Nikon D40 Overview
by Dave Etchells and
Nikon has always been known as a leader at the high end of the photo industry, but the words "inexpensive" and "Nikon DSLR" have never been close companions. That has all officially changed with the announcement of the new Nikon D40 DSLR. Announced at a price of just $599, bundled with an 18-55mm "kit" lens, it's coming out of the box a full $300 cheaper than the Nikon D50, which was announced little more than a year and a half ago. The camera and lens will only be offered as a kit, the body and lens will not be sold separately in the US market.
If you've been sitting on the sidelines, waiting until you could afford a real Nikon DSLR, your time have come at last: While geared for the entry-level market the D40 packs enough features into its diminutive frame to keep serious enthusiasts interested as well. It's also the smallest and lightest Nikon DSLR to date, so the point & shoot photographer looking to move up to a real SLR, can do so without having to put up with the heft and bulk that the genre usually dictates. And like all consumer SLRs on the market, you can still point & shoot.
Nikon D40 User Report
by Shawn Barnett
With the introduction of the D40, Nikon has outmaneuvered everyone. They've produced a small, light, high quality digital camera that gives the consumer everything they need and more, at a price that's hard to resist.
Wisely, Nikon stopped looking back and built the D40 for the future. Past cameras have been shackled to the idea of maintaining backward compatibility with dozens of previous lenses. The D50 and D80 both include screw-type couplings to connect a body-mounted autofocus motor to lenses built for Nikon's first body-integrated autofocus system, introduced on the N2020 (F501) back in April 1986. The D40 leaves support for this old AF method behind in favor of the original AF concept Nikon introduced with 1983's F3AF, where the focusing motor is built into the lens. Hence the Nikon D40 will only autofocus with newer AF-S type lenses.
Those who still want to use legacy lenses, many of which are still in the Nikon lineup, should opt for the D50, D70, or D80. Note that you can still use older lenses with the Nikon D40 if you're okay with manual focus. The D40 can still control aperture on lenses marked D and G, and it will illuminate the AF points when focus is achieved. For more complete detail on this relatively complex issue, see the Optics section of this review.
|Nikon D40||Nikon D200|
What's missing from the D40 is the physical coupling you see on the Nikon D200's mount at right. This makes it compatible with lenses that use Nikon's 20-year-old AF drive mechanism that makes more noise than the current AF-S system used by the D40.
I think it's a safe bet that most Nikon D40 owners won't be looking back either, instead preferring the quieter, more modern AF-S lenses that are currently 21 in number. The benefit of this key shift to both Nikon and D40 owners is a smaller, lighter, less expensive SLR, because it no longer has the extra motor and screw assembly in place.
Manners. Not since the days of cloth focal plane shutters have I heard such a soft shutter sound. Nikon has been getting better and better at this aspect of their SLR cameras, and the D40 surpasses them all. It's not critical to have a nice soft shutter sound, but it does much to foster appreciation among users, and even subjects. Harsh clacking and winding is really more distracting than appealing in my opinion. A softer sound allows the photographer to be part of the background rather than the center of attention. One exception to this rule is when photographing models, when it's helpful for the model to know when to change poses, but that's far from the Nikon D40's intended market.
The Nikon D40's 18-55mm AF-S lens also focuses very quietly, thanks to its Silent Wave Motor. I found it a very useful and reliable lens. Coupled with the D40's excellent high ISO performance in low light, its f/3.5 maximum aperture wasn't such a limitation. I confess that despite my impression that most D40 users won't miss support for legacy lenses, I find myself wanting to snick a Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AF lens onto the D40 for those low light indoor photo opportunities where flash would either ruin the mood, or else wake the child. But the Nikon D40 won't work with any of the current close range Nikon prime AF lenses in AF mode.
The Nikon D40's pop-up flash is fairly quiet, releasing with a single "clack;" more tame than the Canon Rebel XTi's far louder "zing/clunk." It can be released manually by the user via the button on the left of the lens mount, or automatically by the camera when in fully automatic modes.
I did notice a tendency for the Nikon D40 to overexpose the highlights. Digital is a lot like slide film: if you blow the highlights, there's no recovering them. The data just isn't there. I recommend setting the EV to at least -1/3 on bright sunny days to avoid blowing the highlights. There's plenty of latitude in the Nikon D40's wide dynamic range to bring it all back later if you have to; but you probably won't even need to try.
Getting back to the Nikon D40's 18-55mm kit lens, I also found that there was some objectionable lens flare evident in high contrast objects out toward the corners. I think it's perfectly acceptable in a lens at this price point, but still worthy of note.
Experience. Gripping the Nikon D40 is like settling down in your favorite chair. Not only do you feel right at home, the chair feels at home with you, having formed itself to match your shape. The Nikon D40 already matches. My index finger finds the shutter release perfectly, and the remaining three fingers fit quite well around the grip. Though I wouldn't mind a slightly deeper grip, this is quite good for a camera this small, and a slight recess gives my fingertips a good place to settle, offering tactile feedback that tells me I have sufficient purchase on the camera. My thumb finds its special notch high up on the D40's back, right between the AE-Lock button and the Command dial. It's just a minor nudge to either of these controls, just like picking up my drink from the side table without taking my eyes off the book as I sit in that comfortable chair. Effortless.
Rather than use the good quality knurl around the Mode dial, I found myself most often sliding my thumb up to spin the Nikon D40's Mode dial to my next setting. It's easier to move it in a counterclockwise direction, and easy enough to go all the way around, so that's my normal mode. The top of the dial isn't flat, but domed, and it has a texture that my thumb finds easy to grip.
Since I seldom use camera straps, the lashing points on the camera often bother me, jutting out into my hand or swinging around as they often do. But the strap loops on the Nikon D40 are recessed into the camera body on both sides, a welcome change from all past Nikon DSLR designs, which either flop and rattle on the pro end or jab into your hand on the consumer side.
This design change mimics a change first seen in the EOS 1 film camera, then reappearing in the Digital Rebel, Rebel XT, and XTi; it's the first Nikon we've seen with this kind of ergonomic treatment. It took me a good five minutes to thread the strap onto the Nikon D40, due to the tight area behind the thick steel loop, which is more open on the Canons. But now that it's done, the Nikon D40 hangs straight down from my neck. When I raise the camera to my eye, I can easily control where the straps go, bending them out toward the sides. I had thought that this might be why they usually have the loops on the outside of the body, so the strap falls away easily, but this is working just fine.
Controls. The Nikon D40's control layout is simple and easy to adapt to. I even like the position of the Function button. This is a button you can reprogram to bring up your most frequently adjusted menu item. I currently have it set to ISO. Just press the Function button on the side of the lens with your left thumb and turn the Command dial. The status display lights up the Fn box and you can see the ISO numbers ramp up or down.
A good many other essential items are shown on the Nikon D40's Status display, and can easily be controlled with only a few more buttons. Just press the Zoom/info button, and select the icons across the bottom or right side of the screen with any of the four arrow buttons on the Multi selector. When you reach the one you want, hit the OK button in the center of the Multi selector and a menu is displayed with photographic examples for the various modes. Make your selection and press the OK button again. You're ready to shoot with your new setting. The screens are very much like those we've seen on consumer digicams over the past few years, and it is appropriate to see them here on the Nikon D40, an SLR aimed at consumers.
LCD. The screen is a big, bright 2.5 inch display with a wide viewing angle in all directions to help you show off your pictures. The camera is so small that the screen seems to dominate the Nikon D40's back panel.
I'm overjoyed to see that there's no silly snap-on screen protector in the Nikon D40 box. They fog up, add two extra surfaces to reflect glare, and just bug me. I'm told the screen cover is good for protecting the screen from shirt button scratches. I just went out for a walk with the Nikon D40 around my neck, and my nylon shirt buttons didn't mar the screen. I suppose harder buttons might, though. To this day, however, I've never even seen a scratched LCD display on an SLR, so just be aware, using the care you should be with your fragile photographic tool, and you should be able to maintain a scratch-free LCD cover glass with little trouble.
Seems like most SLR manufacturers have ditched the additional monochrome LCD in favor of using the main color LCD as a status display on their consumer SLRs. About half have recognized that it helps to have the LCD turn off when you put the camera to your eye. Nikon is not among that half. The Canon Rebel XTi and Sony A100 have IR sensors in place to detect your face against the viewfinder so that the screen shuts off. The Nikon D40 and Olympus E-500 just keep the LCD on. It's not a big problem in good light indoors or out, but when it gets dark, it's a nuisance, one that gets worse if you have glasses. The glare just bounces around in that optical mess. If you half press the shutter, however, the Status display goes off. It comes back on about a half second after your release the shutter. You can release the Nikon D40's shutter only halfway and keep shooting with the same AF setting, and the LCD does not come back on.
The D40's status display, which Nikon calls the Shooting Information Display, goes off after a few seconds at idle to save batteries, and comes back on when you press the Info button behind the Shutter release button. You can choose among three displays, and pick different ones when in PASM vs full-auto and Scene modes. The Graphic display is set by default. It shows a wheel in the left corner that represents a shutter speed dial and aperture display. The aperture display "stops down" to approximate what the lens blades will be doing, but it only moves after several turns of the Command dial. The same goes for the shutter speed graphic. It seems like a good idea to educate those who are unfamiliar with how cameras work, though they'll have to be the types to pay close attention. I'm sure that the type who will notice the display at all will have already spent some time looking down the lens and watching the aperture blades move as they snap the shutter. Still, it's nice to have an option. You can also have your own picture there as a backdrop in Wallpaper mode. For the most part, I prefer the Classic display, with its no-nonsense, bold display of the important data.
Regardless of the display chosen, the LCD is slow to refresh as you change settings. That includes aperture, shutter speed, and EV (exposure value) settings. I found myself particularly frustrated with the EV settings, because I frequently overshot my goal, thinking the camera had missed my input. When attempting to set -1/3 EV, for example, the camera wouldn't make the change, so I'd turn the Command dial again. Then the camera would catch up and move it to -2/3. The LED display in the optical viewfinder doesn't have this problem, however, moving instantaneously to reflect your choice. This is an unfortunate bug that makes using the manual modes with the Nikon D40 difficult.
Optical viewfinder. Luke, the lab technician, and I both found the diopter control difficult to set. We also noticed that the D40 didn't adjust for our eyesight well enough (which isn't unusual for me). Rather than the wheel Nikon used on the D200 and D80, the D40 has a slider next to the rubber eyepiece. Changing it while looking through the viewfinder is cumbersome, and you frequently slide past your desired setting due to the force necessary to move it in the first place.
The viewfinder display is very good, showing all the important information, including which AF point is selected, and there's a little question mark icon that flashes in low light or any other situations the Nikon D40 wants to pull you aside for a little conference. To have that conference, just pull the camera from your eye and press the question mark button on the left of the LCD display. Here in my office, it usually says, "Lighting is poor; flash recommended." I think that's a good feature to have in a consumer camera, and the note's not condescending. What I don't like is the incessant flashing of the question mark in the viewfinder and on the back LCD when I'm trying to do something unconventional. I guess I could get more lights in here, but I'd rather have an option to turn this feature off. Not a big deal, though, just a rant, and one enthusiasts might want to make note of: this digicam's help feature just might bug you.
AF points. Praise the designers for putting bright LED brackets on all three AF points. Even the excellent Nikon D80 still has the very cool looking but too often worthless LCD/faint LED combo. I prefer a bright red LED to tell me where the camera is focusing, as exist on the entire Canon SLR lineup. These are big, obvious brackets. And yes, there are only three, but I'm really not as jazzed as I used to be about multiple AF points. I more frequently lock a camera to its center point and work from there. The center point is usually more accurate, and I find that SLRs just aren't as accurate at guessing what I want in focus. On digicams it's not as important, because they usually have a depth of field as long as my truck, but on SLRs point-of-focus becomes more critical.
There is one small problem related to AF points and the Nikon D40's size. Because the area for your thumb is small, I find I accidentally press the left and right arrows on the Multi controller, changing the default AF point. That's a bit of an unwelcome surprise when you raise the camera to your eye for a quick candid portrait and the D40 focuses on the subject's belt. It may be that this camera is better left in Closest subject or Dynamic area modes.
Doors and latches. The Nikon D40's SD card door opens with a firm slide to the rear, then it swings open under power of a good stiff spring. A rubber bumper softens and quiets its impact. I prefer this design to others that just flop around loose.
Nikon also improved the battery door and its retention spring. The Nikon D70 and D80 had weak, mushy springs on their latches, and could open if you pressed in the just the wrong way on the bottom of the camera. Not so with the D40. The spring is firm. Once that door is open, the battery seems to slide right out. But it emerges to about 3/8 inch where it stops. This is just enough for you to grab the battery and pull it out the rest of the way. I noticed that the battery of the D70 and D80 were halted in the same way, but it was a thin wire that did the arresting. I wondered how long that would last. On the Nikon D40, the arresting is done by a wide bit of spring steel. That should last longer.
I've also found the battery life to be quite good, enduring several days of regular shooting. According to CIPA standards, the Nikon D40's 1,000 mAh EN-EL9 is good for about 470 shots on a single charge, and the manual says it'll recharge from empty in 90 minutes. Still, I recommend a second battery. It's a drag to be without your camera while you wait for the battery to charge; and it usually dies when you need it most. The best news, though, is that most Lithium ion batteries can sit charged for a long time (often a month or so) and still be good when you need them.
|As shot @ ISO 1,600||Levels tweaked|
I wanted to illustrate how great the high ISO performance is on the Nikon D40. It almost makes a faster lens unnecessary; certainly not critical. Just a minor tweak in Photoshop brought the highlights back into this deliberately underexposed ISO 1,600 shot, with very little noise added to the already low noise shot. All noise reduction was off in this shot, making it more remarkable. I could have done this with D-Lighting, but I think it's a little too aggressive at times. For comparison, here's what the three levels of D-Lighting did to the same shot. It attempts to bring detail out of the shadows and washes the image out. It's okay in some situations, but I prefer Levels here.
Low light. I didn't let the D40's lack of an available fast prime lens stop me from shooting in low light. I took the Nikon D40 and its kit lens into a dark room where my son was napping and fired off several shots. My only light was coming from a 3x4 foot window with the blinds closed. Time was about 1:30 p.m. on a mostly sunny day. First I tried Aperture priority, setting the ISO to 1,600. I got a good shot, but could only get it up to 1/4 second with the f/4.2 aperture available at this zoom level. The shots were a little blurry due to my breathing and heartbeat, and slightly overexposed; probably because of the dark sweatshirt he was wearing. So I switched to Program mode and got the same result. Knowing that we've judged the D40's dynamic range to be quite good, I decided to switch to Manual: 1/13 second at f/4.2. The lighting looked more like it did in the room. The histogram showed little noticeable clipping on the left side, so I figured I'd have enough shadow detail when I processed it in Photoshop. I was pleasantly surprised by the camera's ISO 1,600 output in a real-world, low-light setting. All I did to tweak the image you see above right is bring up the Levels tool, slide the right control point about halfway to the first bit of data, and hit OK. Remember when pushing to ISO 1,600 was strictly for darkroom mavens? None of them got this kind of quality from color.
Comparisons. Though I mentioned at the outset that the Nikon D40 was built for the future, some will disagree that a 6 megapixel camera can be called forward-looking. The market in late 2006 is replete with 10 megapixel SLRs, and a few older models, notably the Canon Rebel XT and Olympus E-500, have 8 megapixel sensors for about the same price. Truthfully, there is a big difference between 6 megapixels and 10. That's not so true when comparing a 6 megapixel to an 8 megapixel. So the $300 to $400 difference between the cost of this camera kit and one of its 10 megapixel competitors certainly accounts for its 6 megapixel sensor. If you can afford 10 megapixels, go for it. But 6 megapixels will get you a very good 13x19 inch print; and since most people will only print 8.5x11 inch images max, that means you can heavily crop your images from the Nikon D40 and still get beautiful images on a Letter size page. And there's nothing coming in the future that will make 6 megapixels obsolete, unless someone significantly improves human vision, or provides us with unlimited wall space to hang huge snapshots everywhere. You're better saving your $300 and investing in a flash or a lens--or both.
But more important than the resolution of the Nikon D40 is its low light performance. The Nikon D40's ISO 1,600 images are better than usable at 8x10, as my example above shows; and I pushed it a bit to get that image. The Nikon D40's dynamic range is excellent, leaving good detail in the shadows, which allowed me to make the image look quite natural with very little increase in noise.
Though our harsh indoor lighting test suggests that the D40 has trouble with incandescent lighting, I have not found that to be true in my real-world shooting. That was not the case with the Pentax K100D. It was my one major disappointment with that camera: both our lab shots and my real-world shooting revealed significant trouble with incandescent light. The comparably-priced Nikon D40 does far better, relatively matching the Canons I'm used to using. I've also not seen evidence of the tendency to bias the white balance toward blue when shooting near window light, as I saw in the Nikon D70. Since we're mentioning the K100D, however, it does have something the D40 does not: body-based image stabilization. It's a tough choice between the two, and they both have very good high ISO performance. For me, I'd have to go with the camera that delivers the best white balance performance in more situations, so I do give the edge to the Nikon D40.
Which is smaller? A side-by-side comparison shot makes the Nikon D40 appear smaller than the Rebel XT and XTi. Their dimensions are actually almost identical. In millimeters: Canon Rebel XTi: 126.5 x 94.2 x 65mm. Nikon D40: 126 x 94 x 64mm. Weight is also only slightly different, with the XTi coming in just 24 grams heavier than the D40. The D40 also does well in comparison to the XTi. Though the XTi's resolution is a significant difference, the D40 still holds its own, serving as a fine family camera, and more.
With the outgoing 8 megapixel Canon Rebel XT kit selling for about the same price as the D40, we get closer to a draw. They are both excellent cameras. They both deliver category-leading images up to ISO 1,600. Of course, the D40 can actually reach to ISO 3,200, so there's an advantage there. The difference between 6 and 8 megapixels is negligible, but some might still see it as an advantage on the XT's side. The Rebel XT autofocuses with Canon's entire EF lens set, including fast primes, so those looking to upgrade to a prime lens or a whole lot of lenses would do well with the XT. Buffer depth is greater on the Nikon D40, recording over 20 large/fine JPEGs, and its continuous mode is capable of 2.5 frames per second, while the Rebel XT can capture 2.8 frames per second with a buffer depth of only 13. That's a close one. The Nikon D40 has image retouching built in, and the lens is a little better, and a whole lot quieter than the XT. I could go back and forth on this for some time, but I'll leave that to you. I can tell you what I think, but ultimately your needs are unique. Check out the other sections of this review, download the test images and print some of them out. Do the same for some of the competing cameras you're considering.
Based on my own testing, I can say with confidence that many of the cameras I've mentioned will serve you well. As much as I liked the Nikon D50, I wouldn't say the same up against the Rebel XT, based solely on image quality.
I can tell you that the Nikon D40 is one of the finest family cameras on the market. I've really enjoyed shooting with it, and would seriously consider it as a second camera to something like a D80, D200, or 30D. Those cameras are great for more serious work, but they're also more bulky. The D40 is a camera for capturing fun and family. Its size and design are better suited for such duty. And you can still slap high quality glass on it and shoot with the pros on occasion if you like. The Nikon D40 is perfect for slipping into a small daypack for a hike or picnic. It doesn't take a lot of space, and it comes out of the bag quickly. It focuses and shoots so quietly, you're less likely to scare the animals you're trying to capture. Nikon has some excellent inexpensive lenses to add to your kit for just such a purpose, like the 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED AF-S DX Nikkor, a surprisingly short, good quality zoom lens available for between $170 and $240 online.
Intermediate photographers wanting a camera to start a business on a budget should look to the Nikon D80 or Canon 30D, as these are more suited for professional photography. Those who already own a bagful of Nikon glass should also look to the D50, D70s (before they disappear), or D80, because you want to use that fine Nikkor equipment as long as you can. But if you're just getting started in SLR photography and want a light, sweet, competent, and simultaneously friendly digital SLR, the Nikon D40 is a superb choice.
In the Box
The Nikon D40 ships with the following items in the box:
- Nikon D40 body
- Lens AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II
- Body cap
- Front lens cap
- Camera strap
- Eyepiece cap
- Rubber eyecup
- USB cable
- Quick charger (MH-23)
- AC power cord
- Li-ion battery (EN-EL9)
- Accessory shoe cover
- Lens cap
- PictureProject CD ROM
- Quick start guide
- Instruction manual
- Warranty and registration card
- Large capacity SD memory card. These days, a 1GB or 2GB card is inexpensive enough.
- Camera case for protection
- Accessory lenses
- Accessory flash: SB-400, SB-600, SB-800
Nikon D40 Conclusion
Nikon really shocked the market with the D40. We've been pleasantly surprised with its excellent performance in low light and its simple grace as a day-to-day shooter. Then we remind ourselves that all this quality comes at less than $600, and we shake ourselves awake. The Nikon D40 is one great camera!
The Nikon D40 is a natural fit in most hands. Its controls are where they should be for easy use, and the D40 is a well-behaved guest at parties with its pleasantly soft shutter sound. A big, bright LCD is great for reviewing photos from a wide variety of angles; though we do wish they'd put some kind of eye detection method to prevent glare while you're looking through the viewfinder.
Existing Nikon owners should be careful to note that the Nikon D40 can only autofocus with AF-S lenses. Those who want to attach a short, fast prime (non-zoom) lens for indoor low-light shooting should also note that Nikon doesn't currently make any such lenses in AF-S. The good news, however, is that the Nikon D40's low light performance at ISO 1,600 is startling, even without noise reduction turned on. It's so good that we don't really feel like we're pushing the D40 until we jump into ISO 3,200.
Though the Nikon D40's kit lens is pretty good, and also fast and quiet, we were a little disappointed with the significant flare we see in its images with high contrast elements out toward the corners, even in the middle of its zoom range. Its chromatic aberration was also fairly high at wide angle, but none of these minor problems were significantly different from other comparably priced offerings. The lens performed very well in most circumstances, so it's well worth the price.
The Nikon D40 stands up well against the competition -- even those with higher resolution -- with great image quality at all speeds, and near-perfect utility as a family camera. It's tough to ask for more. The Nikon D40 lives up to our expectations, and even exceeds them. There's no question that the Nikon D40 is a Dave's Pick.