initial review: 4/6/2009
updated: 4/23/2009


  Nikon D60 Review

One modest step forward.

  Add a comment or send Thom feedback on this article.

 

Yes, I know this review is late. The problem with being a one-man band is that the bagpipes always require so much attention that the piccolo sometimes gets lost. Hmm. Let's try that again: the problem with being a one-man parade is that there's sometimes no one to play drums. Nope, that didn't work, either. Okay, how's this: I'm sorry it's so late.

A lot of this review is going to seem familiar. That's because Nikon hasn't strayed far from the D40 that triggered the current low-end camera stream that now features the D60. But I wouldn't dismiss it as a midly updated D40 or D40x if I were you. As much as I liked the D40x (the D40 isn't a fave because 6mp doesn't quite excite anymore), the D60 adds better image quality to the mix.

The D60 was a surprise announcement for PMA 2008 (January). The D40x really wasn't due for replacement, but here was a camera that for all intents and purposes was a D40x externally, with what seemed like only a modest number of internal changes.

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

Recommended

features
performance
build
value

Yes, these ratings are slightly tougher than the ones I gave for the D40/D40x (which will be revised when I redo the site).



 

The Basics

The D60 is a refresh of the D40x. The things that changed between the two cameras:

  • Image quality improvements. The D60 uses the EXPEED processing system, and as such it has some very modest image quality improvements, most of which don't really show up until you bump the ISO way up and pixel peep. Still, as good as the D40x was, any improvement is always welcome. The D60 seems to be a little cleaner in its images, and that's a worthy improvement.
  • Sensor cleaning. The D60 gets the shake-it-and-drop-it sensor cleaning that its big brothers have (D90, D300, D700), but with a twist: the airflow caused by the mirror flipping back and forth has been tuned so as to help remove dust from the sensor area. The airflow bit is, in my estimation, untestable and thus very modest at best, but the sensor cleaning function is welcome and really needs to be on this class of camera, where the user is less likely to want to open it up and do manual cleaning.
  • Viewfinder changes. The D60 knows when you've put your eye to the viewfinder and turns off the color LCD, removing an annoyance many had with the D40 and D40x. Oh, and the interface on that color LCD now rotates with the camera. The viewfinder also provides confirmation of focus for manual focus users.
  • Minor menu changes. Nikon has added a stop motion movie function, in-camera raw processing, and some additional RETOUCH menu gimics (cross star and color intensification).
  • Dedicated Active D-Lighting button. You can now turn Active D-Lighting on and off without dropping down into the menus.

All these changes are welcome, though none of them are earthshattering. The bottom line on the basic feature set changes is that if you liked the D40 or D40x, you'll probably like the D60 a little more.

The sensor in the D60 is the same 10mp CCD made by Sony that was used in the D40x and D80. The 10mp effective megapixels mean 3872x2592 pixel images, enough to produce straight-from-camera prints up to almost 11x14" without resizing. The base ISO of the CCD is 100, with one stop increments up through ISO 1600. You can also boost ISO one more stop, up to an effective ISO 3200. D60 users will be slightly disappointed to learn that the all-mechanical shutter necessary for that camera's sensor means flash sync is limited to 1/200. Unfortunately, TTL FP is not supported on the D60. The D60 will control and set an SB-400 in manual flash mode, though (via the camera menu system).

Nikon has once again integrated a number of things into the D60 to address the potential for decreasing noise production versus the previous consumer cameras. For example, data is kept in 12-bit space right up until the final compression to an 8-bit JPEG. Second, the internal digitization engine has a noise reduction component in it. That, plus the fact that Nikon has a long, deep experience with this sensor and knows how to optimize the image data from it means that the D60 promises to be quite good in handling noise. When we get to the results section of the review, we'll talk more about whether or not Nikon was successful, but I'll preview the answer here: yes, they were.

The D60 is a relatively poor IR or UV camera without modification. It is a pretty good one if you have someone remove the AA filter and replace it with an IR filter, though. (As an aside: the D60 is a bit unusual in that disassembly to remove the IR filter will require unsoldering and resoldering some leads. This makes conversions much more complex and time consuming.) The D60 seems to be very close to the D80 and D200 in acuity, and the D60 does a better job at holding image quality at the higher ISO values than the D40x did with this sensor.

The D60 feature set is a cut-down feature set, as one would expect from the entry-level camera in a lineup. You can find the full comparison of current Nikon DSLRs here if you want the full list. But here's a short version of the important features:

 
D40
D60
5000
D90
Price
D40: US$449 body and lens
US$649 body and lens US$729 body only US$889 body only
Sensor
6mp 10mp 12mp 12mp
Shutter Speeds
30 to 1/4000 30 to 1/4000 30 to 1/4000 30 to 1/4000
Flash Sync

1/500

1/200 1/200 1/200 + TTL FP
Matrix Meter
420 pixel CCD 420 pixel CCD 420 pixel CCD 420 pixel CCD
Flash
i-TTL i-TTL, manual i-TTL, manual i-TTL, manual, commander mode
Focus
CAM 530, only AF-S lenses CAM 530, only AF-S lenses CAM 1000, only AF-S lenses CAM 1000, standard Nikon AF
Storage
SD or SDHC card SD or SDHC card SD or SDHC card SD or SDHC card
ISO

200-1600 1EV steps + HI1

100-1600 1EV steps + HI1 200-3200 .3EV steps + HI1, LO1 200-3200 .3EV steps + HI1, LO1
Frame Rate
2.5 fps
3fps 4fps 4.5 fps
Color LCD
2.5", 230,000 dots 2.5", 230,000 dots 2.7", 233,000 dots, positionable 3", 920,000 dots
Viewfinder
Pentamirror, 95%, 0.8x magnification, 18mm eyepoint, -1.6 to +.5 diopters Pentamirror, 95%, 0.8x magnification, 18mm eyepoint, -1.6 to +.5 diopters Pentamirror, 95%, 0.78x magnification, 17.9mm eyepoint, -1.6 to +1 diopters Pentaprism, 96%, 0.94x magnification, 19.5mm eyepoint, -2 to +1 diopters
Other
No DOF Preview, No Top LCD, No Mirror Prerelease, No LCD cover, No Front Command dial, No vertical grip, has FUNC button, no bracketing No DOF Preview, No Top LCD, No Mirror Prerelease, No LCD cover, No Front Command dial, No vertical grip, has FUNC button, no bracketing No DOF Preview, No Top LCD, No Mirror Prerelease, No Front Command dial, No vertical grip, has FUNC button, has bracketing No Mirror Prerelease (though 1-second mirror delay is available), optional MB-D80 grip, has FUNC/DOF buttons, has bracketing
Remote
IR wireless only IR wireless only IR wireless, MC-DC2 wired IR wireless, MC-DC2 wired
Battery
EN-EL9 EN-EL9 EN-EL9a EN-EL3a
Size
5 x 3.7 x 2.5" 5 x 3.7 x 2.5" 5 x 4.1 x 3.1" 5.2 x 4 x 3"
Weight
1 lb (471g) 1 lb (471g) 1 lb 4 ounces (560g) 1 lb 6 oz (620g)

As I write this in early 2009, the primary differentiation between the four entry models is sensor megapixel count, with the D5000 and D90 also having additional features.

One thing to note on the D60 is the lack of support for lenses that don't have built-in focusing motors. At the present time, the following lenses can be used on the D60 and retain all features:

  • All Nikkor lenses marked with AF-S.
  • All Sigma lenses marked with HSM.
  • The Tamron 17-50mm (A16NII), 18-200mm (A14NII), 18-250mm (A18NII), 28-75mm f/2.8 (AO9NII), and 70-300mm (A17NII). Look for the NII at the end of the model number, which indicates internal focus motor.

One aspect of lenses that doesn't get mentioned much with the D60 is an intriguing one: you can mount any Nikkor on it. That's right, any, as in pre-AI lenses can be put on this camera and used without damaging it. Of course you'll be metering and focusing manually, but it did suddenly make a handful of lenses in my mom's gear closet that date back to the mid-1960's suddenly usable again.

The D60 adds intelligent battery life tracking ala the D80/D200, though it's done with a different battery, the EN-EL9, and doesn't give you specific information. The AC adapter (EP-5) and plugs into the battery compartment instead of the side of the camera. We also have a FUNC button, with limited choices of what to assign to it. The Scene exposure modes have changed a bit from the oldest Nikon models, with the addition of a new Flash Off mode.

Overall, the D60 is a very compact camera with a limited set of features, offered at a fairly low price. Still, features aren't the only thing you evaluate a potential camera purchase on (otherwise this review would be almost done, wouldn't it?). To me, the bigger issues are handling (ergonomics) and performance (image quality). So don't count the D60 out against the competitors just yet...

Handling

This section is very similar to the one in my D40/D40x review, as almost all the handling issues are exactly the same for all three cameras.

While the D60 is a very small camera (not much bigger than my largest compact camera, the Canon G10), I don't find any compromise in hand positions or grip. Indeed, I spent most of an afternoon wandering around a small, nearby preserve area without a camera strap--simply holding the camera in my right hand as I moved around taking pictures. The grip is the right size, and correctly positioned. The controls fall into the right positions. Indeed, it seems Nikon has made an effort to make the controls less likely to be accidentally engaged. The Autofocus direction pad, for instance, is not the miniature Gameboy one of the D50, for example, but a slightly bigger one that is easier to find and control with your thumb. Though the D60 is a far smaller camera than even the D50, Nikon has once again gotten the "grip" right. The same one-handed hold still feels comfortable and secure, and reaching the key buttons while holding the camera is natural for most people (if you have really large hands, the camera is small enough that you may feel constrained). For such an extraordinarily small camera, it doesn't feel small, at least other than the lowered weight. One caveat: if you use a really wide barreled lens on the D60, the edge of the barrel can extend so far that there isn't much room for your fingers to get between it and the grip. Given that there aren't really any AF-S lenses that fit that definition, it's not a big worry, but the "fat" Sigma 30mm f/1.4 HSM, which works nicely on this camera, leaves barely enough room for my fingers to fit.

Nikon's button-and-dial interface remains largely intact throughout, but it is now supplemented by a new way of controlling things (I'll get to that in a moment). The AE-L and Exposure Compensation buttons are where we expect them. The one primary exception is that the FUNC button has moved to the side of the camera below the flash release/options button, and doubles as self timer button. Of course, the fact that the D60 has a FUNC button ought to raise a few eyebrows (too bad Nikon didn't opt to allow one of those functions to be depth of field).

That missing top LCD and what Nikon did to compensate for it is the big story in handling if you're coming from an older Nikon DSLR. And it's a multi-part, complex story, at that. As you might suspect, the color LCD on the rear of the camera is now used to provide the information that is missing. You can bring up the "simulated top LCD" any time by pressing the new Info button just behind the shutter release (or the Zoom In button, which has additional functions; I told you it was complex). You also have the (needless) choice of Classic, Graphic, or Wallpaper styles. In Classic, the display mimics the old Nikon top LCD styles almost perfectly. In Graphic many of the items are made smaller so that a graphical representation of the size of the aperture being used can be displayed. Wallpaper uses the same small info items but places a picture on your card as the background.

Okay, so let's cut to the chase on those options: use Classic. If you're absolutely new to DSLRs and don't understand that bigger aperture numbers mean smaller openings, use Graphic for a day, then switch to Classic (if you don't get the connection after a day of use, you're not going to get the connection). Curiously, while the aperture opening display helps you visualize what is happening, the shutter speed display in Graphic doesn't. Longer shutter speeds result in shorter bars, and vice versa! Say what? Just another reason I say to get out of Graphic mode. And avoid Wallpaper (hint to Nikon: Wallpaper would have been interesting if you could put something useful into the background, like a DOF chart, but this personalization thing is hokey at best, and possibly confusing at worst because the picture can and does obscure the information). [One clever reader suggested the following: put a line of text that says "Property of MYNAME, email" on an otherwise plain background on your computer screen and photograph this so that the text is positioned so as not to obscure any of the other information. Good idea.]

Okay, with that out of the way, there's still more to say about the color-LCD-as-top-LCD change: there's a hugely useful aspect of it that lives on the very right side of the display. Press that Zoom In button again when the display is visible and you're taken to the right area, where you can directly set Image Quality, Image Size, White Balance, ISO, Frame Advance, Focus mode, AF Area mode, and Metering Method. (And curiously, the rest of the display reverts to Classic style even if you were in Graphic or Wallpaper! Shows you just how much Nikon thinks of those options.) Simply use the keys on the Direction pad to navigate to an item, then press the OK button and Direction pad to set the option you want.

Better still, the options are given sample pictures to indicate the things that you might use them for. For example, in AF Area mode we get images of two children playing (Closest Subject Priority), a motorcycle in motion (Dynamic Area), and a close-up macro shot (Single Area). For newcomers to the Nikon system, these photo "hints" are potentially useful, though I find more than a few of them slightly ambiguous (how are children playing and a motorcycle moving different? They both imply movement, after all [hint: a motorcycle moves faster than most children]). For the most part they work better as reminders once you learn what they're trying to tell you than they do clear tips on how to set the camera for a given situation. Still, a nice touch that is potentially useful for new-to-Nikon users that won't know what the difference between tech terms like Dynamic Area and Single Area are.

But wait, there's more. Order today and... Oops, wrong script. But, yes, there is more, and this time the news isn't quite so good: there's a bit of a delay to the updating of the color LCD info panel. The delay isn't usually objectionable, but it can be a nuisance if you're in a hurry. I've managed to overshoot an aperture or shutter speed setting I've wanted because of it. The delay also seems to be a bit variable in speed, and may have something to do with camera settings.

Unlike the D200 and D2 series, Custom Settings are a single scrolling list of 20 options (Reset is the 20th) instead of being "batched" by function. Moreover, the default of the camera is "only display the first few"--you have to use the Setup menu to display the full set of options. I continue to dislike this "feature" of having a simplified menu system, though I do like Nikon's other tweak: MyMenu. MyMenu allows you to define which menu options appear. Thus, for all those set-once-and-forget options, you can banish them from the menu system after setting them and not have to scroll through them time and time again. Unfortunately, on the D60 the only two menus you might want to use MyMenu on are the CSM and Setup menus, which you don't visit very often, anyway. MyMenu works better on a camera with more menu options than the D60.

One custom setting that it took me awhile to find and appreciate is Rangefinder. This turns the manual exposure bar into a focus bar, telling you not only which way you're out of focus, but also about how much. Too bad it can't be used with Manual exposure mode, though, as the lenses I want to use this feature on most are, you guessed it, manual focus lenses that need to be used in Manual exposure mode. Oops.

Another newish-to-Nikon menu option is the RETOUCH menu (it appeared first on the D80), which replaces the D200's Recent Settings menu (Nikon giveth, Nikon taketh...). Retouch allows you to do quite a few editing types of things: Quick Retouch, D-lighting, Red-eye correction, Trim, Monochrome conversion, Filter effects, Small picture, Image overlay, NEF processing, and Stop-motion movie. Most of these are things I wouldn't want to do in camera, as the color LCD just isn't good enough to evaluate D-lighting and Image overlay effects, for example. Trim is nice, as it allows you to do after-the-fact crops. Filter effects/Color balance is probably the most interesting, as it gives you a two-dimensional CIE color space to shift as you see fit (it also gives you access to an RGB histogram, which is otherwise missing from the normal options). This is much more flexible than Hue adjustments. In all cases, the Retouch options create new versions of your photo (your original remains intact).

While we're talking about images, let's talk about image review. With the D80 Nikon changed the way magnifying an image works, and the D60 uses this new method. We now have Zoom In and Zoom Out buttons, essentially. This simplification works quite nicely. Press Zoom In and you zoom in. Press Zoom Out and you zoom out, and once you're at Fit Screen view you then move to four thumbnails and then nine thumbnails with subsequent presses (zoom in gets you back to single image view). Much simpler to explain and understand, though not quite as fast as the old system. I think it's a perfectly appropriate design change for the intended audience of this camera. The Image Review On option is flexible (unlike the D80): you can change the value for the "timers" (unfortunately, we're now given vague Short, Normal, and Long options instead of exact seconds; the good news is that there's one other option, Custom, which allows you to set all the timers individually in seconds).

The viewfinder is somewhat better than the D50/D70 viewfinders. It seems bigger and brighter, though the stats show that the changes are modest in nature compared to the D80/D200 viewfinder change. No grid lines or extra overlay icons can be made to appear, though. I can easily see both the framing area and the information underneath with my glasses on. One new addition not on the D40 and D40x is the ability to provide focus help information for manual lenses (the so-called rangefinder ability). When turned on, this uses the manual exposure bar to indicate how far focus is off and which way. Unfortunately, because it uses this function uses the exposure bar, you can't get this help in Manual exposure mode. Pity. Because you have to be in Manual exposure mode to use older manual focus lenses for which this feature would be most useful. However, with the Voightlander "chipped" manual focus lenses, this is a nifty little helper (see Final Comments, below).

Now here's something you might not notice at first but I appreciate greatly: the camera strap mounts are recessed into the body (instead of sticking out) and are exactly opposite one another so that the camera absolute hangs straight off the strap. This may not seem like a big thing at all, but quite frankly, it shows me that someone actually is looking at the small issues that can impair handling.

Nits are few. I still don't like the Secure Digital door mechanism Nikon introduced with the D50 and has used on the D40, D40x, D80, D90, and now the D60 since then. In extreme handling it has a tendency to pop open on me. The button overload on the camera is a bit much (particularly the Zoom In, Help, Info, Reset button ;~). The color LCD info display is very bright--it would have been nicer to have brightness options for when it displays data instead of Classic, Graphic, Wallpaper. The FUNC button is nice but needs more options. Some people will miss bracketing.

Overall, there's a lot to like about how Nikon refined the D40 and D40x into a slightly better D60. As I said earlier, despite being small and light, it still "feels right."

 

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Cleaning the Sensor I've posted an article on how to clean sensors.

 

 

 

Performance

Battery Life
Battery performance is quite good. I'm getting hundreds of shots per charge, pretty much no matter how I use the camera. When I "go commando" (use manual focus lenses) the performance actually improves into the high hundreds. That's surprising since the battery isn't a barn-burner in terms of amperage (1000 mAh) and the rear LCD is almost always on while you're shooting. Nikon's CIPA numbers are 470 to 2200 shots using different setting parameters and flash usage. For most people, I'd guess that a single full battery charge will get them through a day of shooting. Having one extra battery with you is probably enough for 99.9% of the D60 audience to never experience a power shortage. FWIW, keep the plastic cover on the battery when it isn't in the camera--the battery terminals are exposed, and you don't want to risk having them short out against something metal.

(In passing, I'll mention that the AC adapter for the D60 is unusual: it's like a battery with a cord coming out of it; that cord goes to the actual AC/DC converter that plugs into the wall socket. The cord threads through a rubber gasket at the bottom of the battery chamber. This whole design actually works better than the ones used on the more expensive cameras, where there's a tendency to accidentally pull the power cord from the camera. Moreover, having the cord come out the bottom right of the camera is better than having a cable plugging in right where your left hand is trying to hold the camera.)

Writing to Card
The Secure Digital write performance is very good to excellent. Indeed, the same cards in my D60 perform much faster than they do in my D50--performance seems on par with the D80 and D90, so I think Nikon has moved on from the slower D50 write mechanism permanently. Even with some generic cards I was getting near 5MBs per second performance, which is pretty decent, if not quite state of the art. Like the D80 and D90, once the buffer is full the D60 will shoot at a slightly reduced frame rate for most JPEG sizes until the card is filled up or you reach 100 images, whichever comes first.

Autofocus System
Autofocus performance is adequate. The number in the part name (CAM530 versus the old CAM900 in previous Nikon consumer DSLRs) indicates the number of overall points that are sampled for focus information, so it should be obvious that the D60 should be worse than a D50/D70 (CAM900) or a D80/D200 (CAM1000). This is a little deceptive, though. Assuming you're using the central AF sensor only, there's no real performance difference between the D60 and the D50/D70, and only a small one with between the D60 and the D200 (mostly due to things other than the AF sensor itself). With only three AF sensors, the D60 actually gets a slight benefit in Closest Subject Priority over the D50, as not only is there less data to analyze, but it's less likely that an "unlit" sensor is going to cause the AF system to slow down.

For those shooting Single Area AF, the technical side of things means that the D60 isn't going to perform much differently than a D50 or D70s, actually. The D60 has two things that will affect performance for shooters who use other AF settings, though: (1) the AF-S only lens requirement means you'll never encounter the dreaded "screw-drive hunt"; and (2) the missing AF sensors mean you're going to be more tempted to revert to focus-and-recompose. That's especially evident when you shoot vertically--you don't have any sensors on the sides! In horizontal compositions I consistently found that I missed that bottom AF sensor (but not the top). In vertical compositions, the lack of the two extra focus sensors is more problematic, and you are forced to focus and recompose more often. Frankly, it's not a big deal, as you simply will start using this camera differently to compensate for its missing AF sophistication. Those of you who already are in the focus-and-recompose group won't have any trouble with the D60.

Color
Color integrity is good, even with the slightly distorted sRGB color spaces that Nikon uses (Ia and IIIa). I don't see any major variances with other recent Nikon cameras. Here's the gist:

  • Saturation is higher than correct at default settings, as it has been on most Nikon DSLRs since the D100 (and most DSLRs in general). Saturation stays high at ISO 1600, meaning that you don't automatically get duller colors just because you use a higher ISO value (you can and do lose some shadow detail due to loss of dynamic range, though; see the noise section later in this review). Note that you can "goose up" the saturation even more by setting Vivid or using the Custom controls, but I find the resulting images way too exaggerated and comic book-like to be useful. It's very easy to go too far and get additional anomalies in a JPEG image, such as channel blowout due entirely to the color settings.
  • Color accuracy for the default sRGB Color Space is about the same as previous Nikons that use the same sensor (D40x/D80): nearly perfect in most greens, browns, and some of the blues, a bit exaggerated in the deep blues and some of the yellow/red colors. Most people will find that pleasing (warmer skin tones, deeper sky colors). AdobeRGB Color Space is closer to correct, and requires very little correction in a converter to get fairly "neutral" coloration.
  • Auto White Balance tends to be lower than it should in sunlit scenes, a bit higher than it should in indoor and mixed lighting scenes. As with most Nikon DSLRs, the top two-thirds of dynamic range tends to be relatively flat in whatever the camera sets (i.e. whites have the same white balance as mid-range grays), but the accuracy slips a bit as you get into the darkest tones. This is such a "standard" on all Nikon DSLRs these days I have to wonder if Nikon is trying to compensate slightly for cooler (reflected) light tones in shadows. Overall, the impact is again pleasing, if not 100% accurate. But I wouldn't recommend Auto White Balance in incandescent or fluorescent lighting: use Preset or one of the specific white balance settings.

One thing that Nikon seems to have no trouble doing is making a Nikon look like a Nikon. Yes, that's easy when you use the same sensor in four different generations of cameras, but it applies across sensor technologies, as well. In terms of color rendering, the D60, D80, and D200 all render colors so closely that it seems clear that Nikon had a specific color target in mind and is sticking to it for a given sensor family. I see some very small differences between the D60 and the D90 and D300, but not enough to quibble about: Nikon seems to have a fairly good lock on where they want color to be regardless of the sensor used.

Noise
Let's again start with amp noise. On a 10-minute exposure, amp noise is a bit high, much like it was on the D80. You'll see it in the two top corners as a purple impurity:

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

The built-in camera noise reduction is capable of dampening that considerably, to the point of where it isn't visible:

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

Not a great performance, but not a horrible performance. It is worrisome to me, however, that recent Nikon bodies seem to exhibit a strong degree of amp noise at that top edge. Moreover, the D60 showed a considerable number of hot pixels in the 10-minute exposure without noise reduction turned on. There are plenty of competitor bodies out there that do better, so this is an engineering problem that Nikon simply hasn't directed much energy on. They need to.

For general noise I have far better news to report. The D60 produces decent noise results under pretty severe conditions (including my usual mixed lighting with low intensity torture test). At ISOs up through 400 you'd have to be really good at pixel peeping to see any differences. At ISO 800, some minimal luminance noise shows up. At ISO 1600 that luminance noise is probably visible to most people at 100% view, and a bit of chroma noise starts to appear. Amazingly, the D60 still does better than the D80 in the noise department while using the same sensor, apparently due to improvements in the noise reduction function--the level of detail is slightly lower at ISO 1600 on the D60 than it is on the D80. Overall, ISO 100 to 1600 produced very usable images. ISO HI-1 (3200) is not usable, in my opinion. You lose color saturation, acuity (due to noise at edges), and the chroma (color) aspect of the noise is now highly visible.

My general recommendation is don't be afraid to set Auto ISO to a max of 800 and shoot away. If you really need ISO 1600, set it manually and use it for the session you need it for, then revert to your normal ISO or Auto ISO to 800.

As I indicated in earlier reviews, I'm getting more leery of "number oriented" assessments of image quality properties like noise. That's because I have seen too many examples where an actual image from a camera with a "higher noise number" actually looks better than the supposedly superior camera. Put another way: raw noise numbers don't tell you a lot, which is why I've stopped publishing large tables of them. Since a lot of newcomers are probably reading this due to the low-end appeal of the D60, I need to elaborate.

The way we measure noise is by looking at large patches of the same color and looking at (adjacent) pixel value differences. In theory, the pixels all ought to be the same value, since adjacent pixels are reproductions from the same patch of color under the same lighting. Even on the best camera there is some minor pixel-to-pixel variation, though it may not always be visible to the naked eye, as the difference can be very small. The variations, however, can be in many forms. First, they can simply be overall intensity variations ("luminance noise"). Luminance noise tends to look a bit like film grain did: a pebbly texture is imparted on the image. Second, they can be color variations, which we call "chroma noise." Chroma noise has a very artificial look, almost as if a pointalist painter was at work dappling each pixel with a different color paint (unfortunately, unlike Serat and the other pointalists, chroma noise always comes in the same colors, not ones selected to impart an artistic or visual effect). Third, noise can have a "size." Two adjacent pixels may be the same but the third is different; or three adjacent ones are the same but the fourth is different. In JPEG files, such noise sizing can be variable and is usually due to camera's de-mosaic (image rendering) routine and JPEG encoding crudity, and further to any interaction between those. Nikon's cameras tend to fairly free of size variations. Fourth, noise can have a pattern. Indeed, digital cameras have pixels aligned in rows and columns while film had overlapping and random grain patterns. If there's an electronics frequency-related issue to the noise production (e.g. jitter in the analog-to-digital conversion circuitry), patterns easily appear in noise samples of digital cameras. The D60 noise doesn't really seem to have much pattern to it. Fifth, noise can and does interact with detail production, and noise reduction techniques can produce anything from watercolor-type effects (vagueness) on detail to what I simply call "mush." Nikon's in-camera noise reduction is slightly destructive of edge detail, and unlike the higher end cameras, you can't adjust how much noise reduction it will do. I could go on, but you get the idea: noise is a variety of deviations from the desired data.

And some of those deviations are more visible and disturbing to our eyes than others. Take luminance and color noise, for example. Color noise is easily seen while luminance noise generally isn't (unless it has a pattern ;~). Indeed, color noise is a dead giveaway for "digital" images, as there is really no corresponding problem in analog (film) recording. Bad color noise is disturbing visually because a block of color suddenly has impurities of prime colors (red, green, blue) in it.

I've just alluded to two of the five types of noise the D60 could have. So how does it do on all five? Excellent, Very Good, Excellent, Excellent, and Very Good, actually. At high sharpening settings and low JPEG qualities, the noise size issue starts to just inch into visibility, but otherwise I'd say the D60 is visually non-disturbing in its noise tendencies. So let's put that assertion to the visual test. I've been using the gym I play basketball in as my test lab for low-light, high-ISO, weird light color images in reviews for awhile now, so I'll step out of the game for a moment and take a few shots for us to look at.

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan
Here's actual pixels at ISO 1600 with noise reduction off and all other settings at default (yes, it's a bit soft, probably because VR was set to Active and shouldn't have been; but that doesn't change the noise and contrast handling things we're really looking for here). There's evidence of noise everywhere, though most of it is not colored and looks somewhat like film grain. You can see some color noise starting to apear (note the net, which should be plain white), but it's not objectionable enough to worry about--in prints you're not going to see that, though you might note some color drift. For example, the ball is appearing a little more orange than it actually is, mostly due to color noise. Also, colors are starting to block up. The rim is a darker tone that it actually is. Many of these things you can do something about. Turning on noise reduction reduces the color noise well, for example. I'd also consider adjusting Tone Compensation and Color Mode. Finally, since colors tend to darken, I'd watch exposure. This image is ever so slightly underexposed, something that the Nikon matrix meters all seem to do consistently in this gym. [If you're asking why I use defaults and automation--other than turning off noise reduction--rather than optimizing settings in these examples, it's because I'm trying to show what is near worst case.]

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan
At ISO 3200 (HI-1) note that a number of things have happened. First, noise is much more visible an dnow definitely has color patterns in it that make the image very "digital." Colors have shifted (I've changed nothing on the camera other than ISO). We're losing color in the ball and rim. This image, however, is about the worst one I could make with the D60 in my gym. Frankly, I was a little surprised that is wasn't worse. So let's run it through Nik Define (noise removal), Nik Sharpener, and fix the white level and see what happens:

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

Not bad. We've got the usual painterly look at the pixel level that happens when you run both noise reduction and sharpening at strong levels, but remember we're looking at what would be a 2.3" by 2.3" patch of a much larger print. On my monitor, these images appear about three times bigger than that. Again, doing some things prior to shooting would improve this even more (use noise reduction in camera, don't let the camera underexpose any, pick better Image Optimization settings).

Let me put all this another way: most users can use ISO 100 to 1600 (and therefore the Auto ISO function, certainly set to ISO 800 max) with relative impunity. The two things that would restrict you are: (1) the slightly reduced dynamic range and slightly visible color noise at ISO 1600 means that you really don't want to use high ISO values for things like high contrast scenes, such as outdoor scenics in bright light; and (2) you probably want to avoid high sharpening and contrast settings at high ISO values if you're going to print large.

Exposure
I guess the lack of AF sensors is a good thing. As you may know from my D80 review, that camera had perhaps an over reliance upon the area underneath the active AF sensor in its matrix metering. The D60 doesn't seem to have that problem near as much, though I do find it often meters a bit "hotter" than the D90, D300, D700, and D3 bodies; this tendency still tends to follow what's under the current AF sensor. Indeed, I don't find the D60's matrix metering much different than the D40, D40x, or D50. That's easy enough to compensate for, since the matrix meter seems slightly more consistent on the D60 and D50 than the D80. And you always have the center weighted and spot metering to fall back on, a full array of metering options that you don't always find on entry-level cameras.

The step test (multiple wedges of neutral patches from black to white) at default settings showed the slight mid-range hump that appears to be standard now with Nikon bodies (early Nikon DSLRs were very flat from black to white). If there's a weakness in the D60 exposure, it's at the highlight (white) end of exposure, which has less room than the shadow end. If that really is a problem for you, back the exposure off 0.3EV (through exposure compensation); the D60's noise handling is plenty good enough so that you don't have to worry about a small amount of underexposure generating more visible noise. I should also point out that the Vivid and More Vivid settings narrow the dynamic range of the camera, making it more difficult to get a good exposure in contrasty light. But I told you to avoid them earlier ;~).

Resolution
I see no meaningful difference between the D40x, D60, and D80, all of which use the same sensor. (there's a slight loss compared to the D80 at high ISO values on the D60, probably due to slightly more aggressive noise handling).

Just to remind everyone, at the highest level of DPI you need to set most inkjet printers, the D60 gets you to 9x13.5". And I'll repeat a variation on one of my more famous quotes: "If you can't produce 10x15" prints to your liking from the D60, it isn't the camera." By that I mean that those 10 megapixels pack more than enough information to get excellent prints at 10x15" that show no pixelation, no stair stepping, no per-pixel artifacts at any viewing distance you'd find comfortable (even held at arm's length). So now fess up, how often are you going to print bigger than that? Even if you do, you still might be able to coax enough quality out of the D60 to go bigger, especially so if you shoot NEF, avoid the higher ISO values, and manage your camera settings carefully. My rule of thumb is that you can get to about 2x the normal print size if you make optimal image quality decisions all the way down the chain from initial exposure to final post processing. For a D60 that would be 18x26", which is bigger than the desktop inkjet printers can create.

A common question is whether moving to one of the 12mp cameras would give you more useful resolution. For low ISO work the answer is a definite no: the change from 10 to 12mp isn't large enough for most people to be able to see even at 100% view (you generally need a 14% increase in each axis to see a change). If you shoot at ISO 1600 a lot, then, yes, you might see differences between a D60 and D90 that are meaningful: the D90's sensor handles high ISO values better than the D60's.

Final Comments
The D60 is a nice camera that will appeal to most entry level DSLR users. However, I'm going to suggest that there's another group who will like it more: FM2 afficionados. Am I crazy? No. With the right lenses, the D60 is the small, light digital FM that everyone wants, with one addition: a Katz Eye screen (you can use the focus confirmation indicator, but there's a bit of tolerance in it that a true FM user would want to get rid of). Because you can mount pretty much any Nikkor lens ever made on the D60 it makes for a nice manual focus camera. However, those lenses don't set exposure. No fear, I have the perfect lens kit for you:

  • Voigtländer 20mm f/3.5. Gives you the equivalent of 28mm in the old film days, and this manual focus lens will meter on the D60 due to the CPU chip Cosina adds to it.
  • Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX. Nikon has now introduced the perfect "normal" lens for this camera. No DOF scale, though, so you might want to consider the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 instead.
  • Voightlander 40mm f/2 or Voightlander 58mm f/1.8. Again, both manual focus lenses and chipped to support exposure. The latter is a good equivalent for the 85mm on film.
  • If you need macro or more telephoto, the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 and the Voightlander 180mm f/4 could round out your kit.

It's remarkable how small and convenient the combination is (D60, Katz Eye, 20mm, 30mm, 58mm). FM users will find it the equivalent to, say, carrying an FM2n, a 28mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens. All these lenses are optically quite good.

Not in that league and want all automatic? Then I'd say the optimal D60 kit is this: D60, 18-55mm VR, 55-200mm VR, and the 35mm f/1.8G DX. Again, remarkably small and convenient, and all these lenses are also optically quite good.

Drawbacks

  • Not much new. Would I upgrade from a D40x to a D60? No, the changes just aren't substantive enough.
  • Nother new battery. Did we really need another new battery just because the camera is a smaller size?
  • Not for those with a closet full of older AF lenses. If you've got mostly older AF lenses and are just now getting round to going digital, the D60 isn't the camera you want, as you'll be resorting to manual focus.

Positives

  • Small and beautiful. Goldilocks approved: not too small, not too big, not too light, not too heavy.
  • Most of what you need. While it would have been nice to have a DOF Preview button and bracketing, most everything else you're likely to want is there, including spot metering and sensor cleaning.
  • Excellent Image Quality. State of the 10mp art. Enough said.

 


 

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