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Review Nikon D5: 3 million ISO

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Since March 2016, the Nikon D5 has been for sale for an impressive list price of €7109.-. Nikon’s new top model is intended for photographers and filmmakers who work under extreme conditions: built like a tank, 12 images (incl. AF) per second in an uninterrupted series of hundreds of RAW + JPG shots. A battery that just doesn’t die. And 4K video.

"However far your vision reaches,
Nikon D5 always goes one step further."

The new flagship of Nikon has a 20.7 megapixel FX sensor and can take pictures at extremely low ISO values (100,000 ISO, expandable to 3 million). The Nikon D5 distinguishes itself with a more sensitive AF module (down to -4 EV) and light meter (down to -3EV) than the Canon 1Dx II (-3 EV for AF and 0 EV for the exposure meter). Thanks to the sensitive light meter and AF module of the Nikon D5, you can photograph what you can no longer see with the naked eye. That is very unusual. Does low-light change into no-light photography with 3 million ISO?

Action photography? Nikon D5

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By profiling the Nikon D5 as a high-ISO camera, I would be selling this camera short. Professional photographers stand along the line at sporting events with a Nikon D4(s) equipped with a big telephoto lens. It is not without reason that the D5 was released shortly before the Olympic games. The first professionals have already switched to a Nikon D5; see, for example, the shots of Alonso’s crash during the last Grand Prix. With 12 images per second with AE/AF tracking, or 14 images per second with the mirror flipped up and without AF, the Nikon D5 is the fastest Nikon FX camera. In order to achieve this, Nikon has increased the calculating power of the processor, the AF makes use of its own dedicated processor, the buffer of the camera is increased, and the files are written onto an XQD card.

153 AF points and a gigantic buffer (200 NEF/RAW)

Relative to the Nikon D4s, enormous progress has been made with the AF. The time that it takes for the mirror to pop up and down is cut down, thanks to a new design of the mirror mechanism. A shorter black-out time is not only nicer for the nature or sport photographer who takes pictures at 12 frames per second: the tracking accuracy of the continuous AF is improved by it.

Both the number of AF points and the number of cross-type is enormously expanded in comparison with the Nikon D4s. On the Nikon D5, you can use 153 AF points (99 of which are cross-type) in combination with lenses with a brightness of f/5.6 or lower. If you use a telephoto lens with a teleconverter, then 15 of the AF continue to work through f/8. Nikon indicates that automatic focusing on subjects at the end of the image and AF when taking vertical shots are enormously improved, thanks to new cross-type sensors at the edge of the focal field.

AF is lightning fast, as it appears from our test.

The auto focus system now has its own AF processor, so that the AF continues functioning fast and accurately when the image processor begins to get busy. You benefit from that at the end of a long series of RAW shots that you shoot of a fast-moving subject, whereby AF speed and AF accuracy remain unaffectedly high.

In daylight, the Nikon D5 with the 24-70 mm f/2.8E in our test set-up focuses from infinity to one and a half meters in 0.125 seconds, including release delay. Even in the dark (-4 EV), the AF continues to function, although the AF at -4EV increases to one second. Day or night, the Nikon D5 delivers the fastest performance of all SLR cameras that we have reviewed. The high auto focus speed does not come at the cost of the AF accuracy.

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Nikon D5 + Nikon AF-S 24-70 mm f/2.8E @ 8000 ISO, f/2.8, 1/1000 sec photo: Joris van Kesteren / Weesp in Beeld

XQD: new standard for fast data transfer

After 166 RAW shots in 14 seconds, the buffer was full. The D5 writes to an XQD card so fast that you still take another 34 shots in 4 seconds before the camera needs a quick breather.

Nikon indicates that thanks to the use of XQD cards (and a USB 3 port), the data transfer goes 4x as fast. The Nikon D5 has a double card slot. Both slots are for the superfast XQD cards that are still little-used at the moment. Set up your budget not only for a Nikon D5, but also a couple hundred euros for the XQD cards. It is possible upon request and for a price to have one of the card slots converted to a CF card. I think you would be putting the cart before the horse that way, since the CF card is slower than an XQD card. With a Sony G-series 32 GB XQD card, I shot an uninterrupted series of 200 RAW shots in 20 seconds. The first 166 shots were made with a speed of 11.8 shots per second. Unimaginable.

Nikon D5: Build quality & features

On the basis of feedback from professional photographers, Nikon keeps making small adjustments to the lay-out of the buttons. The ISO button, for example, has thus been relocated to the top right on the camera, so that you can more easily adjust the ISO while photographing. The Mode button has switched spots with the ISO button and is now at the top left on the camera. The Nikon D5, just like previous Nikon SLR flagships, is built like a tank: a camera body made of metal, extra well-sealed against dust and water and weighs 1415 grams. Add on at least 1070 grams for a Nikon AF-S 24-70 mm f/2.8E ED VR and it will be clear that not everyone will choose a Nikon D5. It is, however, not without reason that this camera is so solidly built.

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What camera takes 3800 shots on 1 battery charge?

It’s extra important for professional photographers that your camera keeps working under the most extreme conditions. You don’t even want to think about being forced to stop photographing in the middle of the night in the freezing cold in Syria because of a dying battery. The chance is small that you are going to come back the next day to try it again. Nikon devoted a great deal of attention to reducing the energy use, which translates into spectacularly long battery life. Despite the fact that the Nikon D5 has to process 20% more pixels than the Nikon D4s – and does it more quickly as well – the lifespan of the battery has increased from an already not too limited 3000 to nearly 3800 shots. Great work. That is nearly three times the number of shots as the recently announced Canon 1Dx II makes on 1 battery charge. With the battery lifespan specifications according to the CIPA norm, you have to take into account that if you make multiple video recordings, the usage possible on 1 battery charge is significantly shorter. Even if you assume that this will exhaust the battery sooner, you still always get more than 1,500 on 1 battery charge with the Nikon D5.

There are many applications whereby a good battery can be of critical importance: long time-lapse shots, for example, where the camera has to operate for a long time without you having the chance to change the battery in the interim. And built-in GPS is a function that you find on few cameras due to the load on the energy use. The Nikon D5 and D5300 are exceptions to the rule.

192008 D5 top d896b0 original 1452006347

Screen and viewfinder

The effective viewfinder enlargement of the Nikon D5 is 0.72. That is 3% more than most cameras with a full-frame sensor.

What appeals to me about the design of the professional SLR camera flagships is the redundancy of various buttons, including the release button, so that you can use the camera just as easily in portrait mode as in landscape mode. It takes some getting used to the first time you hold a camera like this. And there’s a new adjustment period when you go back to photographing with your own camera after using one for a while. Another pleasant plus point is the big, clear viewfinder.

The Nikon D5 does not have a tilting or rotating screen, but it does have a beautifully bright touchscreen. The resolution of the screen is 1.5x higher than the screen of the Nikon D4s. for a professional camera, a touchscreen is exceptional. While, thanks to the popularity of the iPad and smartphone, everyone is accustomed to swiping while reviewing images, it is the professionals who operate their cameras with a small push-button on the back of the body. The Nikon D5 changes that, with a touchscreen. You can, however, not yet use the touchscreen for menus. It is intended for selecting an AF point in Liveview and for reviewing shots (swiping, enlarging and shrinking).

Nikon D5 Image quality

The Nikon D5 can be used in the FX mode (5568 x 3712), in a 1:2 mode (4640 x 3088), a 5:4 mode (4640 x 3712), and a DX mode (3648 x 2432). If you use the Nikon D5 in the DX-modus, then the AF points cover practically the entire frame. That’s a wet dream for many photographers of small birds. Thanks to an extra crop factor of 1.5, you bring the subject closer and following a moving subject with a telephoto lens is made a good deal simpler.

 

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Nikon D5 + 24-70 mm f/2.8E @ 70 mm, ISO 12,800, 1/1250 sec (crop) 
The “limitation” to a 20-megapixel sensor makes it possible to shoot an uninterrupted series of 200 RAW shots. This resolution is high enough for a high-quality A4 print. In comparison with the Nikon D810 (36 megapixels), the pixels of the Nikon D5 are larger. At pixel level, the signal-to-noise ratio of the Nikon D5 is lower than that of, for example, a Nikon D810. In print, the differences are very small: both full-frame sensors collect the same amount of light. There has also been technological progress made with, for example, micro-lenses in front of the pixels, gapless sensors and better electronics, but we have reached the point where this is not the most important argument for buying a more modern camera.
The resolution remains remarkably constant at high ISO values (up to ~12,800 ISO). At ISO values over 3200 ISO, many cameras lose their high resolution, and because the resolution of the Nikon D5 remains so constant, at ISO values, the Nikon D5 beats out a great many cameras with a higher number of megapixels.
Over ISO 12,800, the noise increases, and you will have to devote more attention to noise suppression (read: edit RAW images yourself) in order to keep the resolution as unaffected as possible. As is true for practically all cameras, the highest ISO settings are only intended for extreme situations where there is no other choice. In practice, and certainly if you make smart use of image stabilization, you will seldom go over 12,800 ISO.
For the color reproduction, I have not observed any real differences between the Nikon D5 and the Nikon D4s. The automatic white balance delivers over-saturated colors for artificial light shots, but that is the case with practically all cameras.

Dynamic range

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Heavily edited RAW shot: Nikon D5 + Nikon AF-S 24-70 mm f/2.8E @ 8000 ISO, f/2.8, 1/1000 sec photo: Joris van Kesteren/Weesp in Beeld

Dynamic range is a point on which Nikon and Sony cameras (of which it is said that the sensors come from the same factory) are visibly better than other cameras. For a regular shot taken in daylight, that difference cannot be seen. But when taking HDR shots, you are spared a great deal of misery if you have a camera with a high dynamic range. When lightening a dark shot, many more details and much less noise or banding and many fewer artifacts appear. In comparison with other Nikon cameras, the Nikon D5 (and the D4s) distinguishes itself with a strikingly high dynamic range at ISO values of 6400 ISO and higher. In our Imatest measurements at low ISO values, the dynamic range of the Nikon D5 came out a bit lower than that of the Nikon D750 or the Nikon D810. At the high ISO values, the Nikon D5 and the Sony A7s II have a clearly higher dynamic range.

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Nikon D5 + Nikon AF-S 24-70 mm f/2.8E @ 8000 ISO, f/2.8, 1/1000 sec photo: Joris van Kesteren/Weesp in Beeld

Noise

By utilizing both the color filter and micro-lenses on the Nikon D5 without space between the pixels (“gapless”), Nikon has made gains on the pixel level in terms of signal-to-noise ratio and dynamic range. With an ISO range that is expandable to 3 million ISO, you can take photos by starlight. In practice, few photographers will go higher than ISO 12,800, I expect, because you still have little trouble there in the jpg files with noise or loss of sharpness due to noise suppression. At ISO 100,000 you do see that, and the colors also deteriorate. When testing high-end SLR cameras, I always take pleasure in the remarkably clean files at the lowest ISO value. 50 ISO not only produces very beautiful, noise-free shots, it is also ideal for playing with background blur in bright sunlight. ISOrang290

4K video and more...

Nikon makes cameras for photographers. At the same time, they recognize at Nikon that increasing numbers of professional photographers earn their money by shooting not only photos during an assignment, but video material as well. Should you have a Nikon D4(s), then video can be a good argument for switching.


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The resolution is increased—4K UHD (3840 x 2160) with 30 images per second—or the number of images per second is increased—Full HD (1920x1080 with 60 fps).
It’s a shame that the shooting time for a 4K shot is limited to 3 minutes. That is balanced by the fact that it is possible to take a picture (as long as the resolution is 4K) while shooting video.
For nature photographers who sporadically make a video recording, it’s appealing to take 4K shots in the mode without pixel binning. The extra crop factor that you get because you only use the center of the sensor for the 4K shots brings the subject a bit closer to you.
With internal storage, 4K and full HD (8-bit 4:2:0) shots are stored at a bitrate of 144 Mbps. An anti-pull lock for the HDMI cable is delivered with the Nikon D5, so that you can connect the D5 (8-bit 4:2:2 YcbCr clean HDMI) to an external recorder, like the Atomos Shogun.

USB3, HDMI, headphones and microphone connection

If you seriously want to use the Nikon D5 for video purposes, the headphones, microphone and HDMI connection are an obvious must. If you prefer to link your camera to a PC, instead of moving the XQD card, then it’s great that the Nikon D5 is fitted with a USB 3 connection.
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Big buffer + XQD: Seeing is believing

There are some cameras with which you can take uninterrupted jpg shots, until the memory card is full. The Nikon D5 is among this select group. But there are many fewer cameras with which you can shoot a long series of RAW or RAW + jpg shots. In the video above, I illustrate by shooting a series of RAW + jpg shots on 1 XQD card that is already rather full. You can hear that for the first 10 seconds, the shooting rate remains high and constant, but that after that, the number of shots per second decreases. With an empty XQD card, I shot a series of 200 RAW shots before the buffer was full.

Conclusion Nikon D5 review

Would I buy a Nikon D5? Well, no. I am not a professional photographer, and I happen to have more affinity for landscape photography. I therefore prefer a Nikon D810. For action photography, I would sooner choose a Nikon D750, due to the weight and price difference. The difference between the D5 and the D750 I would spend on a fast telephoto lens.
But if you cannot afford to miss a shot and if you want to come home from the upcoming Olympic Games with distinctive action or no-light shots? Then a Nikon D5 significantly increases the chance that your dream of that one classic shot turning out.
192050 03 D5 ambience 3 eb5c59 original 1452006868
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Pro
Year:2016
Overall score:7.5
Resolution:7.0
Dynamic Range:8.1
Noise:9.0
Color:8.3
Whitebalance:6.0
Megapixels:21
Sensor:FF
Sensor magn.:0.72
fps:12
Weight (gram):1235
MSRP NL (Euro):3549

Pros

  • Fast, versatile AF (153 AF points and 99 cross-type sensors), with its own processor, that still focuses in low light
  • ISO range 100 to 102,400 (expandable to Hi-5: ~ ISO 3 million)
  • 12 bps with AE/AF tracking
  • Extremely big buffer for taking series shots
  • High image quality: both photo and video
  • AF also works in the dark
  • High signal-to-noise ratio and big dynamic range at high ISO values
  • 4K video and Full HD at 60p
  • Built like a tank: dust and splashwater tight
  • Built-in GPS
  • The same buttons in horizontal and vertical mode

Cons

  • Screen does not tilt or rotate
  • Only XQD card slots, no CF or SD
  • 1415 grams (body only) and list price of 7109 euros

As far as image quality (noise, dynamic range, resolution) are concerned, I find the differences between the Nikon D4s and the Nikon D5 at ISO values of 6400 or lower are not so great that I would replace a D4S in order to get more pixels. But speed, the improved AF and the high ISO performance are quite good arguments for possibly wanting to replace a Nikon D4s with a Nikon D5. The video options (4K!) of this camera also increase its usability significantly in comparison with its predecessor.

The Nikon D5 is the fastest Nikon available today. Thanks to the lightning-fast new XQD cards, the large buffer is emptied so quickly that you can shoot up to 200 14-bit RAW shots in a row before the buffer is full. That means waiting on a full buffer is now also a thing of the past for photographers who shoot in RAW.

Ivo Freriks
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.

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