First Week D5 Impressions

As you’d expect from a full generational change of the pro model, Nikon spent a lot of time adding, improving, and changing things. Let’s see where I stand after the first (short) week of dealing with the D5.

The Good
The autofocus system definitely has changed and improved. It’s difficult still to pick out all the differences, but it’s clear that putting a processor in the autofocus sensor, upping the pixel count of the color meter, decreasing the viewfinder blackout time, and pushing the new sensor module right out to the physical limits in area have done some amazing things.

Funny thing is, you probably won’t notice those things at first. If you configure the camera exactly as you’ve been shooting a Nikon DSLR (often AF C with the smallest dynamic area), you’re mostly missing the changes. Where I notice the big change is in 3D focus. Also, subject tracking seems improved. 

It’ll take a lot more shooting of tricky subjects for me to be able to comfortably describe the changes and how to take advantage of them, but simply put, the autofocus system is a significant step forward.

Nikon didn’t change the battery in the D4 to D5 transition and gave you the option to stay with CompactFlash or XQD, so we’re not in another “big transition” realm. You can continue to use your Speedlights as you have, or you can move to the new radio wireless system, your choice. Heck, even my RRS D4 plate fits right onto the D5 without a problem. This is a much more customer centric transition than the D3s to D4 one was. Maybe Nikon did hear the complaints on the D4. Or maybe they’ll just wait until the D6 to change everything again ;~).

JPEG rendering is improved, especially at the high ISO values. Nikon has clearly tuned the noise reduction routines in ways that make it less intrusive and help it retain edges and detail. White balance also seems to be better handled in the camera than before, even in non-continuous lighting. For many D3/D4/D5 type users, this JPEG improvement alone may be the biggest good thing in the camera.

Low light, High ISO shooting is measurably better on a D5 than it was on a D4, which was quite good to start with. I was always a bit on the skittish side with ISO 6400 on the D4, as I knew that I’d be spending some extra time in post processing my NEFs to get the results just right. My initial impression with the D5 is that I’m no longer skittish about ISO 6400. Maybe ISO 12800 ;~). Shooting JPEG is an even better story for low light shooters, at least once you find the High ISO NR and Picture Control settings that work best for you.

The Bad
Metering is worse. Same scene, same lens, I’m getting anywhere from 1/3 to a 1/2 stop lower exposures out of the matrix meter on the D5 than I do out of my D4. I’m not the only one reporting that. The good news is that for the most part at least the meter is consistent. 

I also note that Face Detect is on for matrix metering by default. I’m not sure that’s the best option for me or many others, as it tends to jerk exposures up and down depending upon whether the subject is facing you or turned away.

Personally, I tend to “shoot the light,” so I’m generally setting exposure manually, but I’m having to rethink how I use the camera’s tools to help me with that, as the matrix meter is not giving me the results I’m used to.

Which brings me to the sensor design decisions. At lower ISO values, underexposure is a problem, as Nikon has gone back to a D3-type architecture that limits dynamic range at the lower ISO values. Thus, when I’m shooting at ISO 1600 or below, I’ve got to nail the exposure or risk some noise in my shadows even before post processing. I’m back to where I was with the D3s/D3x combo: use the D810 for ISOs up to 1600, use the D5 for ISOs above that. But that’s not a great choice, as buttons and options are different between the two cameras. So is metering and focus. Please, Nikon, a D5x, or a D850h/x pair.  

The Ugly
Not a lot that we can put in this column, fortunately. But I think video probably deserves to be here. The 3 minute 4K video limit, the way 4K is done in the first place, the fact that critical video settings for high-end users are still a bit scattered in the menus, the hilarious one-entry G group of Custom Settings, and a host of other things make me scratch my head about what Nikon thinks they’re doing with video. Oh, right, “movies.” 

I’d have to conclude that—despite being the first to offer DSLR video with the D90—Nikon simply talks even less to the video crowd than it does to its still photographer user base and is thus lost at sea as to how to proceed. And the whole point of Power Aperture seems moot when you produce a whole series of new G type prime lenses that aren’t particularly suited to video use in the first place. 

It’s not surprising that Nikon doesn’t have a booth at this year’s NAB convention (Canon, Panasonic, and Sony do; heck, even Leica is there): even here in Nikon’s top end DSLR they haven’t quite put together a great video package. 

The Unknown
I’m not yet sure about the touchscreen. I think Nikon might have goofed on this one. Why it’s disabled during most parts of menu setting, I’m not sure. Being able to tap to enter characters in fields like the Image Comment and Copyright is nice, except I get a lot of unintended taps and end up having to do a lot of correction. 

Swiping in image review works, yes, but it’s slower than using the Direction pad. Pinching to zoom is better, and swiping while zoomed is more convenient than using the Direction pad. So some pluses and minuses I have to resolve in actual use.

I’ve got a lot more to learn about the D5. So I’ve loaded up a few new lenses and the camera and am going to hit the road for awhile. This is also a very busy time of year for me on top of dealing with new cameras/lenses. That means that this D5 blog will likely go quiet for awhile.

If you have further questions about the D5, let me know, and I’ll see if I can’t fit the answers into an email or this blog.

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