Nikon D5000 DSLR camera review

Nikon’s D5000 amounts to Nikon slicing up another segment of the DSLR market pie, ensuring that they have a camera for all sectors and budgets. As such it slots into the company’s line up above the “entry level” D60 but below the enthusiast oriented D90 and provides a new, advanced - but tweaked - platform for those with a tighter budget, yet with enough kit and features to make the camera stand out from the crowd.

And so the headline features of this new camera are, to a large degree, culled from the D90 and slotted into a surprisingly large body given the market it’s aimed at. A 2.7-inch LCD arrives with a tilt turn and swivel mount, which is nice to have, but it’s hinged at the base, something I like less than similar screens hinged at the side, since it is quickly impeded if you use the camera on a tripod.

The camera’s 12.3-megapixel CMOS DX format sensor is interesting since Nikon usually opt for CCD sensors in lower priced models. The benefit here is the camera’s noise performance is very good at higher sensitivities, which can reach the dizzy heights of ISO 6400 (in the boosted Hi 1 mode); the default range is ISO 200 to 3200 but the entire boosted range starts at ISO 100 (Low 1) to the aforementioned Hi 1 top setting.

Nikon’s EXPEED image processing engine provides 12-bit colour and is very good indeed here, allowing the camera to shoot at 4fps for seven RAW files and 25 JPEG images, around 60 JPEGs and 11 RAWs in simultaneous shooting mode or up to 100 JPEGs at the “normal” quality setting. So this makes a real step up from the D60 and makes the D5000 only slightly less accomplished in this department than the 4.5fps of the D90.

In fact, looking over the D60, D90 and D5000, it’s hard to escape the conclusion the D5000 is actually more D90-lite, than an upgraded D60 or, erm, a D60 heavy! The D60 will remain on sale alongside the new model though and like that model, you don’t get the body integral AF motor of the D90. As with the D60, D40x and D40 before that, only Nikon’s AF-S, AF-I lenses (with internal AF motors) can automatically focus on the D5000.

Nikon’s Type G or D AF lenses will fit but won’t auto focus; the removal of the in body AF motor saves weight and cost, the intention with the introduction of the system on the D40, but it does restrict the lenses available to you.

The 11-AF zones and Nikon’s excellent Multi-CAM 1000 AF module Live View provides contrast detection AF and face AF as well, of course. Normal focusing chores are superb, allied to the near instant start up makes the camera extremely fleet of foot when the going gets tough. Live View AF is a bit more problematic, particularly in low light and I found the Face AF system took a while to key onto faces in the frame. However, the overall package is still a big step up from the D60.

However, the D5000 also offers the ability to shoot 720p high definition video at 24fps, and with mono sound. Video shooting on a DSLR appears to be something of a trend developing across most DSLR manufacturers and video quality is superb indeed, though clip length is limited to just 5-minute chunks. That said advantages include the fact you can zoom while shooting, you can use many different optics; VR lenses (like the 18-55mm VR kit lens used for this test) allow camera shake reduction while shooting and the use a faster prime lenses allow low light movie shooting.

An improved and in a great move, a backward compatible battery pack (the new EN-EL9a) has an increased capacity of 7.8Wh (the old EN-EL9 had a rating of 7.2Wh) and so can shoot up to 510 shoots - according to Nikon’s figures - and on my tests, looks about right. Of course, it will vary depending the amount of flash and Live View use you bring into play. Incidentally, that built-in flash unit is a little underpowered with a guide number (GN) of 17 ISO 200.

The new 2.7-inch screen provides the now familiar animated screens for when you adjust apertures and shutter speeds, for example, giving a helpful and live representation of how the changes you make effect the camera’s settings. Great for the more novice user.

The screen is also active; a press of the Info button highlights the last adjusted item on the screen and then you can directly access and adjust features such as ISO, AF type and focus zones; metering, auto bracketing and flash to name a few. However, it’s 230k-pixel resolution makes it seem a little grainy and the screen has an overall yellow cast, something that makes using it a little problematic when judging white balance for example.

Nevertheless, the active screen makes the camera very user friendly and intuitive to use, because you don’t have to dip into the menus if you don’t want to and this is great for the more technically challenged. Other controls on the back include the Live View button, which must also be active for movie capture, there’s a small speaker and you get playback, menu, playback zoom controls and a four-way jog control with central "OK" button.

All are big, well placed and easy to use, like the rest of the camera in fact, which although substantially larger than the D60, is still a lightweight affair in the hand, thanks to a sturdy plastic-on-steel-chassis construction. All this is pretty much as you’d expect at this level/price while a single control wheel (I much prefer dual control wheels, one front and back) that sits below your right thumb, alongside the AF-L, AE-L button while a direct delete button sits the other side of the viewfinder.

And it is in the camera’s pentamirror viewfinder that I found my first disappointment with the D5000. It’s quite small and gloomy to use, has a 95% field of view and is simply not a patch on the D90’s brighter, pentaprism viewfinder. Again, the finder is another way Nikon’s managed to control costs, the camera’s size and weight. Any spectacle wearers among you will be able to use it while wearing your specs … just.

Thankfully the dioptre control allows you to set it up to use without your specs getting in the way, However, mitigating the gloom somewhat is the ability to use framing grid guides and the AF zones which all appear head-up fashion and are clear to use - even in brighter conditions.

The D5000 also has some other now de rigeur tweaks such as the inclusion of a sensor cleaning system, which (at least during my time with the camera) works well. The aforementioned 11-zone AF set includes colour and distance tracking capability too, and the shutter is tested to 100k cycles, making it (in theory at least) a reliable unit indeed.

Another reliable performer is the metering, which is based on a 420-segment RGB matrix unit that is a cracker. I had a set of superbly exposed images during shooting for this test; the camera barely putting a foot wrong; flash metering was good too and to help back up difficult situations, such as high contrast subjects, Active D-Lighting can be switched on to help tease out detail in shadows without affecting the highlight areas of a shot. And there are five levels to choose between including off!

On the other hand and if pressed, the camera very slightly underexposes, perhaps to help better preserve highlight detail by default? But the combination of Active D-Lighting and effective metering mean the D5000 performs admirably. In terms of final image quality, the DX format (that’s the APS-C sized chip) CMOS sensor provides a better signal to noise ratio and helps get the most from your shots at higher sensitivities. Colour is very good, the Standard colour setting providing neutral results by default.

White balance is excellent too, though a complex array of presets (seven in fluorescent for example) makes choosing the right mode difficult, but at least one of them will be okay! In terms of detail and sharpness, the shots I have taken (all at the camera’s default modes, as usual) show slight softness, a slight sharpening tweak is helped when a little contrast boost is added and then the JPEG shots, out of the camera, are superb.

However shooting RAW (you can shoot JPEG and RAW at the same time with plenty of fine tuning options to boot) means you can adjust your shots as you need in editing software afterwards. So perhaps, if you’re a RAW shooter, this is not an issue anyway?

Verdict

Looked at as a tweaked D60, the D5000 looks pricey and a little on the flabby side, however, switch that on its head and look at the D5000 as a D90-lite (and in some areas it out performs the D90, the colour tracking AF for example) and you have a very nice camera indeed that represents great value for money, particularly if shooting HD movies on your DSLR floats yer boat.

Overall then, the D5000 is excellent; a feature rich, semi-enthusiast-semi-novice DSLR (if there is such a thing, well, I suppose now, there is) that offers a responsive camera with bags of control in a lightweight (slightly bulky) easy to use DSLR body.