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Nikon D40 review

Nikon have released the extremely compact D40 as a follow up to their successful D50. Meant as an affordable, easy to use, point-and-shoot camera this digital SLR offers most of the features of other full specs DSLRs. It has a 6-megapixel sensor, a new image processing engine, in camera retouching with D-lighting and red-eye reduction plus continuous shooting of 2.5 frames per second. All in a small and light body with that distinct Nikon quality feel.

Using the camera

It is only when you place the Nikon D40 next to its companions that you see how small it actually is. Our trusty Nikon D70 looks huge compared to the new model. The same is true for its weight. When holding the D40 it feels more like a large compact than the full grown DSLR, which it actually is.

front of Nikon D40 back of Nikon D40

If we start our customary tour around the camera at the top, there is the pop-up flash with a guide number of 12 at ISO 100 and a sync speed of 1/500sec. - handy for subtle fill in flash under ambient lighting conditions. The standard hot shoe can hold a range of Nikon Speedlights or various third party external flashes. Next to it is a chunky program dial that gives access to all program options and scene modes. The shutter release is located on top of the comfortable hand grip, with the on/off switch placed around it. Two further, tiny push buttons activate the LCD display on the back and control exposure compensation. Contrary to the D50, there is no LCD status panel on the top plate. Instead all image information is displayed on the huge 230.000-pixel TFT screen on the back.

sample image of the Nikon D40 sample image of the Nikon D40 sample image of the Nikon D40 sample image of the Nikon D40

The large rear display actually plays a central role in controlling the camera. As there is no status panel on the top plate, all camera settings are checked and performed on this screen. Shooting data are shown as a graphic visual display of aperture and shutter speeds or you could opt for a conventional lay-out with all settings neatly displayed alongside each other. By pressing the "zoom-in" button to the lower right of the LCD in combination with the command wheel you can quickly change vital shooting options such as image quality and size; white balance and ISO; AF point and AF area and select one of three metering settings. This works fast and comfortable and even a novice will quickly find its way around thanks to the dedicated help function. This can be called up by pressing the "zoom-out" button next to the LCD and will give a clear description of the relevant function. On top of this there are the newly introduced "assist images" showing when to use a selected option. The menu system uses an attractive colour scheme and large typeface for easy navigation and it is intuitive to use thanks to its clear lay-out. When reviewing shots, the image can be enlarged up to 19 times making it easy to check sharpness and exposure. For further evaluation the Nikon D40 can show detailed image info, a histogram or blinking highlight areas.

Nikon D40 sample image Nikon D40 sample image Nikon D40 sample image Nikon D40 sample image Nikon D40 sample image

Continuing our tour on the back of the camera we see four large buttons to the left of the LCD. Apart from the "Zoom-in" and "Zoom-out" buttons mentioned above, we find image Display and Menu buttons, all clearly marked for ease of navigation. To the bottom right of the screen is a convenient Delete button and the large four-way controller that is used to navigate the camera menus and doubles as AF-area control switch. There is no AF point lock switch as we find on some other Nikon models though. Being a left-eyed photographer myself, I found that I accidentally switched AF points with my nose quite regularly. Luckily the active AF point is clearly seen in the viewfinder when framing an image, so mistakes won't occur that often, but resetting it more times than I would have liked, seriously slowed me down several times and made me miss a couple of photo opportunities.

Another point for left-eyed shooters to note is the small AE/AF lock button, which is located directly in front of your right eye next to the viewfinder. If you want to apply AE/AF lock with the camera to your eye, you should be careful not to put your thumb in your eye. This should not be considered as a serious shortcoming of the camera, but if it gets in the way of your photography it might easily become a nuisance. Our advise to "lefties" would be to go for a trial run with the camera before you buy it.

The optical viewfinder on the D40 is large and bright with a fairly wide viewing angle and a comfortable rubber eyepiece. It has a diopter correction slider next to it and shows about 95% of the image area. Along the bottom you can see a display of shooting data covering everything from aperture and shutter speeds to metering mode, number of shots remaining and exposure compensation. Even the battery status is indicated.

Moving over to the front of the Nikon D40 you can't miss the new AF-S DX f/3.5-5.6 GII 18-55mm kit lens with an equivalent angle of view of 27 to 83mm. This should be good enough for general photography although aspiring users might long for a bigger zoom range at the tele end. For the moment however, the D40 kit is only available with this lens, although a number of other Nikon optics are available that fit this camera. Point to note here is that the D40 does not have an internal focus drive motor, which means it can only focus with AF-S and AF-I lenses with built in focus motors. There is no mechanical focus drive pin on the metal lens mount such as on the D80 or some other Nikon DSLRs. This means quite a number of older lenses are manual focus only on the D40.

Next to the lens is the focus assist light, which is also used for red-eye reduction in flash pictures. On the right just below the flash release button is a small Function button. By default it activates the self timer but it can be reprogrammed to control ISO or White Balance, change the shooting mode or adjust image quality and size. On some other Nikon DSLR's there would be a small depth of field button here somewhere, but there isn't as this is one of the few features Nikon have left out on the D40.

The Nikon D40 uses SD cards but it also supports recent SDHC cards, which are available in capacities of up to 4Gb and higher. At the bottom plate of the camera is a sturdy metal tripod mount in line with the lens axis. It is good to see that it does not block the battery compartment when the camera is on a tripod.

In the Nikon D40 box

As already mentioned the Nikon D40 is only available as a kit with the new f/3.5-5.6 GII 18-55mm Zoom Nikkor lens, which uses ED glass to deliver sharp and well balanced images. The box also contains a comfortable wide neck strap, lens and body caps and a clear and instructive 125-page manual that explains all camera functions in great detail. For easy connectivity there is a USB 2.0 cable, although in certain markets the familiar A/V cable is not included in the bundle.

Power supply of the D40 is taken care of by a new compact EN-EL9 lithium-Ion rechargeable battery, which comes complete with its dedicated MH-23 charger. Battery life of the 1000mAh 7.4Wh li-ion battery is about 470 shots, according to CIPA standards. We have not been able to check this for ourselves but our experience with Nikon batteries is that they have enough life in them for many hours of trouble free shooting. It takes about 90 minutes to charge an empty battery. An AC adapter, which is in fact a dummy battery to fit the battery compartment, is available for continuous shooting, although at $100 it can be considered quite an expensive extra.

Picture Project 1.7 for Windows and Macintosh is supplied with the camera. This program allows simple and seamless transition and organisation of JPEG and NEF (RAW) images on your PC. Its intuitive user interface lets you browse image files and perform some basic editing tasks, such as sharpening or adjusting colour balance. It also supports plug-in files for added functions. For more enthusiastic users a trial version of Nikon Capture NX is included in some countries. This professional program allows for much more advanced solutions to convert and edit your images.

For serious users of the camera, Nikon Capture would indeed be a welcome extra, as RAW editing capabilities of the enclosed Picture Project are quite basic to say the least. There is no option to adjust white balance or apply digital exposure compensation for instance. Nikon Capture however, fully supports NEF (RAW) and JPEG data. It offers functions like automatic dodge and burn control, removal of image dust and particle shades, plus the option to control your camera via the USB connection.

Image quality

The 18-55mm ED kit lens supplied with the Nikon D40 delivers excellent results with sharp and clean photos. There is some slight barrel distortion at the wide angle end of the zoom, which slowly disappears when you zoom in. Above 45mm horizontal and vertical lines are nice and straight. Although some purple fringing (chromatic aberration) is present in extreme contrast situations, we have not been able to detect any vignetting or light loss in the extreme corners of the image at full opening.

Image detail and colour rendition are very good with blues and reds especially strong as this is obviously what most consumers would prefer nowadays. Should you find them a bit over the top however, they are easily adjusted to your personal preferences in the camera menu, just like sharpness, contrast and hue.

ISO 200 full size image ISO 800 ISO 1600 ISO 3200

The 6.1 megapixel sensor in combination with the same processing engine as used in the D80 and D200, shows images with a wide dynamic range and excellent detail in highlight and shadow areas. Even at higher ISO settings pictures have plenty of detail, low noise and a good tonal balance. It is only when you get above 800 ISO that noise starts to become apparent, however we feel it is somewhat less than with other cameras in this class. ISO 3200 is there for emergency use only of course, but it is good to see that Nikon have included it just the same. Exposure control with matrix, centre-weighted or spot-metering was spot-on throughout our test and the only issues we had were with Automatic White Balance, which we felt to be too warm under incandescent light. It is best to switch to the incandescent setting in the menu if you find yourself taking pictures indoors under ordinary household lighting.

A very handy option also seen on the Pentax K10D is the Auto ISO feature that allows the camera to automatically raise sensitivity when lighting is poor but lets the user define a range between which ISO values will be adjusted. Excellent if you need more sensitivity but want to preserve image detail. To avoid camera shake in low light situations a minimum shutter speed can be set here as well.

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We tried the camera with the latest 1.10 firmware installed. A few issues that existed with the older version have now been rectified, such as mistakes in the English, German, Polish and Swedish camera menus. The camera is now certified for Windows Vista adding support for the new USB Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) and the range of years selected in the date option has been expanded to 2099. Also a small issue that caused the AF area setting to revert to default when monitor and exposure metering turned off automatically has been fixed, plus one or two minor corrections to avoid the camera to lock up when certain reset operations are carried out.

We will not discuss all alterations in detail here as we believe most issues of the new firmware are not that significant for average users as they do not actually influence the camera's image performance. One thing that could make life with the camera a bit easier is the fact that when a white balance setting is fine-tuned, + or - will now be displayed with the WB icon in the camera shooting information display on the back.

AWB full size image incandescent WB extra vivid ISO 3200

Conclusion

We are pleased to see that the Nikon D40, although a scaled down model from other Nikons in size, does not lack any vital functions. This is a very responsive camera that comes with dynamic, three area TTL phase detection auto focus; three metering options with Nikon's exclusive 3D colour matrix metering II; an ISO range of 200 to 3200 and extras like flashlight compensation and exposure compensation (without bracketing incidentally). Images can be captured in JPEG or RAW format and there is an extensive in-camera retouch menu with many editing functions for those wanting to get creative. The fact that it is "only" 6-megapixel in today's market is not a disadvantage as large prints (A3 plus) can still be made with excellent results.

There is enough control for the discerning user and enough manual settings to experiment with, whereas any less experienced member of the family can pick it up, put it on Auto and use it straightaway. This would make the Nikon D40 a perfect choice for those that are looking for a capable, compact and light-weight DSLR for a price that is very competitive in today's market.


Additional information: Nikon D40 product details and other reviews
February 21, 2007

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