Nikon D40x Imatest Results

We routinely Norman Koren's excellent "Imatest" analysis program for quantitative, thoroughly objective analysis of digicam test images. I highly recommend it to our technically-oriented readers, as it's far and away the best, most comprehensive analysis program I've found to date.

My comments below are just brief observations of what we see in the Imatest results. A full discussion of all the data Imatest produces is really beyond the scope of this review: Visit the Imatest web site for a full discussion of what the program measures, how it performs its computations, and how to interpret its output.

Here's some of the results produced by Imatest for the Nikon D40x:

Color Accuracy

The Nikon D40x showed pretty good color accuracy, and its average saturation is a bit higher than that of its little brother, the D40. The color error maps of the two cameras are strikingly similar, the main difference being slightly higher color saturation overall, but particularly in the yellows and greens, where the D40 was a little weak. Hue accuracy is very good to excellent, with most of the hue shift occurring in the cyans and blues. Average saturation was 120% (oversaturated by 20%, mostly in the reds and blues, but with little bit in the deep greens as well), average "delta-E" color error was 6.62 after correction for saturation, almost dead-on the D40's value of 6.57. All in all, a very good color response for an SLR, just a little off the best we've seen.

Color Analysis

This image shows how the Nikon D40x actually rendered the colors of the MacBeth chart, compared to a numerically ideal treatment. In each color swatch, the outer perimeter shows the color as actually captured by the camera, the inner square shows the color after correcting for the luminance of the photographed chart (as determined by a second-order curve fit to the values of the gray swatches), and the small rectangle inside the inner square shows what the color should actually be, based on perfect rendering in the sRGB color space. This image shows the excellent hue accuracy, as well as a gamma curve that results in an overexposure of highly saturated swatches.


Gray Patch Tone and Noise Analysis

There's a lot in this particular graph, a lot more than we have room to go into here. (This set of plots has also changed a little in the latest version of Imatest. Some of the plots that were shown here previously are now shown in other Imatest output. Since we largely focus on the Noise Spectrum plot, we'll only show the graphic above, which includes that plot.) Bottom line, the Nikon D40x's noise levels are low at low ISO, with a frequency spectrum that has a bit more energy on the higher frequency (right-hand) side of the curve than do some cameras. In comparing these graphs with those from other competing cameras, I've found that the Noise Spectrum graph at lower right is the most important. Cameras that manage to shift their noise spectrum to higher frequencies have much finer-grained noise structures, making their noise less visually objectionable. In the graph above, this would show up as a noise spectrum curve that remained higher on the right side, representing higher noise frequencies. The champion at this was the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, which produced remarkably fine-grained image noise, even at very high ISOs. The D40x's noise spectrum a bit more conventional, with more weight on the left side of the noise spectrum plot than the 1Ds managed, but still with a good noise structure overall.


Here's the same set of noise data at ISO 1,600. Here, the Noise Spectrum graph is shifted a bit more toward the left-hand, lower-frequency side than it was at ISO 100 (note how narrow the spike is at zero frequency), coarsening the "grain" of the image noise patterns somewhat. In the D40x though, while the frequency distribution of the noise shifts more to the lower range, its overall noise amplitude remains pretty low.


This chart compares the Nikon D40x's noise performance over a range of ISOs against that of other cameras. While I continue to show noise plots of this sort because readers ask for them, I each time point out that the noise magnitude is only a small part of the story, the grain pattern being much more important. In the case of the D40x (as was also the case with the D40), we were consistently impressed when we subjected its images to the real-world test of printing them out at 8x10 inches on the Canon i9900 printer in our studio. Its ISO 1,600 shots were surprisingly clean and attractive looking. There was definitely some noise present, but our assessment was that 95% of the D40x's customer base would find the results entirely acceptable. (Even ISO 3,200 shots printed surprisingly well.)


Dynamic Range Analysis

A key parameter in a digital camera is its Dynamic Range, the range of brightness that can be faithfully recorded. At the upper end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is dictated by the point at which the RGB data "saturates" at values of 255, 255, 255. At the lower end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is determined by the point at which there ceases to be any useful difference between adjacent tonal steps. Note the use of the qualifier "useful" in there: While it's tempting to evaluate dynamic range as the maximum number of tonal steps that can be discerned at all, that measure of dynamic range has very little relevance to real-world photography. What we care about as photographers is how much detail we can pull out of the shadows before image noise becomes too objectionable. This, of course, is a very subjective matter, and will vary with the application and even the subject matter in question. (Noise will be much more visible in subjects with large areas of flat tints and subtle shading than it would in subjects with strong, highly contrasting surface texture.)

What makes most sense then, is to specify useful dynamic range in terms of the point at which image noise reaches some agreed-upon threshold. To this end, Imatest computes a number of different dynamic range measurements, based on a variety of image noise thresholds. The noise thresholds are specified in terms of f-stops of equivalent luminance variation in the final image file, and dynamic range is computed for noise thresholds of 1.0 (low image quality), 0.5 (medium image quality), 0.25 (medium-high image quality) and 0.1 (high image quality). For most photographers and most applications, the noise thresholds of 0.5 and 0.25 f-stops are probably the most relevant to the production of acceptable-quality finished images, but many noise-sensitive shooters will insist on the 0.1 f-stop limit for their most critical work.

The image below shows the test results from Imatest for an in-camera JPEG file from the Nikon D40x with a nominally-exposed density step target (Stouffer 4110), with the D40x's contrast setting at its default position.

These are really excellent numbers for an in-camera JPEG, but the dynamic range number at "high" quality itself (8.04) isn't necessarily the most important thing to look at here. A dynamic range of 8.04 f-stops at high image quality is actually the best we've measured to date, out of all the DSLRs we've tested (including that from the Fuji S3 Pro), but equally important is the shape of the tone curve.

More significant than the absolute dynamic range is the fact that the curve tails off nicely at both the highlight and shadow ends, providing a smooth transition from quarter-tones to both highlight and shadow, making for smooth-looking images even after considerable tone-curve adjustment on the computer.

Processing the D40x's RAW (NEF) files through Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) version 4.1, we had somewhat confounding results. ACR 4.1's automatic settings increased the visual dynamic range a moderate amount, but for some reason, Imatest was only able to find a limited number of the tonal steps in the images. With a little manual tweaking though, we obtained very good results, and Imatest recognized a large number of density steps. The results of the manual tweaking are reflected in the table below.

Dynamic Range, the bottom line:

The net result was that the D40x performed slightly better than the Fujifilm S3 Pro (our previous dynamic-range champ) for JPEG images straight from the camera, and came close to the S3's performance for NEFs processed through ACR.

All in all, a very impressive dynamic range performance!

To get some perspective, here's a summary of the Nikon D40x's dynamic range performance, and how it compares to other digital SLRs that we also have Imatest dynamic range data for. (Results are arranged in order of decreasing dynamic range at the "High" quality level.):

Dynamic Range (in f-stops) vs Image Quality
(At camera's minimum ISO)
Model 1.0
Fujifilm S3 Pro
(Adobe Camera Raw 2)
12.1 11.7 10.7 9.0
Nikon D40x
(Adobe Camera Raw 4.1)
12.0 10.9 10.3 8.9
Nikon D40
(Adobe Camera Raw 4.1)
11.9 10.9 9.89 8.3
Pentax K-100D
(Adobe Camera Raw 3.6)
11.3 10.3 9.51 8.23
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
(Adobe Camera Raw 3)
11.2 10.3 9.4 8.14
Nikon D40x 10.8 10.0 9.42 8.04
Fujifilm S3 Pro -- 9.9 9.4 7.94
Canon Digital Rebel XTi
(Adobe Camera Raw 3.6)
10.8 9.88 9.18 7.84
Canon EOS-5D
(Adobe Camera Raw 3)
11.0 10.4 9.21 7.83
Canon EOS-5D
(Camera JPEG)
10.2 9.68 8.82 7.65
Nikon D200
(Adobe Camera Raw 3)
10.6 9.65 8.96 7.61
Nikon D80
(Adobe Camera Raw 3.6)
11.1 10.4 9.42 7.51
Nikon D50 10.7 9.93 8.70 7.36
Canon EOS 20D 10.3 9.66 8.85 7.29
Nikon D40 10.4 9.8 8.89 7.28
Nikon D80
(Camera JPEG)
10.1 9.43 8.48 7.12
Canon Digital Rebel XT 10.3 9.51 8.61 7.11
Nikon D200
(Camera JPEG)
-- 9.07 8.36 7.11
Olympus EVOLT 10.8 9.26 8.48 7.07
Canon Digital Rebel XTi
(Camera JPEG)
9.83 9.10 8.27 7.04
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II
(Camera JPEG)
10.3 9.38 8.6 7.04
Canon Digital Rebel 10.1 9.11 8.47 6.97
Pentax *istDs 10.2 10 8.87 6.9
Pentax K-100D
(Camera JPEG)
10.3 9.3 8.39 6.73
Nikon D2x -- 8.93 7.75 6.43
Nikon D70S 9.84 8.69 7.46 5.85
Nikon D70 9.81 8.76 7.58 5.84

The results shown in the table are interesting. One of the first things that struck me when I initially looked at test data for a wide range of d-SLRs, was that here again, purely analytical measurements don't necessarily correlate all that well with actual photographic experience. There's no question that the Fuji S3 Pro deserves its place atop the list, as its unique "SR" technology does indeed deliver a very obvious improvement in tonal range in the highlight portion of the tonal scale. I was surprised to see the analytical results place the Olympus EVOLT as highly as they did, given that our sense of that camera's images was that they were in fact noisier than those of many other d-SLRs that we looked at. In the other direction, I was quite surprised to see the Nikon D2x place as low on the listings as it did, given that we found that camera's shadow detail to be little short of amazing.

One thing that's going on here though, is that we tested each camera at its lowest ISO setting, which should produce best-case noise levels. This is in fact what many photographers will be most interested in, but it does perhaps place some of the Nikons (like the D40) at a disadvantage, as their lowest ISO setting is 200, as compared to the ISO 100 settings available on most other models.

Regardless of the positions of the other cameras though, the Nikon D40x does appear to offer some of the best dynamic range we've seen to date, particularly remarkable given its status as an "high-end entry-level" (if that makes sense) consumer camera. While it doesn't show in the tests above, the D40x's dynamic range seems to be well-balanced between the highlight and shadow ends of the tonal scale. Where the D40 tends to lose highlight detail rather rapidly, the D40x does a great job of holding onto highlight detail without also making the upper midtones too dark. At the same time though, it does an excellent job of holding onto clean subject detail in the shadows. Just a great performance all around!

As I always say though, at the end of the day, I think you have to take the figures here with a grain of salt, and look at actual images with your own eyes to see what you make of each camera's tonal range and noise levels. We'll continue performing these dynamic range tests on the digital SLRs that we review, but (just as with the laboratory resolution target results), we suggest that you not rely on them exclusively for making your purchase decisions.

Resolution Chart Test Results

The chart above shows consolidated results from spatial frequency response measurements in both the horizontal and vertical axes. The "MTF 50" numbers tend to correlate best with visual perceptions of sharpness, so those are what I focus on here. The uncorrected resolution figures are 1,812 line widths per picture height in the horizontal direction (corresponding to the vertically-oriented edge), and 1,807 lines along the vertical axis (corresponding to the horizontally-oriented edge), both very good values. Correcting to a "standardized" sharpening with a one-pixel radius brought the vertical resolution close to the horizontal, resulting in an average of 2,322 LW/PH. This is a great performance for a 10-megapixel camera.

To see what's going on, refer to the plots below, which show the actual edge profiles for both horizontal and vertical edges, in both their original and corrected forms. Here, you can see that (for whatever reason), the edges (first plots below) have a very subtle in-camera sharpening applied, resulting in very clean edges with almost no overshoot. As discussed in the main part of this review, the D40x's unadjusted JPEG images make great-looking prints as large as 13 x19 inches. For the ultimate in sharpness though, dial down the camera's internal sharpening and process the resulting images after the fact in Photoshop or other image-processing application to bring out the maximum detail without introducing sharpening artifacts.


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