Nikon D5300 Field Test

by Jason Schneider | Posted: 04/17/2014

24mm, f/3.8, 1/80s, ISO 100, +1.0EV

Nikon's D5300 is essentially a thoughtful upgrade of the popular, much admired D5200, which, at the moment, is still available brand new at about $150 less. Like its predecessor, the D5300 is perched at the upper end of the entry-level tier. It's a broad-spectrum model designed to appeal to those buying their first or second DSLR, but also with enough performance, panache, and advanced features to satisfy budding photography enthusiasts. Overall, it's compact and solid, and its large, ergonomic handgrip, excellent balance, and well-placed shutter-release button contribute to its fine handling.

116mm, f/5.6, 1/200s, ISO 320

I put the D5300 through its paces using the higher-end kit lens, the AF-S Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED DX VR, which provides a 35mm equivalent field of view range of 27-210mm. While this lens increases the price of a D5300 outfit by at least $200 compared to the standard 18-55mm VR II short zoom, I would strongly recommend it to any prospective D5300 purchaser -- it balances beautifully on the camera, considerably extends the camera's shooting versatility, and its imaging performance is good for a kit lens with its range.

How good is the AF-S NIKKOR 18-140mm f/3.5-5.6G ED DX VR kit lens?
Click here to see our kit lens test results of this optic.

As mentioned, the D5300 is compact (it's actually tad smaller than the D5200, but it's not something you'd notice), and it feels very comfortable and secure in your hands. On the top deck you'll find a large classic mode dial with the usual P, S, A, M exposure modes, a green basic Auto mode, a convenient "flash off" setting, and a selection of scene mode icons including Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports and Close-up. More interesting are the detents labeled SCENE and EFFECTS. Select the former and turn the command dial above the back thumb rest and a much wider selection of selectable scene modes is displayed sequentially on the LCD including Night Portrait, Beach/Snow, Candlelight, Food, etc. Turn the dial to EFFECTS and you can choose from a fairly extensive array, including Toy Camera, Color Sketch, Miniature, Silhouette, HDR Painting, Selective Color, Night Vision, etc. This system of selecting creative options is very cool, very intuitive and commendably easy to use.

140mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 100

For the most part, the controls on the D5300 are pretty straightforward and easy to understand. Press the MENU button and you'll find an array of menu options appear on the LCD, including Playback, Shooting, Setup, and Custom Settings. Scroll down to the menu you want, toggle the 4-way controller to the right, toggle down to the setting you want and press the OK button to enter and set the sub-menu, and press the OK button to activate your setting. Warning: The use and functions of the custom settings are not described in detail in the otherwise well organized instruction manual.

Press the "i" button to the right of the eyepiece and an info display appears at the top of the screen and a selection of 14 different variables appears at the bottom (quick menu), with the setting in use highlighted in yellow. These settings include frequently adjusted parameters such as image quality, metering pattern, exposure compensation, white balance, focus mode, ISO, etc., and available settings change depending on the exposure mode. For example, if you highlight Metering and press the OK button, you can now scroll to set metering mode to Matrix, Center-weighted or Spot using the 4-way controller. It's a logical system but not as direct as the dedicated buttons found on other cameras. There is a dedicated exposure-compensation button next to the movie button behind the shutter release that can be quickly set by turning the command dial, a dedicated flash button on the left-hand side of the camera that can be used to set flash mode with the dial (and even flash compensation when both the flash and compensation buttons are held down), and a Fn button below the flash button that can be assigned for quick access to a variety of frequently used settings or menus. Options include image quality/size, ISO, white balance, Active D-Lighting, HDR, +RAW, bracketing, AF-area mode, viewfinder grid and Wi-Fi menu (I assigned it to the ISO setting).

The D5300's LCD is very good -- it's large, bright, displays live and captured images in crisp detail at the same aspect ratio as the sensor, swings to the side and rotates upward and downward for low- and high-angle viewing, and can be turned outward against the camera body for convenient image review or composition, or turned inward to protect the screen while the camera is being transported. In bright sunlight, the glossy LCD screen is prone to glare and reflections making it slightly difficult to see, which could aggravate some, but thankfully the articulated design lets you maneuver it a bit to a more optimal angle. And of course, there's always the optical viewfinder for stills.

85mm, f/5.3, 1/500s, ISO 180

The viewfinder is about par for the course for a penta-mirror finder, which is to say it's OK but hardly stellar in terms of either brightness or magnification, and it does have some of the accursed tunnel effect. With an increased magnification of 0.82X and displaying ~95% of the captured image both vertically and horizontally its specs are actually better than many of its rivals, but it's the most obvious compromise that's been made to keep the price of this full-featured camera competitive. Of course, many shooters won't notice or even care, but if you hanker for a real solid glass pentaprism viewfinder that provides a truly brilliant viewing image, take a look at the pricier Nikon D7100.

Want to learn more about the Nikon D5300's TTL optical viewfinder?
Click here to see our viewfinder test results.

50mm, f/4.5, 1/80s, ISO 320, +2/3EV

One area where the Nikon D5300 definitely excels is sheer image quality. The quality of the RAW NEF and JPEG files is spectacular at low and moderate ISO settings in the ISO 100-800 range. However, this level of performance is maintained with minimal artifacts and impressive color saturation all the way up to ISO 6400 in my experience. The combination of a high-end-sensor without an optical low-pass filter and the EXPEED 4 processor really accounts for this camera's great image quality performance.

View the IR Lab's in-depth Nikon D5300 image quality test results by clicking here, but be sure
to read further on to see side-by-side comparisons of the D5300 against its top competitors.

Click here to see how the D5300's default and lowest noise reduction settings
compare to RAW files without noise reduction across the ISO range.

High ISO Sample. 40mm, f/6.3, 1/160s, ISO 12,800

I mostly used the 2016-pixel RGB Matrix Metering exposure mode and it delivered about 95% perfect exposures under a wide variety of lighting conditions. Only when shooting snow scenes and severely backlit portraits did I resort to using up to +1.0 EV exposure compensation. This is commendable performance indeed.

While I tend to favor available light photography and shoot mostly still images, I did shoot about a dozen flash pictures and can confirm that the built-in flash (guide number in feet, 39 at ISO 100 in Auto mode) is powerful and delivers good coverage, in my experience. However, the IR lab tests showed some rather inconsistent exposure results with the built-in flash and 18-140mm kit lens. The lens also cast a shadow at the bottom of our test frame at wide angle. So, depending on your focal length and distance to your subject, your mileage may vary, as they say.

Want to see how the Nikon D5300's built-in flash tested in the lab?
Click here to see our standard flash test results.

The camera also provides a simplified Auto HDR setting that combines two sequential exposures and lets you adjust the exposure interval between them up to 3 stops. It's easy to set and for most situations it's an adequate work-around for capturing subjects with an extended brightness range, but it can't capture the same tonal range or subtlety as the multi-shot Auto HDR systems found in more expensive pro-caliber cameras. As we saw with the HDR modes in the D5200, the more extreme High and Extra High modes (and even the Normal mode to a lesser degree) reduced highlight areas, such as the sky, to the point of producing an artificial-looking halo-effect around the trees and building in the shots below. Scenes with greater tonal range would likely fare better.

Nikon D5300: HDR Modes
Extra High (High+)

I was also impressed with the camera's AF performance and decisiveness, and the fact that selecting AF zones is simple, quick and intuitive -- just use the 4-way directional buttons. Part of the camera's excellent AF performance is attributable to the 39-zone phase-detect AF system including 9 cross-type AF sensors distributed in the central area of the image field. The cross-type sensors can lock onto to subjects having either horizontal or vertical line patterns, and this certainly enhances AF performance and speed with challenging subjects and in low light. For the record the AF system's detection range is -1 to +19 EV at ISO 100 and 20°C/68°F, so it's not surprising that it performs well in a variety of lighting conditions.

Autofocus frame coverage is quite generous for its class, however as is usually the case with dedicated phase-detect AF systems, there are no AF sensors at the periphery or corners of the field. So, it's essential to place what you're focusing on somewhere near the center of the frame (particularly if you want to use the cross-type sensors), and recompose if you want to place this subject at the edges or corners of the picture. Theoretically this can lead to focusing errors that can be eliminated by focusing manually, which the camera does very efficiently whether you're in AF or manual-focus mode by simply turning the focusing ring on the lens until the image in the finder is sharp where you want it to be -- a nice feature that lets you touch up the focus at any time. It is however difficult to nail critical focus manually at wide apertures without a focus aid, especially using a penta-mirror viewfinder on a high resolution camera such as the D5300. The D5300's Live View mode does however offer 100% AF coverage, allowing you to move the focus area anywhere in the frame, but focus speed with Live View's contrast-detect AF is rather slow.

140mm, f/5.6, 1/250s, ISO 180, +2/3EV

Using Live View on the D5300 is handy, especially when using a tripod and shooting at awkward angles in conjunction with the articulated LCD screen. However, as mentioned, autofocus performance leaves a lot to be desired as it uses much slower contrast-detect AF that is quite prone to hunting and "wobbling" while achieving focus. Therefore, it's not the best choice for fast-moving subjects or small objects, unless you plan to manually focus. And speaking of which, the D5300 let's you magnify the scene up to 8.3x for really precise control over what area of the frame is in focus. However, oddly, beyond the first magnification level, the Live View image becomes quite laggy, which makes it a little awkward to use. There's also no focus peaking option.

Daytime Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264/MOV, Progressive, 60 fps
Download Original (163MB MOV)
Continuous AF Sample Video
1,920 x 1,080, H.264/MOV, Progressive, 60 fps
Download Original (134MB MOV)

Shooting video with the D5300 is very similar to other Nikon DSLRs, with quick flip of the live-view lever and a press of the dedicated record button. One big pro-level feature on the D5300 is the ability to output clean, uncompressed video (60p, 30p, 24p only) via HDMI for use on an external HD monitor or HD video capture recorder.

By default, the D5300 automatically sets the exposure for video (although, exposure compensation is available), but photographers willing to get their hands dirty can also manually adjust exposure settings by enabling "Manual Movie Settings" in the menu, which gives you control over shutter speed and ISO. Like on other non-pro (read: D800, D4S) Nikon DSLRs, you cannot adjust the aperture while Live View is enabled, due to the way the aperture mechanism is designed. You'll need to leave Live View mode, adjust the aperture, and re-enable Live View. You can change shutter speed either before or during recording, but doing so during recording will produce very loud clicks in the audio track, as you rotate the control dial. Available shutter speeds range from 1/4,000s down to 1/60s for 60p, and down to 1/30s for 30p and 1/25s for 24p. ISO sensitivity can be set from ISO 100 to 25,600, however ISO can only be changed before recording begins.

Recording times are relatively limited, unfortunately, with only a 10 minute maximum recording time for High movie quality at 1080/60p (this increases to 20 minutes at Normal quality setting). The rest of the 1080p and the 720p framerates have 20m/29m:59s (High/Normal) recording limits. Standard definition video is also available with a 29:59 limit.

The few Full HD movie clips I shot at 60 fps looked excellent on my 52-inch TV and the sound quality was much better than average. The camera will also provide AF when shooting movies, but you first have to enable Live View to get the option to select AF-F mode (full-time servo AF), and even then it will focus using contrast-detection AF which is quite precise, but much slower than phase-detection AF and may result in visible "hunting" in your videos.

Audio features for video recording for pretty standard fare, with a 3.5mm microphone input jack -- though no headphone jack -- and 20-step adjustable audio recording levels for the built-in stereo mic (though you can opt for automatic audio level adjustment). There's also a wind filter, and the ability to completely disable the mic.

The Nikon D5300 is the first Nikon DSLR with Wi-Fi and GPS built-in to the camera. The Wi-Fi functions were very straightforward to setup -- enable Wi-Fi on the camera, then connect your smart device (iOS or Android) to the camera's wireless network and then open the companion app. Once connected, I was able to view and transfer photos as well as remotely control the camera (with live view if I chose to). The app itself is pretty basic, and the remote shooting features equally so. While it worked as a nice remote trigger, I wasn't able to change any of the exposure settings like shutter speed or aperture via the app or by adjusting a dial on the camera itself while I had the remote live view enabled. There's also no remote video recording capabilities, but you do have the ability to have nice touch-to-focus via the app.

Whereas getting Wi-Fi to work was pretty straightforward, GPS was less so. I was not able to get it to work, at least at first. When the instruction manual recommends having an "unobstructed view of the sky," they mean it. Initially, I had a hard time getting the camera's GPS receiver to sync to the satellites, even if I thought I had a clear view of the sky. However, nearby tall trees must have blocked or interfered with the signals, as it wasn't until I had a very open, clear view of the sky that the camera reported that it had GPS reception. It would also easily drop reception often if I moved around a bit, seemingly into areas where some obstruction blocked or reduced the signals. However, when it had a signal, the GPS worked as expected and attached geotag info to the photos' metadata.

Using Nikon's ViewNX 2 software, you can get a map view showing you the locations of your photos. Overall, it worked well, and apart from that one outlier, the GPS was accurate.

The camera also provides a quiet (Q) shutter-release mode, which attenuates shutter and mirror noise by slowing down the mirror action a bit. It also delays lowering of the mirror until the shutter button is released, separating the noise of this operation from that of the mirror being raised and the shutter fired. This allows you to decide when the mirror return click occurs. This mode also silences the autofocus confirmation beep, though that can be disabled separately. Frankly, the camera's shutter/mirror noise is so quiet to begin with any slight decrease is generally not worth the slightly longer shutter delay, especially when shooting action subjects.

Speaking of sports, the 5 fps maximum burst rate is quite sufficient for all but the most extreme sports, and the buffer size enables you to capture long sequences of JPEGs without having the camera bog down. In our IR lab tests, the D5300's JPEG shooting performance was quite impressive with the buffer clearing at a quick rate allowing you to shoot continuously without stopping or worrying about the buffer when using a fast card. When shooting 14-bit RAW, on the other hand, we found the D5300's buffer to fill only after 4 frames. Switching to 12-bit RAWs helps, though, increasing buffer to 8 RAW files or 6 RAW+JPEG pairs.

Just how fast is the Nikon D5300? Find out by clicking here to see our full battery
of rigorous, objective speed and operation tests conducted in the IR Lab.

23mm, f/5.6, 1/320s, ISO 100

Another nice feature is the increased battery capacity. Nikon claims you can shoot up to 600 exposures on a freshly charged battery according to CIPA standards, and while I can't actually confirm that figure based on my experience, I did shoot 300-400 pictures over the course of a few days and still had battery capacity to spare.

Summary. The Nikon D5300 is certainly a worthy successor to the D5200. It's sturdy, reliable, responsive, handles very well, and it's a lot of fun to shoot with. And it definitely delivers the goods when it comes to capturing high-quality pictures and awesome videos. If you're already into the Nikon system and are seeking middle-tier performance at a somewhat less than middle-tier price you can hardly do better. On the other hand at a current street price of about US$1,100 with the 18-140mm Nikkor lens and US$900 with 18-55mm Nikkor lens it falls smack in the middle of a fiercely competitive segment of the market that includes enticing models from Sony, Canon, Pentax, and (yes!) Nikon. Can the D5300 hold it own among such rivals? Yes, but make sure to check which features and specs are most important to you before pulling the trigger.


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