DigitalCameraReview.com
Nikon D40x Review
by Jim Keenan -  8/19/2007

When Nikon introduced the D40x back in March of this year, they noted that it "...maintains the same compact size, portability and ease-of-use as its already successful sister camera, the D40, and adds features like higher 10.2 megapixel resolution, faster continuous shooting capability and wider ISO sensitivity". Sister camera? More like identical twin sister camera, since that little “D40x” badge on the front of the body is the only external distinguishing characteristic between the two models - Nikon lists identical dimensions and weights for each. Beauty is only skin deep, however, and while these two cameras may look the same, there are those aforementioned added features to differentiate the twins. Let’s see what Nikon’s entry level big sister brings to the digital imaging table.

nikon d40x
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A CLOSER LOOK 

First and foremost, we’re not in point-and-shoot (P&S) land anymore, Toto. The D40x is Nikon’s higher resolution, entry-level digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR); even so, Nikon included a host of automatic features and programmed shooting modes to make the camera more user-friendly and/or familiar for folks moving up from a P&S, or who happen to choose a DSLR as their first camera platform.

Aside from generally higher performance across the spectrum of camera functions, the ability to interchange lenses is probably the most striking dissimilarity between the DSLR and the P&S. The D40x used for this review came packaged with Nikon’s 18-55mm f3.5/5.6 GII lens as the “D40x Outfit”, but the camera is also available as a body only, which allows the user to mate the camera with something other than the kit lens should it strike their fancy. Nikon recently introduced a relatively inexpensive 55-200mm VR (vibration reduction) lens, and that combined with the kit lens gives a very usable 27 to 300mm (35mm film equivalent) focal length range. One versatile (and expensive) single lens option is Nikon’s 18-200VR lens, which provides identical coverage with the bonus of vibration reduction across the entire shooting range. Here are shots at the wide and telephoto ends from the 18-55 and the 18-200 to give you some idea of the coverage afforded by each, as well as a shot of the camera with each lens installed:

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18-55mm lens at 18mm (view medium image) (view large image)
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18-55mm at 55mm (view medium image) (view large image)
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18-200mm lens at 18mm (view medium image) (view large image)
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18-200mm lens at 200mm (view medium image) (view large image)

18-55mm lens (view large image)

18-200 lens (view large image)

An important point to remember with the D40x (and the D40) is that only Nikon AF-S or AF-I lenses are fully compatible with the camera. By fully compatible, we mean all modes of exposure and autofocus. Other Nikon “G” or “D” AF lenses (not AF-S or AF-I) will provide all modes of exposure, but must be manually focused; all other AF lenses support all functions except 3D matrix metering and autofocus. Like all Nikon DSLRs to date, the D40x makes use of a variant of Nikon’s “F” bayonet mount, which was first introduced in 1959. This means the D40x can accept virtually any Nikon “F” mount lens ever built, but won’t support any exposure mode on fully manual lenses. At present there about 23 AF-S lenses (fully compatible) in production by Nikon, with an additional 25 AF models (require manual focus). These two shots were taken with my 30+ year old Nikkor 50mm/f1.4 AI lens – manual exposure and focus.

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nikon d40x sample image
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During the course of this review I shot the D40x with five different AF-S lenses (18-55mm, 18-200VR, 24-120VR, 70-200VR and 200-400VR), one AF lens (105mm Macro), and two AI lenses (50mm and 500mm). I also used Nikon’s TC 14E-II, a 1.4x AF-S/AF-I teleconverter. Camera performance with all lenses and specific teleconverter/lens combinations was flawless and as advertised.

Camera body dimensions are approximately 5 x 2.5 x 3.7 inches; shooting weight (battery and memory card installed) with the kit lens installed is about 1 pound, 10 ounces.

The D40x will capture still images at any of four quality levels: compressed NEF (Nikon Electronic Format), commonly called RAW, and Fine, Normal or Basic JPEGS at approximately 1:4, 1:8 and 1:16 compression ratios respectively. The camera can also capture simultaneous images in NEF and JPEG Basic.

Image size may also be selected from three pixel counts: L (3872 x 2592), M (2896 x 1944), S (1936 x 1296). The D40x accepts SD memory cards and Nikon guarantees operation with SanDisk, Toshiba, Panasonic and Lexar cards. The camera supports SDHC cards as well.

Nikon includes an EN-EL9 rechargeable Li-ion battery and charger, USB cable, rubber eyecup, camera strap, camera body and lens caps, owner’s and “quick start” manuals, and “Picture Project” software with each camera, with the 18-55mm lens included in the “outfit” packages. “Picture Project” is a browser and editing tool.

CAMERA FEATURES AND LAYOUT 

The D40x is a compact DSLR, and much of the body and kit lens material is composite (plastic), which contributes to a correspondingly light weight. Long-time Nikon devotees may cringe at the sight of the kit lens’s composite bayonet mount, but Boeing is building its new 787 airliner out of significant amounts of composite materials, so plastic for an earth-bound camera lens mount seems pretty tame by comparison. The material quality, fit and finish are good – the camera feels solid and has a simple, understated matte black exterior.

Ergonomically, the camera is excellent – pick the camera up and it just seems to mold itself into your hand.  Balance with the kit lens is quite nice – I carried the D40x for five hours around Disneyland, and even with the much heavier 24-120VR lens installed part of the time, I never felt the need to put on the camera strap.

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nikon d40x
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SHOOTING WITH THE D40x 

Auto Mode 

The D40x features an “auto” mode that Nikon describes as “…an automatic point-and-shoot mode in which the majority of settings are controlled by the camera in response to shooting conditions”. The camera will let you choose from a couple of flash options; image size and quality; ISO sensitivity; shooting, focus and AF area modes if you desire, but the camera handles the rest of the settings. If you’re content to go with default settings, the D40x can come out of the box and the user need never concern themselves with anything but composing and capturing images.

Auto does a pretty good job across a range of subjects, including the surfer in the midst of a cutback on the wave. This shot would have been better with a higher shutter speed that could have provided by the “sport” mode or either aperture or shutter priority – I’d prefer the board and surfer to be as “frozen” as possible, but it’s not a bad shot for leaving the entire process up to the camera.

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Digital Vari Programs

In addition to “auto”, the D40x provides seven programmed modes for specific scenes: auto with flash disabled, portrait, landscape, child, sports, close up and night portrait. The camera optimizes settings for the various scenes, and just like the full auto mode, the user has the ability to set some image parameters depending on the scene selected. Between auto and the seven vari program scenes, any automatic P&S user should feel comfortable moving into a D40x.

P, S, A and M 

Finally, the camera also has the Programmed auto, Shutter priority, Aperture priority and Manual exposure modes that are the heart and soul of any DSLR. Typically, higher performance DSLRs dispense with the auto and scene options altogether, and offer only P, S, A and M.

P: the camera sets shutter speed and aperture; the user has the option to set a full range of camera settings, including choice of five flash modes, exposure compensation, flash compensation, metering mode, AF area mode, focus mode, shooting mode, ISO sensitivity, white balance, image size and quality. These same camera settings may be accessed in the S, A and M modes as well.

S: shutter speed is set by the user, aperture by the camera.

A: aperture is set by the user, shutter speed by the camera.

M: both shutter speed and aperture are set by the user.

In-Camera Editing Tools 

The D40x  provides a “Retouch Menu” that permits images to be modified using D-lighting, red eye correction, trim (cropping), monochrome (converts images to black & white, sepia or cyanotype), filter effects (skylight, warm or color balance), small picture (resizing tool) or image overlay options. D-lighting, red eye correction, cropping, and black & white/sepia color conversion tools are also found in the “Picture Project” software, and using a large computer screen to work on images is preferable to the 2.5” LCD on the camera. But if you have to work the images in the field, the D40x provides a nice suite of tools.

I’m a big fan of the D-lighting feature, which automatically brightens shadows and dark areas. Here, the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey are cursed by overhead noonday sun, resulting in some extreme shadows. An in-camera application of D-lighting much improves the shadow areas with little, if any, impact on the more normally exposed portions of the image. D-lighting keeps the original shot “as is” and makes a copy with the D-lighting changes incorporated, so you can always return to the first shot if need be – a nice touch.

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Before D-Lighting (view medium image) (view large image)
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After D-Lighting (view medium image) (view large image)

Exposure Compensation 

Exposure compensation of +/- 5 EV in 1/3 EV increments is available in P, S or A modes only, and is most effective with the center-weighted or spot metering options. There is no exposure bracketing feature like that found on the Nikon D80. 

Light Metering 

Default metering on the D40x is Nikon’s matrix metering system, with center-weighted and spot options also available. Matrix metering on the D40x did a pretty good job overall, but it did lose highlights on occasion with very bright, high contrast scenes, particularly surf shots where dark portions of the unbroken wave were punctuated by the white foam of the breaking parts. All that moving white water seems to produce a constantly changing light level that poses a challenge to any camera, not just the D40x. High contrast scenes with more consistent light levels fared much better. The two shots that follow show a loss of highlights on portions of the wave, but the “snow” on the mountain retains details.

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nikon d40x sample image
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The shots that follow were made in aperture priority with matrix metering and -1/3 EV exposure compensation. Even though matrix metering is the least effective mode for exposure compensation, the shots hold good detail in the highlight sections of the wave.  

While it’s really not an exposure issue, here’s a brief detour down the sharpening road: as indicated, the first two images were sharpened automatically in camera; the copies were additionally sharpened in Nikon Capture NX software. For purposes of this review, all shots were sharpened at the auto level in-camera (the default setting), unless otherwise indicated, but auto sharpening is not my method of choice. Personally, I turn off in-camera sharpening and do all sharpening of my images in the computer, where the large screen lets me fine-tune the level of sharpness to the particular image. The D40x does a pretty good job with auto sharpening, but I just had to “fix” the copies to show what the D40x is capable of.

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Auto sharpening (view medium image) (view large image)
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Auto sharpening (view medium image) (view large image)
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Extra sharpening (view medium image) (view large image)
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Extra sharpening (view medium image) (view large image)

Focus 

The D40x can adjust focus automatically or manually, and the user can also select the focus area for automatic or manual focus. Autofocus modes are auto-servo AF (AF-A), Single-servo AF (AF-S) or Continuous-servo AF (AF-C). AF-S is for stationary objects and locks focus when the shutter is depressed halfway; AF-C is for moving objects and focuses continuously while the shutter button is depressed halfway. AF-A is the default setting and the camera will automatically select AF-S or AF-C if it judges the subject to be stationary or moving. If you wish to manually select AF-S or AF-C, this can only be done in P, S, A or M modes.

AF-Area mode offers three options to determine how the focus area is selected in autofocus mode: closest subject (default for all but “sports” and “close up” program modes), dynamic area and single area. Closest subject is self-explanatory; dynamic area (default for “sports” mode) will focus on the sensor area selected by the user, but if the subject moves from the area, the camera will focus based on information from the other sensors; single area (default for “macro” mode) focuses on the selected sensor area only.

There are three focus sensors arranged horizontally across the middle of the D40x viewfinder, with the “active” sensor illuminated in red as focus is acquired. As a practical matter, I found the default setting of AF-area (“closest subject”) was too often picking up something other than the main subject – it’s not that the system wasn’t working properly, but simply that there were closer objects than the main subject, and focus was not going where I intended. Switching to “dynamic area” was a big improvement as I could select whichever sensor I intended to use for the main subject via the multi selector button on the camera back. There is a dedicated AF-assist illuminator for low-light conditions.

For the 18-55mm kit lens supplied with the D40x “outfit”, minimum focus range is listed as 0.9 foot (11 inches) throughout the range of the lens. The front element of the lens can come to some 4 or 5 inches of the subject at 55mm and still maintain sharp focus – the 11 inch figure is the subject to focal plane of the sensor distance. The “close up” scene mode gets the kit lens a little closer, but close up performance is pretty good with just the lens itself in any mode. Here are two shots with the 18-55 at 55mm – the second using “close up” mode. These two shots were additionally sharpened to the “+2” level in the camera.

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nikon d40x sample image
"Close Up" mode (view medium image) (view large image)

The D40x acquired focus fairly quickly across the range of AF-S lenses I shot with it (18-55, 18-200VR, 24-120VR, 70-200VR and 200-400VR). Performance was also good with the teleconverter on the 70-200 and 200-400 lenses. The D40x isn’t the fastest body in the Nikon lineup, but if the top dog D2X/Xs has excellent performance, and the slightly slower D200 has very good performance, the D40x is a good performer.

Monitor 

The D40x monitor is a 2.5 inch, 230,000 dot composition LCD with five adjustable brightness levels. Menus in the D40x are light print on a dark background (if you select the “classic” monitor display – more on that later), and are relatively easy to see even in bright, direct light. Picture review in bright conditions is more difficult, but quite satisfactory in decent light. The monitor is not “live view” – you can’t compose shots with it.

The monitor can display information in “classic”, “graphic” or “wallpaper” formats. Choice of format determines the color of the menus – light print/dark background for “classic”, dark print/light background for “graphic” and “wallpaper”.  I found the “classic” format easiest to use, both for display and the menu colors – “wallpaper” gets the information lost in the background of a user-selected photo, and “graphic” menu colors are harder to see in bright light.

The D40x viewfinder has 95% accuracy, about the norm for entry level DSLRs. 

Flash 

A built-in flash pops up from the top of the camera body automatically if needed in the auto, portrait, child, close up and night portrait shooting modes; range can be up to almost 25 feet depending on ISO/aperture settings. The flash can be deployed manually in P, S, A and M modes.

nikon d40x
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Up to five flash modes are available with the manual shooting modes: auto, red eye reduction, slow sync and red eye reduction, slow sync, and rear curtain sync. Auto and red eye reduction are generally available for the auto or scene shooting modes. The D40x uses the AF-assist illuminator for red eye reduction purposes.

The D40x has a hot shoe and can accept a number of Nikon flash units, including the advanced SB 400, 600 and 800 models. The SB units, particularly the top end SB800 expand the capability of the built in flash by offering greater power and some advanced features such as Nikon’s intelligent TTL (Through The Lens) exposure system. Nikon’s flash system generally gets high marks for function and quality, and while I didn’t shoot a lot of flash for this review, what I did shoot turned out quite well with respect to color rendition and exposure, including a grab-shot close-up of Tigr’s face when she demonstrated her typical cat curiosity.

One bit of bad news on the D40x flash – the maximum flash sync speed is down to 1/200th of a second from 1/500th on the D40.

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nikon d40x sample image
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COLOR 

There are three color modes available in the D40x: Modes I and III are sRGB, with mode I optimized for “portrait” shots and mode III for “nature or landscape” shots. Mode III is the default mode, and both modes I and III are recommended for shots you wish to print or use “as is”.

Mode II is Adobe RGB and is recommended for photos that will be extensively processed or retouched.

Unless otherwise noted, all shots by the D40x used in this review were shot in the default mode III color space. The default space provides deeply saturated colors and seems particularly strong in the blues and greens. It reminds me of slide film shot with a deliberate slight underexposure in order to saturate those colors – a practice I commonly employed when shooting slides of subjects other than women.

The D40x has an “optimize image” selection in the Shooting Menu that permits a wide range of adjustment to shots taken in the P, S, A and M modes. If you don’t care for the default color, it’s a pretty safe bet the myriad of combinations in “optimize image” can get the image where you’d like it. Here are shots of the three modes.

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Mode I (view medium image) (view large image)
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Mode II (view medium image) (view large image)
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Mode III (view medium image) (view large image)

ISO 

Auto ISO is the default setting for the auto and scene shooting modes and will set a sensitivity between 100 and 1600 as it deems appropriate; 100 ISO is the default for the P, S, A and M modes. ISO may also be manually set at 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600 or what Nikon calls “one step over 1600”, or H1 (3200).

The camera comes with a Noise Reduction function which is turned off as a default setting. When off, there is no noise reduction at ISO levels of 800 and lower, but “minimal” noise reduction is still performed at ISO levels above 800. With noise reduction enabled, ISO sensitivities over 400 (800, 1600, 3200) are processed to reduce noise.

The blue sky ISO shots were taken with noise reduction off, and then I went back and shot the 800, 1600 and 3200 sensitivities again with noise reduction enabled. These shots are the ones labeled with NR after the ISO value.


ISO 100

ISO 200

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 1600 w/ NR

ISO 3200 w/ NR

Blue sky shots are kind of a worst case scenario for ISO noise – often “real world” pictures look much better than you’d expect after looking at the blue shots, particularly if the images are not subject to excessive enlargement. Here are shots at 800, 1600 and 3200, with the noise reduction shots labeled NR again.


ISO 800 (view medium image) (view large image)

ISO 800 w/ NR (view medium image) (view large image)

ISO 1600 (view medium image) (view large image)

ISO 1600 w/ NR (view medium image) (view large image)

ISO 3200 (view medium image) (view large image)

ISO 3200 w/ NR (view medium image) (view large image)

White Balance

Auto white balance is the default setting for all D40x shooting modes. In P, S, A and M modes the user may select from incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, or a custom setting using a white or gray object as reference. I used auto white balance for the shots taken with the D40x to illustrate this review.

Battery Performance 

Nikon credits the D40x with a 500+ shot capability in single shot mode, and about 2000 shots in continuous shooting mode. My shooting excursions were broken up so I needed to keep the battery charged and thus was unable to independently verify these values.

Shutter Performance 

The D40x powers up in what Nikon claims is 0.18 seconds - I couldn’t work the stopwatch quick enough to confirm that, but the camera is pretty close to being “instant on”. Shutter performance is likewise very good – my D2X has the quickest performing shutter I’ve experienced on any digital camera, but the D40x is not bad. Let’s just say that shooting with the D40x was no less enjoyable than the D2X because of the disparity in shutter performance.

Continuous shooting is a D40x strong point. The camera will shoot at up to 3 frames per second until the camera buffer fills, then at a lower rate for up to 100 consecutive shots. I got about 7 or 8 shots at full speed, then about 2+ per second through shot #20 ( I took Nikon’s word that the camera would go to 100). This might not be enough for a pro working for Sports Illustrated, but for most folks…..

The shutter has a range of 30 seconds to 1/4000th of a second, in addition to a bulb setting.

Lens Performance 

The 18-55 kit lens was quite good. The lens showed some softness in the corners at wide angle (18mm), and there was some barrel distortion (straight lines bow out from center of the image) at the wide end as well. By the time the lens is zoomed to 24mm the barrel distortion is gone. With full wide angle shots sharp-eyed viewers may notice some bending of straight lines, but unless the images are enlarged to the 100% range which I use to critique lens performance on the computer monitor, the softness will not be readily apparent to any but the most critical viewers.

The telephoto end of the lens (55mm) was quite good – slight softness at the edges, but virtually unnoticeable below 100% enlargement. There is some purple fringing in the lens (at high contrast boundary layers), but it is not readily apparent below 200%. All in all, very good performance.

MISCELLANEOUS 

The D40x is PictBridge compliant, so it can print directly from a printer without need for a computer – this is where those Retouch Menu items might come in handy to optimize images.

One really cool feature directly related to shooting ease is accessed via the “playback zoom” button on the lower left camera back. If you press the playback zoom button with no information or image displayed on the monitor, it brings up the information screen. Press the button a second time and various camera settings displayed on the info screen can be accessed via the multi selector button. In the manual shooting modes these settings include image quality and size; white balance; ISO sensitivity; shooting, focus and focus-area modes; metering mode; flash and exposure compensation, and flash mode. In the auto or scene modes the same procedure will access you to the settings available with those modes. There may be some settings you still have to access via internal menu, but this little trick keeps you from having to go internal for the great majority of settings you’d be likely to want to change on the run.

Additional Miscellaneous Images


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CONCLUSION 

After shooting a D2X with a D200 as my second body for quite some time now, I was curious how the D40x would strike me in comparison. The answer is, it’s a great little camera!

Focus speed is a bit slower than the pro and semi-pro Nikons, but not bad at all. Shutter performance isn’t quite as quick, but also not bad. Image quality is first rate with the kit lens and there are a bunch of fully compatible Nikon lenses to expand out from the 18-55mm focal range of the kit lens; the camera can be had as a body only if you don’t care for the 18-55. Colors are rich at default settings and there are a bunch of internal image optimizing settings to tweak the color if default is not your cup of tea. There’s a decent continuous shooting capability, and ISO performance is good. Folks moving into a DSLR from a P&S will feel right at home with the auto and scene program modes.

I haven’t shot other entry-level DSLRs, but after living with the D40x for about three weeks I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t hold its own with the competition. At the entry level, this camera does a lot of things very well.

PROS 

CONS