Nikon’s new entry-level D-SLR is very much aimed at the novice but it’s still sufficiently well featured to work for the more experienced user.

Nikon D40The Nikon D40 is considerably more compact than the camera it replaces, and is one of the smallest D-SLRs currently on the market (alongside Pentax K100D and Olympus E-400)

Among the many changes that digital imaging has brought to photography is a greater popularisation of the interchangeable-lens single lens reflex camera. Consequently, many people who previously hadn’t ventured beyond the safety of a 35mm point-and-shoot camera are now jumping in the digital deep end with a digital SLR.

Not surprisingly, a good few of these D-SLR converts are struggling to come to grips with the significantly increased functionality of their new toys… a problem compounded by the fact that many aren’t even familiar with the basics of exposure control, focusing and the like.

Some of the D-SLR makers are trying to make things easier via graphic user interfaces (that’s displays to you and me) which provide more detailed information about what the various functions and features actually do. The best example of this so far is Pentax’s K100D and it’s against this camera that Nikon is pitching its entry-level D-SLR, the D40. Both are exceptionally compact in design, priced at under $1000 (packaged with a standard zoom) and have been designed with the requirements of D-SLR first-timers as a key consideration.

rst-timers as a key consideration. Nikon has trimmed down the D40 in a number of ways, including the adoption of a penta-mirror type viewfinder (as opposed to a prism), and the unifying of the displays so that everything is shown in the monitor screen on the camera’s back. Here you have the choice of three GUI designs which Nikon calls ‘Classic’, ‘Graphic’ and ‘Wallpaper’. Classic is a fairly standard layout, but which benefits from being multi-coloured with larger read-outs — courtesy of the 6.35 cm screen — so it’s much easier to read. The Graphic display shows all the same info, but with the addition of graphics which provide a visual representation of the selected aperture and shutter speed. These take the form of a ‘virtual’ diaphragm — which closes down as you select a smaller aperture — circled by a ring made up of segments representing the shutter speeds in one-stop increments. Exposure warnings are provided in plain English — i.e. ‘Subject is too dark’, etc. Even if the whole concept of apertures and shutter speeds controlling exposures is a complete mystery to you, it doesn’t take long watching these graphics and warnings to work out what’s going on. But there’s much more to the D40’s user interfaces than just this.

Taking Instructions

Nikon D40The D40 offers three choices of information display, including an option for importing an image as background ‘wallpaper’. This is the ‘Graphic’ display which includes a graphic representation of both aperture and shutter speed (seen at the left of the screen). Each of the camera/capture settings arrayed down the right of the screen or along the lower edge can be accessed from here without going via the menu system. Note the plain English ‘Subject is too dark’ warning.

In all the display modes, the screen is essentially split into two areas — one devoted to the key exposure settings (i.e. apertures, shutter speeds and compensation) and the other to the key camera/ capture functions. These can be accessed in the conventional manner via menus, but they’re also available through the GUI by pressing a button marked ‘i’ that’s located alongside the monitor screen. This highlights the relevant part of the display, and the required function is selected by using the four-way rocker control located on the other side of the monitor.

Helpfully, each function is fully titled so you don’t have to struggle with abbreviations or cryptic symbols. However, when you access the function, not only do you get the sub-menu of

all the possible settings, but also images which illustrate either the application or the effect. So, for example, in exposure compensation, the accompanying image gets lighter or darker as you select the over- or underexposure settings. And, if you go to the white balance presets, the images show the typical situations in which each might be used (including somebody shown holding a white card for making a custom preset).

With the image size and quality settings, instead of an image you get a read-out which indicates the typical file size and the number of frames that can be stored on the installed memory card. It all works very well, the only complaint being that when the monitor switches off automatically, you’ll have to start all over again (so it’s a good idea to set this timer to a longer duration than just a couple of seconds). Pressing the shutter release to its half-way position switches off the monitor so it’s not a distraction when you put the D40 up to your eye. Beyond all this — and at any stage (even if you’re operating via the conventional menus) — you can use a help key to bring up a fairly detailed description of what the selected function does and how it is applied. In essence, then, the D40 has its instruction manual built-in… or at least an abridged form of it which is good news for those who have an aversion to opening and reading the printed book (you know who you are).

Buttoned Down

Nikon D40 Penta MirrorAnother of the measures employed to make the D40 extremely compact is the use of a penta-mirror type reflex viewfinder (its housing seen here below the popped-up flash).

By steering D40 users towards the camera’s ‘soft keys’ and menus, Nikon has been able to reduce the number of buttons and dials in the camera’s control layout. This leaves the main mode dial, four-way rocker (which is called a ‘Multi-Selector’ in Nikonese), input wheel and the keys related to using the GUI to perform the vast majority of the camera’s operations. In terms of shooting, for example, the only addition controls that might require attention are those for the AF/AE lock and the exposure compensation facility plus an ‘Fn’ button which can be assigned as a short-cut key to one of five functions. Consequently, the D40 looks a lot less daunting externally than many D-SLRs… something that’s also helped by its small size.

It shaves a couple of millimetres off the K100D’s dimensions in terms of width and depth, but is fractionally taller (94.0 mm versions 92.5 mm). However, it’s 85 grams lighter, but this difference may well be accounted for by the Pentax’s built-in anti-shake mechanism (which, by default, will provide some degree of dust reduction, although this isn’t an ‘advertised’ feature for this model). As we noted with the D80, Nikon has yet adopt anti-dust measures in any of its D-SLRs. And while we’re on the ‘missing list’, the D40 goes without auto exposure bracketing (and, for that matter, white balance bracketing), depth-of-field preview or a remote terminal for a hard-wired trigger.

The latter two are understandable in terms of keeping the manufacturing costs down, but the absence of an AEB facility is a little mystifying. And perhaps even more so, given the D40 is so well featured in other areas. For example, the ‘Retouch Menu’ from the D80 is provided, giving access to a useful array of in-camera functions for resizing, correcting or manipulating captured images. These include red-eye correction, colour balance ‘filters’, B&W conversion plus toning, and an image overlay facility for combining two RAW fi les. The filter menu offers ‘presets’ for a skylight or an 81A plus provisions for creating your own via adjustments along red-to-blue and green-tomagenta axes (with RGB histograms provided as a guide to the effect). In each case, a copy is made of the original image fi le which remains as captured.

Picture Processing You can, however, still capture an image as B&W via the D40’s ‘Optimise Image’ picture modes which are also as extensive as they are on the D80. There’s a basic choice of six modes — ‘Normal’, ‘Softer’, ‘Vivid’, ‘More Vivid’, ‘Portrait’ and B&W (but without any contrast control filters) — plus a custom setting which allows for the manual adjustment of sharpness, contrast, colour saturation and hue. Here, too, you can selected from three colour space choices, namely two sRGB settings tailored for either portraits or landscapes, and Adobe RGB.

The white balance control options comprise the mandatory auto mode plus six presets with provisions for fine-tuning all seven settings over a range of plus/minus three steps (blue to- red). A custom white balance can be derived from an existing image or created from a new measurement off a white or neutral grey card. As noted earlier, there’s no bracketing function and nor is there a provision for manually setting a colour temperature value, but frankly the D40 has everything its users are ever likely to need. Nikon’s fine-tuning for both the AWB and the presets is a neat and tidy solution pre-capture and, of course, the digital colour balance ‘filters’ are available post-capture.

As far as the remainder of the image processing functions are concerned, the D40 has both long exposure and high ISO noise reduction. Even with the facility switched off, some noise reduction is still performed at the camera’s ‘Hi1’ setting which boosts the sensitivity to an equivalent of ISO 3200. When active, the NR commences duties at shutter speeds of one second or slower and at ISO setting of 800 or higher. It’s a dark frame subtraction system so theimage processing time per frame effectively doubles.

Focus Switch

Nikon D40Pressing the ‘info’ button activates the graphic user interface, and the display time can be regulated via a timer. Pressing the shutter release will also switch off the display.

Nikon has stuck with its tried-and-true six megapixels CCD for the D40, as previously used in the now-discontinued D50 and the still-current D70s. As we noted with the Pentax K100D, six megapixels of resolution allied with well-managed image data processing is more than capable of delivering excellent results up to A3+ size reproductions. The affordability of large format inkjet printers is certainly making big enlargements much more accessible (and affordable) than was the case with film, but as with the K100D, the D40 is up to the job. So, is 10 MP better? Yes, but only marginally so and not enough to make anybody on a $1000 budget stretch their finances by another 50 percent… you’d get a lot more benefit out of using this money for a second lens.

Of course, Nikon is sticking with the ‘APS-C’ sensor format (which it calls ‘DX’), giving a focal length magnification factor of 1.5x. The D40 is packaged with a new version of Nikon’s 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 standard zoom which is designated ‘GII’. This is an AF-S type lens which means it’s equipped with a built-in autofocusing motor… which is the only way you’ll get automatic focusing with the D40. Yes, Nikon has fi nally made the switch from a body-integrated autofocusing motor to lens based motors and, in the process, the F-mount takes another step towards becoming fully automatic. The only mechanical linkage that remains now is the aperture indexing pin. However, the D40 is the fi rst Nikon autofocus SLR without an AF driveshaft protruding through its lens mount. Canon, presumably, can take some comfort in the fact that Nikon is now tacitly acknowledging it was right all along in terms of the efficiency and speed of AF lenses equipped with dedicated focusing motors. Of course, the writing was on the wall when Nikon fi rst introduced its AF-S series lenses (equipped with an ultrasonic drive system), but it has finally gone ‘all the way’ with the D40. What this means is that autofocusing is only available on this camera with AF-S lenses, but this now includes just about all the DX small format types plus many of the pro-level lenses. Of course, you can still use other CPU-equipped lenses, but will be limited to manual focusing. In terms of non-Nikon lenses, only Sigma’s SWM models will provide autofocusing on the D40. With the elimination of the body-integrated AF motor, the auto/manual focusing mode switch goes as well and this is now performed on the lens. Incidentally, Nikon used lens-based AF motors in the Nikon F3AF which was effectively the world’s first workable autofocus 35mm AF SLR (appearing in 1983), but then switched to a body-integrated arrangement after Minolta pioneered it in the milestone 7000 (1985) and, a year later, arch-rival Canon opted for a lens-based system.

Point Duty

Nikon D40Look Mum, no AF motor drive shaft! The D40 is the first Nikon autofocus SLR, either film or digital, not to incorporate a focusing motor in the camera body. Thus autofocusing is only possible with AF-S series lenses, but the choice of these is growing steadily.

The D40 is fitted with Nikon’s Multi-CAM 530 autofocus module which has only three sensor points (compared to the D50’s five and the K100D’s 11). These are quite widely spread to give good lateral coverage, and the central point is a cross-type array, but it’s not really clear why Nikon didn’t just stick with the five-point arrangement (presumably either cost or module size). Nevertheless, the benefits of the lensbased focusing motor — incidentally, not an SWM drive, but still low-noise in its operation — are evident in the AF speed. The D40 literally snaps instantaneously into focus and the low light/sensitivity operation is very reliable too (even without resorting to the built-in illuminator). Each of the AF points can be manually selected with the option of Nikon’s ‘Dynamic Area’ mode which will override your selection if the subject subsequently moves. Auto AF point selection is determined via closest-subject priority. Switching between the single-shot and continuous AF modes can also be performed either manually or automatically, with the servo-ed operation overseen by predictive focus tracking.

Exposure control is based on the 420- segment version of Nikon’s ‘3D Colour Matrix II’ metering, but there’s also a choice of centreweighted average and spot measurement methods (the latter representing 2.5 percent of the total frame area). The three main auto exposure modes are backed by a number of overrides, comprising program shift, an AE lock and a generous compensation range of +/-5.0 EV. All adjustments are in 1/3-stop increments only. There’s a choice of eight ‘Digital Vari-Program’ modes which are Nikon’s development of the subject program with additional adjustments made to contrast, colour saturation and sharpness, as well as the programmed exposure settings. TTL fl ash metering is performed via the 420-segment sensor with i-TTL controllability providing balanced fi ll-in fl ash via preflash metering. However, the D40’s built-in fl ash can’t perform as a wireless controller for external fl ash units so support for the advanced Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS) functions only comes when a compatible accessory fl ash is fitted (or the SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander module). In the light of the D40’s likely patronage, however, this is another omission that’s unlikely to be problematic.

Behind The Shutters

The built-in flash has a metric guide number of 17 at ISO 200 (which is the sensor’s native sensitivity) and the ‘on-board’ modes are auto, red-eye reduction, fill-in, slow speed sync and switching between first and second curtain sync. Depending on the exposure mode, various combinations of these are available so, for example, in the program and aperture-priority auto modes, slow speed sync with rear-curtain-induced triggering is possible. Flash compensation, over a range of -3.0 to +1.0 EV in 1/3 stop increments, is available in the auto and manual exposures modes. A custom function allows the built-in flash’s output to be controlled manually, with settings down to 1/32 of full power. Additionally, the metric guide number increases to 18 because the preflash metering is no longer in operation so all the available power is on tap.

The maximum fl ash sync speed is 1/500 second, made possible by the D40’s combination of a mechanical shutter for the slower speeds and CCD switching (or ‘gating’) for the shorter durations. Obviously the latter require the mechanical shutter to be open as well. This is an arrangement used on a number of lower-priced D-SLRs because it saves on the cost of a highspeed mechanical focal plane shutter, but there is a downside. Because fast shutter speeds are often used in bright conditions, but the mechanical shutter is open for longer than would normally be the case, the sensor can essentially be ‘overloaded’ with light which creates a blooming or ‘smearing’ effect. In reality, this will only happen with very bright light sources (particularly the sun), but nevertheless it’s a problem to be aware of.

In The Hand

In The Hand It doesn’t take long with the Nikon D40 to appreciate what a nice little camera it really is. Despite being close to the most compact D-SLR on the market (Olympus’s E-400 holds the crown), it has a good-sized grip that’s very comfortable to hold even if you possess biggish paws. As noted earlier, the control layout is very straightforward and everything operates logically and efficiently… aided, of course, by the comprehensive info and help displays.

The viewfinder is also very comfortable to use by virtue of being a good size and very bright thanks to the Mark V version of Nikon’s Type B ‘Brite View’ focusing screen. Only the focusing points are superimposed over the image area (and light up when active) with everything else arrayed along the lower edge. Eyepiece strength adjustment is built in.

Not surprisingly, the D40 uses SD format memory cards (with HC support) and it’s powered by a new, more slimline lithium-ion battery pack. However, it’s still got 1000 mAh on tap, and lasted all through testing without the three-stage ‘fuel tank’ indicator shifting off full… and this included running the monitor with its auto-switch-off timer set a full minute, and frequently referrals to the menus. Incidentally, the D40 has three timers — for playback/menus, image review and the metering — which can be collectively or individually configured via a custom function. And, on the subject of timers, the self-timer can be set to one of four delay times; namely two, five, ten or 20 seconds.

Performance

Against the clock, the Nikon D40 performed well. A continuous sequence of 36 frames was captured in a best time of 13.554 seconds which equates to a frame rate of 2.656 fps… slightly faster than the claimed 2.5 fps. With an increasing number of D-SLRs now offering JPEG/large/ fine burst lengths limited only by the capacity of the memory, we now use 36 frames as the benchmark as this at least relates back to 35mm film. Nikon actually quotes a JPEG/large/fine burst length of 100 frames for the D40, but just when would you ever need this… or even 36 frames in quick succession? Animation is the only possible application.

Consequently, the important spec here is the 2.6 fps which means the D40 easily matches the shooting speed of a comparable 35mm SLR. Our tests were conducted with a Panasonic Pro High Speed 1.0 GB card, and the D40’s buffer subsequently took 22.691 seconds to transfer the 36 frames, but this is also academic since you can still go on shooting with no loss of speed (at least up to 100 frames). The time is surely coming when recording these numbers in a DSLR test will be unnecessary, save to verify the claimed fps rate. Needless to note, the D40 is markedly more sluggish when handling RAW fi les (the burst length is just five frames), but no doubt Nikon assumes many users will be content with the JPEG/large/fine performance.

And they will be too. On the image quality side, the D40’s basic formula is already well proven with the D50 and D70s so it wasn’t surprising to see the D40 delivering outputs which required little further attention. Nikon has always erred towards higher definition with its image processing to the benefit of detailing and the perception of overall sharpness. In this way, its six megapixels D-SLRs don’t give that much away to the 10 MP models, unless you closely examine a section of a very big enlargement. Noise reduction processing will tend to soften detailing, but the D40 doesn’t appear to need much in this regard… up to ISO 800 the images are exceptionally clean and even at ISO 1600 the noise level is still agreeably low. Colour reproduction is very good from the subtle shades to the saturated. Transparency film users may want to use the ‘Vivid’ Optimise Image setting to give punchier colours, although the saturation in ‘Normal’ is quite acceptable. Overall neutrality appears good, but with a tendency to a slight warmer look when using the auto white balance, especially when shooting under artificial light sources. Under contrasty conditions care needs to be taken with the highlights which can wash out if the metering decides to side with the shadows and order some overexposure… which seems to happen a bit. The simplest solution is to dial in -1/3 EV of exposure compensation and leave it set. Overall, though, it’s hard not to conclude that the D40’s image quality deserves an ‘excellent’ rating and, more importantly, translates into great looking prints which consistently require very little, if any, post-camera work.

The Verdict

Many reviewers appear to be concentrating on the features that D40 doesn’t have, thereby completely missing the point about this camera. It’s deliberately been designed to be accessible to the SLR first-timer, and consequently Nikon has been very calculating about the features list. Only the absence of exposure bracketing (an especially useful feature for both novice and experienced shooter alike) is really questionable, but the rest of the omissions are items that even the D80 or D200 owner might only use on rare occasions. In the areas that really matter, the D40 is actually very well equipped, especially in terms of the many facilities for creating the desired pictorial ‘look’. And, as far as performance is concerned, the D40 delivers as much as the D70s… but it makes getting there a whole lot easier.

Vital Statistics NIKON | D40 | $999

Type: Fully automatic digital SLR with Nikon F bayonet lens mount (AF-S and AF-I lenses fully supported, all others with manual focusing only).
Focusing: Automatic three-point wide-area system using phase-detection type CCD sensor arrays. Focus points may be selected manually or automatically by the camera. Auto or manual switching between one-shot and continuous AF modes, the latter with a predictive function. Sensitivity range is EV -1 - 19 (ISO 100). AF assist provided by built-in illuminator.
Metering: 420-point ‘3D Colour Matrix II’ (i.e. multizone), centre-weighted average, spot (2.5%) and i-TTL flash. Metering range is EV 0 to 20 (ISO 100/ f1.4). Spot metering range is EV 2 to 20. Exposure Modes: Continuously-variable program with shift, shutter-priority auto, aperture-priority auto, metered manual, i-TTL auto flash and TTL flash. Plus eight ‘Digital Vari-Program’ modes for auto, auto (no flash), portraits, landscapes, closeups, sports, night landscapes and night portraits. Subject programs also set appropriate white balance, sharpening, contrast, colour, saturation and hue.
Shutter: Combined mechanical focal plane type with CCD electronic shutter, 30-1/4000 second plus B. Flash sync to 1/500 second. Exposure compensation up to +/-5.0 EV in 1/3 increments. Viewfinder: Coverage = 95% vertical/horizontal. Magnification = 0.8x (50mm lens at infinity). LCD display and LED focus point indicators. Fixed focusing screen. Eyepiece strength adjustment built-in.
Flash: Built-in pop-up unit with GN 17 power (ISO 200). External flash units connect via hotshoe. Flash compensation range of -3.0 to 1.0 EV in 1/3 stop increments.
Additional Features: Camera settings displayed in main monitor screen, choice of ‘classic’ or ‘graphic’ displays (image may be imported as wallpaper), AE lock, multiple exposure facility, self-timer (2 to 20 second delays), wireless remote triggering, audible signals, auto power-off, 17 custom functions.

DIGITAL SECTION

Sensor: 6.24 million (total) pixels CCD with 23.7x15.6 mm imaging area and 3:2 aspect ratio. Sensitivity equivalent to ISO 200-1600 (extendable to ISO 3200).
Focal Length Magnification: 1.5x.
Formats/Resolution: Three JPEG compression settings, RAW output (lossless compression) plus RAW+JPEG capture. Three resolution settings; 3008x2000, 2256x1496 and 1504x1000 pixels. 24- bit RGB colour for JPEGs, 36-bit RGB colour for RAW files.
Recording Media: SecureDigital (SD) memory cards with SDHC support.
Burst Rate: Up to 100 frames at 2.5 fps (JPEG/ large/fine). White Balance: TTL measurement. Auto mode, six presets with fine-tuning, and one custom setting. Interfaces: USB 2.0 and NTSC/PAL video. Additional Features: 6.35 cm LCD monitor; Adobe RGB, sRGB natural and sRGB vivid colour spaces; long exposure and high ISO noise reduction (can be switched off), in-camera picture adjustments (contrast, sharpness, colour saturation and colour hue), B&W capture mode (with contrast filters), luminance histogram display, highlight alert, adjustable image display time, auto image rotation, auto playback, built-in image editing functions (including colour balance filters an B&W toning), DPOF support, PictBridge direct printing support.
Power: One 7.4 volt/1000 mAh rechargeable lithiumion battery pack (EN-EL9 type).
Dimensions (WxHxD): body only = 126x94x64 mm.
Weight: body only = 475 grams (w/o battery pack).
Price: $999 with 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 GII AF-S Zoom- Nikkor ED lens.
Distributor: Nikon Australia Pty Ltd, telephone 1300 366 499, www.nikon.com.au

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