My “user” is a Nikon D70. It has its limitations, but years have slowly put them into the “Understood and Anticipated” category. Lately however, I’ve been looking for a high-quality low-light kit – a digital body that approximates the best from the rangefinder world without breaking the bank. My D70 won’t do – it’s lacking on a number of fronts.
It’s bulky. Not D2x class, but substantial enough that raising it is like lobbing a stone in a pond – you notice people’s attitudes change. It’s also heavy. Yes, lighter than the D200 and D2X, but hours of walking with it slung from a shoulder leave an unmistakable ache; pairing it with a wrist strap becomes a question asked of your forearm muscles: “How long can you grip 1.1 kg?” The viewfinder – well, the OVF is balls compared to those on high-grade film SLRs from the 70s; eyeglass wearers can count on rictus grins as they squint to discern details across the frame, while keeping the LED readout in view – I’m sure passers-by understand. High ISO output could be better; dynamic range and color saturation drop noticeably as sensitivities increase, and the noise pattern is fairly specular. And while on the subject of ISOs, changing sensitivity requires lowering the camera and losing your composition, something that’s never failed to annoy me. Then there’s that shutter and mirror. While the sound level is bearable (it could be much, much softer), the mirror slap is not. When I trip that shutter button I can feel the body vibrate; low-light shots become much more challenging and call for far better hand-holding technique.
None of these are show-stoppers, but I’m always on the lookout for a camera that’ll solve these limitations. Enter the Nikon D40 and D40x. Lighter and noticeably trimmer than the D70, they seemed to address all my form-factor concerns. High ISO output is also significantly cleaner, and a custom function button made sensitivity changes a less onerous task. Shutter noise and mirror slap have also improved substantially, and the D40 is widely considered to ship with Nikon’s quietest, softest shutter/mirror assembly. These factors, coupled with the widest lens mounting compatibility among Nikon DSLRs made it a tantalizing camera.
Could this be my digital, go anywhere, shoot-in-the-street body?
Well, it comes close, but a few design choices keep it from being that perfect camera – as always.
- Viewfinder. While slightly larger than the D70’s it’s not a substantial improvement. Brightness doesn’t seem to have changed, and I still have to scrunch my forehead against my glasses to take in the frame and LED readout. The three large, etched-in AF points clutter the frame, and are a nuisance; after using the D300’s on-demand AF point visibility, nothing else will do.
This was my biggest disappointment with the D40.
- Button design. In general the D40’s buttons are a real step up over the D70’s. Most are larger and flatter, giving you a bigger pressing surface. They’re still low-profile though, making them hard to use while gloved. Amidst this general improvement the flash and custom function buttons are the odd men out, reminding me strongly of shrunken nipples. While the other buttons are large and flat, these are small and ball-bearing-like; where the others are low-profile, these remind me of little beads. I only wish the designers had combined the best of both…
- AE-L/AF-L button. It’s too small and suffers from a ball-bearing profile. This, combined with a poor feel will make repeated use annoying. Since I use mine as an AF-ON button, I care deeply about its placement and design.
- Command dial. I’m almost exclusively an aperture priority guy, so I’ve set my D70’s rear dial to adjust EV without simultaneously pressing the EV compensation button. Less finger gymnastics means far less hand strain for me, and adjustments are now a faster, easier process. With only a single command dial, the D40 drops this option. I can only imagine the confusion it would have caused users when coupled with the full manual mode – oy vey!
Now although I understand why the setting was dropped, it’s still a disappointment. After all, I’ve gravitated to this setup after years of use, and am very happy with it.
- Changing ISOs. The D40 may have an accessible custom function button, but lacking an in-viewfinder ISO display, changes still require lowering the camera and using the rear LCD. Since you lose your framing this isn’t a major improvement over the D70. Well, at least I don’t have to shift my grip…
- Form factor. There’s no doubt that the D40 is more compact than the D70. What’s impressive however, is how well it handles despite the reduction in real-estate. Buttons are well-laid out, dials are easily accessible and responsive, and excessive overloading is avoided. I still prefer the Olympus E-410’s physical design – it’s more compact, lighter and less obtrusive than the D40. Unfortunately the E-410 suffers from a surprisingly busy and unfriendly button layout, making it harder to use than the D40. I’d really like to see a design that marries the best from these two approaches…
As one of Nikon’s biggest sellers, it’s obvious that my gripes with the D40/D40x duo aren’t shared by most buyers. But if I’m going to shell out hundreds of dollars for a camera, I want it to be a major improvement on all fronts – a step forward, not laterally. For all its charms, at best the D40 would have been a lateral move. I’d have purchased it for size and high ISO output, swallowing my reservations on a number of other factors – so I passed.
Niggles yes, but in the end enough that it’s not quite the tool I was looking for.