We love it when the features that make gadgets great trickle down into less expensive products. That's why we highly recommend the $849 Nikon D5000, a reasonably priced DSLR that has the same sensor and 720p video recording as the $999 D90. In addition to stellar colors and sharpness, this camera stuns by delivering long battery life and the best low-light quality we've seen in a lower-priced DSLR. In short, the D5000 very much deserves our Editors' Choice Award.
In the grand scheme of things, the D5000's 21.6-ounce polycarbonate and metal body feels lightweight (the D90 is only 4 tenths of an ounce heavier), but other entry-level cameras, such as the 15.9-ounce Sony A230--designed for timid novices who would otherwise buy a point-and-shoot--are lighter and more compact. The tradeoff, of course, is that those cameras (usually made of plastic) will feel cheaper, too. Despite this weight, the D5000's deep hand groove and textured, rubbery finish allowed us to easily hold and even shoot with the camera in one hand.
The camera's connectivity options include an HDMI output (to match its HD video), a GPS port that works with an optional GPS unit (for geotagging photos), a tripod mount, an SD/SDHC Card slot, and A/V out. The camera also has a hot shoe for attaching an external flash (not included).
Aside from command and mode dials, a five-way navigational pad, and standard information, Live View, menu, and playback controls, the D5000 doesn't have many buttons. All of the camera settings can be reached by accessing controls through the Menu system; this setup is convenient for people who would otherwise find lots of discrete buttons intimidating, though more advanced users may find drilling through menus tedious. If you fall into the latter category, you can also press the Info button to access and adjust such settings as ISO and shutter speed.
The different choices (e.g., various ISO settings) have picture previews, which reminds us that this camera is just as much for beginner DSLR owners as it is more intermediate users who can't afford a D90 or comparable camera. In addition, the menus are interactive. For instance, as you point the camera at different kinds of light sources in Graphic Mode, an on-screen graphic of the lens will open and close, illustrating the aperture. This will be mere eye candy for advanced users, but such visuals provide an educational tool for novices.
The hallmark of the D5000's design, which makes it different from any other Nikon camera, is its 2.7-inch LCD, which you can pop out and tilt at up to a 180-degree angle. You can also swivel the screen, as you would the display on a camcorder. It's convenient when you find yourself shooting a tricky angle (holding the camera above your head, say, to take a picture of a crowd). We used it at a tourist site, where visitors were told to stand behind a barricade while they took pictures; meanwhile, the scene we wanted to shoot was behind a tall balcony, some 20 feet away.
While this feature makes it easier to frame shots, it involves ditching the optical viewfinder and shooting in Live View mode instead. In addition to the fact that Live View creates shutter lag (more on that later), we also noted that focusing in this mode was slow, in a way that we didn't experience when we enabled the optical viewfinder. Even when we adjusted our distance from the subject by either rotating the zoom ring or stepping backward (useful solutions if you can't focus with the optical viewfinder), we still had difficulty focusing.
We quickly tired of this feature, and decided it was more effective to focus using the optical viewfinder. However, you still might want to flip the screen out and turn on Live View just while you're framing the shot.
As for the screen itself, it's large enough for reviewing photos, and the built-in accelerometer is a plus, as photos and menus rotate depending on how you're holding the camera. However, we had to squint at it in direct sunlight. You can adjust the brightness in small gradients (e.g., +3, -3), as you would your camera's exposure. In addition to a brighter default setting, it would be nice if Nikon included an ambient light sensor instead of so many brightness options.
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The D5000 packs the same winning 12.3-megapixel sensor as the D90. Our photos were so sharp that we rarely felt compelled to leave Auto mode. At times, however, we ditched Auto mode so that we could turn the flash off, as it occasionally overwhelmed Macro and indoor shots. The color isn't as punchy as what we've seen on Canon's DSLRs, but some might prefer accuracy to saturation.
To match its accurate colors and shadow detail, the D5000 performs splendidly in low-light conditions (its ISO range is 200 to 3200, and its expanded range is 100 to 6400 with lowered resolution, which is about right for this class of camera). Granted, any DSLR should be a breath of fresh air to people used to point-and-shoots, whose low-light photos are usually blurry or grainy. But even someone who has handled DSLRs before will be impressed by the D5000. It produced stunning shots in situations that would cause other cameras to stumble: we managed a clear, noiseless shot of the illuminated N Seoul Tower in South Korea against a pitch-black sky. Photos of buildings strung with soft lights appeared sharp, not blurry. And whereas a flash might otherwise drown out a sunset shot, ours retained plenty of detail, such as the pink light reflecting off of water and buildings.
Best of all, we usually didn't have to do anything more advanced than turn the flash off and hold the camera still (that's not always a good idea, but it helped in some situations to prevent any lone, soft light from appearing blurry). This means novice users don't have to worry about adjusting the ISO, and advanced users don't have to fiddle with menus in the dark.
The camera comes with an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, which is standard for entry-level and budget DSLRs. Although that 18mm width means you'll enjoy much wider shots than even a point-and-shoot that boasts a wide angle lens (which are usually 28mm), the 55mm depth is pretty shallow; your point-and-shoot with a 5X optical zoom can go deeper. It was fine for Macro shots, portraits, and run-of-the-mill indoor photography. But while touring another country, we wished we had a more versatile lens to capture more detail in our landscape and cityscape shots. The lens also has Nikon's Vibration Reduction (VR) technology, a mechanism built into the lens that works to reduce blur. Coupled with the camera's excellent sensor, this allowed for crystal-clear nighttime shots.
Like the D90, the world's first DSLR to record HD video, the D5000 also records 720p HD movies. Because you can adjust the settings beforehand, such as ISO and exposure, movies will have the same beautiful look as your photos, making it about as sophisticated a movie-recording device as a digital camcorder. Filming is easy: just press the Live View button on the camera's back side, and then the OK button in the center of the navigational pad to begin recording. Unfortunately, though, the D5000 only records at 24 frames per second; you'd get smoother footage even from a pocket camcorder, which can shoot 720p video at 30 or even 60 fps. Although it has HDMI out, we would have appreciated an external mic jack.
Too bad there's no autofocus in video mode. If neither you nor your subject move, the picture will remain sharp. But as soon as one or both you move, the movie will look blurry. You could adjust the manual focus ring, but unless you have a steady hand, the picture might still look a bit blurry. And if you want to adjust the zoom, you'll want to use a tripod so that you can adjust one ring with each hand. To be fair, autofocus in DSLR movie recording is still hard to find. The Nikon D90 doesn't have this feature; the Canon EOS Rebel T1i Digital ($899) does, but other reviewers have noted that its autofocus in movie mode is audibly noisy.
Meanwhile, other cameras, such as the Olympus PEN EP-1 (www.olympusamerica.com; a Micro Four Thirds camera that takes similar removable lenses) can focus during filming, even if you start twisting the zoom ring. As it stands, it's that lack of autofocus that keeps the D5000's movie recording from being as useful or user-friendly as it could be.
Battery Life and Speed
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The D5000's lithium ion battery has a rated life of 510 shots. Over the course of four days, we took more than 500 photos (in fine JPEG mode, as opposed to basic or normal JPEG, RAW, or JPEG plus RAW) using the flash fairly frequently, and only had to recharge the battery once. The battery wasn't close to dying; we recharged as a precaution, because we knew we had another day's worth of sightseeing and photo taking.
As you'd expect from a DSLR, the D5000 has virtually no shutter lag when the optical viewfinder is turned on. The camera takes less than a second to ready itself for another shot and to turn on, and two seconds to turn off. This is due to the fact that the automatic sensor cleaning system vibrates the dust off the sensor and the Airflow Control system directs any dust in the viewfinder through a vent in the mirror box before fully shutting down. If that's not fast enough, the D5000 can shoot up to 4 frames per second (the D90 can shoot up to 4.5 fps).
However, the camera's sterling shot-to-shot speeds and lack of any discernible shutter lag disappear once you start shooting with Live View, which more advanced users might be tempted to do since the LCD display helps frame shots at awkward angles. With Live View enabled, the shutter lag increases by one or two seconds, and the shot-to-shot speed to six seconds. Fortunately, of course, while Live View might have a negative effect on your still photos, it's what makes recording those sharp HD movies possible.
While we still heartily recommend less expensive DSLRs to photog enthusiasts who don't want to spend more than $700 on a camera, we strongly encourage you to consider the value of the Nikon D5000. For this price, it contains the same sensor and HD movie recording ability as the Nikon D90 in a more compact body, but costs about $150 less with the 18-55mm lens kit. We also recommend checking out the Canon EOS Rebel T1i Digital, which has a larger sensor and HD movie recording with autofocus, but for a slightly higher price ($899). If you have the means, the $849 D5000 is so full of value that it gives mainstream and intermediate users little reason not to spring for a more advanced camera.