Review: Nikon's D40 is a tiny DSLR camera that grows with you

Just the other week my cousin turned 11 and, feeling obligated, I decided to go to his party. My companion: Nikon's D40 digital SLR (DSLR) camera, ready to capture the festivities in captured 6.1-megapixel moments. Slinging the Nikon over my shoulder, I headed out the door.

First things first: Upon arriving at my Aunt's house in Goshen, I set the camera to Auto. Because I was inside with the ISO set to 200, the built-in flash popped up when I hit the shutter release. Shots of my cousin came out very vibrant and the built-in flash did an excellent job of rounding out his face, as well as nicely lighting the room.

After dessert, everyone packed into the living room for a group portrait. Since everyone needed to be in the photo, including yours truly, I panicked, as I didn't know how to set the timer yet. But we were underway within a minute, thanks to ingenious design. Read all about it after the jump.

You see, in addition to embedding the timer in a menu, Nikon has conveniently placed a function button (which comes programmed as a 10-second timer, and can be reprogrammed) on the body of the camera. Using only the built-in flash in a dim room, the group shots turned out fully lit from about 20 feet away — though a bit flat, as one might expect from this setup.

Let's See What this Baby Can Do
The D40's 6-megapixel sensor will be more than enough for most amateurs, and quite a few professionals. I find that when shooting RAW (actually NEF), the image size is generous, without getting unwieldy. Remember: these files will find their way onto your computer eventually, so be sure to utilize the camera's trash button to delete unwanted images while they're still in the camera.

The ISO range is also generous, ranging from 200 to HI 1 (a 3200 equivalent). Those familiar with film will already know that using high ISOs will produce results with exaggerated grain. The same is true here. In fact, any photos shot using HI 1 will look like you took them with a crappy cameraphone, so my suggestion would be to keep your distance.

One of the D40's best features is the continuous shooting mode (JPEG only). If you come across something bright and lively like an impromptu parade, switch the camera over to continuous shooting, hold the release down and I'm willing to wager that you'll get at least one image you like. Unfortunately, this feature doesn't work in tandem with a flash. In that case, you'll have to resort to old-fashioned clicking.

A Shot in the Dark
The built-in flash on the D40 is great for close-ups. However, it lacks the flexibility and power of an external flash. The ever-popular Nikon D70 has a special feature, in which the built-in flash can be used as a master flash to wirelessly trigger an external flash. The D40 instruction booklet, however, danced around this subject, so I crossed my fingers and went to the local camera shop to find out some answers and possibly make a purchase.

Unfortunately, the D40 doesn't share the D70's flash hierarchy. To trigger an external flash (such as the SB-600), you'll need to purchase either a cord to connect the flash to the hot shoe, or the SB-800 (a second, more expensive flash) to act as the master flash. I opted for the first (and cheaper) option, and spent around $300. It was definitely worth the expense, as the external flash greatly increases my versatility as a photographer. Still, it would be so much cooler if I didn't have to use a cord!

At the End of the Day…
After expecting the world from the Nikon D40 and realizing that I'll eventually want to graduate to a more professional camera body, I still have to say that this camera is at the top of its class. Even if the D40 doesn't seem like your cup of tea, I'm positive that you can think of at least one budding photographer that it would be perfect for. This is truly a camera and a system you can grow with. Jeez, at $600 for a DSLR with a lens, the price is certainly right.