Nikon’s D40x D-SLR; A Sibling To The D40, But With Higher Megapixel Count Page 2

The 12-24mm is my kind of lens. At f/4 it's only one stop slower than my preferred f/2.8 max aperture and it has a constant aperture throughout the range. It's got two ED glass elements and three aspherical lens elements, plus lets you get a bit closer than a foot on close focus, a great feature for foreshortening. With an f/22 minimum aperture you can get some real mind-boggling depth of field effects on an exaggerated foreground/background setup. And at f/4 max and a foot focusing you can also get some very pleasing soft focus background effects. In fact, that's the lens I found myself working with most with the D40x.

Another optional accessory that Nikon included in their test kit was the SB-400 flash. Controlled entirely from the camera body, the small flash has not much more than an on/off switch and a hot shoe lock. Nikon claims a GN of 98.4 at ISO 200, and a range of 66 ft. It does have a small bounce head. I am happy to report that this works very well in conjunction with the D40x and I was able to alter effects when using different aperture settings in Manual or AV mode. It did not blast out close-up shots, a problem with most on-board flash units, and has a very low profile. It raises the flash tube to just the right height so redeye is negligible. I thought it extraneous at first because of the built-in flash, as I rarely use the built-in for more than close-ups anyway, but after a while I kept it on the camera all the time. And if you want to use flash for subjects more than 8 ft away the built-in just won't handle the job.

While a bit slow at the long end for my taste, the AF-S Nikkor 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR is a lightweight zoom with Vibration Reduction (VR). Raising the ISO to the 200-400 range is a good idea to help steady the shot without VR at the long end of the range, or you can simply switch on the VR and shoot away with confidence. I shot this detail of palm fronds from about 10 ft away with the zoom at 200mm with an exposure of f/8 at 1/500 sec at ISO 400.
Working with the Optimize Image menu you can get many different effects, including monochrome. You can always achieve this with raw processing as well, but it's fun to shoot and review black and white in the field. You can also do this in camera after the shot in Nikon's exclusive Retouch menu item, but then you only get a JPEG copy (although the original is preserved). This shot was made with the SB-400 and AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm lens at ISO 100; exposure was f/11 at 1/125 sec.

I worked with the D40x on a few trips to locations in the spring, which meant lots of flowers and colorful shots. I shot in the raw+small JPEG format option. It's the only raw+ option available: a 10 megapixel plus D-SLR camera should have more choice in this regard. As the Photoshop Raw plug-in did not incorporate the D40x code as of this writing I worked with Nikon's Capture software on a MacBook Pro. I haven't worked with Capture in a while and although it is not as graphically elegant as Lightroom or Aperture I give it high marks for facility and options available for the NEF file format. Small tabs along the Browser window open up a world of information, and the changes you can make in processing are legion.

One of the matters we'll be exploring in Shutterbug in the next few months is how chip (sensor) size affects image quality, especially as megapixel counts are climbing without a concomitant upping in sensor size. Digital Imaging 101 tells us that the smaller the pixels, the less light sensitive they are, thus the noisier the image in lower light, higher ISOs, and, though this has nothing to do with ISO, long shutter speeds (4 seconds and above). I haven't taken a 4-second exposure in 30 years, so I passed on that test. But I did try out a variety of ISO settings in shade, with the NR filter on and off.

There's no question that noise increases as you go higher in ISO. But how much noise reduction is applied is out of your hands, as the D40x takes complete control over the noise processing at that speed. Greatly enlarged, the difference is apparent at ISO 100 (left) and ISO 1600 (right) in this frame grab from the screen. The differences are exaggerated somewhat by my increasing contrast in this image, but it was applied equally to both ISO screen images.

If you ever kept clicking your finger on the zoom button you know the look of an almost pixelated image showing up on the screen. It's going down into the mosaic to pixel manifestation level. I did this with shots made at various settings: at ISO 100 and even 200 the noise is almost nonexistent, even in details from tightly cropped areas in the image. At ISO 400 I saw the first slight traces of noise, a mottling in the shadow areas, but nothing objectionable. At 800 it becomes more pronounced and it's almost as if the neighboring pixels are repelled from one another; a brown might show up as a two-tone where one value exists at lower ISOs. At 1600 the effect comes on stronger.

This is where you enter noise reduction filter territory. At an ISO above 400 (and I assume this means 401) the camera automatically turns on the noise reduction filter, which "smooths" the noise and yields a slightly softer image. You may or may not like this effect, so you can go into the Menu and turn noise reduction off. However, this only allows you to do so at set speeds of ISO 800, or less. You have no control over the noise reduction process at higher speeds.

The AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G ED was my lens of choice for most of the time I worked with the D40x. At f/22 and 1 ft close focusing it allowed for deep depth of field effects. This shot was exposed at f/22 at 1¼60 sec at ISO 200.

This might bother you, or it might not even be noticeable to you. You certainly do not have control over how much noise reduction is applied, though if you want more or less and shoot raw you can always alter it later in a raw processor. In fact, the Nikon Capture NR processor allows for a balancing of noise and sharpening, and seems quite effective.

So, I can only assume that the images above ISO 800 are pretty darn noisy without in camera processing. This is probably the case with many D-SLRs that take this decision out of your hands. And that increased noise and subsequent automatic processing might be a consequence of packing more pixels on the chip. But the benefit here is that ISO 1600 and even the High ISO, which the D40x instruction books tells us is "equivalent (to) roughly ISO 3200," yield satisfactory, albeit somewhat soft, images. But having tested past Nikon amateur D-SLRs I can also attest to the fact that the noise suppression at very high ISOs has been improved in this model's image processor.

The optional SB-400 flash seemed small at first, but it is raised just enough above the lens to virtually eliminate any redeye effects, has a much greater throw than the built-in, has a bounce (but not side tilt) head, and had an almost uncanny ability to correctly expose close-up images without the usual harsh overexposure. In short, the extra $129 (street) is worth the investment. This extreme close-up was made with the SB-400 and AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm lens. No exposure correction was required for a setup that, in my experience, usually gets blown out.

In assigning this camera the D40 moniker Nikon has basically stated that it carries the same features and functions of its highly successful sibling, albeit with a twist. That twist in the D40x is a 10.2-megapixel chip. Now that we have 12-megapixel digicams (integral lens cameras) battling the megapixel wars, a D-SLR has to be able to compete with no shutter lag, a range of lenses, additional accessory lighting options, and the fit and finish of a higher caliber camera. While the D40x lacks full compatibility with many Nikon lenses, still has no depth of field preview, and lacks multiple raw+JPEG options, it is a fine, lightweight traveling companion that delivers excellent images in the 11x14" to 13x19" print range. This begs the question--is the D40x a bow to the pressures of the megapixel race in a beginner D-SLR body, or is it an advanced amateur D-SLR mainly due to the fact that it now has a 10+ megapixel sensor? The answer from this corner is that it seems a bit of both.

For more information, contact Nikon Inc., 1300 Walt Whitman Rd., Melville, NY 11747; (800) 526-4566; www.nikonusa.com.

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