Nikon N80

I was a reluctant admirer of 90’s auto-focus cameras. I had steeped myself in the 60’s and 70’s tea of leather and chrome, manual-everything cameras. Super manual, even a simple “program” mode was a thing for wimps. Light meters were for people who couldn’t handle figuring out the super-difficult (sarcasm) Sunny 16 Rule. So those big bubbly 90’s auto-focus cameras do everything? You just point and shoot? (waves hand dismissively)

I had a Nikon N6006 and a Canon Elan. Both were capable cameras but neither knocked my socks off, so I took the batteries out and let them gather dust, eventually gifting them to family as starter cameras. Then for whatever reason I decided to pick up an N80 for 30 bucks. Why? Not sure. It was more compact and more ergonomic than my other two AF cameras, the focus was faster and quieter, it was lighter, and it looked an awful lot like my digital Nikon camera (also known as “That Expensive Thing I Don’t Use Much These Days”).

I think I just wanted to give AF cameras another chance. These are the most advanced film cameras ever made. The culmination of 100 years of advancing camera technology. No more out of focus photos with spotty metering, set some dials, push a button or two (sometimes three at once) and a technically perfect photo comes out. The purist in me felt like that must be cheating. The only way to take photography seriously was to shoot everything manually and adjust for speed and light and distance using a series of complex formulas in your head before each shot, because that’s what the old masters did.

That’s stupid, of course. I don’t need to impress anyone with my knowledge of the fundamentals of photography. I want to take good quality photos. This machine in my hand is a tool, not a trophy. Sometimes I really, really want to grab one of my 50-year-old manual cameras for a day of shooting, because I do enjoy the action on those things, other times I want to load up a more modern thing with all the bells and whistles. It just boils down to whichever toys I feel like playing with today.

Released in 2000, the N80 is the last of Nikon’s “prosumer” (professional quality cameras designed for the serious hobbyist) film cameras. It doesn’t have the same build quality as the F100, released in 1999, but it’s also not quite as in demand, which translates to the N80 being sold at a fraction of the price of an F100. Price in used cameras is driven by demand. Wanna see an obsolete camera from the 90s jump in price? Write a great article about it on a heavily-trafficked photo blog, then you can make a killing with your Dad’s old Minolta collection.

But not this blog. Nobody reads this blog. Not even you.

My N80 is more advanced than everything I had up to this point, with features like automatic bracketing, lock-on focus tracking, 5-point autofocus, on-demand viewfinder grid lines, every page I flipped in the original owner’s manual brought exclamations of “Holy shit, it can do THAT?” Mind you, up to this point my most advanced setting in the cameras I used most was an aperture-priority setting, so I was fairly impressed.

One thing people prefer in the F100 is a more durable build. It’s heavier and more solid, also the faster flash synchronization speed (which matters if you use fill flash for daytime outdoor shooting, which I almost never do, even though I probably should) is a key provision in the F100. What I like about the N80, cost aside, is that it is smaller and lighter than the F100. It’s my lightest auto-focus camera, and the one with the quietest shutter (although my Canon Elan comes really close), so it’s unobtrusive to use, and great for situations where you don’t want to draw too much attention to yourself, like street photography. I do find the “klunk” and the “whirrr” sounds of an auto-winding shutter release, but I also like to blend into the background sometimes. Not be so obtrusive. Don’t scare away the birds I’m taking photos of, so-to-speak.

I’ve since bought two more AF cameras, both Nikon, and they are a lot of fun, and frequently can be the perfect camera for a particular function, like using my F4 for sport photography. I still generally prefer manual-transmission cameras for my hobby shooting, but there’s always room for one more toy in my collection.