Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Launch Review: Nikon D5500 and AF-S DX Nikon 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR II

It's a new year, and of course there are new camera updates. Blink and you'll miss the differences between the D5500 and D5300:

  • Touch screen LCD
  • Flat picture control
  • Re-profiled body
  • No more built-in GPS.

Admittedly,  it's not a particularily blood-stirring update. That's sort of the point with cameras in this segment, though... the D5500 is not exciting at the moment, but give it time and it will age in to a value-packed mid-tier product.

Body and Design

If you look carefully at the shape of the D5500, you'll notice that it has taken a cue from the D750 by having a very slim body, which allows for a very deep grip. Unlike the D750, Nikon did not have to turn the battery chamber "sideways" to facilitate the reduced camera body volume, as the EN-ENL14a isn't an overly bulky battery. The D5300 (and the D3300) were the first carbon-composite cameras from Nikon, and neither quite got recognition for being a step forward in terms of size and weight reduction. If you have access to both the D5200 and the D5300, the difference in size and weight is not overwhelming, but it is noticeable.... nearly everybody who has tried both prefers the D5300.

The re-profiled rear command dial is reminiscent of the Sony-style dials used on the NEX-7 and A6000. It's a bit of an aesthetic touch, but hopefully not a change in terms of haptics. The traditional Nikon arrangement of command dials how how they feel has been an enduring strong-point since the beginning of the DSLR era. The D5500 is visually the first mainstream DSLR (not counting the Df) to stray from the tried and true rear command dial design.

Basically, don't expect radical evolution. That's not going to happen with the mainline Nikon DSLR's.

Touch Screen LCD

Touch control is a welcome, if incredibly late feature on the D5500. Obviously, the D5500 is not the first camera to feature touch control, but to be fair, few, if any truly manage to create a satisfying touch experience. The basic issue is that touch control isn't a necessary design element on cameras; we've been served well by physical controls for many years... at least well done physical controls anyway. This is the crux of the issue: well laid out physical controls has been a long-time Nikon strength. In recent years that has strayed a bit with the consumer-level cameras as menus have gotten more complex.

Touch control is useful in one circumstance and necessary in another. It's useful for bridging the gap from smart-phones to cameras for non-photographic people, and its necessary in devices where the display screen takes out so much space that physical controls become impractical. The latter is easy to illustrate, because with cameras like the Samsung Galaxy Phone or the Leica T, the touch control is an integral part of the user experience. In cameras like the Canon T5i or Canon 70D, the touch control for the most part is a nice to have, but superfluous because of the existence of reasonably-sized physical controls. That said, touch-focus control is perhaps the best use of touch-sensitive displays.

The first reason, to make cameras accessible for those raised on smart-phones might be something of a futile endeavour. The problem for smart-phone users to overcome with cameras is the the increase in size and bulk; smart phones are terrific for unplanned photography, but proper cameras require a bit of premeditation on the part of the user... that is to say, you have to intend to bring your camera with you, but you bring your phone with you as a matter of course. Touch control, as useful as it is, is not the primarily barrier to adoption for this segment of the population.... it's a nice to have, but it's not going to suddenly convince people to start buying DSLR's again, not this late in the game.


Video functionality hasn't improved dramatically. The flat-picture profile (first seen on the D810) has made its way onto the D5500. This is fairly usefully for those who want to adjust colour and contrast in post. The D5xxx cameras do make for competent video machines, but this is an area in which the Canon T5i, as aging in technology as it is, is still a better camera. For the beginning videographer, the T5i's STM lens system offers surer and smoother autofocus during video, and to boot, Canon's EF-S STM lens line-up is now looking surprisingly well-rounded with the introduction of the EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM and
EF-S 24mm f/2.8 STM in 2014.

The exclusion of 4K is understandable given the market segment. On-sensor phase detection autofocus would have been truly transformative, but the pieces aren't in place. Sony seems keen to hang onto the A6000 sensor for themselves, and Nikon unfortunately lost a technology partner when Aptina, who made the PDAF-equipped Nikon 1 sensors, was acquired by ON Semiconductor. Note that focus-peaking is still not available for live-view or video.

New AF-S DX Nikon 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR II Lens

For those of you keeping track, this is now the third iteration of this lens. The first was without VR image stabilization, the second was with, and the third one now has a collapsible feature like that seen on the 18-55 kit lens used on the D3300 and D5300. If you have an existing Nikon long-zoom lens there is little reason to get this one; however, if you are just stepping into a Nikon DSLR system, then the compactness of the retractable zoom lens will be a plus, as the space savings allows for a smaller and lighter camera bag.

One thing that can't be underestimated is how "smart" the retractable Nikon lenses look on the display shelf. If you compare the route that Canon took with the SL1 (EOS 100D), the Nikon looks more attractive and sensible. The SL1 is the smallest possible camera body, but Canon's STM 18-55 kit lens appears long on that tiny camera body. The net effect is a smaller camera, but not much in terms of meaningful space savings. By comparison, the D5300 is a bit wider, but with the lens retracted, it's shorter length-wise.

One unfortunate area in which the new lens has not been upgraded is that it doesn't appear to be a "true" AF-S lens. The AF mode selector switch is marked "A,M" for auto/manual; true AF-S lenses are marked M/A,M and can cave the automatic focusing overridden if you maintain focus lock with the shutter button (or AF-ON button on some camera bodies.)

Concluding Thoughts

Like the cameras before it, the D5500 as viable mainstream product won't come into full effect until the next Christmas season (Dec 2015). As with the D5200 and D5300 before it, the D5500 is being introduced as a new product at the beginning of the year, where it will command a new-product price but will sell at low volumes until the existing stock of D5300's and D5200's dwindles. If you are paying attention, this is a strategy aimed at the family purchasers... the year end holiday shopping time brings out many families and family-oriented people to camera stores. This is not a crowd that is looking to pay top dollar for the newest item, but would rather have something that is a bit tried-and true and which can be had at a bargain. This is why the consumer-oriented Nikon DSLR's tend to be introduced at the beginning of the year.

If it seems as though there isn't much new to the D5500, you are right. That's not the point; cameras like the D5300 and D5500 are new to somebody, just probably not you if you already own a DSLR. We are well into a period of diminishing returns in camera technology, so technology isn't the driving factor. Even if the DSLR boom is over, it's important for a company like Nikon to keep iterating so that the product line-up appears fresh.... you can only go so far with minimal upgrades that we are seeing at this time from both Canon and Nikon... but until these companies figure out a way to jump to truly well-thought-out mirrorless platforms, this is what we'll be getting for the time being.

One wonders when that mirrorless turn is going to occur for Nikon, though. They're very obviously trying to meet the smaller/lighter seekers with the newer carbon-fiber bodies and retractable lenses, and in all fairness, a D5300, in practical terms is not that much smaller than storage requirements than a Fujifilm X-M1 or Samsung NX-300.  It's not enough to head off the mirrorless challenge (the Sony A6000 was very competitive against the D5300 and still is against the D5500), but for those who see the advantages of a traditional DSLR system, the D5500 is a good starting point for Nikon's more capable DSLR's.

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