Review of the Nikon D5000 in low light

As promised, I thought I should share my thoughts about using the Nikon D5000 in low light.  This will not be a very technical review  – if you want to see graphs and 100% crop comparisons of noise between other cameras then there are enough of those online! – I want to give you real life examples.

I shoot regularly with the brilliant Blue Flamingo Jazz Band, one of the real movers in the London Jazz scene. (http://www.blueflamingojazz.com/)

Their last gig provided the perfect opportunity to put the Nikon D5000 through its paces in low light.  They were playing in a room lit only by a few tungsten lights and two spots on the band.  The front row of the band were in almost total shadow and the audience were in complete darkness.  All the following shots were taken with the Nikon AF-S 50mm f1.4 lens.

This first shot is an example where the light caught the musician beautifully.  The D5000 has captured the scene well, although there is quite a considerable loss of detail. The shot was taken at 2500 ISO, with no noise reduction other than the in-camera defaults.

I consider the above usable for the band website, or for a small print.  This image would actually print fine in A4.

The second image is pushing the D5000 to maximum provided ISO of 6400.  All the reviews you read will tell you that at this level the shots aren’t usable and you are better using a slow shutter speed.  Sadly in my business I photograph moving subjects, and where flash isn’t an option – in this case it would ruin the gig that people have paid to see – 6400 ISO will get used from time to time.

The sharpness created by the light (sharpness is almost entirely down to light, in combination with lens quality) has actually retained detail well. There is no noise reduction of any kind on this image.  It has been contrasted up, and that has brought out the ‘artifacts’ (blobs of noise) even stronger.  However, if you look at the small version you can see that the shot would still actually be fine at 5×7.  In printing almost all printers add noise reduction, so printed images will look less sharp and less noisy than on screen.  A backlit screen makes a big difference to how you perceive an image compared to viewing it printed, in natural light.

What about without good light?  Well, the following shot is of my other half sat in the audience.  It was pitch black.  This is the D5000 at 6400 ISO, f1.4 and 1/24th of a second.  This is the limits of shooting.  The light was entirely ‘created’ by the brightness of the lens, and in these circumstances the noise will be very visible.  Here is the shot, again, no noise reduction, straight out of camera.

As it hasn’t had the contrast increased, this shot gives the best impression of the D5000 at 6400 ISO. Nikon have done a superb job of limiting chromatic noise.  Luminance noise is the nice, film like grains. Chromatic noise is the nasty colour smudges that appear yellow in the shot.  For 6400 ISO and no major light source, the D5000 has done very well.  If you use your camera for the everyday you would be happy with this result.

The final image I want to include is one taken at 2500 ISO, but with noise reduction.  This is an example of what can be achieved with the D5000 in low light.

My conclusions?  For less than £500 ($600) to get a camera that performs this well displays how far digital has come even in the last two years.  I consider the D5000 professionally usable up to 2500 ISO.  It is very controversial of me to claim this, but I think the D5000 doesn’t perform badly against Canon’s venerable 5D (Mark 1) that was king of high ISOs for so long.  Yes, in a 100% crop comparison it looks a lot worse, but printed on a page in a wedding album the D5000 would look little different.  If you want to shoot in low light and are on a budget, or looking for a cheap back-up alternative, the D5000 is a brilliant choice.

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