The Coolpix P80 is Nikon's attempt to crack the extended zoom market with a competent, lightweight 18x optical zoom camera. Nikon isn't exactly reinventing the wheel here. Extended zoom cameras like the Olympus SP-570 UZ and Sony Cybershot H3 have already reached 20x with great success.
There's very little about the P80 that's new or exciting. Still, that doesn't mean it's not a good camera. It is; it just seems like it has arrived about a year too late to have a significant impact.
Hopefully it's merely an indication that Nikon has the capabilities and the intention to compete against the already established zoom-camera manufacturers.
Nikon touts the compact design of the P80 as a major selling point, going so far as to call it the smallest 18x zoom camera available. This may be technically true, but compared to a 20x zoom camera like the SP-570 UZ, the difference in size is negligible. The P80 has dimensions of 4.3" x 3.1" x 3.1" and the SP-570 UZ measures 4.6" x 3.1" x 3.1". Not much of a difference considering the SP-570 UZ has the longer lens. The two cameras also have identical weights (12.9 oz). Nikon's marketing team is comparing their current camera with other 18x zoom cameras that came out over a year ago. Of course theirs is smaller.
Aside from that bit of marketing sleight-of-hand, the P80 is a very lightweight, comfortable digital camera. The compact design and hand-grip make it easy to carry and keep steady, and the arrangement of the buttons and knobs is traditional. A significant difference between the P80 and the SP-570 UZ is how the zoom is controlled. On the SP-570 UZ, the zoom is extended and retracted by turning an SLR-like zoom ring which surrounded the lens. This allowed for greater control and slight refinements to the extension. The P80 uses a more common zoom lever, familiar from point-and-shoot camcorders. It works adequately, but makes it difficult to make subtle adjustments. It's easy to do full zoom and no zoom, but everything in between requires real patience to achieve.
18x Optical Zoom and Image Performance
Though the zoom control can be finicky, the 18x optical zoom lens itself is excellent. The P80 consistently took excellent photographs at all zoom levels. The results were bright and vivid, capturing an immense amount of detail. Nikon's "Vibrational Reduction," which is what they call image stabilization, performed perfectly as nary a shake or jitter could be detected in any of our test photos.
The hype for the P80 also mentions its high ISO settings, which draw down the image quality from 10 megapixels to three but allow for shooting in lower light situations. Test photos we took with the flash seemed good, but without the flash it was easier to see high levels of image noise.
The P80 is intended to be a versatile, high-action camera, and that's clear from the settings that are prominently displayed on the mode-wheel. Apart from auto, manual, aperture and shutter priority, and program auto, there are only two special modes present on the wheel: sports and video. Other scene modes are grouped together and accessible through the menu system.
Downsides: LCD and Viewfinder
Typically, the inclusion of both a large LCD and a viewfinder is a beneficial thing for photographers, but on the P80, both are somewhat disappointing. The 2.7-inch LCD is big enough to frame shots and get good previews, but the overall quality of the screen seems low. Live viewing looks grainy and the screen appears to suffer from a version of the screen-door effect, where the gaps between pixels are visible. The electronic viewfinder also has the screen-door appearance, and does not seem bright enough to make it a useful component of the camera.
The Nikon Coolpix P80 isn't a bad camera, even with the irritating little flaws like the LCD and viewfinder problem. It's just a little too late to be a camera that one could strongly recommend. Were it competing with the Olympus SP-560 UZ or Sony's H7, it might have a case, but when there are contemporary cameras that do what the P80 does better and with more power, this poor little camera is very quickly overshadowed.