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The Nikon D5500 mixes the company's longstanding DSLR reputation with some new tech, switching to a touchscreen, while continuing to slim down the body. But do all the new smartphone-esque features like the touchscreen and wi-fi ruin what's proved to be an excellent camera line in the past?
Fortunately, no. Despite having a preference for physical controls, I actually liked the touchscreen on the D5500 and was happy to see the image quality wasn't lacking either. While it doesn't appear there's a huge difference between the D5300 and the D5500 outside of the touchscreen, having the much older D5000 still in my camera bag, Nikon's mid-line DSLR has come quite a ways.
Body & Design
While the “first camera to have _____” always sounds tempting, it often takes a model or two to really get the bugs worked out of the new feature. Nikon seems to get the touchscreen technology right the first time, though, because it's balanced out with physical controls. The touchscreen is there for everything a touchscreen is better for—touch to focus, swiping through playback images and a quick menu. Meanwhile, there's still physical controls for flipping through the full menu, so there's no fat finger syndrome here. I actually didn't hit the wrong part of the touchscreen even once. I came in with low expectations, since I've used a lot of tricky touchscreens, and I was pleasantly surprised.
That touchscreen also flips out to the side of the camera, for viewing at any angle. You can view images from the front of the camera, or even turn the screen in to prevent scratches when not in use. The first Nikon DSLR to use the flip screen had a hinge at the bottom, which meant you couldn't view images from the front of the camera if it was mounted on a tripod. The D5300 and D5500 flip to the side, so it's possible to take selfies with a tripod (so they don't actually look like selfies).
There's also a significant size difference between the D5500 and earlier models in the same line; it's a gradual shift from year-to-year, but there is a considerable change since Nikon first added a tilting screen to a DSLR with the D5000. Don't expect the weight of a mirrorless, but the D5500 is by no means bulky. The thickest portion of the body, which is at the viewfinder, is just under three inches, while the narrowest is only about an inch and a half. There's still a decent sized grip though, and shooting feels pretty comfortable. Actually, with the body weighing just 14.9 oz., it's a bit front heavy even with just a kit lens attached.
Speaking of the kit lens, there's some slimming down here too. Much like many mirrorless lenses, the kit lens twists in when not in use for slimmer storage. This style makes it about a half inch shorter when stored.
The bulk of the controls rests within easy reach with the right hand, though there's a handful on the left. At the top, the mode dial is accompanied by a switch for Live View (i.e. using the screen instead of the viewfinder). There's also the usual shutter release wrapped in an on/off toggle, a dedicated record button and exposure value shortcut. The D5500 has just a single control wheel—you have to head up to the D7200 to get the double wheels. In manual mode, the control wheel by itself controls shutter speed, holding the exposure value button switches it to aperture and using the function button at the front left of the camera swaps it to ISO. Of course, all these settings can also be adjusted with the touchscreen.
Next to that rather beautiful touchscreen is a set of physical menu controls, though the menu button is actually to the left of the viewfinder. And like the D5300, the menu arrows no longer function as shortcuts. The burst mode shortcut is now on the left side of the camera at the bottom, with the flash shortcut above that. I still haven't found a macro option outside of the scene mode, even within the full menu—but the D5500 may have just eliminated the need for one. The autofocus does pretty well selecting a closer focus point without it, even with just the kit lens and not a macro outfit. And of course that touchscreen helps select a focus point as well.
With a smaller camera body and a bit more space needed to flip the touchscreen out to the side instead of from the bottom, the controls are a bit more cramped. That's probably why Nikon added shortcuts on the front left. The controls to adjust shutter speed, aperture and ISO though are easy to use without taking your face from the viewfinder, once you adjust to where they are. I didn't have any issues accessing all the controls, but I can see where users with larger hands might find it a bit too cramped.
The quick menu, accessed with the “i” button, has several other settings, including metering, white balance and file type. The combination of the quick menu and physical settings means there's few occasions to head into the full menu, but it's a traditional Nikon set-up there, except of course that you now have the option of using either the physical arrow keys or the touchscreen.
Current Nikon shooters (like me) will need a bit of adjustment getting used to the new controls, but the layout is well thought out and works well for the space that's there with the smaller body. I don't care for the location of the menu button, but it would be too crowded to move near the rest of the menu controls and that screen is really worth the extra space it hogs up. The screen on the D5500 is a touchscreen done right—it works well, yet it doesn't replace the physical controls.
User Experience & Performance
I'll admit, I fell for the marketing hype and bought the D5000 when it was first released for that tilting screen, the first Nikon offered on their DSLRs. And while I've used it on occasion, a much slower autofocus in the Live View mode prevented the feature from being really useful. I was pretty wary that the first touchscreen on a Nikon DSLR would be all talk and no performance, but the D5500 doesn't seem to have that issue.
Since an optical viewfinder doesn't need to refresh like a screen does, using the touchscreen to take pictures does take a second or two longer, but the autofocus performs almost as quick, unlike the Live View autofocus in their older models. My older D5000 has a long shutter lag when using the live view mode, and that's not the case here. You'll have to wait a second for the screen to reemerge after the shot, and the autofocus takes slightly longer, but it's something I didn't even notice in our real world testing.
Using the optical viewfinder, the time between shots is about half a second—that's pretty much as fast as I could hit the shutter release again, different users may be able to eek even more speed out of the camera. With the Live View on and using the screen to compose the shot, the time between shots was about two seconds—the picture was taken right away, but it takes a moment for the screen to return to shoot the next one.
Using the autofocus expanded the time between single shots just slightly—about ¾ of a second (to take the entire shot, not just to focus) using the viewfinder and about 2.5 seconds using the screen. Toss in a 5 fps burst speed and a start-up time under a second and the D5500 has an excellent speed overall. I wouldn't use the Live View to shoot sports just yet, but I was happy to see the autofocus speed didn't see a significant drop when not using the viewfinder.
As a camera designed more for enthusiasts (and even beginners), there's less focus on the scene modes compared to Nikon's consumer models. There's still a solid mix of all the expected options—like sports, portrait and landscape as well as effects including toy camera and selective color. Of course, all four manual modes are included, as well as RAW shooting.
The D5500 wraps up a few new usability features like a touchscreen and wi-fi with the performance that you'd expect from a Nikon. Even the new touchscreen performs well. Autofocus speed is excellent, with minimal shutter lag. All the features here are well executed. We wouldn't mind seeing a sports-minded camera from Nikon like the Canon EOS 7D Mark II's 10 fps burst speed, but the 5 fps burst is still very much average for DSLRs at this point.
I shot with both the D5500 and D5000 at the same event. (Yes, I am aware that the D5000 is six years old, a senior citizen in camera years, bear with me a second here). Even from just a glimpse on the small LCD screens, there's a big difference in image quality. Nikon's midline DSLR has come a long way in the past few years, and that's not just because it now has a touchscreen. Even glancing back at the images from my review of the previous model, the D5300, the D5500 continues to offer sharper images with less noise.
One of the biggest improvements over the past few years to imaging technology as far as picture quality goes is in noise reduction. There's a smaller difference with the D5300, but it's safe to say I should be throwing my old camera a retirement party even though it's still functioning just fine. On the D5500, noise creeps in around ISO 1600, but even ISO 3200 will get a useable shot if you don't crop in too much.
Like its predecessor, the D5500 has done away with the optical low pass (OLP) filter. That allows for some exceptional detail, and a quick snapshot didn't show any distracting moire on a sweater either. OLP filters are starting to look like a thing of the past, and even APS-C sensors are getting a high level of detail.
Sharpness goes hand-in-hand with detail, and the D5500 performed as expected here. The camera shows distinction between the fine lines on our test chart very well, and our real-world shots appeared solid as well.
The kit lens takes a hint from the mirrorless category and twists in to become more compact—I'd like to see Nikon take one more nudge from the mirrorless arena and widen the aperture on their kit lenses as well. The f/3.5-5.6 kit lens is expected and doesn't present any problems, but I loved the D5500 even more when paired with my f/1.8 prime lens. The f/3.5 is average for DSLRs, but as mirrorless cameras and fixed lens cameras start to incorporate wider apertures, it doesn't hurt to ask to see that accompanying the DSLRs too.
Video footage is sharp as well, but that's where the D5500 begins to lack. Autofocus is available while shooting video by clicking the shutter release or using the touchscreen, but it is very loud:
Zooming is audible as well, but that's not as problematic as the noise from the autofocus motor. Nikon has come a long way from when their DSLRs wouldn't even autofocus in video mode, but with more people choosing DSLRs to record video over camcorders for their larger sensor sizes, there's still quite a bit of room for improvement yet.
Nikon has a solid history of DSLR performance for enthusiasts and beginners—that tradition meshes with new features, including a touchscreen and wi-fi in the D5500. But Nikon's mid-line model isn't just about exterior features. Images are sharp, with solid noise reduction, and the overall user experience is a positive one. There's not a big enough difference for D5300 users to upgrade, but owners of older models will see a significant difference in image quality. Short of the video quality, there's not much to complain about here. The ideas and features that went into the D5500 are well-executed and leave little room for disappointment.
As Nikon's middle APS-C camera, there's a few minor areas cut to keep the camera under $1,000. The viewfinder shows about 95 percent of the image, and there are sharper viewfinder options out there. The D5500 also lacks a depth of field preview button and second control wheel—both of which you'll find with the D7100 or newer D7200, as well as an even better autofocus. All of these are relatively minor, but something to consider when comparing Nikon models.
Nikon's DSLRs seem to have advanced faster than their Canon counterparts, though the new Canon EOS Rebel T6s seems to make a significant jump forward. The biggest difference between the two is that the Canon is still holding on to that optical low pass filter, though Canon also traditionally has better video quality. Pentax shouldn't be overlooked while comparing DSLRs either—the K-3 II has a faster 8.3 fps burst speed and is fully weather-sealed.
The Nikon D5500 is a solid camera with the image quality we've come to expect and a few extra fun features. It's an ideal option for beginners and enthusiasts and will work well for a variety of shooting scenarios. Sports photographers may want to look at a model with a faster burst speed, like the similarly priced Pentax K-3 II or the pricier Canon EOS 7D Mark II, and we can't quite recommend it for lots of video yet, though it will still rise to the occasion for the occasional clip.