Hands-On Review: Nikon D550004/20/2015
Despite the seemingly endless grip of late winter upon New York City, I set out to test Nikon’s first DSLR of 2015 in the conditions they alluded to during its release. “I AM CONNECTED CREATIVITY,” screamed the introduction of the D5500, which was positioned next to marketing material highlighting a group of friends living it up on a summer day of relaxation and adventure. Without the scenic Denver backdrop or warm conditions, I still sought out my own connected creativity and sense of adventure with the D5500, a pair of lenses, and my Metrocard.
Not at a loss to find some color, nature, and unexpected friends, I was determined to make the most of my working with this small, yet feature-filled DSLR. Backing up a bit, I should first introduce the D5500, and why the longer I got to working with it, the more pleasantly surprised I became. The D5500 is the newest member of Nikon’s mid-range DX-series of DSLRs, and succeeds 2013’s D5300 with a handful of updates, mostly relating to handling. Notably, the D5500 is the first Nikon DSLR to feature a touchscreen LCD… finally. While certainly a long-awaited feature for Nikon DSLRs, I’m happy to report that the D5500’s implementation of touch-based controls, Touch Fn settings, and playback features are easily on par with the best of other manufacturers, and the vari-angle design of the 3.2" 1,037k-dot screen makes it a joy to use, even outdoors.
Beyond the touchscreen, the D5500 maintains its place as a well-rounded, versatile DSLR with a healthy set of imaging specifications. Taking center stage here is the 24.2MP DX-format CMOS sensor, which lacks an optical low-pass filter (OLPF), and the EXPEED 4 image processor. By omitting the OLPF from its design, the D5500 is able to achieve a noticeable increase in resolution and sharpness, and the enhanced processing capabilities help to prevent moiré as well as increase in sensitivity and overall image quality. The sensor and processor also afford a 5 fps top shooting rate, sensitivity to ISO 25600, and the ability to record full HD 1080p/60 video. Beyond the one stop increase in ISO sensitivity, these features are all held over from the D5300, but are expanded with the inclusion of the new Flat picture profile for video recording, intervalometer for making up to 9,999-exposure time-lapse sequences, a built-in stereo microphone with selectable audio frequency range, and unlimited continuous shooting with shutter speeds at 4 seconds or slower.
Among some of the other handling-related updates are an even more slimmed down body design, measuring 4.9 x 3.8 x 2.75"—or 0.25" thinner than the D5300—and weighing 14.8oz, which is a couple of ounces lighter than its predecessor. Even with the shedding of size and weight, the D5500 features a deeper handgrip; improved Monocoque design, which refers to the shell-like, carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic body construction; and increases the battery life from the same EN-EL14a battery, from 600 shots to 820 per charge. In my days of testing, I only charged the battery out of habit and never even fell below 50% after a day’s worth of shooting. When combined, all of these improvements make for something certainly enticing, despite the fact the D5500 carries on many of the same imaging characteristics of the D5300.
As I was saying, the longer I became accustomed to using the D5500, the fonder I became of it. The lighter weight and compact size is a certain boon, and left me double-checking my bag throughout the day to make sure the camera was still there. Speaking of bags, the size of this camera was ideal to just fit in a tote bag with some padding—a heavy, cumbersome camera bag truly felt unnecessary, even with the body, two lenses, and a book.
To begin my day of adventure, I decided the Brooklyn Botanic Garden seemed like an ideal place to find the climates I was sorely missing due to the snowstorm on the first day of spring. Where else could I find an orange tree, cacti, and blossoming warm temperate plants in Brooklyn? Apparently, many others shared my sentiments, and upon my arrival to the gardens I was greeted with quite a crowd seeking out the same warm-weather pleasures I was longing for. Luckily, the D5500’s small size was beneficial to photographing alongside families out on their day off, and the vari-angle screen meant I could easily reach above, crouch down below, or squeeze between others to get the shot. The low-angle shooting was especially useful here, too, as it meant I could avoid lying on the ground or kneeling down while still being able to get near-ground-level shots.
One of the initial features that caught my eye, at first, was the AF performance, specifically in regard to working with the optical viewfinder where the 39-point Multi-CAM 4800DX AF system, which includes nine cross-type points, is employed. You have the ability to switch between single-point and 39-point focusing areas, and moving over to manual focus can be done on the lenses. When working in live view, however, focusing did noticeably slow down and I felt it hard to work with moving subjects in less-than-bright lighting conditions. Luckily, my circumstances involved photographing the not so quick-moving flora, so switching between the viewing and focusing methods was pretty seamless. Even if I saw myself working with the optical viewfinder a bit more often, the ability to quickly flick out the screen to get the occasional over or under shot was incredibly useful, including the tap-to-shoot option of the touchscreen. Additionally, perhaps a backhanded compliment, but one of the nicest things about having the vari-angle LCD screen is that you can turn it inward toward the camera while shooting or traveling to both protect the screen and to prevent the desire to constantly chimp when you should be focusing on shooting.
The other feature that I quickly recognized as impressive was the exposure metering system’s accuracy. As someone coming from a background where Manual is the only camera mode that matters, I felt at ease after firing off a handful of shots in automated modes and seeing well-controlled highlights and shadows, even with the trickier-than-expected direct-diffused lighting of the conservatory spaces. A standard feature for Nikon DSLRs, the D5500 features the Scene Recognition system, 3D Color Matrix Metering II system, and 2,016-pixel RGB sensor to ensure well-controlled exposures due to its ability to meter from brightness, contrast, and colors. This exposure metering system also benefits the focusing performance, especially in regard to working with moving subjects.
After leaving the garden, I headed into Manhattan to visit the Central Park Zoo; another place I figured would relieve me of my extended winter malaise, especially knowing there are tropical birds to be photographed. Taking the subway between destinations, I finally had the chance to test out one of the D5500’s other noteworthy features, its built-in Wi-Fi connectivity. Having already downloaded the free Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility app to my phone, I easily connected the phone and camera once on the train and began to sort through some of my shots and queue up my Instagram posts for when I emerged from the underground in midtown Manhattan.
Now at the zoo, I quickly headed to the Tropic Zone to warm up and photograph a milieu of different bird species. This area also proved to be the ideal location to switch to the second lens I brought with me, the AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II, which provides an 82.5-300mm equivalent focal length. One of the most noteworthy attributes that became immediately recognizable was the enhanced Vibration Reduction system this lens flaunts over its predecessor, which compensates for about four stops of camera shake for sharper imagery when shooting handheld. This turned out to be something immeasurably helpful, considering the dim lighting indoors and the fact I was now working with an effective 300mm f/5.6 lens.
One other note I should mention about both of the lenses I was working with, the 55-200mm and the AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR II as part of the D5500 kit: these lenses are very well matched to the D5500’s petite structure, as they both feature a retracting design when not in use. While not fully retracting, they do shave off about an inch or so of the overall length with the zoom ring locked in the L position, which further helped to reduce the size of my entire kit while walking around during the day.
Back at the zoo, I found myself pretty overtaken by the variety and number of subjects abound. Again, like the gardens, the zoo was even more crowded and I felt myself fighting for ground when looking at the peacocks or other large, ornamental birds. Here again, the vari-angle screen helped some when reaching over people, but usually the birds were moving too quickly for the focus to keep up with them. Despite the Vibration Reduction of the lens and fast focusing, birds tend to move too quickly, even when not in flight.
This seemed to be the ideal situation to test some higher-sensitivity values, as well as the continuous shooting modes. I bumped my ISO to 800, then later to 3200, to work with fast enough shutter speeds to render the birds sharply. I also found myself working in continuous high mode, with a 5 fps shooting rate, in order to better my chances of getting some keepers, despite the frenetic setting. After having my fill of feathers and flight, I headed outside to view the rest of the animals. Due to the cold, most were sleeping or tucked away, but I still got to view the bears and seals, just before leaving one artificial jungle for another.
Back on and then off the train, I returned to Brooklyn to catch a quick glimpse of downtown Manhattan just prior to sunset. This pulled-back view of the concrete jungle seemed a fitting penultimate destination, considering the other locale of the day, and also served to truly reinforce the capabilities of the 24.2MP DX-format sensor, its omission of an optical low-pass filter, and the sheer processing capabilities of the EXPEED 4 processor. By no means exploiting all of the upgraded features and new components of the D5500, these shots, for me, showed off arguably the most important aspect of any camera: image quality. As someone who owns and works with an FX-format camera, I have to admit being a bit surprised by the high degree of sharpness and resolution here.
The final destination of my superficial adventure took place in my living room, where I fittingly photographed a group of dinosaurs on my coffee table. Just catching the last light of the day, I decided this would be the place and time to run through the ISO range. The D5500 is unique among other Nikon DSLRs in that it does not have an “extended” sensitivity range; it runs from a native ISO 100 to ISO 25600. There are no Lo or Hi settings common to other Nikons and, as such, one could assume the noise reduction and color clarity should be acceptable throughout the entire range. While the term “acceptable” is definitely subjective, I was pleased with the color neutrality at ISO 25600; however, the overall noise performance still leaves a bit to be desired. This is by no means surprising though—quite the opposite—the fact that you can still achieve a “usable” file at ISO 25600, let alone ISO 6400 and ISO 12800, is quite substantial for a high-resolution crop sensor.
|ISO 100||ISO 1600||ISO 25600|
Working from a tripod also afforded me the chance to try out the secondary feature of the built-in Wi-Fi connectivity: the ability to remotely control the D5500 from my smartphone. Once again, I connected to the camera from my phone and launched the Nikon WMU app. This time I selected the Take Photos option from the menu and instantly saw a live view image of my dinosaurs. I was able to tap to focus and release the shutter, but no controls were available to change the exposure settings. I appreciate the convenient capability of remotely releasing the shutter, but I do wish a bit more functionality was incorporated into the app for a fully featured remote camera control. Still, it was nice to shoot easily and have the resulting image instantly show up on my phone for sharing, albeit at a reduced resolution.
Upon wrapping up my shooting for the day, I had some time to reflect about my experience with the D5500. Was the day’s shoot really what Nikon calls, “connected creativity?” I think, generally speaking, yes; however, I feel the term connected is satisfied more from an abstract angle than the way Nikon is referring to it. The immediate thought of connectivity, even as I wrote it throughout this review, is in regard to sharing and wireless control. With this in mind, the D5500 performs as expected and doesn’t really do justice to the connection I had to the camera while just shooting. The stronger connection I felt was simply the intuitiveness of use and second-nature feeling I quickly achieved after working with the camera for such a short period of time. Its lightweight and compact stature, for me, is still the highlight of the camera, along with the impressive image quality. From here, I’m glad that Nikon has finally gotten off its laurels and added a touchscreen to a DSLR. While not necessarily a requirement of my own, it does have its high points that benefit playback and menu navigation. And addressing the second part of Nikon’s claim, “creativity,” I think that statement is easily justified by how easy it is to work with this camera. It features as many automated or as many manual controls as any user could need, which leaves you with just yourself to determine the limits of what this camera can really do.