One day after a week of testing the camera back a month ago, I said that the Nikon D500 was a welcome focus on “reliable” instead of “revolutionary.” I said this because though the D500 did not seem to do anything special on paper, it felt like a camera that was greater than the sum of its parts. In the last five or so years, we have become so focused on “new” or “jaw dropping” from cameras that we had become content with tradeoffs. “You get amazing ISO, but the autofocus is bad and the photos are small,” or “The focus is revolutionary, but the quality of the photos is lacking.” When we look at those cameras we were willing to look past misgivings in exchange for something shiny, and in retrospect I am left with a sense that… it wasn’t worth it. This feeling is expanded upon after using the Nikon D500, a camera that does absolutely everything right and performs exactly like a camera should: like an extension of the shooter’s body and lets us get lost in capturing an image, instead of a tool that constantly reminds us that it’s there.
Build Quality, Features & Handling
From a top down look at specs, the D500 is as follows:
- 20.9MP DX-Format CMOS Sensor
- EXPEED 5 Image Processor
- 3.2″ 2,539k-Dot Tilting Touchscreen LCD
- 4K UHD Video Recording at 30 fps
- Multi-CAM 20K 153-Point AF System
- Native ISO 51200, Extend to ISO 1640000
- 10 fps Shooting for Up to 200 Frames
- Built-In Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and NFC
- 180k-Pixel RGB Sensor and Group Area AF
- In-Camera Time Lapse, Up to 9999 Frames
These are all really great features, and welcome ones to a sub-$2000 camera. The body takes both XQD as well as SD (one slot for each), but I highly recommend using the XQD. With it, the D500 can fire 10 frames per second continuously for up to 200 frames, and immediately access the images less than a second after taking them. The combination of the EXPEED 5 processor and the incredible 440 MB/s transfer rate of the XQD means there is virtually non waiting time between getting the shot and reviewing it. This is just one example of how the camera gets out of its own way and just lets you shoot and use it.
As far as video features go, the video does look good, but there are limited options for anyone used to a cinema camera. No focus peaking, is a real bummer, but I don’t think the D500 is supposed to be a video camera. On the contrary, it acts like a still camera that can take great video if you ask it to, and that’s just fine with me. I don’t plan to make films with the D500, but that is not saying you couldn’t.
The D500 feels good. It has a deep grip, comfortable controls, familiar interface, and a solid weightiness that doesn’t fall over the edge onto heavy. I am not a primarily Nikon shooter, using a mix of Canon and Panasonic for my photography and video production business in San Francisco, but picking up the D500 was easy and un-intimidating.
Much like my favorite feature of the D750, the D500 has a wonderful grip to it. It fits into your hand so well that it feels like it’s always been there. It’s a comfortable camera to hold, a feature that it seems we are becoming less and less focused on in this industry. When you’re out on a hike searching for that perfect shot of a bald eagle. or holding the camera for long periods during a sporting event, a camera should not feel cumbersome. The D500 feels right in hand, and it’s a benefit of the body design that I cannot understate.
The D500 comes equipped with several different autofocus modes for different purposes (more on that later), and they can be quickly accessed and adjusted on the fly with your left, lens-support hand, right beneath the lens connection point. It’s a smart design location and lets you quickly manage how your camera is focusing to your environment without taking your eye off your subject.
The tilt screen, identical in physical design to the one you would find on the D750, is a welcome addition. Also welcome? The touch screen. It simply makes sense to touch the monitor when you’re looking for something in the menu, or wanting to zoom in on a photo to check sharpness. It’s a responsive, bright and incredibly sharp monitor that can tilt to match whatever vertical position you find yourself. It can’t help you if you wanted horizontal viewpoints, but it’s becoming rather common to ignore that on higher end cameras, for whatever reason. Some claim that the vari-angle monitor doesn’t “look” professional, so it’s left off. Others say it’s due to the durability of the vari-angle, but my Panasonic GH4 would like to disagree. Whatever the case may be, the D500 tilt screen is still nice, and the touch features are outstanding.
I mentioned the monitor being incredibly sharp, and I do want to hammer that point home: the screen looks really, really good. It’s as true to the actual photo as a computer monitor and it’s on the back of your camera.
If I had to make one gripe, it’s one that isn’t just about what Nikon is doing, but the whole industry. The way that camera software interfaces are designed makes very little sense in the modern age. With literally hundreds of options and thousands of different ways to customize your camera, the “list” view we get in the Menu is disgraceful. Many of the best features of the camera are hidden in confusingly labeled lists and organized in bizarre ways. When someone does show you where a particular feature is located, it’s kind of an “ah ha” moment when you start to question your own intelligence and inability to locate something.
But it’s not you, it’s the menu.
Hopefully we’ll start to see someone innovate a menu system that makes sense in the modern digital age. Until then, this is a fight that I can’t just pick with Nikon, but everyone who makes cameras.
When I first picked up the D500, there was one area I was never concerned with: image quality. After testing, I have to say that opinion has not changed, as the D500 makes for some gorgeous images in all variety of lighting conditions.
The sharpness, color rendition and “quality” of images taken with the D500 are exceptional. I can’t find anything to complain about here.
Let’s take a very close look at that first image and examine how the sensor treats shadow gradation, a place where some cameras have a difficult time blending shades of darks into one another.
You’ll notice that as the shade of black goes from lighter to dark, the transition is smooth and inperceptible. This is exactly what we are looking for here, so the D500 does not disappoint. Though this is some serious pixel peeping, what this kind of smooth gradation translates to for the casual viewer are images that just look better at a glance, with shadows and dynamic lighting effects appearing more realistic both on screen and printed.
Note: Feel free to download and compare all the images here if you like, as they are all at original resolution.
What is perhaps most surprising is how good the D500 is at highlight recovery. I come into reviews expecting to lament this category, but the D500 shocked me with how well it was able to bring back blown out areas of a shot. For example, below I burned out the highlights to almost destroyed:
But bringing everything back to perfect exposure in post was totally painless:
The background and blown out areas of the fur all came back, which is not only unexpected, but awesome.
Shadow recovery was acceptable, nothing to blow you away, but still manages to do quite well. Here are two images that have underexposed areas:
And the recovered versions:
You’ll notice that the recovery did introduce a fair bit of noise, so keep that in mind when you think you might have to pull shadows. The sensor is clearly able to get detail out of black areas, but it doesn’t do so totally flawlessly.
Next, let’s check out ISO. The D500 surprised me again, offering some really stellar performance despite the DX sensor (I say “despite” because an APS-C sensor still elicits sneers from those who might consider themselves “purists” and scoff at the idea of using a crop sensor; I for one have no problem with smaller sensors). As expected, low ISO up to around 1000 performed as well as one could expect, but it’s when we started to get very high that I got excited for the D500.
First take a look at what I consider to be pretty spot on, ISO 640. No noise, no pixelation, and no color shifting.
We will use that as our baseline of expectation. So let’s jump to ISO 6400, with that in mind:
Not bad right? Yes, of course there is discernible noise, but it is by no means unacceptable. What’s more, is that it doesn’t escalate much at all until ISO 16000:
I would say the “ceiling” for ISO performance on this camera is 12800, with a hesitant recommendation that you could go as high as 16000 before the image gets really gross looking.
But 12800 is really, really high. That’s a spectacular performance for any modern camera, especially one with an APS-C sensor. Absolutely solid performance here from the D500.
As mentioned earlier, the D500 has multiple autofocus options that are designed for use in a variety of situations. The camera has a ridiculous 153-point AF system that forms a wide rectangle across the frame, with minimal spacing between each AF area, including 99 cross-type sensors for improved subject recognition, and 55 of the points are selectable for greater compositional freedom. Benefitting the use of super telephoto lenses and teleconverters, 15 of the points, including 9 selectable points, are compatible with an effective aperture of f/8 and all 153 points support working with effective apertures of f/5.6 or brighter.
Two AF Modes:
- AF-S activates AF servo once to lock-in focus and is recommended for stationary subjects.
- AF-C activates AF servo continuously and is recommended for moving subjects.
Five AF-area modes:
- Single point AF: One point, selected by the user
- Dynamic-area AF: adds 9-point, 21-point and 51-point placement. With each option, the selected number of AF points works together to keep detecting moving subjects.
- 3D-tracking: keeps following moving subjects, moving the AF point for you so you can concentrate on composition.
- Auto-area AF: automatically chooses the AF point based on the most appropriate human face using face detection.
- Group-area AF: the camera focuses using a group of five focus points (the center one is not shown when the Group-area AF focus points are illuminated) selected by the user. This reduces the risk of the camera focusing on the background instead of on the main subject. Choose this mode for subjects that are difficult to photograph using a single focus point. If faces are detected in AF-S focus mode, the camera will give priority to portrait subjects; or when no faces are present, focuses on the closest subject to the camera.
Each of these different modes is suited for a specific type of photography. In one case, I used Dynamic Area with great success…
…but when I tried to move to, say, photographing sports, it failed me. However, swapping over to 3D-tracking immediately rectified the situation and I was nailing every shot.
But when I swapped to photographing moving cars, 3D was no longer the right choice, but Group-area was spot on.
It’s going to take some practice to know what autofocus mode is right for each situation, but once you get the hang of it, understanding where the camera will best perform and quickly switching among the options will result in a camera that can be as dynamic as you.
Having an auto focusing system like this felt unbelievably freeing. Not only was it accurate, it was accurate repeatedly and over vastly different situations. No matter what I was shooting, the D500 could adapt and get me the best possible result. To say that I was happy and excited about this is a gross understatement: I’m over the moon about it.
Bear in mind, much of this review was performed using any lens I wanted out of the Nikon arsenal, so naturally I was using top-tier glass for just about every shot above. That means that yes, the camera was being tested with the absolute best that Nikon has to offer, and if you use a lower-quality lens your experiences may differ.
The Nikon D500 is an exceptional camera that gives you the ability to focus on being a photographer and not have to enter “tech support mode” every few minutes as something hinky goes wrong with one of the features. The D500 does absolutely nothing truly revolutionary, but does pack the best of what is available into a relatively small body that’s easy to get into and a joy to use.
The D500 is absolutely one of the best DSLRs available today, and is ideal for hobbyists who don’t crave full frame as well as professional sports (as a backup body to the D4/5 bodies) and wildlife photographers.
All photos copyright Jaron Schneider 2016 and cannot be republished or redistributed without express written consent.