Nikon D40 User Experience

Introduction

A series of events led me to the Nikon D40 as my first DSLR. Well, that’s not quite accurate. I purchased a Sony Alpha A200 first, but after discovering the ‘new’ camera I bought from Future Shop actually had over 4000 photos taken on it already, it was promptly returned. During my brief time with the camera, I noted disappointing image quality from the kit lens. Chromatic aberration was moderate at best and sharpness was seriously lacking. I’m not alone in that assessment; DPReview noted much the same. Additionally, one aspect of image quality which could not be explained by the kit lens, the amount of noise and noise reduction, were also disappointing. Noise was already very apparent at ISO400 and the noise reduction algorithm resulted in a blotchy, fuzzy mess at higher ISOs. I had originally been wooed by fancy features like in-body stabilization system (Super Steady Shot) and the low price, but I knew I wouldn’t be terribly happy with it and the false sale by Future Shop gave me all the more reason to return it.

While the Sony A200 purchase was due in large part to pricing, I had wanted to stick with the tried-and-true Canon-Nikon choice. With a second chance, I started diving deeper into the entry and upper-amateur level cameras. After reading countless reviews, I decided on the system – Nikon. I preferred Nikon’s approach to noise handling by default and was certainly influenced by both a cousin who uses a Nikon D70 as well as the attractiveness of the entry level D40/60. The first model I considered was a used D200, but wasn’t sure the $800 price for a used body alone (not to mention the size) was justified at this point. The next choice was between the D80 and the D40. The D80 has a built-in screw drive motor, allowing it to autofocus with a much wider range of lenses, but is also about twice as expensive. I ruled out the D60 as I figured if I were to spend $700, I might as well put up the extra couple hundred and get a whole lot more camera with the D80.

However, when BestBuy put the D40 with kit lens on sale for $450 plus another 10% off, my decision was essentially made for me. Out to Future Shop I went for a price match and $450 later (after taxes) I held in my hands a new D40 and 18-55mm lens. The next several days were bliss.

Nikon D40 Kit

The Experiment

Ever since playing with my dad’s old Minolta film SLR, I’ve had an interest in photography. I especially enjoyed photographing marvels of construction (airplanes, architecture) and nature (landscapes mostly). It was with a Sony F717 that I learned the basics of photography, from aperture to shutter speed to exposure to depth of field. That camera gave me a lot of manual options that I learned the interactions of. I felt the next step was to go for a DSLR.

Finding myself in the midst of a two week break from university and co-op, I spent the wonderful hot weather at the Niagara Botanical Gardens and hiking in the Bruce Trail. Armed with my new camera, I was ready to try my hand at recreating some of those gorgeous photographs I’ve seen on the web.

The saying, ‘the tool doesn’t make the photographer’ couldn’t be any truer. I certainly took a bunch of real garbage shots, but there were also a few that I was very proud of. For example, the much faster shooting rate and shorter shutter lag allowed me to catch one of a Niagara Rapids boat just as it emerged from a plume of water.

Niagara Falls Whirlpool Jetboat

I also experimented with some depth of field effects and paid more attention to composition than ever before. Now the kit 18-55mm lens is far from a ‘bokeh’ master, but it did allow me to try out effects from varying the aperture. I read articles about photo composition, such as the rule of thirds (based on the Golden Mean) and lighting. More than ever, I tried to infuse some sense of meaning into my photographs by thinking about what I was trying to capture or represent from the photos I was taking. One photo I took, a close-up of a few hedge growths looking up into to the sky, represented to me that crispness of new life, even though it was towards the end of the summer months.

Reach

There are some drawbacks to the D40, which all things considered, are pretty reasonable for the price range it’s targeting. Auto-focus can be limiting with only 3 focus points, which results in more tricky focus-recompose situations than I’d like. The lack of exposure bracketing also means that you’re more likely to not quite get a shot at the exact correct exposure, and also limits your HDR choices. I’ve also found the matrix metering to be somewhat inaccurate, typically overexposing. Finally, perhaps the most serious drawback is that with the relative lack of physical controls, many options end up having to be done through the menu system, such as ISO changes, which can be slow and tedious.

Operation

Nikon DSLRs have been widely praised for their ergonomics and handling characteristics and the D40 feels great in the hand. It’s a small camera, but the grip is well designed and there’s never any doubt of a secure hold. The middle finger groove fits my hand very nicely. I usually don’t have issues with getting my fingers pinched between the grip and the lens barrel, although people with larger hands and/or significantly wider lenses may run into some issues here.

Nikon D40

The controls are intuitive and well laid out. Navigation is performed mainly by the large 4-way controller. Along the left side of the LCD are 4 buttons that bring up the single shot preview, grid preview, menu, and shot settings.

Nikon D40 Menu

Controls are somewhat simplified from more advanced cameras like the D80. There is a single control wheel, which means in full manual mode, aperture is controlled by holding the exposure compensation button while turning the wheel. Upgrading to a D80 and above affords the user two control dials, which makes some operations possible without using what are essentially function key combos.

Held up to the eye, things sort of fall into place. The right index finger sits comfortably on or near the shutter release and the thumb rests on the control wheel. The index finger can quickly and easily access the exposure compensation button located near the shutter release. I did find that my left hand had some issues locating the flash and custom function buttons blind. I often had to turn the camera a bit to see where they were.

I leave the camera in continuous shooting mode. Pressing and quickly releasing the shutter button fires off a single shot, which is normally the case, but it’s also just as easy to hold the shutter to take a few frames in a row quickly. I have no issues with taking only a single photo in continuous mode (the 2.5fps continuous shooting means you have plenty of time to release the shutter before the next frame rolls around) and the ability to seamlessly switch to continuous when needed is invaluable.

Nikon D40

Speaking of shooting performance, the D40 is worlds faster than what my F717 can do in single shot mode. The F717 has a good second or so of lag between shots, which means taking several shots of an object can be a frustrating process, especially after using the D40 (or just about any DSLR for that matter).

Are 6 Megapixels Enough?

Yes. Now let me qualify that.

They are for me. I rarely, if ever, do prints and the vast majority of the photos I take will be to share with others, either through this website or posted to photo sharing sites like Flickr. The largest photos I’ve posted to this site are (I believe) 1024×768 or so. I’m always considerate of people who don’t have high resolution monitors like the one I do the majority of my work on. The 6MP sensor of the D40 produces 3008×2000 photos. That leaves me some room to crop or downsize for crispness.

That’s not to say a higher megapixel sensor won’t capture somewhat more detail. It will. But also remember that it’s a trade-off for fixed-size sensor cameras. Although the resolution increases, the sensor doesn’t grow any larger, so those extra pixels are being crammed into the same area, reducing sensitivity. The D40 has excellent low-light performance, in part due to the larger photo-sites afforded by the humble megapixel count. On the other hand, cameras like the D90 or D300 are able to produce meaningfully better low-light photos, even with twice the pixel count simply due to technological improvements (the CMOS versus CCD sensor helps).

GO to Toronto
Nikon D40 – Tamron 17-50mm – f/4, 2/5 sec, ISO400 – handheld, braced against railing

In the end, despite what the salesperson at your local big-box electronics retailer might have you believe, megapixels do not correlate directly to photo quality. In terms of image quality, I’d take my D40 over any compact point-and-shoot, regardless of their sensor resolution. Just take a look at the physical sensor sizes – the sizes shown aren’t correct in absolute terms, but they are proportionally correct.

Comparison of photo sensor sizes

The vast majority of point-and-shoot cameras use the 1/2.5″ sensor. Compared to the APS-C that Nikon uses, it has about 7% of the sensor area. Now, cram 10 or 12MP into that sensor and you can see why almost no amount of processing magic can make it come close to even an APS-C image. High-end prosumer cameras may use the 1/1.7″ sensor (Canon Powershot G9/G10 come to mind), but for the most part, it’s like putting a band-aid on a severed limb. It’s better, but sort of pointless.

Next Steps

I originally planned on getting a Nikkor 18-200mm as a walk-around lens, but as with all reasonably priced super-zooms, it’s a tradeoff between flexibility and quality. Since most of my photographic subjects seem to fit within the approximate range of the 18-55mm kit lens, I’m planning on getting a better lens for that focal range. After a lot of research, I’ve settled on the new Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 with built-in motor. The fixed maximum aperture across the focal range will be vastly superior to the f/3.5-5.6 for the kit lens. That’s not even mentioning that the Tamron is simply a superior piece of glass. Then again, for $500+, I’d expect it to be superior to the bundled kit lens. I looked at the Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 as well, but the advantages over the Tamron simply can’t make up for nearly triple the price tag. The choice of the f/2.8 lens may actually have the unintended effect of replacing the 50mm f/1.8D I recently purchased. I usually stop the prime down somewhat to gain some clarity, so we’ll see if the Tamron at f/2.8 can match it. If it even comes close, I doubt the 50mm prime will get much use – it’s simply a hassle to switch lenses for little gain.

Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8

To complement the Tamron 17-50mm, I’m looking at the Nikkor 55-200mm VR lens for some reach. I don’t plan on getting this lens in the short term as it’s not a range that I do much photography in. As many photographers would rather do, ‘Get closer’.

On the other end of the scale, I’m considering a Sigma 10-20mm wide-angle lens. It’s about as wide as things get on a DX format camera without going for a fisheye lens, which I’m not too keen on. Much of the photography I’m interested in, landscape and architecture would benefit from a wider angle lens than I currently have.

Final Words

Don’t get me wrong, these will hardly be the last words I write about the Nikon D40 and certainly not about photography in general. That said, let’s wrap up some thoughts on my first serious stab at the art.

I’ve hit upon many hobbies in passing through the years, but photography has been one that’s stuck around through it all. The Nikon D40 was my choice (albeit not my first choice when I started looking at DSLRs) as a starter/education tool in the field of photography and as such, I have very, very little regret. You can easily get the D40 kit in Canada for ~$400 before taxes. At that price, I’d strongly consider it over higher-end point-and-shoots, if you can deal with the size. Don’t be fooled by the numbers – at 6MPs, you’ll get vastly superior quality than anything with a tiny compact camera sensor.

More than anything, the D40 has made me focus on composition and the study of light. I’m beginning to understand the intricacies of metering and judging scenes to avoid over or under exposures. I read photography blogs and tips. I use the rule of thirds. A photograph can be shocking effective by simply shifting the point of interest off center. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it sure works.

Work this semester has unfortunately sapped a whole lot of my time, so I’m looking forward to the Christmas break, when I’m planning on doing some hiking and photography with my D40 in the fresh snowfalls that are bound to come.

13 thoughts on “Nikon D40 User Experience”

  1. What you’re paying the $1500 for with the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 is quality. The build quality and the 100% view sharpness will trump your 17-50mm f/2.8, any day, but I’m sure you knew that. But you’re right, if you’re never going to blow up your photos (I’ve still been meaning to get around to that), then there’s no point in spending that much on a lens.

    After purchasing the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L, I’ve noticed immediately more pop, better saturated colours, better sharpness throughout the entire zoom range, and just better quality photos. It might be the excitement of using a new gadget (or maybe it’s the fact that I’m able to go further than 22mm for the first time in YEARS; my previous lenses were the Canon 10-22mm and the 50mm prime), but I feel like the gear has made me strive to be a better photographer.

  2. While I’ll give you the better build quality over the Tamron, the Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 simply isn’t the no-compromise better lens. I did a heck of a lot of research and in the end, in terms of corner to corner sharpness, the Tamron either matched or slightly outperformed it.

    On the other hand, CA is a bit more pronounced on the Tamron, and autofocus speed could be a bit faster/quieter, but those faults along with the build quality differences were easily offset by the large price difference. There’s still a lot that simply pays for the Nikon branding.

    http://www.photozone.de/nikon–nikkor-aps-c-lens-tests/231-nikkor-af-s-17-55mm-f28-g-if-ed-dx-review–test-report
    http://www.photozone.de/nikon–nikkor-aps-c-lens-tests/290-tamron-af-17-50mm-f28-sp-xr-di-ii-ld-aspherical-if-nikon-test-report–review

  3. This review was really enlightening. It’s hard to sift through all the BS when you walk into a big box store. I’m just getting into photography, but in the past I get annoyed by poor form factor, so I may consider this.

    And yes, if another person talks to me about megapixels I’m going to lose my mind. For casual folks and novices like me, so much is overkill.

    Thanks!

  4. Hey, also a Waterloo Engineering student here, I somehow found your blog a while ago.

    Anyways, I’m also in the process of selecting/buying a DSLR and found this post very useful. You’ve basically convinced me with the Nikon D40, now it’s just a question of where to buy it. I noticed that there’s a sale at Vistek (http://www.vistek.ca/store/DigitalSLRs/228231/nikon-d40-kit-afs-1855mm-f3556-g-ed-ii-nikkor-zoom-lens.aspx) — how exactly does this kit lens compare with yours? Or do you know of a better place?

    Thanks!

  5. Dawson – The D40 is a great choice to start off in the field of photography. I’ve learned a lot (already). Just know its limitations (which I’ve hopefully laid out here pretty clearly) and you’ll be very happy with it.

    As for places to buy, I saw it at a local Black’s for $399 with the kit lens, which was the lowest I’ve seen. It’s still listed as $470 online, but you might want to try a store if there’s one nearby. On the other hand, I’ve heard nothing but great things about Vistek, and the price is good.

    As for the lens, I actually sold off my kit 18-55mm lens since the Tamron 18-50mm f/2.8 I purchased recently has supplanted it on my D40. The kit lens is very capable, pretty sharp across the focal range, with relatively good distortion characteristics, low vignetting, chromatic aberations, etc. I upgraded to the Tamron because I mainly wanted better low light performance. If you think you won’t be satisfied with the kit lens, you could also go for a D40 body alone for ~$350.

    Hey Bryan! Nice to see you around! My flickr’s here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/randomprocess/

    You’ve got some great work on your site/flickr. I crawl through photoblogs all the time looking for inspiration and photography tidbits. I really need to work on my skills…

  6. I bought my D40 from The Camera Store in Alberta, shipping is reasonable, and you duck the 8% PST from buying in Ontario. ~$376 total including shipping and taxes.

    http://www.photoprice.ca is a good first stop that aggregates all the major online retailers.

  7. I am also researching DSLR cameras and trying to decide which one to go with. I think I have decided on the Nikon D40.

    A very helpful website is http://www.kenrockwell.com. He agrees with your assessment of megapixel numbers and strongly recommends the D40.

    Henry’s has a sale on now, a D40 with 18-55 and 55-200 VR lens for $630. (non-VR 55-200 for $580).

    I think I am going for it.

  8. After searching for a DSLR that would fit my needs and my budget, I too ended up buying a D40 this past May and am extremely pleased with its performance. Pictures are tack sharp with wonderful color even with the 18-55 kit lens. I purchased the 18-200 mm. ‘walk around’ lens and am very pleased with its performance except in low light (very low light) conditions. After reading up on the 17-55mm. 2.8, I’m about ready to buy either the Nikkor or Tamron. This hobby is very addictive!

    If I had to do it all over again, I’d buy the D40 in a heartbeat!

  9. Hi there, three years on and this camera is still in contention. I am getting a great deal on it here in Oslo, Norway and needed to do some research. Your blog is one of the most concise I have come across in this context. Thank you for your efforts. In addition, the reference to the Tamaron lens was excellent. When & if I manage to reach the limits of the kit lens, I know of a replacement now that will not dissapoint me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *