When I’m looking for a camera to travel with, I want three things: a camera that can take great pictures in all kinds of settings; a camera that’s easy to use; and one that’s small and light enough that I can carry it for a week, or a month, without getting a sore shoulder. On my recent Viking cruise trip to Europe, I tried out a camera that hit all those nails on the head: The Nikon D5500.
In recent years, a lot of people have turned to mirrorless cameras in their search for a camera with less size and weight. And they’re a good choice, offering most of the advantages of a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera — such as interchangeable lenses — in a smaller, lighter package. I tried one myself, on my trip to Vienna and the Mediterranean a couple of years ago.
But I still like the feel of an SLR, and for this trip, I carried one that has all the attributes of a mirrorless camera without the trade-offs, such as the lack of an optical viewfinder. The D5500 is Nikon’s smallest-ever SLR, and at 420 grams (body only), it’s almost the same weight as Olympus’s new mirrorless entry, the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, and just a little chunkier.
Yet it has all the functions of a full-sized SLR, plus the comfort of an SLR body, and the ability to use high-quality Nikkor lenses. And despite its size, it’s powerful, with an astounding, APS-sized 24.2-megapixel sensor for great photos and a five-frames-per-second burst mode.
There are some new-age features, too, including a touch screen and a novel kind of wi-fi capability: the camera creates its own wi-fi network, to which you can connect your cellphone or computer and transfer pictures.
Looking at the camera
To me, the first test for a camera is how it feels in your hand: if it feels awkward when you hold it, you won’t be happy with it. But while it’s small, I found the D5500 very comfortable to hold, partly thanks to its deep hand grip, which let me wrap my long fingers around it without digging in my fingertips. And the body, made of a polycarbon-carbon fibre material, feels reassuringly solid.
Next up is the monitor, and the D5500 sports a big, 3.2-inch monitor that’s sharp and bright. It also swings out and tilts, and turns backward for selfies. The viewfinder is sharp and bright, too, and gave me a good field of view with my eyeglasses. Even better, it’s an optical viewfinder, as opposed to the digital ones in most mirrorless cameras, which use a tiny video screen.
I liked the camera’s control set-up. There is no top panel to check your settings, but the rear monitor givs you all the information you need. In shooting mode, you see a graphic screen with three rings showing the current shutter speed, aperture and ISO (light sensitivity). The aperture ring actually opens and closes as you change the settings. Hit the “i” button and you see a full screen showing most of the common settings: you can change them on the fly with a few clicks, much easier than delving into the menus.
The other controls are well-positioned and easy to use. There’s a handy lever behind the shutter to let you switch into Live View mode, which lets you shoot while looking at the monitor. The video button is nearby, too (that’s the one with the red top), and it’s prominent enough to find and press without needing two or three tries.
The camera has enough manual controls to satisfy experienced shooters who like to use their own settings. That’s done using the single control dial, positioned under your thumb. To change a setting, you hold down the appropriate button and turn the dial until the desired setting shows on the monitor.
The D5500 may not be quite as customizable as pro-level cameras, but it does allow you to adjust a multitude of settings and picture modes. You can set the number of focus points to use – 11 or 39 – choose from several picture formats and resolutions, or switch into RAW mode, if you want big files with lots of information for post-processing.
As well, there’s a nice list of special effects, such as night vision, silhouette, and “super vivid”, as well as six scene modes including things like night landscape and night portrait, pet portrait and food. And there’s a handy high dynamic range (HDR) mode, which takes two photos at different exposures and combines them to handle tough lighting situations.
Finally, the D5500 has a robust movie mode, allowing you to shoot 1080p HD video at five different frame rates. It also has an input for a stereo mike, if you’re serious about video.
Shooting with the D5500
I found the D5500 a pleasure to travel and shoot with. I could carry it all day without getting that familiar shoulder ache, and it sprang into life quickly when I wanted to grab a quick shot. It focused and fired without delay in most situations, and the bright viewfinder was a big help when the light was low.
Generally, the D5500 performed very well in low-light situations, coming up with good shots in places like the Church of St-Sulpice in Paris (below). As with most SLRs, it could take some experimentation to get the ideal exposure in dark lighting; leaving it in Auto mode prompted it to fire the built-in flash. The camera did occasionally hunt for a focus in extreme situations, however.
I appreciated the swing-out monitor when I had to shoot over other tourists (check out the video in the post about my tour of Prague). And it was especially helpful in places like museums and ancient castles: shooting in Live View mode let me see exactly what I was getting, so there was no danger of underexposing. One odd thing, though: when in Live View, the camera sometimes took a photo on its own, so I came back with a collection of impressionist creations as a bonus.
I didn’t use the touch-screen function much – it’s not my style – but it did work well, and you can make the camera focus and fire just by touching the desired focus point.
I did, however, use the HDR mode when faced with scenes that had both bright highlights and dark shadows, a tough test for any camera. And it worked well, opening up the shadows and toning down the highlights to avoid that “burned-out” look. The mode had to be reset after each shot, though; that needs to be changed. As well, there’s a slight delay between the two shots, so you have to be careful to hold the camera still.
I found it easy to get good video footage, thanks to the big monitor and the lightness of the camera: holding a full-sized SLR still for a 30-second clip can be a chore. Most impressively, I could zoom and focus while shooting without creating intrusive sound on the video, a real bonus.
Looking at the pictures
The proof of a camera’s worth is in the photos, and the D5500 turned out reliably sharp, crisp-looking pictures with lots of detail, like the shot of the Luxembourg Palace at the top of this post. I did have a few missed focuses, but probably no more than with my own SLR, the Canon 60D. And where focus is concerned, I got pretty much the same sharp shots in Live View mode as when I used the viewfinder.
Of course, the camera did its best work when the light was good, as in this picture of the Alexandre III Bridge in Paris. (Note: the pictures below and the one of the Church of St-Sulpice above are presented just as they came from the camera, so you can see the true photo quality. Click on the photos to see them full-sized.)
But the camera also did an admirable job when the light was low. I usually avoid shooting at the sky-high ISO values today’s cameras offer, since the photo quality is often marginal. However, I got passable results shooting at ISO 4000 inside the inky-dark wine cellars of Schloss Johannisberg in Germany.
And in a later test, under controlled conditions, I got this photo quality at the D5500’s top setting of ISO 25,600.
The Nikon D5500 is a great all-around camera for those who want the features and top performance of an SLR without the size and weight. While it’s not a pro-calibre SLR, it doesn’t lack any features the average user would miss. And it has quite a few that come in handy, like the tilting monitor and HDR mode.
In fact, the camera has more capabilities than most people will get around to using — including me. It’s hard to test out every feature of a camera when you’re on the road, recording the hundreds of sights you see. So I didn’t get to play with many of the D5500’s more exotic features.
However, I did use the ones that are most useful in day-to-day shooting, and in a variety of different lighting conditions. In almost all cases, they performed admirably, and I came home with a huge gallery of “keepers”, many of which you’ve already seen on this site.
As a longtime SLR user, I shoot using my own settings, but you could put the D5500 in Auto mode and do just fine in all but the trickiest lighting conditions.
I’d recommend the D5500 to anyone looking for a small, good-quality travelling camera that has the capabilities of a real SLR. It’s a camera you could grow with, or just grab and start shooting. But take a look at the manual first: this camera has a lot to offer, and it would be a shame to miss the best parts.