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The D40 is the smallest and lightest Nikon DSLR ever. It has exactly the same technical image quality of the D70s and D50, but with a lot less weight and a much better screen which means a lot more fun.
I prefer my D40 over my D70 and the D50. I grab my D40 instead of grabbing my D70 every time. Heck, The D40 is so much fun and so light I rarely grab my D80 or D200 either, unless I'm doing something really serious. I'd suggest getting a D40.
The D40/D50/D70 all have exactly same technical picture quality, and any differences in frame rates are only detectable with a stopwatch.
I prefer my D40 over my D70 (and likewise the D70s and D50) because:
1.) My D40 has the best, biggest, brightest LCD of any of these. I don't know about you, but I check my LCD all the time, and the ability to see what I'm doing has a huge impact on my ability to make great photos. The D70 and D50 have smaller, dimmer screens.
2.) The D40 has an excellent secret RGB color histogram. I use this color histogram to check my precise exposure almost for every shot. The D70 and D50 only have less-than-useless single histograms, useful only for B/W and dangerously misleading in color.
I can get to the hidden color histogram of the D40 more easily than the useless single (yellow) histogram by pressing the OK button a few times when an image is displayed! Nikon couldn't have done it better if they tried - they effectively dedicated a button to the critical RGB histogram!
3.) My D40 lets me turn off the majority of menu items I don't use, so each menu is now only one page of relevant adjustments. This makes my every other Nikon seem primitive by comparison, with menus littered with things I only set once when I buy a camera. (The D40 still makes it easy to get to these when you want.)
4.) The D40 allows white-balance fine tuning as does the D70. The D50 doesn't allow this, which is my biggest complaint with the D50 and why I never bought one (as well as the fact that I already had a D70). Most people wouldn't care.
5.) ISO 3,200 is only available in the D40.
You're going to get the 18-55mm with the D40, which is great because it's a great lens. It ought to be all most people ever need. If you want a tele lens, try the new inexpensive and lightweight 55-200mm VR. It's perfectly matched to the D40.
I love my 18-200mm VR, but it costs three or four times as much as the 55-200mm VR. The biggest reason to get the 18-200mm VR instead of the 55-200mm VR is not to have to swap lenses to get from one end of the range to the other, or to have instant manual focus override. Optically they ought to be the same and the 18-200mm VR weighs more than either of the others. Any of these are great choices.
Want more details? See my humongous Nikon Lens Recommendations section.
Easy: I bought the D40. I prefer it, and it costs $200 less. See my D40x review.
Which Camera: D40 or D70s or D50?
These issues are why I prefer my D40 over my D70 and the D50. These issues below are less important to me; they may or may not be to you:
Lenses: The D40 only autofocuses with the latest AF-S lenses. If you already own or intend to use older-style AF lenses, like the perfectly good 70-300mm G, get a D50 instead. The D50 and D70 use any AF lens perfectly, while the D40 makes you focus the older lenses by hand. My favorite Nikon 18-200mm and 12-24mm are AF-S and work perfectly.
If you have the right lenses, I'd get the D40 over the others. Even if you have older lenses, the kit 18-55mm II lens of the D40 is superb all by itself. Worst case, you'll need to blow $550 on the brand new and much better Nikon 70-300mm AF-S VR instead of the cheap 70-300mm G. That's probably doing yourself a favor anyway.
I own dozens of lenses. Only several of them autofocus with my D40. I still prefer the D40 over the D70 and D50, since the lenses I actually use are the ones that focus, and the ones that don't focus, like my 10.5mm fisheye and 105mm macro, I usually focus manually anyway.
The D40 comes with my favorite midrange zoom as a kit, whether you want it or not, so chuck your old 28-85mm if you were planning to use it. The included 18-55mm is much better. You may not really need your old AF lenses after you get a D40, especially if you're getting the Nikon 18-200mm which obsoletes all the other lenses anyway.
Wireless Remote Flash Control: They all have the same great flash and flash exposure control. Only the D70 offers free internal wireless remote flash control. I love this feature as you can see on the page to which I just linked, but not as much as the better LCD and color histogram.
Viewfinder Grid: Only in D70. I use my grids on every camera, but still prefer the D40.
Five vs. Three AF Points: So what? I usually only use the center, or sometimes the sides. I've not missed the upper and lower AF points.
Depth-of-Field Preview: I think I'm the only one who still uses this. It's not on the D40.
Exposure: All cameras are different. The D50 and D70 are straight-shooters and give great exposures as set.The D40 tends to overexpose, so I leave it set to -0.7 exposure compensation.
If the light gets contrasty the D50 and D70 aim for the highlights, which leads less-experianced photographers think they underexpose. The D40 has the same meter as the D80, which means it's very different and exposes for the shadows and will overexposure in contrasty light. Even in awful backlight the D40 won't let anything go black.
All cameras will require different compensation in different kinds of light. Learn your camera and look at the LCD.
Exposure Bracketing: I never use this, and no one should. A holdover from the film days, I think it's finally been removed from the D40, hallelujah! Come on people, God gave you a big LCD: use it. Even in film days, Ansel thought bracketing was a crutch for the inept that usually ensures you get the wrong exposure on the one frame with the right gesture.
Use as a Backup Camera: Be careful using the D40 for backup since it takes a completely different battery than the standard battery used by the D50, D70, D80, D100 and D200. For tripod-based photographers I prefer my D200. Stick a 2GB card in it and don't worry that it doesn't take the old CF cards.
The D40 relaxing on a peaceful desk in Japan.
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