Camera Test: Nikon D60

This beginner DSLR goes above and beyond.

Nikon hit the bull's-eye with its entry-level 6.1MP Nikon D40 and 10.2MP D40x DSLRs. The low price and high performance of both cameras lured scores of compact-shooters into the Nikon DSLR fold. Now, Nikon is predicting that its latest model, the 10.2MP D60 ($749, street, with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G Vibration Reduction AF-S DX Nikkor lens), will be an even bigger hit.

The D60 looks just like the D40x, it has the same-megapixel sensor, and the two share an autofocus system, LCD monitor, and battery. Is there enough that's new to justify the upgraded moniker?

Yes. But considering the heated competition in this category from Canon, Olympus, Pentax, and Sony, it's too soon to say whether the D60 will become the new entry-level leader. One thing's for sure -- now that Nikon has joined the ranks of shake-beating DSLRs by making the VR lens standard, and priced the kit for less than the D40x body alone, the D60 will be a strong contender.

After running a D60 through our battery of tests in the Pop Photo Lab, we noticed several performance improvements over the D40x. (See our test of the earlier camera). Nikon didn't gut the D40x; instead, it improved it and added new components.

For starters, the D60's new EXPEED processor is a close cousin of the one in the Nikon D300, Popular Photography's 2007 Camera of the Year. According to Nikon, this provides a startup time of only 0.18 sec, more sophisticated image-quality controls (including Active D-Lighting to bring out detail in dark shadows), advanced JPEG compression algorithms, and a speedy 3 frame-per-second continuous burst capability (when used with a fast SDHC card).

HIGHER POWERS

With an Excellent rating on JPEGs from ISO 100 to 1600, the D60's image quality tested slightly better than the D40x's. That's impressive, since the D40x also had Excellent image quality up to ISO 1600.

Both models capture Excellent resolution -- the D60 delivered 2050 lines at ISO 100, typical for a 10.2MP sensor and sharp lens, while the D40x showed 2075 lines. Color accuracy: Excellent.

The D60 steals the low-noise award from the D40x (again, on JPEGs for both). At ISO 100, noise was nearly invisible (Extremely Low, our best rating). By ISO 800, noise crept up to Very Low. Built-in noise reduction dampened resolution by just 5 percent: It hit 2050 lines at ISO 100 and 1950 lines at ISO 1600.

At the boosted ISO level that Nikon says is equivalent to ISO 3200, the noise rating climbed to Moderate, but was noticeably high in shadow areas, pulling down image quality at that ISO to Extremely High. Again, that's similar to the D40x -- still, the D60's noise control was superior, and well beyond that in JPEGs from the recently tested Sony Alpha 350 ($800, body only).

That its stellar ratings are for JPEGs is great for the many D60 buyers who will be new to the world of RAW. While resolution and color accuracy results from NEF RAW files (converted using Nikon's supplied ViewNX software) were nearly identical to JPEGs and also earned Excellent ratings, ViewNX doesn't do a great job at controlling noise levels, which is why our test results are based on Fine-quality JPEG images. RAW-to-TIFF noise levels were higher at all ISOs, starting at Very Low (1.4) and reaching Moderate (2.5) by ISO 800. By ISO 3200, RAW images were Unacceptable (3.2).

If you opt for Nikon's Capture NX software ($129, street) you'll be able to control noise with far better results, as well as make local adjustments using the U-Point controls.

Another option for RAW shooters: The D60 lets you develop RAW images in-camera, adjusting exposure settings such as white balance, resolution, and contrast, before storing the results as JPEGs. Every DSLR should have this feature -- it cuts the need to shoot RAW + JPEG, which slows the burst speed and gobbles memory.

We decided to check out how well the camera converted RAW to JPEG, and found that it did a slightly better job at high ISOs. It also allowed us to save Fine-quality JPEGs -- a real benefit since you can save only Basic-quality JPEGs when shooting in RAW + JPEG mode. So if you don't want to shell out extra for Capture NX, use the camera's RAW conversion controls instead of the ViewNX software.

NEW TALENTS

The D60 includes all of the image controls and presets that made the D40x a hit, such as ± 5-stop exposure bracketing (ideal for high-dynamic-range shooting), white-balance fine-tuning, flash compensation, 3D Color Matrix Metering II, and several Digital Vari-Program modes. You can remove redeye from images, add color-filter imaging effects, and even turn on Active D-Lighting to improve the shadow and highlight details in high-contrast scenes.

New creative tools include a star-effect filter that works like an optical filter -- only you can select the number of points and quality of the star. There's also a unique stop-motion animation function: Shoot a burst of still images, select the first and last in a sequence, and use the camera to create a video that can be played back in-camera at rates of up to 30 frames per second and resolutions of up to 640x480 pixels per frame (VGA quality -- perfect for those wedding-cake-eating (or smearing) events that look great when played back on a television or on the camera's LCD.

In addition to accepting higher-capacity (and generally faster) SDHC cards, as well as standard SD cards, the D60 is the first DSLR to expand support of the 2GB Eye-Fi wireless card ($100, street). This device lets you upload captured images wirelessly, and automatically, to your computer or to photo-sharing websites such as Kodak's EasyShare Gallery.

When you use an Eye-Fi card, the D60 adjusts its power and sleep modes to ensure that image uploads from the card will be completed. However, there's no way to turn off the card's Wi-Fi transmission (a potential battery drain, even when you're not uploading), and you need a computer to help set up Wi-Fi partnerships.

UPGRADES IN FOCUS

While the EXPEED processor speeds up many functions within the D60, Nikon makes no claims for it regarding the speed of the autofocus system. But it may help explain why the D60, with the same Multi-CAM 530 AF sensor as the D40x, focused 1/10 sec faster at all tested EV levels from 12 to -1.

Some of the credit might go to the new 24-70mm f/2.8 Nikkor AF-S lens we used in our AF tests. (Unfortunately, the 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor we've used in other AF tests isn't compatible with the D60's AF system, although it can be focused manually, as can all non-AF-S Nikkor glass. So far, Nikon hasn't released a replacement prime lens with an f/1.8 or f/1.4 maximum aperture.) In any case, the AF system on the D60 is fast and sensitive in low light. But with just three zones, don't expect it to track action as well as the 9-zone Nikon D80 or competitors with more AF zones.

Mechanically, there are two major improvements on the D60. The integrated dust-reduction system borrows one element from the Nikon D300--a vibrating Optical Low-Pass Filter (OLPF) in front of the CCD imaging sensor that shakes off dust. In addition, the D60's innovative Airflow Control System directs a small burst of air towards the sensor every time the mirror-assembly is raised and lowered during exposure.

Another mechanical improvement: the eye sensor under the optical viewfinder, which automatically turns off the LCD when an eye nears it. Unlike a similar mechanism on the Sony A350, though, it can't be set to activate AF

Although the D60's pop-up flash doesn't include the wireless flash commander mode of the D80, the camera does support wireless flash control when using the optional dedicated SB-800 Speedlight or SU-800 wireless flash controller. We've been spoiled by the wireless flash and easy-to-access external controls on Nikon's more expensive D300 and D80, and we had to get used to the slower pace and menu-driven approach of the D60.

But its intended audience -- first-time DSLR owners -- will be thrilled when they see how much faster and more capable this camera is than any digital compact. Its menu controls are extensive, though you can leave them in a simple mode, selecting up to four colored backgrounds, and saving custom settings for different photographers. Plus, as on the D40x, all functions can be demonstrated with the help of thumbnail photos on the LCD.

In all, for those ready to make the leap from a compact to a DSLR, the D60 is a great place to land.

Imaging: 10.2MP (effective) CCD captures 3872x2592-pixel images with 12 bits/color in NEF RAW format.

Storage: SD and SDHC cards. Stores JPEG, RAW, or RAW + Basic JPEG.

Burst rate: Continuous Fine-quality JPEGs at 3 fps (tested with Kingston 16GB SDHC card).

AF system: TTL phase detection system with 3 selectable AF zones and red activation lights. Single-shot, continuous, and AF autoselect, predictive focus tracking. Sensitive down to EV -1 (at ISO 100, f/1.4).

Shutter speeds: 1/4000 to 30 sec plus B (1/3-EV increments).

Metering: TTL metering with 420-segment RGB sensor. 3D Color Matrix II evaluative metering, centerweighted (8mm circle), and spotmetering (approx. 2.5 percent of viewfinder). EV 0-20 (at ISO 100).

ISO range: 100-1600 (in 1-EV increments, plus boost to ISO 3200).

Flash: Built-in pop-up with i-TTL autoflash and 420-segment RGB sensor, GN 39 (ISO 100, feet). Flash sync at 1/200 sec. Dedicated hot-shoe.

Viewfinder: Fixed eye-level, penta-Dach mirror.

LCD: 2.5-in. TFT with approx. 230,000-dot (77,000-pixel) resolution.

Output: Hi-Speed USB 2.0 and video. PictBridge compatible.

Batteries: EN-EL9 Li-ion rechargeable; 520 single-frame shots per charge (CIPA rating).

Size/weight: 5x2.5x3.7 in., 1.22 lb with card and batteries (body only).

Street price: $749 with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR AF-S DX Nikkor lens.

VIEWFINDER TEST

Accuracy: 97% (Excellent)

Magnification: 0.81X (Very Good)

COMPETITIVE SET

• SONY Alpha 350 with 18-70mm f/3.5-5.6 DT AFkit lens ($900, street)

$150 more gets you a DSLR with Super SteadyShot image stabilization that works with any Sony or Konica Minolta lens. The Alpha 350's AF system also works with all Sony and most KM lenses, while the Nikon AF only works with the latest AF-S lenses. The Nikon D60 captures images with slightly less resolution than the A350 (2050 vs. 2150 lines) despite the Sony's higher 14.2MP sensor, but at a faster 3 fps burst rate compared with 2.5 fps on the A350. The D60's JPEG noise control tested better at all ISOs up to 3200; however, the A350 produced less noise at high ISOs when shooting RAW (converted to TIFF with supplied software). As with the Sony, the D60's dynamic range can be adjusted using Nikon's D-light adjustments. The A350's 9-point AF system is more sophisticated, has better tracking capability, and is slightly faster than the Nikon's in bright light. The D60 viewfinder offers superior magnification and eye relief, while the Sony has a larger 2.7-inch, live-view LCD with fast live-view AF.

• PENTAX K200D with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 SMCP-DA kit lens ($800, street) Priced closer to the Nikon, the K200D may be a much tougher competitor -- literally. It has a more rugged body, with a stainless-steel chassis and dust- and weatherproof seals. Plus it offers a sensor-based shake reduction system that works with all Pentax lenses, and a more sophisticated 11-point AF system (again, with a wider range of AF-compatible lenses than the Nikon). Downside: It uses regular AA batteries, while the Nikon comes with a rechargeable Li-ion. We haven't tested the K200D yet, but it has a similar-megapixel CCD sensor and a wide variety of image controls. Its claimed burst rate, 2.8 fps, is slightly slower, and ISO goes up only to 1600. Previous models lead us to expect low noise and great color.

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