Buying considerations and the Competition
I got fed up with the weight carrying my D200 around – even with a little 50mm lens – for those not-specifically-about-photography walkabouts.
So I read the reviews and pondered the Nikon D40 as well as the Canon EOS400D/Rebel Xti and Xt and small-sensor cameras, such as a Leica D-Lux3, or a Canon SD700, or G7, or A640, or A570IS, or S3-IS and I tried them all save the Leica and the Xt/Xti in a camera shop, and then read some more.
I read Ken Rockwell’s review of the D40 and if you are in the market for a small camera you would do well to read it (just Google Ken Rockwell D40).
Of course, Ken Rockwell is a firm proponent of shooting JPEGS exposed correctly and using the camera’s settings to maximise the shots the way he wants them.
But I shoot RAW and the number of shots I have post-processed that would have suffered had I shot in JPEG, keeps me wanting to shoot RAW if I can.
But I was prepared though to think of a JPEG-only camera if that was the only way to solve the weight problem, on the principle that a shot is better than no shot at all.
But when I thought about that a bit more, it seems to me that the proviso to this was that image quality and low shutter-lag would be priorities ranking high among my requirements.
But shutter lag and low image quality are a penalty I was not prepared to pay in order to have a lightweight camera.
Assuming I shot in JPEG, then things such as white balance could be altered in post processing, even if it meant losing some information. Of course shooting RAW all things can be changed, including the better part of two f-stops exposure.
Another thing that ranks high, is being able to see what I am aiming at. So, that put paid to some of the compacts, which had viewfinders like looking through tiny tunnels.
It was impossible to tell what was in focus, even though they did offer the ability to slip the camera in a pocket and take it everywhere.
But then some of the compacts offer in-built image stabilisation, which seems to be a clear advantage in favour of compacts. Well yes and no, because the image quality at 800 ISO from a larger chip camera such as the D40 might be as good as at 200 ISO from the smaller chip in a compact.
And at 800 ISO, image quality from all small-chip cameras falls apart.
I have a couple of older compacts, and image quality is not great even at 100 ISO.
One could not fit the D40 in a pocket but it is small. It weighs 522g (18.4 oz).
It is only marginally heavier than the Canon S3-IS, which is 510g (18 oz), just a mater of 12g or so. And the Canon seemed very cluttered with buttons.
The Canon G7 is lighter, at 380g (13.4 oz) and the view in the LCD display is very clear. It is not a nice camera to hold, however – heavy for a compact, and built like a slab.
I have seen JPEGs from a Canon G7 on-screen, and while good, they are not that good. So the gain from image stabilisation has to be considered against the high ISO capability of the D40, about which see below.
So with these things in mind, and bearing in mind the price of the D40 with kit lens, I found myself unable to say no to a camera that offered higher image quality, faster ‘ready-to-take-the-shot’ time, and the ability to shoot RAW.
But, whether the D40 was the answer depended first of all on its weight. Perhaps I needed to wait until the D*** in the year 2010? Yeah, sure.
Grip, fit and feel
I have a habit when I pick up a new camera of tipping and yawing it loosely around in my hands to get a feel for the balance point.
For anyone who has not handled a D40 I can tell you it is made of air.
It is so light, it floats. And with the kit 18-55 lens it balances excellently.
All the weight is in the middle of the mass and there is no feeling of torque pulling it away from my hands. Yet at the same time, the overall lightness means that the feeling of the weight being in the middle of the mass, does not make it feel brick-like or inmobile.
(You might want to read my review of the D200 in this blog for my thoughts on the weight and feel of that camera).
It is clear that a lot of thought has gone into the design to make it a working tool.
I am happy with the shape of the handgrip for the right hand, but it was not quite what I was expecting, especially after reading the review of the D40 in DPReview.
I don’t have large hands but my fingers bottom-out beyond the base of the handgrip.
I cannot sink my fingers right into the base of the handgrip and is rather like pinching the handgrip, compared to grasping the meatier handgrip of the D200.
So to hold the camera steady I have to to slip my little finger under the base of the camera and rest the bottom right of the body into the middle of my palm.
Using both hands, it is a pleasure to hold.
The light weight of the camera would not be an unqualified advantage compared to a heavier camera though, if the shutter went ker-lunk and sent that nice little light camera skittering everywhere, but it doesn’t
The shutter is smooth and light as though there is not very much mechancial going on compared to the D200 which has a hard, final-sounding clack.
I assume the smaller sound of the D40 is is because the mirror box is so small, so there is not very much mass to move up and out of the way. Whatever the reason, the vibration is minimal.
The downside of the smaller mirror box is the smaller view through the viewfinder. With the D200, I find myself looking around to find the edges and corners of the view through the viewfinder.
That’s not surprising because the viewfinder is about 15% bigger along each side than the D40.
But the viewfinder of the D40 is clear, bright and free of distortion and light-years ahead of the view through some of the compacts.
Some DSLRs have seven points of autofocus, some have eleven, some have many more. The D40 had three, in a line across the middle of the frame.
That’s not a downside for me because I almost always use the centre focus area whatever camera I am using.
Ny only wish for this camera is that the central area could be locked.
Instead the focus area can be moved using the paddle at the rear of the camera. The focus point only moves when you click on the left or centre or right of the paddle wheel, but it cannot be locked in any of those positions.
The relevant focus points light up when you click the paddle and it also light up when you focus.
But if one hits the paddle by mistake and don’t notice it, the focus point will have changed and the only feedback is when the focus points light up as one focuses.
In a rapidly developing scene such as a march or a demonstration, it is easy to lose track of focus points when so much is going on.
I have used other cameras without the centre focus area being locked, only to find that in the heat of shooting, I have not noticed that the active area is not the middle one, and hence the camera has been focusing other than where I wanted it to.
On a related point – with other cameras, when I have wanted to use a focus area other than the middle one, I have also wished that those focus areas were nearer the edge of the frame than they were. The D200 has five horizontal focus areas and the ones furthest to the side do seem to be nearer the edge of the frame than the outer two on the D40.
Of much more importance to me is how big that focus area is. I want it to be as small as possible so that I can home in on precisely where I want my focus point to be. My conclusion is that the focus area is within the focus area marks in the viewfinder – which is good news.
But, with small, near objects against a contrasty background, the autofocus may well find the background in preference, or not be able to find the near object. In fact it’s about as good as the D200, certainly not noticeably worse.
There is no LCD on the top plate and the only downside of that for me is that I cannot see the ISO. But the info panel in the rear LCD comes up every time I turn the camera on, or at the touch of the ‘info’ button that is next to the shutter, and the panel is very clear. That panel shows ISO and all the other information one wants.
There is a function button to the left of the lens mount, that allows a variety of options to be assigned to it. I have assigned ISO to this, so with the info panel showing it is a simple matter to hit the function button and spin the rear dial (there is no front dial) at top right of the body, to whatever ISO I want.
Nor does the viewfinder show what mode the camera is in, but that does not bother me too much as I usually shoot in Aperture Priority.
About noise, and noise reduction – one thing that is clear and that is that having carried out simple real-world tests, photographs show that the benefits of a larger chip in the D40 easily compete with the benefits of image stabilisation in a compact. Now if the D40 had image stabilisation as well …
Using Exposure Compensation On The D40
On a bright day the contrast range across a typcial outdoor scene is large. And according to the review on the LCD, it is easy to blow out highlights with normal exposure.
I don’t mind tiny areas being blown out, but when large chunks of the scene go, it can ruin a shot. So its a clear advantage to be able to alter exposure easily. There are two ways to do this on this camera.
If there is a large enough area of light-tones in the scene, then meter off that area, press the AE-L/AF-L button on the top right of the body, and recompose. The AE-L/AF-L button can be programmed in menus to lock exposure or focus or both, so I have set it up to only lock exposure. That allows me to use the shutter button to refocus when I recompose.
Alternatively, there is a dedicated Exposure Compensation button just behind the shutter button. Hit this and the info-panel comes up in the LCD and also in the viewfinder.
Whichever you look at, spin the rear wheel to change the exposure compensation. It’s fast and easy to use.
If there is no exposure compensation dialed in then nothing shows in the viewfinder. If exposure compensation is dialed in then it shows all the time in the viewfinder. Each one third of a stop shows as a little bar along the scale, to the right of the centre of the scale if negative compensation is dialed in, and to the left of the centre point of positive compensation is dialed in.
Today I had a good taste of shooting in contrasty conditions. I dialed in -0.7 exposure compensation and was still blowing out highlight areas, according to the review in the LCD.
However, in Photoshop CS2 RAW converter, with exposure reduced by 0.35, those apparently blown and irrecoverable highlights show detail, and only a small area was irrecoverably blown.
So it seems that the flashing areas in ‘highlights’ mode in review in the LCD is more cautious than can be recovered in RAW.
The Kit Lens
The kit lens is good for the kinds of things that I intend the camera for, but it does suffer from noticeable colour fringing in highlight areas such as small branches against the sky.
It also shows that sketch-like quality in small detail that is the hallmark of a lens that does not have the bite of a top-class lens.
The camera has no internal motor to drive autofocus, so it can only autofocus with AF-S lenses, which have a motor built into the lens. I am quite happy to accept the restriction that the camera only accepts AF-S lenses in order to be able to autofocus.
Given the use to which I want to put the camera, I don’t think I will be be changing the lens anyway.
And I accept the restriction on lens quality for a camera that I have with me, against one that has better quality but stays at home because it is bulkier, or longer, or heavier, or does not autofocus on this camera.
What Is Lacking?
So what does the camera not have? Well it has a hotshoe, so it could fire a flash off-camera with a suitable sync cord and hotshoe adaptor, but it has no way to control off-camera flash with the master/remote flash controls that the D200 has that work with SB-800 (and SB-600) flashguns, so I shall not be selling my D200, all other considerations aside.
And no ISO showing in the viewfinder.
And it does not have a depth of field preview button, but I use the following rule of thumb:
wider-aperture-for-portraits, and f8-to-f11 when I want to ensure the best chance of getting a sharp shot of my subject in trickier conditions.
What Does It Have?
It uses the same little remote control that the D70 did. My D70 was stolen so it is nice to have something useful to do with the remote, which happened to be in another bag when my camera was stolen, and has been sitting there ever since, asking me what I was going to do with it.
It is very nice to rest the D40 on a table, point it in the direction of my intended shot and (first having set up the remote in menus) trigger the shutter with the remote.
Battery life is everything that battery life should be – it just goes on an on. I have had the camera for two weeks and in that time I have taken 200 shots – some with flash; reviewed them on the rear screen; played around with the menus to understand them and to set up the camera – and the battery indicator shows a full battery.
Compare that with the D200 where after a day’s shooting the battery indicator usually shows something around 55%.
I have never continued to run the D200 battery down but have popped in the second battery, so perhaps the D200 would go on for longer than the indicator ‘indicates’, but I am not going to experiment to find out.
The EN-EL9 battery on the D40 is smaller than the battery on the D200, so I cannot help but wonder what the reason is for the difference in performance.
I wonder whether it is the fact that it does not have to move the big mirror up and down? That seems to be the biggest mechanical job the camera has to do – that and move the lens focus mechanism.
The image quality is excellent, which is as expected given the processor and chip that are in the camera, and the small amount of vibration in the shutter means I can hand-hold shots at a lower speed than my unforgiving D200.
Shutter lag is non-existent and write speeds are as fast as I want.I have no interest in testing them as they are as fast as I need for what I shoot. The balance on the inbuilt flash is excellent for fill flash.
So after two weeks of carrying it around, and being able to dip into my bag and shoot without the weight penalty that can make one rue the day one took up photography rather than paper-folding, I can say the D40 is an unqualified success.
Having just got home and had time to read more reviews of the 18-55 lens, I feel compelled to do some tests comparing it to the 18-70 and the 12-24, and a fast telephoto-length prime. I just put the 12-24 on the body and the weight and bulk of the lens makes the combination feel like the body is hanging on the lens rather than the lens being attached to the body.
Given the weight of the lens, if holding one-handed, it is probably wise to hold the lens rather than the body, to prevent the lens pulling the lens mount out of true.
I want to get these tests done, so watch this space.