The D40 SLR (single-lens reflex) digicam picks up where the D50 left off, refreshing the budget-SLR end of the Nikon family. And on paper, at least, little seems to have changed. The D40 still uses a 6Mp (megapixel) CCD (charge-coupled device), for instance. But the specifications don't tell you just how much things have evolved. This is much more than a warmed-up D50.
Starting with the physical layout, the D40 is much neater and more compact; it's actually lost a little weight compared with its predecessor. Build quality remains strong. Despite its small proportions, the camera is extremely comfortable - although those with exceptionally large hands would be wise to try before they buy.
One of the notable departures from the D50 - and one that stirs mixed feelings - is the loss of a shoulder-mounted LCD. Nikon has elected to use the main 2.5in LCD to relay shooting information. Newcomers will probably find this quite natural, but for experienced users it could take a little getting used to. On the up side, though, this has allowed Nikon to revamp the shooting display. The neat graphical representation of both the shutter and aperture values is great for at-a-glance feedback.
It's probably this casual accessibility that really separates the two Nikons, with the D40 placing a much firmer emphasis on ease of use. Quite simply, digital SLRs don’t come much more straightforward than the D40. There's even a handy built-in manual, accessed via a dedicated help button, in case you get stuck.
But this doesn't mean the D40 has been dumbed down. Many of the goodies from its pricier siblings have managed to creep their way in, including the excellent 3D Matrix II metering system and the usual fine assortment of shooting modes. And the D40's revised internals have blessed it with enhanced frame-buffering capability, which enables it to capture up to 100 Jpegs in one sitting, at a rate of 2.5fps (frames per second). That's before writing to an SD card.
Coming in kit form, the Nikon is equipped with a nifty 18-55mm AF-S DX zoom and a usable f3.5-5.6 aperture spread. Unfortunately, as the D40 doesn't have a focusing motor in the body - hence the weight loss - it does limit the range of Nikon lenses that can be used for auto-focusing.
As we've come to expect from a Nikon, the D40's image quality is excellent. It compares favourably even with some higher-resolution 8Mp SLRs. The image processing inherited from the more expensive D80 and D200 is delightfully subtle, leaving finer detail crisp and unspoilt with impressive saturation.
The Nikon does an admirable job of suppressing the majority of image noise, even on higher ISOs, but if clarity is a high priority the Nikon is best kept on the right side of ISO 800. The only real complaint we have is with the automatic white balance. This could become muddled - especially in incandescent light - and there was a tiny bit of fringing.
ISO settings: a brief explanation
Whether you've subscribed to the digital age or you're sticking with traditional film cameras, you've probably heard about ISO settings. Essentially, the ISO setting controls the sensor's sensitivity to light. Higher values enable cameras to be used in darker conditions. The advantage of changing the ISO setting is that you won't require slower shutter speeds - where the camera shake can cause blurring - and you needn’t resort to using the flash. But there is a trade-off: with higher ISOs comes increased noise or image grain.
A typical compact camera will have an ISO range of 100-400, although we are starting to see compacts venture into more adventurous figures as sensor technology improves. Digital SLRs tend to go much higher, usually up to ISO 1,600 or even 3,200. These will generally produce the cleanest images, as their physically larger sensors allow for greater detail and better noise suppression.