Shooting Experience (con't)

North Fork Falls, Coal Creek Park, Newcastle, WA. ISO 100, 1/3 sec, f/16, 30mm equiv.

When it comes to actually taking pictures, the D5500 performs very well in most respects, even surprising me on a few occasions. The camera turns on instantly and focuses quickly when using the viewfinder. Live view autofocus isn't as good as what Canon's doing these days with Dual Pixel AF, but it's not terrible either. Having the touchscreen is a boon for video recording, allowing you to achieve focus 'pulling' with ease, and relatively good results, with occasional AF hunting being the main issue.

Something else that might occur if you're rack or continuously focusing in movie mode is the noise generated by the lens' AF motor being picked up by the microphone. The 18-55mm kit lens is not quiet when focusing, but Nikon and third party manufacturers make plenty of lenses that are.

The D5500 has the same Multi-Cam 4800DX 39-point autofocus system as the D5300. It has a wide horizontal focus spread, though the same isn't true in the vertical dimension.

Something I wouldn't expect from a relatively inexpensive DSLR is its ability to track a moving subject. The D5500 and its '3D' subject tracking feature does well in this regard. D5000-series and up offerings from Nikon are able to effectively subject track, as in our example below, by automatically selecting the correct AF point to stay on an initially chosen subject. They do so through their use of full color-aware RGB metering sensors, which 'see' the scene through the lens even in viewfinder shooting as long as the mirror is down. Hence, they can somewhat understand what your subject looked like when you initiated focus on it, and then track it no matter how it (or the camera) moves. What's particularly impressive about the D5500's tracking ability is that it does so with such a low resolution, metering sensor (only 2,016 total pixels). It gets confused from time-to-time, is not nearly as accurate as the 91,000-pixel sensors in Nikon's full-frame offerings, but generally is still accurate and, importantly, speedy enough to be usable for moving subjects.

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Above is an example - taken at 5 fps with the 18-300mm F3.5-5.6 VR lens - where the camera did very well following our subject as he approached the camera, while weaving side-to-side. The AF point wandered off him a few times, though he remains in focus.

Given the low resolution metering sensor on the D5500, it will track larger, more contrasty subjects better than smaller ones. We took quite a few skateboarding sequences, some of which worked, and some didn't. If we started tracking with our subject pretty far away, the camera would latch onto something with more contrast. You can see an example of this in this short video clip.

I did run into some of the D5500's shortfalls while shooting at that soccer game, though. While the D5500 can shoot at 5 fps, the buffer fills very quickly. You can only fire off five Raw+JPEG or six Raw images before the burst rate slows to a crawl. You can take up to thirteen JPEGs before the same thing occurs. Seeing how I was reviewing the D5500 I was shooting Raw+JPEG. The small buffer not only limits how many photos can be taken sequentially, it also affects bracketing to the point where, if using Raw+JPEG, you have to wait for the buffer to clear before you can take another set of three shots. This was an issue on the D7100 as well, which Nikon has since resolved with the D7200.

A day at the beach, Oxnard, CA. ISO 100, 1/400 sec, f/10, 39mm equiv. Converted from Raw and cropped. Settings: highlights -23, shadows -26, blacks -33.

So what about the photos the D5500 produces? They're great (and essentially the same as the D5300). At the default Picture Control setting (standard) colors are vibrant but not over-the-top. With some nice glass, resolution is really impressive. One issue I usually encounter with Nikon DSLRs is their tendency to overexpose by about 1/3-stop. What I ended up doing with the D5500 is dropping the exposure compensation by that amount and then bracketing, which worked fine in most situations.

While our studio test scene will provide much more detail, the D5500 has an impressive amount of resolution and very low noise. JPEGs start to get a bit mushy at ISO 3200 and above due to noise reduction, and noise is low in Raw images until around ISO 12,800.

Something else I like about the Sony sensors used by (most) Nikon DSLRs is how much you can do with Raw images. There's a lot hiding in those shadows, which can make so-so pictures into something much nicer:

The original version of the photo has clipped highlights in the art piece in front, while everything else is too dark.

Chihuly Museum of Garden and Glass, Seattle.
ISO 2000, 1/50 sec, f/3.8, 31mm equiv.
Raw processing has made this scene look a lot more like what my eyes saw. Exposure +0.75, highlights -29, shadows +53.

Download Raw file

It's great to have the ability to rescue an otherwise unremarkable photo! There are more examples of the D5500's dynamic range later in the review.

While thinking about a good title for this review, I kept coming back to "the little camera that could". The D5500 is unassuming, yet inside its compact yet easy-to-hold shell is quite a beast of a camera. While the controls on higher-end Nikon DSLRs can be intimidating, the D5500 speaks to both beginners (with help buttons for pretty much everything) as well as enthusiasts. Some of the limitations bug me, namely the small buffer and poor Wi-Fi implementation, but overall, it's a camera I enjoyed spending quality time with.