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CAMERA TEST: NIKON D40
By Michael J. McNamara, Popular Photography
The obvious shortcomings of compact cameras and the shrinking prices of entry-level digital SLRs have spurred a huge growth in the DSLR market. Nikon hopes to continue that trend with its new 6.1MP D40 ($560, street, with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens).
As we described in our Hands On Report (January 2007), the D40's features and overall performance clearly raise the bar on the "entry-level" DSLR class. But will first-time DSLR owners be satisfied with the D40's overall performance compared with its competitors or similarly priced advanced compacts such as the 10MP Canon PowerShot G7 ($500, street, with built-in 6X optical zoom)? And does it have what it takes to attract 35mm holdouts or current DSLR owners looking for a better camera?
Yes and no. First-time DSLR shoppers can't argue with the price of this camera - priced even lower than the Nikon D50 it replaces, and highly competitive with the 6.1MP Pentax K100D ($590, street, with 18-55mm lens), the older 8.0MP Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT ($600, street, with 18-55mm EF-S lens), and the 8MP Olympus Evolt E-500 ($580, street, with 14-55mm Zuiko lens).
• Low price.
• Extremely high image quality and low noise at most ISOs.
• Innovative and user-friendly menus and on-screen tutorials.
• 3-zone AF system limited.
• Autofocus system works only with Nikkor AF-S lenses.
Who's This For?
Compact digital camera owners looking for a great entry-level DSLR that doesn't skimp on image quality, features and performance.
But current digital SLR owners who would like to upgrade their equipment will certainly be happier with a newer 10-megapixel DSLR (for some examples, see "10MP Shootout," February 2007), even though they cost a few hundred dollars more. And Nikon 35mm SLR owners who have a bag full of Nikkor lenses and are ready to cross over to digital might ignore the D40, due to its lack of autofocus support for their older lenses. (Only relatively new Nikkor AF-S or lenses, and compatible third-party lenses whose AF motor is located in the lens, work with the D40's autofocus system.)
The Results Are In
Compared with the first Nikon DSLRs that used a similar 6.1MP CCD sensor (manufactured by Sony for Nikon and several other camera companies), the D40's image quality showed remarkable improvement in our tests in the Pop Photo Lab - especially in shadow and highlight detail and in noise control at higher ISOs. Much of the credit for these advances in performance can be attributed to refinements in the design of the D40's CCD, improved image-processing hard-ware and algorithms, and the use of new camera components that produce less noise than the earlier versions did.
With these enhancements, the D40 achieves an Excellent color accuracy rating, with an average 7.94 Delta E. Its resolution is typical for a 6.1MP DSLR, earning it an Extremely High rating based on an average 1540 lines per picture height. (It's worth noting that when the Nikon D70 produced similar resolution in our 2005 Certified Lab Test, we gave it an Excellent resolution rating. But our rating criteria have been toughened since then to reflect the higher-megapixel sensors found in most midrange and professional DSLRs, and it now takes an average of 1700 lines per picture height or higher to earn an Excellent rating.)
At ISO 200 through 800, images from the D40 have Extremely Low noise levels, slightly lower than those from the Pentax K100D, which is equipped with a similar CCD sensor. At ISO 1600 those levels remain impressively low, with a concurrent drop of nearly 10% in resolution due to very slight blurring from noise reduction. As a result, the D40 earns an Extremely High image quality rating from ISO 200 through 800, and a Very High rating at ISO 1600. That compares favorably with the Pentax K100D, and both cameras show measurably less noise at ISO 800 and above than either the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT or Olympus Evolt E-500.
The D40 also achieves Excellent color accuracy (better than the Olympus) and also features Nikon's D-Lighting for toning down scene contrast, built-in color filter effects and in-camera redeye removal, plus advanced color-balancing controls that are borrowed from the Nikon D80 that give it a slight edge over its competitors.
However, the Pentax K100D's built-in Shake Reduction system is a significant advantage in low-light situations or at slower shutter speeds, and both the Digital Rebel XT and Evolt E-500 produce sharper images with Extremely High or Excellent resolution depending on the ISO setting.
The D40's 3-zone autofocus system is noticeably faster than the AF systems on the Olympus E-500 and Pentax K100D, especially in low light below EV 4, and it's just slightly faster than the Pentax in bright light levels above EV 6. But, the Digital Rebel XT's 7-zone AF system and the Pentax's 11-zone AF system have superior motion tracking compared with that of the D40.
Nikon claims the D40's AF system is sensitive down to EV -1, and that matched our Certified Test Results. However, the 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens that we routinely use in the Pop Photo Lab to test the autofocus on Nikon DSLRs doesn't work with the D40's AF system. (This fast prime lens can be focused manually, using a focus-confirmation light assist in the viewfinder.) Therefore, we tested the camera's AF using the fastest AF-S lens available for the D40 at the time of our testing: the 17-55mm f/2.8 ED-IF Zoom-Nikkor.
How does the D40 compare with Canon's high-end compact PowerShot G7 compact? In terms of resolution, the higher-megapixel Canon delivers more detail at low ISOs, but its high noise levels obscure that extra detail at ISO settings above 400. The G7's 6X optical zoom and image stabilization system are also a plus, but the faster AF speed and sensitivity of the D40, combined with its extraordinarily low noise at ISO 1600, make this the preferable camera for low-light shooting.
The D40 is able to maintain a continuous burst speed of up to 100 images at 2.5 frames per second (using a fast SanDisk Ultra II SD card or the equivalent) with the camera set to highest-quality JPEG. It can also record NEF RAW files or NEF RAW + Basic-quality JPEGs (albeit at shorter burst lengths).
Its battery life of up to 470 images is also an added bonus over the G7, which lacks RAW file support, the nearly instantaneous startup and shutter response, and the accurate optical viewfinder of the D40.
The D40's pop-up flash is stronger than the built-in flash of the PowerShot G7 and of nearly every other compact and EVF camera, but similar in power and function to those found on competitive DSLRs. Like the G7, the D40's high-speed flash sync of 1/500 sec enables fill flash in bright light or outdoor settings, and it supports several Nikon i-TTL external flash units, including the new SB-400. But there's no direct control over multiple flash units, a feature found on the higher-priced models from Nikon and other manufacturers.
The D40 doesn't reveal its entry-level status when it comes to its advanced image quality and exposure controls. But its innovative on-screen picture tutorials are designed to help any first-time DSLR user master most functions and settings without reading the manual.
It has a 420-segment 3D Color Matrix Metering II system (for type G and D lenses) similar to the one on the more expensive D80, plus Color Matrix Metering II (other CPU lenses) and a true 2.5-percent spotmeter. It also has eight easy-to-use Digital Vari-Program modes: Auto, Auto (Flash Off), Child, Close Up, Landscape, Night Portrait, Portrait, and Sports.
Nikon should be commended for the D40's innovative graphics and controls via the bright 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel LCD. Nearly all functions - including white balance, meter pattern, exposure compensation, flash modes, and AF settings - can be adjusted through the LCD menus with the help of thumbnail photos that illustrate the effect.
In shooting mode, a quick press of an information button behind the shutter, or the magnification button next to the LCD, brings up the exposure settings screen on the LCD. And a second press of the magnification button lets you quickly scroll and adjust settings via the four-way toggle button. In playback mode, the LCD's high resolution allows for clear viewing of up to nine images at a time, plus up to 19X image magnification, as well as clear display of histogram and exposure information.
The D40's built-in image editing functions include cropping, redeye reduction, image resizing, and D-Lighting controls, plus several others. Again, the resolution and brightness of the LCD enable before-and-after previews of changes you make to captured images, which are saved as separate files.
The extensive use of the LCD monitor for exposure and image-quality adjustments leaves the D40 relatively uncluttered with external buttons and dials. But we wish Nikon had included an additional dial on the front under the shutter button for simultaneous control of the shutter and aperture when the camera is set to manual mode. Instead, you must press the exposure compensation button while rotating the rear dial to adjust aperture. In other modes, pressing this button lets you adjust exposure compensation through the viewfinder - but, annoyingly, it also turns on the bright LCD in the process.
The Nikon D40 isn't for everyone, but it will certainly appeal to first-time DSLR buyers who want an excellent camera with controls and features that they can grow into and eventually master. It outperforms any compact camera in its price range, and while it has competition from other entry-level DSLRs (especially the Pentax K100D with Shake Reduction) it's a proud member of the Nikon family.
Imaging: 6.1MP (effective) CCD sensor captures 6MP images (3008x2000 pixels) with 12 bits/color in NEF RAW mode.
Storage: SD cards. Stores JPEG, RAW, or RAW + Basic JPEG.
Burst Rate: Up to 100 highest quality JPEGs at 2.5 fps.
AF System: TTL phase detection system with 3 selectable AF zones and red activation lights. Single-shot, continuous, and AF autoselect, predictive focus tracking. Sensitive down to EV -1 (at ISO 100, f/1.4).
Shutter speeds: 1/4000 to 30 sec plus B (1/3-EV increments).
Metering: TTL metering with 420-segment RGB sensor. 3D Color Matrix II evaluative metering, centerweighted (8mm circle), and spotmetering (approx. 2.5 percent of viewfinder). EV 0-20 (at ISO 100).
ISO range: 200-1600 (in 1-EV increments, plus HI 1 boost).
Flash: Built-in pop-up with i-TTL autoflash and 420-segment RGB sensor, GN 55 (ISO 200, feet). Flash sync at 1/500 sec. Dedicated hot-shoe.
Viewfinder: Fixed eye-level, pentamirror. LCD: 2.5-in. TFT with approx. 230,000-pixel resolution. Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0 and video. PictBridge compatible.
Batteries: EN-EL9 Li-ion rechargeable; 470 shots per charge (CIPA rating).
Size/weight: 5x2.5x3.7 in., 1.22 lb with card and batteries (body only).
Street price: $560 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 GII AF-S DX Nikkor lens.
For info: www.nikonusa.com.
Accuracy: 97% (Excellent)
Magnification: 0.81X (Very Good)