Nikon D5000 Review

Look and Feel

The Nikon D5000 is a compact digital SLR that has an inner frame made of a mix of plastic and metal, and a polycarbonate outer shell. The body feels well built, save for the plastic door over the memory card slot, which is on the flimsy side. Small SLRs always have pretty lousy grips, and the D5000 is no exception. This is purely subjective, of course, but I found the grip to not be nearly "deep" enough. You'll definitely want to try before you buy, especially if your hands are on the large side.

The D5000 has more than its share of buttons scattered around its body. Thankfully, they're large and well-labeled. As with most of the competition, there's only one command dial on the camera, which is located on the rear of the camera.

Now let's see how the D5000 compares to other compact digital SLRs, in terms of size and weight:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Canon EOS Rebel T1i 5.1 x 3.8 x 2.4 in. 46.5 cu in. 480 g
Nikon D5000 5.0 x 4.1 x 3.1 in. 63.6 cu in. 560 g
Olympus E-620 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.4 in. 45.3 cu in. 475 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1 * 4.9 x 3.3 x 1.8 in. 29.1 cu in. 385 g
Sony Alpha DSLR-A380 5.0 x 3.8 x 2.8 in. 53.2 cu in. 489 g
* Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens camera

The D5000 is easily the largest camera in its class (though not quite the heaviest). It's quite a bit bigger than the D60, and falls just short of matching the D90. Even though the Panasonic GH1 isn't a digital SLR (it has no mirror or optical viewfinder), I'm throwing it in anyway.

Okay, let's begin our tour of the camera now, starting with the front.

Front of the Nikon D5000

Here's the front of the camera, without a lens attached. The lens mount supports all Nikkor lenses, with a 1.5X focal length conversion ratio. That means that a 50 mm lens will have a 75 mm field-of-view. As I've mentioned at least twice, autofocus is only supported on AF-S and AF-I lenses. Everything else will be manual focus only.

Behind the mirror is a 12.3 Megapixel CMOS sensor that is exactly the same as the one on the D90. Nobody likes dust on their sensor, so Nikon has taken a multi-pronged approach to avoiding it. When you turn on the camera, ultrasonic waves are passed through the low-pass filter, which shakes dust away. In addition, there's a "airflow control system" that uses the "breeze" created by the mirror-flipping action to send dust into a special chamber away from the sensor.

Directly above the Nikon logo is the D5000's pop-up flash, which is released electronically. The flash has a guide number of 12 meters at ISO 100, which is the same as on the D90. Should you want more flash power, you can attach an external flash to the hot shoe you'll see in a moment. While the D5000 cannot control wireless flashes by itself (like the D90), you can do so by using the SB-800 or SB-900 flashes, or the SU-800 wireless speedlight commander.

Just above the D5000 logo is the camera's microphone, which records monaural sound. Below that is the lens release button.

Jumping to the other side of the lens mount, we find the camera's AF-assist lamp (also used for redeye reduction and counting down the self-timer) and remote control receiver. The AF-assist lamp is used by the camera as a focusing aid in low light situations. Most of the competition makes you pop up the flash for this feature, so it's nice to see a dedicated lamp here.

Image courtesy of Nikon

One of the D5000's most intriguing features is its flip-down, rotating 2.7" LCD display. The screen can flip down 180 degrees, and then rotate a total of 270 degrees from there. Rotating screens allow you to take photos over the heads of those in front of you, or take ground-level shots without having to get on your hands and knees. The problem with the flip-down design (as opposed to the flip-out) is that you can't rotate the screen when the camera is on a tripod.

In addition to various acrobatic maneuvers, the LCD can also go in the traditional position (see below), or be closed entirely.

Back of the Nikon D5000

And here is the screen in the traditional position. The screen is 2.7" in size, which places in right in-between the D60 and D90. The resolution of 230,000 pixels is just average, which isn't nearly as nice as the 920,000 pixel displays on the Canon EOS Rebel T1i and Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH1. Still, it's sharp enough for most purposes.

Live view in action There are four different live view layouts

Naturally, the LCD can be used for composing photos, in addition to reviewing them (and navigating menus). The camera's live view feature lets you compose photos in the same way as you do on a compact camera, with contrast detect AF and face detection. You can overlay a composition grid on the LCD, but unfortunately no histogram is available.

The camera detected four of the six faces

While other live view D-SLRs give you the ability to use the camera's regular AF system, the D5000 uses contract detection only. That means that focus times can be one, two, or even three seconds long. That certainly doesn't make the live view feature great for action shooting. There are four focus modes to choose from, including face priority, wide area, normal area, and subject tracking. The face priority feature can detect up to five faces in the frame, and in my testing, it usually found two or three, though I lucked out when I took my screenshot, as you see above.

Enlarged frame in manual focus mode

Live view is perhaps most useful when you're using manual focus. You can zoom in close to your subject, and the tweak the focus until everything looks perfect. You can do this with autofocus too, but it's a lot easier when the camera is sitting on a tripod.

Live view also also the place you'll record movies -- just press the "ok" button to start, and again to stop. I'll have much more on this feature later.

The "classic" view The "graphic" view also shows a virtual mode dial

When the LCD isn't being used for live view, it can be turned into an information display (since there isn't a real one on the camera). You can select between classic and graphic views, and the auto and manual modes can use different views, if you wish. The info display will sometimes display a flash question mark -- if you see it, you can press the help (zoom out) button to the left of the LCD to see what's up (e.g. "the subject is too dark, use the flash).

Something else you can do from the info display screen is quickly change camera settings. Press the "i" button to start, then navigate with the four-way controller to select and change your options. The camera shows photos on the LCD that reflect when you'd want to use each of the options. Some of the options in this menu can't be found anywhere else, so I'd better mention them! They include:

  • Release mode (Single shot, continuous, self-timer, 0 or 2 sec remote control, quiet release)
  • Focus mode (AF-A, AF-S, AF-C, manual)
  • Metering (Matrix, center-weighted, spot)

You'll find the D5000's continuous shooting feature via the release mode option above. Here's how the camera performed in our tests:

Quality setting Frame rate
RAW+ JPEG (Large/Fine) 6 shots @ 4.0 fps
RAW 9 shots @ 4.0 fps
JPEG (Large/Fine) 100 shots @ 4.0 fps
Tested with a SanDisk Extreme III (Class 6) SDHC card

All-in-all, a pretty solid performance by the D5000, which ties with the Olympus E-620 for first place with its 4 frame/second burst rate. When using the RAW or RAW+JPEG modes, the camera doesn't stop when you hit the "limit" shown in the table above -- things just slow down. If you're shooting in live view mode, the screen will go black when the burst starts, so you'll want to use the viewfinder to track a moving subject.

And what's that quiet release option all about? This feature works just like single-shot mode, except that the camera makes no noise until you take your finger off the shutter release. So, if you're taking a photo of a rare poisonous snake and don't want to disturb it, you can take the picture, run away, and then let go of the button and hear the mirror slap back down.

The focus modes are quite simple. AF-S (single) mode locks the focus when you halfway-press the shutter release. The AF-C (continuous) mode does not; it keeps focusing, which makes it good for moving subjects. The AF-A mode selects one of those options based on what's happening in the frame. The manual focus feature lets you do it all yourself.

Getting back to the tour now, let's talk about the camera's optical viewfinder. This is the smallest viewfinder on any Nikon D-SLR, with a magnification of 0.78X. The coverage is 95%, which is pretty standard for a camera in this class. Below the field-of-view is a line of green text showing the shutter speed, aperture, shots remaining, flash setting, focus lock, and more. You can adjust the focus of the viewfinder by using the diopter correction slider on the right side of the viewfinder.

Now let's talk about buttons. To the left of the viewfinder is the Delete Photo button. Jumping to the opposite side, we find the AE/AF-Lock button, with the camera's one and only control dial to its right.

Below those (to the right of the LCD) is the dedicated live view button, plus the four-way controller. You'll use the latter for menu navigation and reviewing photos you've taken. Under the four-way controller is the D5000's speaker.

On the other side of the LCD are these five buttons:

  • Playback
  • Menu
  • Zoom out / thumbnail view + Help
  • Zoom in
  • Information edit - for changing settings, as shown above

Top of the Nikon D5000

The first thing to see on the top of the D5000 is its hot shoe. Things will work out best if you use one of the Nikon Speedlights I mentioned earlier in the review, as they'll sync with the camera's metering system. If you're using the SB-600, SB-800, or SU-800 (which isn't actually a flash), you can control sets of wireless Speedlights. Not using a Nikon flash? Then you will probably have to set the exposure manually. The camera can sync at shutter speeds as fast as 1/200 sec with an external flash.

The next item of note is the camera's mode dial, which is jammed full of options. They include:

Option Function
Auto mode Point-and-shoot, with some menu options locked up.
Program mode Still automatic, but with access to all menu options. The Flexible Program feature lets you scroll through several shutter speed / aperture combinations by using the command dial.
Shutter priority mode You choose the shutter speed, and the camera picks the aperture. Shutter speed range is 30 - 1/4000 sec.
Aperture priority mode You choose the aperture, and camera picks the shutter speed. Range depends on lens used. For the kit lens, it's F3.5 - F36.
Full manual (M) mode Choose both the shutter speed and aperture yourself (same ranges as above). A bulb mode is also available for super-long exposures: the shutter will remain open for as long as the shutter release is pressed, up to 30 minutes.

Night portrait

These are all scene modes
Scene mode Even more scene modes: night landscape, party/indoor, beach/snow, sunset, dusk/dawn, pet portrait, candlelight, blossom, autumn colors, food, silhouette, high key, low key
Flash off Turns the flash off entirely

It shouldn't be too surprising that the D5000 offers a full set of manual exposure controls -- this is a digital SLR, after all.

Selecting a scene mode

Don't want to deal with manual controls just yet? There's a regular automatic mode, plus a ton of scene modes -- way more than on any other Nikon D-SLR. I like how the camera shows you a preview image of the scene mode as you select them with the control dial, as you can see above.

To the upper-right of the mode dial are the info and exposure compensation buttons. The former toggles what's being shown on the LCD, while the latter does just what it sounds like, with a range of -5EV to +5EV.

Above that is the shutter release button, which has the power switch wrapped around it.

Side of the Nikon D5000

Before I tell you what can be found on this side of the D5000, I want to mention those two switches on the 18 - 55 mm kit lens. The top one switches between auto and manual focus, while the button one turns Vibration Reduction (image stabilization) on and off.

On the camera body itself we find buttons for popping up and adjusting the flash, and for setting the self-timer (or whatever function you choose). The flash options will vary depending on your shooting mode, but include auto and auto w/redeye reduction, fill flash, and numerous slow sync options. The flash button also lets you adjust the flash exposure compensation, with a range of -5EV to +5EV. The self-timer (function) button is totally customizable -- I'll tell you what options can go there when I get to the menu section of the review.

At the far right of the photo are the camera's I/O ports, which are kept behind a plastic cover. Let's peel it back for a closer look:

The ports here include:

  • GPS + wired remote
  • USB + A/V out
  • HDMI

Like the D90 and D300, the D5000 has a mini-HDMI port. The cable isn't included, and if you choose to buy one, don't get pay retail price for one!

As you'd expect, the camera supports the USB 2.0 High Speed protocol, for fast data transfer to a Mac or PC.

Side of the Nikon D5000

On the other side of the D5000 you'll find its SD/SDHC memory card slot. The door covering the memory card slot is on the flimsy side.

Bottom of the Nikon D5000

On the bottom of the D5000 you'll find a metal tripod mount and the battery compartment. The door covering the battery compartment is of average quality. If you purchase the AC adapter kit (which comes in two parts), you'll put a DC coupler into the battery slot and feed the power cable through a hole in the side.

The brand spankin' new EN-EL9a battery can be seen at right.