trip to Mt. Shasta that I consider to be above-average, thanks in large part to the camera and its capabilities:

At Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Mt. Shasta

Sunset, driving away from Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park

There are others in the Favorites set, feel free to poke around there if you’re curious.

Is the camera worth the price? I can clearly see the advantages of this camera over my D50 – the enhanced image finder with 11 auto-focus zones (versus the 5 in the D50), the higher resolution (10.2 megapixels vs. 6.1) and the better lens all result in superior photos. It’s not cheap – the camera today would cost you about $1100 – but if I were in the market for a superior camera without paying the exorbitant prices for a true “pro”-level camera, this would be what I’d buy. I’m probably a year or more away from outgrowing my D50, and the D80 would give me more room to grow.

I’m re-reading the Learning Digital Photography book before heading to Yosemite, and will post those pictures when we’ve returned. I’ll update the site with additional observations about the camera once I’ve done that.

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