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40 Reasons why you don’t need 18mp
In February 2010, Canon released the EOS 550D with an 18 megapixel sensor, HD video and a $900 price tag. Will Canon tell the folks lining up to buy this camera how much extra work it will add to their simple lives? And how much pain it will bring to their photo hobby? Not likely.
The Nikon D40 was released late in 2006 and remained on the market until late 2009. Three years in production is a long time in the land of digital, where 18 months is about the average life of a camera body. What was so special about the D40? For once, there’s a simple answer: the D40 set a new standard for entry-level DSLRs in terms of size, cost, build quality and performance.
In a nutshell, the D40 was affordable, weighs less than 500g and can make great photos. Build quality is better than you’d expect from an all-plastic body and a dinky 18-55mm kit lens – after two years and 50,000 shutter actuations, there isn’t a scratch on my D40’s body or the LCD, and everything still works with crisp enthusiasm.
D40, D59, D80 size comparison. Photo courtesy of Thom Hogan http://www.bythom.com/D40REVIEW.htm
I bought the D40 when it was already obsolete, just after the D60 was released. The speeds and feeds were never much to drool over and now look decidedly crude:
The D40 achieves its compact size by doing away with the focusing motor that graced the D50, D70 and D80 (and graces the current D90). That means you’re limited to lenses in Nikon’s AF-S and Sigma’s HSM line if you want auto-focus. If you don’t mind doing everything yourself, as we used to a few decades back, you can mount any Nikkor lens on the D40.
The more recent AF Nikkor lenses will meter okay and give you a focus dot in the bottom left of the viewfinder. There’s no anti-shake (Vibration Reduction) technology in the body either, but Nikon has been building VR into most of its lenses for years. Even the cheap 18-55 and 55-200 kit lenses have VR, and they’re the lenses you’ll use most of the time. Yes, they’re cheap and they look it and feel it but Nikon is good at making great lenses at the plasticky bottom end of the price scale. The new 35mm f/1.8 prime follows that tradition.
If you want to go beyond 200mm, there’s a cheap 70-300 option without VR or a more pricey AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor ED 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF option. There’s a Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 DG APO Macro, which is less than $300, auto-focuses on the D40 and is as sharp as a tack but has no VR.
The D40 body has very few buttons and knobs to confuse the unwary, and it does without the small LCD that sits atop older and bigger Nikons. The dial that takes the LCD’s place has the usual MASP modes, plus Auto and a few scene modes I never use.
The main screen gives you all the settings you’re most likely to need in a single window you can navigate and dig into. Nikon is well-known for its standard-setting ergonomics, and deservedly so. The rest of the menus are almost as easy to get around. You can check them in detail here.
This is one of those rare pieces of equipment where everything just falls to hand, and nothing gets in the way. Intuitive is the word that comes to mind – taking photos is point & shoot easy but a hell of lot quicker. You turn the D40 on and it’s on, bang, just like that. You focus, press the button and it shoots. And it’s ready to shoot again. Even when you’re using flash, there’s little of the frustrating lag you get with digicams.
The D40 is always ready to catch the action with kids, pets or sports. Continuous shooting is only 2.5 frames a second but, if you’re shooting JPEGs, the D40 will keep going until the battery runs out. It helps to use a fast flash card, of course. I’ve never come near filling up the 4GB card I use, even shooting RAW + JPEG, and the battery is good for about 500 shots.
The Nikon D40 is all about light and easy, so it comes as a surprise that it’s one of the few DSLRs on the market that supports flash synch speeds of up to 1/500 sec. Why is this important, you ask. One answer is that you need to shoot at 1/500 or faster to freeze action so, if you want to shoot your kids doing crazy things, faster is better. What if the sun’s bright enough for 1/500 without flash? The problem is that you’ll get harsh contrasts, that’s why you see a flash atop every wedding photographers’ camera. ‘Fill flash’ softens harsh sunlight and is essential when you’re shooting against the sun.
The other reason why 1/500 synch speed is useful is that faster synch speeds let you shoot at larger apertures, which gives you more depth-of-field potential, requires less flash power, lets your flash recycle faster and lets you shoot more frames per second.
Larger apertures also let in more light from the flash which allows you to get further away from the subject. For a two stop increase (from 1/125 to 1/500 for example) you effectively double your maximum flash range. It also means you can make do with a cheaper flash unit, like the compact $150 Nikon SB-400. Read more about it here.
With the D40, even the image files are easy to handle: JPEGs are about 2-3mb and RAW files tend to be around 5. RAW + JPEG is a practical option with the D40, and the combined file size is just under 6mb. That’s one third the size of the Canon EOS 550D’s 18mp files.
The sensor in the D40 is the same 6mp CCD Nikon used in the D50 and D70s. Less than 6 months after the D40’s release, Nikon announced the D40x which borrowed the 10mp sensor from the D80. The reason? Competitors were pushing up the pixel ratings on their cameras, making buyers think 6mp wasn’t nearly enough. That’s rubbish. At 100%, a full size JPEG from the D40 is almost 90 cm wide, much too wide for my 24” screen.
The textbooks say that the D40’s 3008 x 2000 pixel images will let you print up to 30 x 20 cm (12 x 8”). Don’t believe any of it – I have a number of 75 x 50 cm prints from the D40, and they don’t lack detail. If you don’t believe me, different megapixel prints are put to a very public test here.
Resolution (pixel count) by itself doesn’t equate to sharpness. Image sharpness is more to do with the lens you’re using, your shooting technique, and how steady your hand or tripod is. Image quality overall has a lot do with the sensor in your camera.
DxO labs publishes ratings for digital camera sensors using DxOMark, a new scale for measuring RAW digital camera image quality performance.
Let’s come back to the Canon 550D we started with, and do some comparisons:
Comparing the Nikon D40 with the Canon 550D shows us that, no matter how huge the gap in specs, the actual difference is remarkably small. In terms of colour depth and dynamic range, there not much in it but the Canon’s low-light performance is clearly a step ahead of the D40.
When we compare the D40 to Canon’s 15mp Powershot G10 (last year’s pocket wunderkind), we see that the biggest gain in image quality is seen when going from a digicam to a DSLR.
DxOMark Sensor 37.8 46.5
Colour Depth 19.5 20.2
Dynamic Range 10 11
Low-light ISO 157 185
I copied the DxOMark for the G11/S90 to show that Canon saw the light on megapixels with its digicams late last year, settling for 10mp sensors in the G11 and S90. Why Canon’s DSLR division hasn’t done the same is puzzling.
It uses the sensor from the older D50/D70s, while the D40x uses the D80’s 10mp sensor. The D5000 uses the new generation sensor from the D90. The improvement is less to do with the 12 megapixels and more with Nikon getting better at sensor design and image processing.
I’ve used a friend’s D90 and it does produce more detailed images, and cleaner ones in low light situations. It also has three times as many settings to waste time with because 98% of them are just techno-clutter (the user manual is several hundred pages long). If only they’d make a version of this sensor with 6 or 8mp – it’s low-light performance should rival that of a D700.
Live view is as yet a clunky affair on DSLRs but I admit that there are situations where I’d like the flip-out viewfinder from the D5000. Video? It holds no interest for me, and Thom Hogan calls Nikon’s DSLR video ‘toy video’. Canon is probably ahead on that score.
I might buy a Nikon D90/D5000 for the sensor, not for the extra pixels. All the files are twice as big, and your PC will be slow to open the RAW files. Imagine what happens with 18 megapixels: your PCs knees will buckle unless you have a serious graphics processor in it. Remember, the ability to record quality RAW files is one of the key reasons for lugging a DSLR around.
The Canon’s RAW files will be around 25mb in size, and bigger if you shoot RAW and JPEG like most of us. Suddenly your PC is too slow, your flash card too small, your back-up drive too cramped and backups take forever. Unless you have a hot-shoe 4-cpu rig with a potent graphics card, editing RAW files will be painful. And what can you actually do with those extra pixels and those huge files? Print wallpaper for your lounge room? My bet is you’ll soon choose medium or small JPEG files on the shooting menu.
Small is beautiful. The D40 is light, easy and quick to start, focus and shoot. You can chuck it into the back seat of your car and it doesn’t mind. It has all the essentials except for DOF preview and a motor drive for older lenses, and it has very few features you don’t need. You can buy a refurbished one with kit lens for <$400. What more can you ask for? Check the photos galleries in my blog, and you’ll see why I love my D40.
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