Nikon D5500 Field Test Part I

More to love from a storied line of cameras

by | Posted

Having shot with film for about 25 years up until 2006, I finally took the digital plunge and cut my teeth on the now legendary Nikon D40, a real ground-breaker of a camera for its time and price point, which brought enthusiast-grade performance and image quality to the masses, and myself. (Our D40 is still going strong almost a decade later, though has long since been "acquired" by my wife.) Since joining IR three years ago though, I've primarily worked in the mirrorless world, including reviews in the PEN line from Olympus and the NEX-gone-Alpha line from Sony among others, and have not had much recent DSLR experience other than a brief period with the D3300 for an indoor sports on a budget article. But that experience, coupled with the first time I picked up the D5500, led me to want to come full circle and dig back into the mid-level DSLR world.

Trimming down: The D5500 is not only smaller and lighter than its predecessor the D5300, it's even smaller than its entry-level cousin, the D3300.

The D5500 is so lightweight for a DSLR that I thought I'd lost it in a local gym. I'd taken it in to grab a few low light shots, and when I picked up my camera bag I was sure it was missing! Our senior lab technician, Luke Smith, after first picking it up said: "It feels cheap to me." A few hours later, after completing his round of initial lab test First Shots, he came back to me and said: "It's not cheap at all...just lightweight. I really like it." Well, he's a very discerning customer, so that was encouraging to hear. Seeing his first lab samples was even more encouraging, and if you've yet to see the news piece for that with comparisons to the predecessor and a few others please click here, or click the samples tab at the top of this page to see only the images.

As a quick reference for weight as measured body-only (with battery and card) the D5500 as measured in our lab weighs 16.86 ounces. This is about two ounces lighter than the D5300, which we measured at 18.55 ounces, but is a full two ounces heavier than the Canon SL1, which remains the de-facto standard for trimness in the DSLR world weighing in at a comfortably light 14.89 ounces. The SL1 isn't equipped with a vari-angle LCD, however, which likely accounts for some of the weight disparity.

Mid-level DX vs mid-level FX: To give one more perspective of its size compared to its full frame uncle, the D750, I had Luke shoot them side by side. These both sport Nikon's fairly new monocoque structure, which replaces the metal chassis with a carbon fiber structure, though this was also employed on the D5300. The primary result is the ability to construct a thinner body, bringing them more in line with mirrorless forms.

Much ado about the grip

The D5500 grip is fairly austere and has already been debated in forums. Instead of being rounded on both sides, as has been customary for years with Nikons (though not the D750) this grip takes a rather radical sharp turn as you move towards the front/center of the camera, and going quickly flat along the inner edge. I was at first a bit concerned that I wouldn't like it, but I actually grew to appreciate it for the way it allows me to carry the camera when out and about shooting. By letting it rest against three of my fingers I'm able to carry it very securely, which wouldn't be nearly as secure with the more traditional rounded grips. And for most shooting I tend to use my left hand for stability with my right hand staying loose for adjustments, so I never found the grip to be a bother when shooting. That being said, it may be wise to actually hold one if you can to make sure it fits your style, as it may be a bit different than what you're used to.

Upgrading

While the D5500 shares the same sensor resolution as the D5300, as well as many other technical aspects like the same processor and burst rate, there are some key differences as well. One of my personal favorites is the top deck control dial, because I use this more than any other aspect of the camera save for the shutter button. I find this one to be far superior to the inset control wheel found on the back of the D5300, as I highly prefer the tactile nature of an actual dial to an inset wheel which feels more clumsy to me. OK, so maybe that's a small thing to some shooters, but to me it's a big deal given how often I use that dial.

D5500 vs D5300 - more changes than you might think on first glance
Nikon D5500 Nikon D5300
Form factor modification: The thinner body is the first thing apparent between the D5500 and its predecessor, but it's the simplified mode dial and new control dial that makes it so much better to me. Of course, the steep grip is also apparent here, as is the lack of the info button on the D5500 (it's now on the back, also a nice move).

The mode dial of the D5500 also does away with a number of scene modes from the D5300, which is yet another welcome change and one that makes this camera feel closer to the higher end than the entry-level end. I would have loved to see at least one custom setting on the dial, perhaps instead of the "effects" setting, but this is still the middle-tier after all, so they still have to play the balancing game between users stepping up to this camera from smartphones or point-and-shoots, and enthusiast shooters looking for a capable back-up to their flagship APS-C or full frame camera.

The versatile "vari-angle" LCD is ported over from the D5300, but now supports touchscreen capabilities. I've never been a touchscreen guy, preferring the tactility of buttons and knobs and dials, and I doubt I'll ever be able to get used to it. That being said, I know there are obviously plenty of potential users interested in this new feature, so for the next shooter's report I'll have one of my colleagues give it a once-over and report back on his findings. I've found the vari-angle screen in general to be quite useful, especially for some sports shooting situations when needing to have a large degree of control over the screen angle or position.

Moving from the D5300's maximum native sensitivity of ISO 12,800 to ISO 25,600 is also another big change, not simply because it's there for the using, but also because the overall quality has been increased through either sensor tweaking or processing or both, as seen in viewing higher ISO images side-by-side (in-camera JPEGs) vs. the predecessor. I like avoiding flash when at all possible, preferring the natural ambience of a scene, and good ISO performance is obviously critical to being able to achieve this in a variety of settings. What matters most to me is not how high a camera claims to go with ISO settings, but how high I can crank the ISO and still achieve a clean 8 x 10" print. Hey, everyone has their own personal threshold, and that just happens to be mine. If I can't achieve a good 8 x 10 inch print then there's no reason to waste the shot or the disk space, unless I know I only need the image for a low-res computer post, which is not what I'm generally shooting for.

Nikon D5500 - High ISO performance
1/1000s / f/2.8 / ISO 2200 / 90mm eq. / Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 lens
Southeastern snow: Last year notwithstanding, we actually rarely get any snow here in Atlanta, Georgia. So when we do I like to maximize the chance to take family photos. I'd just read a Nick Kelsh tutorial on our site about capturing snow the day before, and used his advice to crank the shutter faster than I normally would think to for snow. With the high ISO performance of the D5500 taking ISO 2200 in stride, I was able to get away with a 1/1000s shutter speed even in fairly low and overcast morning light. (Coat is faux fur, FYI)

Interested in taking a closer look at the image quality?
Our D5500 Exposure page is just the place to get all the details!

1/80s / f/3.5 / ISO 6400 / 30mm eq. / Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 lens
Reaching higher: In order to stop down to f/3.5 to achieve a little more depth of field for the skyline, and to remain at 1/80s to avoid motion blur, I had to let the D5500 climb to ISO 6400 for this shot, which I had previously set as a hard maximum ISO limit. There are not many sub frame cameras yet made that look this good at ISO 6400, from what I've seen in my review work. A few models can pull it off, but not many.
[Editor's note: Images have been resized to fit this page and slightly modified in post-production. Clicking on any image will take you to a carrier page for the image, and containing links to EXIF data as well as the full resolution image as delivered straight from the camera. The Gallery tab at the top of this page will take you to a thumbnails page containing all gallery images shot with this camera.]
1/2500s / f/7.1 / ISO 25.600 / 36mm eq. / Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 G lens
Pushing the limit: ISO 25,600 yields a great deal of flexibility, both for faster shutter speeds in low light, but also for deeper depths of field allowable in mid-light. I shot this image at the 5 highest ISO settings (1/3rd stops) -- clicking on the links below will give you access to both the full resolution image and EXIF data. To access and download the associated RAW files (NEF's) please see our gallery - these images are towards the bottom. (Suggestion courtesy of our reader Jay.)
ISO 10,000 | ISO 12,800 | ISO 16,000 | ISO 20,000 | ISO 25,600

The Particulars

I switch SD cards often in this line of work, and want to make special mention of the SD card door on the D5500. While it appears the same as found on the predecessor (and similar to many Nikon models) I find it to be the most accessible and least frustrating SD card housing of any camera I've shot or tested in the past few years. To me, it's overly frustrating to have to access the battery compartment to get to the SD card, as those are often cumbersome to open. And at least one (very popular) camera I've shot with in the past year has the SD slot located in the most awkward position I've yet seen. No reason to name names, but felt it was important to mention just how big a deal such a small thing can be. On the D5500, flipping the door could hardly be easier, and the card pushes in and out with a reassuring resistance, also something I've not seen on every camera.

I also love the position of the drive button, which is just behind the lens near where your left thumb is naturally positioned. When shooting sports I like access to the drive button, and I grew accustomed to this one quickly, using it often. What I don't like is the position of the Fn button, which is just below the flash release and not in a location suitable for easy access. You could make the claim that it's also near where your left thumb is, and I would likely eventually get used to it if this were my camera. That's one of the positives of owning a particular model over time that we reviewers don't get as much. That's only a very small gripe, but I'm just used to having access to a function button or two in the "usual" locales near my right forefinger or along the back of the camera.

When shooting in manual mode, the exposure compensation button on the top deck turns into an 'alt' button which, when depressed, allows the control dial to change the aperture setting (otherwise the control dial adjusts shutter speed). This was easy to get accustomed to using, but I was frustrated to learn that this exposure compensation button can't be re-assigned to provide quick access to something else. You become somewhat tied to the "i" button in order to gain access to most common functions, but again I got used to this very quickly, and was already somewhat accustomed to these controls from my D40 days. And of course this isn't their enthusiast or pro category, but more of their mid-level casual line, and therefore likely not as much demand for such deep customizability. As far as I can tell you also can't re-assign the AEL/AFL button to anything outside of that realm.

Ergonomically correct: The D5500 sports good all-around ergonomic controls for my tastes. The play button is logically located, and the "i" button moved to the rear which is much more intuitive than being on the top deck as with the D5300. I'd prefer the menu button to be on the right as well, but that's just a small gripe that I got used to dealing with. When you factor in the previously discussed control dial, and add touch-screen capability, it's a very user-friendly little camera.

The play button is in an ideal location, right where your thumb tends to be. Some recent models I've reviewed have the play button to the left of the viewfinder, which is counter-intuitive to me. That's where the D5500 menu button is located, which I also don't like, but again just had to get used to it. I would highly prefer that the menu button was where the trash button currently is, as I use that far less often. Again, these are just personal wishes and may not reflect yours. Oh, and speaking of thumbs, the rubberized thumb rest is just right -- stiff but comfortable -- and comes in handy as you move up in weight with larger lenses.

I kept the camera in auto white balance for the duration of shooting and was pleased with the results, never feeling like I needed to make custom adjustments. Of course, there are ample opportunities for custom adjustments by using one of 6 options provided, using kelvin temperatures, setting with a gray card or making your own fine-tuning adjustments. Again, auto seems to get it right most of the time, but there's plenty of control and depth if you need it.

Now about that Portrait mode...

When I posted an initial gallery piece for the D5500, I included a wealth of shots in portrait mode and not just people shots (this is portrait mode in the picture controls when shooting in PASM modes, and not the one found in Scene mode). The primary reason is that I like the way many cameras compensate in this mode (for the JPEG files) in terms of rendering more pleasing contrast curves and usually a slight desaturation of some colors. What I didn't know at the time is that Nikon intentionally dials back the sharpening for their Portrait mode to almost the lowest level possible, in order to render "soft, natural looking skin tones." I was already a bit concerned with the overall JPEG sharpness when an astute reader pointed this out in the comments section. I then took a closer look with our senior technician Luke Smith, and he quickly uncovered the settings showing the portrait mode dialing sharpness almost all the way down (to 2 out of 9). For my tastes, they come out just a bit too soft, as softness is easy to add in post-production anyway, but fortunately these settings are all tweakable within the camera. So for all you JPEG users out there wanting to explore this setting, you might want to bump the sharpness back up a notch or two before using, unless you like somewhat soft images for your portraits.

1/250s / f/2.0 / ISO 500 / 52mm eq. / Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lens (Portrait picture control)
Portrait mode: If you like your portraits to have a softer, more dreamy glow, then using the picture control "portrait" mode on the D5500 will help you out. But if you prefer more lifelike crispness, you'll need to use the "Standard" picture mode or dial up the sharpness while in the portrait mode control panel.

The D5500 comes adorned with a variety of additional specialty modes as well of course. There are far too many to explore in a shooter's report, but below is another example using both Vivid and Landscape Picture Control to compare to Standard Picture control mode. As mentioned above, these are available while shooting in PASM modes, while a much larger variety of options are available in Scene mode. Portrait and Landscape exists in both Picture Control and Scene settings, though are tweaked slightly differently. I mention this just to avoid confusion if you're trying to access the settings used below. I tend to appreciate the slight tweaks available in Picture Control settings while in PASM modes to those in Scene mode, but there are some interesting ones that I'll try out in the next shooter's report, especially Night Vision. (Note: The images below are the first examples in this report using the 18-55mm kit lens, and there's ample bokeh (background blur) on display for evaluation. We've yet to receive the alternative 18-140mm kit lens for testing.)

Nikon D5500 - Additional PASM Picture Control settings with the 18-55mm kit lens
1/250s / f/6.3 / ISO 1100 / 72mm eq. / Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens (Standard Picture Control)
1/250s / f/6.3 / ISO 1100 / 72mm eq. / Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens (Vivid Picture Control)
1/250s / f/6.3 / ISO 1100 / 72mm eq. / Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens (Landscape Picture Control)
Picture Control: These modes are available when shooting in the standard PASM modes on your dial. I find Vivid and Landscape to be particularly useful, though they also offer Neutral, Monochrome and Flat settings. For the above image, Landscape is my favorite option for rendering the scene as it naturally appeared on the day of this cold winter shoot. There are ample opportunities to modify these controls to your tastes as well, including adjusting saturation, clarity, contrast, etc. You can even save your own custom controls to a memory card, and store up to 99 for future use, or to transfer to another D5500 body.

Active D-lighting and HDR

Most manufacturers these days have a setting to allow for shooting high contrast imagery and preserving details in both highlights and shadows, thereby rendering a more natural image in most cases. In order to achieve this while only firing one image, they tend to have a mode for this, and Nikon's is called Active D-lighting. It can be set to a number of different strengths depending on just how far you want to go in balancing your shadows and highlights, because eventually too much balancing begins to look unnatural. I've thus far left my sample set to "auto" and let the camera do the thinking regarding ADL and have been pleased with the results.

Not so pleasing to me, however, has been the D5500's attempt at HDR imagery. With HDR, the camera fires two successive shots at differing exposure settings and then blends them into one image in the camera, intended to have higher dynamic range. Most other cameras use the more classic three images combo, so I'm not sure why Nikon was content to keep it at two. And while they recommend a tripod, it's meant to still be usable handheld. I have fairly steady hands but was unable to shoot many HDR images that didn't come out with issues in realigning the image. And, just in general, I didn't like the overall rendering of the image in most cases, either. Below is one of the better examples I was able to achieve (off and then on), though it still has issues, especially along the left treeline where there are obvious artifacts visible from the two images not aligning properly.

Nikon D5500 - HDR performance
1/100s / f/7.1 / ISO 1400 / 30mm eq. / Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 lens (HDR off)
1/100s / f/7.1 / ISO 1100 / 30mm eq. / Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 lens (HDR on - entire image)
(Same image cropped in to show the odd aligning)
HDR mode: The moon is almost always blown out when exposing for a scene that's not well-lit, so I wanted to see if HDR mode could bring some detail from the moon while not darkening the shoreline too much to show some detail there. It achieved a small boost in detail for the moon, though not as much as I'd hoped for, but all at the expense of losing alignment on the trees of the shoreline. I've used 3-shot HDR mode in other models in this price range, even handheld, to a greater degree of success than I was able to get here. Of course, a tripod would alleviate this, but I don't want to have to be relegated to a tripod to be able to use HDR mode. If you're going to use it handheld, make sure to remain quite still!

Lens Love

Working for IR comes with several nice perks, and my favorite one of all is the lens selection. Raiding the lens closet for weekend excursions is addictive, and for anyone reading this who's primarily used to shooting with standard kit zoom lenses, I advise caution should you ever decide to switch to prime lenses. The much brighter apertures on them allows for better low light performance and shallower depth of field, and once you get used to those two luxuries, you'll have a very hard time going back. All of the top camera manufacturers have at least a few terrific lenses, but for the overall package I find Fuji, Nikon and Olympus to stand above the rest for lens quality and selection across the board. Again, that's just my personal take and not necessarily reflective of the IR collective. But it is a bonus to be reviewing a camera who's lens selection I'm partial to, and below is a collection of shots across some of the better ones, as well as the 18-55mm VR II kit lens.

1/250s / f/6.3 / ISO 2500 / 82mm eq. / Nikkor 18-55mm kit lens
18-55mm VR II kit lens: Kit lenses are virtually never as bright as prime lenses for maximum apertures, and are also rarely as sharp, which are the most common trade-offs to getting zoom capability on a budget. The Nikkor 18-55mm lens though can certainly get the job done in a variety of shooting situations, and when zooming out it's actually a fairly sharp lens, and keeping the aperture as open as possible can still yield plenty of usable bokeh (background blur). In our testing though, the middle zoom ranges weren't quite as sharp as either wide open or zoomed out.
1/80s / f/1.8 / ISO 3200 / 52mm eq. / Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lens
Nikkor 35mm f/1.8: This is one instance where the kit lens wouldn't do you much good, at least not without a flash, as there was very little ambient light in this room. Cranking the aperture wide open to f/1.8 and the ISO up to 3200 (don't try this at home with your average point-and-shoot) allowed a 1/80s shutter speed which was just enough to freeze enough motion here. It's shot in portrait control, which as discussed above lowers the sharpening quite a bit, but if you want a dreamy glow this is a good combination. This lens isn't super-sharp wide open, but stopping down to 2.8 does the trick if you need tack-sharp images.
1/100s / f/6.3 / ISO 200 / 30mm eq. / Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 lens
Nikkor 20mm f/1.8: At f/6.3 and the 30mm eq. focal length you could certainly get this same shot with the 18-55mm kit lens. The 20mm f/1.8 does have something special about it though, and if you take a look at how it performs in the middle apertures for overall sharpness in our review over on SLRGear.com, you'll see what I mean. Just a superbly sharp lens when stopping down a few clicks, terrific for landscapes if you don't need a wider focal length, and bright enough for a variety of low light needs.
1/1000s / f/2.2 / ISO 640 / 127mm eq. / Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 lens
Nikkor 85mm f/1.8: There's not much to dislike about this lens. Similar to the 20mm f/1.8, stopping down a click or so has the potential to yield impressively sharp images based on our review at SLRGear.com. And even though I wasn't very close to this subject, the long focal length and wide aperture allow for good subject-to-background isolation. I keep hoping this lens will land in my holiday stocking one year.

Part I summary

What I like so far:

  • The D5500 feels great - lightweight, yet sturdy and comfortable
  • Best high ISO image quality in its class in my opinion
  • Simple, intuitive controls - upgraded control dial much better than predecessor
  • Active D-lighting comes in handy for most shooting situations
  • Excellent available lens selection adds to the value of the line

What I don't like so far:

  • It's a little shy on customizability, especially with some of the buttons
  • HDR mode not up to par compared to some competing models
  • The limitations of Live View compared to mirrorless cameras

Want more? Head over to our D5500 Field Test Part II to see whether this little guy can stand up to indoor sports shooting! And for anyone interested in seeing more images from the Nikon D5500 or accessing the RAW files for some of these images please visit our Nikon D5500 gallery page.

quick links: Nikon D5500Field Test Part IIGallery

 



Enter this month to win:

1 $300 Adorama Gift Certificate

2 $200 Adorama Gift Certificate

3 $100 Adorama Gift Certificate