Nikon D5300 review: A great everyday dSLR

The Good Excellent photo quality, a great feature set, and speedy performance put the Nikon D5300 ahead of the pack.

The Bad The default settings could be better and Live View is still really slow to use.

The Bottom Line The Nikon D5300 is a great choice as a general-purpose dSLR.

8.1 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 8

With the D5300's excellent photo quality, fast performance, and great feature set, Nikon succeeds at improving on an already great camera, the D5200.

As the least expensive camera yet to use a sensor without an optical low-pass filter (OLPF), the Nikon D5300 delivers sharper images than most cameras in its class. It sports an improved body design with a slightly larger viewfinder and a bigger, higher-resolution LCD than its predecessor, bakes in Wi-Fi and GPS capabilities, and incorporates a stereo microphone. It uses a new version of Nikon's Expeed image processor, which allows for the addition of 1080/60p video, an extra stop of ISO sensitivity, better battery life (the D5300 also takes a new battery), and a couple of new in-camera effects, toy camera and HDR painting. In addition, the camera ships with a new kit lens, the 18-140mm f3.5-5.6, which provides more flexibility than the 18-105mm f3.5-5.6 that initially accompanied the D5200.

Image quality
The D5300 delivers excellent photo quality for its price class. Though it doesn't have the broadest tonal range I've seen, it generally produces sharp photos with excellent color reproduction and really good JPEG images in low light; it's as good as the Fujifilm X-M1 and arguably better because the higher resolution gives it more detail to work with. Its images are noticeably better than the D5200's at every ISO sensitivity, though it looks like that's simply because they're sharper, not less noisy.

Because the sensor lacks an antialiasing filter, the images retain excellent sharpness even as noise rises. JPEGs look very clean up through ISO 800, and they're still quite good at ISO 1600. While ISO 3200 shows quite a bit of detail degradation, it's still quite good in well-lit areas, and many of my ISO 6400 shots are quite usable, even printed to 13x19. While shooting raw is recommended for making subsequent exposure adjustments, I really couldn't improve on the JPEG processing and noise reduction results at any ISO sensitivity. Keep in mind that I shoot in Fine JPEG -- 1:2 compression, which is essentially lossless (JPEG 1:2 uses lossless RLE for spatial compression, but there's always a little color and tonal compression simply transcoding from the raw to the JPEG) -- while the camera defaults to 1:4 Normal compression, which is unequivocally lossy. If you leave it on the defaults, your mileage may vary.

Click to download ISO 100

ISO 1600
ISO 6400

Nikon's default settings deliver a very good balance between accuracy and pop, with saturation and contrast boosted slightly but not enough to produce wholesale hue shifts or egregious clipping in shadow or highlight areas. The bigger issue is the matrix metering, which, as with the D5200, tends underexpose. Since there doesn't seem to be a lot of recoverable highlight detail it probably makes sense to underexpose, but if it bothers you it's easily fixed with exposure compensation or switching metering schemes.

The video is more than acceptable for personal use. There are none of the artifacts that I usually see with OLPF-free sensors and fewer problems with moire and aliasing than in the Canon EOS Rebel models. Darker exposures do tend to really block up in the shadows, though.

The autofocus system is unchanged, but the D5300 bumps up to the next generation of image-processing chips over the D5200; the result is similar but overall slightly better performance. As with the D5200, the slow lens driving proves to be the bottleneck in autofocus speed, even with the new 18-140mm kit lens. Nonetheless, it's certainly fast enough for most personal or family photography.

It takes about 0.3 second to power on, focus, and shoot; time to refocus and shoot runs about 0.6 second in both good and bad lighting conditions. The low-light autofocus proves to be the most notable improvement over the D5200. Two sequential JPEGs run 0.2 second, increasing slightly to 0.3 second for raw, and with flash enabled it's still a decent 0.7 second. Continuous-shooting performance matches the D5200 at 5.1fps for unlimited JPEGs, and the raw burst remains a still-disappointing six frames for a reasonable 4.7fps.

The stabilization in the 18-140mm lens is quite good; this is handheld at 90mm, 1/10th second, which for me would normally be a shaky mess. Lori Grunin/CNET

Unfortunately, Live View autofocus is still frustratingly slow to use, and the wide-area AF (the default) is too big -- you end up with a lot of incorrectly focused shots. The AF also pulses while shooting video.

The updated viewfinder is pretty nice for this class of camera, and the larger, higher-resolution LCD is also very good.

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