Sunday, March 1, 2015

Nikon D5500 -- Hands on review

The latest crop of APS-sized cameras are truly amazing. Just a few years ago a camera like the new Nikon D5500 would have been a dream come true. Cameras like this have opened the field of photography to shooters who would otherwise never been able to enter it. It has all the features and capabilities of the "big boys" in a much smaller, less expensive, not as durable body -- for what it is and what it can deliver, it is sensational.

The Nikon D5500 outfitted with a Nikon 18-200mm f/3.56-5.6 lens with VRII. I used this combo for the tests done in this post, and found it to be pretty much a perfect travel kit -- one light-weight camera, one light weight lens with VRII to obviate the need for a faster aperture. Add a super-wide like Nikon's 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5, and a macro like the Nikon 40mm f/2.8 and you have a very complete, compact package ranging from an equivalent 15mm to 300mm. You could cover almost anything with a range like that. If you want to keep the price down, you could substitute the Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6, or the newly revised Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 Pro DX II as your super wide. 

The D5500 has a 24.2MP sensor coupled to a Nikon Expeed 4 processor and optical low-pass filter removed. There is a 39-point autofocus system with nine cross-type sensors, which is more than adequate for an APS size camera. The video specs are incredible with full HD at speeds up to 60 fps with full autofocus. The video ability alone is going to make this a popular "crash camera" for video crews, although the camera's video credentials merit their own respect as a stand-alone unit.

To increase the high resolution even further, the D5500's image sensor unit does not integrate an optical low-pass filter. Built-in HDR works to extend the tonal and exposure range of a single image by recording two separate exposures and blending them together in order to gain greater highlight and shadow details with an extended range of mid-tones. The HDR function only works on jpg images, which is where it would be most needed.

The tilt screen is a welcomed feature on the D5500. It twists, it turns, it contorts itself to almost any position -- perfect for those unusual angles and very handy for video, not to mention those selfies. 

Oh, and did I mention the touch-screen? Yep, the new model has that, too, along with wireless capability for transferring images as well as taking the photo with an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. The motor drive clips along at 5 fps -- no speed demon, but plenty fast for most needs.

There is only one control wheel on the D5500 so it has to do double-duty by switching it to handle various functions. The Fn button can also be programmed to handle the most used functions, but all are readily available on the new touch screen called up with a touch of the "i" (for info) button. Not accustomed to this feature on other cameras, it took me a bit of time to get used to it. After awhile I was able to make changes quite rapidly and without fumbling around. ISO was particularly easy to change this way. You can even choose the focus point by touch.

Most of the important camera controls can be changed using the new touch screen. On the left the ISO is selected, and on the right the aperture is changed while the camera is in aperture priority mode. 


All these features are packaged in a camera body that is slightly smaller and lighter than its predecessor. 

The higher ISO range of the D5500 rivals any camera out there with its low light noise control to over 1600 and even up to  the 3200-6400 range under the right conditions. 

Compared to the full frame D810, the D5500 is a very small camera. 

The D5500 has an Effects shooting mode that provides 10 different filters for both still images and video. The Night Vision effect is particularly interesting as it increases the camera's sensitivity to ISO 102,400 to produce a monochrome only image that is a lot like seeing in the dark with night vision goggles.

This photo was taken using the D5500 Night Vision effect. The image is delivered as jpg only at extremely high, monochrome ISO. In this scene I actually could not see any detail in the building with my naked eye. 

The internal GPS function of the previous D5300 has been removed, possibly for reasons of privacy or to allow the camera to fit a smaller profile.


Aside from the addition of the touch screen, and removal of the low-pass filter, there wouldn't be much to shout about in this model over the previous D5300.  Thing is, the D5XXX series has impressed me from the beginning. What it delivers, for a price currently reduced to $796.95 is impressive.

Perhaps the most important adjunct to the D5500 is that it has access to Nikon lenses. A new photographer could enter the Nikon system with a D5500 and one do-it-all zoom, and later progress to other lenses, all of which will fit the other Nikon cameras in the lineup, should our new photographer decide to jump up a level.

The D5500 body is a carbon-fiber monocoque structure making it the lightest camera in the Nikon DSLR lineup. A newly designed right-hand grip is deeper than before providing a comfortable grip for photographers.

Consistant with Nikon's consumer based DSLR's autofocus on the D5500 is available with AF-S and AF-I lenses; autofocus is not available with other type G and D lenses,

The D5500  has the 3D color matrix metering II similar to pro model Nikon DSLR's.  Place the focus point on a subject within the frame and it will track the objects and adjust focus as it moves across the frame. In this photo and that of the vulture below, the focus point picked up the subjects on the left of the frame and followed them as the moved quite rapidly across the frame to the right side resulting in continuously focused images at 5 frames per second.

The Adobe RAW converter was not yet available for the D5500 so I recorded the test images in both RAW and jpg. When I thought I needed a RAW conversion, I used the Nikon Capture NX-D software to convert the RAW to a 16-bit tif file for further processing in Photoshop and Adobe camera RAW.

For my tests I chose to equip the camera with the Nikon 18-200mm zoom lens instead of higher end pro model optics because I felt this is what most people who buy this camera would use. The sensor on the D5500 is so good, however, that coupling it with higher end optics -- as I did for my D5300 tests --  produces very fine, high resolution images that rival the pro lineups of many competitor DSLR models. The D5500 is a perfect, compact camera to carry around with only one zoom, or can double as a spare body (referred to as a "crash camera") for pros and videographers to use when they don't want to risk their more expensive equipment by placing it in perilous situations. Better to risk a $800 camera than a $6000 D4s or $2300 D750. I did this for a few scenes of my skate boarder scenes by placing the camera on the ground just below his jump and triggering it remotely.  Turned out to be a good idea as one time his board did go flying right into the camera -- thankfully, with no harm done.

Honestly, if you said to me that I would have to content myself with using only this camera from now on for all my professional, personal, and artistic photography, I wouldn't complain. It is definitely up to the task.


There are only a few significant differences between the D5500 and D5300 -- the movable touch screen, lack of a GPS, and a smaller body. If those items don't mean much to you, you could save $100 by picking up a D5300 instead. Image quality is going to be the same.

I happen to like a tilting screen and find myself using it more and more on the cameras that have it for gaining quick access to more dramatic angles by holding the camera very low to the ground, or taking a shot from above the action by holding the camera over my head. I find myself using these techniques all the time now, and it did come in handy when photographing the skate boarder with the D5500.

If I already owned a D5300, would I trade up? Probably not. I'd need more of an enticement than a touch screen -- although the tilting aspect is nice.

If you are in the market for a reasonably priced consumer camera that can deliver image quality up there with the best pro DSLR's, this should be your first choice. When I look back on the very brief history of pro-quality cameras, I realize that what this camera can deliver for its price is amazing.

From what I can see and what it can deliver the D5500 is best of breed in mid-range DSLR camaras currently on the market.

If you are planning on buying this camera, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by clicking the link and purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.

The Nikon D5500 in black can be ordered for $796.95 from: 
BH-Photo     Amazon    Adorama

The Nikon D5500 in red can be ordered for $796.95 from: BH-Photo   Amazon

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Hazing" an image in Photoshop

I constantly have a camera with me, and when I am not taking photographs directly, I often pick up details and backgrounds I can use to combine with other images later in Photoshop. Yesterday I spotted some sheer window curtains and photographed them out of focus with my X-T1 and the new 18-55mm f/2.8 I have been testing -- an occasion when the f/2.8 came in handy at full zoom extension to blur the curtains.

Here is a small sample of some of the blurred images I captured of the sheer curtains:

The image on the right is closest to the actual color. I enhanced the color on the left image and changed it in ACR for the middle image.

I use this type of background image in a technique I call "hazing". In Photoshop I place an image of this type as a layer over a straight photograph, and then change the Blending Mode of the layer, usually to Hard Light, but sometimes to Multiply, Overlay, Screen, or Soft Light.

Below is a selection of the original images I wanted to "haze".

Nothing wrong with the original images, but adding the haze re-purposes them for designers to use as more of a neutral background. 

All of the images below used the hazing layer added in Hard Light mode. This can mute the overall color and over-lighten the image. To counter act this I move the image into the LAB color space and enhance the colors, then, after reconverting the image to RGB, I add a curve or levels layer to boost the contrast.

This photo was done using one of the warmed up blurs plus an additional sepia-colored adjustment filter layer.

Same technique used here, but I wanted to achieve a Pointillist painting technique to it so at the end I duplicated the image as an additional layer, added some uniform, monochrome noise to it, and added opacity to the layer to tone its effect down a bit. 

The Hazing technique comes in handy on a photo outing to the zoo, which can be problematic because of all the distracting environment elements that have to be avoided. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Retro car meets my retro Fuji X-T1

We had just finished photographing some skate-boarding yesterday when this 1962 vintage Dodge pulled into the parking lot near us. I had the Fuji X-T1 fit with the new 16-55mm f/2.8 lens that I am testing.

Nothing like using a beautiful retro camera to photograph a beautiful retro car.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dreaming of spring

I took this photo in Florida today, a reminder that spring is only a month away.

Taken with the Fuji X-T1 and Zeiss Touit 50mm macro lens at f/8.

EX LIBRIS - a portfolio of photographs on printing

I have been assembling these photographs for several years with the idea of uniting them into a portfolio I am calling "Ex Libris" on the topic of the early book printing. Just recently the project has begun to coalesce into something resembling a coherent whole.

Most of the images were photographed wherever I found them, although recently I have been doing some specific still life setups on the theme. I am still not sure what printing process I will  use for the portfolio images. I am leaning towards a very limited edition of 9" x 9" or 10" x 10" gum bichromate prints as producing the most suitably somber, dark look I am seeking to achieve, although I am also considering larger 12" x 12" platinum prints, or even printing the images digitally -- so many decisions.

There is something nostalgically enticing in a very meditative way about the manual process of printing. I tried to capture this feeling in this series of images. Not all of these images will make the final cut to be included in the portfolio. I am still deciding among them and some others I have.

Decorative metal punches for the book cover.

Ancient manuscripts with vellum covers in the library of the Valldemossa monastery in Spain. Early printed books were sold without covers, as the owner was expected to have the book bound later. 

Detail of the hand of Leonardo Da Vinci holding a book,  from a statue in Florence.

A type setup for printing.

Found in a monastery in Valldemossa, Spain, the skull and book was to remind the monks of the ephemeral quality of life.

Four trays of Garamond fonts.

Detail of an old printing press with rollers and handle.

This open book with moving pages was photographed with the Fuji X-T1 and Zeiss Touit 50mm macro lens at an exposure of 1/5 second to blur the moving pages. 

A mix of individual metal fonts in varying small sizes.

Large wooden number fonts. 

I took this photo in obvious homage to Shakespeare's Macbeth:  "Out, out brief candle!"  It seemed to fit the series theme. series. 

"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28