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Nikon D5000 digital SLR

July 17th, 2009
The most advanced entry Nikon DSLR yet with HD video as a bonus.

I have been shooting with Nikons for my entire professional career. This started with the advanced amateur Nikon FM while a college student back in 1977, and progressed through a succession of F series cameras as well as the N8008 and N90. In digital, I've progressed through the D1, D1h, D1X, D2h and D200, finally culminating at the D300; virtually every pro-level Nikon has passed through my hands. But now, Nikon is hoping that a person who started with a Coolpix point-and-shoot will eventually move upstream and progress through the complete product line. Wishing isn’t necessarily going to make that true. But in the case of the Nikon D5000, it could.

The hierarchy at Nikon is hoping that it can catch lightning in a bottle with the D5000 introduced in the spring of this year. A 12.3 megapixel offering, it effectively becomes the bridge camera between the simpler compacts in the sub-$400 range and prosumer rigs in the above-$1,000 price point -- and also the least expensive DSLR to produce HD video at the same time. However, is it priced right or left wanting?

what’s included

Everything’s included, which should be a major comfort for those who are graduating from fixed-lens cameras into the kingdom of the SLR. The Quick Start Guide will get the average user up and running in no time. Nikon’s Software Suite DVD makes another appearance and has image browsers, Raw converters, Nikon Transfer, NikonViewNX and other utilities that help assist in viewing and editing photos. Additionally, you’ll find a Nikon strap, an EN-EL9a Li-ion battery and a quick charger, an AV cable to connect to HDMI input on televisions (new to this end of Nikon's lineup) and a USB cable to connect to a computer or printer.

The D5000 uses SD and SDHC memory cards and stores images as JPEG, NEF RAW or a combination of the two, NEF RAW+JPEG. Some might bemoan the lack of CompactFlash, but in this class the speed and expense won't be worthwhile.

design and controls

Let’s call this new D5000 a Nikon-lite. We’re not trying to take anything away from it. It's impressive what Nikon has managed to squeeze into the package. Sometimes, though, certain things get left behind in an effort to make a new design as feature-laden as possible. To a longtime user of DSLRs, the swiveling LCD is initially disarming: it looks as though Nikon took away the option for reviewing shots. In truth, the 2.7-inch panel is initially turned around for protection from scratches or other damage. Longtime Nikon users will be extremely happy to see this function show up on an interchangeable lens camera, however. Swiveling the screen suddenly makes many shots possible that weren't before: a “Hail Mary” over-the-head photo is now an option, for example, as is shooting below eye level by looking down. It's not completely new as some Sony Alphas now use the feature, but it's a first among the heavyweight contenders in the camera industry.

One caveat: because the hinge is mounted on the bottom, it potentially interferes with the tripod mount just a short distance away. We'd recommend setting the display to its ideal angle before mounting the camera in place. It's not a fatal flaw by any means, but it's one that side-hinged displays don't usually have to contend with.

Those used to other, more advanced Nikon DSLRs may be shocked at the absence of a sub-command dial near the shutter button. In the past, it controlled the aperture while the larger command dial located under the user’s thumb controlled shutter speed. With a bulk of the controls disappearing, others are now doing double duty. Case in point: the exposure compensation button is also the button pushed to change the aperture while turning the rear command dial.

At the top of the camera, the mode dial takes the place of the LCD screen found on the D90. It features all the exposure modes familiar to existing Nikon users. Add to that an auto mode that essentially mimics the point and shoot mode that a buyer would most likely have experienced with their previous camera. There are typical icons that depict portrait, cloudy, macro, action, backlit and nighttime photography. Finally, a scene mode provides a variety of other options including food, high key, silhouette, low key, night landscape, party/indoor and other functions that are controlled by the command dial resting under the user’s thumb.

Even with the absence of a top-mounted LCD on the D5000, Nikon has done a nice job of incorporating the function menus into the one main screen, which also doubles as the image monitor. The catch is that there's an overabundance of small buttons located around the back. Some are well placed, while others tend to find themselves under our thumbs in short order. At some point, a camera with all these functions just becomes a little too small, and those used to larger DSLRs may seek a slightly larger grip and more spread-out controls.

image quality and the 18-55mm VR lens

Image quality of the Nikon is excellent in normal ISO ranges of about 200 to 800. Other testers of the D5000 claim the camera puts out visibly noisy images above ISO 800; in my experience, it's practical to move as high as ISO 3,200 if you're willing to invoke a deliberate film grain effect from the noise that becomes visible in the shadows. Noise-centric photographers will of course have a narrower range to choose from, but we actually like what we’ve seen with the D5000 as a whole. Technically, ISO speeds extend to a special Low1 mode (approximately ISO 100) to High1 (ISO 6400), but the sweet spot remains in the regular modes. That shots across virtually all this range remain usable are a testament to the quality of the image sensor, which is the same as in the D90.

The burst rate with the D5000 is equally impressive for its category. Able to plow through 63 large (Fine quality) JPEGs at a frame rate of 4 frames per second, the DSLR can also shoot 11 RAW files at the same 4FPS. While slightly slower than the D90's 4.5 and slower in absolute standards -- a Canon 1D Mark III can peak at 10FPS -- it's good for the class.

The 18-55mm kit lens is surprisingly very nice, even as it uses a plastic lens mount instead of the metal on higher-end Nikon. The more we use this type of mount, the less we are bothered by it. The big knurled rubber ring controls the zoom while the miniscule, almost toy-like focusing grip at the front of the lens lets those who chose to, row the focusing ring for themselves. The Vibration Reduction (VR) function of this lens enables photography in lower light with less shake visible in the image.

But it's not foolproof; truly dark scenes or a combination of low light and fast movement will still produce blurry images. For those keeping count, this lens has a 35mm equivalency of approximately 28 to 85mm, so it will handle common tasks but will need to be swapped out for a wide-angle or telephoto shot. If you're used to longer ranges or shooting macro and other wide shots, consider buying the body-only version of the camera and the lens you really want, such as the 18-105mm general purpose lens.

ISO 3,200

ISO 6,400

Night shooting: ISO 200, 1 second exposure, f9

Night shooting: ISO 200, 4 seconds exposure, f16

Shutter speeds run the gamut from 30 glacial seconds, plus bulb, to an action stopping 1/4000th of a second; again, this isn't as fast as some cameras but makes it entirely usable for most sports shooting. Notably, the viewfinder is made up of a pentamirror instead of a pentaprism as found in higher priced DSLRs. The upside (for the manufacturer) is lower costs, while the downside (for the end user) is a dimmer viewfinder. Photographers who rely heavily on optics rather than the camera's Live View mode should steer towards the D90, Rebel T1i or other cameras with brighter viewfinders.

other features

That same Live View is an important but by now ubiquitous feature on Nikon's cameras, and for the most part it carries the same strengths and weaknesses as on other DSLRs. Using it forces the camera to use slower contrast autofocusing, like a point-and-shoot, that takes a few seconds to lock in; you can alternately press a button to force a much quicker focus at the expense of temporarily losing sight of the subject. The upshot of Live View, however, is composing without looking into the eyepiece, and it's here that the D5000 shines: since you can maneuver the LCD to get a head-on view at most common angles, the feature is eminently more useful than it is on a camera with a fixed display. It's likely that Nikon designed the camera with the assumption that many might skip the optical viewfinder altogether.

As with the D90, the key marketing point for the D5000 is its 720p shooting mode. The mode carries over almost exactly, but that's a potential problem: it shoots at 24FPS rather than the 30 of the Rebel T1i and still uses a rolling shutter technique to capture clips, creating an unusual "wobble" during camera movement as the top and bottom of the scene don't stay in sync. That doesn't exist in the Rebel T1i or other video-capable DSLRs. Video size is also a concern: in 720p resolution, recording is limited to five-minute segments. There's also just a single microphone with no option for an external plug-in, so sound will take a definite backseat.

Video can still be useful on the D5000, and at this price the weaknesses are easier to swallow. Still, for now it's best left to controlled tripod use and for imaging first and foremost, not sound as well.

Footage from the D90; D5000 footage is identical.

A built-in pop-up flash holds sway atop the D5000’s pentamirror. By itself, it’s the perfect “walking around” rig. But if you need to trigger Nikon’s Creative Lighting System strobes, you’ll need one more to place in the camera’s hotshoe. This is unlike the big brother D90, where the pop up flash also doubles as a CLS commander strobe. It’s not a deal breaker to be certain, but it would be a great addition.

wrapping up

Nikon’s D5000 is a good means to introduce former amateurs into the DSLR market. Easy enough for tyros to master, and capable enough to be thrown into backup duty by a serious hobbyist or professional, it is a well-built camera that can take almost any photo that someone likely to want this camera would want to take.

There are, of course, limits: while we wouldn't expect it to shoot at extremely high speeds or to capture clean shots at levels reserved for cameras three or four times its price, this isn't quite a D90 on the cheap. The slightly shrunken design, absence of a top settings LCD, feature-limited remote flashing and darker viewfinder will all likely steer more experienced photographers towards more expensive cameras in Nikon's line. It may be more comfortable to hold and more flexible than the Rebel T1i and the new batch of Micro Four Thirds thanks to its grip and its swivel LCD, but it won't win in terms of video quality. For that, Canon's camera or else the Panasonic GH1 will be a better choice.

Even so, given Nikon's mastery of still images, we'd still opt for the D5000 above the others. Just beware of your own experience. This near-entry Nikon is best if you're simply looking for a higher-quality alternative to a "prosumer" point-and-shoot or as a learning model. Prospective buyers who fully intend to graduate to more advanced shooting may want to consider paying the extra money for a camera with more familiar DSLR features.

- Swiveling LCD.

- Compact design; a good beginner/travel camera.

- Good image quality and ISO levels.

- Relatively fast 4FPS burst shooting.

- Inexpensive for HD video.

- A bit too small; buttons crowded and reduced.

- Dark viewfinder, no top-mounted LCD.

- HD video still exhibits "wobble."

- Reduced options for remote flashes.