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Nikon D5500 review:

It's great, but grip the D5500 before you get it

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The Good The Nikon D5500 delivers excellent photo quality as well as a performance that can keep up with your kids and pets.

The Bad The redesigned grip may not be comfortable for people with large hands, and Nikon really needs to update its Wi-Fi app.

The Bottom Line Lightweight and compact with everything the family photographer needs, the Nikon D5500 maintains its position as a great general-purpose dSLR.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Image quality 8.0

Ever since I reviewed it in 2013, I've been recommending the Nikon D5300 as my top choice for a general-purpose dSLR suitable for kids-family-and-travel photography. The D5500 is a modest update over the D5300, with some design tweaks and a touchscreen display; however, its features aren't as outstanding as they were when the D5300 debuted a couple years ago, and I have mixed feelings about the design changes.

One significant difference between my evaluation units of the D5300 and D5500 is the lens; the D5300 had a much better, albeit a lot bigger and more expensive, 18-140mm f3.5-5.6 lens. For the D5500, Nikon created its primary kit with the 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 II lens -- $850, £720, AU$1,000 -- a lighter, smaller, collapsible model that makes the system feel a lot lighter, but that also feels like a real step down.

Image quality

Given that almost nothing's changed in the camera's imaging pipeline from the D5300, it's unsurprising that the image quality looks about the same. I did find the exposures better this time, though I can't directly compare because we've changed our testing methodology since then.

Its photos are sharp with good color, although a little on the cool (blue) side, and produces excellent JPEG images in low to very low light up through ISO 3200; higher than that and you lose detail and the color shifts, but depending upon your needs and the scene they may still be usable.

You can fix or improve photos quite a bit by shooting raw when it comes to bringing out highlight or shadow detail or making photos a little bit sharper, though the tradeoff is adding some grain.

The video quality is very good, certainly better than average for your sports and vacation shots. If you want to shoot more serious video, Nikon includes a flat picture profile so that you can preserve the otherwise clipped bright and dark areas.

Analysis samples

In-focus areas remain sharp through ISO 1600, at least in good light. Lori Grunin/CNET
Between ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 the more aggressive noise-reduction kicks in and you can see it get mushy in the highly detailed areas. Lori Grunin/CNET
JPEGs at the default color settings tend to be a little cool, but pleasing, especially if you prefer saturation and contrast over accuracy in reds and pinks. Lori Grunin/CNET
I was able to brighten this image up by 4 stops without a significant increase in noise or loss of detail; that's quite good. Lori Grunin/CNET
I was able to recover a considerable amount of blown-out highlight detail in this photo (note especially the areas in the top right corner). Lori Grunin/CNET

Performance

One of the biggest drags on the D5500's otherwise solid performance is the collapsible 18-55mm kit lens; it moves fairly slowly during focus. The camera starts up, focuses and shoots pretty quickly at about 0.3 second -- much faster than the Pentax K-S2 . Time to focus and shoot from an out-of-focus position is roughly 0.6 second -- that's where the slow lens comes into play. In practice, that means its a little laggy if you like to photograph spontaneous scenes with moving subjects, as opposed to holding the camera in partial focus because you're waiting for something to happen. If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot, you'll find Live View really slow; 1.3 seconds to focus and shoot.

Two sequential shots takes a reasonably speedy 0.2 second for either JPEG or raw file formats. Using flash increases that to roughly 1.3 seconds. However, unlike many cameras, which let you hold down the shutter, allowing the camera to focus and shoot as soon as the flash has recycled, the D5500 won't register a shutter press until the flash is ready to go again.

Its continuous-shooting performance is good, too, at 5.1 frames per second for a nice burst of more than 30 shots. Raw-format bursts slow down at about 10 shots (for the largest, 14-bit raw files), but up till that it sustains 4.4fps.

Its continuous autofocus operates fairly well, though it depends upon the type of action you're trying to capture. It's not very good on subjects moving toward you, where I couldn't find a mode that worked all the time without accidentally relocking onto something in the background. There's no specific panning mode for the optical image stabilization -- just on or off -- which I think was partly responsible for the low hit rate on panned shots. For subjects staying in a pretty circumscribed area (think jumping) it works fine.

Autofocus while shooting video is a different story. The continuous autofocus is easily distracted. And you really don't want to use the collapsible kit lens with autofocus during video capture; it's the noisiest lens I've ever heard.

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