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Product report: Nikon D5000
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Product report: Nikon D5000

Field and lab test results for Nikon's video-capable step-up DSLR

The D5000, introduced as an entry-level DSLR, has its feet firmly planted in two worlds—the world of the beginner, and as a second body for more advanced users.


Nikon D5000 (shown with 18-55mm VR lens)

 
Key features
• 12MP sensor
• RAW & JPEG
• 720p HD Video
• Controls remote flash wirelessly
• 30-1/4000 sec. Shutter speeds
• 1/200 sec. Flash synch
• Up to 4fps burst rate
• ISO range 200-3200
• Flip-out 2.7-inch LCD monitor
• 12+ scene modes
• Face priority focus and exposure
• D-range shadow detail

Positives
• Light and small
• Choice of smart auto modes or full manual control
• Compatible with all Nikon lenses
• Controls wireless external flashes

Negatives
• Slight shutter hesitation due to sluggish autofocus
• No external microphone jack
• No PC outlet for off-camera flash


Ideal for
• General photography
• First DSLR
• Travel, people, close-ups

Price (current as of mid-January, 2010): $626.95 body only.


The D5000, introduced as an entry-level DSLR, has its feet firmly planted in two worlds—the world of the beginner who wants everything on automatic but will occasionally dare to try a scene mode, and the world of the experienced enthusiast and hobbyist, who knows how exposure works and isn't afraid to take off the camera's training wheels and use its very good metered manual and even (gasp!) turn off the autofocus and focus manually. It's been positioned as a camera that you can keep using as you gain experience.

Does the D5000 live up to its hype as a camera for all seasons? Is it worth paying a bit more, or should you consider the less expensive (and less feature-rich) D3000? Let's see how this model pans out in the field, and under lab conditions.


Flip out! The 2.7-inch LCD screen flips down, around and out. In this position, you can easily do "hip shots".

 

 

In this position, you can shoot over-the-head "hail-Mary" shots.



In the hands
 
The D5000, as you would expect from a camera that's positioned as a first DSLR, is small and light. Control placement is logical and I found it easy to operate any button or dial on the camera body without moving my hands from the basic holding position. The generous-sized, texture-patterned polycarbonate handgrip is comfortable while a small patch of rubberized material in the back gives the thumb a place to rest.
 
The 2.7-inch flip-down LCD monitor is different from typical flip-out monitors that I've seen. Rather than flipping out sideways, it flips down. In the down position, you can turn it right or left, flip it all the way around so subjects can see themselves, or tilt it slightly down so you can raise the camera over heads for “hail Mary” shots. One negative aspect to this configuration is that you can't use the flip-down monitor to help you shoot self-portraits, since it flips down below the tripod socket, and would be totally blocked by a tripod head.
 
Aperture, shutter speed, ISO and other settings are controlled via an easy-to-access thumbwheel Command Dial, while a four-way toggle Multi-Selector navigates through the menu items. No matter how “basic” a DSLR is, I always look to see how easy it is to operate it in metered Manual. The Command Dial controls both aperture and shutter speed: use the Command Dial alone to adjust shutter speed, and simultaneously press the EV compensation button (next to the shutter release) while turning the Command Dial to control the aperture. Simple!

You can easily switch the PASM modes as well as auto and various scene modes via a top dial that is clearly marked via white-on-black silkscreened icons.
 
The viewfinder's information display is packed with data. There's a nice (but not totally necessary) icon that visually shows shutter speeds and apertures (depending on shooting mode) as well as indicators of statuses of various settings such as White Balance, image quality, function setting, exposure, ISO, and many more items. Taking a feature from the old Minolta playbook, the information is orientation-sensitive, and will switch from a landscape to portrait display depending on how the camera is held.

The LCD monitor displays a lot of information and for a beginning photographer it may be a bit overwhelming. My advice to beginners? Ignore it. If and when you choose to educate yourself about exposure and camera settings, you'll be able to appreciate the extensive information provided.
 
The button brings up this screen on the LCD, which lets you quickly navigate top-level settings. You can select and adjust any setting from this menu.

Modes and features

The D5000 is packed with features, as evidenced by the accompanying 236-page instruction manual! While its intended audience of beginners needn't read past page 32 except on an as-needed basis, more advanced users can explore a seemingly endless array of features, including 19 scene modes (such as Low Key, High Key, Silhoutette, Pet Portrait, Food, Autumn Colors, Child, Sports, and Night Landscape). After-the-exposure filters can be applied in-camera via the Retouch Menu. These include several flavors of Monochrome, warm filter (which can be fine-tuned manually), cross screen, and soft filters. Red-eye fix and D-lighting (which lightens shadows) can also be used.

 

 

 
With D-lighting on its highest settings, shadow falling across table shows unnatural transition border area.  Below: D-lighting is turned off, and shadows are more natural.

 


 
I found the D-lighting filter to be useful in opening up shadows, but you have to be careful with it (see above) and I'm glad the amount of D-lighting can be adjusted. Applied too strong and it will look fake, with a dark border area in any shadow.

 

The scene selection dial shows which picture-taking scene you’ve chosen when the you’ve selected Scene in the top dial.

Live View (accessed via the “LV” button in the back of the camera) allows you to shoot videos, up to 720p, or 1080i (interlaced). Since there is no mic jack, you're stuck with the on-camera microphone, which will pick up any operating noises in quieter recording situations. Nevertheless, you can adjust aperture manually, and can zoom and focus during exposure, which is a big advantage over point-and-shoots. The D5000 brings Nikon's video recording capabilities down to a new, more affordable  price point.

 

Isn’t she lovely? I photographed this Elk at the Turtleback Zoo in West Orange, NJ, on a cold winter day. While the background of sunlit white snow is blown out, the range of detail from shadow to highlights is impressive here.

In the field

I found the camera itself to be responsive although focus performance was typical of the newer Nikon cameras that lack an internal AF motor. Focus search delayed shooting in some low contrast, low-light situations. In daylight, however, focus was quick and reliable.  When I switched to manual focus, there was no discernable lag time.

I found the button on the bottom left corner of the camera back to be valuable. By pressing it and navigating through the statuses on screen I could quickly access the most frequently-used modes and adjust them without having to dig through the menu.

The “hail mary” LCD monitor worked well and I was able to shoot over heads and from the hip with ease. The screen was readable—just barely—in bright sunlight, but that's typical of an LCD in this price range.

 

Subtle improvements: Here’s a cool shot of an ice sculpture (note decent unretouched exposure in challenging light), being photographed by my compatriot Jack Howard in open shadow. Too blue? Here’s the same shot with the camera’s on-board after-the-fact warming filter applied:
 



 

Horse of a different color: I applied Sepia toning after the fact. In-camera post-processing is handy and effective. It creates a new image file so you don’t lose the original shot.

 

Seeing stars: I applied the star filter to this shot of bubbles being blown underwater in an aquarium at the Turtleback Zoo. Well, there’s one more optical filter I can toss!


Image quality: DxOMark Lab Test Results

Test results are provided by DxOMark Labs, and are used with their permission.

The D5000 is one of the best-performing APS sensor cameras currently available, according to DxOMark Lab test results, getting an overall score that's almost identical to the older, more expensive D90. With a 12.5-stop dynamic range is can capture a wide range of shadow detail to bright highlights in one image, while color depth is impressive.  The highest recommended ISO for unadulterated RAW images is 800 (actually, ISO 868 to be precise), and DxO mark rates it 2nd of all cameras for low-light ISO performance! On-board noise reduction when shooting JPEG can get you excellent quality at higher speeds, as can after-the-fact noise reduction software.

ISO accuracy is consistently around 1/3 of a stop slower than the indicated speed from ISO 200-6400. For example, ISO 200 measured at ISO 140, while ISO 800 measured at only ISO 564.

 

My field results confirmed what DxO found in the lab: Exposures and color balanced seemed accurate, and the wide selection of filters worked well. The 12 megapixel images had good detail in shadows and highlights, even with D-lighting turned off.

 

Conclusion and recommendations

The popular Nikon D40 had a relatively long run as Nikon’s basic DSLR, and the D5000 and its stripped-down sibling, the D3000 have capably stepped into its place as contemporary updates. Its higher-resolution 12MP sensor will deliver images that you can print up to 16x20 inches and based on both field experience and lab data, those images will look great.

At approximately $630 for the body (at the time of writing, January 12, 2009), the D5000  is not the cheapest camera in the “starter DSLR” category, but it is packed with enough features to justify its higher price. It’s approximately $300 less than the D90, which until the D5000’s introduction was the only way to get HD video on a Nikon DSLR. Yes, it will hold your hand and let you shoot with training wheels if you want it to, but you can also operate it easily in full manual metering if you know what you’re doing.

But with its extensive control set, articulated LCD monitor and rich selection of features, the D5000 earns its keep in many other ways and can be a camera to grow into. It’s a reasonably-priced entry into Nikon’s extensive flash system and legendary interchangealbe lenses. You can even use it with a GPS unit for geotagging.
 

D3000, left; D5000, right. The D5000 is a little bit bigger.

If you want to save a couple of Benjamins, consider the D3000, which is a bit smaller and lighter, has a 10MP sensor, and lacks video capabilities. But if you want a camera you can grow with, the D5000 is an excellent choice.

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