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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Nikon D5300 review - The good, the bad, the logic

I've been shooting with APS-C cameras for a few years now, mostly with a Canon 500D and Sony NEX-5. For both I only have the 18-55 kit lens. It's nice, it's got a 3x zoom and covers roughly 75% of my usual day to day needs in terms of focal length. But the small aperture (f/3.5), which drops as I zoom in (to f/5.6) meant that I always felt crippled by the lens, and it was holding me back in terms of shooting in dark environments, or when shooting portraits - I wasn't getting a nice smooth bokeh behind the subject (shallow DoF).

Before going-on further with this article, I should point out that I have perfect vision (I do not need glasses), and I'm knowledgeable with all terms of photography, including focusing, metering and lighting. I follow the most popular photography sites daily, and I've been learning from professionals everything there is to know about photography and video work.

The Good

I've decided that I need something new, with modern features, high-quality photos, and good video.
Eventually, I decided to purchase a Nikon D5300 along with a Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.8G lens. My thinking behind it was:

* I'm on a tight budget and can't justify spending over $1000 USD.

* The D5300 has a 24MP sensor and no low-pass filter (OLPF). Should give excellent photos, much sharper than I'm used to (or so I thought, read on). My Canon 500D has 15MP, and the Sony NEX-5 has 14MP. DxO Mark confirmed that The D5300's sensor is truly excellent, and should yield better quality photos than my other cameras.

* The D5300 has WiFi, which enables me to control the camera from a smartphone or tablet, immediately check the shots on the larger screen, and share them using the 3G/4G connectivity.

* The flip-out screen is nice to have. My old Canon 500D doesn't have it, and it is useful for low or high shots (the Sony NEX-5 has a tilting screen, which goes up/down).
There's a mic jack for attaching an external mic. Very important for video, but I haven't yet bought a mic for it.

* The D5300 is capable of shooting excellent video, up to 1080p50 (PAL mode) or 1080p60 (NTSC mode). Luckily, you can select which one you need, so this could be considered a "world cam". The MPEG-4 codec goes as high as 37Mbps, which is decent.

* The 35mm f/1.8G lens has AutoFocus, is compatible with the D5300 as this lens is AF-S, and has the large aperture which I've always craved for. It's also capable of minimum focus of 30cm, which I sometimes need (good enough for most of my macro shots).
It was a hard choice for me to make, as giving up zoom-ability is a tough pill to swallow. Another consideration for me was that it's light and compact design meant that I could easily fit this camera+lens combo in my small bag. Another positive bit is that the lens also comes with the hood in the box, so you don't have to buy one separately. Oh, I almost forgot - it's relatively cheap compared to most lenses, so it fit my budget.

The Bad

After using the camera for a few days, fiddling with every setting, taking over a 1000 shots, and tens of videos (I even bothered reading the manual), here are the annoying things I discovered:

- The Fn button, which is usually reserved for changing ISO, is too small. The protruding white dot below it and the flash trigger button above it, make it very hard to seek the Fn button with my left thumb and successfully hit it, whenever I need to change the ISO setting. Basically, it should have been at least twice as large, or somehow more prominent. I always end-up seeking it with my eyes in order to push the right button.

- Can't change aperture in LiveView mode. So silly and so frustrating!!!!

- In LiveView, when zooming-in digitally to check focus, the refresh-rate on the screen slows to a crawl. It's very difficult to judge focus with the screen behaving like that.

- Can't set the shutter speed slower than the setting in Movie Mode. How stupid is that!!
   If the video mode is set to 1080p50, I can't change the shutter slower than 1/50 sec.
   If the video mode is set to 1080p24, I can't change the shutter slower than 1/30 sec.
   It makes sense when I'm shooting video, but not when I need to take a still photo in LiveView.

- So you might ask "why are you trying to take a still photo in LiveView mode? Just use the Viewfinder".
   Ah well, it turns out the Viewfinder only uses Phase-detect AutoFocus (PDAF). This means that with a fast aperture (f/2.5 or faster), most of my shots ended-up blurry, or should I say - the focus was not where I wanted it to be.
LiveView Mode uses Contrast-Detect AutoFocus (CDAF), which is much more accurate and will result in sharp photos, just as you'd expect. But, CDAF in LiveView is so frustratingly slow and makes twice the noise, that it's almost impossible to shoot with when time is of the essence.

- You then could argue that "You probably didn't set the focus / metering / shutter speed correctly".
   Well, actually I did. I set the camera to AF-S mode, with Single-Point AF and metering to Spot metering. This ensured that the AutoFocus only focused on the center square, where I wanted it.
Regarding the shutter speed, it doesn't matter if it's 1/1000sec or 1/10sec; using the Viewfinder, the camera simply couldn't get the focus right.

- You might also ask "OK, so why don't you simply adjust the Viewfinder's AutoFocus using AF Fine-Tuning?".
Well, I would - but the D5300 doesn't have it!! It's bigger brother, the D7100, does have it. AF Fine-Tune could really solve the Viewfinder focusing issue, if only Nikon would add it in firmware. But why would they?? Do they even care?? They know the problem exists, yet they would have you pay more to get this seemingly very important, and very necessary feature.
Having used only kit lenses with max aperture of f/3.5, I've never noticed the problem before. Reading about it online, it seems other DSLRs have the same problem.

- Regarding video: First I'd like to mention that the videos coming out of this camera+lens combo are just beautiful. I'm very happy to say that videos look great, even in low light. The most annoying problem I'm seeing is that there's no VR in the lens or the camera, so the movement looks a little shaky. That's to expect, of course. But I can't help wondering - If the cheap 18-55 kit lens has VR, why didn't Nikon include VR in this 35mm lens as well??? It could do wonders if it had.

- One other thing that's sorely missing is a Touch-screen. It would really come in handy, especially in focusing. Other cameras already have it (Canon 70D, Canon 700D, Sony NEX-5R, Sony NEX-5T), and I really feel the D5300 is at a disadvantage here.

- Last, but not least: Zoom to 100% with first press on the "Zoom-in" button. Right now it takes about 9 presses to get to 100% to check focus. My Canon 500D with the Magic Lantern hack allows me to do just that. Such a simple fix, but a true time-saver.

To sum things up

I know this 35mm lens doesn't have Vibration Reduction (VR), and yes - I know the mirror slap could cause a certain amount of bluriness.
Also, I'm aware that there's "Exposure Delay mode" which flips the mirror up one second before the shutter hits, in order to avoid the shake of the mirror slap (BTW, Canon calls it "Mirror Lockup").

Believe me, I've tested this camera+lens combo properly on a sturdy tripod, in a well controlled environment, with all the right settings (focus, metering, shutter, mirror up), pointing it directly at a resolution chart. The AutoFocus in LiveView mode gave the sharpest result every time, from f/1.8 all the way to f/8.0.
But it's so clunky, takes too long to snap a photo, and sounds terrible with it's double-actuation mechanism.

I'm really trying to like this camera+lens combo, but with so many fundamental flaws, should I?

If there's one thing I could ask Nikon to fix, it would be adding AF Fine-Tune to the D5300.

Here are a couple of shots I took (JPEG FINE), straight out of the camera.
Nothing fancy, just a resolution chart. Both shots are f/5.6, ISO 500, 1/30sec.
Please compare them at 100% using a proper photo management app, on a proper monitor:
LiveView (camera's LCD - CDAF): http://s13.postimg.org/80v2tzq5h/DSC0757.jpg
Viewfinder (camera's eyepiece - PDAF): http://s13.postimg.org/telpckqp1/DSC0758.jpg