The Nikon D500 is the newest APS-C/DX-format digital SLR camera from Nikon. Nikon's DX flagship was unexpectedly announced at the beginning of 2016 and has been available since April in the Netherlands. The target group for this successor of the Nikon D300 is the pro/semi-pro action or nature photographer. The body with a 21 mp sensor is namely super-fast, both as far as the auto focus is concerned and as far as the number of frames per second concerns. In addition, the Nikon D500 is equipped with an enormous buffer, with which you can shoot an uninterrupted series of hundreds of RAW + jpg shots. It might be that everything you would want is on it. And the construction is very solid. We tested the camera with a number of different Nikon lenses and were impressed. Why?
D500 compared with other Nikon DSLRs
The Nikon D500 is in fact a whole new camera in which all the latest developments are included. It is the top-of-the-line APS body from Nikon, intended for (semi-)professional photographers. The comparison with the ‘lower’ APS-C model, the Nikon D7200 – more megapixels but less advanced AF, not nearly as big a buffer and fewer frames per second – is therefore flawed. The Nikon D7200 is a real consumer camera: lighter specifications and less solidly built than a Nikon D5. As far as build quality is concerned, the Nikon D500 is reminiscent of the D5. We would rather compare the D500 with the Full-Frame Nikon D750:
The D500 is an APS-C camera with a crop factor of 1.5. More telephoto, but less wide angle
The D500 has fewer megapixels (20.9 versus 24.9)
The D500 has a faster shutter (1/8000 versus 1/4000)
The D500 has a much higher frame rate (10 frames per second versus 6) and can keep that up for much longer
The maximum ISO value is two stops higher (51200 versus 12800) as well as expandable by 5 (2) stops
The AF system is faster, has three times as many AF points and is more light-sensitive
The D500 can film in 4K (although with a crop factor of 2.25)
It has Bluetooth and NFC connectivity
But: it has no built-in flash...
...and the D500 is bigger, heavier and about 400 euros more expensive than the D750
The image quality of APS-C and Full-Frame (color reproduction, signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic range) are both so good that we hope that the infighting between FX and DX will stop. You can say with confidence that the Nikon D500 is a fully fledged SLR for the (semi-)professional nature, sports and action photographer. For that target group, the crop factor matters little; most of the work is done with telephoto lenses. And the phenomenal shooting speed of the Nikon D500, which we will come back to, is a stellar plus point. The D5 is also an option for the sport photographer, of course, but it is several times more expensive. For the landscape photographer, the somewhat less expensive D750 looks like a better alternative. More pixels, and more possibilities for wide-angle photography due to the full-frame sensor.
Anyone who already has full-frame lenses does not sell themselves short with the purchase of a D500: you can use them without problems. Not every camera brand can match Nikon on that.
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The D500 is not as heavily built as, for example, a D5 or a D810, but it can hold its own. At 860 g, with battery and memory card but without lens, is certainly not a lightweight camera. Everything looks terrific and is well sealed. The 3.2-inch LCD screen can flip up and down but cannot turn. It is a touchscreen, but many functions cannot be operated with it. In the familiar Nikon style, the buttons are spread over every side of the body, and the logic is not obvious. Only those who already have a Nikon will quickly become accustomed to it. Image quality, ISO, white balance, light measurement, auto focus, drive – they all have their own buttons. New for Nikon is the joystick with which you can move the AF point; Canon has had something like that for some time. There is a really inexhaustible number of options for assigning specific functions to buttons. We don’t get all that excited about that – for us, the factory settings are fine – but we can imagine that the heavy professional user will like it a great deal.
The Nikon D500 is equipped with the same enormously versatile AF system as the D5, Nikon’s top model. We are not sports photographers. On DPreview there is a comprehensive review of the options of the Nikon AF system in practice for sports photographers. With a full 153 focus points and 99 cross-type sensors, this AF system offers coverage across nearly the entire width of the viewfinder image. The AF sensitivity to -4 LW at the middle point and -3 LW (ISO 100, 20 oC) for all other points delivers spectacular performance in low light. We tested it thoroughly: the AF still works when you can no longer see your hand in front of your face. Fast-moving subjects can be tracked with great precision, and even subjects on the edge of the frame are well detected. All 153 focus points are usable with lenses with an open aperture of f/5.6 or larger, and the 15 most central focus points work with an effective aperture of f/8. There is a large number of options for the selection of the AF point. We are dedicated users of the Group AF mode in which a number of bordering AF fields are combined. With 3D tracking, you follow moving subjects. We photographed oncoming cars on the freeway in the continuous mode, picked out one in the corner of the frame and could follow it practically effortlessly until it had reached the other side of the frame. Like every professional camera, the D500 also has the option to rule out any front focus/back focus with fine tuning. According to a colleague website, you can let the camera itself calculate that fine tuning, but we could not find that option in the manual!
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Not only is the auto focus lightning fast, the D500 can rattle them off like a machine gun. It scored a maximum of 10 images per second and does that not only in JPEG (it can do more there) but also in 14-bit uncompressed RAW. For that, you do have to use a Sony XQD card. The camera barely slows down if you continue shooting and only stops at a maximum number of shots that can be set through the menu. The highest setting value is 200. In our test, we did not manage the full 10 fps, but 200 shots at 8.6 fps we think is also impressive. A series like that takes 17 seconds! In order to write all that data, the camera does need several minutes, and you do not have any image on the LCD screen during that time. Anyone who does not want to invest in a XQD card can also use an SD card. With a not-terribly-fast class-4 8GB memory card, at 8.6 fps, we managed 23 RAW+JPEG large/fine images in 12.8 seconds. This kind of use does put a heavy burden on the battery. The D500 has an EN-EL15 battery with 1900 mAh that we are familiar with from the D750. We wonder whether an even heavier battery would not be out of place. Of course you can also buy the external MB-17 hand grip, which offers space for extra batteries. Aside from the continuous-high mode, the camera also has a continuous-low mode, a silent mode, and a continuous-silent mode.
Practical experience Nikon D500
Screen and viewfinder
The D500 has, as we mentioned, an LCD screen of 3.2 inches that folds up and down. The number of pixels is 2.36 million. It is a touchscreen, but does not turn. With the use of Live View, you can move the AF point with the screen. (If you use the optical viewfinder, it’s much handier to do that with the joystick of course.) The optical viewfinder has an enlargement of 0.7. You have ample choice of what information you want to see in the viewfinder.
'Not afraid of the dark'
The D500 is not afraid of the dark, Nikon wrote in their press release. That is right on target. The camera namely has an impressive ISO range up to 51200, which is also expandable by 5 stops, so up to 1,640,000. We will come back to the noise performance at those high ISOs a bit later. It is important that both the light measurement and the AF keep on working in extremely low light, where a few comparable cameras that we ran through our tests failed. Take a look at the diagram in the section about auto focus above. For the light measurement, Nikon gives a lower limit of -3 LW in the matrix measurement mode, and -4 LW for the AF focusing. In practice, you can no longer see your hand in front of your face then. In the Live View mode, the camera still focuses with less light than in the viewfinder mode; that can be explained because the AF sensor naturally has many fewer image points than the ‘big’ sensor. Of course the focus does slow down in extremely low light. And for those who like to work in the dark: the D500 has illuminated buttons. That’s another thing that the D5 has taken over from the D4.
The D500 can shoot videos in 1080 60p quality (Full HD) but also in 4K 30p (UHD). In the latter case, the camera only uses the inner part of the sensor (3840x2160 pixels). Crop factor on crop factor – in total, 2.25. You are doomed to telephoto work with that. But that might not be a problem for the target audience of sports and action photographers. There are no dual pixels as with some competitors: focusing is done during filming with contrast detection. That is sometimes a bit jumpy. You also hear incidental noises, although there are currently special Nikon lenses that are not bothered by that (AF-P type Nikkors). Automatic ISO possible to Hi 5, and you can set the maximum ISO values that you want to work with. The camera offers uncompressed, ‘clean’ HDMI output.
For the professional photography, connectivity is critical: the shots have to get to the client as fast as possible. The D500 has a number of options for that. There is no network cable like the D5 has, but there is a USB port and an HDMI-C connection. There is built-in Wi-Fi, NFC and Bluetooth. With SnapBridge – a Nikon app that uses the Bluetooth Low Energy technology in order to maintain a continuous connection between the camera and a smartphone or tablet, with low power consumption – you can view images on your smartphone. The technique is not intended for sending large numbers of files; the connection is too slow for that. For fast wireless operation, you will have to buy a wireless transmitter. On several forums, it is reported that the SnapBridge option uses quite a bit of power, which you can limit by putting the camera into ‘flight mode’ (turning transmitters off). That option is hidden deep in the set-up menu.
Image quality Nikon D500
The camera scores very well on the point of resolution (sharpness, resolving power) and gives little up to full-frame colleagues with comparable numbers of pixels. A difference in sharpness from pictures taken with a Nikon D7200, D5500 or D3300 (all with 24 megapixels) – depending on the subject – cannot or practically cannot be seen. We measure the dynamic range with the help of Imatest and a test card with an extremely high dynamic range, where, as we see it, the black areas contain the most important information. In theory, a RAW file can contain 14 stops (Nikon cameras have a 14-bit sensor). DxO measures a dynamic range for Nikon cameras that lies in that neighborhood.
In practice, you lose dynamic range due to noise in the extremely dark parts. With a low signal-to-noise ratio (1), we measure a dynamic range at 100 ISO of 12.4 stops. For a photographer, the dynamic range with a signal-to-noise ratio of 10 is the most important indicator for the usable dynamic range. At 100 ISO, that amounted to 8.24 stops. Even at high ISO values, the dynamic range of the Nikon D500 is impressive. But the higher the ISO value, the lower the dynamic range of a sensor. That applies for all cameras, and we hope to be able to devote more comprehensive article to that shortly. The usable dynamic range of the Nikon D500 is spectacular: the lightest and darkest parts that can be shown next to each other. The D500 breaks all records here for an APS-C camera.
The color reproduction of thee D500 is nicely neutral. Of course there is a pile of settings for the white balance. Two additions to the auto-mode menu are new: “retain cool colors” and “retain warm colors”. The idea is that you can still see the color of the original light source even when you otherwise edit the white balance. In our practice test, we found the differences to be very small. If it were critical, we would rather use the white balance bracket.
Above you can see a series of 100% image excerpts from a series of jpg shots made at different ISO values. The pixel density per mm2 is naturally higher with an APS-C sensor than with a full-frame sensor; you would expect that to lead to more noise at the same ISO, but we noticed little of that. We also took a peek at the D810: that has fewer pixels in the DX cut-out than a D500, and certainly in low light it can’t match the image quality of a D500. In particular, the lowest ISO values produced a very beautiful, natural image.
Even so, the Nikon D500 scored a bit lower in our Imatest measurements than the Nikon D7200 as far as the signal-to-noise ratio is concerned. In comparison with other camera brands, Nikon applies less color noise reduction with the standard jpg settings in jpg files that are saved directly in the camera, which you see in the picture taken at 6400 ISO. At the very highest ISO values, the RAW files clearly show a green film, which is filtered away in the jpg file.
Noise suppression in modern cameras is so advanced that you see practically no noise at ever-higher ISO values in jpg files or RAW files that you open with the standard settings (sharpening and noise suppression) in Lightroom or Photoshop. You get more information by setting sharpening and noise suppression (including the color noise) in Lightroom to 0. The photo below is a 100% excerpt made with 16,000 ISO because of the movement of the bee and the bad weather. The noise reduction was off. There is clear color noise, but overall, the colors have remained fresh. With some editing, this is a usable picture.
Nature and sports photographers will choose a faster shutter time and higher ISO values. Below is a practice shot made at 800 ISO.
Nikon D500 jpg @ 800 ISO, Move your mouse over the illustration for a 100% image excerpt.
Conclusion review of Nikon D500
We were very impressed by this camera. The fact that it ‘only’ has an APS-C sensor does not appear to be a problem in practice. The image quality gives nothing up to many full-frames, and the body has become lightning fast. The specifications give almost nothing up to those of the top model D5. We can also heartily recommend it to a professional action or sport photographer. We can imagine that many pros will start using this body next to their D5 as a second camera. For those who primarily photograph landscapes, this is probably not the best choice: they are better off with a D810 or a D750. In the latter case, you have some money left over for good glass work.
APS-C = free telephoto effect
High image quality, in particular the dynamic range
Lightning-fast AF and a great many frames per second
Everything is on it
Filming in 4K
APS-C = less wide-angle effect
For an APS-C camera, big and heavy
No built-in flash
Author: Ivo Freriks
With Camera Review Stuff I hope to make a modest contribution to the pleasure that you get from photography. By testing cameras and lenses in the same way, evluating the results and weighing up the pros and cons, I hope to help you find the right camera or lens.