Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Nikon D40X Review

Nikon D40X with Nikon AF-S 18-70mm F3.5-4.5G ED DX Lens
 Introduction:
    The Nikon D40X is not a new camera, in fact it is three generations old now that Nikon has released the D3100. Does that mean that the D40X has become a bad camera or totally obsolete? I don't think the arrival of replacement makes older cameras bad, but technically obsolete, sure. After all, from a technical standpoint the D40X is no marvel, but it does have a tried and tested piece of hardware, a 10MP CCD sensor. It is the same one found in the later D60, D3000, and the earlier D80 and D200. Other than the higher resolution sensor the D40X is completely identical to the earlier D40, which had a 6MP sensor. Both cameras were originally kited with the AF-S 18-55mm F3.5-5.6G II, the AF-S 18-55mm F3.5-5.6G VR kit lens was introduced with the D60.

    The D40X does not have any exciting features by modern standards, but it is a good camera for someone who does not have a large budget, and doesn't mind buying used equipment. With a user of that kind in mind, I think a camera like the D40X could be an inexpensive way for someone to buy their first Nikon DSLR and start building a F mount based lens system. Unlike newer entry level models from Nikon and other manufactures, there is no beginner or guide modes on the D40X, but the controls aren't overly complicated to make up for that.

Build Quality, Design and Controls:
    The build quality of the D40X is very good for an entry level model, and is comparable to the more modern D3000, D3100 and D5000.  The industrial strength plastic of the D40X has been tightly assembled so there are no loose parts. As a result there are no creaks or other noises made when you put pressure on different parts of the camera body. There are no real weak points that stick out in my mind, the flash latch is tight along with the SD/SDHC card slot door. From a design standpoint, like it's replacements, the D40X is well made.

    Your hands fall right onto the basic controls needed to take pictures right away. The feel of the camera is nice, thanks to a well designed grip, which makes the camera comfortable. People with larger hands might not like the feel of the D40X, for example I find that my pinky finger rests on the bottom plate of the camera body due to it's small size. That being said, one of the selling points of a camera like the D40X is the small size. The D40, D40X and D60 are the smallest Nikon DSLR cameras ever made. Newer models like the D3000, D3100 and D5000 are a little bit larger, and are slightly more comfortable to hold as a result.

Top

    On the top of the D40X you'll find only three buttons, the shutter, Info and Exposure Compensation. You also find the mode dial, just to the left of the info button. These controls are simple and easy to use, which is good because the camera was intended for people new to SLR cameras. The shiny shutter button is surround by the on off button, like every other Nikon DSLR. To auto focus you half press the shutter button, and then fully depress it to take a picture. The Info button is used to turn the 2.5" rear LCD on and off. This is important because most of the controls and functions of the camera are found in beginner friendly the menu system. To the right of the Info button you'll find the +/- or exposure compensation button. When you press this button the screen on the back will come on, if it isn't already, and allow you to adjust the metered exposure when you are in P, S or A modes. In manual mode the +/- button is pressed in combination with turning the rear command dial to change the set aperture.

    The mode dial gives the user a great deal of control over how much the camera controls exposure. In Auto the camera makes all of the choices for you, and will pop up the built in flash whenever it think it is required. The rest of the settings, surrounded by white on the dial are the creative control modes. In P (Program) mode the camera will do the same things, but it allows you to set exposure compensation, and influence the set aperture. In "S" mode the user sets the shutter speed desired, while the camera sets the aperture. In "A" mode the user sets the desired Aperture value. In manual the user sets both the aperture value and shutter speed. The mode dial also has a position for auto, with no flash (lighting bolt with line through it), portraits, landscapes, children, sport, closeup, and night portrait.

Front

    The front of the D40X has only one button, on the right side, the lens release. You'll also notice a large lamp on the side of the grip, which is used as an auto focus assist light when it starts getting too dark out for the system to operate normally. You'll also notice the IR receiver, which is used to receive a signal from the option ML-L3 wireless remote on the hand grip. 

Front, Right Side

    Looking to the left front side of the camera you will find two additional buttons. The top button (Lighting bolt) pops up the build in electric flash, and it also controls flash exposure compensation. The lower button is the function or self timer button. By default this button is used for the self timer. This function allowing you to either use and tripod and run into a group shot, or also from a tripod, when using slow shutter speeds, in order to avoid camera shake.

Right (From the Front) Size

    The left side of the D40X has a flap, and under that flap are two ports. The top, round port, is used to connect the camera to a standard definition TV to display a slide show of images store in a memory card formatted by the camera. The lower port is a mini USB2 port used to download images off the camera, if you do not have an SD/SDHC card reader.

Left (From the Front) Side of D40X

    The right side of the D40X only has one item, the SD/SDHC card slot.

Back of D40X

    The back of the D40X hosts most of the buttons, and the 2.5" LCD panel. The rear LCD displays a great deal of information, and is the primary means of controlling many of the core functions of the camera. In the image above the camera is set to the classic mode which shows information similarly to the top LCD's of higher end Nikon DSLRs. There is also a more beginner friendly, Graphic mode as well. That mode shows most of the same information, but it also graphically shows the cause and effect relationship between shutter speed and aperture.

    Down the back left side are four buttons, on top the image playback button. While in playback you use the four way (D Pad) to scroll through images, side to side, and use the up and down portion to rotate between shooting information from that shot, including blown highlights, shooting data, and more. The second button from the top is the menu button, which allows you to enter the cameras menu system, which I will touch on later.

    Below that are the magnifying glass buttons "+" and "-" for zooming in and out of parts of an image while in playback mode. The bottom button doubles up as a button allowing you to access different settings on the LCD screen without diving into the main menu system. Settings that can be changed once this button is used includes image quality, white balance, ISO, drive mode, Auto Focus Mode, Auto Focus area mode, and metering mode.

    On the top right hand side you'll see one button, the AF-L/AE-L button. This button can be used to lock the metered exposure and focus allowing you to focus and recompose without losing a desired exposure and focus distance. To the right of that button is the main command dial. This dial is use to change exposure compensation in combination with the "+/-" button the top, to change shutter speed in "S" mode and manual mode, and the Aperture in "A" mode.

    The lower right side of the camera has the 4 way controller with OK button in the middle, and the trash button. The four way controller is used to select functions in the menus system, scroll through images in playback, and in shooting mode to select one of the three focus points. The okay button is used to select highlighted items in the menu system, while the trash button is used to delete images that you don't want to keep on your memory card. When you press the trash button the camera will ask you if you really want to delete the image, click the trash button again to do so. Below the trash button, to the right, there is a small green light, which turns on when the camera is accessing a SD/SDHC memory card. Do not remove a memory card, or turn off the camera when this light is on!

The Viewfinder:
    The viewfinder is one of the most important parts of a DSLR camera, which is why this is an important part of the review. In the case of the D40X it is the only way to compose an image, since it does not support liveview on the back LCD as most newer DSLRs do. The viewfinder of the D40X is not the biggest or brightest, but it is larger and brighter than those found on 4/3s DSLRs like the Olympus E-620. Considering the size of the D40x the viewfinder is bright. Viewfinder coverage is 95%, which means that the final image you get will be slightly larger than what you can see in the viewfinder. You will want to keep that in mind when you are shooting.

    Inside the viewfinder, along the bottom, you will see a number of items lit up when the  camera is turned on. On the bottom left side of the finder you'll see a green dot, when focus has been achieved. If focus is not locked, then the light will either flash or not come on. Next an indicator that shows which of the three auto focus area is in use, unless auto focus zone is active. Then there are indicators for EL (Auto Exposure Lock), which can be activated by the AE-L/AF-L button or in the menus set to come on whenever your half press the shutter button.

    Towards the bottom middle of the viewfinder you'll first see the shutter speed, if you see "Lo" or "HI" then the shutter speeds are slower (Lo) than the camera thinks you should, or there is too much light (HI). The D40X has a shutter speed range of 30 seconds to 1/4000s, so if the shutter speed exceeds 1/4000s then "HI" will be indicated. To the right of the shutter speed is the aperture value. The aperture values available depend on the lens attached to the camera body. If you are in Shutter priority and it is too bright or dark or bright to achieve the desired shutter speed "Lo" and "HI" indicators may be seen in this location.

    If you are in manual mode, the center of the bottom will be filled with a meter, with the "+" side indicating over exposure, "-" equaling  side showing under exposure. If he meter shows, "|" , that indicates to you that the suggested shutter speed has been obtained. This same meter will show up in other modes as well, but not Auto, when you are using exposure compensation or if the flash is up, but you are in dim lighting conditions. On the right of the meter, the exposure compensation indicators are located. "+"  or "-" will be displayed depending on whether you are trying or over or underexpose the settings the camera has suggested. Next you will see a bracket with numbers [xxx] which indicates how many photos you can take on the loaded SD/SDHC memory card. The number displayed depends on a number of factors, memory card size, file type (RAW or JPEG), size of the images being saved (Large, Medium, Small) and other quality settings. To the right of that there is an indicator (lighting bolt) to show if the built in, or external flash is ready to fire. This indicator will flash with a question mark beside it if the camera thinks you should use a flash in the creative auto or manual modes. In Auto mode the flash will pop up on its own under such lighting conditions.

Metering and Auto Focus:
    The matrix metering of the D40x aims to protect shadows, which is common for consumer level cameras. The downside to this is that the D40X meter has trouble in bright conditions. Many times I found myself pressing the exposure compensation button to dial in between -0.3 and -0.7 stops of compensation to overcome this issue. After a while, unless I am shooting in controlled lighting situations, I just leave -0.3 of exposure compensation dialed in all the time. Indoors, unless there was sunlight coming into a room, I found that no exposure compensation was needed. Flash metering, with the built in flash, is fine and I didn't find myself needing to dial in flash exposure compensation very often. The metering of the D40X seems very similar to that of the earlier D80.

    The auto focus system on the D40X, like the D40 and later D60 is very simple, having on three points. The center point is cross type, making it the fastest and most accurate for different subjects. The points off on either side work, but are best used on vertical objects, or when the camera is being used vertically, such as for a portrait. Since the D40X only supports AF-S lenses, non-AF-S lenses are manual focus only, auto focus speed is linked more to the lens motor and lighting conditions. In low light conditions the D40X is sluggish compared to higher end cameras like the D90/D5000 and up. In good light I didn't notice very much difference in subject focus acquisition between the D40X and any other consumer DSLR that I have used, at least with the center AF point.

Image Quality:
    The image quality of the D40x is very similar to other 10MP CCD equipped DSLR cameras, such as the D80, D60 or D3000. The camera never offered class leading noise performance, but it stiff offers good image quality, even compared to many modern compact point and shoots. Below are a number of sample images take with the D40X, click on the images for larger views. All shots were taken with the Nikon AF-S 18-70mm F3.5-4.5G ED DX lens mounted on the D40X.

ISO 100

ISO 200, using built in flash for fill light
 

ISO 400

ISO 1600

    The dynamic range of the D40X was good at the time the camera was released and even edged out the D200 and D80 by a small margin. Performance under ISO 400 is very good, and under 800 is acceptable. ISO 1600 is usable, when the exposure is correct. Although the D40X wont steal the show with class leading image quality, it was good enough that I took several hundred images with it on a recent vacation and was pleased with the results overall. The dynamic range of the D40X leaves a you wanting more head space in highlights and shadows at times, but considering the sensor used performance is fine.

Noise Testing:
    The second part of image quality test is noise performance. The following shows images taken with the D40X at all available ISO settings from the native ISO 100-1600 range, and ISO3200 (HI1). To see larger images, click on the photos, which is almost required to truly see the difference in this test. These images are all out of camera jpgs with noise reduction turned off in camera, and no software based noise reduction was applied.

ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200 (HI1)

Comments and Conclusion:
    The D40X is a nice, somewhat compact DSLR, designed for photographers who either want to step up from a point and shoot or bridge camera. This type of entry level camera is great for people who want better image quality that only the higher end optics of an interchangeable lens system can offer, without buying a camera body that is overly complicated with buttons and dials or that weighs as much as a brick. The performance of the D40X is good for a camera of it's age, and although it is not top of the line, even for any entry level DSLR, it isn't a bad camera.

    As I mentioned earlier in the review I used my D40X along side my D300 during a trip recently, and I was not at all disappointed with the images that I was able to take with the D40X. The overly shadow protective metering was a bit of a burden at times, but for those who shoot indoors in controlled light, that wouldn't be a problem. Outdoors the D40X does rather well, even in lower light conditions, as long as you get the exposure right and shoot using the RAW NEF format along with software with powerful noise reduction technology.

Who is the D40X For? Budget conscious photographers who don't mind using older hardware.  Aside from that group the D40X also would be a good camera to carry around as a light weight backup for someone who shoots with the D200, or even a D300, like me, but doesn't see the need to sink another $1000+ into a backup or second camera body.

Who is the D40X Not For? Someone who has to have the latest and greatest gear, or someone who wants higher end features, such as direct buttons for ISO, White Balance and image quality, or for those who like to use auto bracketing for HDR photography.