Nikon D5500 Field Test Part II

The best indoor sports camera for under $1000

by | Posted 05/28/2015

In my first Field Test for the D5500, I took a look at the positive ergonomic changes to this popular line, and began exploring the extensive ISO range that this rather affordable camera yields. For this second report, I'll be examining how the ISO range pairs with the continuous autofocus and burst performance by attempting to conquer the toughest photographic terrain: capturing fast motion in low light.

1/1000s / f/2.2 / ISO 1800 / +.3 EV / 30mm eq. / Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 lens

As I mentioned at the onset of our Indoor Sports on a Budget tutorial, capturing fast motion is fairly easy if you have a lot of outdoor ambient light, and capturing images in low light is fairly easy if your subjects aren't in motion. But attempting to capture the combination on a budget can be daunting! Most pros and even seasoned enthusiasts often pair high-end, full frame DSLRs, which have excellent continuous autofocus performance and solid high ISO performance, with lenses that have bright, fast apertures to accomplish this rather difficult feat. Those gear assets coupled with a lot of practice and real world experience all merge to create the ability to capture crisp and tight images of athletic motion in challenging low light environments.

Your APS-C-sensored DSLR paired with a kit lens can't pull this off, at least not in average indoor gym lighting with reasonably fast player motion. The reason is that with that fairly dim kit lens aperture, you'll either not be able to achieve a fast enough shutter speed to adequately freeze the motion, or your ISO will likely climb beyond the reasonable noise threshold for your camera. I mention this because, having shot with and reviewed many cameras in this general price bracket (street prices ranging from ~$650-$950), I've found the D5500 to be the top of the line for high ISO performance. Therefore, if the continuous AF and burst performance can match wits with the higher ISO performance, then we'll be off to the proverbial races for capturing fast motion in low light.

1/800s / f/2.0 / ISO 1200 / 52mm eq. / Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lens
The balancing act: A bright aperture of f/2 allows for a shutter speed here of 1/800s while still keeping the gain reasonably low at ISO 1200, which yields a nice combination of frozen action and low noise levels.

We were fortunate enough to have a terrific indoor sports shooting environment this winter thanks to the basketball program at Georgia State, and this meant more than just the chance to capture the fast-paced competition. Most NCAA events like these offer a variety of motion to capture, so I trained the D5500 on as many subjects as I could to try and squeeze the positives from any potential drawbacks, and fired away. I tended to find that for this gym I preferred a slight boost in exposure, so I left it on +0.3 EV for much of the game.

You can choose both low and high burst modes on the D5500. High allows for up to 5 frames per second, while low generally yields 2-3fps. In the custom menu there's an option for AF-C that allows you to instruct the camera to fire only if it detects focus to be locked (focus priority, as opposed to release priority), and I chose to enable this for most of my shooting, and kept it on low burst more than high. Both high and low worked well, but I found my keeper rate in low to be much better, especially with focus priority enabled. Others may feel differently, and perhaps might prefer to fire on high in release priority, whereby you're sure to get many more frames actually recorded, although your keeper ratio will undoubtedly be a lot lower on average.

Having shot extensively with several popular mirrorless cameras in similar low light sports environments, including with the Sony A6000 and the Olympus E-PL7 among others, I found the D5500 edged them both out for my overall keeper ratio, even when in high burst mode. Those two models in particular fared quite well, and both tended to yield between 25% and 40% keepers depending on certain factors, which is fairly high for this setting, but I found the D5500 to deliver a solid 10-15% better ratio. This in itself isn't such a big difference, but when considering that optical viewfinders are still superior to EVFs in this type environment (that's my opinion, anyway), I was also able to come away with better-framed subject matter in general.

When medium-rare will do

Most pros and enthusiasts prefer shooting in and processing from RAW files rather than relying on the camera's JPEG engine, but for sports shooting I turn RAW off entirely, as I don't like to wait for the buffer to clear after a big burst and chance missing a key moment. Also, for a typical basketball game or hockey match I tend to shoot upwards of 750 shots through the duration, and therefore also like to minimize the file size impact. Again, to each his own, but I find the JPEG engine on mid-level and upper-level Nikons more than adequate for this type shooting. Critical portraits and similar subject matter are a different story, but for sports, I like the trimmed down aspect of in-camera JPEGs. (Not to worry for those of you who want to analyze the D5500's RAW files before purchasing, as more than half of our D5500 gallery images have accompanying RAW files available for downloading.)

1/1000s / f/2.2 / ISO 3200 / +.3 EV / 127mm eq. / Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 lens
Catching fire, part II: The best part about the Georgia State basketball games is when they roll the band drummer, Casey Cooper, to the middle of the court and he lights his sticks and starts to wail away. You have to see if to believe it. I call this part II, as he's also featured in the Sony A5100 Field Test part II, but since that time they've gone to turning out the lights for his performance. This certainly lowers the available ambient light, but makes for a much more dramatic effect for the shot. The shutter speed of 1/1000s captures the action nicely, though the fire might likely be frozen even more with a faster shutter. But at ISO 3200 I find this to be a good balance, and the D5500 handles ISO 3200 with ease, and better than any other APS-C model that we've reviewed that I've seen. If you're at all skeptical of that statement, you can use our Comparometer to view lab images at any ISO side-by-side against any camera we've ever tested.

Interested in taking a deeper dive into the autofocus performance and buffer depth?
Our D5500 Performance page is just the place to get all the details!

1/250s / f/1.8 / ISO 800 / +.3 EV / 127mm eq. / Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 lens
Halftime: There's obviously more than just sports for catching motion at a sporting event. If you're wanting to capture the halftime festivities, you face most of the same issues that you do with capturing the sports action, and a qualified camera at the right settings is your best friend at that point. You'll rarely be close enough to use flash, and even if you are you may not want to use it and distract the performers. Freezing the motion requires fast shutter speeds, and your bright lens and good high ISO performance are the keys to achieving it in the ambient light offered in most typical gymnasiums. I chose 1/250s for these shots, as opposed to the typical 1/800 - 1/1000s speeds for the basketball shots, as I wanted to keep a tighter lid on the ISO. The result is very clean images in terms of noise, with just a touch of motion blur, especially notable in the arms and feet of the top shot. But I actually like it for effect in this case, since her face is still nice and clear. This shutter speed may have also worked better for the fire images, allowing for more of a fire trail.

Back to the game

I mentioned this in the first Field Test, but it definitely bears another mention here that I really love the top deck control dial on the D5500. It's a nice, solid metal dial that adjusts with a firm and reassuring resistance, and I used it extensively throughout my time with the camera. Because you can set ISO to auto while in manual mode, this became my preferred shooting method for indoor sports. The dial adjusts shutter speed, which I used quite often depending on the direction of the shot or the proximity to the players, and the dial also adjusts aperture while holding down the dedicated exposure compensation button conveniently located just in front of the dial. So by simply pulling your forefinger from the shutter button to the EV button, you're now adjusting aperture with the same dial. It's true that dual dials are perhaps slightly easier, but this became a no-brainer quickly to me, and the floating ISO filled in the missing third of the exposure puzzle automatically.

I generally kept ISO at a hard limit of 6400, which is higher than I like to go on any other APS-C camera, but the D5500 can certainly handle it. Fortunately, I actually never had to even worry with it, as ISO 3200 is the highest gain I needed in this gym, and only rarely, as I was using lenses that allowed me to stay at or near f/2.0. The example below became a customary setting of dialing in 1/1000s at around f/2.2 and then letting the ISO fall somewhere between 1250 and 2000. A kit lens would have forced the ISO substantially higher, even when shooting at the wide open end of the focal range, although there would have been some instances where it may have still worked at ISO 3200. Still, it's better not to chance it and make sure you can tackle all of the shots you need. Kit lenses can be great outdoor companions if they're made well, but I don't like venturing indoors with them unless flash is appropriate.

1/1000s / f/2.2 / ISO 1800 / +.3 EV / 30mm eq. / Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 lens
The right moment: 5 frames per second burst performance is not in the same class as the burst rates you can achieve for higher-end APS-C and full frame cameras, but it's more than sufficient for most shooting purposes. Three players touching the ball at the same time is an intriguing moment, though I wish the guy on the right of the frame wasn't obscuring one of those faces. Ah well, certainly not the camera's fault, as it captured the moment I was hoping to get.

What 24mp buys you in terms of post-production versatility

For cameras sporting smaller sensors, like the all-in-one long zooms, we at IR have been heavily in favor of those manufacturers wisely cutting back on the resolution in favor of making the pixels themselves larger in order to maximize low light performance. But for APS-C and full frame sensors, having the extra resolution can be a great advantage, especially given that we already know the D5500 excels in low light environments with good high ISO performance. So what can the extra resolution buy you? Post-production digital zooming power!

1/1000s / f/1.8 / ISO 2500 / +.3 EV / 127mm eq. / Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 lens
Zooming in with 24mp: There's a lot going on in this shot, both on the court and in the stands, but I didn't have a zoom lens capable of getting this close and therefore called on the extra resolution to allow for this zoomed in image, created after the fact by cropping in during post-production. Digital zooming isn't a perfect world, because you lose some of the shallow depth of field benefits offered in many normal shots, and thus lose some of the subject to background isolation. But in this shot it works to the image's advantage in some ways, putting the players and fans at close apparent proximity for effect. Of course, the more you crop in post-production the less resolution you'll have for printing at larger sizes, but this is all the more reason why a higher resolution sensor is effective for allowing some cropping-in without too much compromise.

Best sports camera for under $1000?

So about that grand sweeping statement regarding the D5500 being what I personally consider to be the best indoor sports camera for under $1000. First off, I don't write titles like that very often... in fact, other than in a shootout where we're gunning various models directly against each other, I believe this is the first time I've ever done it. But it is what I believe to be the best after having shot with and explored so many models in this price range, both mirrorless and DSLR varieties. Let's look at the argument bullet-point style:

  • DSLRs as a general rule still do continuous AF better than mirrorless. Yes, mirrorless models are catching up, and for single focus they are often blazing, but for catching ball-players running about the court in low light, the better DSLRs still hold the edge in C-AF performance. That's both my opinion as well as the IR collective opinion as well, and as of this writing not a single of my colleagues disagrees.
  • Optical viewfinders still far outweigh EVFs for fast motion in the field. Again, EVFs are catching up as well, but we have missed many shots using EVFs in this price range that simply lagged behind the action. Optical is still the best bet for nailing action shots!
  • The D5500 is a joy ergonomically: It feels solid yet lightweight, and the controls are perfectly positioned. Some people will think the grip is too austere, but I grew to love it.
  • Nikon lens selection: For the DSLR world, it's my choice among the crowd for having the best overall lens arsenal to choose from.
  • The Canon T6i (as of today) runs for the same body-only street price, and has roughly the same burst spec of a maximum 5fps, and also has the same basic sensor resolution. So why does it not tie with the D5500? Because it simply can't match stride for higher ISO performance. Taking a look below, which is taken directly from our Comparometer, you'll see both cameras at ISO 3200, which is a real world setting that I do sometimes use. The D5500 image is crisp and clear, with virtually no noise issues nor smudging noise reduction artifacts, while the T6i has a number of issues with both, and has a lack of clarity in many areas of the image. For this important reason, it simply doesn't stack up for what I need in the low light field, regardless of burst or C-AF performance.
Nikon D5500 (ISO 3200)
[link]
Canon T6i (ISO 3200)
[link]
Higher ISO comparison: There's not much to compare between these competitors at ISO 3200. The D5500 is crisp and clear, showing good fine detail with virtually no signs of smudging due to aggressive noise reduction. You can even read the zip code near the bottom of the image! This is an indication of why I mentioned in the first report the ability to trust even ISO 6400 on this camera. Unfortunately, the T6i simply doesn't match stride here for detail, clarity nor lack of smudging due likely to an attempt at noise reduction.

So there's my reasoning for the title of this report. I'll make a special nod to the Pentax K3 from 2013 currently selling for under $1000. Our reviewer Mike Tomkins raved about it, and it's certainly won its share of accolades from us not once but twice in our 2013 Camera of the Year awards, so it would definitely fall into the comparison discussions now that the price has dropped. The Sony A77 II is also now below $1000 for a body-only version, and certainly also belongs in the discussion.

Video

As with the predecessor D5300, the D5500 comes packed with a wide array of video resolutions to choose from, as seen in the list below (also found on our D5500 specifications page). Compression is via the H.264/MPEG-4 AVC codec and the files are MOV format. Clip link is 10 minutes for the "high quality" setting at 60p/50p and 20 minutes when at 30p/25p/24p for Full HD and HD resolution. Longer clips are available when using the "normal quality" setting, of up to 29.57s.


I found the video quality to be good for this camera class when using manual focus, but the limitations of focusing via live view make autofocus during video difficult to achieve with reliability. There's a great deal of "hunting" that goes on as the camera attempts to find focus, and confusion over just what the subject is. Face-tracking can help this to some degree, but only when a person is the general subject. Vibration Reduction on the kit lens is good but not stellar, and in the 24p video below I'm trying to hold the camera as steady as I can while walking and following ducks, but you can still see a good bit of jerkiness.

Audio is recorded in stereo with a built-in mic or via a 3.5mm mic input jack as linear PCM files, and the input sensitivity can be adjusted from the menu. I found the audio sound quality more than adequate for general-purpose needs, but the autofocus mechanism imparts a mechanical noise to the built-in mic that makes the track generally unusable for any critical capture of ambient sounds, making foley and ADR a requirement if using autofocus without an external mic.

Nikon D5500 Sample Video #1
1,920 x 1,080, MOV, 60fps, manual focus
Download Original (91.4MB MOV)

Nikon D5500 Sample Video #2
1,920 x 1,080, MOV, 24fps, autofocus (AFF)
Download Original (62.2MB MOV)

For good quality audio and video with the D5500, I therefore advise using manual focus, an external mic when possible and some form of stabilization - whether a tripod or an external stabilization system.

Catching the special moments

Having a capable camera in hand to catch the fast action of a game is certainly reassuring, but it's also nice for capturing the intimate moments between the team, the coaches and the crowd. Once again, the D5500 proved up to the challenge and delivered the images I was hoping to get, as it was the last game in a memorable season for the team I had the privilege of photographing. I'll end this shooter's report with some of my favorite images captured that night.

Part II summary

If you're looking to capture high-quality images of fast-moving athletes in low light, and similar subject matter like dimly-lit rock drummers, the Nikon D5500 is a camera that, when paired with bright lenses, can absolutely get the job done. Moreover, if you only have $1000 or so to spend on a camera body, it is in my opinion the top of the class in this price range. I found that the excellent high ISO performance married to the good continuous AF and the "good enough for me" burst speeds allowed me to walk away from the game with images I was very happy to have captured, both on the court and throughout the crowd. If I only had $2000 or even $2500 to spend on a complete rig and was starting from scratch, I'd go with the D5500 and use the rest for bright prime lenses, or perhaps a bright all-around zoom.

Video quality is quite good for this class of camera, but autofocus in live view is generally a dissappointment so manual focus is advised, as is some form of external stabiliztion. 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, and if you're ready for our overall Nikon D5500 review conclusion it's now available.

quick links: Nikon D5500Field Test Part IGalleryConclusion

 



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