Nikon D40 digital SLR camera

At the time of writing this review, just 4 months after the launch of the D40, Nikon had announced the D40x (its review to follow shortly), a 10-megapixel upgrade of this model and one designed to oust Canon’s EOS 400D from its perch.

In getting to grips with the D40 (at last), it’ll still be interesting to compare the two once the D40x arrives on my desk. But at first glance, apart from the new sensor and some other internal tweaks, the D40x looks almost identical to the D40.

In the mean time, the D40 features a respectable specification given its £449.99 price, significantly a price around £100 less than the D40’s predecessor, the D50 with its introductory RRP of just shy of £600.

In the D40, Nikon has concentrated building a small camera that is responsive and easy to use. However, Nikon trimmed some spec from the list present on the D50 for example. There’s no exposure or white balance bracketing and the D40 has lost the top plate data LCD. Other negative aspects include the lack of a mechanical focus drive in the body.

The decision to use a 6.1-megapixel sensor rather than simply cram in more, smaller (and so nosier) pixels on the APS-C sensor; a sensor that for all intents and purposes, appears to be the same as that in the D50, D70 etc. is a good one.

Having said that, there are a couple of nice additions: the flash guide number is raised from 15 on the D50 to 17, you get SD/SDHC storage compatibility and a neat set of in-camera retouching features including D-Lighting, redeye removal and monochrome or “virtual” mono colour-filter settings.

But a couple of even better touches, the addition of selectable highest and lowest ISO settings in Auto ISO mode and unlimited continuous capture for JPEGs and 9-frames in RAW capture plus a programmable FUNC(tion) button. Here settings for white balance and ISO can be mapped but in reality, separate external buttons would have been better and aided handling.

In terms of handling, the camera is remarkably small at just 126x94x64mm and weighing just over 520g with the battery fitted. The compactness does not impede its use however and still leaves room for a large 2.5-inch colour screen; a high resolution unit similar (or the same) as that fitted to the D80, it’s a 230,000-pixel screen and it seems massive on the diminutive frame of the D40.

The nice-to-use display uses neat animated graphics for camera settings and makes the experience of using the D40 a nice one; a combination of a good handling and ease of use thanks to the fact settings can be adjusted while active on the screen. The omission of the top plate data LCD is one that I miss although (perhaps) those new to cameras of this sort will arrive without the hang-up of being used to using a top plate data LCD and it will not be a problem.

The camera’s neat, simple control layout lends itself to easy use with buttons and controls all falling easily to the finger or thumb.

On the back, you have that big screen and the usual array or playback, menu, four-way controller and OK buttons. Two further buttons alter the way images are displayed in playback mode (such as the number of thumbnails on show etc.) each with a magnifier icon (one a “+” icon the other a “-“ icon) the latter also doubles as the very excellent “Help” display button. When pressed it activates text pages describing what that particular mode or function is for or provides advice. If, say, the light level’s low, it will recommend you turn the flash on for example. A settings “i” button switches the display so you can scroll and adjust any of the displayed control options directly from the display using the four-way jog buttons.

Sensitivity settings run from ISO 200 at the lowest to ISO 3200 at the highest via ISO 400, 800 and 1600. Called the “Hi 1” setting, the boosted ISO to 3200 mode is a new feature compared with the D50.

Images are stored on either SD/MMC or SDHC (high capacity) cards.

But what of the image quality and shooting performance? The metering and TTL phase detection auto focus system work very well indeed using the compact 18-55mm kit lens which is much better than most such lenses on this showing providing crisp detail without much distortion.

The superb level of detail is backed up by the camera’s image processing systems.

Noise is kept well under control thanks the fact the camera uses fewer, larger pixels (larger pixels are more sensitive to light so require less signal amplification thus reducing noise issues) and that good in-camera processing. At higher ISO’s (above ISO 800) noise can become noticeable but to put it in context, it is not until you get up to that ISO 800 level that it could be considered visible (in shadows) and even then, it’s noise that would usually become noticeable on a 10-megapixel compact from anywhere above ISO 200!

Apart from a couple of irksome omissions such as there is no way to set the ISO or White Balance directly from buttons without customising the “Fn” (Function) button, the lack of a depth of field preview and you only get a basic JPEG in RAW+JPEG capture, the D40 performs really well is a pleasure to use and offers those that buy it, a budget, compact DSLR that certainly punches above its weight in the image quality stakes.

Verdict

The D40 is an almost perfect DSLR for those first time DSLR buyers on a more modest budget, anyone who wants a compact and lightweight DSLR or those moving across from film or trading up from a compact model.

Image quality, the handling, responsiveness and features strike a great balance for its target market and you should not be put off by the 6-megapixel sensor as there’s plenty of detail here, so the D40 really should be high up on your wants list if your about spend money on a budget DSLR.

Kit reviewed with Nikon's DX AF-S Nikkor 18-55mm, F3.5-5.6 G-II ED kit lens.