Where (your) dSLR (is a happy dSLR) [The entry kit dSLR Part 6]

Hands off!

Since it’s not my camera, I didn’t really get a chance to play with it. I did notice some quirks, and perhaps my mentioning them may allow you to find the personality of your camera.

When I first picked it up, the body feels compact and nice to me. That’s because of rubberization on all Nikon models right down to leaving a small rubber patch where the thumb rests in this one. Surprisingly the rubberization stops at the grip instead of including more of body like in my D70. This means my nails scratch against plastic instead of rubber—a minor detail to be sure, but it feel sort of abbreviated to my hands. Another subtle change is the removal of the front dial means that the index finger rests on top of the front deck instead of the dial. This makes the top buttons more accessible and the scene dial controllable by a pinching motion on the right hand instead of a thumb rotate on the left hand in larger Nikon modes—it’s actually more comfortable, at the cost of being an even more right-handed design. Another nice touch is many buttons sit on angled surfaces instead of being straight vertical and horizontal—again improving accessibility.

Everything is more rounded—and probably another reason the rubber is pasted in patches instead of being on the entire surface. This roundedness the continuing dominance of the design influence of the Canon EOS but it’s clearly still a Nikon, yet unique in one way—the D5000 sort of looks like a “fatty.” This is especially evident in the place where the bottom left hand rest is cut angularly. In the hand along with the lens, the placement feels awesome, which shows a uniquely Nikon-esque attention to detail. Another small detail is how the articulating LCD has two raised areas on the top—the right one is especially easy to maneuver for one handed operation. Of course, the whole body is distressed black plastic—that distressed look is another Nikon trademark, and another reason why it simply continues to feel more “expensive” (to me) than the Canon Rebels—even though Canon’s caught up to using paint in their logo and black on the default body.

When I turned it on, I was shocked to notice a brief pause as the dust-shake thing activated. My other Nikons are too old to have that feature 🙁 By default, cleaning activates on both startup and shutdown—and, if it were my camera, I’d probably set it to only clean on shutdown. Oh, the articulating display on the D5000 is lovely. It shows a lot more information than my D3 (it has to replace the top LCD), and, while not as high a resolution, is extremely bright.

The first thing a Nikon shooter is going to notice about the D5000 is the shutter sound—it’s the quietest SLR ever, especially for a Nikon which usually has a more staccato sound than Canon (though always less hollow than the Sony). I even read there’s a menu “Quiet Mode” that can make it quieter than my Leica. Way cool! (BTW, Canon has a silent shutter mode also, but it’s different—Canon’s is completely silent and only works on the Canon in Live View when doing contrast (useless) focusing. Plus, I don’t know if any of the Rebels have this feature.)

The AF seems slower than what I remember. Maybe it’s because I’m used to the blazing fast and accurate D3, or maybe it’s because the pentamirror loses a lot of light—the reflex mirror may be more reflective in order to get enough light into that system (and the AF suffers). I don’t know. It’s fast enough, but it isn’t going to win any speed awards.

The only barrier between me and using the D5000 in all situations: where is the front dial? If I know how to emulate it, then my D300-owning friend could have used the M-A-S-P modes in a pinch. The basic solution Nikon chose was to make the rear dial do double duty as much as possible, and, when you need the front dial, the aperture dial is emulated by holding down the exposure button and turning the rear dial—the button is right behind the shutter button and not very easy to reach—luckily I don’t have carpal tunnel in my fingers. Of course, I’ll have to jump into the menus for doing anything fancy like quality settings, white balance shifting, exposure compensation, and the like. Some of these features are also front-dial-bound on the bigger cameras.

What I found especially impressive was how many scene modes Nikon added. They did this by adding a special SCENE setting in the mode dial that allows you to access modes from the menu that are a bit less common. They even have a “Food” scene setting which is missing from my Olympus E-P2, so that’s great. The menus were a dream to use because some key features are accessible without hitting the menu button which makes it slightly more functional than my D70—of course doing these still reqires the LCD—on my D70, I could make some changes without taking my eyes out of the viewfinder. Finally, you can simply hit the info button to get a more thorough explanation of what the setting does—with pictures showing you what that means—an Olympus feature I’m glad the other companies are copying in their entry level models.

Another touch is the dedicated Live View (Lv) button—I wish my Nikon D3 had that! This also makes video (Nikon calls this “D-movie” mode) easy to access. Simply hit the “Lv” button and then OK to start recording. Nice!

Some of this stuff isn’t available in the Nikon D90 and D300s. There is one feature (GUIDE mode) is in the Nikon D3000 and not the D5000. All this shows Nikon isn’t simply about crippling the features in cheaper cameras, they actually rethink the design for each camera class based on the target market and the needs of typical owners. I really appreciate that thoughtfulness.

Oh yeah, Nikon still includes this tiny little plastic thing with their camera bodies. If you are wondering what it is, it’s an eyepiece cover. You use it for long exposure, tripod-based night photography to prevent light leak coming from your eyepiece when your eye isn’t in front of it. Tape will do just as fine, but it’s a nice thought.

Kit lens quirks

The 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR kit lens is Nikon’s third iteration of the 18-55mm lens—and the 8th lens in the standard DX zoom category.

While the addition of VR is a nice touch—though necessary if Nikon is going to compete with Pentax, Olympus, Sony, and Canon—there are a number of subtle compromises in this design/price point.

The first is the removal of ED glass. This is really a non-issue. The purpose of using such exotic glasses is in order to to correct for red-shift chromatic distortions in an apochromatic design. The thing is, that distortion is magnified by zoom, and there isn’t much zoom at 55mm. Its inclusion in earlier models probably reflected marketing needs rather than a good optical design—I’m glad it’s gone.

Another thing common to most lenses in this class now is the lack of internal focusing. Since the throw is really sort, this doesn’t affect focusing speed much, but what it does do is rotate the front element when focusing. If you use a circular polarizer on the front of your lens, you’ll find this frustrating.

Oh, speaking of focusing, the focus dial is embedded into that front element and is pretty hard to reach. Moreover it’s locked unless you switch to manual focusing mode. I also already mentioned that it has a short throw. All of these traits conspire to imply that Nikon doesn’t really want you manually focusing this lens. Most people probably won’t, but Ick!

I noticed was the lens mount cap isn’t the same tradition Nikon black-plastic screw found in the reviewers, but the pop on translucent white one that is included in really cheap lenses like the 50mm f/1.8D. At first I was offended with another cost saving measure, but then I remembered something I mentioned a long time ago: this sort of cap might make an excellent white balancer. I decided to try it out as one:

White balancing cap
South of Market, San Francisco, California

Olympus E-P2, Lumix G Vario HD 1:4-0-5.8/14-140 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S.
1/13sec @ ƒ4.5, ISO2500, 22mm (44mm)

The same trick was used to white balance the camera that shot this photo. Auto white balance was producing an image that was too had a very a yellow cast. (Auto white balance in Adobe Camera RAW suggested a warmer tone than this, which is more color accurate.) No white balancing processing was done on this image.

It works great. Keep the crummy cap in your camera bag for this purpose: it’ll save you $60. 🙂

The last difference is a plastic mount. Actually, all the 18-55s had a plastic mount, as does the 18-105VR and others. I’m only comparing the mount relative to the metal one in the 18-70mm f/3.5-4.6G. That lens, which came with my D70, was a great lens—optically the best kit zoom ever made. I should have never sold it.

Oh, I skipped one final thing: there is no lens hood/lens petal included with this lens. If that is the case with your camera, the remedy is trivial: purchase a 3rd party soft rubber lens hood fitted for your lens element. For the D5000, that turned out to be this 52mm one—you can see it in the photo above. Because it has three positions, it works even better than a plastic petal. A big minus is it’s a screw-in, instead of bayonet mount, so it doesn’t play that friendly with filters.

I’ll talk more about these sort of purchases later, but I want to digress into an old piece of advice I gave.

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