Points in Focus Photography

Image: Nikon USA

Thoughts on the Nikon D5

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So far this year has been a great year for new gear from Canon and Nikon. I’ve written about the two Canon announcements, but I’ve been awfully quiet on the Nikon ones, the D5 and D500.

Since the D3, Nikon’s been turning out absolutely solid pro cameras that offer amazing image quality, functionality and features. The D5 carries on that tradition in virtual all respects. The chassis is the same solid all magnesium weather sealed construction, and the sensor is almost certainly going to be par for Nikon’s course in terms of excellent dynamic range and noise performance. In fact, so far as I can tell, in virtually every aspect the D5 builds on the D4s in every respect.

That said, I don’t write these things to just sing praises of cameras — even the ones that I really like. I write these things because there’s almost always stuff that’s been done really well and stuff that can be done a lot better.

UI Improvements

Nikon has made two major improvements to the UI that I really think are good moves.

First, they’ve added an ISO button to the top plate right behind the shutter release. In my opinion, they should have followed Canon’s lead and done this soon after the conversion to digital, but better late than never.

Second, they’ve added two more user programmable buttons to the camera (one more to the front and one to the rear). I like user customizability in a camera. Sure I may have my camera set up different enough that someone else can’t just pick it up and shoot with it, but I don’t really care if it makes me more efficient and productive.

The only real shortcoming to Nikon’s functions buttons is that they don’t duplicate them across the bottom of the lens mount, like Canon has been doing with the 1DXes. I would have loved to see Nikon again follow Canon’s lead here and duplicate the front function buttons along the bottom of the lens mount so they were equally usable from the portrait and landscape grips.

Automatic AF Fine Tuning

This one of those “duh” items. In fact, I’m utterly at a loss as to why it’s taken Nikon — or Canon for that matter — this long to do it.

Any camera that has contrast AF has the capability to programmatically measure how sharp the image is. Combine that with 1 micro-adjust step focus moves — which the camera can already command the lens to do — and you have a system that can auto fine tune the AF for any given lens and position. And do so quickly and automatically in virtually any conditions.

Implementing this should have been obvious, and should have been everywhere a long time ago. With this capability a photographer can retune their AF system before a shoot in the conditions of the shoot quickly and easily.

Video

No, I’m not bothered that Nikon included it, I’m bothered that they still continue to make such a hash of it. You’d think, having had as many years and cameras with video, Nikon would be able to do a much better job of it than they seem to do.

When Nikon released their first VDSLR, the D90 it could only record video for about 5 minutes in full HD because video files were limited to only 2GB. And there was consternation about this.

With the D5, Nikon has introduced “4K” recording, and in doing so reverted to a silly 3 minute recording limit — at least in the release firmware, or at least that’s how things stand right now. And again there was consternation over the limitation — especially given that the D500 isn’t limited in that way. Nikon says that they’re working on a firmware that will enable longer recordings, and I believe them but the whole situation simply shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

Then there’s the choice of 4K format. Nikon is using the consumer oriented Quad-HD (3840 x 2160) instead of higher resolution DCI 4K standard (4,096 x 2,160).

Sure you can argue that QDH is what’s going to be broadcast on TV, while DCI 4K mostly used in cinema. However, the fact of the matter is you can always crop or down sample to the lower resolution from the higher one at the same or better quality. However, going the other way, from a lower resolution to a higher one, will reduce the quality.

And lets be honest here, anybody shooting 4K video on a $7000 DSLR isn’t likely going to be only thinking about how easily they can upload to YouTube right out of the camera. They will be doing post processing, and will be re-encoding the video that comes out. Any editing and color correction is going to require recompressing the output and that means the format can be changed there anyway.

And this isn’t to say anything about Nikon’s continued inability to provide detailed information on the recoding format (all-i, IPB, M-JPEG) and bit rate. But then again, all of this is just repeating what many other sites have already said.

AF System/Point Counts

Let me prefix this by saying that I think the AF system as a whole will be solid. What bothers me isn’t the system it’s the seemingly marketing driven inflation of AF points to, in my eyes, make the system look more impressive.

I’ll make no bones about this, I’m not at all impressed by the big marketing numbers Nikon is selling the AF system on. I’ve been around this stuff, especially as an owner of a Canon 1D Mark III, that non-selectable “assist” points do not impress me. Nikon says the D5 has a 153 point AF system with 99 cross type sensors. In practice, you can select 55 points, and of those 35 are cross type.

Where Nikon claims big numbers, what I see as a photographer is 4 more selectable AF points and a coverage pattern that’s half an AF box wider and overall no taller than it was on the D4s.

But if it works, and works, well, I can’t really fault Nikon for marketing whatever numbers they want.

Where I really fault Nikon is with f/8 support.

When they introduced more than a single AF point being active at f/8 in the D4, they made, in my opinion, a huge step in front of Canon as far as AF goes. Sure 7 points wasn’t a lot when we were talking about 50 odd point systems, but it was way better than one in the center.

However, the D5 is very much a regression on this front. Which I find especially disappointing given that Canon has gone the other way and dramatically upped the f/8 coverage with both the 1DX mark II and 80D.

The D5 has fewer selectable AF points at f/8 than the D4s does. Worse, they cover less of the frame than the D4s’ AF does.

GPS, or rather the lack there of…

I feel like I’m being a bit of a broken record on the GPS thing. I gave Canon huge props for integrating it on the 1DX mark II, and dinged for not having it in the 80D. Here too I’m disappointed by Nikon not having GPS built in the D5, or D500.

In the past, I never was that big of a fan of having a GPS built into my cameras. I always made the same tired old arguments. I don’t need it draining my battery. I’m not going to use it and it’s going to add cost to my camera.

That was until I started shooting more in places I don’t intimately know — like all the images I shot in Alaska. As I look back over these images, I’d love to have a much better idea of where exactly I was when I too them, not only for future reference, but to better place where I was when I was there.

Sure there are ways around this. Most cheap GPS can produce track logs that you can use to add the GPS data after the fact. You can even get apps for your smartphone to do this. And of course there are the add-on GPS receivers like the GP–1A. None of these are really good options though. I’ve tried the cellphone route, and I never remember to turn it on or it runs my phones battery down ridiculously fast. The GP–1A is clumsy with the cable, and easts up the 10-pin socket that the cable release uses. The only option I haven’t tried is the stand alone GPS route, and that only improves on the phone option by not killing you’re phones battery.

Integrated GPS is, in my opinion, the way to go. The utility of having it far outweighs the small addition to the bill of materials in costs. And before anybody argues against that, we’ve already accepted covering the tiny costs for all the other features we don’t use this is just one more.

XQD

XQD was an interesting idea a couple of years ago, when there wasn’t a clear successor to Compact Flash. And technically XQD looks pretty good; using PCI-express it technically has a much higher bandwidth limit and much lower latency than CFast or SD. However, it’s pretty clear at this point that the market just isn’t going that direction.

I can kind of understand where Nikon was going with the D4. At the time, there really wasn’t any other higher speed format than Compact Flash. Yes, CFast 1 was “released” but it really wasn’t the kind of adoption of it either, and it wasn’t as fast as XQD anyway.

However, a we now have CFast 2, and CFast 2 is very clearly being adopted more broadly than XQD was or is. Arri uses it in the Amira, and offers an adapter for the Alexa; Blackmagic Design uses it in several of their cameras, including the URSA and URSA mini; and Canon is using it in the 1DX mark II, along with the C300 mark II and XC10.

Broad adoption is important, as that has a direct impact on the price of storage. CFast 2 cards are already available at nearly the same price as a much slower XQD card of the same capacity. For example a Lexar 32GB 3200x CFast2 card is only $20 more expensive than their 32GB 2933x XQD card. That disparity is likely only going to continue to grow, especially as the volume of CFast sales pick up with Canon using CFast in the 1DX mark II and likely in the successor to the 5D mark III. And as adoption of CFast increases, the costs are only going to continue to drop.

Moreover, whatever theoretical advantages XQD may have because it’s based on PCI-express, they don’t seem to be there in practice. Lexar’s fasted XQD cards are slower than their slowest CFast2 cards. Sony’s XQD cards aren’t any faster, than that’s the extent of major manufacturers making the cards.

The biggest positive note about the flash cards, is that the camera is being sold in 2 configurations, one with two CompactFlash slots and one with two XQD slots. Further, Nikon support can convert an CompactFlash camera to XQD and vice versa. Given that, one hopes that maybe given the massive uptick in CFast usage and support, that Nikon will eventually offer a CFast slot setup for the camera as well.

That said, given that the slots can be changed out by Nikon. I really would have liked to see them step up to the plate and offer card slots that can be changed out by the user. I’d really like the flexibility to be able to setup my cameras’s storage how it best works or for me at any given time. There are clear pros and cons to all of the common stage formats — I took a long time ago to shooting SD cards in my Canon cameras unless I need maximum performance because they’re cheap to replace when they inevitably wear out (and yes, the flash cells in memory cards do wear out with use).

ISO 3,280,000

When I first saw the specs, my reaction was little more than to laugh at how silly and inflated Nikon has pushed the numbers. My next reaction is that I’ll reserve further judgement for when there have been some real quantitive testing done on the cameras.

I don’t directly have a problem with really high ISO speeds, they certainly can be useful. But at the same time, I have serious doubts about Nikon pulling a rabbit out of their hat on this too.

When Canon released the ME20F-SH multi-purpose camera, they achieved a eqivelant ISO of 4,000,000. However, they did this with a 2MP 36 x 24 mm sensor, and that means the pixels are absolutely huge, at 361 square microns. Thats a lot of surface area to collect light, and when push comes to shove that’s fundamentally the problem with shooting in low light.

The D5 is hitting almost the same ISO on the top end, but they’re doing it with a 20 MP sensor, and pixels somewhere around 40 square microns. That’s almost 100 times less area to collect light.

Now there are certainly things that Nikon can do to help their cause. For example, the D5’s sensor could have a higher quantum efficiency than the Canon ME20F-SH’s, but given that most digital camera sensors are in the 30–40% range already, even jumping to twice that wouldn’t complete close the gap. Likewise, Nikon has generally had a lower noise floor than Canon sensors have had, but I’m doubtful that it’s going to be low enough to really make up for such a massive disparity in pixel size.

In the end, none of this really matters to me, even if I was going to get a D5, I don’t ever use ISOs higher than about 12,800 anyway. And honestly I suspect the vast majority of people using either the D5 or the 1DX won’t be shooting at ISO 3.2-million all that much anyway. At those lower ISOs noise isn’t going to be very much of an issue regardless — and it hasn’t been for at least a generation or so now.

On the other hand, how the dynamic range situation plays out will be somewhat more interesting, but maybe I should save that for another article.

In any event, the D5 looks like it’s going to be a real solid camera. I’m really pleased to see that Nikon has made progress in updating their interface, and I love the addition of the auto calibration routine for the AF system. All told the D5 looks like a real solid camera, and a solid upgrade from the D4 or D4s; probably more so than the D4 was over the D3s.

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