Guided Tour #10: Nikon D40

Take the tour and master the camera!

A look under a popular entry-level DSLR's hood.

What's a Guided Tour?
Welcome to the latest in the Guided Tour series, an Adorama exclusive, where we take you on in-depth looks at today's most popular cameras. We explain all of the buttons, modes, and special functions of specific cameras in detail, and offer hints and tips and photos to help you really get to know this camera.

You can read Guided Tours...
...before you buy. The more you know about the abilities of a camera, the better equipped you are to make a buying decision. Our Guided Tours offer extensive information.
...after you buy. You've invested in the camera; now you want to learn everything there is to know about it so you can take advantage of all of its capabilities.

How to read a Guided Tour:
If you just want to turn on the camera and start shooting, go to the "Basic features" section.If want to explore other features in depth, read the "Advanced Operations" section. This is where you can unlock your camera's deepest levels of control.

Now, on with the tour!

Nikon D40 at a glance

Front: Nikon D40 with flash up and Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6GII ED DX standard zoom lens.

Back: with tasty 2.5-inch LCD monitor

Top: Camera's top dial and buttons access key features.

Key features

  • 6 megapixel sensor
  • 17 Custom settings
  • In-camera image editing
  • Image optimization controls

User profile

  • Enthusiast moving up from compact to first digital SLR
  • Nikon DSLR user needing additional body
  • Someone who already owns Nikon-mount lenses


  • Lots of features for advanced photographers
  • Extensive in-camera image control
  • Easy-to-understand menu, good owner's manual
  • Compatible with most Nikon lenses going back to early '60s
  • Great price
  • 2.5-inch LCD monitor


  • Plastic body not sited for heavy use
  • No PC flash connection
  • Lacks built-in Vibration Reduction

March 6, 2007: NEWS FLASH! D40x introduced with 10MP sensor!

Field report:

The Nikon D40 is designed primarily for first-time DSLR users, although anyone familiar with the D80 or D200 will recognize many of its innovative features; it's a reasonable back-up body for its more advanced siblings. Like the D80, the D40 has an explanatory menu system so if you're at a loss, pressing the second button from the bottom on the left side of the camera back will bring up a description of whatever mode or setting you're in. That's really nice for someone who is learning.

The camera is very light and focusing is fairly quiet and responsive. Low-light performance was very good, and the image quality is remarkable even at ISO 1600. Matrix metering really works as advertised: it's able to handle tricky lighting situations with aplomb. I felt very little need to switch to center-weighted or spot metering when using this camera. The monitor is bright and easy on the eyes, although it is somewhat squinty in sunlight.

What, besides several hundred dollars, is the difference between the D40 and D80? First is construction. The D40 is mostly plastic. Gone are the rubberized surfaces and metal lensmount, and the grey LCD monitor is also missing (the information is now visible on the main 2.5-inch LCD, but it's a button-push away instead of always on when the camera is on). Custom settings are trimmed from 32 to 17, and most importantly, the sensor is 6.1MP instead of 10.

However, the D80 when it came out was praised for its extensive image control and unique onboard image-editing capabilities, all of which was passed on to the D40. So while it's somewhat stripped down, it's unlikely that this camera's intended audience--snapshooters and enthusiasts who are just getting their feet wet in the DSLR world--will miss what's been taken out to make the D40 so affordable. And of course, they'll gain entree into the Nikon legend.

Basic Features

Surface controls

Let's start with the top plate.

Most of the controls you'll be using are clustered around the Mode Dial, on the right side of the top of the camera. There are no controls on the left side. The dial is divided between Point-And-Shoot Modes and Advanced Modes. The modes, going clockwise:

Advanced Modes

Auto (green mode): If you want the camera to make all the exposure and focus choices, set it to Auto Pict and flip the MF/AF switch (on the camera to the left of the lensmount) to AF, and shoot away.

There are the standard settings: P (program auto), S (shutter priority), A (aperture priority autoexposure), and M (manual exposure).

P: Program mode lets you adjust either the shutter speed (front dial) or aperture (front dial plus "+/-" button), and the camera compensates automatically for any changes.

S: Shutter Priority Auto exposure. Change the shutter speed by twirling the front dial. Shutter speed is shwon on the upper right of the LCD. Look in the viewfinder: a straight vertical line should appear in the middle of the exposure indicator. If it's not there, it's either too dark or light to shoot.

Tip: Use S mode when capturing action or showing a sense of motion is more important than controlling focus depth.

A: Aperture Priority Auto exposure. Change the aperture by twirling the thumb dial located on the upper right of the camera back, while simultaneously pressing the "+/-" button, as shown here. The camera will automatically set shutter speeds to get accurate exposure. You can see the aperture setting on the upper right of the LCD screen when in info mode. Look in the viewfinder: a straight vertical line should appear in the middle of the exposure indicator. If it's not there, it's either too dark or light to shoot.

Tip: Use A mode to quickly control focus and/or shutter speed when in fast-changing shooting situations.

M: Manual exposure. For those of us weaned on manual SLRs, this function should feel familiar. Turn the thumb wheel to control shutter speed, and the front wheel to adjust aperture. If you're using an older lens with an aperture ring, turn the aperture ring to "P" and adjust aperture from the front wheel on the camera.

Note: You can also view exposure settings by looking through viewfinder. The information will appear below the image.

Point-and-Shoot Modes

Night portrait balances flash with ambient light when taken in dark rooms or outdoors at night.

Tip: Use a tripod or other support to keep the camera steady in this mode, since exposures for ambient light may be too long for a hand-held exposure.

Macro chooses the ideal shutter speed and aperture for close-up photography using macro lenses. It will likely select a wide aperture so the background is out of focus.

Sports chooses a faster shutter speed to capture active subjects. Note that the three frames-per-second burst rate works great in JPEG, but pauses after five shots when shooting in NEF (RAW) format.

Tip: You can also use this mode when shooting with telephoto or tele-zoom lenses, since the faster shutter speed will reduce camera shake, which a long lens magnifies.

Child is designed for better snapshots of children. The camera chooses the best settings for accurate skintones while setting the camera so colors are bright and contrasty.

Landscape selects a smaller aperture for greater depth of field--a desired setting for shooting scenics. The use of a wide-angle and wide zoom lens can further increase depth of field.

Portrait chooses the right exposure combination and makes adjustments to saturation, color balance, and contrast, for more flattering portraits.

Flash Off disables the auto flash--a useful feature in places where flashes are prohibited, such as museums and the theater.

Tip: When the flash is off, if possible use a tripod or brace yourself against a wall when shooting to reduce camera shake in low light. As a last resort, boost the ISO setting, but remember that you may find the increased grain in photos shot at high ISOs to be distracting.

Sitting atop the reflex mirror finder is the flash hot shoe, a standard dedicated shoe that accepts Nikon-dedicated camera-mounted and macro/ringlight flashes.

Press the Info button, located right behind the shutter release button, and the LCD monitor will display all current exposure and focus settings. It will also provide you with battery charge, number of pictures left on the memory card, and exposure warnings.

Exposure compensation adjusts image brightness when in any mode except manual. Press it and adjust exposure with the thumb dial. In Manual mode, press this button while turning the thumbwheel control to adjust aperture.

Back of camera controls

Now let's look at the back of the camera, starting with the thumb-controlled dial on the upper right. Called the Main Command dial, this dial controls the shutter speed when the camera's in Manual exposure mode, and can be used to scroll through menus in menu mode.

Just to the left of the Main Command Dial is the AE-L/AF-L button, which locks in both exposure and focus when pressed. This is useful when the camera is set for spot metering and center autofocus sensor only, and is best for capturing off-center subjects in tricky lighting. Point at your subject, press the shutter release halfway down, hit the AE/AF-L to lock it in, recompose and shoot.

The Diopter is located on the upper right corner of the rubberized eyepiece cover, and can be adjusted to bring the image in focus.

Below that is a four-way toggle switch called the Multi-Selector. Use it to navigate through the menus and photos (push right or left), and to control how information related to a photo is displayed during playback mode (up and down). The OK button in the center of the Multi-Selector switch finalizes selections made in menu and other modes.

The Trash button deletes unwanted images; it's also used with the Metering Mode button to format SD cards.

Info screens offer (from top row): Basic info; two meta data screens with extended info; black indicating overexposed highlights; and a histogram.

Now let's look at the four controls to the left of the LCD finder.

Image preview calls up pictures on the SD card. Use the Multi-Selector's right-left buttons or thumb dial to scroll through the pictures, and the up-down buttons or front dial to change the information that appears with the picture.

The information screens accompanying image previews include Basic mode; includes file name, lens, file type, image size, and date and time of exposure. Using the up/down multi-selector controls you can change the information that appears with the images. Detailed mode shows all of the EXIF data associated with an image, including: metering, aperture, shutter speed, exposure mode and compesnation, focal length, flash, ISO, and several other criteria--18 in all. Highlight mode, which shows no exposure information but flashes black in extremely overexposed areas of the image; and Histogram mode, which shows both overall and RGB histograms accompanying the image.

Tip: Don't rely on how the exposure looks on the LCD monitor--use the Histogram mode to make sure exposure is accurate. Usually the histogram of an accurate exposure should look like a bell-shaped curve, with the highest point somewhere in the middle of the chart.

Menu accesses over 50 modes and settings, which we'll look at in "Advanced Operations."

Zoom out: Press this button and twirl the thumb dial to change the ISO setting; in image preview, use this button to reduce image size.

The Zoom out button also has another very cool function: no matter which picture-taking mode you're in, press this button and you'll get a brief explanation of how to use the mode you're in. This mini-guide to the perplexed, a Nikon invention dating back to the D70, has been refined and is ideally suited for someone using his or her first DSLR.

Zoom in/? zooms in on an image in preview. But when shooting, it calls up some very interesting screens. At first press, the screen that comes up is identical to that seen when you press the "Info" button described earlier. But press the ? again and a new screen comes up that lets you control and change key settings by moving around the command dial. You can control image quality, white balance, ISO, focus, metering, exposure compensation, and flash exposure compensation when in this screen. These controls change, depending on which shooting mode you're currently in.

Turn the camera so you're looking at its left side. Flip open a hard plastic door and you'll find the USB port for connections to computers and storage devices and a video out port for connecting to and playing images on a TV.

Facing the camera, on the right side, you'll see three controls:

A flash button which pops up the built-in flash and also controls front or rear flash curtain (switch this setting using the thumb dial) and flash exposure compensation (turn the front forefinger dial).

The big button next to the lens is the lens release; the self-timer (fn) button is right above it; press it and the 10-second self-timer indicator will apear in the "i" window. You can customize this button to put your favorite function at your fingertips instead of buried in menus--see custom settings.

Essential gear for the Nikon D40

One of the great advantages of DSLRs is that it's part of a system with lenses, flashes and other accessories; you decide what you need, and your system can grow as you do. Before we get into the D40's more advanced features, let's take a moment to make sure you have everything you need to enhance your experience using this camera.

Lenses: If you bought the kit lens, you may soon grow out of its modest range. Our first recommendation is a tele zoom such as the Sigma 55-200mm f/4-5.6 DC, then a superwide zoom like the Nikon 12-24mm f/4.0 G, and finally, splurge on a good Macro lens such as the classic Nikon 105mm f/2.8G. Fortunately, Nikon and other independent lens makers, such as Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina, makes superb optics for different budgets, giving you plenty of ways to grow as a photographer.

Flash: The onboard flash may put out enough light to illuminate subjects within a few feet, but because it's so close to the lens it can still produce red-eye. You can get more power and less redeye by adding a dedicated TTL flash, such as the Nikon SB-400, SB-600, or SB-800. All three models are fully compatible with the D40.

Misc.: If you like shooting self portraits or want to set up the camera in a location that's not ideal for a person to be standing, you should get the Nikon ML-L3 IR Remote Control. Set your exposure (or keep the camera on Program mode), put it on a tripod, and you're ready to go.

Advanced Operations: Menus and Functions

The Menus are divided into five areas: Playback, Shooting, Custom Setting, Setup, and Retouch. There are over 50 individual menu items. Let's take a closer look.


Delete will remove individual images, or all of them.

Playback Folder will instruct the camera to display only images in the selected folder on the memory card.

Rotate Tall automatically reorients portrait photos. You can turn this off if you want to see these pictures at full size on the 2.5-inch LCD monitor.

Slide Show plays back pictures sequentially automatically. You can add transitions, panning, zoom effects, and background music (which can be heard when playing back directly from the camera through a TV set). You can set for 2, 3, 5 or 10 second intervals.

Print Set works lets you select photographs for printing, including size and quantity, on DPOF-compatible devices or PictBridge Printers.


The Shooting Menu has many key settings, some of which you may change often, depending on your shooting needs.

Optimize Image lets you set the characteristics of your image, based on combinations of sharpness, saturation and contrast settings, kind of like creating your own virtual film:

  • Normal is the default setting, suitable for many subjects (think Kodak Ektachrome).
  • Softer adds a bit of blur to outlines and contrasts.
  • Vivid increases contrast and color saturation (think Kodachrome).
  • More Vivid increases contrast and color saturation even more (think Fuji Velvia).
  • Portrait lowers contrast and chooses neutral color settings (think Kodak Portra).
  • Custom lets you adjust tones as you wish. You can adjust image sharpness and contrast (called "tone compensation") in separate five-step increments, change color mode from the default (sRGB) to AdobeRGB or a move vivid version of sRGB. You can change saturation from auto (the default) to a choice of normal, moderate, or enhanced, or adjust the hue up to 9 degrees in either direction.
  • Black-And-White lets you shoot in Black-and-white.
  • Custom lets you independently adjust different aspects of image capture.

Image sharpening sharpens or softens the image in five steps (normal, and 2 levels of increased or decreased sharpness

Tone compensation adjusts contrast and comes in five steps.

Color mode lets you choose sRGB), AdobeRGB and sRGB color space, which is important if your photos are destined for print. (Otherwise, keep the camera set on the default sRGB setting)

Saturation increases or decreases color saturation and has 3 settings--more saturated, normal, or less saturated.

Hue adjustment lets you change the overall color cast of the image from +9 to -9 degrees. Positive values turn reds more orange, greens more blue, and blues more purple, while negative degrees trn reds more purple, blues more green, and greens more purple. Experiment and see what happens.

Tip: Keep in mind that if you any of the above settings while shooting JPEGs, you can't "undo" them once you've shot the picture. So be cautious, and remember that almost all of these adjustments can also be made after the fact in almost any image-editing program.

Image Quality lets you choose file format and compression ratio. You can choose NEF (Nikon's RAW format) or Fine, Normal or Basic JPEG files, as well as NEF RAW+JPEG.

Tip: Keep in mind that while higher compression may let you shoot more pictures per memory card, the image quality will deteriorate. We suggest shooting at the highest image quality you can handle.

Image Size lets you choose image resolution. The default is 6MB, but you can select 3.3MB or 1.5MB. The Image Quality/size button on the camera, described above, can access this feature faster.

Tip: If you do not expect to make images larger than 4x6, 3.3MB may be sufficient. 1.5MB is not recommended unless you only plan to show your pictures on the Internet. Our advice: again, choose the highest resolution you can handle.

White Balance offers the following settings: Auto, Incandescent Fluorescent, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Cloudy, and Shade. The White Balance Preset option lets you customize your white balance.

Hint: There are two white balance options. You can measure white balance in a scene by shooting a neutral white or grey surface (like an 18 percent grey card) under the shooting light, or base white balance on a photo that's already on the memory card. We prefer the grey card method.

ISO Sensitivity lets you adjust ISO from 100-1600. The "Hi modes boost ISO even farther--0.3 increases speed to ISO 2000; 0.7 is 2500; and 1 brings the ISO up to 3200.

Tip: When shooting at speeds 800 and higher, use High ISO NR to reduce noise. In the "Hi" settings, that noise will be very noticeable!

Noise Reduction reduces noise during long exposures and when shooting at high ISO settings.


The Custom Setting menu lets you customize the D40 so it will work most efficiently with your shooting needs and habits. Most of these are set-'em-and-forget-'em items.

Note that by default, only the first 10 items will be listed. To see all 17 custom items, go to Setup, select CSM/Setup Menu and select "Full." We recommend making this change immediately so you can see all the possible customizations available.

Reset changes all custom settings to their defaults.

1. Beep controls camera beeps and audio warnings.

2. Focus lets you choose between Auto-Servo AF, Single-Servo AF, Continuous servo AF, and manual focus.

3. AF-Area mode determines how focus area is selected in autofocus mode, similar to the AF button atop the camera. The default is for the camera to focus on the closest subject; Dynamic area is lets the user select the area of focus but if the subject moves out of the scene the camera will auutomatically refocus. Single area lets the users select the focus target area using the multi-selector.

Tip: Use Closest Subject mode for snapshots, portraits and scenics, Dynamic area for sports and action, and single area for static subjects.

Hint: The camera locks focus when you press the shutter release halfway down. So, in Single area focus, focus on your subject with the subject centered, lock focus by pressing the shutter release down halfway, hold it there, recompose and shoot. Try it!

4. Shooting mode lets you choose from single, continuous shooting (burst rate, which is 2.5 frames per second (fps). This burst rate slows to 1 fps if you're in the HI-1 setting. You can also set the self-timer, delayed remote and quick-response remote options.

5. Metering lets you choose from Matrix metering (which compares different areas of the frame and determines exposure based on intelligent analysis of the scene), center-weighted (changes the area of the center of the viewfinder assigned the greatest weight in center-weighted metering) and spot metering (which only meters a small central area of the scene).

Tip: Use Matrix metering for most shots. Center-weighted metering is for things like backlit subjects; use spot metering when there is a huge difference between the light hitting the subject and the rest of the scene (such as a performer in a spotlight).

6. No memory card? By default, the shutter release is locked when there's no memory card in the camera. You can change this...but why?

7. Image review displays photos for a short time right after the image is shot. Custom setting 15 controls how long the image review stays up before automatically turning off.

8. Flash compensation adjusts flash output for the built-in or hot-shoe mounted TTL flash up to -3 or +1, in 1/3-stop increments.

9. AF-assist activates the focus illuminator light in front of the camera, so the camera can focus in very low light.

10. ISO Auto disables auto ISO settings, and only the value you choose with the ISO button will be activated. You can also set maximum ISO sensitivity and minimum shutter speed from this custom menu item.

11. Self-timer/Fn button lets you assign a function other than self-timer to this button. Other possibilities are shooting mode, image quality/size, ISO sensitivity, or white balance.

Tip: You are most likely to change the ISO fairly often and unless you take a lot of self-portraits will rarely need the self-timer. We suggest re-assigning ISO settings to this button so a quick ISO change can be at your fingertips instead of something you can only access by going through the menu.

12. AE-L/AF-L offers 10 ways to lock either autofocus or autoexposure in combination or separately.

13. AE lock will lock exposure when the shutter release is pressed halfway (the camera doesn't by default).

14. Built-in flash lets you change control of the built-in flash from TTL (the default) to manual, and can set output to full power or down to 1/32 power.

15. Auto Off Timers In the custom setting you can set playback and menus to appear for longer or shorter durations, and can set how long as image review and auto-meter stay on when the camera's inactive.

16. Self-Timer lets you change the self timer from the default 10 sec to 2, 5, or 20 seconds.

17. Remote on duration controls how long the camera will wait for a signal from the remote control--1, 5, 10, or 15 minutes.

Tip: Choose a shorter response time to conserve battery power.


The setup menu contains basic settings that you will most likely only need to set once, when you first get the camera.

CSM/Setup menu lets you choose which custom menu items appear. By default the camera will only display the first 10 custom menu items; you will probably want to change this to "full" setting to see all 17 settings. Once you've figured out which custom items you will actually use, you can set the camera to show only those items.

Format memory card permanently deletes all photos and files on the memory card.

Info display format There are three ways to display information on the LCD monitor. First is a standard display that looks like a typical LCD. Then there's a more dimensional graphical display. Finally, you can use an onboard photo or a photo from your memory card as background wallpaper. Your choice.

Auto shooting format is a good thing to turn on if you frequently check exposure information. It keeps the info screen on after pressing the shutter release. The downside? It drains the battery faster.

World time sets the camera's internal clock to local time. You can also set date and date display format.

LCD brightness lets you adjust the monitor's brightness in five steps.

Video mode lets you choose NTSC (USA) or PAL video output device.

Language chooses menu language: English (the default), German, Spanish, Finnish, French, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Portugese, Russian, Swedish, Traditional or simplified Chinese, Japanese, or Korean.

Image comment lets you add a comment when you take a picture. A keyboard appears when you press the "magnify" button and you can select letters using the cursor and OK button to type a message.

USB chooses a USB option to connect to a computer or PictBridge-compatible printer (PTP).

Folders lets you choose, rename, or delete folders using the keyboard area.

File no. sequence: By default, the camera starts numbering at 0001 whenever a new folder is created or the memory card is reformatted. Switching this to "on" means images will be numbered sequentially, even when creating a new folder or the card is reformatted; when the camera reaches 9999, it starts over again at 0001.

Mirror lock-up locks up the mirror so you can inspect or clean the low-pass filter.

Firmware version lets you view the current firmware version. (Check the AIRC News Desk and Archives for the latest firmware udpate.)

Dust off ref photo: This feature maps an image to locate hard-to-remove dust that's on the sensor. Then, using Image Dust Off in Nikon Capture NX software, software will use the image as a reference to locate mapped dust and automatically remove it from images.

Auto image rotation: By default, vertical images are automatically rotated for more convenient viewing. However, they end up smaller to fit the LCD monitor. Turn this off if you prefer rotating the camera and viewing vertical images larger.


The Retouch Menu is a unique Nikon feature. It lets you create retouched copies of images on the memory card. Some of these modes are designed to fix defective photos. Since it's always better to start off with a better quality photo, where it's relevant we'll show you how to avoid the problems the Retouch Menu items fix. (To see examples of the Retouch menu at work, go to our Guided Tour of the Nikon D80 and scroll towards the end.)

D-lighting automatically brightens dark or backlit subjects, and can be used to lighten shadow details.

Tip: Use a fill flash to reduce underexposed shadow areas while still retaining bright highlights.

Red-eye correction automatically detects and fixes red-eye in subjects where the flash is too close to the lens, causing pupils to shine red.

Tip: To avoid red-eye in the first place, use a TTL flash instead of the built-in pop-up flash. The greater the distance between lens and flash, the less likelyhood that red-eye will occur. A separate flash moves the light source away from the lens.

Trim: Zoom in and out on an image, and move left, right, down or up using the multi-selector, then hit OK to save the cropped image.

Monochrome converts in image to black-and-white (as well as Sepia or Cyanotype).

Filter Effects lets you choose the effect of a skylight or warming filter. You can also create a custom color balance, letting you increase or decreaes blue, green or red. You can check the RGB histograms to gauge the effect. This was given a little more red.

Small Picture lets you reduce image size for TV, web, or email sizes.

Image overlay lets you create an "image sandwich" effect by overlaying two images. This feature is only available when both original images were shot in RAW with the D80.

That's it for our guided tour. If you've gotten this far and carefully followed along with your camera, you have mastered your Nikon D40's controls. Now, go out and take lots of great pictures...and if you need some help getting ideas or learning about exposure and composition, be sure to visit the AIRC.

© 2007 Adorama


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