There exists an entire group of film cameras that nobody seems to care about. The irony. This forlorn segment represents the pinnacle in camera technology yet by consequence of arrival of the next big thing, a good copy can be had for next to nothing. I'm talking about the last generation of auto-focusing 35mm SLR film cameras. And the one in particular that I have, the Nikon N80 is one that I've had in my possession since college. I am the original owner. It's also probably my least used camera. I acquired my N80 brand new during my 2nd year and used it for 3 semesters straight. Then that was it. What had happened was while I was in college Nikon had been releasing DSLR's every couple of months that were becoming more and more consumer-friendly in price. First it was the D100, then the D70 which a friend of mine picked up right around the time I got my N80. They were practically the same camera. The only thing differentiating them was the medium in which the images were captured. Image quality at the time was dead even. A well-scanned 35mm negative could stand toe to toe with the 6mp APS-C DX sensors of the time. So I thought, keep my N80 and just pay extra for the scans at processing. Having a scanner of my own was a pipe dream for a broke college kid like me at the time.
That didn't last. While I had to wait to see what I had come up with, my friend could instantly pull up what he had taken with his D70 and delete if it wasn't to his liking. What kind of sorcery was this? Digital for the enthusiast had finally arrived and if you didn't hop on the train at the time, you were a sucker who still had to pay for film and lab fees. The economics of a DSLR at the time just made too much sense. My friend was a semester ahead of me and while I was toiling with the you-gotta-know-what-you're-doing user experience of the N80, his D70 had an auto-mode. But nevermind the auto-mode. The fact that you can review instantaneously what you just shot was such an advantage and oddly enough, a better teaching tool. After 3 semesters of photography, I bought a D50 and that was that. My N80 would sit in its bag for the better part of the next decade until I called it back into service when another friend said he was taking a photography class in college and tapped me to source him a camera. To his dismay and to my surprise, he came back to me and reported that my N80 wouldn't cut it. The professor said the camera is too old and would prefer if her students had a DSLR. My friend said, "she said it's because it takes film and nobody uses that anymore. I was the only one in the class that brought a film camera. " I'm quite young at heart, but that was the first time something made me genuinely feel old. I couldn't understand how it could possibly be old when the camera itself couldn't be more thoroughly modern, even if it is 15 years old.
Thing is, it's still modern because every prosumer-level DSLR that Nikon had ever produced was based on this very camera. If your first DSLR was a Nikon from the last 10 years, you already know how to use the N80. User programmable dual command dials, d-pad on the back, Mode dial with motor drive selector on the top just left of the prism hump. Power switch surrounding the shutter release. Stop me if you've heard these before. It even has the same squishy-squishy super-pro feeling shutter release, but threaded! No need for a remote that you'll undoubtedly leave on the roof of your car and drive off to completely forget about while cursing up a storm about it being the umpteenth time you've had to repla--I've digressed. Looking from the front, if the N80 were set next to any Nikon DSLR ever made, you'd never know it was a film camera. (For street photography this can be an added bonus, since people will think you're just another dorky photo-happy tourist.) The same can be said for the F100, F5 and F6 but these cameras still command a premium because of their professional-grade build quality. The N80 won't survive being left out in a typhoon or stopping bullets any time soon but it does 80% of what the pro-grade cameras do, so maybe that's where the name comes from?
Perhaps that could be its appeal in today's used market. Instead of going after a mechanical SLR right away which seems to be a trendy fashion statement these days, why not make your cost of entry into film just that little bit more affordable by going for a body that mounts to lenses you already have? For those that started photography with a digital Nikon SLR that have amassed a collection of full-frame AF-D/S lenses, you're in luck. Not only will they mount, but they will meter. The manual AI glass will also mount, but since the N80 doesn't have a metering prong, you're SOL on that front. So if you don't want to break the bank but are eager to try film for the first time and already have (compatible) Nikkor glass, you could do no wrong with the N80. There's a unique look to using modern glass with a capturing medium that's been around since the previous millennium. It's amazing how lenses that were meant to project an image onto a sensor look on Tri-X (or insert your favorite film here). Bringing it out of mothballs was a fun trip down memory lane. The keeper rate was a lot higher this time around! After "switching" to Micro Four Thirds for digital work, I paired down a lot of my Nikon FX gear only keeping the lenses and flash that I know I'd regret selling on. I sold all my zooms and long lenses and kept 2 primes: the 50mm AF-S 1.8G and the 28mm AF-S 1.8G N which in many shared opinions, is the perfect complement. I'm glad I kept them because they just make me want to use my N80 more now that I have a better understanding of what it is I'm doing. Using last generation DSLR lenses that can mount to the last generation of film cameras, it just makes way too much sense.
Things to look out for.
More often than not, the vulcanized leatherette looking grip material will become sticky over time. This is due to humidity and improper storage but it can easily be cleaned with rubbing alcohol. If it hasn't been used regularly, the mirror will lock up after the shutter has been released. There are a number of gremlins that can cause this but for some units I think the issue might be a quirk in the firmware depending on which custom functions are activated. The mirror comes back down after pressing the shutter button again. Unfortunately it burns a frame. I've dry-fired the camera in every drive mode and every meter mode, af-on and manual and best I can guess is that it usually occurs when the camera hasn't been in use for awhile. It's a minor annoyance but I can't seem to replicate the problem consistently enough to say that it's a no-go.
Known as the N80 in North America and F80 everywhere else in the world, this poor-man's F100 comes in several variants and I don't just mean silver or black. There was one that had a data back that could print time and date in the corner known as the F80D. Another, the F80S could print exposure data in between frames(!) There was also a battery grip available that took AA's instead of CR123's which has a trade-off. What you get in return for practicality is added heft which may or may not matter to you.
But Should You Get it?
Well that depends. If you're already pot-committed to Nikon and you want something light that gives you all the control you need with a control scheme you're already accustomed to then I can honestly say it's a no-brainer. It's a modest investment compared to the pro models. If you don't like it, just blame the G.A.S. and flip it. These guys go for fifty bucks on eBay right now. You can probably get lucky and find it in a thrift-store for $20.
This was a fun read. I have to say you’re not alone when it comes to 35mm autofocus SLRs. I shoot a Canon EOS-1 (I have nothing against Nikon. I spent a year shooting with a Nikon D4 and loved every minute). I was looking for a SLR with a solid meter at the time and discovered the EOS-1 is incredibly affordable for a “pro” camera. I got mine for $100 with shipping from Japan.
I really think that all these people shooting with old trendy manual cameras are missing out. Film is expensive and the N80 or the EOS-1 are modern cameras that, like you said, really only differ in the medium they are recording on. I have never tossed a frame because the exposure was off. Instead the problem usually is that my shutter was too slow to keep the motion blur out.
Anyway, enough rambling. I really enjoyed reading your review. Look forward to your next post.