Real-world High ISO Image Quality

We've already covered how the D5 performs in low light in our studio test scene. So what's it like to use in the real world? In a word, great. In two words, really great. Not necessarily because of drastically decreased noise levels (they're lower, but only modestly), but more because of how the D5 handles color retention and accuracy in situations where your eyes are having trouble seeing color at all. This shines through in the Raw files, but even more so in the out-of-camera JPEGs. While I still generally like to process out the Raws, the D5 with Active D-Lighting enabled gets JPEGs closer to how I would process those Raw files as any camera ever has.

Straight-out-of-camera JPEG with default settings. Photo by Carey Rose. Tamron 85mm F1.8 VC @ F1.8 | 1/125 sec | ISO 12800. Strobe added camera left for effect.

If you pixel-peep the above image you'll still notice a bit of softness due to the D5's default noise reduction, which is still less sophisticated than, say, Sony's. But that's not really the point. If you want to print noise-free billboards, you'll want a Nikon D810 or a Sony a7R II or possibly a Canon 5DS R, and you won't be shooting in light levels like this with these exposure settings. But if you're on assignment and need a JPEG to send off to your editor for web or print, the above image is 110% acceptable.

But that's not to say that I don't sometimes screw up and produce JPEGs that are not acceptable.

Out-of-camera JPEG Processed to taste from Adobe Camera Raw

If the band isn't doing anything interesting, it's time to look into the audience. Photo by Carey Rose. Nikon 50mm F1.4D | F2 | 1/250 sec | ISO 1400

We have written about the D5's (relative lack of) dynamic range compared to the D810. And it's true, for hardcore landscape shooters or folks wanting to preserve tones in extremely high contrast scenes, you may find yourself choosing between noisy shadows and blown highlights with the D5. In real-world low-light shooting though, I've rarely found it to be a problem. The above photo was taken hastily in manual mode, simply because I wanted to capture that moment before I decided to check my exposure. (Also, beer). No problem. Pushed two-and-a-quarter stops in post, with shadows pushed more and no luminance noise reduction to speak of, I still ended up with a very usable image. That's because the low ISO dynamic range trade-off isn't relevant at high ISO, where the D5 noise performance crowns most other cameras.

The D5's excellent high-ISO performance opens up some creative opportunities if you know where to look - like hand-held sunstar-shooting at night. Straight-out-of-camera JPEG, cropped to taste. Photo by Rishi Sanyal. Nikon AF-S 24mm F1.8G @ F11 | 1/60 sec | ISO 36000

What's more, the D5's ergonomics and handling can keep up with its sensor's abilities. The D3S could shoot at astronomical ISO sensitivities as well, but without backlit controls, it could be a pain to change settings in situations that dark. The D4 and D4S solved that, but the D5 goes one step further with an autofocus system that will reliably lock focus under moonlight. And then if it's even too dark for that, you can enable the D5's live view mode, zoom in and focus manually, using the camera almost as a night-vision system. If you find yourself photographing in available darkness with any regularity, the D5 will revolutionize the way you shoot and reward you with usable images despite astronomical ISO values.

The D5 allows me to reliably get usable files in just about any lighting conditions. Processed and cropped to taste from Raw. Photo by Carey Rose. Nikon AF-S 24-70mm F2.8E VR @ 24mm | F2.8 | 1/125 | ISO 25600