The Nikon D5:  First Impressions

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

It was with great anticipation that we awaited sample images available for download after Nikon announced their new flagship Nikon D5 in January 2016.  All the usual upgrades were in place, including increased frame-rate, improved autofocus, bigger buffer, improved layout of buttons, ergonomics etc.  Oh yes, and 4K video.

However, my main interest lies in the expanded ISO capability.  Can this camera really do what many people say it can?  At this point it was pure speculation but after downloading and editing some sample images, albeit taken under much different conditions than what we are currently working in it became clear that there might be more than meets the eye.

Nocturnal wildlife photography has become a new interest on Zimanga for a variety of reasons, as notwithstanding the possibility of photographing species seldom active or seen by day, the lighting offered by nocturnal photography is versatile and often controllable by the photographer, using natural light, wireless flash, fixed lights, whether from the front, side or back, in several combinations to obtain new views on nature.

The D810 that I’ve been using is a great camera and the image quality is mind-blowing at the exposure times we’ve been shooting with at night, the D810’s photographs at a frame rate as fast as any top sports and wildlife camera bodies, or so I thought.  My biggest limitation in this regard was the ISO performance (and from a non-camera point-of-view, the image background, but we’ll get to that later).  I despise noise in an image.  Many photographers will say that it goes away in print, or that they’d rather sit with a frozen but grainy image than one that is blurred due to a slower shutter speed or out of focus due to shallow DOF in action photography.  Noise is almost the first thing I look at in an image before looking at the actual scene in front of me.  This was one of the reasons why in our animal starscapes I never went past ISO800 on my D810.

Preferring to open the aperture wide gulping in as much light as the lens can, even if this was at the expense of background detail, allowing stars to be visible in backgrounds although not pin-sharp.  The subject detail was still exquisite at lower ISO’s.  Longer shutter speeds were not an option, as we are shooting in a westerly direction where stars are subjected to larger movement from our point of view.  Anything longer than 15-20s and the whole idea of wanting to get sharp background stars is negated due to the earth’s rotation, thereby setting us a 20 second upper limit for images.

Our main subjects are usually positioned about 4m from us, hence even at wide angles we have to close the aperture a tad to get acceptable detail in the stars, which was notably lacking in our initial images.  I enjoyed the D810’s image quality so much that my D4 has only been used on a handful of occasions since the D810’s acquisition.

Make no mistake, the D4 is still an amazing camera, but the D810 suited my needs better, even if it was at a slight expense of ISO and frame-rate.  Then, along came the D5.  Like a hungry jackal hovering on the outskirts of a lion kill, I carefully viewed it with suspicion from a safe distance.  One moment considering going in and grabbing at it, and then turning around and trotting away, just to be safe.  And just like most hungry jackals though, the temptation proved too much and eventually got the better of me, and a call to Hedrus at Outdoorphoto ensured that one of the D5 bodies which arrived at ODP that same day was on its way to Mkuze a few hours later.

To say I was excited is an understatement.  What follows is my initial experience with Nikon’s new flagship camera.

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

LOW-LIGHT PERFORMANCE (NIGHT-TIME ISO)

Our first idea was to continue with the nocturnal photography images from Zimanga’s Umgodi hide, but to put the D5’s ISO capabilities to the test.  The setup was similar to what we did with the D810, tethering the camera and its peripherals to a Macbook running Camera Control Pro 2, accessing the hide’s Wi-Fi and using Teamviewer on a desktop computer to remotely control the camera from 10km away. As much as we’d like to, we cannot use the hide every evening due to our kids’ school commitments and this remote setup has worked wonders for us, being able to photograph more often.

The lens of choice was a Sigma Art Series 20mm f/1.4. The Art series is phenomenal, and I’d say it is the best wide-angle lenses you can get for any camera body.  The wider angle allows us to use a slightly wider aperture for better light gathering, but still offers acceptable DOF for subject and star detail.  Slight cropping afterwards results in great image quality and acceptable DOF.  The optical performance is second to none for a lens of this focal length.  Of course the first thing we did with the camera was to crank up the ISO.  Not slowly based on our previous experience, but straight in the deeper end with no thought of turning back.  So when the first subjects arrived in twilight I was on ISO6400 with hardly any available light.

The outcome was decent, but not what I was hoping for.  Excitement definitely got the better of my senses, as I could have exposed the image better using available natural light, but I was hell-bent on using a high ISO.  The aperture was spot-on at f/3.2, allowing infinite DOF but a shutter speed of 1/250s at which the images were taken was not necessary to “freeze” motion as the dual flashes set to a 1/64 output were doing the job for me.  That, and the subjects are not known to be the fastest movers in the animal world!

I could have cut the ISO by 2.7 stops and still get a very similar exposure but better quality shot using lower ISO and slower shutter speed.  In theory, even if I would want to be bursting at the camera’s full speed, and presuming the two SB910’s can keep up, there was no need to expose quicker than 1/40s.  I do not like bursting with animals drinking this close to you anyway, hence my shutter and ISO could have dropped considerably.  It was not the best quality series of images, and a re-think was required.

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

Darkness arrived swiftly after the first visitors arrived at the waterhole and the moon still reflected unwanted ambient light, as it was only setting around 21:00 that evening.  A quiet window of about an hour gave me the opportunity to experiment with ISO’s as high as 20 000, which in reality was not ideal.  It allowed plenty of stars to be captured at even 2.5s exposure and it is great that the camera can do it, but I found the noise unacceptable.  Which also brings me back to an earlier point with regards to the background.

Our biggest limitation in this shoot was a mountain range a few km away.  This acts as a beautiful backdrop to smaller subjects in daylight, but I always try to balance the darkness of the sky with the (usually) black mountain silhouette when photographing at night, blending them in as one.  This gives a more homogenous dark background, even if the stars do not start from ground level.

Shooting at high ISO’s brings out a lot of details in the mountain, which you can counter with a faster shutter speed but that will dim your stars at the same time, so what was the point of using super-high ISO’s when the same image can be obtained at much lower ISO’s and slower shutter speed.  Editing might save the image later, but I prefer to get as much right in-camera, with a minimal amount of time on editing.  The greatest advantage of higher ISO was the ability to obtain more images per series but at the expense of quality.  The realization dawned that all I was doing, was testing the ISO, as opposed to using the camera to obtain quality images, which is after all, what all cameras are built for.

I fell into the same trap of some other published reviews by making horrible exposures and trying to reason quality into them.  My initial thoughts of being underwhelmed by the D5 were quickly replaced by a deepening sense of appreciation of looking what the camera offers, and working with that.  A deep sense of satisfaction settled in as I adjusted to what I wanted in the image instead of forcing ISO to obtain an image as quick as possible.

Admittedly, this is a subjective evaluation of what I am happy with in an image, and is by no means measured by any benchmark other than what I want or do not want in the image.  I cannot therefore state that the D5 offers x amount of stops better in low light handling capabilities than similar images I did with the D810, but I can tell you that it was better and I was pleasantly surprised with the results. Previous images at around ISO800, 20s and f/2.8 were replaced with ISO2500, f/3.2 and 10s.  The differences in exposure amounted to 1.66 stops higher on the ISO, 1 stop faster on the shutter speed, and 0.66 stops narrower aperture than the D810, totalling 3.33 stops more effective use of available light than I’ve previously used, and I am able to obtain images which I am much happier with.

The D5 allowed me to take my night photography images to a new level.  The tradeoff is in image size, but 20.8mp is not a small file by any camera’s standards.  The DOF increased to what I needed to get sharp stars, and a 10 second exposure effectively doubled my frame rate, plus halved the chances of getting ghosting of subjects as they move along the edge of the waterhole.  Flash output is dropped, making it less intrusive for the subjects, and I am sure that I will eventually settle on shutter speeds around 6 seconds, tripling the rate of capture and further reducing ghosting.

As I am writing this, ambient light is increasing as the moon grows fuller for the latter part of the month, but this situation in turn allows new ways of photographing subjects using artificial light.  I have no doubts that the results will amaze.  We have not approached the dimension of photographing subjects with added backlighting yet, but the more sensitive ISO will allow us to balance soft backlight with stars.  Getting the lights “elephant-proof” is quite an obstacle for those shots though!

We did not use autofocus that night, as we set the focus manually on the drinking edge.  I highly doubt that it would have been able to focus, as we were shooting in almost pitch-black darkness.  I can say though, that the autofocus amazed me at home, quickly finding focus in dim environments, better than any of my previous cameras.  In the images comparing the backgrounds on Buffalo (D810) and Rhino (D5) you can see a clear improvement in background, with the added ability to double the frame rate whilst simultaneously retaining excellent quality on the subjects.  Things were really starting to look promising, and very much so.

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

DAYLIGHT ISO AND AUTOFOCUS (ACTION PHOTOGRAPHY)

Action photography takes several forms, with the extremities motion blur and freezing a fraction of time. In reality very few photographers obtain mind-blowing results with motion blur, indicating that it is a skill that needs to be mastered, and a milestone that I have not reached. I am sure that if you stick a D5 in one of these professionals’ hands they will also obtain same mind-blowing results using motion blur. Combining motion blur using backlight and freezing some portion of the image with flash are phenomenal but for the purposes of the review we went for fast shutter speed.  So just the subject, natural light, and the blazing speed of the D5.

The opportunity for action revealed itself unexpectedly the next day with a sunny, wind still afternoon, and one of our guides Dean sending a text that the crocs were active in the Lagoon hide.  The D5 had barely cooled off from the previous evening’s night shots as I hurriedly packed it into my bag, this time coupled to a 200-400 f/4 lens.  The versatility of the lens and the need to pack light and quick made the decision on the lens an easy one – as fiddling between primes when wanting to shoot small birds, large birds, close-ups and wider images of the croc – was not high on the priority list.

This time the D5 immediately exceeded my expectations, and dare I say, by a much wider margin than with nocturnal shooting.  The afternoon was clear, allowing manual exposure of images and making small adjustments as the light diminished.  The initial target in my mind was to remain faster than 1/4000s, for no reason other than because I can.  I do not know why I aimed so low.  I started at a wider focal length, waiting for the crocodile to rip pieces off the carcass and not wanting to cut off part of the subject.

At a focal length of 270mm and a distance of 10m, an aperture at f/4 gave more than enough DOF for the smallish (about 2.5m) crocodile, as it was lying side-on to us.  An ISO of 1250 was enough to obtain maximum shutter speed of 1/8000s, although it must be said, conditions were near perfect.  Shooting as fast as the shutter can go, without any need to treat noise in post-production was a treat. The D5 was indeed a beast when it came to action photography.  I cannot remember hitting the buffer of 200 images once, even though the action was not in short supply at all.

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

The autofocus was set on AUTO mode, locking onto the croc at lighting fast speed and once locked it did not let go. A crocodile is not the best subject for this focus mode though, as it is rather homogenous with low contrast, and the camera did not always select the head/eye area. I preferred switching to group AF, and the autofocus did not once miss the target. With several wider action sequences in the bag, I decided to zoom closer, necessitating closing down my aperture to retain a similar DOF. At this stage the ISO was on 4000 already. At 350mm and f/6.3, the shutter was whirring at 1/5000s, enough to freeze thousands of droplets as the croc tore into its lunch.

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

I missed the subject focus on two occasions (note that there is a difference between target and subject, with the croc being the subject but me not always keeping the subject on target), and on both occasions only as a result of a wall of water thrown in our direction as the crocodile furiously shook its head to dislodge parts of the carcass and obstructing a direct view between the croc and us. Nonetheless the autofocus locked onto the incoming wave (the new target), with each image in perfect focus. I was impressed! There are settings on the camera to fine-tune the focus reaction sensitivity for obstructions, but I was not going to test them during a fun action-filled shoot like this.

The sun dipped below the horizon, and the action, which at this point was being captured at ISO8000, subsided for a while as the crocodile slithered off to the edge to rest, allowing a variety of other water birds to return. A pink sheen from the last light of day reflected off the Ubombo Mountains in the background. The ISO was set to 6400 and a shutter speed now dropped to 1/800, but the image quality was perfect as we took a last few snaps and retired back home.

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal

CONCLUSIONS – ISO, DYNAMIC RANGE AND PRICING

There is a huge jump in ISO performance when comparing the camera to my D810. This comes at a tradeoff to image size and dynamic range, of which the D810 has plenty! I was initially concerned after reading a review on the lower dynamic range of the D5, with reviewers stating ranges between 10 and 12 EV, compared to nearly 15 on the D810.

Some headlines are sensationalised though as it mentions the lowest DR of a Nikon full frame body at low ISO. Yet again at higher ISO, it has the highest DR of any Nikon body ever made. I honestly think too much hype was made about it, but unfortunately its something that we seem to need to get used to with the media nowadays. From ISO 1250 onwards it apparently exceeds the dynamic range of the D4s that it replaces, but again, this is from what I’ve read on the Internet, not tested for myself. I found the DR more than enough, and could care less to place a value of 9, 10 or 12 on it. When exposed properly, this camera produces beautiful quality images, as you would expect from any camera brand’s flagship model.

On a personal note, the improved ISO performance is more noticeable during low-light daytime photography than nocturnal photography, where I doubt I will ever use more than ISO4000. (It is still more than I ever ventured to go to.) If you are reading this article to find out about ISO 3 280 000, it is horrible! We need to remember that the same was said of expanded ISO of 25000 on cameras not too long ago. For now, 3.2milllion remains useless for any type of image though. The ISO’s I ended up using are the ones which I choose to use during everyday shooting to get good quality images, and I find it pointless to be shooting at (example) ISO20000 and to be stopping down to f/16 to do so, ruining the background with increased DOF and noise. When you need it, and you are happy with it, it is there though. It is not ideal to compare what is perceived as a “studio” body (D810) to a “sports and wildlife” body (D5) but those are the cameras I use and I’m looking at what I work with.

At the end of the day, both these cameras are brilliant, and each has its strengths. I do not think that at this point in time, you get a more complimentary combination for action, low light, landscapes, starscapes or other forms of wildlife photography you aspire to.

The pricing on the camera is a tender point, especially for us South Africans. According to DXOMark, this camera was introduced at $500 more than the D4 and the same price as the D4s. The international price is therefore the same, but at our devalued currency, R130 000 is still R130 000. I cannot foresee cameras becoming any cheaper in future though, hence making the correct purchase and sticking with it for many years something we all need to consider.

There are a host of other features that are mentioned including 4K video, but this will be of minimal use for me. The touchscreen at the back is handy for reviews and is a nice addition, with my biggest issue being the kids now exclusively wanting to use the D5 because of this function. Mentioning the higher DR of a D810 to them is met only with blank stares. The redesigned button layout is pleasant, and I re-mapped my video recording button to change the camera mode, hence being in a similar position to the old MODE button on the D4 and D810, so the controls remained the same, leaving time to focus on photography rather than fiddling with a redesigned layout.

All in all, I’ve only used the camera on a handful of occasions, but I’m already in love with it. No doubt it will be my go-to camera for action photography, and in time, I might come to rely on this body more and more as we try new avenues of lighting at night. Who knows, I might even one day venture past ISO4000 in darkness?

Only time will tell. The supplied images were all edited in Photoshop CC, using Topaz DeNoise 6 for noise reduction purposes. No noise reduction was applied on images taken at ISO2000 and lower. Other standard editing practises applied, including contrast, vibrance, saturation, levels and sharpening.

Photo Credit – Charl Senekal