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Nikon D40 review: Nikon D40

Nikon D40

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Advice

I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.

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5 min read

nikon-d40-digital-camera-slr-6-1-mpix-3-x-optical-zoom-af-s-dx-18-55mm-lens-black.jpg
7.5

Nikon D40

The Good

Excellent feel and compact size; very customizable menu architecture; nice guidance for dSLR newbies; excellent noise characteristics for high-ISO shots.

The Bad

Slow kit lens; occasionally slow to focus; only 6 megapixels; raw editing software costs extra; control scheme can be awkward; no automatic sensor cleaning.

The Bottom Line

The Nikon D40 is a great transition camera for going from point-and-shoot to your first dSLR.

In many ways, you might consider Nikon's D40 the Zelig of digital cameras. Is it a digital SLR with the spirit of a point-and-shoot? Is it a point-and-shoot with the power of a dSLR? It depends upon who's doing the shooting. While the D40 will never morph into an ultracompact or grow up to be high-powered, pro shooter's camera, it covers the in-between fairly well.

Positioned at the very bottom of Nikon's dSLR food chain, the company aims the D40 at first-time dSLR buyers moving up from tricycles to training wheels. As such, it contains an assortment of preexisting parts from its siblings: the same (or very similar) 6-megapixel sensor as its predecessor, the D50, the same processing engine as the D200 and the same 420-pixel sensor 3D Color Matrix Metering II metering system found in the D80. Assuming that the dSLR-craving hordes of newbies don't have any lenses yet, Nikon sells only a kit version, bundling in its new f/3.5-to-f/5.6G, 18mm-to-55mm II ED AF-S DX lens (28.8mm to 88mm equivalent). This assumption also informs Nikon's decision to remove the coupling pin from the lens mount, limiting the capabilities when interfacing the camera with lenses other than the newer AF-S and AF-I models. In other words, this isn't your father's Nikon, and it isn't the camera to buy if you've got a stash of Dad's old Nikon lenses. (You can find the compatibility details here).

Following recent trends in entry-level dSLRs, Nikon dropped the second status LCD on top of the camera in favor of a more hands-on role for the 2.5-inch LCD on the back. A single button press brings up a display of all your current settings; a second press allows you to navigate and change those settings using the four-way-plus-OK navigation switch and command dial. If you're used to shooting with a snapshot camera, it will feel very familiar; if you're accustomed to more streamlined combinations of buttons and dials, it can feel a bit clunky. For instance, in aperture-priority mode, you can change the aperture only via the command dial; to change the shutter speed, you must go through the aforementioned process. Nikon does provide an Fn button to which you can assign button-plus-dial access to image size/quality, ISO sensitivity, white balance, or drive mode, but I just hate it when manufacturers force me to choose an arbitrarily most-important setting from among several important ones.

Nikon D40
As part of its friendly face, the Nikon D40 offers several options for how it displays your current shooting information, although you always use the same screen while changing settings (upper left). The ring in the Graphic display is supposed to somehow clue novices in to the relationship between shutter speed and aperture, but it just doesn't work for me. And I find the Wallpaper option annoying.

Nikon D40
One of the useful features that Nikon copied from its--and others'--snapshot cameras is using thumbnails to depict for which types of photos different options are appropriate. The camera also supplies some of the in-camera editing features common to point-and-shoots, such as red-eye reduction, D-Lighting (auto exposure adjustment), cropping, and filter effects.

Nikon did bring the viewfinder up to date, one of the things we complained about on the D50, by upping the magnification from 0.75X to the more common 0.8X. Interestingly, it still lacks a grid overlay, a feature I'd think many beginners would appreciate--plus some of us veterans who still have problems getting that horizon line right. And Nikon actually dropped the number of focus selection points from 5 to 3. When I shoot, I use only the center point--after a brief flirtation with eye-controlled autofocus in film cameras, I returned to that old focus-and-recompose school--so it didn't bother me. However, if you use the various automatic focus-selection-point modes it could make a big difference in your shots.

The D40 also gets high marks for photo quality, with very low-noise images, minimal lens distortion, excellent metering and exposure, and pleasing colors.

More on the Nikon D40
Click here for more on the D40's design and photo quality.

In most respects, the D40 provides the features of a typical budget dSLR. Its 6-megapixel resolution is on the low side for a camera introduced this year, but my test photos stood up to 13x19 prints and could probably have been pushed a bit larger. However, there were times when I think a higher-resolution sensor might have been able to resolve details a bit better--details such as a cat's fur, for example. The camera supports sensitivity levels from ISO 200 to ISO 1,600, plus a HI 1 level which equals about ISO 3,200. The lens's slowish f/3.5-to-f/5.6 aperture narrows your exposure options, however. Other shooting options include three autofocus types (single point, dynamic area, and closest subject) and methods (continuous, single shot, and predictive), shutter speeds from 3 to 1/4,000 second as well as bulb, flash, and exposure compensation in 1/3-stop increments, and three metering modes (spot, center-weighted, and matrix). If you plan on shooting raw, make sure to budget $150 for Nikon's Capture NX software; the bundled Picture Project software is insufficient.

Shutter lag and autofocus speed pop up as the D40's biggest weaknesses. It wakes up fast--0.3 second and you're good to go. But its shutter lag in good light is an almost embarrassing (for a dSLR) 0.7 second, and it more than doubles in dim light to 1.6 seconds. I frequently missed shots because of it. The autofocus system works fine for small changes--the subject taking a step, or refocusing on something nearby--but when switching from a far subject to a near subject or vice versa, it takes a perceptibly long second or two to lock.

However, raw and JPEG shot-to-shot time is an excellent 0.6 second (lower than the shutter lag because the camera doesn't need to focus a second time), as is the flash time, which only adds 0.3 second. In continuous-shooting mode, the D40 outshines the rest of its class with 2.5fps; the Canon EOS Rebel XTi is a mite faster, but the D40 can keep it up for far more frames.

If you're just looking for a great, cheap dSLR, the faster, higher-resolution Canon EOS Rebel XT is probably a better bet; and if you're an experienced shooter, you might want to spend more for the Nikon D80. But if you've got a budding photographer in the family or want to step up to your first dSLR, the Nikon D40 is a great choice.

Shooting speed
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Time to first shot  
Shutter lag (dim light)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT
0.4 
0.2 
0.2 
0.2 
Nikon D50
1.2 
0.6 
0.9 
0.4 
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
0.6 
0.3 
1.1 
0.4 
Nikon D40
0.6 
0.3 
1.6 
0.7 

Continuous shooting speed in frames per second
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Typical continuous-shooting speed  

nikon-d40-digital-camera-slr-6-1-mpix-3-x-optical-zoom-af-s-dx-18-55mm-lens-black.jpg
7.5

Nikon D40

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Image quality 8
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