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Shooting fitness at night with the Nikon D5

For a recent personal shoot I was lucky enough to borrow a Nikon D5 from those nice folk at NPS. Having shot a D4 for the past four years, I was keen to see how the D5 handled, particularly at night in very low light.

The D5 handles really well – but then I’d expect nothing less from the current top of the range Nikon, costing as it does over 5 grand. The focus tracking is frankly the best I’ve ever used on any camera ever, and little things like the touch screen LCD seem like fluff until you’ve used them, and then they become something you really miss when you have to hand it back!

Cristiona on the Nikon D5
Shot on the D5 with a 50mm f1.4. ISO 5000, f3.2, 1/100s. Just a touch of flash from a silver brolly above Cris, held by Jake my assistant.

Highly Sensitive.

What I was really concerned with was the high-ISO performance though. This shoot was an idea I’d been mucking about with for much of this year. I planned to shoot it back in March, but got mucked about by personnel issues, and since it needs to be done at night, I had to wait until Autumn to avoid shooting at midnight! I was looking for bright coloured lights contrasting with the dark of the night sky, concrete, glass, and steel – all to use as a backdrop to some sporty fitness action.

If you shoot at high ISO, besides getting noise, you also get reduced contrast, and reduced saturation. Since I was keen to get strong colours in the lights, and nice deep blacks, I was keen to avoid this. I know contrast and saturation can be added back in Photoshop, but I’d rather there was some there to start with! In order to keep the mood and atmosphere of the street and office lights, I also kept the flash power down very low. I used flash on about 2/3 of the shots – mostly to lift shadows on Cristiona’s face. It’s very easy to look at someone under light conditions like this, and think they look fine, only to examine the image on the computer and realise that the shadows are very unflattering.

Shot on the D5
D5, ISO 3200, 85mm f1.4 @ f2.0, 1/125s. There’s just a dab of flash coming from a silver brolly above Cristiona

Focusing the D5

I’ve mentioned before how old-fashioned I am about things like focusing (I stick to back button focus, as I was taught that way back in the 90s – focusing and shooting should be 2 separate operations!) but I do actually use swanky new fangled things like focus tracking. My D4 does a very good job, but like any camera it struggles as someone gets closer – I shoot lots of running shots, and the last few frames in a burst are generally not sharp enough. The D5 wasn’t 100% perfect, but was significantly better in this regard. The focus point really seemed to lock on to the part of the frame I was after, and not lose it until Cristiona was almost on top of the camera. Bear in mind that I’m also shooting in low-light, and I should imagine it will do an even better job in broad daylight. The only time I struggled was when I shot the reflection image below. There was simply no light on Cris at all apart from the flash, so I ended up resorting to that old faithful tactic of getting Jake to shine a torch on Cris’ face, then turn it off when I shot. Yup, still old-fashioned – I’ll always find a way!

Reflections with the D5
The light on Cristiona is only coming from the off-camera flash, so a torch was needed to allow me to focus. Even the D5 with an 85mm f1.4 struggled in complete darkness!

The Catch

So? Have I bought one? Nope, not yet. I always have to justify any serious capital expense (and the D5 is more than 5 grand, last time I looked) and whilst it’s an awesome piece of kit, it’s not a total game-changer compared to my D4. That said, my D4 is nearly 4 years old, and bits of it are honestly being held together with gaffer tape at the moment. The last time I submitted an image to one of those online shutter count websites, it had taken more than 180 000 images. Let’s see how I feel when I pass the quarter million mark, and I’m just using willpower to keep the old girl together!

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