Because of cameras like the new Nikon D40, industry pundits expect close to 2 million D-SLRs will be purchased in 2007. Because of its $599 price—with lens—it nicely bridges the gap between high-quality point-and-shoot digicams and those who want to take their photography one step beyond–and also don’t want to go broke.
Nikon caused quite a stir in December 2006 when the D40 arrived. Nikon typically goes for the higher end and feels consumers should pay a bit more for its uptown brand. I cut my teeth on the fabled Nikon F2 35mm camera back in the day and always have a soft spot for the company. But there are limits. There’s no reason to spend a bundle on a D-SLR when the 8MP Canon Digital Rebel XT and 6MP Pentax K100D are around for under $600. In a turnaround, Nikon met the competition head-on with the 6.1-megapixel D40. And this camera is clearly targeted to D-SLR newbies unlike the recently reviewed Pentax K10D. Should you go for this one or set your sights a bit higher? Let’s find out…
Features and Design
Nothing surprising here. The all-black D40 looks like every other D-SLR out there other than the Nikon logo just below the auto pop-up flash. Anyone looking for something special design-wise won’t find it here. Utilitarian is the best descriptor. This camera is rather lightweight, tipping the scales at 27.4 ounces including supplied lens, battery, strap and card. Surprisingly, the Canon XTi feels much more substantial even though it only weighs an ounce more. And it weighs four ounces less than the D80; Nikon had to strip some features in order to hit the sub-$600 price for this “Made In Thailand” camera. Simply put: it does not have the feel or build of other D-SLRs recently reviewed such as the Canon Digital Rebel XTi, Sony alpha or Pentax K10D. It also doesn’t cost as much as those cameras; figure around a $200 premium for the Canon and Sony. And don’t forget Olympus has an 8MP D-SLR too that goes for less than $600 with a lens (the somewhat long-in-the-tooth E-500).
Like all D-SLRs, the front of the D40 is dominated by the supplied lens. In this case it’s an AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 GII ED that’s really a 27-82.55mm lens (35mm equivalent) due to the 1.5x digital factor. Note to owners of Nikon lenses—this camera supports only AF-S and AF-I models. Auto focus will not work with other Nikon lenses such as Type G or D Nikkors so if you have any other glass, forget this one and look further upstream for the D50 and beyond. As we said earlier, this D-SLR is geared for first-time buyers who probably do not have a lens collection. Obviously this lack of backwards compatibility is not an issue for them.
On the front you find an AF Assist lamp (a very good thing), an infrared receiver for an optional remote and a lens release button. The top is pretty plain vanilla too. There’s a hot shoe for optional flashes, the mode dial and on the pistol grip, the on/off power switch, shutter and buttons for Info and exposure compensation. The mode dial gives you access to the various shooting options ranging from point-and-shoot Auto, Manual, aperture- and shutter priority as well as a few Scene modes such as Portrait, Sports and Child.
Like every other 2007 D-SLR, the D40 has a 2.5-inch LCD screen to check your settings, move through the menus and to review your shots. It’s rated 230K pixels, a solid number. Surrounding the screen are the basic controls—playback, menu, delete, and zoom in. There’s also a key labeled “i” that gives access to some very handy menus. And depending on your setting, it will show sample thumbnail images so you can make the adjustments that fit your subject. This “show-and-tell” is very informative and nicely implemented. As we said earlier, this is a D-SLR for first-timers and Nikon has done a nice job of hand-holding. On the back you also find the four-way controller with OK set button, a jog wheel to speed through menu adjustments and an AE/AF Lock button. And like all D-SLRs, the viewfinder has a diopter control.
There’s not much on the sides: the right has a compartment for SD and larger capacity SDHC cards while the left has the USB and video outs; video out lets you watch images on your TV. There are keys to adjust the flash and the self timer/Function. On the bottom is the battery compartment that slips into the pistol grip; the battery is rated a solid 470 shots per the CIPA standard.
The D40 comes with a basic kit including the body, lens, strap, quick charger and battery. It’s also supplied with a nicely written and illustrated 126-page owner’s manual and a CD ROM with Nikon PictureProject 1.7 software. PictureProject handles downloads, editing as well as conversion of NEF files, Nikon’s proprietary Camera RAW option.
Image Courtesy of Nikon
Testing and Use
Having primarily used 10-megapixel D-SLRs over the past months, I was very curious how this 6MP camera would hold up. After charging the battery it was time to power up and start shooting. As to be expected, the camera was ready to go in less than two seconds. Nikon is to be commended for a very easy-to-understand status display that pops up on the LCD. It has something found on no other camera—a graphic display showing the aperture opening. Newbies may think this is just an image of a cool-looking circle but a brief time with the owner’s manual will get them up to speed. Whether they’ll do anything with it other than “ooh” and “ah” is a question for market researchers. I liked it and it’s a good indication how the company designed this camera for first-timers.
The Nikon D40 is a compact, lightweight D-SLR that feels much less substantial than more expensive models even though it’s only a couple of ounces less. That said it has a comfortable feel and a logical control layout. The mode dial offers quick access to popular scene modes (portrait, landscape, flash off and others). There are also the usual aperture- and shutter priority, manual and program modes for those who want to experiment once they get the feel of the camera.
Nikon D40 LCD Display
For first-timers, Nikon offers a number of aids such as Assist Images that let you know if the setting you chose is appropriate for that photo. There’s also a very cool Info screen available on the 2.5-inch LCD monitor. When you check White Balance, for example, a small thumbnail image shows a typical photo used with that setting so you can make the right choice. The same holds true for ISO (200-1600), type of focus, metering and so on. This is very helpful and Nikon should be applauded for helping photographers take the step from point-and-shoot to a D-SLR. The D40 also has a number of in-camera editing programs such as D-Lighting that brightens dark photos, red-eye reduction and cropping.
I started shooting in Auto then moved to the various Scene and Manual modes. We recently had an ice storm that coated bushes and trees with a shimmering layer. I used branches and shrubs as subjects while crunching around the neighborhood. Focusing was quick and accurate, even with just a 3-point AF system (others have 9 or more). The camera saved images to the SD (or SDHC) card with little hesitation and can shoot continuously for 2.5 frames per second up to 100 shots, compared to quicker speeds and greater capacity than other more expensive D-SLRs. I shot similar images using the D40 and Canon Rebel XTi. I could really tell the difference in response switching between the two (the Canon felt like a machine gun compared to a semi-automatic rifle).
After testing the D40 with the kit lens and making 8.5×11 prints, I have to give the camera solid marks. Is it as capable as the Pentax K10D? No, but that camera is $400 more. The D40 delivered accurate colors that were quite pleasing and my prints showed little noise, However since these are 6MP files, I wouldn’t feel confident making larger prints or doing any severe cropping. Remember: you shouldn’t be seduced by megapixels alone since the D40 takes quality images even though it’s “only” 6.1-megapixels.
Image Courtesy of D40
The Nikon D40 is a good camera for the money. Photo quality is better than acceptable, in fact, it’s downright fine, especially the 8.5×11 prints I turned out. It’s clearly targeted for first-timer D-SLR buyers who do not have any legacy lenses. If you are one of them, you might give it strong consideration. However, the camera is not as responsive as cameras such as the 10MP Canon Digital Rebel XTi or Sony alpha but those will cost close to $200 more. If you want a more robust camera, I’d spring for the extra green. And if you own Nikon lenses that don’t work with this camera, check out the D70s or D80. Still the D40 will fill most of your photographic needs if you’re taking the leap from point-and-shoot to a “real” camera.
• Compact, lightweight, easy to handle
• Good, solid images
• Excellent help menus
• Built-in AF Assist lamp
• Only 2.5 frames per second
• Limited backwards lens compatibility for auto focus
• Uses proprietary RAW program (NEF)