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Reflections on the D40, D5000 & D90-beginning mm photography

beginning mm photography
beginning mm photography

Reflections on the D40, D5000 & D90
Date Posted: July 11, 2009
Last Updated: August 7, 2009

The Acosta Bridge, Jacksonville, FL

This bridge was shot with my a refurb D90 coupled with my beloved Nikon 50mm f/1.8D AF lens, the cheapo, non-SilentWave version of the 50mm Nikkor prime. I shot to JPEG basic, with minimal post-processing. I warmed it up a bit but other than that, it is Straight Out Of the Camera (SOOC).

A photog noob’s perspective
At various points I have owned the Nikon D40 and D5000. Currently I shoot digital with the Nikon D90. This post is a discussion of these cameras from someone who is relatively new to photography.

NB: I got most of my gear through Amazon.com. The links in this review take you conveniently there, and if you find my posts useful and wind up buying stuff, Amazon deposits a little something in my tip jar on your behalf but at no cost to you.

Nikon D40
The D40 an absolutely amazing machine. Having shot dinky point and shoots up to now, the D40 was was a sublime teacher. It was light and a great companion to Nikon’s AF-S DX lenses. The 18-200mm AF-S in particular was fabulous. I actually kept a manual-focus 50mm f/1.8 AI-lens mounted on the D40 for a while–you can shoot many older Nikkor glass in manual mode just fine.

The D40 was simple to use. There were enough controls to be advanced and it provided great feedback for your shots and adjustments. The meter was a bit wonky but a little exposure compensation went a long way to mitigating that annoyance (Ken Rockwell’s tip, not mine).

I finally traded up when the D5000 came out, and mostly because I wanted a HD VIdeo capable camera and the better low-light performance without a flash.

Nikon D5000
Had the Nikon D5000 been available when I got the D40, I might have sprung for it instead of the D40. I shot the D5000 as a relative noob. In a lot of ways, it had the same design/interface sensibilities of the D40 plus useful things like HD Movie.

I loved the D5000, it was an amazing beginner to advanced user’s camera. For most applications, this is really all you need. My feeling is that if you feel like you are going to take the hobby seriously, start with the D5000 and don’t look back.

Check out John Krzesinski‘s photostream. He shoots with a D5000 to great effect.

Don’t get me wrong, the D40 is great if budget is an issue. Pop the amazing Nikon 35mm f/1.8G AF-S DX on the D40 and you’d be doing things no point-and-shoot can. The D40 is a tad lighter than the D5000, and Ken Rockwell would go to bed with it in a snap, but on the upside, the D5000 has among other useful additions, an awesome matrix meter–it just works and its LCD interface is more intuitive than the D90.

The D5000 has less dials and less controls, but in a way, I really liked that. Things are easy to reach; the grip is nice. It is a plastic body that feels well constructed–solid but still light enough to be agile with one wrist. I think ergonomics is an often overlooked point. Personally, I carry enough digital crap around that portability and weight are extremely important features. The day Nikon comes out with a non-SLR micro-four-thirds-like F-mount body mirrorless interchangeable lens system, I am going to be all over it.

I spend all my time in the business of making complex business requirements look simple in software. I can really appreciate what it took to find that balance in the D5000. It is easy to make user interfaces complex. It is very difficult to make it simple.

We are so focused on features that in some ways, Nikon’s design of the D5000, it’s simplicity, it’s sheer joy and ease of use, is its best, unspoken feature. Frankly, the D5000 pales sightly in comparison to the D90 but what are you really getting is more buttons.

So, as a user, I love the D5000. It’s lighter, slightly smaller, and it lets you focus on the critical settings and on getting the shot. Frankly, when Nikon came out with the 35mm f/1.8 AF-S for 0, it made the D5000 a game changer. See the picture below for an example of a D5000 photo using that lovely 35mm AF-S.

Nikon D90
I shoot with the Nikon D90
now, but in hindsight, I would have kept the D5000 as a walk-about-shoot-any-day camera and saved up for a D300/D300s as a primary workhorse.

I know, this isn’t the ringing endorsement of the D90 you see in most reviews. Everyone loves the D90 and it promises to be a great machine. But I am speaking as someone who cares more about the experience of learning digital photography as a whole than about minute technical differences in feature sets. The addition or a scene mode here or a flash-commander mode there isn’t, on balance, what matters most to me.

I am not sure what to make of the D90 yet. At first, I got a refurb unit and it turned out that the meter is a bit wonky. On the whole, it just felt fussier than the D5000. I had to work, fiddle and otherwise jockey to get the right exposure. I almost never clipped a shot with the D5000. Maybe I just understood it better coming from a D40. With the D90, I found myself working. — See Update to this below.

That said, the camera feels very serious in my hands. My ego definitely gets a little boost carrying the D90 around. But I am sure more secure individuals will care little for that unspoken benefit. On the flip side, it is heavier on my wrist. Now, I do some serious work on my computer so I have very strong wrists, but even that little bit of added weight makes it more difficult and less confident for me to control the camera compared to the D5000

I got my D90 so that I could auto-focus some of the older AF lens, in particular, the 50mm AF f/1.8D (non-AF-S); but having come from the D5000, I am spoilt from knowing only silent auto-focusing (or manual-totally-silent focusing). "Whrilwhirlwhirl", sounds cool but I see why an internal focusing, silent motor is so much nicer if you can afford it.

I am sure the image quality of the D90 is superb, but I haven’t been as consistent with it compared to the D5000, but that’s probably because I’ve had to deal with more doodats and buttons than the D5000.

So far, it seems that the D5000 will take as good a picture and it will do everything the D90 does image-quality wise for a little less money.

But, the D90 is more ‘convenient’, if you can call having direct access to buttons that.

So, yes, on balance, the D90 was a better deal in my case since I would have to spend an extra 0 for the new Nikon 50mm f/1.4G. And I’ll probably save more in the long run as I go for the cheaper, older lenses. But if you don’t have older lenses to begin with, the value proposition starts to diminish. I got the D90 to experiment with various lenses, but my feeling is that at the end of that experimentation rainbow, I’ll wind up using two or three lenses tops, all of which will probably eventually be AF-S anyway.

Should you buy the D5000 or D90? I own(ed) both the D5000 and D90. As a noob, I loved the D5000. D90 wins if you are doing a technical, feature-list comparison. But, I’d suggest that the D5000’s simplicity is a great strength and a tremendous feature in its own right.

The question isn’t which is the ‘better’ camera. They are both amazing for what they do. Many reviewers find the D5000 underwhelming when compared to the D90, I’d respectfully suggest that Nikon got it right. From a design standpoint, it is genius.

The D5000 is a nearly perfect mid-level introduction to digital photography. Far simpler and less intimidating than the D90+, and the IQ is superb. Coupled with a 35mm AF-S prime, it rocks pretty hard for under 00.

If you don’t have much invested already in Nikon gear and your hobby-commitment horizon is years and not months, buy the D5000, put the money into a AF-S prime lens, and pick up the next generation D300s when it comes out if you need something more, or go full frame with a D700.

Ernest Y. Koe

Update: While in NYC last week, I hooved it over to Adorama and exchanged the refurb for a new unit. Verdict, definitely a bum refurb unit. Highlights behave normally now, metering seems to feel almost identical to the D5000 and the auto-ISO behavior is not ‘hot’ anymore. Everything is good. I am warning up to the D90.

Update Aug 7, 09 – The Nikon D300s is now out, along with the Nikon D3000. I haven’t tried either but I suspect the D3000 is the latest replacement for the aging D40.

beginning mm photography
beginning mm photography

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