Nikon D5000 Review

 
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Nikon D5000 Optics

Kit Lens

The Nikon D5000 ships in kit form with the same Nikkor AF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G DX VR lens that comes with the D60 kit. To better compete with models from brands such as Olympus, Pentax and Sony that have built-in image-stabilization, this kit lens comes with Nikon's excellent Vibration Reduction (VR) technology to help compensate for camera shake. We tested a sample of the Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED AF-S DX VR on SLRgear.com. Optical performance is so-so wide open, but the lens is capable of very good sharpness if stopped down one or two f-stops, and the added image stabilization should come in handy in low-light situations. While sharpness wide-open is only average, this newer kit lens performs better overall than the original, non-VR 18-55mm, and is enormously better when it comes to flare: The previous version was subject to rather extreme veiling flare when shooting high-contrast subjects under bright conditions.

Kit lenses work well enough for most consumers, and serve their purpose, getting you started without breaking the bank; but a big part of the attraction with SLRs is that you can easily trade up to a better lens when your finances improve, and extend your reach to wider angle, telephoto, or macro photography just by adding to your lens collection. The 18-55mm VR lens that comes with the Nikon D5000 will do a fine job until such time as budget and desire lead you to start building a lens collection.

Lens Compatibility

Like the Nikon D40, D40x and D60 before it, the Nikon D5000 drops autofocus support for the older AF lenses whose focus mechanisms were driven from the camera. These lenses have what looks like a little screwdriver slot on their mounting flange that couples with a protruding, screwdriver-looking shaft on the camera body. A motor in the camera body thus drives the lens mechanics to adjust focus.

More recent Nikkor lenses have motors built into the lens body, which tend to be both faster and quieter than the old-style drive system, as well as allowing the camera body to be lighter, smaller and cheaper. These newer lenses carry an AF-S or AF-I designation in their name, and are the only types of lenses the D5000 can autofocus with. CPU-equipped lenses lacking built-in focus motors can be used in manual focus mode, and type G or D lens types will also support full 3D color matrix metering for more accurate exposures, particularly when flash is being used. (You can tell CPU-equipped lenses by the set of five electrical contacts arrayed on the side of the lens flange.)

The tables below (courtesy Nikon Inc.) tell the full story of lens compatibility for the Nikon D5000.

 

Focusing Options

The D5000 inherits the same Multi-CAM 1000 AF sensor module used in the D90, so many of its basic specs mirror those of the D90 quite closely. As we noted in the review section covering the viewfinder, the D5000 has a total of 11 autofocus regions, arranged with 9 in an almost square matrix in the central area of the frame, with two additional ones positioned to the right and left of the central array. The central point of the array is a selectable normal/wide point, optionally able to look across a wider area in determining focus. Each of the 11 focus areas can be used individually, the center sensor can be switched to wide-frame operation for broader coverage, and an Auto-area AF mode measures all 11 focus areas, automatically determines which of them are on the primary subject and activates only those areas. As with the D90, only the center sensor is cross-type, able to respond to subject detail oriented either horizontally or vertically.

The D5000 lets you choose either auto or manual focus, but it doesn't have the small AF mode dial on the front of the camera as found on the D90. Instead, the switch on the lens must be used. Setting the switch to "M" puts the lens into manual focus mode, "A" places it in autofocus mode. Single AF (AF-S), Continuous AF (AF-C), Auto-switching AF (AF-A) and Manual focus (MF) options can be selected via the menu system. (The D90 has a dedicated AF mode button to switch modes.) Single AF simply means that the camera sets focus only once, when the Shutter button is first pressed halfway, and is best for stationary objects. Continuous AF means that the camera continuously adjusts the focus, as long as the Shutter button is halfway pressed, and is best for moving objects. In AF Auto mode, the camera begins focus operations in single-focus mode, but switches to Continuous Dynamic AF if it detects motion within the active AF area.

There's an important difference between Single and Continuous Servo modes: In Single Servo mode, the shutter won't release unless the lens is focused, or the lens itself is set to manual focus. (Focus Priority) In Continuous Servo mode however, the camera will fire regardless of the state of focus. (Release Priority) If you want to be sure that the camera is focused when you snap the picture, use Single Servo mode. Use Continuous Servo for moving subjects, and/or times when the instant of shutter release is more important to you than sharp focus.

Note: while the D5000 manual says that the camera is Release Priority in AF-C and AF-A modes, we found this to only be the case in AF-A mode on our D5000, and furthermore only when in Single-shot Servo mode versus Continuous shooting. We've contacted Nikon to let them know of the discrepancy.

The AF Area Mode option (a1) on the Custom Settings Menu or in the Shooting Menu (see right) lets you select between Single Area, Dynamic Area, and Auto AF modes, and includes the new 3D Tracking mode, brought over from Nikon's recent pro-level SLRs. Single Area AF simply means that the camera judges focus based on one part of the subject, and the user can manually select the AF point by pressing the arrow keys. Dynamic Area AF employs all of the autofocus points, though you can still manually select the main point. When Dynamic Area focusing is enabled, the camera first focuses on the subject in the primary focus area. When the subject moves to a different AF area, the camera shifts the focus to "follow" the subject. This is great for irregularly moving subjects. (Sports and kids come to mind.) The Auto-area AF option means that the camera first focuses on the subject in whatever single AF area is selected, but will switch to Dynamic Area AF if it detects subject motion. The new 3D Tracking mode uses the 420-element RGB exposure/white balance sensor to aid in subject tracking.

In any of the AF modes other than Auto Area, you can select the focus area by using the up, down, right, or left arrow directions on the control rocker. You cannot lock the focus area selection as on the D90, as the Nikon D5000 does not have a focus area lock switch. Another difference from the D90 is its center focus area could be set to either a normal or wide zone, through Custom Settings Menu option a2. The wider zone could be better for initially acquiring a moving subject, particularly when combined with the Dynamic Focus option. The Nikon D5000 does not have this option.

There are two methods by which you can lock focus on the Nikon D5000. The first is to half-press the Shutter button to lock the focus, placing your subject in the selected focus area, halfway pressing the Shutter button, then realigning the composition and firing the shutter. (This is the default behavior of the Shutter button, but if the AE-L/AF-L button is set to AF Lock, it will override the shutter button as long as it's held down.) Alternatively, when using Single Servo AF, you can press the AF-L/AE-L button to lock focus (and exposure, unless that button is set for focus only in Custom Settings menu f2). Keeping this button pressed will lock focus and/or exposure, even if the Shutter button is released. This lets you recompose the photograph without keeping your finger on the Shutter button, but on the AE-L/AF-L button instead. (Reducing the chance that you'll accidentally trip the shutter when you don't intend to.)

There are several options available for the AE-L/AF-L button, which can be set via Custom Settings Menu f2. You can program it to lock either focus or exposure separately, or both together (the default). You can also change its operation so a single press locks and holds the exposure setting. (No need to keep the button pressed down.) Finally, you can set the AE/AF lock button so it alone controls the autofocus system, meaning the autofocus won't actuate when the shutter button is half-pressed, only when the AE/AF lock button is pressed instead.

AF Assist

Like past Nikon DSLRs with built-in flashes, the D5000's AF-assist light is a bright incandescent bulb that emits from the body near the handgrip. We thought to call particular attention to it, because some DSLRs use the flash as an AF-assist light. This would be fine, but some models also require that the flash be used in the exposure, so there's no way to have AF assist for available-light shots. The D5000 doesn't have this limitation.

Anti-Dust Technology

The Nikon D5000 includes a two-pronged approach to fighting dust. The dust reduction system previously seen on the D60 digital SLR has been adopted for the D5000, where the optical low pass filter over the sensor is vibrated to shake off dust. In addition, Nikon has coupled this with what it is calling the "Airflow Control System". In essence, the camera's internals have been designed so as to control the flow of air - along with the dust the air is carrying - when the shutter is triggered, channelling dust particles away from the sensor.

The Nikon D5000 lets you choose when the sensor is ultrasonically cleaned. Selections available in the Setup Menu are Clean at Startup, Clean at Shutdown, Clean at Startup & Shutdown, or Cleaning Off. You can also lock-up the mirror for manual cleaning (see below).

Despite the new dust cleaning features, we haven't seen an automatic system yet that's capable of removing all dust. So while this is a nice feature to have, don't be fooled into thinking that you won't have to either learn how to clean your sensor or send the camera in for cleaning.

Everyone understands that lenses sometimes get dust on them and need to be cleaned, and there are a lot of lens-cleaning cloths, solutions and other accessories on the market that work well. BUT, what do you do when your sensor gets dusty? Dust specks on the sensor tend to show up when shooting at very small apertures, appearing as dark blobs on your images. They're distracting at best, a terrible nuisance at worst, if you end up having to retouch every image to rid of them.

Most of us are naturally leery about the idea of poking around inside the delicate innards of our DSLRs to wrestle with recalcitrant dust specks. Gently blowing the sensor surface (actually, the surface of the anti-aliasing filter) with compressed air gets rid of some dust, but there's invariably a lot that just stays stuck, no matter what. So what do you do?

If you've got dust specks on your sensor (and sooner or later you will), you're going to need to clean it. There are a lot of products out there intended to address this need, but a distressing number of them work poorly (if at all), and many are grossly overpriced. Advertising hype is rampant, with bogus pseudo-scientific jargon and absurd product claims run rampant. And prices - Did I mention prices? How about $100 for a simple synthetic-bristle brush?

So how do you know what product to use?

We don't pretend to have used everything currently on the market, but can tell you about one solution that worked very well for us. The "Copper Hill" cleaning method is straightforward and safe, and in our routine usage here at Imaging Resource, highly effective. Better yet, the products sold by Copper Hill Imaging are very reasonably priced. Best of all, Nicholas R (proprietor of Copper Hill) has put together an amazingly detailed tutorial on sensor cleaning, free for all.

Sensor cleaning is one of the last things people think about when buying a d-SLR, but it's vital to capturing the best possible images. Take our advice and order a cleaning kit from Copper Hill right along with your d-SLR, so you'll have it close at hand when you need it: You'll be glad you did!

(While they've advertised on our sister site SLRgear.com from time to time, we receive no promotional consideration from Copper Hill for this note. We just think their sensor cleaning products are among the best on the market, and like their way of doing business. - We think you will too. Check them out.)

 

Kit Lens Test Results

Zoom
Good performance with the 18-55mm VR (Vibration Reduction) kit lens.

18mm 55mm

The Nikon D5000 digital SLR accommodates a wide range of Nikkor lenses. Here, we tested the performance of the 18-55mm VR kit lens, which has a very typical (for an inexpensive kit lens) optical zoom range of ~3x. Stopped down to f/8, details are very good at wide-angle, with very good corner-to-corner sharpness (only slight softness in the extreme corners) and relatively low levels of coma distortion and blurring in the corners. Chromatic aberration is also quite low (see below for why). Results at full telephoto are also very good, with good sharpness across the frame and very low levels of chromatic aberration. All in all, the Nikkor 18-55mm VR, does well for a kit lens on a 12-megapixel sensor, and the added image stabilization will come in handy for low-light shooting.

Macro
A small minimum area (for an SLR kit lens), with soft detail. Flash throttles down well.

Standard Macro with 18-55mm VR
Kit Lens
Macro with Flash

As with zoom performance, the Nikon D5000's macro performance will depend entirely on the lens in use. However, with the 18-55mm VR kit lens set to 55mm, the D5000 captured a fairly small minimum area (for a non-macro SLR lens) measuring 2.58 x 1.72 inches (66 x 44 millimeters). Resolution is high, though details are a quite soft overall, even at the center of the frame. (Most lenses have some softening in the corners at macro distances, but the Nikkor 18-55mm VR was soft throughout the frame at this distance.) The Nikon D5000's flash throttled down for the macro area pretty well, and there was no detectable shadow from the lens barrel, resulting in a good exposure with the flash.

Geometric Distortion
Moderately high barrel distortion at wide-angle, almost none at telephoto with the 18-55mm VR kit lens. Enabling Auto Distortion Control is quite effective.

Barrel distortion at 18mm is 1.0 percent, Auto Distortion Control = Off (default)
Pincushion at 55mm is less than 0.1 percent, Auto Distortion Control = Off (default)

The Nikon D5000's 18-55mm VR kit lens produced about 1.0 percent barrel distortion at wide-angle, which is higher than average among the cameras we've tested, and noticeable in some of its images. At the telephoto end, the less than 0.1 percent pincushion distortion is very low and is almost imperceptible. This is the tendency for the lens to bend straight lines outward (like a barrel -- usually at wide-angle) or inward (like a pincushion -- usually at telephoto).

Distortion Control

Barrel distortion at 18mm is 0.2 percent, Auto Distortion Control = On
Barrel at 55mm is less than 0.1 percent, Auto Distortion Control = On

The Nikon D5000 has a new Distortion Control feature which reduces geometric distortion in JPEGs. There is an Auto setting which works with Nikkor D- and G-type lenses (PC, Fisheye and certain other lenses excluded), as well as a manual mode in the Retouch menu to apply correction manually after capture for unsupported lenses. The above shots were taken with Auto mode, which reduced barrel distortion from 1.0% to 0.2% at wide-angle, and changed the tiny amount of pincushion to an even smaller amount of barrel distortion at full telephoto.

Chromatic Aberration
Very low to moderate in camera JPEGs, but higher in RAW files with the 18-55mm VR kit lens.

Wide: Moderate but dull,
top left,
in-camera JPEG
Wide: Moderate but dull,
top right,
in-camera JPEG
Tele: Very low and dull,
top left,
in-camera JPEG
Tele: Very low and dull,
top right,
in-camera JPEG

Chromatic aberration (CA) in the corners of camera JPEGs taken with the Nikon D5000's kit lens is moderate at wide-angle, but quite dull, and not very noticeable. CA at full telephoto is very low, almost nonexistent. These results made us wonder if the D5000 was correcting for it, even though Nikon hasn't advertised chromatic aberration correction as a feature for the D5000. (This distortion is visible as a slight colored fringe around the objects at the edges of the field of view on the resolution target.)

RAW Files
As we suspected, there are higher levels of CA in the corners of uncorrected, converted RAW files. So, it turns out the Nikon D5000 does indeed compensate for lateral chromatic aberration in its JPEGs, just like its more expensive siblings.

Wide: Higher and brighter,
top left,
converted RAW file
Wide: Higher and brighter,
top right,
converted RAW file
Tele: Low,
top leftt,
converted RAW file
Tele: Low,
top right,
converted RAW file

Chromatic Aberration Reduction. The anti-CA system in the D5000 seems to work identically to that of previous, more expensive models (D90, D300, D700, D3, D3X). The crops above were taken from the corners of converted RAW files with the D5000 and the 18-55mm VR kit lens. It's a pretty good kit lens for the price, but there's some moderate to strong CA in the corners at wide-angle, as can be seen clearly in RAW files, as above. (Note that the anti-CA processing is only applied to the in-camera JPEGs; the camera very rightly leaves the RAW files untouched.)

It's important to note that this CA correction isn't dependent on your using a Nikon lens: The camera figures out how much CA there is in each area of the image, and shifts the planes of red and blue pixel data to compensate for it. Note, though, that this only works for lateral CA. Longitudinal chromatic aberration isn't corrected out. (Happily, with most good quality lenses, lateral CA is much more common than longitudinal.)

Corner Sharpness
The kit lens showed moderate blurring in the corners of the frame at wide-angle, but only minor blurring at telephoto.

Wide: Soft in the
corners (upper right).
Wide: Sharper at center.
Tele: Slightly soft in the
corners (upper right).
Tele: Sharper at center.

The Nikon D5000's 18-55mm VR kit lens produced soft corners in a few shots. At wide-angle, corners on our test targets had moderate softness compared to the center. At telephoto, corner softness was not as strong, and less than average for a kit lens. A good performance here, especially considering these shots were taken at maximum aperture (corner softness usually improves when the lens is stopped-down a few f-stops). As you can see from the brighter center crops, there is some light fall-off ("vignetting") toward the corners as well. This is quite typical and also improves when the lens is stopped-down.

 

The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D5000 Photo Gallery.

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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.

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