Nikon users have been waiting a long time for an updated flagship DX-format DSLR. The company’s previous release, the 12MP D300S, with its 5fps shooting and maximum ISO of 3200, was way back in 2009 – a relative aeon in a fast-moving camera market. To put this into greater perspective, it came only nine months after the first mirrorless camera was announced. Fast-forward to January 2016, and Nikon unveiled the D500, its fastest ever DSLR with an APS-C sized sensor. It shares much of its spec with Nikon’s full-frame flagship, the D5, yet costs just a third of the price.
When the D500 was announced, there was some surprise that it would have a 20.9MP resolution, as the previous APS-C releases – the D5500 and D7200 – featured a 24.2MP sensor. Some critics may see this as regression, but fewer pixels means each individual photosite can be bigger, improving the light gathering potential of the sensor. This means the camera can offer better image quality with less noise at higher ISOs. Besides, 20MP is more than enough for the vast majority of users. Interestingly, the D500 actually shares the same sensor architecture as the D5, which has a 20.8MP resolution. Our feeling is that 20MP is the best overall trade-off between image quality and low light performance.
The D500’s 20.9MP APS-C sensor measures 23.5x15.7mm, and produces a resolution of 5568x3712p, more than enough for detailed A3 prints. Nikon’s DX format sensors have a 1.5x crop factor, giving lenses 50% greater reach than their stated focal lengths, getting you closer to your subject and making the D500 well-suited to both sports and wildlife. There’s no Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF) on the sensor, which should mean sharper images straight out of the camera.
The sensor is partnered by the EXPEED 5 image processor, allowing the D500 a native ISO range of 100-51,200, which can be expanded to a staggeringly wide 50-1,640,000. This is the highest sensitivity range of any APS-C DSLR to date. The top expanded sensitivity setting of the D3S was ISO 6400, while the D500 offers an ISO that’s 8 stops better, which shows just how far sensor technology has come in the past 7 years, and vastly improves the low light performance of Nikon’s top DX format DSLR.
As well as being the most sensitive, it’s also Nikon’s fastest APS-C DSLR too. The D500 has a shooting speed of 10fps, and incredibly it can capture a burst of 200 14-bit RAW files without pause. That’s 20 seconds of uninterrupted rapid shooting, enough to capture the 200m finals at this summer‘s Olympics! This speed and burst handling is another benefit of opting for a slightly reduced resolution. Smaller files mean quicker processing times, so you can shoot faster and longer bursts. Nikon has also engineered the mirror mechanism to be faster, reducing viewfinder blackout during such rapid bursts.
And it’s not just the shooting that’s blistering – the focusing operates at break-neck speed too. The D500 uses the same Multi-CAM 20k autofocus sensor module with phase detection as the flagship D5. It has 153 AF-points, and 99 of them are the more advanced cross-type sensors, offering almost entire frame coverage. The AF is sensitive down to -4EV at the central point, and -3EV for all other points, helping the camera to focus in challenging low light situations with speed and precision. The system is configurable for 153-point, 72-point and 25-point coverage settings in Continuous AF mode, and a new AF ASIC unit assigns maximum power to focusing at all times.
On the rear of the D500, there’s a 3.2in 2359k-dot tilting TFT touch-sensitive LCD. It has a 170º viewing angle and 100% frame coverage, which combined with the tilt mechanism it makes it easy to compose from challenging angles so you can get creative with composition. As the screen is touch-sensitive, you can scroll through and zoom into pics when reviewing images, just like using a smartphone. When in Live View, the screen can also be used to set the focus point, release the shutter and acquire preset Spot White Balance data with a tap of your finger. However, it’s worth noting that unlike some contemporary cameras, the touchscreen can’t be used to navigate the menu system.
The D500 is not only a superb stills shooter, but is also equally adept at capturing movies. It comes equipped with 4K video, which has a resolution of 3840x2160 pixels, and can record for 29 minutes and 59 seconds at 30p. That’s more impressive even than the D5. If you want a faster frame rate for making slow-motion video, then the D500 also records Full HD at 60p, and there’s in-camera Vibration Reduction to keep the effects of camera shake to a minimum. For audio monitoring, there are microphone and headphone ports, and there’s also a HDMI port for external recording.
There’s a range of connectivity options with the D500, as it has both Wi-Fi and NFC to connect the camera to smart devices. This allows you to control key camera functions via your phone, and tag images with location data. The D500 is also the first Nikon DSLR to come with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), making it compatible with SnapBridge. This Nikon app creates a constant, low-power connection between your camera and your smartphone. You can automatically sync images you shoot to your phone in your pocket, and these pics are re-sized to 1920x1080 pixels, an ideal size for posting to social media.
Build & handling
Constructed from a tough metal chassis, and fitted with magnesium alloy and carbon fibre parts, the D500 is both light at 860g (body only), yet reassuringly rugged. All joints, buttons and dials are fully weather-sealed, allowing the camera to operate in a wide range of challenging environments. Nikon hasn’t included a pop-up flash unit, which is found on most of their enthusiast and semi-pro DSLRs. This decision has improved the durability of the D500, and most of the camera’s intended market won’t mind that it is missing. In fact, lots of photographers tape down the pop-up flash as it’s rarely used and more likely to break.
In the hand, the D500 sits very comfortably, and the front finger grip is deep, just as on the D750. On the rear there’s a well-designed thumb rest for maximum purchase. There’s also a textured rubberised surface around the body enhancing the grip, even in wet conditions.
For media storage, the D500 comes with two card slots. There’s one for the speedy XQD cards, and another for the more universal SD UHS II cards. You can assign one to be the primary slot, while the second can be set to overflow, back-up or JPEG copies.
The button layout is ergonomic, and finally Nikon gets the location of its ISO button right – on the top-plate right next to the shutter button. This makes it easy to adjust all three exposure variables without taking your eye from the viewfinder. There’s also a new sub-selector joystick on the rear, making it easier to select the active AF point while framing up. The 3.2in LCD offers a fantastically crisp view, and the touchscreen is highly receptive, making operation a pleasingly tactile experience. When using Live View, the option to tap to set the focus makes shooting so much quicker, and the AF is responsive considering the D500 is using contrast-detect sensors to focus while the shutter is locked up.
Focusing is even more impressive when using the viewfinder, as the more reactive phase detection sensors lock onto subjects with stunning speed and accuracy, even in very low light. This is simply one of the best AF systems we have ever seen. It remains accurate even during rapid 10fps bursts, and the reduced viewfinder blackout time makes it easy to keep framing accurately on your subject when shooting an action sequence.
153 AF points
The D500 has 153 AF points, the largest number of any APS-C DSLR on the market. 99 of these are the more advanced cross-type sensors, and 55 are user selectable, with the rest operating as support points, giving wide frame coverage.
To make selecting the focus point even faster, there’s a new sub-selector joystick positioned just to the left of where your right thumb naturally sits when holding the camera at eyelevel. Moving the joystick up, down, left or right moves the active point to the desired position.
Excellent high ISO
When it comes to ISO performance the D500 raises the bar. Even at high sensitivities such as 25,600, images are relatively noise-free, and RAWs only require a small amount of processing to combat colour and luminance noise. Even at the lower expanded settings, images are still useable. It’s only when you push it to the upper limits that noise becomes a problem.
It’s been almost seven years since Nikon’s previous flagship DX-format camera was released, and it’s fair to say an update was more than overdue. Those who have been waiting for a top-spec semi-pro DSLR will not be disappointed, as the D500 delivers on every front. It handles brilliantly, and is fast, responsive and intuitive. The AF system is near faultless, and the ISO performance is the best of any APS-C DSLR on the market. What you’re getting is the performance of a pro sports DSLR in a more compact and consumer-friendly body. In fact, it’s difficult to find fault with it, without being unreasonably picky. At £1729, it’s not cheap, and will be a financial stretch too far for many enthusiasts. But for those who demand a market-leading performance but can’t justify buying the D5, this will be a really attractive investment.
- Body price: £1729 (As of July 2016)
- Sensor: 20.9MP APS-C
- Lens mount: Nikon F
- Frame rate: Up to 10fps
- Processor: Expeed 5
- Visit: www.nikon.co.uk
This review was first published in the July 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.