Nikon D5000 Digital SLR Review

Nikon D5000 Digital SLR

The Nikon D5000 is a digital SLR aimed squarely at the novice photographer or casual enthusiast. It can record HD video and sports a vari-angle LCD screen; two features Nikon must envision as being attractive to today’s tech-hungry first time buyers and upgrading entry-level users. Tech dressing features aside, the main question is: How does the Nikon D5000 perform in comparison to other budget DSLRs?

Comparison Chart

  Nikon D60
Discontinued
Nikon D5000
from
Nikon D90
from
Sensor 10.2 Megapixel CCD 12.3 Megapixel CMOS 12.3 Megapixel CMOS
Autofocus 3-point AF 11-point AF 11-point AF
AF motor No No Yes
ISO Range 100-3200 100-6400 100-6400
Continuous 3 FPS (100 JPEG / 9 RAW) 4 FPS (63 JPEG / 11 RAW) 4.5 FPS (25 JPEG / 7 RAW)
Screen 2.5" Fixed LCD (230k pixels) 2.7" Vari-angle (230k pixels) 3.0" Fixed LCD (920k pixels)
Liveview No Yes Yes
Movie Mode No Yes: 720p Yes: 720p
Size 126 x 94 x 64mm 127 x 104 x 80mm 132 x 103 x 77mm
Weight 522g 611g 703g

D5000 Features

The D5000 sensor captures 12.3 megapixel images which can be saved as JPEG or RAW files. The benefit of all that resolution is the ability to produce large 14x9” prints at 300dpi (high quality photo prints). Even bigger A3+ / A2 posters are possible with no visible loss in quality at a natural viewing distance of a few metres. The sensor of the Nikon D5000 has a cleaning module which shakes away any dust which may have settled whilst changing lenses.

Q. What are ‘JPEG’ and ‘RAW’ files?
A. JPEG files are ‘ready to use’ files, making them ideal for emailing or printing quickly. RAW files contain more data from the sensor and give you the flexibility of changing certain settings after the image has been taken & getting more detail in your images. RAW files need to be processed on a computer - either with Nikon View NX (the software included with all Nikon digital SLRs), or third-party image editing software, such as the popular Adobe Photoshop Elements. If you want to use both files types don’t worry - the D5000 can record both simultaneously.

Video can be captured in 720p high definition (HD) at 24 frames per second (FPS). The maximum length for an individual HD video clip is 5 minutes. You can record longer 20 minute videos at a lower resolution (640x424 or 320x216 pixels). The D5000 videos are saved in motion JPEG format (.AVI files), which are easy to edit in Windows Movie Maker (in Vista only, Movie Maker in XP doesn’t support HD resolutions) or third-party video software like Adobe Premiere Elements. Mono sound is recorded with an internal microphone, which can be switched off via the menus. The aspect ratio of the 720p HD videos is 16:9, perfect for direct playback on widescreen TVs using a HDMI cable (not supplied, a HDMI cable with a type C mini-pin at the camera end is required).

Nikon D5000 on black

The Nikon D5000 digital SLR camera has an 11-point autofocus (AF) system called Multi-CAM 1000, which is also found in the D90. There is no AF motor in the D5000 body, so you will have to use lenses with built-in AF motors to get autofocus (designated with the letters ‘AF-S’ on Nikon lenses).

Shooting in a continuous burst the Nikon D5000 can record 63 JPEG or 11 RAW files at 4 FPS. Although 0.5 FPS second slower than a Nikon D90 when flat out, the maximum number of consecutive images has improved - the Nikon D90 manages just 25 JPEG / 7 RAW.

The base ISO range of the D5000 is 200-3200, which can be adjusted to ISO 100 and 6400 in ‘lo’ and ‘hi’ modes respectively. The Nikon D5000 features a customisable auto-ISO function. When this feature is enabled, the camera will increase the ISO up to a maximum value to counteract the shutter speed falling below a minimum value (both values are set by you). Auto-ISO is particularly useful when you don’t know exactly how dark a scenario will be, but want to use the lowest possible ISO to minimise grain, whilst maintaining a reasonable shutter speed to produce sharp photos.

Q. What is ‘ISO’?
A. ISO speed refers to the light sensitivity of film or a sensor. Low ISO values (low sensitivity) require longer exposures and provide higher image quality. High ISO values (more sensitivity) require less exposure and can compensate for poor light, but display a grain (a.k.a ‘noise’). Read more at Wikipedia: Film speed.

D5000 vari-angle screenThe vari-angle LCD screen is 2.7 inches (6.85cm) in diagonal length with a 230,000 pixel resolution. The ability to tilt the screen makes some challenging compositions a piece of cake, as opposed to contorting your body just to get the shot. However, using the screen in live view mode means you have to rely on slower contrast detection autofocus (AF). The screen can be rotated 180 degrees to face the camera body which is handy to prevent scratches during transport.

If you’re a novice photographer, or handing the D5000 to an inexperienced friend, then you’re well catered for with an automatic mode plus several vari-program and scene modes.

Vari-programs
(set by turning the mode dial):

  • Flash-off
  • Portrait
  • Landscape
  • Child
  • Sports
  • Close up
  • Night Portrait
  • Scene

D5000 Mode Dial:

D5000 Mode Dial

Scene modes
(mode dial to scene, then use the command dial):

  • Night landscape
  • Party/Indoor
  • Beach/Snow
  • Sunset
  • Dust/Dawn
  • Pet portrait
  • Candlelight
  • Blossom
  • Autumn colours
  • Food
  • Silhouette
  • High key
  • Low key

Using the D5000

Shoot the Director…

The aspect I was most apprehensive about was testing the D-movie mode. Although a Nikon D5000 review lacking any mention of video would be like photographing an entire wedding with the lens cap on, the prospect of a passable photographer trying to record a video left me worried.

I hesitantly began to test the d-movie mode; mindful of inadvertently producing an abysmal home video, starring a skippy dog tripping an elderly relative into the swimming pool (luckily I have neither a dog nor a swimming pool). Fortunately my saving grace was the fact it’s so easy to record videos with the D5000…

Doesn’t that just mean it’s easy to switch on?
Surely you just switch the camera into live view mode and press the ‘OK’ button?

Well yes, but what I mean is it’s so easy to record good videos with the D5000. The crystal clear HD quality and shallow depth of field available with wide apertures give your videos a professional feel. While videographers may seek to disagree, the video quality is a refreshing step up from VGA video recorded with budget digital cameras and mobile phones.

When D-movie mode is active you do have to focus manually while looking at the LCD screen. This isn’t a big issue if you pre-focus on the subject (using contrast detection AF in liveview mode) and your subject is static or remains roughly the same distance from the camera. Moving subjects are a harder to keep in focus with telephoto lenses, but with wide angle lenses you can leave the focus at infinity if the subject is more than 3 or 4 metres away.

Recording video with the Nikon D5000 was a rewarding experience, its fun and easy produce good videos. What I did learn from recording videos with the D5000 is:

  1. Try to use a monopod or tripod whenever possible; shake-free video looks dramatically better.
  2. The microphone picks up a lot of noise on windy days. Be prepared to switch the microphone off or edit the sound later.

I can see you!

The viewfinder of the Nikon D5000 is bright, which is a pleasant surprise considering it uses the less expensive pentamirror (the D90 and higher-end Nikon DSLRs use a pentaprism). On-demand grid lines are available, which is convenient for lining up the horizon for straight landscapes and composition using the ‘rule of thirds’.

The Nikon D5000 viewfinder does have a pitfall however, which is the magnification; just 0.78x compared to 0.94x in the D90. This makes the viewfinder feel a little cramped and while perfectly adequate for composing an image, occasionally it was a struggle to manually focus precisely.

The Kit Lens

Nikon 18-55mm VR LensThe Nikon D5000 kit includes an 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 VR lens. The vibration reduction (VR) is effective at reducing camera shake while photographing static subjects in low light. Combining the VR with good high-ISO performance, provides the enjoyable option of freely taking photos in the early evening, when the low light of dusk would have forced using a tripod or flash in the past. The lens features an integrated Silent Wave Motor (SWM), making it an AF-S lens, and is designed for digital SLRs with DX sensors.

The build quality of the 18-55mm VR feels solid, even when I compared it to the more expensive 18-70mm kit lens bundled with my ageing Nikon D70 (which has a slight barrel wobble). The optical quality is commendable; it certainly won’t ruin any important photos.

My only criticism of the lens is the manual focus is too fiddly. There isn’t a proper focus ring next to the zoom ring; instead you rotate the protruding front barrel of the lens (which can be very narrow when the lens is zoomed to 35mm). Perhaps Nikon are assuming entry level users rarely take photos with manual focus, but this logic is a slightly flawed because videos do require manual focus.

For D5000 owners looking to buy a second lens the stand out options are:

  • Nikon 35mm f1.8 AF-S DX LensNikon 35mm f1.8 G AF-S DX
    The 35mm focal length mimics a classic 50mm lens on a film camera. The prime optics will improve the images where you need critical quality. The wide aperture gives you more control over depth of field and gathers more light in dark conditions. Spot on.
  • Nikon 55-200mm AF-S VR LensNikon 55-200mm f4-5.6 AF-S DX VR
    This telephoto zoom lens compliments the 18-55mm VR kit lens and extends your reach for sports, wildlife & portraiture. The VR is even more advantageous with telephoto lenses because images at longer focal lengths are more susceptible to camera shake.
  • Sigma 10-20mm EX DC HSM LensSigma 10-20mm f4-5.6 EX DC HSM
    If landscapes or interiors are central in your repertoire then the Sigma 10-20mm is a great wide-angle lens. It features a Hyper-Sonic Motor (HSM) which is equivalent to Nikon’s SWM / AF-S, so it’ll autofocus with the D5000.

Carried Away

I set out on a particularly un-British (sunny) afternoon, to test how the Nikon D5000 copes with very bright conditions. The aim was to find high contrast scenes to challenge the metering system and Nikon’s active D-lighting (which adjusts the contrast to preserve highlights and shadows). Both did an admirable job 95% of the time, but some images were very underexposed. When faced with an exceptionally high-contrast scene the Nikon D5000 sticks firmly to underexposing an image, to preserve the highlights. Although preserving the highlight detail is ideal for those who want to rescue the image with image editing software, it could leave beginners frustrated if their pictures are occasionally too dark and wouldn’t mind a few clipped highlights in the background.

Buckinghamshire's Best Kept VillageWhile pondering the overly protective highlight preservation, I suddenly realised the D5000 wasn’t the only thing getting carried away: I’d wandered into Buckinghamshire’s eight time award winning “Best Kept Village”. Feeling hilariously underdressed with flip flops to match; I noticed the residents innocently trimming their hedges were probably contemplating throwing me in a dungeon for spoiling their chance of winning the 2009 title. I beat a hasty retreat, reminiscent of Top Gear’s U.S.A. challenge, except I didn’t have “your garden sucks” scrawled along my car.

Finally a safe distance away I was greeted by a rather average looking landscape, but the deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds plumped up with a circular polariser were too good to resist a quick photo. Checking the picture on the LCD screen I was surprised to see how cold the colour temperature was in bright daylight. Switching the D5000 from auto white-balance to daylight white-balance and taking the picture again fixed the issue. It’s fairly common for the auto-white balance of digital SLRs and cameras to struggle in artificial light, but in broad daylight is quite unusual.

D5000 Auto White Balance D5000 Daylight White Balance

Auto white balance (L) compared to daylight white balance (R).

It’s worth mentioning the Nikon D5000 information display screen: it allows you to effortlessly change common settings. Pressing the ‘i’ button allows you to select & set white balance, image size, AF-area mode, ISO, metering and other standard shooting options. Because the D5000 has fewer external buttons than its big brothers, the quick access via the information display is there to compensate, it’s a real time saver versus diving into menus several layers deep. An added bonus is as a shooting option is changed via the information display you’re shown a thumbnail image representing what each value is suited to. For example, scrolling through ISO values the first thumbnail for ISO 100 is a blurred waterfall and the final thumbnail for ISO 6400 is a fast-moving amusement ride in the dark. Making settings self-explanatory is a real blessing if you’re a novice photographer; I certainly would’ve appreciated this fall-back safety net when learning about photography, before everything becomes second nature.

D5000 with a circular polariser D5000 high contrast scene

Using the D5000 with a circular polariser (L) and the D5000 coping well with a high contrast scene (R).

Conclusion

The Nikon D5000 produces better images than previous entry-level DSLRs, in a small portable design, with intuitive controls and the option of blissful simplicity to lure the beginner.

If you want to be more involved with the technical aspects of an image and plan to indulge in more demanding photography, then treat yourself to a Nikon D90 instead. You’ll have a second control dial, the option of a battery grip, autofocus with non AF-S lenses, and a larger viewfinder. The D5000 isn’t for advanced enthusiasts and it would be unfair to criticise or rate it as such.

The Nikon D5000 excels if you want digital SLR image quality, the convenience of point-and-shoot photography, and the option of taking control. Left in auto mode the D5000 will produce rewarding images and that make it very hard to resist.

Pros:
  • Simplicity
  • Intuitive controls
  • Comfortable to hold
  • Good image quality
Cons:
  • Auto white-balance too cool in daylight
  • Underexposure in very high contrast scenes
  • No built-in autofocus motor
Overall: Rating 8.5 out of 10
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