(This post is from an email conversation with a friend of mine who was buying his first DSLR. I thought the content might be useful for others.)
Q: My question is whether I should rather go for the D40 and spend more $$ on lenses?
I am just not sure whether the D5000 would be a lot simpler for a novice like me.
A: I didn’t realize that the price of the D90 had come down. It’s now at $810. So it should be in the running, too.
With respect to the D40, it’s a very good camera. The pros are that it is small, cheap, and light. It also offers 1/500 sec. flash sync, which is really useful for fill lighting in daylight. But it is a three year old camera. (I didn’t even know they were still selling new, as I was looking to pick one up six months ago and they weren’t available. There are two main down sides. Most importantly, the sensor uses older technology and will not be good in low light. Above 640 ISO or so, the pictures will be noticeably noisy, so you will need a flash indoors. And second, it will only work with AFS lenses, the lenses that have the AF motor built in. That’s OK for the 18-200 (and every lens that I regularly use), but there are lots of lenses out there (like most of the cheaper non-zoom fast lenses, e.g., all of the 50mm lenses except the new $460 AF-S version) that will not autofocus with it. So that’s a consideration.
Here are some pictures that I took with my D70, which is a 6MP camera that probably has the same or at least a similar sensor to the one in the D40:
(If you get really bored sometime, here’s my photography site.)
The D5000 has the same AF-S requirement that the D40 has. But it is small and light, and uses a very good recent vintage sensor (12MP), so it will be good to at least 1600 ISO, probably negating the urgent need for a flash.
The reason I would consider the D90 is because it costs just a little more than the D5000, and it is a better camera than the D5000 in most respects. The only thing you lose is that it is bigger. But it also has a good recent sensor (12MP) and will work with all lenses.
I realize I haven’t made the decision any easier.
Overriding principles to keep in mind: The lenses are more important than the body. The photographer is more important than the equipment.
Case in point: We had an event a month ago up in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, where we had some photographers go out in the AM to shoot and then gave them hands-on with our pro photography application, Aperture, that afternoon. The best picture of the day was one taken by a guy using a D1H, which is an old 4MP made in 2001! It was an incredible shot, due not to the body or lens, but the photographer.
Any of the three bodies will take great pictures. If I had $1k to spend, there’s no question that I would buy a D40 and 18-200 used and know I could take great pictures in most settings. You’ll be replacing bodies from now on, but the lenses you buy now will stick with you for decades.
Hope somewhere in there is some helpful info.
Postscript: He bought the D90 and a used 18-200. We’ll see how it turns out!
[Update, 6/30/15 – This post is moved from my old web site and thus all of the links are broken. I’ll update them as soon as the rest of the site is finished.]