Since it seems that the D40 will remain in Nikons line up for a while, I decided to write down my impressions.
I bought the D40 more or less by coincidence. I had a Nikon D200 and a Nikon D50 and wanted something smaller, yet serious. I had my mind set on a Canon G7 digital compact. When I got to handle it in a store it felt bigger than I expected, the body was relative thick and boxy with sharp corners and not very comfortable. I laid my eyes on the Nikon D40 instead, asked for a trade-in price for the D50 and walked home with the D40.
When I unpacked the camera one of my first thoughts was “Now, why did I do this?”. It was apparent that the grip was quite a bit smaller than the one on the D50, handling my big 70-200VR would not be as comfortable, and the AF would not work on my Nikkor 85 1.8 AF (my only lens without built-in AF motor). But soon I started to really like the D40.
There was nothing wrong with the D50 – on the contrary – it felt like a full grown, full featured DSLR, punching above its weight class, considering its price. It stlll has an exceptionally happy user base, judging by the internet forums.
The problem was not the D50 – it was the D200, which was my main camera. I always picked the D200 before the D50 (except sometimes in low light, where the D50 had a noise advantage), which didnt offer anything siginificant different, only a little less. The D40 offered something else – the smallest size of all Nikon DSLRs.
Does size matter?
When I got back into photography 2002 after a long pause since the 80s, with the advent of affordable (ahem) DSLRs, it was obvious that the cameras had grown larger and larger over the years. With the D40 Nikon finally had a DSLR at the same size and weight as a classic Nikon FM. Here is a comparision with my last remaining film camera, the even smaller Nikon EM:
This is about the right size in my opinion (especially if we get an optional batterygrip for handling large lenses, the way a MD-12 motordrive complemented the FM/FE SLRs). The compact wave of film SLRs started when Olympus with their famous OM-1, tried to create a SLR with the same advantages as a Leica M rangefinder, manifested in the same compact size and weight, ultra bright big viewfinder and very silent operation.
Sometimes you can read internet posts about people wanting a digital OM-1 (a lost opportunity for Olympus in my opinion). People dont take me seriously when I say “look at a Nikon D40”. Of course it cant match the clock-work quality or all metal build of the OM-1, but it is close in size and weight, the viewfinder is bright and crisp (but smaller of course), the D40 is good at discrete low light shooting (more about that later) – and it is very quiet. Imaging Resource wrote in their review: “Not since the days of cloth focal plane shutters have I heard such a soft shutter sound”.
The very smooth shutter/mirror action makes it possible to handhold slow shutter speeds. I estimate the advantage to about a stop compared to the D200 or D300.
Another illustrative size comparision – D40 with 18-55 vs D300 with 17-55.
On the first outing with the camera, it was a dull, overcast day. I didnt expect much from the images, shot as jpegs. But when I looked at them at my computer, it was obvious that Nikon had done something image wise. I have used all previous variations of the 6 mp Sony sensor.
DPReview wrote in their review: “Image quality was probably the best of any current six megapixel digital SLR and good enough to question any advantage touted by an eight megapixel.”
Expert Nikon writer Thom Hogan wrote:”State of the 6mp art”.
Is this only an improvement in jpeg-processing? See this discussion.
The images from the D40 are crisp, saturated, with clean colors, requiring little post processing work.
A small sample gallery here.
High ISO performance
The D40 performs very well at high ISOs. Up to ISO 1600, the level of noise, and especially the disturbing color noise, is very low. Contrast and color saturation remains high. There is a setting for noise reduction (NR) on high ISOs. It does a good job in balancing noise versus keeping details so I usually have it on.
ISO 1600 samples:
Larger image here.
Larger image here.
Larger image here.
Sometimes you can read opinions about how the low noise comes at the expense of detail, cancelled out by noise reduction. But the level of detail looks fine to me. Here is another ISO 1600 sample and a crop (handheld at 1/13s by the way, thanks to the smooth shutter – and yes – the guitar needs some cleaning…).
100 percent crop:
Full size image here.
More high ISO images in this gallery.
When I bought the D40 I had no choice but to buy the 18-55 II kit lens too, the body was not sold separatly. I did not like the original 18-55 which I got as a kit lens for the D50 – too soft, with a very plastic look and feel. I had the well regarded 18-70, and expected to use it as a standard lens on the D40.
But when I used the 18-55 II, I could not find anything particulary wrong with it. It actually was sharper on the wide end than my sample of the 18-70, which in its turn was sharper on the long end.
(See here how the 18-55 II performs at 18 mm on the 12 mp D300).
See also the rather positive test from Photozone.
The cosmetic changes to the lens compared to the old 18-55, made it a little easier to accept in appearance than the old one, but of course the build quality is low end. The AF-S focusing is the simpler kind without constant manual override, the mount is plastic, and so on.
But it is the smallest option as a normal lens on the D40, and balances better on the camera than Nikons other normal zooms like the 18-70.
The 18-55 also have good close up capability – smallest FOV is about 25×50 mm (my thanks to signature hha who posted a comment about this).
Another natural companion lens to the D40 is the 55-200VR which is often sold as part of a D40 kit. There is also a non-VR 55-200, but I would recommend the VR type, since VR (vibration reduction) is very useful on these, rather slow tele zooms.
I have used other affordable tele zooms from Nikon, like the earlier 70-300 G (not to be confused with the new 70-300 G VR which seems to be much better) and 70-300 ED. Compared to those the 55-200VR gives far better contrast and punch – an impressive performance for such a low cost lens in my opinion. See my mini-review of the 55-200VR here. And here is a gallery with images from the D40/55-200VR combo.
Some other options for standard lenses are the 18-70 I mentioned before, the 18-200VR (great as a one-lens solutions, but check if you think if the size is ok on the small D40 body), the 18-135 (smaller than the 18-200, but lacks VR) or the new 16-85VR (gets great reviews, maybe a little bulky and expensive vs the low cost D40).
The D40/18-55/55-200VR kit is nicely complemented with the SB-400, the smallest flash I have seen with bounce capability. If you use auto-ISO the camera simply increases the ISO if the flash power isnt enough.
The flash also works with the compact Nikon P5000/5100 cameras (and of course with other Nikon DSLRs).
(Bounced flash with D40/SB400/55-200VR at 135 mm):
I wont get into details about specifications, you can read about them for instance in the review in DPReview. I will only mention a few things. One advice is to set the format for the LCD infoscreen to “Classic” to avoid lag on the LCD when you change settings.
I usually have the camera set to P-mode (I never use the “idiot-settings”) and auto ISO (custom function 10), base ISO 200, highest ISO 1600, slowest shutter speed 1/125s.
The exposure meter is on the bright side, I use -0.3 or -0.7 as default. On the plus side, it seems that the matrix meter recognizes bright snow scenes, where the exposure often is perfect.
For sports and action shooting, the D40 with its 2.5 fps and simpler AF of course cant compare to cameras like Nikon D200 or D300, but it is fast enough for instance for a catching a speedy Vespa (w 55-200VR):
The ergonomics of the D40 is excellent, considering its small size (but an optional battery grip would be nice when you need to handle those big lenses). Overall it is (IMO of course) a charming camera. The biggest and most discussed shortcoming is the unability to autofocus with lenses that lacks AF-S or other built in focus motors, like Sigmas HSM. Personally I much prefer the silent and fast focusing AF-S lenses, and look forward to the day when I can exchange my last screw-drive lens – the 85 1.8 – for an AF-S version, but I understand that this can be a big problem for many. Nikon should have realized that many people who buy this camera would like to use affordable fast lenses like the Nikkor 50 1.8 or 85 1.8 for available light shooting. There are alternatives, like the Sigma 30 1.4, but they are expensive in relationship to the price of the camera. More and more lenses with built in focusing are introduced all the time, but Nikon could have avoided this debate by bringing out an inexpensive 50 1.8 with AF-S when the camera was introduced.
It sounds like a slogan. Simple, small, silent, sharp. And inexpensive. For the moment the D40 is the cheapest DSLR on many markets, costing less than many high end compacts. A real bargain in my opinion – unless the limitation to AF-S lenses is a real problem for you.