Nikon Digital SLR Camera Guide: D40 D40x D60 D80 D300 D3 Compared

When choosing a Nikon digital SLR, buyers should concentrate on lens compatibility and other features instead of image quality.

All Nikon DSLRs can produce quality images. For example, outdoor photographer Ken Rockwell says that he uses the entry-level D40 more than his other Nikons.

Entry-level Consumer DX Format (D40, D40x, D60)

AFI and AFS autofocus only, no AF autofocus.

DX format image sensors are 24mm x 16mm in size. This gives the infamous 1.5x crop factor for lens focal lengths, because 24mm x 16mm is smaller than the standard 36mm x 24mm negative film size.

Cameras such as the D40, D40x, D60 can deliver professional-quality images; but lack full AF lens compatibility.

AF lenses can still be used but as manual focus lenses (manually turning the lens focus ring guided by the turn left/right indicators in the viewfinder).

Advanced Consumer DX Format (D80)

AFI, AFS and AF autofocus.

Older Nikon AF autofocus lenses (old design not old lens – new ones are still being made by Nikon) require a focus drive motor in the camera to turn and focus the lens. Newer AFI and AFS autofocus lenses have the motor built into the lens.

Many of Nikon’s shorter focal length large-aperture prime lenses (50mm f1.4, 85mm f1.4, 105mm f2, 135mm f2) are not available in AFI or AFS (yet, if ever).

If any of the above is required, the D80 is the cheapest camera that will do the job with AF autofocus support.

Professional DX Format (D300)

AFI, AFS, AF autofocus plus AI manual focus support.

Auto Indexing (AI) manual focus lenses are still used by today’s professionals. Some, like the 35mm f1.4 or 500mm f8 mirror lens have no autofocus equivalent.

Exposure metering with manual focus lenses is difficult with the D80 and other consumer level cameras (no AI electro-mechanical sensor).

Nikon cameras aimed at professionals, such as the D300, include full compatibility (AI exposure metering) with Nikon’s extensive range of AI manual focus lenses.

The D300 also includes professional features such as

  • Tougher body, able to stand up to heavy daily use
  • Weatherproofing (not waterproof, only splash proof)
  • Higher frame rate (photos per second)

Professional FX Format (D3)

AFI, AFS, AF autofocus plus AI manual focus support.

The FX format image sensor is a full-frame sensor. This means that unlike the smaller DX, it is the same size as 35mm film (36mm x 24mm). There is no 1.5x crop factor.

The only FX format Nikon camera is the D3. The main advantage is better high-ISO noise performance. This can be crucial in low-light situations.

The D3 also has reduced chromatic aberration, supports memory card redundancy (RAID 1) and other advanced features.

Diminishing Returns

Each step up in the Nikon range of digital bodies represents diminishing returns, resulting in a higher price/performance ratio (and weight).

It is better to spend less on the camera, and more on lenses or a second body.

  • Photos taken with different Nikon cameras are difficult to tell apart. However a photo taken with a 50mm f1.4 looks very different from one taken with a 18-55mm zoom.
  • Changing lenses is slow and troublesome. Two bodies means that a second lens will be used more often.

Example two-camera configurations:

  • Standard zoom for general coverage, 50mm f1.4 for portraits
  • Standard zoom for general coverage, 12-24mm f4 wide angle zoom
  • 20mm f1.8 (from Sigma, Nikon only has an f2.8 20mm) for available-light general coverage (no flash), 50mm f1.4 for portraits.