Where I Stand on the D5

I’m still having trouble understanding why so many people are upset about the D5’s dynamic range. 

That’s not quite accurate: I know why: opinions don’t match facts, especially early in the process of discovery. Nikon hyped the camera in ways that set expectations sky high (3 million worth), people are responding by trashing the camera because it doesn’t meet their sky high expectations.

These things tend to follow a dwindling sine wave until they settle on the “final” opinion: Best thing in the world. Worst thing in the world. Really good. Really bad. Pretty good. Pretty bad. Finally: good.

A lot of the discussion is that people want to have bragging rights. They are so unsure of their tool that the tool has to win some sort of an award that justifies their purchase of it over the competitors’. 

So let’s be clear. 

The D5 takes photos from base ISO to about ISO 800 that can match anything the D3s can do, and is clearly better at higher ISO values. Remember the D3s? The unexpected improvement over the camera that everyone raved about (D3)? There are still a lot of working pros out there using the D3/D3s as their working model, you see their photos every day in the media you consume, and I’m pretty sure you’re not picking out the D3/D3s photos and saying “wow that’s bad.” 

No, you’re not even noticing. 

The truth of the matter is that the D3/D3s—and now the D5—has enough dynamic range at base ISO to cover most situations. Now, if you put the sun in the shot (e.g. landscape at sunset) or shoot in an extreme lit/unlit situation (e.g. some theatrical productions), you might want more dynamic range because the scene’s range exceeds what the camera can capture. In those situations I’m going to pick up my D4 or D810 before the D5, probably the D810 because it basically represents the best case at low ISO.

But frankly, I’m trying to think of when I last shot base ISO outside the studio or doing landscapes. Sports and wildlife and events I’m often starting at ISO 800, and so the D5 dynamic range drop off in the lower ISO values just doesn’t apply. 

Now I don’t take these things as gospel. I test my assumptions. I’m doing some event photography this month, plus some sports. So I’m willing to hold my opinion about whether the D5 is better than my D4 until then. Still, just looking at raw measurements, I was happy with the 12mp D3s, and the 20mp D5 matches that through ISO 800 and then starts to exceed it.

As I’ve tried to explain for awhile, we’ve long been in a slow incremental improvement game. Something dramatic would have to change about the way we capture photons and convert them into electrons for us to get the kinds of super improvements people seem to be expecting and the camera companies want us to think they’ve made. No doubt a day will come when that happens, but I’m not aware of anyone close to that, yet. 

So more pixels, better high ISO ability works just fine for me in a D5. Couple it with all the other improvements and the D5 is a nice step forward. But it’s also made me appreciate my D4 a little more than I used to. The D4 is a little more well-rounded in terms of low to high ISO dynamic ranges than the D3s or D5. 

Thing is, I’ve talked to about a half dozen pros I know that are now using the D5. None of them are unhappy. The only place I see unhappiness is in various Web fora, where the defining arguments seem to be “3m ISO wasn’t achieved” and “the low ISO of the D5 is noisy.” 

Hmm. About that last. No, that’s not actually a factual statement unless one of two things apply: (1) the scene’s dynamic range exceeds the D5’s; and (2) the output’s dynamic range exceeds what the D5 captured. Even with both those things true it’s a debatable statement. I can tell you that not a single newspaper or magazine has complained about D5 output that I know of. 

And now with the D500 sitting on my desk, we have another contender to try to put into perspective. But before I do that, let’s summarize where I stand on the D5:

  • ISO 100-800: as good as a D3/D3s. 
  • ISO 800-3200: as good as a D4/D4s.
  • ISO 6400+: better than any previous full frame camera.

Meanwhile, the autofocus system is clearly better, too. So what we have is a really strong PJ/sports camera in the D5. Really strong.

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