Nikon Makes a Camera for Soccer Moms
by Jim McGee
There is a whole category of
camera users who could give a hoot about ruggedness, matrix metering, or
hyper-fast motor drives. These folks recognize that the quality from most
point and shoot cameras leaves something to be desired and they want
They’re not buying a camera because they’re
passionate about photography. They’re buying a camera to capture their
kids first time at bat in Little League or take on family vacations. In
this category, ease of use and light weight triumph over speed and
features. Enter the N55.
Compared to the N65 currently in Nikon’s lineup,
the N55 has far fewer features and is lighter in weight. Compared to
competitors such as the Maxxum 5 or even its big brother the N65, the N55
gives users far less capability to experiment with more advanced
But those of us who see this as a drawback aren’t
looking at it from the perspective of the folks buying this camera. The
N55 is aimed at precisely those who don’t want to know about advanced
features, folks who want to let the camera worry about everything – and
since these folks are shooting print film there is a fair amount of
latitude built in.
Load the film and go is the way this camera is intended to be used; so that’s how I used it. I limited myself mostly to program (automatic) mode and the vari-program modes, occasionally using aperture priority mode for specific effects. Vari-programs are preset modes that allow the user to tell the camera in general terms what kind of subject they’re shooting so the camera can make more intelligent decisions about settings. On the N55 you can choose from portrait, landscape, close-up, sports continuous and night portrait modes.
Used this way the camera requires little photo
knowledge and will generally make sound decisions about shutter speed and
f-stop. You won’t have Dean Collins or Art Wolfe fearing for their jobs
but you won’t make any gross errors either. Exposures will be right in
the ballpark with print film and will yield results that will enable any
lab to make a good print.
The flash pops up automatically when needed in auto
or vari-program modes (except when you’re using landscape or sports
modes) and the auto focus assist light comes on to help the camera find
focus in low light conditions. This light also acts as a red eye reduction
light and, bless you Nikon, the light doesn’t strobe the way some others
The built in flash is relatively weak (as are most
on-camera flash units in this category) making it useful for family
portraits but little else. An interesting design decision was to make the
on-camera flash TTL, but if you use an optional speedlight with the N55
you’ll find that it will only work in non-TTL mode! You can speculate
that Nikon doesn’t expect the entry-level buyer to be in the market for
a $300 add-on speedlight and in fairness they’re probably right.
The most serious drawback to the built in flash is
that it doesn’t do a great job. Most flash systems tend to be a little
hot for my taste but the N55's flash produced noticeably blown out
highlights in many cases and a good number of our flash photos needed some
tweaking to get a good image. There is no flash compensation adjustment.
Should you decide that the meter might be fooled you
can set exposure compensation using a button adjacent to the shutter
release or bracketing with another small button adjacent to the lens.
While those of us with big hands are rarely fans of functions operated by
small buttons those on the N55 were easy to operate and were spaced well
apart to prevent accidental button pushes.
On a day at Longwood Gardens with my nieces I was
able to put the camera in program mode and let them experiment. They had a
ball taking pictures of each other and had no problems using the camera.
It’s that simple. The 28mm to 80mm G zoom lens included with the camera
provided reasonably sharp images and covers a useful range.
A nice feature showing up on most new cameras today
is the built in diopter adjustment. I never gave much thought to this
feature until recently. But suddenly as my eyes approach forty years
it’s a very important feature indeed.
Switching to a Sigma 70-300mm zoom lens for a little
league game produced pleasing close-ups of the future hall of famers, and
sports mode allowed me to take some “action” shots. The maximum
shutter speed of 1/2000th of a second is fast enough to freeze
the action. In this mode the camera automatically detects motion and
switches to continuous focus. Missing at this level however is Nikon’s
impressive focus tracking with lock on. This means that if something comes
between you and your subject, such as someone standing between you and a
base runner, the camera may momentarily lose focus. You can also choose
between three focus points by depressing a button adjacent to the shutter
release and rotating the command dial. A surprise though was that the N55
had problems driving this common consumer lens. More on that in a minute.
When swapping lenses you’ll notice the lens mount
on the N55 is polycarbonate rather than metal. There has been a lot of
hype written about metal vs. composite lens mounts in online newsgroups
and you may hear similar tales from behind the sales counter at the camera
store. This seems to be a particularly touchy issue among the “Nikon
Faithful” for some reason. In reality it doesn’t matter a bit.
If you’re a professional or serious amateur who is
constantly swapping lenses, or if you’re using 400mm f2.8 monsters, a
metal mount is a necessity. But many of the folks buying this camera will
buy it with one lens, either the 28-80mm lens in this kit or with
someone’s 28-200mm zoom. Once that lens is mounted they’ll likely
leave it mounted for the life of the camera. For those folks, or even for
those with two lenses who swap them occasionally, the composite mount is
more than adequate and will likely show no signs of wear for the life of
Speaking of lenses. It became obvious pretty quickly
that this camera was designed for use with lightweight G lenses. When
shooting with a Sigma 70-300mm lens (also sold as a Quantary) the camera
struggled not only to focus, but also to drive the heavier lens. It faired
better with a 28-105mm zoom but it really had trouble with an 80-400mm. I
concede that not many N55 buyers will be fitting $1,400 vibration
reduction lenses. But the 70-300mm Sigma is targeted at this market and
it’s not inconceivable that N55 owners would purchase such a lens.
Manuals are important in entry-level cameras, and in the past were often treated as something of an afterthought. The good news is that manuals have gotten much better and Nikon’s are no exception. The N55 manual is written with the novice photographer in mind. Among the useful features for the novice photography are the "tips" under each section. First is the explanation of how that feature works. Then a “tip” that explains what that feature can do for you. This format has become popular in how-to books recently and it works just as well in camera manuals.Summary
The N55 is a camera that is on target for the casual photographer who wants something more capable than a point and shoot. But if you have aspirations to get into photography as a hobby (or an addiction) you’ll hit the limits of this camera pretty quickly and would be better served by an N65, Maxxum 5, or Rebel.
Special thanks to our models for this article Ashley and Christina White the "giggle twins".