Nikon's two latest digital SLRs are pretty exciting. Not just for their features or for the kinds of pictures you can take with them, but for their goals.
- With the D50 ($599, with 27-82mm lens), Nikon challenged itself to produce the least-intimidating SLR possible at the lowest possible cost, without deleting any of the features that elevate this sort of camera above the familiar fixed-lens, point-and-shoot variety.
- And with the D80 ($1,299 with 27-200mm lens, $999 for the body alone), Nikon seemed to be asking just how much professional punch it could put into an SLR and still call it a consumer camera.
Of course, you shouldn't let anyone bamboozle you into thinking that you need an SLR to take great photos. But SLRs have unique features that tend to elevate your game. All of the artificial barriers standing between you and the perfect shot (such as: you can't zoom in close enough; there isn't enough light; you can't shoot fast enough to keep up with the action; it's one of those subtle or complex scenes that confuses the camera's autofocus and autoexposure) are eliminated.
The only barriers you're left with are the genuine ones that make you a better photographer.
If you're looking to make that first transition from point-and-shoot to SLR, the 6-megapixel D40 is the most painless and natural progression. There have been dirt-cheap SLRs before this, but they've usually delivered poor value compared with a comparably priced point-and-shoot.
The D40 is the real deal. It's an extremely compact, lightweight body that nonetheless doesn't feel chintzy in your hands, and offers a range of settings that go far beyond simple aperature and shutter.
You can shoot in the usual JPEG mode or RAW, which captures the maximum information possible -- absolutely essential if you want to have the maximum range of options available when editing later on.
For all that, if you leave it on automatic (or any of its six scene modes) it's as easy to use as any pocket cam. Easier, actually, thanks to an ambitious onboard Help system.
Nikon cut down the price by making only one serious deletion: the autofocus motor is inside the lens, not the camera, which means that most of the Nikon-compatible lenses either on the market or already in your family's closet will focus only manually. Many point-and-shooters won't care; you might just buy one more lens over the life of the cam-era.
But if this made you mutter "Oh, bogus!" -- not to worry. Nikon also has the D80.
For a lifelong amateur photographer like me, the D80 is a true source of joy. I hate to write something that seems destined for a Nikon airport billboard, but that's my honest reaction.
It's so packed with features, including many stolen from Nikon's professional-grade D200 SLR, that it almost amounts to interdepartmental sabotage. Engineers took the D200's big, high-resolution LCD and help system; its 10.2 megapixel imaging chip (albeit a slower version); its rattlesnake-like 11-point autofocus, its bright, all-glass viewfinder prism with the huge field of view.
And this simply must be the most customizable camera in its class.
Over the course of two months, I discovered that if I encountered a feature or a behavior I didn't like, there was a menu option somewhere that allowed me to change it. Not the results. The way the camera actually operates.
This D80 is now perfectly tuned to the way I want to shoot, and the way I want my pictures to look.