By Ron Eggers
Everybody has probably seen the Nikon commercials by now where Ashton Kutcher is fumbling around with a Nikon D60 taking candid shots at a friend's wedding. That implies that, if he can come up with great shots with the D60, anybody can. Judging by the ad, the D60 is being marketed as a camera that's idiot proof. It's true that it's an entry-level model, but marketing the D60 as a point-and-shoot is selling it a little short. While it is easy to use, it provides many of the controls and capabilities expected in a more sophisticated camera.
For example, it includes Nikon's sophisticated 3D Color Matrix Metering II for highly accurate exposure control, and features an active dust reduction system with airflow control to significantly reduce the problem of sensor spotting. Each time the camera is turned on or off, the sensor is cleared of dust.
It also includes another way of reducing dust imperfections on images. Like with some professional models, it's possible to take a dust reference image, which is then used by the camera to lift the dust spots off of captured images. It has a 10.2-megapixel DX-format CCD sensor with a maximum resolution of 3,872x2,592 pixels. Weighing only slightly more than a pound, it's an extremely compact camera. It is, in fact, the smallest DSLR that Nikon has released. Still, even though it is small, it has a good-sized 2.5" LCD with 170-degree viewability.
The D60 includes Nikon's advanced EXPEED image processing. EXPEED can be a little confusing. Even though both an introductory-level camera and a top-of-the-line camera incorporate EXPEED, image processing and handling are not the same for the two models. Rather than an image-processing engine, EXPEED is an image-processing concept that optimizes image processing for each of the cameras that it's incorporated into. Which means that, even though professional and consumer models incorporate EXPEED, the actual image-processing components can be quite different from one model to the next.
Responsive to action: This shot was taken at 1/1,600 second at f/10, ISO 800. ©Ron Eggers
There are a number of things that the D60 has going for it. Image capture quality is very good. It's also responsive, particularly for a camera with a street price of around $700. There's no shutter lag, and focusing speed is good. For focusing, it utilizes a 3-area autofocus system with full-motion tracking. Initially, I did miss some action shots when I first started shooting motorcycle aerobatics, but not that many. Once I got used to working with the camera, I didn't have any problems locking onto a subject. And anticipating the action just a little, virtually eliminated missed action shots altogether.
In testing, I was able to take 29 JPEG frames in 10-second bursts. That's almost right on the specs of three frames per second. It took me 39 seconds to capture 100 JPEG frames, which is the maximum number of JPEGs that can be captured in one burst. The camera would hesitate briefly every seven or eight frames, before continuing the burst.
Shooting in the NEF (RAW) mode significantly reduced the capture speed and burst rate. I was able to take 11 NEF frames in 10 seconds. In longer bursts, the first three or four frames shot very quickly, then shooting slowed down to a little faster than one frame every two seconds. I was able to capture 40 NEF frames in 70 seconds. That's good for an entry-level camera.
Exposure modes include Programmed Auto (P) with Flexible Program, Shutter-Priority Auto (S), Aperture-Priority Auto (A), Manual (M) and Digital Vari-Program. There are multiple Digital Vari-Program modes, including Auto, Auto Flash-OFF, Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Close-up, and Night Portrait. The individual modes are selected by a dial on top of the camera. Each shooting mode automatically makes all the camera's adjustments to ensure optimum images for that type of shooting.
Nikon's 3D metering system evaluates each potential image for brightness, color, contrast, size and position of shadows and highlights, selected focus area and camera-to-subject distance. Those factors are compared to the camera's internal 30,000-scene database to ensure the optimum settings for each exposure. Utilizing reference images, for example, the camera was extremely good at capturing usually difficult to shoot backlit images. I took photos of the U.S. Indoor Volleyball team's send off to the Beijing Olympics with the sun high, directly behind the podium. The fill flash shots looked best.
It has a built-in HELP Menu System with Assist Images. Assist Images guide the user in selecting the right settings for different types of photography. It also includes internal image optimization capabilities, making it possible to correct such things as color, contrast, brightness and sharpening without having to download the images first. And it's possible to crop images in the camera.
The Retouch Menu also includes a way to output a NEF file to a JPEG in the camera. The NEF (RAW) Processing option displays a group of NEF thumbnails. Selecting one brings up the conversion menu, which includes the intended JPEG image quality and size, the white balance setting, exposure compensation, and a filter selection for image optimization that includes such choices as softer focus, more vivid color, portrait effects and a custom option with even more sum-menu items.
The ISO range extends from 100 to 1600. A Hi-1 ISO setting extends that range by one stop to 3200. In the full Auto shooting mode, it's possible to set the ISO to Auto. However, that option is not available when working in the other auto capture modes: Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. Electronic noise is low in the lower ISO ranges. With the model shots at ISO 400, there was a little electronic noise, but not much. At 1600, there was a lot. And, as might be expected, at 3200, images probably wouldn't have been usable without major post processing and noise reduction.
The D60 also offers stop-motion animation capabilities. It lets you take a series of individual frames and sequence them into a video clip, directly in the camera. This is the type of animation you see in Wallace & Grommit films, for instance. The photographers shoots one frame of his subject, makes a small change to the subject and shoots another frame and so on. It's also useful for time-lapse shooting, but there isn't an automatic timed capture option that will let you take individual frames at specific intervals over the course of several hours, so you'll have to do it yourself.
There are some things found in professional DSLRs that aren't available with the D60. For instance, it does not support bracketing of exposure compensation or white balance. Exposure compensation bracketing, in particular, is something that may be missed by serious photographers.
The D60 kit includes an AF-S DX Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR (vibration reduction image stabilization) lens. That's an acceptable lens, but to get the most out of the body, try pairing it with a higher-end lens. With AF-S and AF-I Nikkor lenses, all the functions are supported. I used it with an AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f3.-5.6 G ED VR lens, which was a winning combination.
The small body and a compact lens with a very wide zoom coverage served as ideal backup when shooting with the D300. It also worked well as a casual carry-along DSLR, just to have a camera available.