Nikon’s breakthrough D90 ushered in the era of the HD video-taking DSLR last September, and now the company has introduced a somewhat similar model for around $250 less. This is why we love the CE business. While not a complete apples-to-apples comparison, just like the D90, the new D5000 is a 12.3-megapixel DSLR that records 1280 x 720p video at 24 frames per second. Let’s see if the D5000 is as good a deal as it appears to be on the surface.
Features and Design
Ah, black DSLRs! Other than some surface texture differences, they all pretty much look the same, and are similarly sized, give or take a few fractions of an inch. That said, the Nikon is a bit heftier than competitors such as the Canon EOS T1i, Olympus E-620 and Sony DSLR-A330. The D5000 tips the scales at 31 ounces with lens, battery and card, versus 26 or so for the others. In either case, your shoulder’s not going to fall off, but this is not a digicam you slip into your pocket. The camera measures 5 inches wide by 4.1 tall and 3.1 deep. By comparison, the D90 body measures 5.2 x 4.1 x 3, and weighs 3 ounces more.
The front features the Nikon F bayonet mount, which accepts all AF-S and AF-I glass. Since there’s no built-in autofocus motor, like that found in the D90, other Nikon lens types have limited functionality. The Web site has all the gory details, but this shouldn’t be an issue for the person buying this camera, as they’ll most likely be a first-time DSLR purchaser, or moving up from a Nikon D40 or D60. Also on the front is an AF Assist/self-timer lamp, and lens-release button. Above this key are self-timer/function and flash mode/flash compensation buttons. There is no depth-of-field preview key. Other features include a three pinhole mic on the right, and an infrared sensor built into the pistol grip, which is comfortable, but some may find it a bit small. As always, check out the heft and grip before you plunk down your cash. There are a few unobtrusive logos and Nikon’s Nike-like red arrow on the grip, for a tiny touch of color. This is a DSLR, so – heaven forbid – it might actually look truly different than the black monolith in 2001, A Space Odyssey.
The top of the D5000 shows one of the key differences between sub-$750 models and the big boys: There’s no LCD screen showing your settings at a quick glance, you have to check out the rear display. Is this a deal breaker? Not likely for casual shooters, but someone into f/stops, shutter speed, ISOs and metering modes will want the convenience. You will find a hot shoe for accessory flashes atop the auto pop-up flash, a mode dial, and the shutter button surrounded by the power switch. Next to the shutter are info and exposure compensation/aperture keys. The mode dial has options for auto, program, aperture- and shutter-priority, six scene modes, access to 13 more under the scene option, as well as flash off. Unlike a digicam, there’s no direct movie mode. You have to enter Live View, hitting the LV key on the back.
The rear has a swiveling variable-angle 2.7-inch LCD, rated a decent 230K, not the 921K found on better DSLRs, including the D90 which is 3-inches, albeit in a fixed position. The swiveling LCD lets you hold the camera over your head or other positions, depending on the shot. It’s a real plus. The screen worked fine under almost all light conditions, even direct sunlight. When not in use, you can fold it inwards, protecting the screen. The D5000 has a viewfinder surrounded by a rubber eyecup with 95 percent coverage and 78 percent magnification. It’s not the brightest or largest we’ve ever used, but it’s acceptable. There’s a diopter control next to it to fine tune your view. To the left of the LCD are the usual controls: delete, playback, menu, thumbnail/help, playback zoom and information edit, which gets you to a main menu screen with photo parameters. To the right of the LCD is an AF/AE Lock button, a rotary dial for moving through menus, the LV Live View key, and a four-way controller with center OK button. A tiny speaker rests just below this.
On the right side is the compartment for SD and SDHC cards, while on the left are accessory terminal, USB, and mini-HDMI outputs. The bottom of the Made-In-Thailand camera has the tripod mount and battery compartment. The supplied battery is good for 510 shots per CIPA guidelines, the D90 does 850.
What’s In The Box
If you go the kit route, you get the body and 3x 18-55mm AF-S Nikkor f/3.5-5.6 G VR lens. To compete with DSLRs with built-in sensor shift stabilization (Olympus, Pentax, Sony), Nikon and Canon include a stabilized lens in many of their bundles. Remember, if you want to eliminate blur, you’ll need to spend more for VR lenses (or IS in Canon’s case). You also get various caps, straps, battery/charger and a nicely-done 238-page owner’s manual. The CD-ROM has Nikon Transfer and ViewNX programs for downloading and for handling files.
With the battery charged, and a 6GB SDHC in place, it was time to test the Nikon D5000.
Performance and Use
Yeah, we know the D5000 records HD videos, but it’s first and foremost a Nikon DSLR, so stills were top of mind. The camera takes 4288 x 2848 pixel images as JPEGs or NEF files (Nikon’s proprietary RAW setting). We started in auto, JPEG fine, with the standard picture style. Burst mode was engaged, and the camera cranks out a cool four frames per second, a very good spec. The 15MP Canon T1i hits 3.4 fps, while the D90 is slightly faster, at 4.5. After auto, it was time for RAW images, manual options and, of course, high-def video.
We had the opportunity to attend a wedding, so we played wedding photographer for a day using the D5000 (the real photographers used Canon EOS 1D Mark IIIs, which are $5,000 for the body alone). Still, it gave us the opportunity to shoot outdoors and in, plus gave us the chance to record video. We found the D5000 focused very quickly in bright light, as well as dim. The AF Assist lamp definitely made its presence known, but it really helped with people portraits. The burst mode came in handy as well, capturing dancers caught up in the spirit of the event – alcohol helped, but there weren’t any incidents a la The Hangover. Once done, it was time to make some prints, closely examine the images on a monitor and review the videos on a 50-inch plasma.
We have to admit, this Nikon D-SLR takes some really fine photos. Colors were really accurate, capturing all of the reds, greens and whites of the various floral arrangements. People shots were excellent, as the potent AF assist lamp and flash did what they’re supposed to do: Give you shots of your friends you’ll want to enlarge and give as gifts. Red-eye control worked very well, and we found little among the many snapshots taken. We saw barely any image noise up to ISO 800, caught speckles at 1600, and by 3200, photos looked poor. But overall, what can you say? This is a $729 Nikon, and it delivers the goods. Beyond taking good photos, there’s a raft of in-camera editing fixes to help you tweak your images without a computer.
Now for the negatives. The Live View worked fairly well, as did the vari-angle display for shooting overhead. However, it’s not nearly as good a Live View system as the new Sony A330. It’s slower, and the camera didn’t respond as quickly as we’d like. Then there’s the video. Focusing is still difficult, especially for fast moving objects coming at you or moving away. Quality is decent, but it’s not in the same league as some of the HD camcorders we’ve recently reviewed, such as the Canon HF200. The HD video on most DSLRs is a nice gimmick, and works all right for capturing short clips, but if you really want to make movies, a camcorder is the only way to go.
We have no problems recommending the Nikon D5000. That said, if you go this route, you might consider a different lens, such as the 18-105mm bundled with D90. We found the D5000 3x kit lens to be wanting, and really were looking for some extra reach. Nikon DSLRs have a 1.5x digital factor, so the kit glass translates to 27-82.5mm; 27-157mm would’ve been very welcome. It’ll take newbies a little time to learn the details of this camera, after all, the owner’s manual is 238 pages. Yet just shooting in auto or using the scene modes, you’ll get quality stills, and that’s what a camera is all about.
- Nice 12MP images
- Fast focusing, good burst mode
- Little noise up to ISO 800
- Variable-angle 2.7-inch LCD
- Movie mode is problematic (especially focusing)
- No quick view LCD panel on top
- No depth-of-field preview button
- No built-in AF motor (limits auto functions of select lenses)