Sunday, 20 September 2009

Nikon D40 - ideal digital SLR for everyday use

Earlier this year, I felt the need to acquire a second Nikon digital single lens reflex (SLR) camera, mainly so that I would not have to keep swapping lenses on my main body (a Nikon D80). A researched the question, and found, as ever, the website of Ken Rockwell, extremely useful.

It was Ken's review of the D40 that led me to seek one, rather than one of its newer, better featured and more mega-pixelated replacements, the D40x, D60 or D3000.

The D40 ceased production at the end of July this year, having outseen two of its replacements. It is being replaced by a new entry-level Nikon DSLR, the D3000.

But the D40 will remain, second hand, a sought after camera. Its main attributes are that it is light, robust, versatile and quick. It has become my camera of choice for toting with me every day; it does not weigh heavily around my neck as the D80 with 18-200mm zoom does. With 18-55mm lens it weighs just over half a kilo, while the D80 with the big zoom weighs over twice as much (1.1kg). On a long walk or cycle ride, that's quite a difference.

Right: The D40 in tricky exposure situation; strong contrasts; where to expose for? One shot, got it. Unretouched. (Our house today.) For general shooting, the 18-55mm covers most situations that don't require telephoto. The range of exposure modes (auto, program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual), are exactly the same as in the D80. And, like the D80, the D40 accepts old Nikkor manual-focus lenses; in practice, this means my stunningly crisp 55mm f3.5 macro lens. The light meter does not work with the old lenses, which just means a bit of trial-and-error shooting and looking at the results on the LCD, which for macro work, is no problem at all. The EN-EL9 lithium battery is incompatable with the EN-EL3 that powers the D80, but it's an excellent battery that lasts for weeks at a go in daily use.

It's robust enough not to be carried round in a bag, it goes everywhere with me around my neck. No (n)ever-ready case required. Switched 'on' all the time (the battery doesn't drain), I'm always ready to point-and-shoot. Reaction time is miliseconds, compared to the long warm-up needed on digital compacts. And what you see though the lens is what you'll get. The SLR design is more responsive and photographer-friendly than a camera where you depend on the image on the LCD to show you what you are actually seeing.

Drawbacks? The D40 does not have dioptre adjustment in the viewfinder; as I wear +2.25 reading glasses, this means the viewfinder image is not as crisp as in the D80. The viewfinder also lacks a grid option. In my D80, the viewfinder grid is there full time, so I can align horizons and verticals correctly. I miss this feature in the D40. ISO sensitivity - only goes down to 200 ISO (as opposed to 100 on the D80), and the increments are full stops - 200/400/800/1600 ISO, whereas in the D80, you can select one-third of a stop increments all of the way. There's no autofocus motor in the body, which means my 80-400mm lens will only work as manual focus (no problem here - if I need this lens, I take it on the D80 body). The metering and autofocus system is not as sophisticated as on the D80; I need to bracket exposures more often than on the D80 because at first shot they've come out too dark or too light. But with the LCD screen on the back, you see what you've got and immediately correct.

And while the battery is decent, the battery power indicator offers insufficient information. The D80 goes from five bars (full) to one bar (prepare for imminent power failure) and is backed up by 'battery info' from the 'tools' menu on the rear panel, which tells you in percentage terms how much power's left. The D40 goes from only three bars to one, and there's no battery info available on the menu, so you never really know once you're on two bars how long you've got.

The difference between the 6 megapixels of the D40 and the 10.2 mp of the D80 is not noticeable on a 17" computer monitor, nor on 6x8" prints.

All in all, the D40 is a perfect all-round digital camera for everyday usage. And, now it's been discontinued, second-hand prices will fall. I bought mine second hand in May for 1,050 zlotys (around 200 quid at the exchange rate at that time). I thoroughly recommend as a take-everywhere digital image notebook.


Anonymous said...

Great to catch up with you again, Mike, and read what you're up to in Poland.
Ciao, Julie (your deputy editor on CBI News) ...

Michael Dembinski said...

Hey Julie! How are you! Drop me an e-mail...

Anonymous said...

Michael - great review as always. Just carried (lugged) my D-70 with 18-200 VR lens 450 KM in Bavaria by bicycle. Very cumbersome - for next season's trip may have to develop an alternative like a point and shoot.

No moles this summer but we have a resident weasel in the garden that our cat keeps chasing. Fast animal, hope it keeps a step ahead of the cat.

Anonymous said...

Michael, two things:

1/ You know you can get a little rosette to add to the blog from the "Daily Reviewer". I mean, okay, it's a bit like third place in a village show-jumping contest but whatever, an award's an award! (Just copy the HTML and stick it in a text widget)

2/ How's that 18-55mm lens? I need something exactly like that on my Christmas list.


PS - commenting on your blog is a real pain in the arse!

Anonymous said...

Not commenting but the process of getting the site to accept a comment.

Just to be clear. ;)

Michael Dembinski said...

The 18-55mm Nikkor is available as standard (what I've got) and VR. Recommend the latter.

Optically, I'd suggest it's better than the 18-200mm (less of a compromise in its construction); less barrel/pincushion distortion. But it feels plasticky - though as a result it's light.

For a go-anywhere, do (most) things, it is excellent. BUY.

(Incidentally - Canon G11 just out - gimmicky swivel screen plus fewer megapixels means G10 now at lower prices may tempt you...)

Anonymous said...

Not tempted by the G10 as the G9 still does everything I need it to do. I'm happy with the trio I have right now - the Fuji and Canon compacts and the D80. I just need a smaller utility lens for the D80, hence the enquiry.

I must say though, that I am very tempted by the new Olympus PEN E-P1. I've a bit of a soft spot for Olympus.