The idea of an ode to my first “real” and favorite camera is inspired by Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Ordinary Things. I love that we can pay allegiance to those beautiful, ordinary items of life.
They say that you can never forget your first: your first love, or, in this case, your first camera. Technically, the Nikon D40 is not my first camera, but my fifth, but it is my first “real” camera, the first one with an interchangeable lens. It’s the camera that I have had the longest, almost 15 years, and for a baker’s dozen of years it was the only camera that I owned. It’s the camera that feels familiar, comforting, and reassuring in my hand. It’s the camera that I reached for this morning as I poured coffee into a mug, pulled on hat and gloves, and grabbed the leash to walk the dog on a gloomy, grey January day.
It’s also the camera that I bought right before my one, and, so far, only, trip to Europe. My sister moved to Germany for a couple of years and in the spring of 2008, I made plans to visit. A couple of months before the trip, an incredibly generous friend gave me his frequent flier miles and I scored a free airline ticket. All of a sudden, my little point and shoot digital camera looked dinky, and the possibilities opened up when I contemplated the airplane ticket money for a camera. I leaned into the wisdom of Consumer Reports in the annual electronics buying guide where the editors pointed me to the Nikon D40, a DSLR aimed directly at the beginning photographer, which perfectly described me.
Now I am not a specs person, and it seems a little silly to talk about the technical aspects of a beginner level camera that first came out in 2006, but it turns out those specs help to make up some of the reasons why I love this camera. It has a CCD sensor, and while there are entire online forums and comment sections devoted to debating the merits of various sensors, and whole YouTube channels, hashtags, and Instagram feeds devoted to the magic of this sensor, I didn’t know any of that at the time I bought this camera. I only recently discovered the online nostalgia for these earlier digital camera sensors. I just always loved the colors and images coming out of the camera, but didn’t really think much about it. At the time, it was the smallest DSLR that Nikon had made. For me it was the largest camera I had ever owned, all little film and digital point shoots up until then, but it still felt comfortably compact and not tremendously heavy or attention-grabbing chunky. It has six megapixels, and if I’m not mistaken, some camera company just announced a million megapixels (well, not really) for their recently released flagship camera. While I’m sure that’s fabulous, this camera has all the mega-pickles I have ever wanted or needed. I have printed out plenty of 4×6 inch prints and even a couple of larger ones from the JPEG files and have been quite happy with the results. Now, I also use raw files, and those are equally delicious and beautiful to me. Again, this is just a camera I’m in love with, and I never question its ability or its supposed limitations. For me, it is absolutely perfect.
I bought the Nikon D40 with the kit lens, an 18-55 mm zoom one, a couple of memory cards (1 GB and 2 GB!), and a camera bag and packed my suitcase for Europe. During the trip to Germany, Italy, and a bit of Austria, I put the camera in Auto mode, set the JPEG for the lowest resolution (not understanding that it supposedly lowered their quality) so that I could get the most photos out of my memory cards, and took pictures of everything in the spray-and-pray-mode so derided by more experienced photographers. I was having a ball, though, as I took artsy angled shots of King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria, recycling bins all over Germany, the canals of Venice, and streetscapes of Munich, and so many, many lovely things. My sister was patient with me as “photographer Kary” emerged from my personality during my visit. Never before had I taken so many pictures. When I got back from my two-and-a-half week trip to Europe, I had at least a couple thousand pictures on those memory cards. Up until then, I had probably taken at most a few hundred photos in my entire life.
Digital photography, at the time, was a welcome reprieve for me; there had been too many disappointing rolls of film with dark, shaky, and out of focus images. I had had fun with the little digital point and shoot camera that I had owned for a couple of years, but I loved the D40 and I promptly donated the little camera to a local nonprofit who had listed a small digital camera on their donor wish list. Almost fifteen years later and it has never occurred to me to get rid of the D40, and I never will. I loved the extended focal length of the lens and the nice big viewfinder. I also loved the feeling that the camera gave me, of being a “real” photographer, no matter my experience level. Freed from the limits of and economics of film and unbound by this more forgiving camera, I could take fairly decent shots with little skill and it taught me as I stumbled to learn more. It went beyond the forgiveness of digital, though. While quantity of photos doesn’t necessarily translate to quality, my enjoyment and love for photography and this camera grew in direct proportion to the number of photos I took.
The Nikon D40 became more than a tool. The camera that I had used my Europe airline ticket money to purchase became my ticket into photography. Now I took the camera almost everywhere with me, on walks around the neighborhood, on hikes in the foothills, to family gatherings and graduations, on day drives, and weekend trips. A lot of those pictures didn’t go beyond my computer, but I was slowly learning about composition. A couple years later, I bought a second lens, a 55-200 mm kit-grade lens, and a tripod, and took trips to see the sandhill cranes in Nebraska and New Mexico, something that I had long wanted to do. I mapped out all the National Monuments within a day’s drive of my home, and spent weekends over the next few years, when gas prices were lower in the winter-spring-off-season and I had extra time and money, hiking and taking photos of the sites. The monuments were usually cheap or free to enter, with fewer crowds than national parks, and often the sites were less spectacular but equally or more beautiful in my eyes and through the lens of the Nikon D40. I took a couple of trips to the balloon fiesta in Albuquerque with the specific purpose of photographing the balloons. Again, it was something I had always wanted to do, but hadn’t done before. All of a sudden, this camera became the permission slip that I wrote to my adult self to stop and see and experience. I took it with me on solo car and tent camping trips. I spent a lovely Sunday taking the long way home after visiting my mother for the weekend by stopping and choosing the scenic highway that I had often passed but never driven. The D40 was small enough to get past security guards who were shooing away professional cameras at an outdoor music festival on a rainy July Canada weekend.
I have taken many a snapshot of wildflowers, church steeples, adobe doorways, crumbling gas stations, and the bright blue skies of New Mexico and Colorado where I have lived. I have felt the delight of its presence in the passenger seat, while I drove on early mornings, or its familiarity as I swung it over my shoulder for a quick walk around the block. I took pictures of my family gravestones and forgotten childhood landmarks. It has been the camera where I first felt comfortable, and now love to, document the mundane and ordinary beauty of my own life.
Having played with lots of other cameras since then, I am still impressed with this model. It is relatively small, with a calming heft and grip to it. It’s light enough swinging from the strap around my neck, or hand-holding it. It doesn’t have weather sealing, but I’m not precious with it. Almost every year during one of the first snows, I get up early to go out and try to capture the precious crystals falling from the sky. Inevitably, living in the dry western US, there will be dust. I spent one frantic afternoon at a camera shop in rural Nebraska hoping a kind repair pro could help me get a stubborn piece of dirt off the sensor before I was due to visit the wildlife blind hosted by the Audubon Society so I could have a front row spot to see the sandhill cranes dance in the shallow sand banks of the Platte River. They did remove the dust and dirt in just the amount of time for me to rush off to see the courtship of the spring. Now, I am a little more at ease getting at those spots and specks myself. I frolicked one magnificent November afternoon across the street from my apartment in Albuquerque, during what felt like an endless pandemic lock down, hopping among cactus, capturing the delights of a wet falling snow accumulation on prickly pear cactus in a vacant wild lot.
I have since tried my hand at street photography and capturing sunrises and sunsets. I have taken disappointing pictures of the moon and okay shots of squirrels in my neighborhood park. Mostly, though, I have relished the act of taking those photos. Whether or not I got “the shot” matters little to me, because this camera got me out there. This camera got me to admit that I wanted to be a photographer, the lovely leisure of a hobby photographer who is interested in many different genres of photography. I have taken walks and trips due to this camera, some that I wouldn’t have taken had the camera not given me the excuse and the vision to do so. When I have struggled to find words, the camera has helped me to fill in the gaps, even when writing was my first instinct. This camera, and this passion for photography have helped me to approach the things I love in a more expansive way. On days when I felt stilted or not particularly creative, it helped me to find new ways for expression. It’s the camera that inspired me to finally take an online photography class and then later reach out to a local camera shop owner for a two-hour workshop on basic photography and the minutia of camera menus and settings. It’s also the camera that inspired me to reach for other cameras, including film, instant, digicams, and even my phone.
In today’s megapixel wars of high end cameras, and the ubiquitous presence of our smartphones, the Nikon D40 helps me to pause and reflect, making sense of what I see and my life around me. It helps me to be still for a moment and observe. Now, with a shelf full of cameras, all of which I enjoy, this is the camera that I will continue to reach for and make memories with. I have reached for it in the sadness of breakups, in the highs of a new move, in career slumps, and even the awkward fumbling steps of learning to love running again.
It’s the camera that first whispered to me, “Let’s begin” and it’s the camera that keeps whispering,“Let’s continue.”
By Kary Schumpert
Kary keeps a blog at running-into-life.com and can be found on Instagram at @running_into_life. She teaches, writes, runs, plays with cameras, and spends her time in New Mexico and Colorado.
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