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DCRP Review: Nikon D40  
   

by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: December 2, 2006
Last Updated: January 22, 2012

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The D40 is Nikon's new entry-level digital SLR. Priced at just $599 with an 18 - 55 mm lens, the D40 is one of the lowest priced SLRs on the market. Nikon didn't cut a lot of corners to keep the price down, either -- this is a very capable camera. It has a 6 Megapixel CCD, a large and sharp 2.5" LCD display, full manual controls, an elaborate help system, and the kind of performance that you'd expect from a D-SLR. Did I mention that it's also very compact?

The D40 sits alongside its big brothers: the D50 (for now) and the D80. What are the differences between these three models? Have a look at this:

Feature D40 D50 D80
Street price* $599 $650 $940
Resolution 6MP 6MP 10MP
LCD size 2.5" 2.0" 2.5"
LCD resolution 230,000 pixels 130,000 pixels 230,000 pixels
LCD info display? No Yes Yes
Viewfinder magnification 0.8X 0.75X 0.94X
Autofocus on lenses without AF motors No Yes Yes
Autofocus system 3-area 5-area 11-area
Built-in flash guide number (at ISO 100) 12 meters 11 meters 13 meters
Commander mode (for wireless flashes) No No Yes
Continuous shooting rate 2.5 fps 2.5 fps 3 fps
Depth-of-field preview No No Yes
Retouch menu Yes No Yes
Fancy slideshow feature No No Yes
Remote controls supported Wireless Wireless Wired/Wireless
Memory cards supported SD/SDHC SD SD/SDHC
Battery used EN-EL9 EN-EL3 EN-EL3e
Battery life (CIPA standard) 470 shots 400 shots ** 600 shots **
Battery grip supported? No No Yes
* Street prices accurate as of publication date
** Not officially CIPA standard numbers, but same testing methodology used

That's a pretty big table, and it still doesn't cover all the differences -- I'll mention those as they come up in the review.

Is the D40 the ultimate entry-level digital SLR? Read on to find out!

What's in the Box?

At this point there's just one kit available for the D40, and it includes a lens. Here's what you'll find inside the box:

  • The 6.1 effective Megapixel Nikon D40 camera body
  • F3.5 - 5.6, 18 - 55 mm Mk II Nikkor DX zoom lens
  • EN-EL9 lithium-ion rechargeable battery
  • Battery charger
  • Body cap
  • Eyepiece cap
  • Shoulder strap
  • USB cable
  • CD-ROMs featuring Nikon PictureProject
  • 125 page camera manual (printed)

The D40 is sold with a lens (no body only kit yet), and you'll find a brand new second generation 18 - 55 mm lens in the box. Taking the D40's 1.5X focal length conversion into account, the kit lens has the field-of-view of an 27 - 82.5 mm lens. Overall I was pretty happy with this lens, though it has a bit of a problem with purple fringing. I'll have much more on photo quality later in the review.

The D40 doesn't come with a memory card, so you'll need to pick one up if you don't have one already. The camera supports both SD and the newer SDHC cards, which currently top out at a whopping 8GB. I don't think you need a card quite that large -- I'd start out with 1GB myself. Spending a little more for a high speed card is a good idea.

Nikon came up with a new battery when they created the D40, and it's called the EN-EL9. This battery has 7.4 Wh of energy, which is pretty good these days. How does this translate into battery life? Have a look:

Camera Battery life, 50% flash use
(CIPA standard)
Battery used
Canon Digital Rebel XT 400 shots NB-2LH
Canon Digital Rebel XTi 360 shots NB-2LH
Nikon D40 470 shots EN-EL9
Nikon D50 400 shots * EN-EL3
Nikon D80 600 shots * EN-EL3e
Olympus EVOLT E-500 400 shots BLM-1
Pentax K110D 300 shots 4 x 2500 mAh NiMH
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 750 shots NP-FM55H

* Not officially calculated using the CIPA standard, but same methodology used

Battery life numbers are provided by the manufacturer

The D40 and its new battery turn in above average battery life numbers. I suppose I should mention my usual list of "gotchas" about proprietary batteries like the EN-EL9. First, at $45 each, they're expensive. Secondly, unlike with cameras that use AA batteries, you can't use an off-the-shelf battery when your rechargeable dies. As you can see in the chart above, there's only one camera in this class that uses AAs.

The D40 does not support a battery grip, nor would I really expect it to.

When it's time to charge the battery just snap it into the included charger. It takes just ninety minutes to fully charge the EN-EL9. This isn't one of those handy chargers that plugs right into the wall -- you must use a power cable.

Being a digital SLR, the D40 has plenty of accessories available, and I've compiled some of them into this chart:

Accessory Model # Price * Why you want it
Lenses Varies Varies While the D40 can use almost any Nikon F-mount lens, it will only support autofocus on AF-S and AF-I lenses, of which are there are about sixteen at this point
External flash

SB-400
SB-600
SB-800

$129
From $180
From $300
Get more flash power and less chance of redeye with these Speedlights
Angle finder DR-6 From $185 Lets you look into the viewfinder from above
Wireless remote control ML-L3 From $15 Take a photo without touching the camera
AC adapter EH-5
EP-5
From $65
$35
Power your camera without draining the battery; you need to buy both of these parts!
Video cable EG-D100 From $10 View photos on your television
Semi-soft case CF-DC1 $40 Protect your camera from the elements
* Prices were accurate at time of publication

I'll talk a bit more about lenses and external flashes in the next section of the review. And yes, the AC adapter does cost $100, which seems pretty absurd to me.

[Note added 12/12/06: I mistakenly listed the video cable as a bundled accessory. It is optional. I apologize for the inconvenience.]

Nikon includes version 1.7 of their PictureProject software with the D40, and it's good, but not great. The interface is reminiscent of Apple's iPhoto, and I found the software to be responsive and stable. For those of you with Intel-based Macs, I should mention that PictureProject is not a Universal application, which means that it doesn't run as fast as it could.

Anyhow, above you can see the standard thumbnail view that you'll get when you first start up PP.

A view showing exposure info is also available. Double-clicking on an image enters the image edit window:

Here you can adjust things like brightness, color, and sharpness. You can also straighten images or use Nikon's D-Lighting feature to brighten up dark areas of your photos. Auto image enhancement and redeye removal features are also available. PP also makes e-mailing and printing your photos a snap.


Crummy bundled NEF reader for Adobe Photoshop

One thing you can't do, amazingly enough, is edit RAW (NEF) images. Unfortunately PictureProject only views the NEF file and saves it into other formats. There is a Photoshop plug-in included, but as you can see in the photo above, it's very limited.

If you want to do some serious RAW editing you'll need Capture NX (which you can read about in my D80 review) or Photoshop CS2, whose Camera Raw plug-in should support the D40 soon. Why do you want to edit RAW files? Well, these files contain unprocessed image data straight from the camera, so you can adjust virtually any image setting (from white balance to sharpness) and it'll be like you had used those settings originally. In other words, it's like being able to take the photo again. The downsides to RAW include the large file size and the post-processing requirement.

Another optional software product is Nikon Camera Control Pro ($80). Just as it sounds, this software lets you control the D40 over the USB connection, saving the images directly to your computer.

While it's not what I'd consider a page-turner, the D40's manual will answer any question you might have about the camera. There isn't too much small print, and there are lengthy explanations for each of the camera functions. The manual for the PictureProject software is on CD-ROM.

Look and Feel

The D40 is a compact digital SLR made of high grade plastic. The camera is actually smaller than some ultra zooms on the market, but it's not tiny. There's a larger grip than on the Canon Rebel XTi, though it's still a little too small in my opinion. And speaking of the Rebel XTi, the D40 feels a lot more solid in your hands than that camera -- no cheap plastic here.

When it's in your hands, the D40's important controls are within easy reach of your fingers. There are quite a few buttons on the camera, some of which aren't in the most logical locations.

The D40 looks quite a bit different than its brother, the D50. I apologize in advanced for these photos, they were taken in a conference room with mediocre lighting:

The most obvious difference here is the size of the two cameras. The D50 looks like a behemoth next to the diminutive D40. On the back of the cameras you'll see that the D40 has a significantly larger LCD display. Another big difference can be found on the top of the cameras. The D50 has an LCD info display, while the D40 does not -- instead, Nikon used the D40's huge LCD to display this information.

Now let's see how the D40 compares to other D-SLRs in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon Digital Rebel XT 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.5 in. 46.3 cu in. 485 g
Canon Digital Rebel XTi 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6 in. 48.1 cu in. 510 g
Nikon D40 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.5 in. 46.3 cu in. 482 g
Nikon D50 5.2 x 4.0 x 3.0 in. 62.4 cu in. 540 g
Nikon D80 5.2 x 4.1 x 3.0 in. 64 cu in. 585 g
Olympus EVOLT E-500 5.0 x 3.7 x 2.6 in. 48.1 cu in. 435 g
Pentax K110D 5.1 x 3.6 x 2.8 in. 51.4 cu in. 560 g
Samsung Digimax GX-1S 4.9 x 3.6 x 2.6 in. 45.9 cu in. 505 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100 5.3 x 3.8 x 2.9 in. 58.4 cu in. 545 g

As you can see, the D40 is tied for being the smallest D-SLR out there. You can also get an appreciation for the difference in both size and weight between the D40 and D50.

Okay, enough numbers, let's start our tour of the D40 now!

There are some important things to note about the lens mount on the D40. First, compare the photo above to the same one on the D50 -- see anything different? The D50 has the focus motor built into the camera body, and there's a "screw drive" on the lower left of the lens mount to turn the lens elements. To keep down the size of the D40, Nikon removed the internal focus motor. What this means is that your lens must have the motor built in if you want autofocus. If you have an AF-S or AF-I Nikkor lens, then you're all set. However, if you don't, be prepared to focus manually.

Much to my surprise, my one-year-old 50 mm lens doesn't have one -- in fact, there are no "primes" with AF motors until you get up to the very expensive super telephotos. A Nikon source told me that they don't expect most D40 users to use anything but the kit lens. Well, I don't know about that, but the bottom line here is if you want to use primes, consider the D80.

A few other lens-related notes: if you're using old, non-CPU lenses, then you will have to use the camera in "M" mode. And finally, there's a 1.5X crop factor here, so that kit lens has the field-of-view of a 27 - 82.5 mm lens. Oh, and to release the attached lens, you just press the button to the right of the mount.

Directly above the Nikon logo is the D40's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. It has a guide number of 12 (at ISO 100, which the camera can't even do), which is better than the GN of 11 on the D50. Checking the competition, the Canon Rebel XTi has a GN of 13, as does the Olympus E-500. The Pentax K110D has a guide number of 11. If you want more flash power you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe that you'll see a bit later.

Just to the right of the grip is the camera's AF-assist lamp, which is also used as the visual countdown for the self-timer and for redeye reduction. In low light situations the D40 will use that lamp to help with focusing. It's nice to see have a dedicated AF-assist lamp instead of having to pop up the flash like on some other D-SLRs.

The last thing to see here is the receiver for the optional remote control, which is located just under the red portion of the grip.

As you can see, the D40 has a large 2.5" LCD on its rear. While the 230,000 pixel resolution is the same as on the D80 and D200, the viewing angle is not quite as good. That's not to say that the screen is bad: it's not. It's bright, sharp, and has vivid colors. It's only used for menus, shooting info, and reviewing photos -- you can't compose photos on it.

Classic view Graphical view

Since Nikon axed the LCD info display on the D40, the main LCD has taken over responsibility of providing shooting data. There are two views to choose from, called classic and graphic. The latter item has a visual aperture graphic that looks remarkably like the DCRP logo. Anyhow, both are pretty nice -- and they stay on until you press the shutter release halfway. You can have one view for the auto modes, and another for the manual modes, as well.

After pressing the "zoom in" button I can quickly change any of these settings Here you can see how the assist images describe when each white balance setting would be useful

By pressing the "zoom in" button the lower-right of the LCD you can quickly change any of the options shown on the info screens above. Nikon has done a nice job of explaining what the settings do: you can press the "zoom out" button to get a description of the feature, and there are "assist images" showing you when you'd want to use the selected option. The D40 is arguably the most accessible D-SLR out there. Here's what options you can change in this quick menu:

  • Image quality
  • Image size
  • White balance
  • ISO
  • Shooting mode
  • AF mode
  • AF-area mode
  • Metering

I'll tell you more about those options later in the review.

Directly above the LCD is the D40's optical viewfinder, which is large and bright. It shows approximately 95% With a magnification of 0.8X, the viewfinder is bigger than on the D50, but not quite as nice as the one on the D80 (understandably). Under the field-of-view is a line of data covering everything from aperture and shutter speed to shots remaining. Heck, even the battery status is there. A diopter correction slider on the right side of the viewfinder focuses what you're looking at.

To the left of the LCD are these four buttons:

  • Playback mode
  • Menu
  • Playback zoom out + thumbnail view + help
  • Playback zoom in + info screen setting change
The camera got my attention by flashing the "?" icon, and this is what it had to say A description of a menu item obtained by pressing the help button

The help button is useful in several different situations. When you're taking pictures you might see a flashing question mark on the LCD. This means that the camera is warning you about something, and you can press the help button to find out what's up (in the auto modes the message is shown automatically). In any of the menus you can press the help button to get a lengthy description of what each option does. Very nice!

Jumping now to the right of the optical viewfinder, we find the AE/AF lock button, which is also used for protecting images in playback mode. To the right of that is the command dial, used for changing manual settings.

Below those we have the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation and showing more info about a photo you've taken (by pressing up or down). Next to that we have the delete photo button.

The first thing to see on the top of the D40 is the hot shoe, right in the center of the photo. It supports i-TTL flash metering with the SB-400, SB-600, and SB-800 Speedlights, and you can also use Nikon's wireless Creative Lighting System with the SB-800. The Speedlight's AF-assist and zoom head are also controlled by the camera. You can also use third party flashes with the D40, but you'll probably have to set both the camera and flash's exposure settings manually. The camera can sync as fast as 1/500 sec with an external flash.

Moving to the right, we find the D40's mode dial, which is full of options. They include:

Option Function
Auto mode Point and shoot with some menu options locked up.
Program mode Still automatic, but with access to all menu options. The Flexible Program feature lets you scroll through several shutter speed / aperture combinations by using the command dial.
Shutter priority mode You choose shutter speed, camera picks aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Aperture priority mode You choose aperture, camera picks appropriate shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. For the kit lens it's F3.5 - F36.
Full manual mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself (same ranges as above). A bulb mode is also available for super-long exposures: the shutter will remain open for as long as the shutter release is pressed. You can use the remote control as well

Night portrait

These are all scene modes
Close-up
Sports
Child
Landscape
Portrait
Flash off Disables the flash and increases the ISO as high as needed in order to get a sharp, properly exposed photo

The D40 offers both automatic and full manual controls. You can start off easy and then work your way up to the "fun stuff" when you're ready. The flash off mode is kind of like a high sensitivity mode, boosting the ISO as high as needed in order to get a nice photo. You can see how the camera performed at high ISOs by looking at our photo gallery.

To the upper-right of the mode dial we find two buttons, the shutter release, and the power switch. The buttons are for turning on the LCD info screen, adjusting exposure compensation (-5EV to +5EV in 1/3EV increments), and for changing the aperture when in the "M" mode.

Now onto the side of the camera. Just to the right of the lens mount are two buttons. They include:

  • Flash release + flash mode (fill flash, rear curtain slow sync, slow sync, slow sync w/redeye reduction, redeye reduction) + flash exposure compensation (-3EV to +1EV in 1/3EV increments)
  • Function button - see below

The function button is customizable. By default it activates the self-timer, but you can also have it change the shooting mode, image quality/size, ISO, or white balance.

At the far right of the above photo you'll find the D40's I/O ports, which are protected by a rubber cover. The ports are for A/V out and USB. The camera supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

On the other side of the D40 you'll find its memory card slot. The door covering the slot is of average quality -- it could be a little stronger. The D40 supports SD and SDHC cards, as I mentioned earlier.

On the bottom of the D40 you'll find a metal tripod mount (in line with the lens, of course) and the battery compartment. The door covering the battery compartment is of average quality. You'll find the new EN-EL9 battery on the right in the photo above.

Using the Nikon D40

Record Mode

Just like with the D80 and D200, the D40 is ready to start taking pictures as soon as you turn it on. It doesn't have a dust reduction system like the Rebel XTi, so there's no waiting for that process to be completed.

Autofocus speeds will vary depending on what lens you have attached to the camera. With the kit lens, typical focus times were between 0.1 and 0.3 seconds, with slightly longer delays if the camera had to "hunt" a bit. Rarely did the focusing process exceed one second. Low light focusing was quick and accurate thanks to the D40's dedicated AF-assist lamp.

As you'd expect on a digital SLR, shutter lag was not an issue. Shot-to-shot speeds were great as well: you can shoot as fast as you can compose the next shot, at least until you hit the buffer limit, which isn't easy to do.

After you take a photo, you can hit the delete button to review and/or delete the shot you just took.

Now, let's take a look at the image size and quality choices on the D40:

Resolution Quality Approx. file size # images on 512MB SD card (optional)
Large
3008 x 2000
RAW + Basic JPEG 5.8 MB 58
RAW 5.0 MB 65
Fine 2.9 MB 137
Normal 1.5 MB 260
Basic 800 KB 503
Medium
2256 x 1496
Fine 1.6 MB 235
Normal 800 KB 444
Basic 400 KB 755
Small
1504 x 1000
Fine 800 KB 503
Normal 400 KB 839
Basic 200 KB 1200

As you can see, the D40 can shoot RAW images alone, or with a Large/basic quality JPEG. I explained why RAW is cool earlier in the review.

Images are named using the following convention: DSC_####.JPG, where #### is 0001 - 9999. File numbering is maintained ever if you switch or erase memory cards.

Let's talk menus now. The D40 has the same menu system as the D80 and D200, and it's beautiful to look at. It's divided into five submenus, which include playback, shooting, custom, setup, and retouch. For whatever reason, those assist images I showed you earlier aren't available in this menu, but the help feature is still there.

Here's the full list of menu options for you:

Playback menu
  • Delete (Selected, all)
  • Playback folder (Current, all) - that first option shows only the images created by the D40
  • Rotate tall (on/off) - automatically rotate images taken in the portrait orientation
  • Slideshow - I'll cover this in the playback section later in the review
  • Print set (Select/deselect, deselect all) - for DPOF print marking
Shooting menu
  • Optimize image - some powerful tools are buried down here
    • Preset (Normal, softer, vivid, more vivid, portrait, black and white)
    • Custom
      • Sharpening (Auto, normal, low, medium low, medium high, high, none)
      • Tone compensation (Auto, normal, less contrast, medium low, medium high, custom) - the custom option lets you use a tone curve that you created in Nikon Camera Control Pro (optional)
      • Color mode (Ia, II, IIIa) - the first one is for portraits (sRGB), the second one is AdobeRGB and for images that will be retouched, and the third one is for landscape shots (also sRGB)
      • Saturation (Auto, normal, moderate, enhanced)
      • Hue (-9° to +9° in 3° increments)
  • Image quality (see above chart)
  • Image size (see above chart)
  • White balance (Auto, incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, preset) - see below
  • ISO sensitivity (200, 400, 800, 1600, H1/3200)
  • Noise reduction (on/off) - used when ISO is over 800 or if shutter speed is slower than 1 sec
Custom settings menu - the full list is only shown when the CSM/Setup menu option is set to 'full'. A reset option is available.
  1. Beep (on/off)
  2. Focus mode (AF-A, AF-S, AF-C, manual) - if the camera focuses only when you halfway press the shutter release or if it continues to focus while it's held down
  3. AF area mode (Closest subject, dynamic area, single area)
  4. Shooting mode (Single-shot, continuous, self-timer, delayed remote, quick response remote) - see below
  5. Metering (Matrix, center-weighted, spot)
  6. No memory card (Release locked, enable release) - whether you can take a picture without a memory card inserted
  7. Image review (on/off)
  8. Flash level (-3EV to +1EV in 1/3EV increments)
  9. AF-assist lamp (on/off)
  10. ISO Auto (Off, on, max sensitivity, min shutter speed) - you can choose the max ISO the camera will use, or the minimum shutter speed you want the camera to use
  11. Function button (Self-timer, shooting mode, image quality/size, ISO sensitivity, white balance) - what this button does
  12. AE/AF lock (AE/AF lock, AE lock only, AF lock only, AE lock hold, AF-on) - what this button does
  13. AE lock (on/off) - whether pressing the shutter release halfway locks exposure
  14. Built-in flash power (TTL, manual) - if you choose the second item you can set the flash power between 1/32 and full)
  15. Auto off timers (Short, normal, long, custom) - how long the monitor stays on, and how long images are shown in post-shot review
  16. Self-timer (2, 5, 10, 20 secs)
  17. Remote on duration (1, 5, 10, 15 mins) - how long the camera waits for a command from the wireless remote
Setup menu
  • CSM/Setup Menu (Simple, full, My Menu) - see below
  • Format memory card
  • Info display format (Classic, graphic, wallpaper) - you can select the info display format for the manual and automatic modes separately; the wallpaper option lets you use a photo as a background
  • Auto shooting info (on/off) - choose whether the info screen is shown automatically; again, you can have different options for the auto and manual shooting modes
  • World Time - set the time zone, date, date format, and daylight savings time setting
  • LCD brightness (-2 to +2)
  • Video mode (NTSC, PAL)
  • Language (German, English, Spanish, Finnish, French, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Japanese, Korean)
  • Image comment - attach text comments to your photos
  • USB (PTP, Mass Storage)
  • Folders (Select, new, rename, delete) - folder management
  • File number sequence (Off, on, reset)
  • Mirror lock-up (on/off) - for cleaning the CCD
  • Firmware version
  • Dust off reference photo - for the dust removal feature in Nikon Capture NX
  • Auto image rotation (on/off) - whether camera orientation info is saved in the EXIF data
Retouch menu
  • D-Lighting (Low, normal, high) - see below
  • Redeye correction - more on this later
  • Trim - crop photo
  • Monochrome (Black & white, sepia, cyanotype)
  • Filter effects (Skylight, warm filter, color balance) - see below
  • Small picture (640 x 480, 320 x 240, 160 x 120) - make a smaller version of e-mails
  • Image overlay - combine two RAW images into one

Lots to talk about here and I'll start with white balance. The D40 lets you choose from various presets, or you can set the WB manually be using a white or gray card as a reference. You can't set the color temperature -- you'll want the D80 for that. A fine-tuning option lets you adjust the presets from -3EV (yellow/red cast) to +3EV (blue cast) in one-step increments.

I have no idea why Nikon put some commonly used menu items into the custom settings menu (like metering and shooting mode). You can get to these using the quick menu that I described earlier. One item found in that menu is the AF area mode feature. If you use the single area or dynamic area AF-area modes you can select from the three available focus points manually.

The D40 has a very nice continuous shooting mode, especially if you're using a high speed SD card. At the Large/Fine JPEG setting, the camera just kept firing away at 2.5 frames/second. I gave up after forty shots -- the buffer wasn't even close to full at that point. In RAW mode, the camera took six photos in a row at 2.5 fps and then slowed down to 1.7 fps for the next bunch of shots. For the sake of comparison, the Canon Rebel XTi took 11 RAW and 33 JPEG photos at just under 3 frames/second in my tests.


Using the My Menu feature

In the setup tab you'll find a "My Menu" option. This allows you to customize what goes in the menus, so you won't have to scroll through features you'll never use.

The retouch menu has a lot of things that were borrowed from Nikon's point-and-shoot cameras. The D-Lighting feature will brighten up the dark areas of your photos, with a slight increase in noise as a tradeoff. It's especially handy when your subject has a bright light source behind them. Here's an example:

D-Lighting off D-Lighting on (normal strength)

Quite a difference, eh? The retouched image is saved as a new file, so you're not destroying your original image.

The Filter Effects options let you "cool" or "warm" a photo, and you can adjust the color balance using the tool you see above. Just use the four-way controller and you can increase the amount of red, green, blue, or magenta in a photo.

The image overlay feature lets you combine two RAW images into one. You can adjust the gain (exposure) for each image, and the resulting image can be saved in RAW or JPEG format.

Enough about menus, let's do our photo tests now. I used the kit lens for all of the tests.

The D40 did an excellent job with our macro test subject. The colors are super saturated -- look at those reds! The subject has the "smooth" look that I'd expect from a D-SLR, but don't worry, there camera still captures plenty of details.

The minimum focus distance will depend on the lens you can use. The kit lens can get as close to your subject as 28 cm. If you want to get closer you'll want a dedicated macro lens, though there's currently only one macro lens that will be autofocus on the D40 (and it ain't cheap).

If the night shot above looks wider than normal, you're right. Since the only Nikkor lens I had at the time of this review was the kit lens, this was as close as I could get. Still, you can learn a lot from this photo. The camera took in plenty of light, which is easy since you can manually control the shutter speed. Noise is nonexistent, and purple fringing was not a problem. The photo is a bit soft, but nothing horrible.

I have two ISO tests in this review, and the first one uses the night scene you can see above. I had the noise reduction setting turned on here, except for the last shot in the sequence (you'll see why in a sec).


ISO 200

ISO 400


ISO 800


ISO 1600

ISO 3200 (H1)

ISO 3200 (H1) w/o noise reduction

There's very little difference between the ISO 200 and 400 shots. At ISO 800 we start to see a bit of detail loss, but you can still make a fairly large print out of that photo. Things get a bit worse at ISO 1600, so you'll be making smaller prints at this setting. At ISO 3200 there's quite a bit of noise, so it's probably not useful in low light. I included that last shot so you can see the effects of the noise reduction setting. With the NR turned off you get back a little detail, though there's a bit more noise as a result.

There's fairly mild barrel distortion at the wide end of the 18 - 55 mm kit lens. I did not find vignetting (dark corners) or blurry corners to be a problem.

There was no redeye in our flash test, and I wouldn't expect any on a camera with a big pop-up flash (and a powerful redeye reduction lamp) like the D40. The camera has a software-based redeye reduction tool, but there was no need to use it.

Here's ISO test number two. This one is taken in our studio and the results can be compared to those from other cameras that I've reviewed recently. While the crops below give you a good overview of the noise levels at each ISO setting, I encourage you to look at "the whole picture" to really see the differences.


ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200 (H1)

The first three shots, taken at ISO 200, 400, and 800 are almost identical -- noise levels are that low. At ISO 1600 we start to pick up some noise, but it's still remarkably low. Only does noise become obvious at the H1.0 (ISO 3200) setting, and even then, you could get a small print out of the photo, especially if you use noise reduction software or shoot in RAW mode. If you compare these photos with those from the Canon Rebel XTi, you'll see that the two are very similar in terms of noise.

Overall, the D40 took excellent quality photos, which is just what you'd expect from a digital SLR. Exposure was usually spot-on, though the camera blew out the highlights in two sample photos -- I think this is a metering issue. Colors were very saturated -- Nikon definitely tuned this camera toward the consumer audience. Sharpness was just right: not too sharp, not too soft. As you saw in the previous example, noise levels are very low through ISO 800. The one real negative here is purple fringing: the kit lens produces quite a bit of it. One way to reduce this annoyance is to close down the aperture a bit (use a higher F-number).

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at our photo gallery, printing the photos if you'd like. Then and only then can you decide if the D40's photo quality meets your expectations.

Movie Mode

Digital SLR cameras do not have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The D40 has a pretty standard playback mode for a D-SLR You've got slideshows, thumbnail view, DPOF print marking, image protection, and "zoom and scroll" feature. This last option lets you blow up your image by up to 19 times, and then move around in the zoomed-in area. When you're zoomed in you can use the command dial to move between photos at the same magnification. I should mention that the D40 doesn't have the fancy slideshow feature like on the D80 -- no transitions or music here.

I mentioned the "Image Retouch" options in the pervious section, but just in case you missed them, they include redeye reduction, D-Lighting, color filters, and image overlay. You can also crop and downsize photos that you've taken.

Deleting photos is easy, as there's a button right on the camera for that purpose. By using the playback menu, you can select a group of photos to delete -- a feature I always appreciate.

By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos, but if you press up or down on the four-way controller you can get a lot more.

The D40 moves from photo to photo instantly in playback mode.

How Does it Compare?

With their new D40, Nikon has proven that you can make an entry-level digital SLR without cutting a lot of corners. There's a lot to like about this camera, from its compact size to its performance to its photo quality. For those ready to step up to the D-SLR world, the D40 is a fabulous way to do it.

The D40 is one of the most compact D-SLRs on the market, but it's not too small like the Rebel XTi. Yeah, the grip is a little too small for my hands, but most people will find it to be acceptable (and better than the one on the Rebel). Build quality is also better than the Rebel, with higher grade plastics and an overall more solid feel. To cut down on the size of the camera, Nikon removed both the internal focus motor and LCD info display found on their other D-SLRs. The latter isn't a big deal, as Nikon did a nice job integrating shooting data onto the main LCD. You've got two views to choose from (I prefer the classic myself), and you can quickly change commonly used settings at the press of a button. The LCD itself is big, bright, and sharp. As for the lens motor issue, this really depends on how you plan to use the D40. If you'll be sticking to the kit lens and lenses like it, then you'll probably be fine. If you want throw on a 50 mm prime, then you'll probably want to get the D80 instead, as it'll be manual focus only otherwise.

The D40 has a nice collection of point-and-shoot features, plus the full manual controls that you'd expect on a D-SLR. While the scene modes on the camera aren't necessarily new, the impressive in-camera help system is. When you use the "quick menu" to change settings, the camera shows "assist images" that tell you the situation for which you'd use that setting. There are also detailed help screens for every menu item -- even those confusing one in the custom settings menu. Add in the stuff in the Retouch menu like D-Lighting and redeye reduction and the D40 becomes the most user friendly D-SLR on the market. Power users don't need to worry, though -- the D40 has plenty of manual controls too. You've got the whole set of manual exposure controls, plus white balance and focus. The RAW (NEF) image format is supported, as well. The D40 lets you customize all the menus (showing only the options you want to see), and there's a custom button on the side of the camera as well. As far as expandability goes, the sky's the limit. You can choose from lenses, flashes, a wireless remote, and more.

Camera performance is superb. Flip the power switch and the D40 is ready to go. Focusing times were very good, and low light focusing was excellent thanks to a powerful AF-assist lamp. Naturally, shutter lag wasn't a problem, and shot-to-shot delays were minimal. The D40's continuous shooting mode isn't quite as fast as the one on the Rebel XTi, but it's still excellent, taking 6 RAW and a nearly infinite number of JPEGs at 2.5 frames/second. Battery life was above average, and the camera supports the USB 2.0 High Speed standard.

Photo quality was also very good. Nikon has tweaked the camera to produce what I'd call "consumer friendly" photos, with high color saturation and higher sharpness than on more expensive D-SLRs. Noise levels are very low, even at ISO 800. ISO 1600 is still usable, especially if you do some noise reduction in software. I'd probably save ISO 3200 for desperation only. I did run into a few photos with blown out highlights, though this is more a metering issue than anything. My main annoyance was the amount of purple fringing created by the kit lens -- more than I'd like to see. The camera had no redeye problem, but if it does come up, there's a removal tool built into the camera.

There are just a few negatives that I want to mention. First, while the camera supports the RAW image format, Nikon doesn't really give you any software to work with it, instead forcing you to get Capture NX or Photoshop. Second, while most D40 users won't care, there's no depth-of-field preview available. Lastly -- and this will sound like a petty complaint -- it would've been smart for Nikon to put those "assist images" in the full menu as well as the quick menu.

If you're ready to enter the world of digital SLRs, the Nikon D40 is a great way to do it. It offers a compact, truly portable body, great performance and photo quality, and a really user friendly interface for not a lot of dough. I can recommend the D40 without hesitation. I would say that the Canon Digital Rebel XTi is a somewhat more capable camera, but it also costs nearly $200 more. With that in mind, try both if you can, but don't think that you're giving anything up by getting the D40 -- you're not.

What I liked:

  • Excellent photo quality; vivid colors and very low noise -- though see issues below
  • Well built for its price
  • Robust performance
  • Large, bright, and sharp 2.5" LCD
  • Shooting data well presented on the main LCD; settings can quickly be changed from the info screens
  • Full manual controls
  • Customizable menus and button
  • Useful features for beginners like D-Lighting, redeye removal, assist images, help system
  • AF-assist lamp
  • Redeye not a problem
  • Above average battery life
  • USB 2.0 High Speed support

What I didn't care for:

  • Purple fringing with kit lens; occasional blown highlights
  • Limited selection of AF-S lenses means that many Nikkor lenses (mostly primes) will not support autofocus
  • Grip could be larger
  • No depth-of-field preview
  • Included software doesn't allow for RAW image manipulation; Capture NX costs $150 more
  • Would've been nice for assist images to be in full menu as well as quick menu

Some other digital SLRs worth looking at include the Canon Digital Rebel XTi, Nikon D80, Olympus EVOLT E-500, Pentax K110D, Samsung Digimax GX-1S, and the Sony Alpha DSLR-A100.

As always, I strongly recommend trying the D40 and its competitors before you drop the big bucks on a D-SLR!

Photo Gallery

See how the photos turned out in our gallery!

Want another opinion?

You'll find another review at CNET.com. There are also previews available at Digital Photography Review and Imaging Resource, both of which should be full reviews in the not-so-distant future.

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

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