Nikon D5 - Autofocus maniac! (26.04.2016)


Text and photos: Sven Začek

Autofocus! Wow! That says it all. The review of Nikon D5 could end now and this could easily be the shortest piece of writing I have ever written. Because, for those people who even doubt about whether to purchase this camera, the word autofocus should say it all. It is worth buying just for that. But ok, you talked me into it, I am happy to write a bit longer review because in addition to its amazing autofocus, Nikon D5 also features a lot of excellent stuff and all these things together make up the best camera ever made.

Before getting to the desert – yes, D5's autofocus – we should agree on the fact that from now on, while talking about autofocus, we have to specify whether we are talking about the autofocus that existed before D5 or about D5 autofocus because Nikon D5 has created a separate league in this field and we cannot talk about autofocus in general any more.

A remark (not related to D5 but as a background to get something off my chest)
Let's start from the beginning. I'm going to start from the review of Nikon D4 which I wrote 2 years ago also in April. To be honest, I wasn’t ready for a new hymn of praise that soon because I thought that the amazing group focus that the D4s features was going to be developed further with the next camera version and that would have given us a slightly better camera but nothing revolutionary. Fortunately for me and a lot of other photographers, I was wrong because D5 has brought the features presented with D4s to the whole new level. I am actually looking forward for Nikon to go wrong somewhere since that would raise my credibility as a review writer because lately, I am only able to praise them and this might seem suspicious to the readers in the long term.

I can assure you that as a Nikon ambassador, I am not obligated to make a sales pitch. Vice versa actually – according to my contract, I am obligated to test Nikon technology in all kinds of situations and let them know about any shortcomings that should be further developed or changed. That is why; I tried really hard to find anything that should be made better with Nikon D5. Many readers think - out of ignorance or jealousy – that since Nikon ambassadors are given free or good-priced equipment, they are paid off and obligated to make all kinds of sales pitches everywhere. Although this might be hard to believe in today's deep capitalist world but it is not so! Besides, as a photographer, I am mostly interested in photos, I could not use weak technology for the sole reason that I got it for free. My field of work is so demanding that I would lose good photos over doing that. The truth be told, when in 2008, Nikon proposed me to be their ambassador, my first answer was no because despite the fact that I was currently using Canon 1Ds MarkIII camera with a broken autofocus, it had a 21 MP sensor compared to the 12 MP sensor of Nikon's flag ship of the time Nikon D3. In my field work, it makes a huge difference. Nikon people played with open cards and decided to reveal a secret to a Canon man of the time and told me that in the autumn, they are going to release 24MP Nikon D3x. Autofocus remained the same as that of Nikon D3. After testing Nikon D3 for a couple of weeks, I said a firm yes because I was tired of losing photos over the broken auto focus of my Canon. Sometimes I still end up looking at the photos of the time and there's nothing left to do but complain because the nature has not offered similar moments anymore. Thus, I am hoping that no-one is going to doubt whether getting free equipment means losing the freedom of speech. Besides, if someone from any other organisation would come up with a similar offer and would in addition offer money for example, my answer would still be no because none of them would be able to offer the most important thing - better equipment than Nikon's that would help me produce more successful photos! The end of the remark!

Let's start from the beginning. Nikon D5’s body has gone through some small but important changes. The most important of these is the location of ISO button that is now brought in front of the shutter button from the back of the camera. There's no more need to reprogram the Video recording button to change ISO with one hand. Instead on ISO button you find the frame rate button which is not that logical for me anymore. This is the first above-mentioned hard-to-find weakness. But of course, this does not affect shooting. Due to the change, the rear display does not show active ISO value anymore that I have seen there for 9 years. Instead, it now says CH12 (continuous high 12 frames per second), when I have selected 12 fps as the frame rate. I think that this button should have been left selectable.

Another important change about the body is the shape of the horizontal grip that is now even more according to my hand shape. It would be interesting to know if this is something that pleases other users as well. It definitely pleases me. The thumb grip has been made deeper and it is also taller than that of D4s. Both joysticks have also slightly changed their location and are better to handle now. The thumb grip of the vertical grip has also been made more ergonomic.

Thirdly, there are many buttons on the front and back of the camera that can be set accordingly to the users’ wishes. I have to admit that this kind of kindness from the Nikon engineers that maybe should have happened a few cameras ago considering the possibilities of today's digital era, makes you grow even closer to your camera. It is way better to go on a shoot with somebody that thinks alike than with somebody, or in this case with something that tends to argue with you.

Let us now look inside the Nikon D5 camera. The abovementioned features are nice and important but without the proper inside, these features would be irrelevant. The content of the camera is the most important and for me, that means photo quality, speed and accuracy of the auto focus and ISO quality in low light conditions. I would rather take photos with a half of a brick that features all those important things than with a super ergonomic master piece that makes compromises in photo quality.

Photo quality
When I talk about the photo quality, I mean colour transfer and dynamics which mean the ability to capture both highlights and shadows at the same time and not at absolute value but at higher ISOs. There have been a lot of complaints about the lower end of the ISOs in different forums. Namely, Nikon D5's dynamics is said to be weaker than that of its predecessors. This is not true, and even if it was, considering my field of work, I would still approve the compromise of taking away from the low end of ISOs and give back at the high end. The main target group of this camera is nature, press and sports photographers who need high ISOs 95% of the time. And according to the rumours, at low sensitivity, D5 is told to produce slightly weaker results than the last generation camera Nikon D4s (but still better than any Canon camera (data from DxOMark sensor tests)) All these rumours were told before the tests and these are derived from the disability to measure exposure.

Most of the people who spread rumours are non-professional users who mostly buy a top notch camera for their hobby and not for working. I am not saying that they should not do that, sure they can and it is great. But they tend to write reviews the first night after purchasing it without really engrossing into the camera just to be the first reviewer. I must say that this is not right and it should not be done, at least in my opinion. These wrong rumours are created just out of these superficial acquaintances with the cameras. Underexposed photo can be saved but its dynamics can never be compared to a properly exposed photo. Unfortunately, I have not yet started to test the dynamics of low ISOs because I have been enjoying the new level of high ISOs. I dare to think that there is no going back from here or if there is, it is going to be so marginal that everybody agrees to compromise. Anyway, let's wait for the DxOMark test results to know more.

ISO quality
Coming back to my contractual responsibilities as a Nikon ambassador - after each review, I have brought out three most important nuances that could be better with the next camera.

  • There could be more megapixels (Nikon D810’s 36MP is enough for me, in its review, I did not ask for more);
  • high ISO could be cleaner and with better dynamics and colour transfer;
  • autofocus could be faster

Nikon D5 has stepped forward and satisfied all my needs according to the possibilities. If there were 24 megapixels, I would be extra satisfied. That is now the second hard-to-find weakness. Nikon D5’s ISO quality is again a totally new level. And this time, not so much because of the noise reduction but because of the photo quality improvements. As a side remark, I should mention that the increase of noise is not the only side effect of raising ISO. While raising ISO - the noise increases, dynamics decreases and colour transfer weakens. The colour transfer at high ISOs is what has been improved the most with Nikon D5 compared to Nikon D4s.

May I please ask you to the table, the desert has been served!

There are three main aspects that determine the functioning of autofocus - accuracy, speed and functioning in extreme conditions or should I say in as dark conditions as possible. Nikon D5 has been improved intensively in all those aspects and the results are noticeable right away.

Autofocus point has been made smaller for the sake of accuracy - as if the focus point of D4s has been cut into four and 1/4 of it has become the focus point of the D5. Roughly said. Actually the number has been divided by three and 51 points has turned into 153. The big autofocus square in the sense of D4s has been made smaller with D5 but the area covered with big D4s size square now features a smaller square and three additional points that cannot be selected but these work hand in hand with the selected small square. The results are noticeable. The field of portrait photos give the best examples of the AF's accuracy.

In portrait photography, the problem with using an open aperture is that the big focus point covers the person's eyebrow and the eye at the same and the AF then inevitably selects eyebrow to focus on because the eyebrows are more protuberant than the eye. With D5, the focus point is small enough to place a point under the eye from the ordinary portrait distance. In the field of nature photography, the same problem occurs when photographing ural owls. The eyes of this bird are so protuberant that inevitably the face of the bird is sharp but the eyes are a bit blurry. There is no such problem with D5.

The improvement on the speed of AF is maybe the least noticeable because the previous models also features a decent speed of AF. In low light conditions, this barely noticeable difference becomes a huge one since the D5 is able keep up with a faster focusing speed due to being able to see better in the dim light. To compare, I must say that Nikon D4s' AF was able to work at -2EV, Nikon D5 is able to do it at -4EV. In reality, this means that while capturing the morning play of the grouses, I was able to start 15-20 minutes earlier than with D4s.

Since with D5, the second processor is dedicated solely to autofocus operation and computing, technocrats correct me if I am mistaken in the correct term, D5 is able to use 3D focusing more successfully than its predecessors and that is a true rescue angel while capturing chaotically behaving birds in dim light. With previous models, 3D focusing tended to be too much in low light conditions, and it was satisfying in good light conditions. Since with 3D focusing, all focus points are analysed together at the same time there was not enough resources for focusing itself because in low light conditions, the previous models weren't much of the seers.

To sum up, I don't dare to make big words because I used enough of them with Nikon D4s. Fearing the innovation ability of Nikon, I must leave some big words for Nikon D5s and Nikon D6, and otherwise I will run out of them. J I can only say that go and try it yourself and you will see that Nikon has come up with a total master piece.



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