initial review: 9/5/09
fixed typos: 9/7/09
updated: 5/2/10


  Nikon D5000 Review

The D60/D90 hybrid with a twist...

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Nikon's first new camera in 2009 was the D5000, announced after PMA and in a relatively low key way (not at a trade show of any kind, no special announcement event, etc.). Many were expecting a replacement for the aging D40 or perhaps the D60, but the D5000 slots into the lineup higher than both these cameras, which is a little surprising.

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

Nikon has already produced a number of DSLR models in what I call the "below the N80 line." To wit: the D40, D40x, D50, D60, and D3000. And that progression was done in a relatively short period (2005 through 2009). By "below the N80 line" I'm referring to the old film body, the Nikon N80, which represented the bottom of Nikon's serious camera offerings (essentially a completely serious set of camera features in a mass produced, consumer body). In the DSLR realm, the D70 took that N80 position originally, and that has been iterated into the D70s, the D80, and more recently the D90.

The question is where the D5000 fits into that scheme of things. On the one hand we have the extension of features that are clearly "Nikon consumer." For example, even more Scene modes. On the other hand, we have the addition of some functions that clearly go beyond the usual Nikon consumer definition: interval shooting, exposure delay, GPS support, and so on. The D5000 feature set and price very nicely splits the difference between the D60/D3000 and D90. As the D3000 clearly is targeted as the D60 replacement, so essentially the D5000 slots between the D3000 and the D90 in the lineup, a position where no model previously existed.

 

Recommended

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performance
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I agonized over my features and performance ratings, but finally decided that I needed to distinguish between the D60 (D3000) and the D5000. The D5000 is clearly the better camera.

The definitive D5000 Guide
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Thom Hogan's Complete Guides for Nikon cameras have been best sellers for years, and he's been documenting Nikon cameras for almost two decades. Learn from the recognized expert by purchasing Thom Hogan's Complete Guide to the Nikon D5000 from this site Click on the link above to find out more.

 

The Basics

As just noted, the D5000 basically splits the difference between the D60/D3000 and D90 in terms of feature set, with a couple of new wrinkles that are unique to the D5000 (at least at the moment):

  • Positionable LCD display. All previous Nikon DSLRs have had fixed color LCD displays. The D5000 introduces one that can be rotated into a number of positions, including flipping closed to protect the screen when not in use.
  • More Scene modes. Much like a Coolpix, the Mode dial on the D5000 has a new position--Scene--that leads to a number of additional preset camera configurations (including such things as Autumn Colors and Pet Portraits).
  • Silent Shooting. This is a bit of a misnomer: it does turn off the reminder Beep (if enabled), but it doesn't really get rid of shutter noise. Basically all it does is suspend return of the mirror--the loudest part of the shutter release cycle--until you let go of the shutter release. You'll still hear the mirror go up, though, and the mirror-down sound is only delayed until you take your finger off the button.
  • More RETOUCH menu options. Nikon continues to add functions to the RETOUCH menu, including Perspective Control and Color Outline.

These additions are welcome, though none of them are earthshattering, and some feel a bit on the gimmicky side.

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

The sensor in the D5000 is the same 12mp sensor made by Sony that was used in the D90. The 12mp effective megapixels mean 4288x2848 pixel images, enough to produce straight-from-camera prints up to about 11x14" without resizing. The base ISO of the sensor is 200, with third of a stop increments up through ISO 3200. You can also boost ISO one more stop, up to an effective ISO 6400, or down one stop, to ISO 100. The D5000 uses the same all-mechanical shutter as the D60, which means flash sync is limited to 1/200. Unfortunately, TTL FP is not supported on the D5000. The D5000 will control and set an SB-400 in manual flash mode, though (via the camera menu system).

Nikon has once again integrated a number of things into the D5000 to address the potential for decreasing noise production versus the previous consumer cameras. For example, data is kept in 12-bit space right up until the final compression to an 8-bit JPEG. Second, the internal digitization engine has a noise reduction component in it. That, plus the fact that Nikon has a long, deep experience with this sensor and knows how to optimize the image data from it means that the D5000 promises to be quite good in handling noise. Moreover, we have distortion and chromatic aberration correction available for JPEG shooters.

The D5000 is a relatively poor IR or UV camera without modification. It is a pretty good one if you have someone remove the AA filter and replace it with an IR filter, though. The D5000 seems to be the same as the D90 in acuity and other image quality factors.

As noted earlier, the D5000 is now positioned between the D3000 and D90. You can find the full comparison of current Nikon DSLRs here if you want the full list of feature differences. But here's a short version of the important features:

 
D3000
D5000
D90
Price
US$599 body and lens US$729 body only US$889 body only
Sensor
10mp, CCD 12mp, CMOS 12mp, CMOS
Shutter Speeds
30 to 1/4000 30 to 1/4000 30 to 1/4000
Flash Sync
1/200 1/200 1/200 + TTL FP
Matrix Meter
420 pixel CCD 420 pixel CCD 420 pixel CCD
Flash
i-TTL, manual i-TTL, manual i-TTL, manual, commander mode
Focus
CAM 1000, only AF-S lenses CAM 1000, only AF-S lenses CAM 1000, standard Nikon AF (all AF lenses)
Storage
SD or SDHC card SD or SDHC card SD or SDHC card
ISO
100-1600 1EV steps + HI1 200-3200 .3EV steps + HI1, LO1 200-3200 .3EV steps + HI1, LO1
Frame Rate
3fps 4fps 4.5 fps
Color LCD
3", 230,000 dots 2.7", 233,000 dots, positionable 3", 920,000 dots
Viewfinder
Pentamirror, 95%, 0.8x magnification, 18mm eyepoint, -1.6 to +.5 diopters Pentamirror, 95%, 0.78x magnification, 17.9mm eyepoint, -1.6 to +1 diopters Pentaprism, 96%, 0.94x magnification, 19.5mm eyepoint, -2 to +1 diopters
Other
No DOF Preview, No Top LCD, No Mirror Prerelease, No LCD cover, No Front Command dial, No vertical grip, has FUNC button, no bracketing No DOF Preview, No Top LCD, No Mirror Prerelease (though 1-second mirror delay is available), No Front Command dial, No vertical grip, has FUNC button, has bracketing, has video, has Live View, supports GP-1 GPS, has Additional Scene modes No Mirror Prerelease (though 1-second mirror delay is available), optional MB-D80 grip, has FUNC/DOF buttons, has bracketing, has video, has Live View, supports GP-1 GPS
Remote
IR wireless only IR wireless, MC-DC2 wired IR wireless, MC-DC2 wired
Battery
EN-EL9a EN-EL9a EN-EL3e
Size
5 x 3.8 x 2.5" 5 x 4.1 x 3.1" 5.2 x 4 x 3"
Weight
1 lb 2 ounces (536g) 1 lb 4 ounces (560g) 1 lb 6 oz (620g)


The D3000 is clearly a lower specified camera and more appropriate for the all automatic or all manual shooter. The D5000 and D90 are much closer in specification and appeal to a more sophisticated photographer, so it pays to note the things that are missing on the D5000: no support for older autofocus lenses, no DOF button, no front Command dial, no built-in support for wireless flash, no high-speed wireless flash support, no optional grip, and slightly worse viewfinder and color LCD viewing. If you can do without those things, get the D5000 instead of the D90 and save a few dollars. If you desire one or more of those things, you need to consider whether the price bump is worth it.

Like the D90, the D5000 has a basic Live View capability coupled with the ability to record 720P HD movies (monaural sound; movies encoded as Motion-JPEG). These are the features du jour for recent DSLRs, so Nikon has managed to get the marketing checklist up to date for the D5000. The positionable color LCD makes Live View a lot more appealing than usual, but I'm still not a fan of the addition of movies. As you'll see, "movies on a DSLR" are not a camcorder replacement. I still say you're better off carrying a Flip HD with you if you want to do basic movie recording.

One thing to note on the D5000 is the lack of support for lenses that don't have built-in focusing motors. At the present time, the following lenses can be used on the D5000 and retain all features:

  • All Nikkor lenses marked with AF-S.
  • All Sigma lenses marked with HSM.
  • All Tamron lenses marked with NII at the end of their model number (e.g. the Tamron 17-50mm (A16NII), 18-200mm (A14NII), 18-250mm (A18NII), 28-75mm f/2.8 (AO9NII), and 70-300mm (A17NII)).

One aspect of lenses that doesn't get mentioned much with the D5000 is an intriguing one: you can mount any Nikkor on it. That's right, any, as in pre-AI lenses can be put on this camera and used without damaging it. Of course you'll be metering and focusing manually, but the presence of Live View can make focusing easier.

The D5000 curiously removes the intelligent battery life tracking that even the D60 reports in abbreviated fashion. The AC adapter (EP-5) plugs into the battery compartment instead of the side of the camera. We also have a FUNC button, but with limited choices of what to assign to it.

The Scene exposure modes have been much enhanced. Besides the Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Macro, and Night Portrait modes available directly on the Mode dial, we also have Night Landscape, Party/Indoor, Beach/Snow, Sunset, Dusk/Dawn, Pet Portrait, Candlelight, Blossom, Autumn Colors, Food, Silhouette, High Key, and Low Key modes available through the menu system.

Overall, the D5000 is a very compact camera with an appealing set of features, offered at a midrange price. Still, features aren't the only thing you evaluate a potential camera purchase on (otherwise this review would be almost done, wouldn't it?). To me, the bigger issues are handling (ergonomics) and performance (image quality). Here we have some good news and bad news, so let's move to those sections of the review.

One final note on the basics: the D5000 was subject to a recall early in its life cycle. Most of the initial production was affected by this, and requires a trip to a Nikon repair facility for a free fix. The problem, when it manifests itself, is a complete shutdown of the camera--it becomes inoperable. Thus, you'll want to check to see if your camera is in the affected pool. See Nikon's Service Advisory for more information.

Handling

 

Curiously, the D5000 doesn't seem to share a body panel with the D60, though at first glance most people would say they look the same. The differences are most obvious from the back, where it is clear that virtually every contour has been changed, and several button positions are obviously different (the delete button has moved back to the upper left, for example).

Fortunately, all these small bends of plastic haven't really changed the holdability of the D5000. If you didn't know which one you were holding, most people wouldn't be able to tell the difference. This is a good thing, as the D60 handles quite well for a small DSLR. The only real exception is that people with very large hands or long fingers might not like the right-hand grip position with some lenses--the space between the grip and some lenses can get small. Still, Nikon once again has got the basic ergonomics correct for a camera that is almost certainly going to be handheld a lot. The grip is the right size, and correctly positioned. The controls fall into the right positions.

The Autofocus direction pad is not the miniature Gameboy one of the D50, for example, but a slightly bigger one that is easier to find and control with your thumb. Unfortunately, if you've got a big thumb, the positionable LCD, when docked, may interfere with your hitting the direction control of the pad. Nikon didn't raise the pad or notch the LCD as they did on the D60. That's a shame, because it's a minor thorn in the otherwise good handling traits of the camera.

Nikon's button-and-dial interface remains largely intact throughout, but it is supplemented by the now-standard Info screen method of setting things (I'll get to that in a moment). The AE-L/AF-L and Exposure Compensation buttons are where we expect them. The one primary exception is that the FUNC button has moved to the side of the camera below the flash release/options button, and doubles as self timer button. Of course, the fact that the D5000 has a FUNC button ought to raise a few eyebrows (too bad Nikon didn't opt to allow one of those functions to be depth of field). However, buttons are also part of the D5000's big handling issue: the positionable LCD.

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

Nikon has long standardized on putting four or five (the D5000 has five) important buttons just to the left of the color LCD. This poses a problem for a pivoting display. The logical pivot point is the left side of the camera, where, once flipped 180 degrees, rotation would be the primary attribute you'd control. Unfortunately, those buttons get in the way of putting the pivot point on the left side of the LCD, so Nikon has put it at the bottom. This was a bad choice, IMHO. The first problem is tripod use: you won't be able to see the LCD from the front when the camera is on a tripod. The second problem is that this makes the rotation mostly unusable. You can rotate the color LCD 90 degrees (facing to either side of the camera), but I can't think of many situations where I'd want to do that. In essence, Nikon's choice has made for a much more limited set of functional positions for the color LCD than other rotation schemes would have. If the camera is below or above you and you're behind the camera, great, you can rotate the LCD in meaningful ways. You can also get it into a usable side position (underneath the camera) if the camera isn't on a tripod, but I don't find a lot of use for that (why are you standing to the side of the camera while handholding it?). Finally, the color LCD can be rotated into a storage position where the screen isn't exposed to potential damage. This last bit is very useful, in my opinion. In over 25 years of using LCD-based devices, most of my damage to them has occured with bumps while traveling. Compared to some others cameras with positionable LCDs I've used, the Nikon version is very, very limited. And all because of those darned buttons that Nikon didn't want to space differently. Frankly, it was a poor choice.

Sure, I'll take the positioning we were given, as it's still arguably better than a fixed LCD position, but my options feel very restricted compared to what they could have been. This is something Nikon needs to rethink before putting positionable LCDs on any other cameras. Heck, even the old Coolpix 900 (the twist and shoot camera) makes this feature look a bit lame.

Some traditional SLR features are missing. There's no top LCD on the D5000, for example, a trend that started on the consumer models with the D40. What Nikon did to compensate for it is the big story in handling if you're coming from an older or higher level Nikon DSLR or SLR. As you might suspect, the color LCD on the rear of the camera is now used to provide the information that is missing. You can bring up the "simulated top LCD" any time by pressing the new Info button just behind the shutter release (or the Info button on the back of the camera--why we need two I'm not sure). You also have the (needless) choice of Classic or Graphic (yippee, Wallpaper style is dead! Long may it stay buried.) In Classic, the display mimics the old Nikon top LCD styles almost perfectly. In Graphic many of the items are made smaller so that a graphical representation of the size of the aperture or shutter speed being used can be displayed. There are lot of small changes to the Info display on the D5000 from previous iterations (including the demise of Wallpaper), including new fonts and the ability to control the basic color scheme. It looks slightly better than previous iterations to my eye, so someone has been tuning the look and making good decisions.

Okay, so let's cut to the chase on those options: use Classic. If you're absolutely new to DSLRs and don't understand that bigger aperture numbers mean smaller openings, use Graphic for a day, then switch to Classic (if you don't get the connection after a day of use, you're not going to get the connection). Curiously, while the aperture opening display helps you visualize what is happening, the shutter speed display in Graphic doesn't. Longer shutter speeds result in shorter bars, and vice versa! Say what? Just another reason I say to get out of Graphic mode, and how did this stay intact with the new design?

Okay, with that out of the way, there's still more to say about the color-LCD-as-top-LCD change: there's a hugely useful aspect of it that lives on the very bottom and right side of the display. Press that Info button again when the display is visible and you're taken to these areas, where you can directly set Image Quality, Image Size, White Balance, ISO, Frame Advance, Focus mode, AF Area mode, Metering Method, and more. Simply use the keys on the Direction pad to navigate to an item, then press the OK button and then use the Direction pad to select the option you want, then press the OK button one more time.

Better still, the options provide sample pictures to indicate the things that you might use them for. For example, in AF Area mode we get images of a horseback rider (3D), two children playing (Auto Area), a motorcycle in motion (Dynamic Area), and a close-up macro shot (Single Area). For newcomers to the Nikon system, these photo "hints" are potentially useful, though I find more than a few of them slightly ambiguous (how are children playing and a motorcycle moving different? They both imply movement, after all [hint: a motorcycle moves faster than most children]). For the most part they work better as reminders once you learn what they're trying to tell you than they do clear tips on how to set the camera for a given situation. Still, a nice touch that is potentially useful for new-to-Nikon users that won't know what the difference between tech terms like Dynamic Area and Single Point are.

While the D5000 has bracketing, the implementation is flawed. Looking through the viewfinder you'll never know when a new sequence is started (hope you like counting to three a lot). You have to look at the rear LCD (shooting information display), and even then the clue is subtle (all three indicator bars appear under the manual exposure display). The funny thing is that Nikon has everything completely backwards. The low-end consumer user is the one that absolutely needs the feedback about where they are in a bracketing sequence, not the pro (though we both ought to get it). The only way to set bracketing is via shooting information display, by the way: there is no dedicated button nor menu item by which to select it, which makes it look at bit like an afterthought. Surely someone coming from any other Nikon DSLR will find it difficult to figure out how to set bracketing if they don't notice the shooting information display!

Like the higher end cameras, Custom Settings are grouped by function, making finding what you need a bit easier. What's strange is that there are items on the SETUP menu that really belong on the Custom Setttings menu. One custom setting that it took me awhile to find and appreciate is Rangefinder. This turns the manual exposure bar into a focus bar, telling you not only which way you're out of focus, but also about how much. Too bad it can't be used with Manual exposure mode, though, as the lenses I want to use this feature on most are, you guessed it, manual focus lenses that need to be used in Manual exposure mode. Oops.

Let's talk about image review. With the D80 Nikon changed the way magnifying an image works, and the D5000 uses this new method. We now have Zoom In and Zoom Out buttons, essentially. This simplification works quite nicely. Press Zoom In and you zoom in. Press Zoom Out and you zoom out, and once you're at Fit Screen view you then move to four thumbnails and then nine thumbnails with subsequent presses (zoom in gets you back to single image view). Much simpler to explain and understand, though not quite as fast as the old system. I think it's a perfectly appropriate design change for the intended audience of this camera. The Image Review On option is flexible (unlike the D80): you can change the value for the "timers" (unfortunately, we're now given vague Short, Normal, and Long options instead of exact seconds; the good news is that there's one other option, Custom, which allows you to set all the timers individually in seconds).

The viewfinder is about the same as the D40/D60. This is one different between the D5000 and D90 that is significant and may be of interest to those that wear glasses (the eyepoint is very short and the magnification lower).

Now here's something you might not notice at first but I appreciate greatly: the camera strap mounts are recessed into the body (instead of sticking out) and are almost exactly opposite one another so that the camera hangs straight off the strap. This may not seem like a big thing at all, but quite frankly, it shows me that someone actually is looking at the small issues that can impair handling.

Nits are few. I still don't like the Secure Digital door mechanism Nikon introduced with the D50 and has used on the D40, D40x, D60, D80, D90, and now the D3000 and D5000. In extreme handling it has a tendency to pop open on me. The color LCD info display is very bright--it would have been nicer to have brightness options for when it displays data instead of Classic, Graphic, Wallpaper. The FUNC button is nice but needs more options.

Overall, there's a lot to like about the D5000. It's a solidly competent camera whose handling is only really hurt by the poor choice of LCD pivot point.

 

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Cleaning the Sensor I've posted an article on how to clean sensors.

 

 

 

Performance

Battery Life
Battery performance is quite good. I'm getting hundreds of shots per charge, pretty much no matter how I use the camera. When I "go commando" (use manual focus lenses) the performance actually improves into the high hundreds. That's surprising since the battery isn't a barn-burner in terms of amperage (1000 mAh) and the rear LCD is almost always on while you're shooting. Nikon's CIPA numbers are 510 to 2900 shots using different setting parameters and flash usage. I don't have enough data to be statistically reliable yet, but I'm averaging between 350 and 400 shots per charge right now. For most people, I'd guess that a single full battery charge will get them through a day of shooting. Having one extra battery with you is probably enough for 99.9% of the D5000 audience to never experience a power shortage. FWIW, keep the plastic cover on the battery when it isn't in the camera--the battery terminals are exposed, and you don't want to risk having them short out against something metal.

(In passing, I'll mention that the AC adapter for the D5000 is unusual: it's like a battery with a cord coming out of it; that cord goes to the actual AC/DC converter that plugs into the wall socket. The cord threads through a rubber gasket at the bottom of the battery chamber. This whole design actually works better than the ones used on the more expensive cameras, where there's a tendency to accidentally pull the power cord from the camera. Moreover, having the cord come out the bottom right of the camera is better than having a cable plugging in right where your left hand is trying to hold the camera.)

Writing to Card
The Secure Digital write performance is very good to excellent. Indeed, the same cards in my D5000 perform much faster than they do in my D50--performance seems on par with the D90, so I think Nikon has moved on from the slower D50 write mechanism permanently. Even with some generic cards I was getting near 10MBs per second performance, which is quite good. Like the D90, once the buffer is full the D5000 will shoot at a slightly reduced frame rate for most JPEG sizes until the card is filled up or you reach 100 images, whichever comes first.

Autofocus System
Autofocus performance is better than I expected. The D5000 uses the CAM1000, and as we discovered with the D90, Nikon's new twist of combining metering and autofocus data can provide some surprising focus gains (but you have to be in 3D or Auto to obtain them).

The mostly centered nature of the CAM1000 (the array is mostly in the 8mm metering circle and only the central sensor is cross-hatched) means that you're be more likely to focus and reframe with the D5000 than you would with a D300 series body. However, remember that you have Live View if you need off center focus. Live View autofocus is slower than the normal focus system, but it does allow very off-center focusing. For static subjects, such as landscapes or macro, this is very useful. For action, not so much.

Color
The D5000 uses the same Picture Control system that the pro Nikons first pioneered. As far as I can see, the results are essentially the same, with only some modest tweaks to the mid-range. In general, every Nikon that uses Picture Controls tends to produce near accurate color with a bit too much saturation and contrast. Indeed, so much so that if you leave the camera set at the default settings you'll limit the dynamic range you can capture. I strongly suggest that you be careful to not put too much oomph into your JPEGs, as it's difficult to back out contrast and saturation, once recorded. My personal preference is to set my D5000 for a more accurate, bland look (Neutral, -1 Contrast) and add in any contrast and saturation I might want in the final image. However, most D5000 customers are likely to be shoot-but-don't-post-process photographers, and probably won't (and shouldn't) take my advice. Just be aware that you'll have a tough time with high contrast scenes if you start dialing up the controls to get that punch you want. (This usually prompts them to turn on Active D-Lighting, but the combination of too much contrast and saturation with in-camera pull-up of shadow detail tends to bring up more noise than I think you'll want. If you use Active D-Lighting regularly, at least try using the Neutral Picture Control.)

White balance is decent to good, especially in mixed lighting. The direct Kelvin settings once again didn't match my Minolta Color Meter and my Imatest measurements, but they're closer than the D300 was (at least before its latest firmware change). The range over which Auto WB works well is more limited than Nikon suggests, though from about 4000K to 6500K it can be trusted. I should point out that the Korean camera clubs have been harping about Auto WB (with the D90, D3, D300, D700, D5000), and there's some truth to their comments. Basically, they find that with JPEGs and Auto WB, these cameras are using a desaturation technique on colors that are near neutral in order to "force" a more neutral coloration (see my D700 review for an example).

Noise
Let's again start with amp noise. On a 15-minute exposure, amp noise is a bit high, much like it was on the D80. You'll see it in the two top corners as a purple impurity:

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

The built-in Long Exp. NR function is capable of dampening that considerably, to the point of where it isn't visible:

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan

Not a great performance, but not a horrible performance. It is worrisome to me, however, that recent Nikon bodies continue to exhibit a strong degree of amp noise at that top edge. Moreover, my D5000 showed a considerable number of hot pixels in the 15-minute exposure without noise reduction turned on. There are plenty of competitor bodies out there that do better, so this is an engineering problem that Nikon simply hasn't directed much energy on. They need to.

For general noise I have far better news to report. The D5000 produces good noise results under pretty severe conditions (including my usual mixed lighting with low intensity torture test). At ISOs up through 800 you'd have to be really good at pixel peeping to see any differences. At ISO 1600, some modest luminance noise shows up. At ISO 1600 that luminance noise is probably visible to most people at 100% view, and a bit of chroma noise starts to appear. Amazingly, the D5000 is a bit better than the D90, which in turn was a bit better than the D300 with noise in JPEG images. Overall, ISO 200 to 1600 produced very usable images. ISO 3200 is usable, in my opinion, as long as you avoid underexposure. You'll lose color saturation, acuity (due to noise at edges), but I was impressed with the ISO 3200 performance.

My general recommendation is don't be afraid to set Auto ISO to a max of 1600 and shoot away. If you really need ISO 3200, set it manually and use it for the session you need it for, then revert to your normal ISO or Auto ISO to 1600.

As I indicated in earlier reviews, I'm getting more leery of "number oriented" assessments of image quality properties like noise. That's because I have seen too many examples where an actual image from a camera with a "higher noise number" actually looks better than the supposedly superior camera. Put another way: raw noise numbers don't tell you a lot, which is why I've stopped publishing large tables of them. Since a lot of newcomers are probably reading this due to the low-end appeal of the D5000, I need to elaborate.

The way we measure noise is by looking at large patches of the same color and looking at (adjacent) pixel value differences. In theory, the pixels all ought to be the same value, since adjacent pixels are reproductions from the same patch of color under the same lighting. Even on the best camera there is some minor pixel-to-pixel variation, though it may not always be visible to the naked eye, as the difference can be very small. The variations, however, can be in many forms. First, they can simply be overall intensity variations ("luminance noise"). Luminance noise tends to look a bit like film grain did: a pebbly texture is imparted on the image. Second, they can be color variations, which we call "chroma noise." Chroma noise has a very artificial look, almost as if a pointalist painter was at work dappling each pixel with a different color paint (unfortunately, unlike Serat and the other pointalists, chroma noise always comes in the same colors, not ones selected to impart an artistic or visual effect). Third, noise can have a "size." Two adjacent pixels may be the same but the third is different; or three adjacent ones are the same but the fourth is different. In JPEG files, such noise sizing can be variable and is usually due to camera's de-mosaic (image rendering) routine and JPEG encoding crudity, and further to any interaction between those. Nikon's cameras tend to fairly free of size variations. Fourth, noise can have a pattern. Indeed, digital cameras have pixels aligned in rows and columns while film had overlapping and random grain patterns. If there's an electronics frequency-related issue to the noise production (e.g. jitter in the analog-to-digital conversion circuitry), patterns easily appear in noise samples of digital cameras. The D5000 noise doesn't really seem to have much pattern to it. Fifth, noise can and does interact with detail production, and noise reduction techniques can produce anything from watercolor-type effects (vagueness) on detail to what I simply call "mush." Nikon's in-camera noise reduction is slightly destructive of edge detail. I could go on, but you get the idea: noise is a variety of deviations from the desired data.

And some of those deviations are more visible and disturbing to our eyes than others. Take luminance and color noise, for example. Color noise is easily seen while luminance noise generally isn't (unless it has a pattern ;~). Indeed, color noise is a dead giveaway for "digital" images, as there is really no corresponding problem in analog (film) recording. Bad color noise is disturbing visually because a block of color suddenly has impurities of prime colors (red, green, blue) in it.

I've just alluded to two of the five types of noise the D5000 could have. So how does it do on all five? Excellent, Very Good, Excellent, Excellent, and Very Good, actually. At high sharpening settings and low JPEG qualities, the noise size issue starts to just inch into visibility, but otherwise I'd say the D5000 is visually non-disturbing in its noise tendencies. So let's put that assertion to the visual test. I've been using the gym I play basketball in as my test lab for low-light, high-ISO, weird light color images in reviews for awhile now, so I'll step out of the game for a moment and take a shot for us to look at.

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan


These are the actual pixels at ISO 3200 with noise reduction off and all other settings at default. I've underexposed a bit to make things even more difficult for the camera. There's evidence of noise everywhere, though most of it is not colored and looks somewhat like film grain. Also, colors are starting to block up. The rim is a darker tone that it actually is. Many of these things you can do something about. But I'm just going to take this image and run it quickly through dFine noise reduction and give it a slight levels change:

Copyright 2009 Thom Hogan
Frankly, that's pretty good. I still see detail in the ball and net (though it is slightly aliased by the noise reduction). The colors are close to reality, though still a bit subdued from actual. Noise has been supressed well, though not perfectly. But remember, we're looking at a 380k pixel subset of a 12mp image. This area would print at about 2" wide normally (I'm almost certain you're viewing it larger, unless you're on an iPhone reading this, in which case, my sympathies ;~).

Let me put all this another way: most users can use ISO 200 to 3200 (and therefore the Auto ISO function, certainly set to ISO 1600 max) with relative impunity. The two things that would restrict you are: (1) the slightly reduced dynamic range and slightly visible color noise at ISO 3200 means that you really don't want to use high ISO values for things like high contrast scenes, such as outdoor scenics in bright light; and (2) you probably want to avoid high sharpening and contrast settings at high ISO values if you're going to print large.

Resolution
I see no meaningful difference between the D5000, D90, and D300, all of which use the same basic sensor. (there's a slight loss compared to the D300 at high ISO values on the D5000, probably due to slightly more aggressive noise handling).

Just to remind everyone, at the highest level of DPI you need to set most inkjet printers, the D5000 gets you to about an 11x14" print without resizing. I find this level of resolution acceptable for most work I do, actually. Very few people need more pixels than that.

There's an argument that more pixels gives you more crop options. I'd argue back that if you're cropping all the time, you don't have the right lens set or aren't making the right decisions in the field. I just got back from three weeks of shooting in exotic locations with various 12mp cameras (three Nikon bodies and a Olympus E-P1). Note that I have a D3x (24mp) in my gear closet, but I didn't take it. That should tell you something about how many pixels you really need.

Final Comments
Despite some of my criticisms, I actually think I like my D5000 a bit more than my D90. The critical decision point is whether you find the positionable LCD of use, I think, versus the handful of D90 features that the D5000 doesn't have. For me, only the autofocusing with non AF-S lenses, the 930k dot LCD, and commander mode of the internal flash on the D90 are things that might tip me towards the D90 over the D5000. The D5000, on the other hand, has slightly better JPEGs at high ISO values and that positionable LCD going for it.

However, I'm going to suggest that there's another group who will love the D5000: FM2 afficionados. Am I crazy? No. With the right lenses, the D5000 is the small, light digital FM that everyone wants. I mentioned this with the slightly smaller D60, but the D5000 adds a new useful twist: using Live View to focus manual lenss. Because you can mount pretty much any Nikkor lens ever made on the D5000 it makes for a nice manual focus camera. However, most of those lenses don't set exposure. No fear, I have the perfect lens kit for you:

  • Voigtländer 20mm f/3.5. Gives you the equivalent of 28mm in the old film days, and this manual focus lens will meter on the D5000 due to the CPU chip Cosina adds to it.
  • Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G DX. Nikon has now introduced the perfect "normal" lens for this camera. No DOF scale, though, so you might want to consider the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 instead.
  • Voightlander 40mm f/2 or Voightlander 58mm f/1.4. Again, both manual focus lenses and chipped to support exposure. The latter is a good equivalent for the 85mm on film.
  • If you need macro or more telephoto, the Tamron 90mm f/2.8 and the Voightlander 180mm f/4 could round out your kit.

It's remarkable how small and convenient the combination is (D5000, 20mm, 30mm, 58mm). FM users will find it the equivalent to, say, carrying an FM2n, a 28mm, 50mm, and 85mm lens. All these lenses are optically quite good.

Not in that league and want all automatic? Then I'd say the optimal D5000 kit is this: D5000, 18-55mm VR, 55-200mm VR, and the 35mm f/1.8G DX. Again, remarkably small and convenient, and all these lenses are also optically quite good.

Drawbacks

  • LCD didn't read Kama Sutra. You can't position the LCD as well as you should be able to.
  • Not for those with a closet full of older AF lenses. If you've got mostly older AF lenses and are just now getting round to going digital, the D5000 isn't the camera you want, as you'll be resorting to manual focus.

Positives

  • Just about Right. Goldilocks approved: not too small, not too big, not too light, not too heavy.
  • Most of what you need. While it would have been nice to have a DOF Preview button, most everything else you're likely to want is there, including spot metering and sensor cleaning.
  • Excellent Image Quality. State of the 12mp art. Enough said.

 

 


 

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