Nikon has introduced the D40 as a replacement for its popular D50 entry-level dSLR and it's certainly a good introduction to the world of interchangeable-lens photography.
With a DX-sized 6-megapixel sensor, the image quality is more than adequate for most purposes. The camera has been designed to be easy to master -- you don't need to be a photographic or electronic genius -- but it also has enough functionality to satisfy those wanting to take their hobby further.
With a launch price of just £450, including the all-new 18-55mm lens, this is Nikon's cheapest dSLR camera to date. It's also small enough and light enough to be carried without too much of a weight penalty.
Indeed, the first thing we noticed about the Nikon D40 is how small and light it seems for an SLR. Although this type of camera has generally been coming down in size, this one just takes the lead. Even big hands can use it without difficulty, however, due to the well designed layout of the not-too-overwhelming controls.
In order to reduce the size, Nikon, like others before, has dispensed with the top LCD information panel, relying instead on the larger rear LCD to convey information that used to be displayed on the top. Most of the information is still available when looking through the bright, dioptre-adjustable viewfinder, including the shutter speed, aperture and number of frames available on the SD card. A single press of the query button at the lower left of the rear LCD brings up a display of all the shooting parameters on the main screen. This is configurable to a classic style that mimics the top-panel displays of older cameras, or to a useful new graphical version that provides a visual representation of the aperture and shutter speed. You can also customise the screen with your own image.
Four buttons down the left side of the 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD screen control its functions, and a four-way rocker with a qualifier button in the centre enables selection of the menu functions. The rocker doubles as a scroll button when in playback mode. A dustbin icon identifies the delete button, which needs pressing twice while in playback to delete images. A configurable exposure/focus lock button and a control selection wheel complete the controls on the back of the camera.
The top of the camera carries just the mode selection dial with the program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual (PASM) settings, six scene modes and the auto setting -- complimented by a new Auto (flash off) mode that sets the camera automatically but stops the flash from popping up and firing in situations where flash is not appropriate.
The top of the finger grip holds the shutter release button, surrounded by the on/off switch. Sitting just behind the shutter button are two further buttons. One controls exposure compensation and the other provides a second way to turn on the info screen. The only other function buttons on the camera are to the left of the lens mount. They are a manual flash pop-up button and the self-timer button -- a function that can also be turned on through the menu system.
A spring-loaded door on the right side of the grip provides access to the memory card chamber, where you can load your SD card (including the newer high-capacity ones). On the left side of the camera is a rubber panel that flips out to reveal the USB2 connection port and the AC input (the AC power supply is an optional accessory).
Overall, the camera is well designed and the engineering plastic of the body gives it a solid, quality feel.
Buying this camera gets you over a dozen features inherited from the serious enthusiasts' model, the Nikon D80. These include a new processing engine that gives great looking colours straight from the camera -- helped by new exposure algorithms and the much easier to navigate menus. The D40 uses 420-segment metering, which means it is difficult to fool when it comes to high-contrast scenes, and the accuracy of the autofocusing has been improved, albeit at the cost of fewer focus points -- you only get three, spread across the centre of the scene. The focus point can be selected manually, or you can allow the camera to choose using dynamic area, single point or closest subject. Focusing can be further configured with the choice of continuous or single focus, again with an auto option.
The lens supplied with the D40, an all-new AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II, is an upgrade on the lens supplied with the older D50 and must be one of the sharpest kit lenses on the market -- especially at the wide end. It is, however, let down slightly by barrel distortion at the wide end and although this is common in this type of lens, it is rather noticeable if you have rectangular subjects, such as buildings, in the image. As the lens is zoomed out through its 3x range, this distortion quickly disappears and before it reaches the 55mm mark it has gone completely.
The pop-up flash has a good guide number of 17 at ISO 200 and is said to cover angles wide enough for the 18mm end of the kit lens. It does a good job, although the corners of the frame at the widest setting do loose out by about one stop with vignetting. Flash compensation, or 'level' as it is called in the menu, is easy to apply and covers the range from –3 to +1 stop in 1/3 stop increments.
The on/off switch is wrapped around the shutter-release button and the delay between turning the camera on and it being ready to take an image is so short at 0.18 seconds that Nikon claims you cannot get your finger from the switch to the shutter release before the camera is ready. One of the biggest reasons for buying a dSLR is the reduction in shutter lag -- the time between pressing the shutter and the camera taking an image. With the D40, there is no discernable lag.
The two auto and six scene modes choose the shutter speed and aperture values to get the correct exposure for you. If you are a little more adventurous, the PASM modes are available through the dial on the top, allowing you to choose the shutter speed and/or aperture for yourself. These settings are easily adjusted with the thumbwheel at the top-right side of the back of the camera.
Overall, the camera is feature-packed, with the emphasis on ease of use. The only drawback is that the body will only support lenses equipped with Silent Wave Motors (SWMs), which reduces the choice down to just 20 of Nikon's huge lens range.
Nikon is not well known for its control of electronic noise at high ISO speeds, but it has really done a good job with this camera. Although the ISO (sensitivity of the sensor) can only be adjusted in full-stop increments, it ranges from ISO 200 through to Hi1 (the equivalent of ISO 3200) and is usable right up to the 1600 mark -- even without the in-camera noise reduction facility switched on.
The in-camera algorithms make an excellent job of processing the files into JPEG format -- the most widely used format worldwide. Files can be further tweaked through the menu system prior to printing or saving to an external storage media.
Write times are good too. With a continuous burst at 2.5 frames per second (fps) in large fine JPEG, the camera is able to capture 100 frames without pausing for breath. Even in NEF, although this drops to 5 frames, we found it only slowed the camera down to around the 2fps mark once the buffer was full.
dSLR sensors are much larger physically than their compact brethren and the image quality from the 6.1-megapixel sensor will astonish you if all you've used before is a compact camera. Through the menu you can choose the size and quality of the pictures you take, with the choice of fine or basic, and large, medium or small. There is also the choice of NEF (Nikon's raw format) or NEF + JPEG. These last two options require a computer to process the NEF image and the basic software needed is supplied with the camera. More sophisticated options are available separately, both from Nikon with its Capture NX software, and from third-party suppliers.
The camera applies just enough sharpening by default and the colour balance, although this is a subjective area, will be pleasing to most. To our eyes, it renders colours quite brilliantly. White balance on the auto setting is quite accurate, but the camera provides the ability to override this with half a dozen manual presets should the conditions prove to be misleading to the camera.
We have already heard people moaning about the battery life with Nikon's move to the EN-EL9 battery, which is new and exclusive to this camera. With a capacity of 'only' 1000mAh, some 40 per cent less than the D50 battery, some are assuming it will not last as long. The new circuitry, however, is proving to be much less power-hungry than that before it. Nikon claims an estimated 470 shots with this new combination, but that is with the flash using a full charge for 50 per cent of the shots. In practice, you will get far more than this. In three days of playing with the camera, shooting test charts as well as general photographs with plenty of scrolling through the menu system, the battery meter did not move off the full mark.
Overall, we found the performance of the camera pleasing, although a minor niggle was some random chromatic aberration in high contrast areas of some images. This is a product of the lens, however, and shouldn't put you off the camera, as the distortion is repairable in post processing.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Elizabeth Griffin