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Equipment

The Nikon D5 Review: Roller Derby and Mammoth Cave Testing

The weekend before last, I had quite a trip planned for my birthday. I was going camping at Mammoth Cave, with a side trip to see some friends play roller derby in Bloomington, IN. I had originally planned to bring only my Mamiya Universal and some instant film for a personal project I’m working on, but with the new Nikon D5 available, I figured I’d have a good chance to really push the camera. The Nikon D5 is aimed right at sports shooters, and I can’t think of any sport more demanding on a photographer than roller derby (I’m very biased on this point). I wanted to see if the new AF features and low light capability would make things any easier for me shooting the sport I love so much. And I thought that the caves would really let me push the low light ability to its limits.

The camera itself is Nikon’s latest flagship, with the build quality we’ve come to expect from their top level series. It replaces the now aging Nikon D4s with lots of tweaks and upgrades. Without getting too technical, there’s a new AF system with more focus points, greater detection range, and auto AF Fine-Tune, a higher resolution sensor, a wider ISO range, improved metering, higher burst rate, bigger buffer, dual XQD slots (we won’t be carrying the CF version here at Lensrentals, but it’s an option if you’re looking to buy), a higher resolution LCD screen that’s also a touchscreen, more efficient use of the EN-EL18a battery, 4k video capabilities (kinda), and some minor button changes which make some more commonly used features more prominent than on previous bodies.

In the hands, it feels basically the same as the Nikon D4s, so there’s not too much to get used to if you’re looking for an upgrade. It’s still a big, kind of bulky camera, but if sports or wildlife photography is your business, this is just part of the game. The mode button has moved to the other side of the camera, and there’s and ISO button in its place. And there are some new programmable function buttons. Everything is designed to make it a little easier to find the functions that are most used by this camera’s audience. Did you ever use the flash button on the Nikon D4s? No? Neither did most people, so it’s gone.

So how does it handle? Like a dream! Roller derby venues are notoriously poorly lit, and the action is fast, so with anything less than the best gear, it can be a real challenge to capture what’s going on on the track. For the Frank Southern arena in Bloomington, I was shooting at 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800.

Jammers so fast Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

Jammers so fast
Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

 

Normally I’d be using strobes or speed lights to augment the available light, which usually keeps me down to 1/250 and an ISO of 3200 or 6400. Or I’d be pushing things in post to get good exposures. With the Nikon D5, I didn’t have to worry about any of that. ISO 12800 is clean enough for most things, and I wouldn’t mind 8x10s printed from these files. They look cleaner than my images from WFTDA Champs in 2014, and WFTDA is still using some of those images in their branding and marketing. I shot those on the Nikon D4s and Nikon D750.

This was an emotional jam Nikon D5, 200mm f/2, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

This was an emotional jam
Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

 

Tear detail at 100% crop Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

Tear detail at 100% crop
Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

 

AF is also a definite improvement. Tracking skaters was a breeze, even with the slow focusing Nikon 58mm f/1.4G AF-S, which I used from the center track. The Nikon 200mm f/2G ED AF-S VR II is my absolute favorite sports lens, and on the Nikon D5, it really sings.

Even blockers like to fly sometimes Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

Even blockers like to fly sometimes
Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

 

Even the Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S locked focus fast on moving subjects. I always have troubles locking on skaters’ faces when they take their victory laps for the fans. Not this time!

Congrats on the win, Gem City! Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

Congrats on the win, Gem City!
Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

 

My keeper rate for in-focus images was much improved across the board. I preferred the standard dynamic-area modes, usually sticking with the 72 and 153 point options. I tried group-area AF as well, but I found that it liked to pick the wrong subject most of the time. I was better off selecting my own focus point and having the camera track around that. That seems to be the way it’s always been for me with Nikons. 12 frames a second with AF between each frame was great for getting sequences around the track, and AF kept up with each frame (at 14fps focus and exposure lock and the viewfinder blacks out, so it’s not for tracking).

Teamwork Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

Teamwork
Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

 

Out of play Nikon D5, 58mm f/1.4G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

Out of play
Nikon D5, 58mm f/1.4G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

Is 200mm too tight? Nah. Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

Is 200mm too tight? Nah.
Nikon D5, 200mm f/2G, 1/1000, f/3.5, ISO 12800

 

One amazing improvement that I almost didn’t notice is the automatic flicker compensation when shooting faster than 1/60. The fluorescent lighting at Frank Southern has always forced me to convert everything to B&W to compensate for the lights cycling. In color, I’d end up with frames that were half pink, half green, or half exposed properly and half dark. I didn’t have to do that with the Nikon D5, even at 1/1000. There’s no color shift or anything! It’s a derby miracle! I don’t have to worry about future games under sodium vapor or mercury vapor lights either. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.

I didn’t really have to push the low light performance too much, even in Mammoth Cave. I mostly stuck to ISO 12800, using the Nikon 20mm f/1.8G. The results are still pretty great, though.

First stop on the Frozen Niagara tour Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/25, f/1.8, ISO 12800

First stop on the Frozen Niagara tour
Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/25, f/1.8, ISO 12800

 

A good overview before going down into the Frozen Niagara area Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/30, f/1.8, ISO12800

A good overview before going down into the Frozen Niagara area
Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/30, f/1.8, ISO12800

 

Various cave features from inside Frozen Niagara Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/25, f/1.8, ISO12800

Various cave features from inside Frozen Niagara
Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/25, f/1.8, ISO12800

 

I did push it to 51200 for a couple of shots. There is always a stop on the cave tours where the guides turn out all the lights to show you how dark it really is down there. Then they take out a lighter and show you their “emergency light”. Locking focus in light that low wasn’t a problem for the Nikon D5. And noise levels at ISO 51200 are pretty spectacular for what they are. Would I push it farther? Probably, but only with careful exposure and post processing. For most purposes, though, I’d never need much beyond 12800.

First time I got the demonstration Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/20, f/1.8, ISO 51200

First time I got the demonstration. Focus locked on the other guy with a camera.
Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/20, f/1.8, ISO 51200

 

Second time I got the demo, on the Domes and Dripstones tour Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/15, f/1.8, ISO 51200

Second time I got the demo, on the Domes and Dripstones tour
Nikon D5, 20mm f/1.8G, 1/15, f/1.8, ISO 51200

 

What I Liked:

  • AF speed, accuracy, and flexibility
  • High ISO noise performance
  • Great image quality

What Could Be Improved:

  • AF points spread to cover more of the frame
  • Obviously, Expensive
  • No need for touch screen

 

I think overall the Nikon D5 is a great camera for the people that need all the bells and whistles, namely pro sports photographers. At a retail price of $6500 this is not the camera for most people, but renting it for a weekend won’t break the bank. For all that money you’ll get marked improvements to AF, noise performance, resolution, and buffer/write speed. I forgot to mention that we did, in fact, test out the buffer on the D5, and I can confirm it’s true. At 12fps, you will get 200 images in the buffer before it fills up. And that’s in raw+jpeg. It’s quite a thing to behold. But you have to have the XQD version to do that. The only thing I didn’t really care about was the touch screen. Yes, it can be useful, but it’s not necessary. After the first couple hours of use, I just turned off the touch capabilities. I foresee myself using the Nikon D5 quite a bit in the coming months, at least until I get to test drive the Canon 1DX II. But that’ll be a blog post for another time.

 

Joey Miller

April, 2016

Author: Joey Miller

I’m Joey. I love cameras, especially old film cameras, and I can’t remember the last day I didn’t take a photo. Digital cameras are great, and they keep me employed, but I also still like processing my own film. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle. I shoot every single day, no matter what.

Posted in Equipment
  • Shawn Wolfe

    I find the D810 lacking even with good glass in front of it. After this review I am excited about getting my hands on the D5. It is unfortunately twice the price of my D810. That is, I completely agree a great detraction from the entire camera. I spent the same amount on two great cameras (D810’s) as I would on one D5 and not have a backup of the same quality due to that being over 13,000 for 2 cameras after tax and misc expenses. Guess I will have to live vicariously through you and other blogs until the D6 comes out and get a D5 when they are trying to “get rid of their inventory.”

  • Reggie

    I hardly think that the camera would be improved by taking away the touchscreen. You might not like it, but you can turn it off. I’ve already made good use of it on the D500. Silly thing to say that the camera would be improved by getting rid of it.

    Overall good writeup. I think there is finally a camera that will make me lust after an upgrade to my D3s. 🙂

  • Lacknafta

    Agreed, I thought perhaps just the arenas I visited happened to be dim caves but maybe it’s a general trend. Fitting that a ‘cave’ and a cave were shot : ) Looks like a really nice camera for low light work and especially roller daahrby.

  • Ilya Zakharevich

    May it be that the lamps were upgraded in this particular rink (between your shooting with D4 and D5)?

  • peter

    It sounds like you finally have a camera to recommend to customers shooting a wedding in that candle-lit coal mine 😉

  • Joey Miller

    I searched the camera menus for a selectable option when I first noticed it at the bout. I didn’t find one. But I have shot under those same exact lights at that arena before, on a D4s and a 1DX, and had terrible times with pink/green shift over parts of the image. All my previous photos from this venue are all b&w because of it. Maybe they just made it automatic in the D5? I have no idea. All I know is what I see.

  • Joey Miller

    That’s the one thing I forgot to test. I’ll have to do a follow up.

  • I don’t know about nikon brouchure. I came across two reviews where they have used the feature. Below is the link to one of them.
    https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2016/04/the-nikon-d5-review-roller-derby-and-mammoth-cave-testing/
    Many people are getting confused with EVR for movies and flickr reduction. Although this screenshot has got it right I think it is a mistake on their part as I have read in NR that flicker reduction for mercury vapour and sodium vapour lights is available for both D5 and D500. Electronic VR is available only for D500 for movies.
    Let us know if you come across anything more on this.

  • Pete Johnson

    Hi, where do you get this info? The Nikon D500 brochure states it is not available on the D5.

  • For movies it has vibration reduction. In camera on D500. Flickr reduction is there in both D500 as well as D5.

  • Pete Johnson

    Joey, I posted your comment about flicker reduction on DPreview’s Nikon FX forum and no one has heard of the D5 having it for stills. It does have flicker reduction for movies and Marianne Oelund says it is on the D500. Can you clarify, thanks.

  • Pete Johnson

    I hadn’t heard about the auto flicker compensation. That is major for me as I shoot in so many venues with lighting like you mentioned. When that feature comes down to a D8xx I’ll seriously think about trading in my D800. Thanks for the revue.

  • Frozengogo

    Plugh

  • Andy Kerr

    Finally, a review by a roller derby photographer! Seriously, most folks don’t get how hard it is. I’ve been drooling over the specs for this since it was first announced. This thing looks amazing. Personally, I’m saving up for the D500, since I’m using DX for almost everything right now.

  • John Dillworth

    Well I am waiting for the geeks a the workbench to test the auto AF Fine-Tune. thats a pretty exciting feature….or it really sounds like one

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