I figured, as I have for so many years, that Nikon once again had hit a photographic home run with a consumer camera geared to the serious amateur but with enough bells and whistles to attract the pro, maybe as a backup body.
So when I recently walked into my local camera store, Photo Pro in Kensington, Md., I asked innocently enough:
"So, what are you guys hearing about the new N80?"
There was silence for maybe a beat. Then one of the guys said:
"Let me put one in your hand."
He reached behind him and handed me the camera.
Now it was my turn to be silent.
"What the _____ is this?!" I observed with somewhat less than professional aplomb.
For a brief instant, I thought that the small, lightweight, almost toylike, camera I was holding was a plastic dummy, or worse: a counterfeit. I certainly didn't view it as a camera following in the proud tradition of one of Japan's most respected and successful camera makers.
It turns out I was wrong. It was a Nikon - though one that had never seen Japan. The largely plastic camera body had been made in Thailand.
And it turns out I was wrong, too, when I dismissed the camera out of hand as a literal and figurative lightweight.
Nikon has packed a lot of technical innovation, a lot of user-friendly design - in short, a hell of a lot of camera - into a really chintzy polycarbonate body. It's a body, by the way, that seems to have been made to look from afar like the rugged, rubberized exterior of the take-no-prisoners, top-of-the-line F5 and its newer no. 2, the F-100.
But at a list price of $599 (street price $499), the N80 is almost a third of the cost of an F-100 and a sixth of the cost of an F5. For those kinds of savings, one can do without a lot of things - ruggedness being one of them.
I'll give this camera its due: Typical of Nikon, this newest addition to the long Nikon line has several neat innovations that indicate nobody was asleep in the Tokyo design lab. One of the new features is on-demand grid lines on the viewing screen. Anyone who ever has tried to line up, say, an architectural shot precisely (and without the use of a bubble level) will appreciate this feature. Do the lines clutter up the viewfinder? Well, yes, a little. But the lines can be made to disappear as if by magic with the touch of a button. (I couldn't believe this the first time I tried it.)
Like many consumer-grade cameras, the N80 features a puny little pop-up flash. We pros look down our noses at these, until we find ourselves in a Stygian setting willing to sell our souls for any kind of light, no matter how puny. But in the N80's case, this little flash can be programmed for different fill-flash ratios - a great feature that turns the puny little flash into a creative tool. There's even the "Diffuser SG2," a little piece of white plastic, that attaches to the pop-up flash to modify the light even further. (One flash-related downside: Like many less expensive cameras from all manufacturers, the N80 does not have a built-in PC terminal for using external flash. Its hot shoe does, however, accommodate a plug-in PC terminal like Nikon's SC-17 TTL remote cord. The SC-17 permits use of its famed SB-series flash units off-camera.)
There are even two somewhat retro nifties. First, Nikon has retained real depth-of-field preview, often one of the first things to go when a camera maker cuts costs. Also, the N80 allows for use of a conventional screw-in cable release, freeing us from having to shell out additional bucks for an electronic version.
I found metering on the camera to be up to Nikon's usual excellent standard, though I found its touted auto-focus tracking a bit sluggish compared to its much more expensive cousins. And the film drive sounded positively anemic.
In all, though, good guts.
If only this camera didn't live in such a cheap, lightweight body. Not only that, the standard lens for the N80 - Nikon's D-series 28-80 f. 3.5-4.5 - though optically fine, is a dog because of one huge drawback that I couldn't believe: a plastic bayonet lens mount!
For nearly 40 years I've been using Nikon lenses, all with metal mounts. For 40 years I have been giving my Nikkor lenses hard and continuous use. But some poor soul gave his new D-series 28-80 a touch too much wrist recently and found the lens flange snapping off as if it were a dry chicken bone. How do I know this? Jorge Mora of Mora Nikon Repair Service in Washington showed the lens to me and just shook his head.
With admirable candor, John Clouse, Nikon's North American sales manager, defended the 28-80, but only just so much. "The 28-80 is the only lens that's like that," he noted, adding that the plastic on the lens was added because of "strictly a competitive situation." That is: Canon and Minolta make a similarly cheap lens, so Nikon followed suit. (Thinking like that did not make Nikon the great camera company that it is. One hopes that this is an anomaly, not the start of a dismal trend downward.)
With skyrocketing sales figures to back him up, Clouse did point out that the N80 and lens is "made for the exact niche" in the amateur camera-buying market that values lightness, portability, compact size and user-friendly electronics. And he made another point that went a long way toward stifling my bellyaching about the "cheapness" of his company's new camera.
Noting that Nikon has been selling literally thousands of its amateur-aimed SLR's (like the N70 and N60) - and recalling that I had mentioned my love for my pro-level F-100 - Clouse declared, "You can't sell an F-100 for $1,300 if you don't (also) sell thousands of N60s and N70s."
Point taken, John.
So if any of you want to go out and pick up an N80 (or two), be my guest.
You'll get decent value for your money - and you'll be helping to keep my own camera costs down.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.