Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Nikon D5000 Full Review

Over the past two months we’ve been exploring various aspects of what to look for in purchasing your very first digital SLR camera. With so many models on the market aimed squarely at the budding enthusiast, I thought it best to review one of these for the publication.

To this end I contacted Nikon, who were kind enough to send me the D5000 – an upper entry level camera which when paired with the higher-end kit lens (the 18-105mm f/3.5-4.5 they additionally included), retails at approximately $1139.99 CAD.

The Basic Specs
• Sensor: 12.9 megapixel DX format (1.5 crop factor) CMOS
• Frame Rate: 4 images per second with a buffer of 7 RAW images or 25 JPG fine
• Viewfinder: 95% frame coverage
• LCD: 2.7” TFT LCD display with 100% frame coverage and Live View capability
• Video Modes: 1280x720, 640x424, 320x216 – all at 24 frames per second
• ISO range: 200-3200 native with 100-6400 expanded range (HI & LO) available
• Metering: Matrix, Centre Weighted, and Spot are supported.
• Focus Points: 11
• Outputs & Storage: SD Card, High Speed USB, HDMI Video

First Impressions
Upon opening the box, I was quite surprised, being now used to Nikon’s pro bodies, with how small the D5000 is. At 12.7x10.4x8cm, the camera is fairly well matched with the 18-105, but when I popped a pro lens like the 28-70mm f/2.8 on, it was quite strange looking indeed. They say good things come in small packages however; so I tried not to pass judgement on this characteristic alone – though it’s true that it took some getting used to when shooting.

I fired it up, and glancing down to view the current settings noticed that there was no top LCD display. This was somewhat mitigated by the articulated rear screen however, which features an innovative, crisp 230,000 dot TFT panel that tilts and swivels. It certainly facilitates some tricky shots, as you can put the camera in places you mightn’t otherwise be able, yet still see the image preview on the screen.
This model clearly targets those who are graduating from point-and-shoot, and used to holding their camera at arm’s length to compose shots on the LCD versus using the viewfinder. This is of course the absolute worst way to attempt to capture sharp images, but the camera design apparently seeks to ease the transition between framing methods.

Some of the shooting information I would like to see (metering method, shooting mode, shots taken etc.) while looking through the viewfinder is instead displayed on the rear screen – though certainly the essentials are indeed available and provide more than enough info for most people. Unfortunately, the LCD also has the annoying habit of activating (for a variety of reasons as you adjust the controls) and spilling light into your eye while trying to compose an image through the viewfinder. You quickly get used to turning this off however, so ultimately it isn’t much of a bother.

The shutter has a soft, yet pleasing sound and the response of the camera seems fairly snappy for its class. The unit even has a feature I wish was present in Nikon’s pro line-up: an automatic sensor cleaner that activates upon start-up and shut-down. Nothing is more annoying than having to clone out dust bunnies on every shot in Photoshop, or more nerve-wracking than trying to clean your own sensor and potentially damaging it.

Default Settings
Before I take a camera out in the field for any reason, I ensure to first zero the controls. This entails setting the ISO to its native value, in this case 200, setting white balance to auto, removing any dialled in exposure compensation, selecting my most frequent shooting mode (aperture), and choosing a reasonable aperture that will serve if I have to take a quick snap. Obviously, when I start shooting, I make adjustments based on lighting conditions and subject matter; however, there are few things more irritating to a photographer than arriving on-scene, having to take a shot immediately, and discovering that you’ve botched the image by failing to realize that some of your settings from the previous shoot were still active.
In the D5000’s case, there were numerous additional settings that I would have to change from the default in order that I might have the exposure latitude that a photographer, versus a holiday snapper, would require. I switched from JPG standard to RAW, sRGB to Adobe RGB (the Adobe RGB colour space has a wider gamut), Active Auto D-Lighting to off (D-Lighting helps maintain shadow and highlight detail in scenes with high contrast, but I like to have full control over my camera and activate a D-Lighting mode only when necessary), and auto-area focus mode to single point, enabling me to select exactly where I want the focus of the image to be instead of having the camera make this decision for me.

The D5000 in Action
I spent two weeks with this camera in variety of settings, and after becoming accustomed to its quirks, can honestly say this little machine is quite impressive. The auto white balance is excellent, often leaving one less thing to adjust – a relief for most learning photographers. Noise at high ISOs is well controlled and will render cleaner images than even the last generation of Nikon pro bodies at these settings. This is great news for natural light photographers who often find themselves shooting indoors. Colours seem a little saturated and images more pre-sharpened than I am used to; however, this clearly points to the fact that the camera is aimed at a market with less experience at RAW processing, and designed to produce useable images right out of the camera.

The supplied 18-105mm f/3.5-4.5 kit lens features vibration reduction technology is a fine performer in its class. Barrel and pincushion distortion is relatively well controlled at the extremes of its range though the unit does seem prone to chromatic aberration (purple fringing in high contrast areas of images). Given the low cost however ($379.99 retail when purchased separately), I was surprised by how well it rendered most images.
Video performance on the other hand, is less impressive. While the D5000 makes a good first DSLR from a still image perspective; it won’t replace dedicated video cameras any time soon. The lack of autofocus once the video has started recording, no external microphone jack, and the appearance of image banding while recording fast moving objects or when rapidly panning, limits its utility fairly significantly. However, the D5000 allows you to take advantage of the prime reason you’d want to capture video on a DSLR beyond simple convenience: access to professional lenses. So, if you choose your shots carefully and piece them together later in a video editor like the new Adobe Premiere Elements 8, you can achieve some excellent results.

Final Thoughts
As a transitional piece of gear leading from point-and-shoot to DSLR, I think the camera achieves a fine balance, with a well thought out menu structure, good image quality, and consumer friendly features. While there are certainly some limitations – which are mostly a function of cost, other manufacturers are going to be very hard pressed indeed to match the versatility and quality of the D5000 at this price point.

1 comment:

  1. Every product has a market and trying to criticize the D5000 for slightly lower quality pictures when using ISO at 1600 or above when compared with more expensive cameras or talking about the fact that the continues shooting speed is more like 3 than 4 and not as fast as the D90 or higher models makes no sense.

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