Nikon D40 Digital SLR Camera

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I am not a professional photographer, nor am I a devoted hobbyist, but I do like to take good pictures. Digital SLR cameras resemble older single lens reflex film cameras in form and function but don't mind if you shoot mostly in "auto," that is to say, "idiot" mode, so I like them a lot.

I have always been partial to Nikon's DSLRs. This summer, when I studied the market, the Nikons shot better than Olympus' E-Volt line, and were priced comfortably below the equally good Canon Digital Rebel. Nikon's big news this year was the D80, a bit too high-end for beginners. But now the company is addressing beginners directly with the introduction of the $600 D40. The question on the minds of holiday shoppers: how does the new D40 compare to Nikon's current great deal, the D50?

Both are 6-megapixel cameras that shoot a speedy two and a half frames per second, and use only SD memory cards. Both come with lenses (for $100 more, the D50 also comes with an 18-55mm starter zoom lens). Both are compatible with many of Nikon's pricier pro lenses as well. The D50 has two LCD screens. One is a two-inch, 130,000-pixel, color display for reviewing shots and viewing menu options. The other is a little always-on monochrome display that shares quick facts, like your flash setting or the number of shots remaining on your memory card. The D40 has just one LCD, a larger 2.5-inch, 230,000-pixel screen. For a seasoned shooter, the D50's extra screen is a benefit, because it means he or she can make on-the-fly adjustments without firing up the bright main LCD. The fact that the D40 doesn't have the extra screen is just the first indication that it really is geared toward novices, far more than its predecessor.

The D40 is a teacher. One of its most fascinating attributes is the Info screen, which appears at the touch of a button, appropriately marked "Info." The screen contains all sorts of data, mostly photographic mumbo jumbo. But the screen also has a visual representation of that mumbo jumbo, so you can figure out what it means. For instance, as the number next to the letter "F" goes up, the image of the camera's aperture gets tighter. It doesn't take long to sort out, then, that the higher the "f-stop," the more closed the camera's aperture. Beginners will appreciate the fact that the D40 has a knob of preset modes, not just my favorite "auto" mode but "portrait," "sports" and more. What's cool is that, when you change modes, the screen shows the changed settings. Little by little, the notions will start to sink in: what the camera is trying to do to shoot action, what it needs to take a portrait at night, etc.

The D40 is also an editor. Once, I was shooting at a high-school graduation, and I realized halfway through that a setting was making my pictures too dim. When I got home, I had to adjust them in Photoshop Elements. If I make the same blunder on the D40, I could lighten up the shots right on the camera, which saves the edited image as a separate file, in case you don't like the fix. This is helpful not just when you're clumsy, as I was, but when you say, shoot in low light and want to edit out the yellowish cast that always appears, or if you shoot something wide and think it would look better cropped.

To top it all off, the D40 is smaller than the other Nikons. There's still no chance you'll be able to stick it in your pocket, removable zoom lens or not, but it isn't as much bulk when you're on safari. Shooting wise, I would not be able to tell the difference between it and the D50. The only downside is, once the D40 has revealed to you the secrets of photography and made you a master shutterbug, you might wish you had that little second LCD screen for quick aperture and shutter-speed adjustments.