Nikon D5500 Digital Camera Review
Nikon's latest entry-level DSLR is leaner, meaner, and ready for action.
By the Numbers
The Nikon D5500 is potentially among the last of a dying breed, as low-cost DSLRs with expensive optical viewfinders are quickly becoming old hat. The D5500 makes a compelling case for its kind, however, with fast autofocus, a crisp viewfinder, and excellent all-around performance.
Though the D5500 does little to distinguish itself from its predecessor, the Nikon D3300, it does acquit itself quite well. The usual hallmarks of a Nikon DSLR are all accounted for: generally conservative image processing, excellent color accuracy, enviable dynamic range, and dreadfully inconsistent white balance under certain lighting scenarios.
Color Accuracy & White Balance
Nikon makes a relatively big deal about its 3D RGB metering system in its traditional DSLRs, and it pays dividends with color accuracy. The D5500 comes with seven color modes by default, with user-adjustable settings also available. The seven starting modes are Flat, Landscape, Monochrome, Neutral, Portrait, Standard, and Vivid.
The Flat mode is the most use for video shooters looking to preserve as much detail as possible, setting up footage well for post-production. For still shooters, the best mode, by far, is Portrait. In this mode the D5500 returned images that had an average color accuracy error (∆C00, saturation corrected) of just 2.08, with saturation at a near-perfect 101.8%.
The other modes all performed slightly worse, though only Vivid produced images that showed inaccurate colors. That’s expected, though, since that mode emphasizes over saturated colors that pop off the page as opposed to strict color accuracy.
One thing you’ll have to combat to get accurate colors is the touchy auto white balance system. It’s fine under daylight conditions (4500-5500 kelvin) but outside of that range, or in mixed lighting, it struggles. In daylight it had errors of around 200 kelvin, but that skyrockets to an error of over 1600 kelvin in white fluorescent lighting and over 2400 kelvin in tungsten or incandescent lighting.
If you need clinical white balance accuracy, we highly recommend shooting in RAW or taking a custom reading. With custom white balance the average error dropped to under 150 kelvin in fluorescent lighting and under 85 kelvin in daylight and tungsten lighting. We also had considerably more luck with a true white card as reference, as opposed to a standard neutral gray card.
The D5500 provides users with a default ISO range of 100-25,600. Unlike other Nikon cameras there’s no Hi or Lo setting to expand it beyond that. While it would’ve been nice to have an ISO 80 or 50 setting, there’s really no reason to push this sensor beyond its current max ISO.
In our lab testing the D5500 showed ISO performance on par with most current APS-C DSLRs. It begins a little on the high side, but doesn’t rise drastically until after ISO 800. With noise reduction (either in the camera or in post-production) you can safely shoot through ISO 3200 and still get print-quality shots, but beyond that you’ll need to be careful and downsample to keep noise in check.
The D5500 provides you with four noise reduction settings by default (low, normal, high, and off). With the low setting you can expect noise to begin at around 1.08% at ISO 100, rising to 1.81% by ISO 800 and crossing the 2% threshold from there. It is kept to just 3.09% at ISO 12800, with max ISO coming in at over 5.3%
If you push the noise reduction you can get slightly softer JPEGs from the camera, but with lower noise totals. In the “Normal” mode noise starts at 1.13%, but is kept right around there through ISO 800. It rises slightly to 1.31% at ISO 800, but only hits 1.7% at ISO 12800. At max ISO noise is still a problem, hitting 2.47% at ISO 25600.
If you really need noise-free images and don’t need a ton of fine detail the “High” noise reduction mode is an option. This keeps noise around 1% from ISO 100 all the way through ISO 6400. It only hits 1.3% at ISO 12800, and 1.8% at ISO 25600. Our recommendation is to stick to RAW shooting or the bottom two noise reduction modes, using High only as a last resort.
Mirrorless cameras have a much shorter path to capturing fast bursts of images than traditional DSLRs, which need to move the mirror out of the way before every single shot. The D5500 still manages a healthy five frames per second (FPS) shooting, however, which is right in line with most competing options—even mirrorless ones.
In our testing we found that Nikon’s advertised speed of five FPS was right on the money. The one caveat there is RAW shooting, which will dip the speed down to just four FPS according to our test results. If you’re shooting speed that extra frame per second could really make a difference, so we recommend sticking with JPEG when shooting action.
The D5500 employs a similar (if not identical) 24-megapixel sensor to its predecessor, the D5300. As you can expect, resolution hasn’t improved much as a result. That’s not a terrible thing, as the D5300 was quite good, but don’t expect a major upgrade if you’re trying to trade up or replace an older model.
In our lab testing we found the D5500 with its standard 18-55mm kit lens was able to resolve roughly 1800 line widths per picture height (LW/PH) on average, hitting up to 2500 LW/PH in the center at optimum apertures with slight sharpening applied in post, dropping to around 1100 LW/PH once you get to f/8 and smaller. The corners are also well-controlled, exhibiting some chromatic aberration but maintaining resolution in excess of 1300 LW/PH at most apertures.
While these are good results, it’s worth pointing out that there are far better lenses out there for Nikon’s system. Even affordable options like the 50mm f/1.8 or 35mm f/1.8 AF-S lenses will provide vastly better performance, especially in low light.
The Nikon D5500 actually has something of a legacy to live up to when it comes to video quality. The D5100, D5200, and D5300 all were well-regarded for their generally sharp video, low noise, excellent dynamic range, and shallow depth of field. While certainly not on par with the full-frame video DSLRs like the Canon 5D Mark III, the D5300 was good for the money.
The D5500 continues that legacy, adding 1080/60p to the mix. That results in video that looks exceptionally smooth, though you can still opt for 30p or 24p if you want a more filmic look. Unfortunately, that’s about the only step forward that Nikon has made with regard to video.
Because Nikon is still sticking with 1080p, there just isn’t much room for improvement on the sharpness front. The D5500 manages to hit 600 line pairs per picture height (LP/PH) in bright light and 550 LP/PH in low light—right in line with its predecessors and 1080p competition—but the gulf between this and 4K-shooting cameras is telling.
The D5500 also doesn’t acquit itself terribly well in low light. Noise becomes a real problem with this sensor once you push past ISO 800, even in video, and even at max ISO it required 10 lux of light to produce a 50 IRE image. That’s not terrible, but it doesn’t distinguish the D5500 beyond its peers or its predecessor.
We also had hoped that the addition of a touchscreen LCD would improve matters on the control front. While touch-to-focus is present, the focus hasn’t been tuned for video. It is quiet with Nikon’s AF-S lenses, but the aperture still opens up wide when acquiring focus, resulting in an image that gets momentarily blown out. From there the camera generally has to hunt, even on high-contrast subjects. It’s jarring and nowhere near as smooth as what Canon’s been able to accomplish with its Dual Pixel CMOS AF on cameras like the 70D.
Get Our Newsletter
Real advice from real experts. Sign up for our newsletter
Thanks for signing up!