The Nikon D80: Relearning Composition


The Nikon D80 shipped late summer of 2006, representing the high end of Nikon’s emerging prosumer product line. The D80 superseded the D70, which I wrote about earlier. The D80’s sensor size increased to 10.2 megapixels, almost doubling the 6 megapixels used in the D70. I bought my D80 in early 2007, looking for a better solution for shooting indoor sports.

That last sentence also describes my relative ignorance of the state of DSLRs in general. While the D80 is a capable body in many respects, shooting indoor sports was never its strong suit. But I had to make do with the budget I had, so the D80 was it. I’d previously added a Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 zoom lens, which I’d used with the D70, but that lens would get more of a workout with the D80.

I used several third-party lenses at the time, mostly from Sigma. In addition to the 70-200 f/2.8, I acquired a Tamron 28-75 f/2.8, which I replaced later with the wider 17-50mm f/2.8. I found the 28mm short end on the Tamron just a bit too long, so the Sigma fulfilled my need for something a bit wider. I also  briefly owned a 50-150 f/2.8. I thought the 50-150mm zoom would be useful for shooting volleyball, but discovered I needed more reach, even with the 1.5x crop factor of a DX sensor. So I sold off the 50-150 f/2.8 and added the 70-200 to the kit.

Catching the action
Catching the action

The old Nikon D70 got me back into SLR photography, but was more a learning tool… or perhaps more properly, an unlearning tool. The D80 became my real learning tool, as I learned all over again how to compose and recompose scenes on the fly in the viewfinder. The D80 could shoot at an unimpressive 3 frames per second, which limited its utility as an action sports camera, so I learned to watch the action in the viewfinder and predicatively press the shutter button.

That sounds easy as I write this, but took thousands of shots, most of which were out of focus or composed poorly. Through this process of endless practice, I began capturing reasonably good volleyball photos. Shooting thousands of volleyball images with the D80 made me a marginally competent volleyball photographer. As I learned later, it didn’t particularly help me shoot other action photography well, but that’s a topic for another time.

The other aspect of shooting indoors I discovered is noise. I frequently shot at ISO-1600 or higher when shooting volleyball. Even well lit venues required pushing to higher ISOs, even with a relatively fast lens like the Sigma. I tried out different software tools to reduce noise, eventually settling on the simple-to-use Noiseware Photoshop plug-in. It took me another generation of cameras to realize a little noise is more acceptable than the too-soft image that often results from overly aggressive noise reduction.

Telling a story?

I also experimented with the D80 in other aspects of photography, including trying to tell stories with a single photo. To this day, I’m not particularly inventive with photographic storytelling. For example, my abilities as a street photographer are still pretty limited. But telling stories in a single image still fascinates me, and I hope to pursue this more going forward.

Better, but still not quite right.

My product photography skills began to improve as well, though I still didn’t understand lighting particularly well. Creative product photography is hard, and made doubly so without a good understanding of lighting. I experimented with both fixed lighting and flash photography. Fixed lighting consisted of soft boxes with 5000K fluorescent tubes, while I used multiple SB-800 flash units. My attempts at using Nikon’s CLS (creative lighting system) didn’t come to much, but did help me learn the ins and outs of flash sync and flash placement.

Curiously, the D80 never saw much use in landscape photography; becoming a better landscape photographer would come in subsequent cameras.

Even though I used the D80 extensively, I never really warmed up to it. While the D70 opened up the new world of DSLRs, the D80 seemed like a steppingstone, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. The next camera in my photographic life would fast quickly become my favorite camera of all time. But that’s a topic for a different post.




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