Sunday, February 15, 2015

Nikon D5500 Review




With each passing year comes new camera updates, some updates being more often than others. The Nikon D5500 and it's predecessors fall into the "more often" category.On paper the differences are minor and iterative:

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

Admittedly,  it's not a particularly 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 into a value-packed mid-tier product. However, to get a true gist of this camera, you have to look past the specs and to see it in person; it's more of a change from the D5300 than the D5300 was to the D5200.

March 2017 Update: Much of this review also applies to the D5600; the only significant difference is the inclusion of Nikon SnapBridge; outside of the connectivity the shooting experience is largely similar with some small differences. Be aware that the D5600 kit lens uses 55mm threads, so kit-lens filters and caps are not cross-compatible between generations.

Body and Design


Left: Nikon D5500      Right: Nikon D5300

The D5500 ostensibly takes it's cue from the D750, where the main portion of the body is thinned out to the point that it exaggerates the depth of the battery chamber/front 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 a 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. However, the D5500 is markedly different in how it feels compared to these bodies. If you use the D5300 and the D5500 back-to-back, the D5300 will feel like its more cramped.

Left: Nikon D5500     Right: Nikon D5300

The re-profiled rear command dial is reminiscent of the Sony-style dials used on the NEX-7 and A6000, and even has a similar feel. This is a good thing; even though it looks different it stills feel the same. 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.

Left: Nikon D5500     Right: Nikon D5300

It's not just the grip side that is smaller, as the left of the camera is also paired down. The bottom of the camera has a rounded profile that is reminiscent of Minolta Dimage cameras from the past.  This makes the D5500 an aesthetic wonder; it looks small and it is small, especially when you consider that there's still a full autofocus detection array at the bottom of the mirrorbox. The downside is that the rounded left profile of the camera reduces the tactile feel of the drive mode bottom, which is too small and recessed for comfort. Another indication of how small the D5500 is; the HDMI port, usually located on the left side of the camera with the rest of the input-out ports is now on the right side of the camera above the SD card slot.

Top plate and eye sensor. Note the sensor above viewfinder.
One  very welcome addition is a light sensor to automatically turn off the rear LCD when you hold the camera up to your eye. Why it has taken this long is a mystery, but at the very least Nikon did it in a smart way by putting the the light sensor above the optical viewfinder instead of below it. Why is that you say? As is the case on some cameras, when the sensor is too close to the LCD the shade from your hand will de-activate the sensor and turn the screen off.

Operation


Though the D5xxx series of cameras is still solidly "consumer-oriented", the performance is quite adequate. Focus lock is steady and fast; for most people the limiting factor will be "gearing" speed of the kit 18-55mm lens. If you can't focus properly with the D5500 or any DSLR of it's class, then simply put, it's not the camera, it's you. Having said that, the full usage of it's AF system isn't properly explained in the manual, so if you want to have a more practical explanation of what all the focus modes mean, go here. Overall, the camera seems a little bit faster than the D5300, and the difference is delineated with the write-to-card speeds, especially

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 cameras  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. The back of the D5500 will be familiar to anybody who has used a Nikon camera, but the physical size of the camera makes the buttons feel a bit more cramped than usual. On some cameras you try the touch screen and default to the physical buttons; on the D5500 you will likely prefer the buttons at first and then grow into using the touch screen.


If there is one thing Nikon got right about the new touch LCD display, it is the responsiveness. The system is quick and immediate. Items come up right away when you touch them and the screen scrolls smoothly without juttering or hesitation. Another thing that is good is the touch-to shoot implementation. Most touch-LCD cameras have touch-to-focus and touch-to-shoot. The problem with" touch-to-shoot" is that your finger covers the part of the scene that you are aiming for, so you have no idea what's going on under your finger. What the D55500 does right is that touch-to-shoot has a "drag-and-release" function. IN other words , touch the screen to pre-focus, and then drag your finger out of the way. The point of focus will remain where you touched, and the shutter won't fire until you lift off the screen. It's simple and effective.



The weakness is that the menu interface is more or less the same as with other Nikon DSLR's; it's the same line-item menus, except that all of the items have touch function. While this makes for a surprisingly easy system to learn, it also means that the menu items are dense for a touch interface. If you remember what Android was like back in the early 4.0 era, then you'll get the right idea about how the deeper menus work. More successful is the "i" menu that brings up all of the pertinent shooting parameters; there's more space for menu items to spread out here. In live view, the D5500 defaults to touch-to-shoot, but that can be changed to touch-to-focus.

Overall, this is a touch system that works well but which also shows promise. Nikon's product design is painstakingly "parts-bin" in its approach to new cameras; there isn't as much innovation as there might seem to be, but a lot of repackaging of existing tech in new products. The menu system is no exception, and Nikon not being known for their software coding, this is perhaps understandable. To be fair, neither Canon nor Sony get this completely right either, but Nikon system practically begs for a departure from the traditional menu-item user interface towards a more touch-friendly icon/widget paradigm. Though it isn't without its flaws and is less responsive than the D5500, the Leica T interface is far more innovative and mission appropriate in this regards.



To put that into context; Nikon will sell more D5500's in a month than Leica will for the T-series over its entire lifetime, yet a small company not known for being on the cutting edge of electronics was able to come up with something more innovative than the industry leaders.

Video


Video usability has been improved, though not 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 (grade) 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 for Nikon, 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





This was announced at the same time as the D5500, For those of you keeping track, this is now the third iteration of the 55-200mm DX 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 isn't 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.)

Image Quality


Before going on to image quality, it should be noted that Picture Controls in the D5500 is different from previous Nikon's, and now includes the addition of a clarity slider, à la Adobe Lightroom. Unlike the traditional sharpness slider, which tends to apply to the global image, clarity only boosts contrast to midtones.


The following is an ad hoc demonstration of the camera's JPEG output quality through the ISO range. Pay attention to the legibility of the soda bottles for detail retention (or lack thereof) as the ISO value rises, speckling in the broad colour patches for overall image noise, as well as the harshness of the reflections and shadows as dynamic range decreases. The settings were:

  • Focal length: 18mm
  • Active D-Light turned off
  • Centre-weighted metering
  • High ISO noise reduction turned off
  • JPEG output set to fine

These samples are not directly comparable to similar samples found elsewhere in this blog because of variable ambient lighting conditions. Click on images for 100% crop view.

ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12800

The D5300 rendition has a tad bit more contrast but otherwise there isn't much to differentiate the two cameras at base ISO. If anything, dynamic range looks ... a little?...wider. However, at high ISO the D5500 has better control of chroma noise, especially in the shadows. This is the same improvement that was seen in the D750 over the D610. The comfort level for APS-C cameras is more or less ISO 3200 for quality results; in this case you could push that up to ISO 6400 if your definition of 'quality" isn't that strict.

Fixed pattern noise is noise that is produced by the camera circuitry itself, and typically comes from read noise or from dark current noise. Read noise is intrinsic to the process of taking data off of the sensor and is produced regardless of the shooting circumstance, whereas dark current noise is a result of the interference of the surrounding circuitry and tends to show up on long exposures. The following is a short exposure from both cameras with the body cap on and the eyepiece covered. This produces an exposure with no external light and minimal interference from thermal noise; you are getting mostly the read noise by doing this:


The D5500 continues a Nikno trend of continually tweaking their sensors. Ever since the first 24mp sensor on the D3200, no subsequent Nikon sensor has been exactly the same, and the D5500 is no different. From the out of camera sample (top) you can see that the black from the D5500 at high ISO is more or a "true black" whereas the D5300 has a hint of magenta in it. The bottom sample is pushed 5EV to accentuate this difference. This isn't necessarily a hardware-level improvement, as it could also be something that Nikon did to how the data is processed off of the senor, but nonetheless this is an indication that the D5500 isn't merely a repackaged D5300.

Concluding Thoughts



Launch Timing


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, whereas the enthusiast cameras do well even when they are introduced late in the year before the holidays.

If it seems as though there isn't much earth-shatteringly new about 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.

Nikon D5500 vs Mirrorless


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.  However, in terms of size, weight and speed, it is beaten by the Sony A6000. The D5500 wins on battery life, precision during focus tracking and of course, expanded lens selection. That last one is a traditional DSLR virtue, but it isn't the advantage that it seems to be with the D5500 and its predecessors.

On the internet, the D5500 is a mini-D7100+... having most of the capability with some added extras that is packaged neatly into a Nikon's smallest DSLR body to date. It's the sort of camera that enthusiasts might look to in order to "side-grade" instead of "upgrade". However, in real life, the D5500, like the D5300, the D5200 et al... are cameras that are primarily bought by beginners. Sometimes that can mean beginners to photography, but most of the time "beginner" means having used some cameras before, just not a DSLR. This is not a group that is likely to buy many lenses in all honesty, certainly not as many as the owners of the D7100 and up are likely to do. In this regards, lens selection is more of a theoretical advantage than it is a practical one, and of the lenses that most people would want to get (an affordable long zoom, a low light prime or an ultra-wide zoom), both Sony and Fujifilm are competitive. The difference is that Sony's consumer lenses aren't necessarily outstanding and Fujifilm's good lenses aren't always cheap. These are issues that require deeper consumer education on the part of sales staff; it's what Nikon (and Canon) are fighting with the other competitors. The simple answer is that mirrorless is "smaller"; the real answer is that there is more to it, but most people will have stopped paying attention by then.

On its Own Merits


Like Canon, Nikon is ostensibly putting of the real (not Nikon 1) introduction of its consumer-oriented mirrorless effort for another day. Unlike Canon, Nikon is being more successful about it from a product standpoint. If you compare the mass-volume D5200 to the D5300, the difference in size is substantial when you add up the smaller body and retractable lens. The D5500 is 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.




With thanks to Broadway Camera

2 comments:

  1. an excellent review.... a very different one giving some deep & a practical perspective which few others give. like such reviews which are a bit different from those giving just tests, hands-on... etc.

    The d5500 is an excellent all-round entry-level dslr, with Image quality, grip,touch,weight & battery life being it's strong points.

    & slow live view AF,lack of exposure simulation, lack of buttons,noisy & okay-okay kit lens, being it's weak points

    ReplyDelete
  2. an excellent review.... a very different one giving some deep & a practical perspective which few others give. like such reviews which are a bit different from those giving just tests, hands-on... etc.

    The d5500 is an excellent all-round entry-level dslr, with Image quality, grip,touch,weight & battery life being it's strong points.

    & slow live view AF,lack of exposure simulation, lack of buttons,noisy & okay-okay kit lens, being it's weak points

    ReplyDelete