Nikon D40 DSLR




Tiny Handfuls
D50s on diet pills?

or, My First Nikons*

It's twins! New li'l Nikons for the new photographer.

Nikon doesn't have an 'image' problem. Ever since the N-word entered photography, it seems to have grabbed the public consciousness by the eyes and garnered an extra measure of Respect. When Mr and Mrs North America see a big honkin' Nikon camera, they cluck and woo.

"Lookie, Gladys, I think he's shooting for National Geographic!" (I've actually had people accuse me of that while slinging around the various Nikon DSLRs in geographic areas. Of course, I say, "Of course.")

So when it comes time for someone who has played around with the point and shooters (as if you ever saw a camera that didn't need to be pointed before it shot) to consider a more capable Interchangeable Lens Reflex (odd how they never were called ILRs), it would be nice to be able to walk into a camera store and find not only a DSLR that didn't set the wallet on fire, but proudly claimed to be a Nikon.

Resistance is futile. The D40 is here.

As of April, the D40x is here, too. Proving once and for all that twins can be born four months apart. Sort of.

Brother! (Updated May 007)

At PMA, Nikon announced the D40x, an exact clone, twin, doppelganger, dead ringer, spitting image, carbon copy of the D40 but with the D80/D200's 10.2MP image chip. Now there are two. Delivery started in April. Virtually identical twins, except for the image chip. Which makes the syntax in some of this report a tad dicey. Both cameras are the same, part for part, mostly. Handling, ergonomics and features are closer than any other two model I know of.


In 2002, a 3000 x 2000 pixel image was the Cat's Knees, or the Bee's Pajamas, I can't remember which. But that 6MP image showed us all that you could make a 13 x 19 inch print (about 12 x 18 inches of ink) and each 0.006-inch pixel added into to a real good looking shot. The first Nikon with this image was 2002's $2,000 (body only) D100. In 2004, the D70 inherited that same image chip for $1,000 (body only).

For the technically adroit, that makes every inch of paper hold just over 166 camera pixels, and while that isn't the maximum resolving power you could have on a print this size, it's awfully close. In other words, you end up holding an image at arm's length that seems to have Professional Photographer Did This written all over it.

One of my favorite cameras was the D70, inheritor of the image chip from the professional D100, and here we are two years and a few months later with a nice Holiday present from Nikon in the form of the D40, which has most of the features of the D70 in a really small, lightweight package. Plus the image from all the previous 6MP Nikons.

Inexpensive, too. Out the door at six hundred small ones with a really competent lens. Initial informal tests reveal a lens that is sharp across the whole image with minimal barrel or pincushion distortion.

But is it, as the pundits will cry, really too small? Huh, fella?

If so, get the D40x. Same features, options and menu items, but with 3872 x 2592 pixels instead. About 29% larger in all dimensions. But there's no telling them apart from the outside except for the badge on the front. Oh, and the receipt that pegs the D40x at about 200 more fish.


With the kit lens, a tweaked 18-55mm G Nikkor II, very much like the one found on the D50, the whole thing weighs in at 1.2 pounds--either model. Even less if you use a lower capacity SD card. Which brings up the point: How come 4 GB cards weigh just as much as 128 KB cards? Okay, who was snickering?

Pictures of the D40 / D40x don't do it / them justice. Studio photography adds 10 pounds, so it looks bigger than it is in product shots. Proportionally, it is a good balance of DSLR style and mass, but in your hands, you quickly feel its abbreviated size and weight. A designer friend picked it up and bounced it in his hands a few times, then said, "Well, it sure feels like a $600 camera!" But you get much more than you weigh for.

Same guy shot with my D40x and grew to appreciate the easy carry. Right away. "It's a far cry from the D200 with a battery pack, but the pictures look the same," he said with lifted eyebrows. Not bad at all.

On the bonus side, with this camera dangling from your shoulder, you will be able to tour Venice without ever feeling weighted down.

When you flip it around to the Monitor, your eyebrows shoot up. That 2.5-inch screen (every bit as good as the one on the D200) feels huge. Take a breath, it's an optical illusion caused by the smaller dimensions of the camera body, but it looks like they would have had a hard time fitting any more screen to the available surface of the camera back.

Oddly, Nikon chose not to have the screen covered with a protective guard, as is found on both the D70, D2x, D200 and D80. The upside of this is that the ergonomic viewing of the Monitor screen is more direct, and since the camera uses the Monitor for reviewing and data display, the lack of a cover plate is a minor point. Why would I not be surprised to see this omission rectified by third party accessory makers?

Within seconds of purchasing the D40, I was testing its viewing screen in direct sunlight. Yep, you can see all the data when you need to, even under the blast of that nuclear fusion reactor in the sky. Note to self: Don't take the D40 much closer to the Sun. The Monitor is not that bright. Shade only helps.

Consumer side note: When complex high tech products are designed for professionals, the designer knows that maintenance and care will be high. When designing for the newcomer, consumer or man in the street, that product will have to absorb more punishment, mishandling and accidents and still perform up to spec. So far, the D40 seems to fall in that latter category. Stay tuned.


Viewfinding is via a mirror system, not the solid block of glass pentaprism that graces the D200/D800. Mirrors weigh less, but they also limit the size of the internal image. The D40/x's view is about 18 degrees from side to side (horizontal) and the D200/D80 view is about 22 degrees, by my estimate, around 20% wider. (I use my hand span as a quickie rule of thumb [and pinkie], having established long ago that at arm's length, it is almost exactly 18 degrees wide, so these measurements are only ballpark. But proportionally approximate and consistent.)

Is that smaller image a problem? It could be if you were using the ground glass as your only means of focus, but if you want a viewfinder as big as the ones on the more expensive Nikon DSLRs, you could always spring for the Nikon DK-21M, an under $30 viewfinder accessory that magnifies the view to 117% of its former self. I immediately put mine on the D40 and doubt it will wander off much. It also keeps my nose a few millimeters away from the Monitor.

(Aside: You can put this same accessory on the D200/D80 and oh, wow.)

Feature Benefits

While you can't expect a ton of features in a camera that only costs 12 or 17 candlelight dinners, the number of things the camera achieves outweighs the number of things it doesn't by a wide margin.

  • No, it's not an MP3 player, a movie camera or a time-lapse shooter, but it turns out stellar images.

  • If you have enough bread, you can get the one with the super-stellar images. The x.

  • No, it doesn't have a wired remote socket, but it does trigger remotely with the very cool, low cost Nikon ML-L3 infrared wireless remote.

  • No, it doesn't command distant flash units with Nikon's brainy CLS Commander mode protocols, but it can work a roomful of low-cost slave units with ease. And besides, its flash is a bit brighter than the one on the D50.

  • No, it doesn't have a DOF preview button, but it does have the ability to zoom way into shots on the monitor to check your work. A final 200% blow up lets you see the enlarged, obvious pixel structure on either camera body.

  • No, it doesn't automatically bracket exposures, but you can do that manually very quickly (after you learn how).

Nearly all of the camera's shortcomings can be overcome by knowing a few things. We will make sure the D40 / D40x eBook points them out in bold strokes.

Pictures are the same 3008 x 2000 pixels as from the D70/D50s and that means highly usable in almost all printed scales this side of supergraphics. You can make magazine covers with these images. The X model has the identical chip found in the D80/D200, also giving you three different price points with the same quality image.

Quality is high, control is great and options are many. Nikon's Normal / Softer / Portrait / Vivid / More Vivid / Custom / B&W options give you immediate access to seven basic film looks, and of course, you can achieve thousands of slightly tweaked additional looks through the Custom menu options. Sharpening (6), Tone (6), Color Mode (3), Saturation (3) and Hue (7) adjustments alone give you 2268 permutations of non-auto settings. Factor in that the Tone Compensation file can hold a custom curve generated in Nikon Capture NX, and the actual number of micro tweaks you can make to JPEG images--as you shoot--is nearly limitless.

Then there is the Black and White thing. If you elect to shoot in B&W, you get a nice, balanced panchromatic image. If you shoot that image as a RAW (NEF format) shot, Nikon Capture NX will let you see it in color, even though you were able to view it on the camera in monochrome. Trick of the light.

Control and Ergonomics

There are 21 knobs, switches, buttons and actuators on the D40/x for control of image gathering, adjusting things or changing lenses. (That's if you count each direction of the Multi-Selector as a separate button.)

For comparison, the D80 has 25 and the D200 has 31. The D70 had 25. It may sound like a lot, but Nikon has arrayed them on the body in a very good pattern, giving all your fingers something to do without causing carpal-tunnel.

All of the internal-motored Nikkor lenses will work flawlessly with the D40/x, but if you have any of the previous D-type AF Nikkor optics, you will have to manually focus them. To save you money, Nikon has left out the in-camera focus motor and linkage that worked with their first series of Auto-Focus lenses. Nor did it charge you for that. Auto aperture with these D-type lenses still functions correctly.

The battery is a 7.2 volt EN-EL9, a new flat, square-shouldered Lithium Ion design with a 1000 MAh rating. The camera sips electricity so slowly, that it seems a good balance. Recommendation: Get at least one more.

The Monitor screen serves as the data display when you need to change things like aperture, shutter speed and EV±. It's an attractive, clean design in shaded white with dark lettering and tasteful color accents to guide your gaze. Optionally, you can elect to see this data displayed with "Classic" graphics--a more LCD-looking digital number layout (rollover the image at right). You can even assign one of these to the Digital Vari-Program exposure modes and the other to the P, S, A, M exposure modes. Handy that.

And for the silly-minded, there's the option to use one of your own shots as a background image with the data overlaid. Click on the display for that. Not a good idea unless you shoot a low-contrast shot, but hey, it's your camera. I recommend against shots of kids, pets and babes. Too distracting.

Controls are ergonomic, but get the most out of a lower button population. When you wish to change flash type (straight flash, red-eye reduction, SLOW flash, rear-curtain sync and combinations of these), you press the flash deploy button while scrolling the Command Dial to select among the available options.

But of you hold the flash deploy button down, AND depress the EV button and scroll, you set the flash EV± compensation. Intuitive, easy to master and an ergonomic Good Thing. This sort of finger operation may sound a tad complex until you get the camera in your hands and see how easy it is to encounter and use.

One major idea on the Monitor is the Shutter Speed / Aperture graphic. This is new for a DSLR and shows a large circle that tells you instantly what the relative aperture and shutter speed are going to be for the coming shot. An arc of segments around the image of a lens iris gives you an analog feel for shutter speed. As the arc crests the 12 o'clock position, that's 1/15 sec. By the time it has wrapped around to 4 o'clock, that means 1/4000 sec. As with an analog clock, you get used to it real fast. Nikon was wise to put the 1/15 sec point at noon, since that divides the camera into hand-holdable (afternoon) and definite tripod (morning) shutter speeds. Your clock may vary. As the aperture closes, the iris animates and shrinks on screen. No questions there. It's the most intuitive display you could have.

*Part of the psychology behind this camera is 'My First Nikon' and it represents a huge amount of picture power, flexibility and capability for the price. (Notice that Sony's use of 'My First Sony' is a rip from My First Kiss, My First Car, My First Wife, My First Million, et cetera, and as a popular convention of language our use of My First Nikon is not trademark violation territory.)

As a newcomer's first DSLR, it makes sense of the many variables Big Photography can juggle without oversimplifying or overintellectualizing the processes. You can shoot manually and view results on a bold histogram display or use one of the digital vari-programs to collect good results from common lighting situations.

It brings your head out of Point and Shoot mentality and effectively steers your thought processes into Seeing and Capturing--the big distinction that SLRs made possible. What you shot is what you got.

The D40/x is organized quite well and turns cost-saving compromises into picture-saving opportunities. The Monitor/Data screen, for instance. In conversations with friends, I had vocally wondered why manufacturers hadn't produced many cameras that had the feel of some of the smaller film SLRs in my past (Pentax, Olympus), and suddenly, here it is. Tight, light, neat and sweet.

The smaller size of the body feels good in my average-size hands, but folks with larger mitts may appreciate the D70s instead.

When I mount the 12-24mm Nikkor or the 18-200mm VRII Nikkor, it looks more like a body attached to a lens than the other way around. Actually, it makes me and the lens look bigger in photographs.

Special Features

Once you shoot an image, it's finished, right? No, that's not true. Shooting a picture means exposing the shot to hold those things (framing, composition, tonality and color qualities) you want and need, but often including compromises that will be dealt with later. To keep highlight detail, you may wish to underexpose now and adjust it later.

The professionals know this down to their bone marrow, but newcomers often approach with a point-and-shoot frame of mind. Meaning, shoot the picture and put the SD card into the Kiosk for print outs. Insert money, drum your fingers for a few minutes and collect your pictures.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could tweak your shots in the camera before Kiosking? The Retouch menu makes this possible. You can tweak color balance, size, crop, shadow detail and even the occasional Red-Eye within the camera, each operation generating new files while leaving the originals intact. The D80 has this set of features, too, and it turns out to be quite handy.

D40/x owners, take note: When you shoot RAW, the image has natively much greater highlight (about 1.1 stop extra) and shadow (about 2 stops) tonality available for interpretation later. So if you make a "D-Lighting" adjustment to a RAW file, the camera saves the retouched image as a Large Fine shot.

The on-board flash has a tad more punch than the one on the D50. In Manual exposure mode, sync climbs to 1/500 sec and the guide number is 18/59 (ISO 200), making f/3.5 shots at around 17 feet, plenty of light for wide interiors. While that is not spectacular, consider shooting at ISO 1600 where the guide number lifts to 76/236! At f/3.5 with the Kit zoom widened out, that's enough light to capture the whole house from the street, 67 feet away. Or the entire front of your apartment building, whichever comes first.

Sharp, too. Here's a house by camera speedlight. F3.5 @ 1/500 sec to avoid seeing light other than from the flash (and bare bulbs). ISO was 1600. No great shakes as an image, it merely shows light coverage and detail. But wow, what detail!

The image here is RAW, interpreted through the Photoshop CS3 Beta (which seems to have no problem with it at all), allowing me to lower the exposure somewhat because the original was a tad hot. Rollover the image to see a 100% chunk of pixels. Obviously, the camera is doing its utmost to resolve single pixel detail. Which was the case with the D70's image, too. Click for some 1-pixel wide details blown up to 200%. Keep in mind, the lens was the Kit 18-55mm Zoom wide open at 18mm.


When I compare it to my D70, it takes the 'value' prize. A slightly better image (they had 2.5 more years worth of experience in the Colorimetry and Tonality Department to tweak it), a much bigger Monitor, a more ergonomic set of controls, a lighter load, a few new features, a few missing features, and a price that is less than half of what dad (D70) cost, or about 1/4th of what grandad (D100) cost when new.

If I were a student with a desire to learn to work photography, this would be a very good tool to start with. It's one of those cameras that will happily supply you with thousands of fine images for years to come at a price that doesn't stress the student loan. Sure, there will be bigger and better cameras in your future, but here's where your future starts on the right foot.

There is nothing about the D40 or the D40x that will prevent you from earning an A in Digital Photography Class, but you will have to do the real work of seeing, composing, framing, printing and thanking the model.

D40/D40x eBook Now Available

To help all D40 and D40x owners get the most from their camera, our DSLR title for these twins is now shipping. 1013 pages of sheer help, clarity, possibilities, work-arounds, tips, techniques and intelligent camera tricks. It will double the value of your camera. Click on the cover.

One Unsolved Mystery

Within the D40 and its x-version, there lurks a common mystery. It's not a Who Done It, but more of a Who Will Do It?

It has to do with the disconnect between how the camera is made and the accessories that are listed for it. According to Nikon, there is no Battery Base/Vertical Grip accessory anticipated for this model, but on close inspection it seems to have the required technical elements to make this option possible.

The battery door is the same removable type seen on the D200 and D80. That's vital to being able to cover the bottom of the camera with a battery base. Also, inside the battery well is a cluster of five round and two square gold contacts, positioned similarly to those in the D200 and D80. There may be a battery base in the D40/x's future, yet.

Or perhaps those contacts are used only during manufacture? But they don't show up in the D70, and it never had a Nikon Battery Base. Huh.

Further Reading:

From the source. (Nikon's own brochure pdf.)

From Imaging-Resource.

From DP Review.

Note: US school grades run from F=fail to A=top grade. Some teachers add plus and minus notation to further differentiate their responses.