The Parent Photographer: Nikon D5500 Review

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The new Nikon D5500 boasts an impressive 24.2 million effective pixels, 39 focus points, and a blah blah blah — OK, look. This is a blog about geeky parents, not a photography blog. If you came to this article just for technical specs about this camera, let me save you some time:

http://imaging.nikon.com/lineup/dslr/d5500/spec.htm

Still here?

When Nikon sent me this camera and a 35mm lens on a 45-day loan, I wasn’t sure how best to review it. Do I mount it on a tripod next to other cameras, shoot a bunch of photos, and compare? Carry it everywhere in place of my current D5100? In the end, I figured the best way to test the latest prosumer offering from Nikon is to try it out both as a professional and as a consumer.

Disclaimer: I’m not a professional photographer, neither in the sense that I get paid to take pictures, nor that my photos are of a professional quality. That said, I have a pretty firm grasp on the technical aspects of photography and can usually manage a decent shot or two, which I figure makes me somewhat qualified to write this review.

Day Zero: Unboxing

Nothing too surprising here aside from the first of many utterances of, “I can’t believe how light this thing is.” Seriously, I’ve had point and shoots that weigh more than the D5500. In fact, it is so light, I was a bit concerned about durability, so I looked up its construction. Warning, marketing jargon ahead:

“Thanks to the improved internal-unit layout, enabled by the carbon-fiber monocoque structure, the D5500 has an incredibly slim, lightweight body with an easy-to-hold, deep grip.” (For those of you who aren’t mechanical engineers or scrabble buffs, monocoque “is a construction technique that utilizes the external skin to support some or most of the load”.)

NikonD5500_Unboxing

Day Zero Part II: Patience Is Overrated

After popping in the battery and an SD card and realizing there was already a little charge on the battery, I couldn’t contain myself and had to take a couple of shots right away. To avoid the risk of having my geek card revoked, I of course disregarded the manual that Nikon was nice enough to provide (in multiple languages, even!) and just started fiddling around.

NikonD5500_DayZero

Part of the obligation of writing a review is being completely honest with you, the reader, despite how boneheaded such honesty might make me, the reviewer, appear. While researching this camera in anticipation of its arrival, my biggest concern about the touchscreen was my cheek brushing against it and changing the settings, so I already knew about the sensor that shuts off the screen when you use the viewfinder. Despite this foreknowledge, I still spent an embarrassingly long time trying to figure out why the screen would turn off at seemingly random moments while I was using the touchscreen. The camera being on a tripod at chest level didn’t help, as my hand was constantly passing by the viewfinder. Finally, after putting two and two together, I made sure to come at the touchscreen from the side or bottom, and it worked swimmingly.

Nikon D5500: Professional Mode (Days 1-20)

For the first 20 days, I set these rules for myself:

  • Only use PASM modes
  • Capture in RAW format
  • Carry around and swap lenses and filters as necessary to better capture a specific shot
  • No on-camera flash

Taking It to the Street

As I mentioned in a previous article, my everyday carry consists of virtually all of my camera gear, so this wasn’t a difficult adjustment. I replaced my 50mm with the loaner 35mm, and added the D5500 to my pack so I would have both it and my D5100 available. Despite added features such as a touchscreen and WiFi, the D5500 is 30% lighter than the D5100, and 10% lighter than the D5300. While 140 grams doesn’t seem like much, if you’re like me and use a grip strap, having a third of a pound less dangling from your hand really pays off after an hour or so.

The key to street photography, and the reason for the grip strap mentioned above, is to always be prepared. The D5500 having the same function buttons in the same location as previous versions allowed me to be able to quickly switch from my standard daytime street photography settings (Aperture mode, f/8, ISO 160) to a wider aperture or higher ISO to catch some action or shoot down an alleyway. It’s also for this reason that I found the touchscreen somewhat unnecessary when shooting on the street. It’s simply never going to be as fast as holding a button and spinning a wheel a few times. The exception to this is for those things that aren’t quickly accessible via the wheel. Being able to quickly switch auto-focus and metering options via the touchscreen was a significant improvement over a dozen button pushes.

While the touchscreen may have been less than useful on the street, another new feature of the D5500, the removal of the optical low pass filter, was huge. A trademark of street photos is sharpness, but after shooting with my D5100, I was always tweaking in Lightroom, trying to get that perfect “street” look, but never quite hitting that sweet spot I was looking for.

Bonehead Reviewer, Part II: I was so frustrated that there wasn’t a quick touchscreen option to jump to different shutter release modes. Why in the world would they make you go into the menu to switch from quiet to remote triggered to burst? It’s one of my most frequently used options! It was only after changing lenses one day that I saw the button they added to the bottom to do just that. Maybe it was time to go find that multilingual manual I tossed earlier.

Creepy Gas Mask Kid

Say Cheese

Disclaimer: the photos in this section were taken with my D5100. I include them to demonstrate the portrait photography functionality of the D5500, as it is an upgrade in the same class.

One of the first ideas parents have when they purchase a new DSLR camera is, “I’ll never have to pay for family portraits again!” I don’t want to burst your bubble, but having a decent camera is a very small part of what a good professional photographer is selling. I’m all for lifelong learning, and I fully support anyone who wants to go out and try to take their kids’ portraits themselves. Just don’t be surprised if you’re back in the photographer’s studio the next weekend, this time with a better understanding of what it takes to make a great photo.

That said, if you do want to try your hand at portrait photography, the D5500 with an f/1.8 35mm lens is a great place to start. The 24MP sensor allows for large prints or generous cropping, and the touchscreen allows you to zoom in and quickly determine if a shot is worth keeping or needs retaken. The extended battery life is also nice for those day-long portrait sessions that take you miles from the nearest electrical source.

KidPortraits

Still Life / Product

One of the best parts of being a GeekDad writer who also loves photography is that I’m never hard up for an appropriate image for an article. Stock photography can get expensive, and it’s rarely the exact message you’re wanting to get across. While you’re likely not lucky enough to write for the best blog on the internet, you may have kids who need images for a school report, a boss who wants you to put together a newsletter, or an organization who needs a banner for their fundraiser.

Even if you have no need for your own stock photography, you may want to one day sell that original Gameboy or X-Wing Fighter. One of the best ways to ensure success on an Ebay auction or Craigslist ad is a high quality photo. With nothing more than a cheap tripod, a decent camera, a desk lamp, and a roll of white paper, you can create a quick and easy mini studio for photographing the stuff around your house.

The biggest advantage of the D5500 in product photography is the touch screen, specifically the zooming and panning during manual focus. While on the tripod, I can use Live View (using the screen instead of the viewfinder) and zoom directly on a single point I want to ensure is in focus. The 35mm f/1.8 lens also allows me to get a nice shallow depth of field so that I can draw attention to a specific area of the subject.

Yes, I wanted that specific corner of the blue square in focus.
Yes, I wanted that specific corner of the blue square in focus.

Nikon D5500: Consumer Mode (Days 21-40)

For the last 20 days, I tried to limit myself to only shooting in automatic mode or using the various scene modes. If a camera is going to be marketed as a consumer friendly DSLR, it needs to be something the average person can pick up and immediately start capturing, if not stunning pieces of art, at least accurate representations of their world.

Batter Up

Sporting events, particularly in low light, are the bane of point-and-shoot cameras. You either need the steadiness of a Kubrick cameraman, or you have to crank the ISO up so high that your kid’s touchdown looks like it was painted by Monet. While I would love to have the $8,000 to spend on a D810 and a 300mm f/2.8 lens, the D5500 with an affordable 70-300mm lens offers an alternative that, while still introducing noise to your shots, is miles ahead of a standard point-and-shoot or mobile phone.

Sneaking in for a double pick-off.
Sneaking in for a double pick-off. Nikon D5500, 200mm, f/5.6 at 1/200s, ISO 3200

Seeing the Sights

Family vacations are a great opportunity to capture photos of places and people you don’t get to see in your daily life. Whether you’re Bilbo Baggins or Clark Griswold, the small size and light weight of the D5500 allow you to sling the camera over your shoulder and forget about it until you just happen to see an extremely fly man of the cloth sauntering across the courtyard of the old church you’re touring. In Scene mode, it’s simple to be shooting a gorgeous landscape and quickly roll the wheel over to sports mode to catch a group of kids running down the street, then again over to portrait mode to capture the old men playing chess in front of the general store.

HolySwag

Con Man

Thankfully, the Denver Comic Con occurred during the latter part of my testing. If there’s one place where your camera has to perform in Auto mode, it’s at a convention. Nobody wants to wait while you fidget with a dozen settings to get that perfect shot, and sometimes you’ll need to hand your camera off to someone else so you can get in the picture as well. The D5500 shines in Auto mode, particularly with the Nikon 35mm f/1.8G lens. I hate on-camera flash and feel it should only be used as an absolute last resort, so it was nice to see the large aperture easily handle every single shot on Auto/No Flash, and 35mm was the perfect length for capturing full-body shots of cosplayers without having to be 15 feet away and hoping nobody walks between you. In the event rooms themselves, the low noise at high ISO once again came in handy, as I was too far to be able to take advantage of the f/1.8 and had to switch to my zoom lens.

One of the most useful features of the D5500 for bloggers, journalists, and social media fanatics is the built-in WiFi. While not something you’d want to leave turned on all the time, as it is a serious battery hog, the ability to push individual photos to your smart phone and make them public almost immediately, rather than waiting until you get back home in the evening, can mean the difference between going viral or being lost in a sea of similar stories. I was able to post this tweet just seconds after I took the photo, which would be hugely beneficial to someone who actually had a following:

P.S. If you ever get the chance to sit and listen to Alan Tudyk speak, do yourself a favor and go. He is brilliantly funny and sincere. Short of a Robin Williams stand-up I saw with my wife in the ’90s, I don’t think I’ve ever been as entertained.

Summary

The Nikon D5500 is a lightweight DSLR camera that offers easy-to-use touchscreen options and an impressive 24MP sensor with no OLPF. It also supports full HD video up to 60 fps with a built-in stereo microphone. The video below was shot entirely on a D5500 (granted, by a professional marketing department). You can get a complete kit that includes a body, a couple of lenses, bag, tripod, and various filters and accessories for around $1,000 on Amazon.

All images by Randy Slavey, video courtesy Nikon Asia.

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