The Nikon D5300 is a DSLR from one of the biggest camera giants and sits squarely in the middle of their options for consumer cameras.
I had no doubt even before I picked up the Nikon D5300 for a review that it would be a good camera. I've shot Nikon for years with little trouble. In fact, I own the D5300's older (much older) brother, the D5000. What I wasn't sure before getting my hands on this shooter is where it would compare with the wide range of other options out there.
But, after spending a few weeks with the Nikon D5300, my faith in this camera line has only been strengthened. Between the design, performance and image quality, I found little to complain about and a whole lot to enjoy.
Body & Design
The deciding factor when I upgraded to the D5000 several years ago was the tilting LCD screen. The D5300 still has this feature, only the design has improved over the years. The screen flips out to the side (instead of from the bottom) so it's easier to use for selfies, if you really want to use a DSLR for selfies anyways. The screen rotates to several different angles, making it easier to take shots from a low or high angles without doing yoga with your camera.
The screen takes up a good portion of the back of the camera, but there's still the menu buttons. The D5300 has a single control wheel at the rear (the D7100 by comparison has two), holding down the exposure compensation button at the top switches the function so it's possible to adjust both shutter speed and aperture without a second control. My thumb rested comfortably right at the control wheel for quick adjustments to my settings.
Navigating through the various options with the LCD screen is pretty straightforward. The default screen displays a nice three-part visual with the shutter speed, aperture and ISO at the top when using manual modes, with the other options displayed at the bottom and the meter in the middle. Initially, the playback just features the image, where on the older models hitting the up and down buttons brought out the histogram. These options are still there, you just have to turn on which ones you want inside the menu.
The top of the camera houses the typical mode dial and a new pull lever to activate live view and shoot with the screen instead of the optical viewfinder. The record, info and exposure compensation buttons all sit right underneath the shutter release. While I like having a separate button to record movies instead of an option on the mode dial, I accidentally started recording a movie instead of snapping a picture on more than one occasion and I'm not a fan of that particular arrangement.
A burst and timer mode shortcut button is somewhat hidden at the front of the camera close to the lens. Higher up on the camera, towards the flash, is a function button that gives that back control wheel one more function, adjusting the ISO, so all three elements of the exposure triangle can be adjusted from there.
As a DSLR, the Nikon D5300 isn't tiny by any stretch of the imagination, but it is certainly a comfortable size. Smaller than the more advanced options, the body isn't overly heavy and fits nicely in the hand, unlike a lot of smaller cameras that can be uncomfortable to grip for long periods of time. The grip has a nice texture for a more secure hold, and there's a little textured thumb rest at the back too.
User Experience & Performance
One of the first things I noticed after powering up the D5300 is the autofocus. The focus is quick in a way that mirrorless cameras still have trouble competing with. But outside of the speed, I was quite happy to see that the autofocus has improved in versatility as well, with 39 autofocus points, which makes it easier to get that pin sharp focus exactly where you want it. My older D5000 by comparison has just 11 autofocus points. Nikon's high-end consumer model, the D7100 has 51.
The focus isn't the only thing that's snappy, either. Start-up is nearly instant. The D5300 has a 5 fps burst mode (you can take about 17 normal JPEGs at a time or 5 RAW files). While 5 fps doesn't sound fast anymore, it's about average for the category at this price; DSLRs have more mechanisms that need to move every time an image is taken, so mirrorless and even point and shoot models with less gear inside tend to have better burst modes.
I would have liked to see a little more speed in processing RAW files, however. The delay before I could preview a burst of RAW shots was significant, and the D7100 seemed to handle the larger files much faster. The speed could likely be improved by upgrading to a faster SD card, but it's the same card I use with my older DSLR. But, the D5300 processed regular JPEG files just fine and the overall speed is quite good.
I spent most of my review using aperture priority, shutter priority or manual modes, which all responded well and were easy to adjust. (If you're looking to pick-up a DSLR, I strongly suggest you learn how to use manual modes if you don't know already, to get the most out of the camera). I did spend a short amount of time in a few of the automated modes, however, which did well in typical scenarios. Even using the mode dedicated for snowy scenes, however, the outdoor images turned out dark, and I needed to adjust the white balance on more than one occasion.
The Nikon D5300 also featured quite a few special effect modes, which first appeared with compacts and are now becoming more popular on interchangeable lens cameras as well. You can't adjust these settings manually, but they are fun to use, particularly the selective color (which can also be done in playback mode on any image) and toy camera.
The Live Mode allows the user to preview the shot through that lovely tilting LCD screen instead of the optical viewfinder, but if you're not using the tilt screen to shoot at an odd angle, the viewfinder is much better to shoot with. And here's why—the D5300 typically uses a phase detection type of autofocus, but in Live View, it uses a contrast detection type. I won't get into all the specifics on the differences here, but the contrast detection is noticeably slower. So, the autofocus doesn't perform quite as well in live mode and there's also a significant delay after the shot is taken before the screen is available again for another shot. These issues make it hard to use the Live View for action, but it is still a nice option to have, again, for those tough angles that would make using the viewfinder tricky.
The Nikon D5300 certainly lived up to my expectations when it comes to image quality. The color reproduction was excellent—it is possible to customize the color processing using the picture settings in the shooting menu, but I was happy with the different default options. The level of detail seemed just right and texture was captured accurate as well.
Noise creeps in around 1600 ISO, but even at ISO 3200, the noise isn't overwhelming unless you crop the image. Overall, low light images were solid.
The images in general are sharp, though if I opened them in Photoshop I would sharpen them up just a little bit, as I would with the images from most other cameras as well. (None of the images you see in our hands-on reviews are edited unless specifically and obviously stated—they're straight from the camera).
The kit lens is a nice 18-140mm range that is a lot more versatile than the typical 18-55mm. The maximum aperture starts at f3.5, which is average for a kit lens. The lens is certainly a good starting option, but as with almost all kit lenses, the quality of the images can be significantly improved by picking up a faster lens. Faster lenses allow for better low light images and a more dramatic depth of field (more about that here). But, if the camera puts you at the end of your budget, the kit lens is a fine starting point and lenses can always be added later.
I was expecting the solid image quality, but I was blown away by the video quality. DSLRs typically have very good video because their sensors are larger than in most camcorders, but, until recently, they've been notorious for having horrible autofocus in video mode. In the past, Canon has been know for offering the better video quality, but Nikon has stepped up their game and I'm not sure that's true anymore. In good lighting, the autofocus was smooth and quick. The focus in more challenging lighting isn't as fast and had a little trouble finding the right focal point, but the video on the D5300 still blows my old camera out of the water. High five, Nikon!
As you can see from the sample video, the footage is a little shaky, and if you listen closely, you can hear the lens as I zoom in and out. But, the D5300 adjusted well with the focus after zooming in and also did excellent as the lighting changed (from underneath an overpass to in the sunlight). The mic also did very good at picking up the sounds of the water and traffic.
The Nikon D5300 is certainly an excellent camera with both solid image and video quality—what it comes down to is deciding if the D5300 is right for your shooting style. The D5300 is certainly capable enough for a variety of uses for portraits to action or simply casual pictures, and again, the video quality is quite good too.
The D5300 is the middle option for Nikon's APS-C sensor DSLRs, with a middle price and a middle feature set to match. All three of the latest options (D7100, D5300, D3300) have the same size sensor with the optical low pass filter removed. The D7100 has more autofocus points and more physical controls for adjusting the settings, including a second screen at the top of the camera. The D7100 is my favorite of the trio but it's pricer and not everyone needs all the extra features. In fact, I wouldn't recommend the D7100 to a beginner who has never used manual modes before, because the additional controls make it look rather daunting.
The D5300 and D3300 are both good options for beginners yet have enough features to be used by avid enthusiasts and even some professionals. With the same number of megapixels and the same sensor, images from both cameras will have the same resolution. The most noticeable difference is going to be the autofocus; the D3300 has 11 points while the D5300 has 39.
Again, more autofocus points makes it more likely you'll get the focus where you want it without switching to manual focus. There are a few other differences between the two models, but they have less to do with image quality. The D5300 has built-in wi-fi while the D3300 needs an eye-fi card to send images wirelessly. The D3300 also lacks the tilting LCD screen (just keep in mind the screen isn't good for action anyways). Between the two, the D5300 is the better option, but you have to weigh the differences in features with the price difference and those on a tighter budget will likely still be happy with the D3300.
When you choose a DSLR, you buy into a family, since switching brands after you've already got accessories and lenses for one type can be very expensive. I choose the Nikon family, and I'm still happy with their DSLR line. Similar shooters to the Nikon D5300 are the Canon EOS 70D or even DSLRs from smaller brands like Pentax (the K-3 looks excellent). Beware though that some companies outside these three are focusing more on mirrorless, which means there may be fewer lenses and accessories for DSLRs in those brands in the future.