Date: July 25, 2007
Author(s): Rob Williams
Up until recently, Nikon’s line-up has had many gaps. This past March though, they released their P5000 advanced point-and-shoot camera alongside their D40x D-SLR. Today we are taking a look at the latter, which turns out to be a fantastic offering for those looking to take the plunge into high-quality photography.
Last November, Nikon made an announcement that both delighted some and confused many. The D40 was set out to replace the D50, but not replace it at the same time. Though both cameras had comparable sensors, the D50 was a larger camera, and more comfortable to use overall. However, a few of the pluses on the D40 made many D50-owners consider an “upgrade”.
So the D40 came and had a certain amount of success, although I am not sure about exact numbers. What it brought to the table was a smaller frame, in effect becoming more lightweight than the D50 and other Nikon D-SLRs. Despite its ‘value’ moniker, it was equipped with a 6.1 megapixel sensor capable of 2.5FPS for up to 100 shots of JPEG fine. Indeed, it was a performance camera, regardless of it’s price.
Fast forward to this past March, when Nikon announced their follow-up, the D40x, which we are taking a look at today. People world-wide yelled, “what the?” and for good reason. How was it that Nikon could possibly release an upgrade for a camera that was out for less than five months?
Simple answer: They didn’t. Sure, the D40x shares the same name, but it was targeted more towards the advanced beginner, whereas the D40 was more for the absolute beginner. That said though, any D-SLR can be well-handled by a beginner, it’s just that the D40/x are both designed more towards the novice, thanks to its design and revamped user-interface.
Both the D40 and D40x cannot be compared. The original D40 sells for $525 on average, which includes the updated 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G II ED AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor lens, while the D40x without lens retails for an average of $630. So there is a $180 – $200 premium for the D40x, which can be justified a variety of ways:
First, the D40x offers a sensor similar to what’s found in the D80, so it’s capable of 10.2 megapixel images at 3FPS also with a burst rate of up to 100 shots of JPEG fine. In addition, it offers ISO sensitivity as low as 100, while the original D40 cannot go below 200, similar to the D50. Like the original, it offers three focus-points, which I consider to be one of the few downsides of the camera, although some may disagree with it’s overall value. Between both the D40x and D80 though, the number of focus-points is the biggest noticeable difference when shooting, besides the obvious size difference, of course.
Both the D40 and D40x use a standard F-mount lens support, which lacks the mechanical focus drive pin. Thanks to this, auto-focus will only function properly with AF-S and AF-I lenses. This could be considered another downside, but the selection of compatible lenses is absolutely huge, and you are unlikely to acquire, or want, a lens that is incompatible.
When the time comes to purchase your D40x, chances are it will include either the 18-55mm II lens, or the 18-135mm which was originally launched alongside the D80. Both lenses offer similar quality, but are entirely different in build. The 18-135mm is far bulkier, while the 18-55mm II is small… and cute. I realize my manly status has suddenly decreased, but it’s entirely true. You cannot go wrong with either lens, but the 18-135mm will treat you better if you are looking for a long zoom at a budget price.
Also launched with the D40x is Nikon’s own 55-200mm f/4-5.6 VR lens, which is a rather sweet deal at ~$250. With this lens, you could afford to use the 18-55mm and switch to the 55-200mm only when you require it. Note that 55-200mm is not a lens you will use indoors, given the base focal range, but if you are heading outside, it would suffice as being your primary lens. For close-up shots, you would just require to stand back a little bit further than you would with the 18-55mm.
Last of the accessories you will want to consider is the SB-400 speedlight that was released with the original D40. It currently retails for ~$100 and is a great starter-speedlight, but if you can splurge, I’d highly recommend stepping up to the more capable SB-600 which retails for ~$180. The primary differences are easy tweaking and the ability to swivel it around.
After all said and done, if you want to have a complete kit to get yourself started, which would include the camera, 18-55mm lens and SB-600 speedlight, it will cost around ~$930USD before taxes. Replace the 18-55mm with the larger 18-135mm and it will cost $1,100USD before taxes. Personally, I would choose the latter simply because the lens has a more capable zoom, but if you are not concerned with zooming in, the 18-55mm will certainly suffice. The smaller lens will also keep the overall cameras weight down, ideal for women and children.
How about a few more fun stats before we jump in on a tour of the camera? First, the power-on time is 0.18s, which is likely quicker than you’d be able to move your finger from the power to push the shutter-release button. The camera offers ISO 100 – 1600, plus HI-1 (equiv. to ISO 3200). The outputted 10.2MP images are at 3872×2592 resolution, perfect for printing out that billboard you’ve always been dreaming of.
According to Nikon, the battery should last up to 520 shots using JPEG fine, although I didn’t perform any tests to see if that was valid. I do believe it to be completely true, however, as the entire time I used the camera while reviewing it, I only had to charge it once and that was because I received it half-depleted. The camera also offers Nikon’s own 3D color matrix metering II, an improved processing engine and better auto white balance.
Equipped also is i-TTL, which produces smart flash, for those who don’t want to experiment with their speedlight settings. The camera will communicate with your speedlight and set the appropriate settings (hopefully), so that when you snap the photo, it should have an acceptable result.
From the profile view below, you can see how small that lens really is. Small, but effective. The camera body design is similar to all other Nikon D-SLRs and is a proven formula. It fits like a glove, which is important for those long hikes. The mode dial is on the right-side of the camera, beside the shutter release and power button. This is different than the higher-end D-SLRs, where it’s located on the left. This is all due to the fact that the camera body is smaller then the others, so they had to get creative.
Top-down, you can see the large array of buttons available to you. First is the mode dial which offers all of the usual options, such as Programmed Auto, Shutter-Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, Night Portrait, Close-Up, Sports, Child, Landscape, Portrait, Auto (Flash-Off) and of course, Auto. I am unsure why there is both an Auto and Auto Flash-Off, as you can switch the flash off while using Auto. Regardless, the option is there should you need it.
Also here is the shutter-release button, which is surrounded by the power on/off toggle. Below that is Info, which triggers information on the LED screen. Because of the smaller build, Nikon had to cut the small LED screen that’s found on the larger models. Instead, all of the information you need is found on the screen. We will get more into this in a few minutes. Beside the info button is the exposure compensation which doubles as the aperture button in Manual mode.
On the left-side of the camera you will find the door for the video-connector, camera hard-reset switch and also the USB connector to off-load your pictures onto your computer. Also here, closer to the lens, is the flash mode and self-timer button which can be configured for another action. Lower, there is the lens-release button.
On the opposite end is the door for the memory-slot… and that’s it. Not pictured is the underbelly of the camera, which has the tripod mount and battery chamber. All of the fun happens in the back. To the right of the 2.5″ LCD is the directional button, used in the menus and when viewing images. The “OK” button is self-explanatory, as is the Delete button.
At the left, from top to bottom is the Playback, Menu, Thumbnail and Zoom buttons. Some of these buttons will vary in function depending on what you are doing. Lastly, the eyepiece is found at the top, and the speedlight mount is found directly above it.
As mentioned earlier, due to the fact that the smaller frame factor forced the removal of the top screen, all relative shooting info is relocated to the LED screen. This method has it’s downsides, but equally amount of upsides. First, it’s great for night-shooting, because it’s lit up, unlike the top screen would be.
Second, it displays all information in a clear and concise format… it leaves no room for confusion. Along the top, you will first see what mode is selected, in the case of the picture, it’s Auto. To the right of that logo are a few indicators, for flash control, auto-ISO, image optimization, beep and also the battery level.
To the left you might be wondering what the circle represents. If you guessed aperture, you’d be correct. The higher your f-stop, the smaller the inner circle will be, and vice versa. The outer circle represents the shutter-speed. The more bars filled up, the faster the speed. Directly to the right of this are the focus-area indicators, followed by the ISO and f-stop indicator. An analog exposure delay indicator bar is found below these numbers.
Lining up the bottom are a few more indicators, such as flash sync mode and exposure compensation, with a three digit number following, which represents how many exposures you have left. If over 1,000, it will be represented as x.xK. Finally, the right horizontal bar shows your basic shooting info: Image Quality, Image Size, White Balance Mode, ISO, Shooting Type, Focusing Mode, AF mode and metering mode.
Overall, I enjoy the intuitive menu system Nikon offers here, but it’s hard to to deal with if you are already familiar with the screen found atop other Nikon D-SLRs. For beginners, it’s superb. Information is laid out in an easy-to-read manner and is easy on the eyes as well. For advanced and pro shooters though, you are likely to find the overall experience a very clunky.
When the D40 was released late last year, I initially believed that it would be the perfect camera for a starter or someone with smaller hands. Both accounts can be true. If you have huge paws, the camera is not going to be comfortable to use. I have averaged-sized hands, and I can’t say I entirely enjoy using this camera for an extended period of time. I personally feel that the larger D-SLRs fit my hands better and as a result, are far more comfortable to use.
For whatever reason also, I find that while I am squinting through the viewfinder to snap a picture, my nose gets in the way moreso with this camera than others. I believe this in part to be due to the cameras smaller frame and also the slightly different view-finder.
Those gripes aside, I had a few family members test out the camera and give me their honest opinions. All of them found the camera to be quite comfortable, even one who uses a D80 on a regular basis. So, it’s not exactly made for me, so as usual, it’s smart to hit up a photography shop to test one out for yourself prior to taking the plunge.
Features-wise, this is a totally capable camera, for novice and pros alike. If you know how to handle a camera, results seen through this sensor are going to be magnificent. That said, the focus-points is the last thing that bothers me. Being used to looking through a lens and having eleven focus areas, moving to this camera and only having three is a large step back. But again, from a beginners perspective, the difference is not even going to be apparent.
I will relay even more overall thoughts about the camera in the conclusion, but for now we will move into image quality.
Like my sense of humor, our testing methodology is random. We don’t have a proper calibration setup and testing environment, so I instead use the camera on a day to day basis while I have the camera. Most photos will be taken outside, but product photography is included as well, since that’s what I tend to personally use a camera for 80% of the time. Note also that any thumbnails can be clicked to view the original 10 megapixel image, each ranging between 3MB – 4.6MB.
All pictures were taken either with Auto or Aperture Priority mode, depending on the situation. Lens used for testing is the Nikon 18-200mm AF-S f/3.5-5.6 G ED VR. The main advantage of this lens is it’s ideal for all-around use, because of it’s zoom capabilities and of course the vibration reduction feature. The problem is that it costs more than the D40x itself, at $750.
If you don’t mind swapping lenses, a similar setup/range combination can be had with two lenses: 18-55mm kit lens and the 55-200mm VR version. Arguably, the VR feature would not be that helpful with the first lens, but it can be a lifesaver with the second, especially at longer focal ranges. If you purchase the D40x with the 18-55mm lens and add on the 55-200mm VR, it will cost approximately $925 before taxes.
This first picture is kind of silly, because I shot it through the windshield of a car, which is why there is a slight light-blue hue, </Dr. Seuss>, but it accurately portrays the foggy weather that day as well. If you are stepping up from a point-and-shoot camera, this picture can show you the quality you should expect, especially with the clarity of the letters on the sign.
This next picture was taken shortly after the first one, along a stretch of highway whilst driving at ~75MPH. No, I was not the one driving. Despite the antennae in the way, you can see the high clarity that the camera is capable of, and color balance. Despite swift movement, the somewhat higher shutter speed captured everything with great clarity.
Samsung monitors are great, but it can be difficult to properly capture them thanks to their total black-ness. Equipped with a speedlight though, in our case the SB-600, the picture turned out great. Notably, the Samsung logo is crisp, as is the dust that seems to be glued to it.
This next picture shows a product that we will be posting a review for shortly. Using a higher aperture along with our speedlight, the color representation is superb, as is the quality of the image.
As small as my city is, you cannot walk out the door without seeing some construction going on, whether it be on a road or a new building. In the case of the next picture, there is an unused lot with much construction going on all around. The reason this image is good to use is thanks to all the color variations, especially in the lot that overwhelms the rest of the image.
Flower photography is overrated, so I am attempting to start a flower bud revelation. Not really, but again you can see the capabilities of the camera here. The picture is incredibly clear and the color lush.
Equipped with a tripod and ISO 100, you can find yourself with some stellar night photos. This one was taken of a radio tower near my house, with a 14s exposure. I am a sucker for blue, so I love how this photo turned out. Thanks to the low ISO, the noise is non-existent.
Before we move onto the next page, which will look at ISO and color settings, I want to show what you could expect with a lens of ranges between 18mm and 200mm. Though I am using an 18-200mm lens, the same range would be seen on 18-55mm and 55-200mm lenses… I just have the benefit of it being confined to a single lens.
Pay attention to the direct center of the first image, then look at the second.
That’s quite the range,. Also note how clear the second picture is, despite not using a tripod. Although it was a rather bright day outside, having VR active definitely played it’s part in the final result.
As we saw on the previous page, if you have a tripod, then using a lower ISO at night, along with a slower shutter, can result in a spectacular image. However, there comes a time when a higher ISO is absolutely necessary. The following pictures show off the quality of each available ISO mode on the camera. Unlike Nikon’s higher-end D-SLRs, the D40x only offers ISO ranges of 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 and HI-1.
Please note that throughout these images, Noise Reduction was turned on. Ideally, it should have been turned off, but I did not realize this until later in the testing. I’d be willing to assume most would have that option enabled regardless. Further noise cleanup can be had in post-processing.
As expected, ISO noise is kept at reasonable level all the way up to 800, but I normally try to refrain from ever going higher. 1600 and HI-1 as seen below is filled to the brim with noise.
Like Nikon’s Coolpix point-and-shoots, there are a variety of color-modes available to choose from. You can of course tweak your own, but for those who don’t want to dabble, there are six presets available: Normal, Softer, Vivid, More Vivid, Portrait and Black-and-White.
Normal is likely the setting many will use most often, but for even richer color, Vivid is a good choice. The Softer setting is an acquired taste, but it does exactly what it says. It gives the effect of the picture being slightly out of focus. More Vivid is too bright, in my opinion. Portrait is similar to Softer in that it results in softer tones, but not to the same extent. Black-and-White explains itself.
For our last image, the normal setting was used without a flash, which always results in more natural colors. Of course, these shots normally require a tripod in order to allow sufficient light into the sensor without resulting in a blur.
With all of our image tests out of the way, let’s move onto our final thoughts.
When I first received the press release for the D40x, my jaw dropped. “What in the heck are they thinking?” was my first ponder. After all, the original D40 came out just a mere five months earlier. After spending some good time with both cameras though, I understand that they are not in the same league. That said, this camera would be more appropriately named the D45 or D75.
My final thoughts on the camera are simple: It’s totally worth the cash. It’s a great D-SLR that’s best suited for beginners, but exceptional shots are ready to be taken by anyone, novice or pro. However, for the pro shooter, the main draw would be the overall size. Set the D40x next to a D70/80/200 and the size difference is very noticeable. Set it beside a D2Xs for a good chuckle.
Because of the lightweight form-factor, it’s a very comfortable camera to hold, especially if you have small hands. Equipped with the kit 18-55mm II lens and a good neck strap, the camera will be a joy to bring with you on trips, walks or whatever events suit your fancy.
Because the camera is suited towards beginners, the available features on the camera reflect that. I keep comparing the D40x to the D80, which is because both cameras use extremely similar sensors and have identical performance stats. So when making a decision to get a camera in this price range, it’s between the D80 and D40x, if there are not other makes in the mix.
What’s the D40x lack, when compared to the D80? First and foremost, the D40x only has 3 focus areas, which was one of the biggest burdens on me, since I am used to seeing 11 with my D80. Eleven focus-areas will be appreciated by advanced-beginners and upwards, but as I mentioned before, new D-SLR users might not even know the difference and in effect, not care. It’s hard to use the D40x as a downgrade, though.
The D80 also offers a top screen on the camera which reflects all current information. Because the D40x has a small body, that had to be removed and all relevant info shifted to the LCD screen. This is fine given the reason for the move, but I found it to be a very clunky method of doing things. Changing the aperture for example, the f-stop on the screen would actually lag before making the change. It also takes a little while going through the on-screen-display to learn where everything is. It took me a full two minutes before I figured out how to change the camera to continuous-shooting mode for example.
It boils down to this. The D40x accomplishes a lot, offers a wide-range of features and has great image quality. However, it lacks many of the pro options available on the D80, but in turn, many newer shooters may not deal with half of those. The camera also has a smaller frame, so it’s important to go give the camera a test-run at a photo shop prior to ordering one, just to make sure you know it will be comfortable to you. The D40x body retails for around $650, without lens.
The D80 offers all the features available on the D40x, except for the on-screen-display that displays all relevant shooting info. Instead, all of that information is found atop the camera on the screen, which is backlit capable. The D80 also has a larger frame, which I personally find to be far more comfortable. Depending on your hand size and/or strength, you might find one more comfortable than the other. Most importantly though, the D80 offers 11 focus-areas, while the D40x offers 3. The D80 retails for $875, without lens.
One factor I didn’t mention was that the D40x is fully compatible with Nikon’s usual D-SLR accessories, such as the ML-L3 wireless remote, used for shutter release without having to touch the camera. It’s one of the best $15 accessories you can buy for the camera, especially if you are looking to shoot portraits. For whatever reason, I found the D40x to be FAR more responsive to the remote than the D80 is.
If you are looking to get set up with a solid D-SLR setup, you can do so for just under $1,000. You can pick up the D40x body alongside the 18-55mm II lens + SB-600 speedlight for $930, before taxes. If you don’t require a speedlight (eg: never shoot indoors or in dark areas) then that will save you $180. Or for budget shoppers, you can purchase the SB-400 for $100, but lack the swivel feature of the SB-600.
When it comes to D-SLR, the options are endless, and you can easily spend hours figuring out what to purchase that fits within your budget. As it stands though, I highly recommend the D40x, as it offers many features and great image quality. Personally, I still enjoy the D80 more, for the reasons above. But if you find you are in a bind when choosing one, I highly recommend hitting up a local photography shop and giving each a small test. When you hand over ~$1,000, you want to make sure you will be happy with your purchase.
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