Nikon D5

THIS REVIEW APPEARED IN PROPHOTO magazine, Volume 27, No 4 2016. The full review is below, but for all the test images, details and specifications, see the original magazine pages, which you can downlaod by clicking the red button to the right.

There is no question Nikon’s D5 is an awesome piece of kit. The autofocusing performance, in particular, has to be seen to be believed and it betters just about every key spec of the already hugely-capable D4S. But, but, but…

A few years ago we’d have been thumbing through the superlatives dictionary to find new ways to praise a camera like the D5, but the camera world has moved on and big, bulky D-SLRs are playing to a steadily reducing audience. In reality, the pro-level Nikon and Canon D-SLRs have always been fairly specialised machines as not everybody has required such durability and speed, but for a number of reasons – including external influences – a growing number of photographers don’t want the size or weight either. It may still be hard to see pro-level mirrorless cameras like the Leica SL or Hasselblad X1D posing too much of a threat just yet (limited lens choices being one issue), but the likes of Sony’s A7R II, Fujifilm’s X-Pro2 (or X-T1) and even the top-end Micro Four Thirds models are a different ball game. The lens systems are already extensive and growing, the EVFs work well and, in just about all cases, the specs are comparable (certainly in terms of shooting speeds which are no longer hobbled by a reflex mirror mechanism). In other words, the reasons to stick with an SLR design – apart from tradition – are being whittled away. When, for example, you can have a 100-400mm zoom lens that’s effectively a 150-600mm (Fujifilm) or even a 200-800mm (Panasonic MFT), but no bigger or heavier than the classic 70-200mm then maybe it’s time for a rethink.

Nevertheless, despite there now being potential alternatives, it’s arguable that there still isn’t an absolute direct mirrorless competitor to the Nikon D5 (or, indeed, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II) when all the elements of a pro-level D-SLR system are weighed up (no pun intended). It’s these elements that Nikon is seeking to capitalise on with the D5, again notably with the autofocusing and the lengths it has had to go to in order to extract some extra shooting speed. Just whether it’s enough to attract anybody other than owners of D4s or D3s though, remains to be seen.

Nikon D5Go Faster
Nikon has had to work hard to deliver the sort of performance capabilities it wanted to give the D5; mostly notably continuous shooting at 14 fps with autofocus fixed to the first frame and 12 fps with continuous adjustment. This is quite a feat because, back in 1996, Nikon could only achieve 13 fps with the specially-built F3H HighSpeed by giving it a fixed half-mirror and resorting to stop-down metering only (no autofocusing, of course). Both the F4 and F5 were available by then, but the more mechanical F3 was easier to rework for high-speed shooting.

Fast forward 20 years and you can have 12 fps with continuous AF and metering – both state-of-the art systems – and, thanks to a much bigger buffer memory, burst sequences of up to 200 frames, even when shooting 14-bit RAW frames. But the reality is that with the reflex mirror operating, the top speed is 12 fps and the D5 only does 14 fps with the mirror locked-up which… well, say no more.

To achieve the 12 fps the D5’s mirror uses a stepping motor which essentially turbo-charges the upward movement and then serves as power-assisted brakes on the downward movement, primarily to minimise bounce which, of course, wastes precious time. The new mirror assembly also minimises the black-out time which assists with subject tracking… something that’s pretty important for what is now, primarily, a sports action camera. It goes without saying that the D5’s viewfinder is fantastic – well, it’s optical, innit – with 0.72x magnification and 100 percent coverage. The image quality is always going to be better than anything an EVF can deliver – even the brilliant 4.4 megadots Epson panel in the Leica SL – but this is no longer really the issue. Today’s EVFs are better than ‘good enough’ and there are just so many other advantages, but let’s move on.

Nikon D5While it’s actually no bulkier than its D4-series predecessors (or, indeed, the D3 models before that), the D5 now feels big… and heavy. There’s no question it’s very comfortable to handle – Nikon’s ergonomics remain exemplary – and within that bulk is a fully-integrated vertical grip, but smaller cameras are now the new normal, even with full-35mm format sensors. And we’re not necessarily talking about mirrorless cameras here… Nikon’s brilliant D750 is what actually immediately springs to mind.

The D5 is, of course, built tough. This is a camera designed to shrug off the wear and tear of heavy-duty professional use in the great outdoors. Sports photography, in particular, can be very demanding on cameras because it’s all about capturing the action and the welfare of your gear is a secondary consideration… if it gets a few thumps and bumps along the way, so be it. Then there’s often dust, spray, snow, mud or rain. The D5’s magnesium alloy bodyshell is fully sealed at every joint and junction, and the new shutter is good for 400,000 cycles. There’s no built-in flash to compromise the bodyshell’s overall integrity and, for the same reason, the large 8.1 cm LCD monitor screen is fixed. There’s a big jump in the resolution to an impressive 2.359 megadots, but more significantly, there’s now touchscreen controls. When the D5 is switched to live view, the touch control functions including moving the AF point and a very nifty ‘Spot White Balance’ which sets the white balance for wherever you tap on the screen. Operations such as entering copyright data can now be done via the touchscreen, and scrolling through images for playback which is made even faster via a ‘Frame Advance Bar’ device. Curiously though, touch controls aren’t available for the normal camera operations such as navigating the menus.

In Command
Like its predecessors, the D5 has two LCD info displays; a bigger one on the top deck and a smaller panel on the camera back which is mostly dedicated to the image quality settings, but also shows some key settings such as the white balance and drive mode. Both have built-in illumination and, as before, all the control buttons are backlit too (including now those for playback and delete) which is very, very useful. There’s a pair of memory card slots, but rather than mixing formats, Nikon now offers a choice, so you can have a D5 with a dual XQD slots or one with dual CompactFlash slots. It’s an interesting choice given the popularity of SD and even CFast (certainly over XQD), but mixing formats was always a compromise so at least now you can standardise. The card slot management options include simultaneous recording to create back-ups or the separate recording of RAW and JPEG files when shooting with RAW+JPEG.

The basic control layout is largely unchanged from that of the D4/D4S and so includes the distinctive dial-like button cluster on the top panel, front and rear input wheels (a.k.a. ‘Command Dials’), and the ‘Multi Selector’ navigator pad and ‘Sub Selector’ joystick on the rear panel. The top-panel control now has function buttons for the exposure modes (a logical change), auto bracketing and metering, while a selector wheel located below sets the drive mode (or ‘release mode’ as Nikon calls them). The old ‘Mode’ button astern of the shutter release is replaced by the ISO button which was previously less convenient to access as it was below the back panel’s info display. There are two new multi-function buttons – called ‘Fn2’ and ‘Fn3’ – which join the existing ‘Fn1’, ‘Pv’ and ‘AF-On’ buttons, but the scope for customising the D5’s operation is still comparatively limited. That said, Nikon has made it much easier to assign the various functions via new set-up screens for still photography and video recording. Custom settings are still saved to ‘banks’ (four in all), but the process is lot less clunky now.

The left side of the camera (as viewed from behind) mostly comprises the camera’s many connectors, each with their own cover which means nothing is getting wet or dusty which doesn’t have to. The USB connector is upgraded to mini-B 3.0 and there is both a stereo audio input and an output (standard 3.5 mm minijack terminals) as before, plus HDMI and Ethernet. On the front of the camera body is the PC flash socket and ten-pin remote terminal, again with individual covers.

Nikon D5

Looking In
On the inside the D5 is essentially all-new compared to the D4S – the sensor, processor, AF system, metering system, mirror mechanism and the aforementioned shutter – with an attendant enhancement to all relevant specs.

The new sensor is a CMOS device with an imaging area of 35.9x23.9 mm – which Nikon calls the ‘FX’ format – and a total pixel count of 21.22 million. Unlike on a number of lower-level Nikon D-SLRs, an optical low-pass filter is retained. The new sensor is powered by Nikon’s latest-generation ‘Expeed 5’ processor which delivers a range of performance enhancements including, interestingly, to the JPEG quality “straight out of the camera” (to quote Nikon). Better noise reduction processing along with the sensor’s revised architecture gives a native sensitivity range equivalent to ISO 100 to 102,400 and an extension, perhaps appropriately tagged ‘Hi 5’, up to ISO 3,280,000. Yes, you read it right… three-point-two-eight million, but to be honest, don’t get too excited. The D5 may be able to capture images at this stratospheric ISO setting, but whether you can actually use them for anything is debatable as the noise issues from ISO 409,600 (i.e. ‘Hi 3’) upward are manifold. You’d have to think these ultra-high ISO settings are more about bragging rights than anything that has ‘real world’ usefulness. More practically, though, there’s also a one-stop ‘pull’ to ISO 50.

As before, images can be captured as JPEGs, TIFFs or RAW files in a variety of configurations – either 12-bit or 14-bit colour and with lossless compression, lossy compression or uncompressed. The maximum image size is 5568x3712 pixels. There’s a big choice of image sizes and formats, including ‘APS-C’ (a.k.a. the ‘DX’ format in Nikon parlance) which can be set to automatically select when a DX Nikkor lens is fitted. JPEGs can be set to one of three compression levels – fine (at a 1:4 ratio), normal (1:8) or basic (1:16) with the option of setting either ‘optimal quality’ or ‘size priority’ compression regimes. RAW files can be capture in large, medium or small sizes.

The various in-camera JPEG processing functions are pretty much the same as those offered on the D4S, but with a few additions. There’s a new ‘Picture Control’ preset called Flat and which is designed to optimise the dynamic range when shooting video to make colour grading easier in post-production. It’s worth noting here that the D5 is the first Nikon D-SLR to offer 4K video shooting and the original, very limited clip duration of three minutes has now been fixed via firmware upgrade. The remaining six ‘Picture Controls’ are unchanged – Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape with the option of creating up to nine user-adjusted versions. The Monochrome preset replaces the colour adjustments with a set of contrast filters and a choice of nine toning effects each with seven levels of density.

‘Active D-Lighting’ (ADL) processing is available for dealing with contrast to optimise the dynamic range and there’s the choice of five manual settings from Low to Extra High 2 or auto correction. Alternatively, there’s a multi-shot HDR function which captures two images – one underexposed, the other overexposed – with a preset exposure adjustment of 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0 EV or, alternatively, automatic adjustment based on the scene’s brightness range. Multiple exposures – between two to ten – can be created with the options of Add or Average exposure adjustment or, new on the D5, Lighten or Darken modes which use only the brightest or darkest pixels respectively.

Auto bracketing functions are available for ADL, exposure, flash (or exposure and flash combined) and white balance. Bracketing sequences can be up to nine frames. The D5 offers three auto white balance correction modes called ‘Keep White’, ‘Normal’ and ‘Keep Warm’. ‘Keep White’ is the newcomer and is designed to give white whites in situations where there are different types of lighting, both natural and artificial. All three operate over a range of 3500 to 8000 degrees Kelvin. Alternatively, there’s a choice of 12 presets (seven for different types of gas-ignition lighting), provisions for storing up to six custom settings, fine-tuning and manual colour temperature control over a range of 2500 to 10,000 degrees Kelvin.

Nikon D5

Light Work
White balance measurement accuracy is enhanced overall courtesy of using the D5’s new RGB-sensitive metering sensor which is at the heart of the camera’s ‘3D Colour Matrix Metering III’ system. The new sensor doubles the pixel count of the previous one from 91,000 to 181,000, so it’s able to measure even smaller points.

The measurement options are multi-zone, centre-weighted average, highlight weighted and spot. As on all top-end Nikon D-SLRs, the size of the centre-weighted meter’s central zone can be varied; in this case set to 8.0 mm, 12 mm (the default), 15 mm or 20 mm. Metering sensitivity extends down to -3.0 EV at ISO 100. The standard set of auto exposure control modes is backed by an AE lock and up to +/-5.0 EV of compensation plus, of course, the auto bracketing mentioned earlier and which can be set to sequences of up to nine frames.

The new shutter has a speed range of 30-1/8000 second with flash sync up to 1/250 second and the D5 also gets a sensor shutter (a.k.a. an electronic first curtain shutter). Nikon doesn’t use this to get any more speed, but to enable near-silent operation in live view and, with mirror-up shooting using longer lenses, to further eliminate vibrations (but, somewhat curiously, not in the high-speed 14 fps mode). The recent firmware upgrade Version 1.10 for the D5 adds automatic flicker detection for dealing with the switching characteristics of gas-ignition lighting (i.e. fluorescent types) which can affect both exposure and colour balance when shooting at faster shutter speeds. The anti-flicker capability detects the frequency of a light source’s blinking and subsequently times the shutter release to minimise the effect, even with continuous shooting.

The D5’s ‘Silent Live View’ shooting mode has got a bit lost among the rest of the headlines, but it allows for JPEG/large/fine capture at 15 fps for five seconds at low speed or at 30 fps in the high speed continuous mode. This is the D5 doing its best imitation of a mirrorless camera.

The metering sensor is one element of what Nikon calls a ‘Scene Recognition System’ which, along with the AF module, analyses a scene to determine aspects such as back-lighting and colour content. This shouldn’t be confused with scene modes – not surprisingly, the D5 doesn’t have any – but it’s designed to fine-tune the autofocusing, exposure control and white balance.

Stay Focused
The new autofocusing system is the D5’s main party trick. Nikon has always had the edge over rival Canon when it comes to AF performance and it’s determined to stay ahead. Thus, Nikon’s new ‘Multi-CAM 20K’ autofocus module is the most sophisticated ever seen and employs 153 measuring points, 99 of them cross-type arrays. Fifty-five points are manually selectable, and 35 of these are cross-type arrays.

The spread of measuring points is not only wider and deeper than before, but they’re also more densely packed which enhances the detection speed and accuracy, especially with smaller subjects or targets. Overall sensitivity extends down to -3.0 EV – logical, given this is the metering’s limit too – but the central AF point will keep working down to -4.0 EV. Fifteen focus points (nine of them user-selectable) can operate with a maximum aperture as slow as f8.0… and all 153 operate down to f5.6. The AF system has its own high-powered processor – with a new AF algorithm for subject detection and analysis – to handle the continuous adjustment at 12 fps. There’s a choice of seven AF area modes; including ‘Dynamic Area’ set to nine, 25, 72 or 153 points, ‘Group Area’ which picks a point and then uses the surrounding points for further fine-tuning, ‘3D Tracking’ which taps into colour information to follow a moving subject, and ‘Auto Area’ which does exactly what it says on the tin. The nine-point ‘Dynamic Area’ has been added via the firmware upgrade V1.10.

Tracking can be optimised via a revised ‘Lock On’ function which is adjustable for the type of subject movement (using a scale from Steady to Erratic) and the response to an interruption caused by a blocked shot (from Quick to Delayed). Micro-adjustment is available to fine-tune for the focusing characteristics of individual lenses (up to 20) and it’s now done automatically which is both more convenient and more reliable. Why is this needed? Because, believe it or not, even in this era of precision manufacturing, no two lenses off a production line actually focus in exactly the same way.

On Review
The mass of autofocus points make for a busy viewfinder display – especially when all 153 are on duty – but only the selectable ones are shown as small squares, the rest are represented merely as dots. A grid guide is available in the viewfinder along with dual-axis level indicators. You can also have the grid guide display in the live view screen along with a more elaborate ‘virtual horizon’ level display and a real-time histogram.

Autofocusing in live view is via contrast detection measurements using the imaging sensor with, as noted earlier, the capacity to locate the focus point via touch (although, the actual focusing still has to be done conventionally via the shutter release of ‘AF-On’ button). Manual focus assist is via a magnified image, but there isn’t a focus peaking display which has to be considered a significant oversight these days. The review/replay options are pretty much the same as those of the D4S, including pages of four, nine or 72 thumbnails; zooming up to 21x and a slide show. Individual images can be displayed full-frame with or without capture info or as thumbnails with a brightness histogram alone, a full set of histograms or a brightness warning (which can be also cycled through the individual RGB colour channels). There’s also up to eight pages of capture data which are shown superimposed over the image and the first five provide just about everything you need to know, 24 items in all. The last three depend on whether the D5 is fitted with an optional GPS receiver or IPTC presets are embedded.

A selection of in-camera editing functions are available via the Retouch Menu and these include ‘D-Lighting’ (for dealing with contrast), distortion, perspective, straighten, image overlay, a couple of basic filter effects (warm and skylight) and RAW-to-JPEG conversion. New is something called ‘Side-by-Side Comparison’ which allows for the retouched image to be compared directly with the original. Incidentally, there’s also a split-screen view available in the D5’s live view, although here it comprises two zoomed-in sections from the scene primarily to assist with focusing and alignment.

Speed And Performance
Our test D5 was the XQD version and it came with Lexar’s 1400x XQD 2.0 card in the 64 GB capacity which has a maximum write speed of 185 MB/second (and up to 210 MB/s read speed). With JPEG/large/fine capture the D5 rattled off a burst of 142 frames in 11.625 seconds which equates to a shooting speed of 12.21 fps. The average file size was 10.5 MB and there was virtually no delay writing all this data (nearly 1.5 GB) to the XQD card. We timed it at under a second. So even if you do fill the buffer, the camera will be ready to go again almost immediately. Bear in mind that if you opt for the CF card version, it won’t deliver quite the same burst lengths or buffer-clearing speeds.

Clearly, though speed is the D5’s forte because the new AF system also excels here. It’s fast and unerringly accurate – even with very small subjects – while being reliable in all manner of lighting conditions, including when it’s dark enough that you’d normally expect hunting to be an issue. The focus tracking also works exceptionally well, even with quite small subjects travelling at high speeds. To be frank, the improvements to the autofocusing performance are just so significant that this alone is worth upgrading from the D4 or D4S.

The new metering system is also very reliable, although this is really no surprise given Nikon’s track record in this department.

The imaging performance is no surprise either. As noted earlier, Nikon has done some work on enhancing the JPEG quality straight out of the camera – probably because pros such as sports and news photographers mostly shoot JPEGs given their tight deadlines – and there are improvements evident in the crisper definition of fine detailing, smoother tonal gradations and a better dynamic range. Some of this is down to the increase in resolution over the D4S – which is close to 25 percent – but much of it can be attributed to the Expeed 5’s new image processing algorithms. While, of course, the D810 and even the D750 still deliver higher resolution, the D5’s sensor has a superior signal-to-noise ratio which not only manifests itself in the dynamic range, but also the high ISO performance which is brilliant up to ISO 6400 and still very good at ISO 12,800. Even ISO 25,600 is useable, albeit with some mottling in areas of continuous tone and a small reduction in the colour saturation, but the definition still holds together well so detailing is much less compromised. Consequently, as was the case with the original ‘gloom-buster’, the D3, these ultra-high ISO settings are still very much on the cards if you’re shooting B&W… the luminance noise simply looking like film grain and quite acceptable (of course, here the D5 also goes well beyond the venerable D3).

The Verdict
On one level the D5 is just a better D4S which means it’s still a big and heavy D-SLR primarily aimed at working photographers who need, above anything else, a very tough and reliable camera. This market still undoubtedly exists, but it’s becoming harder to see D-SLRs like the D5 (and EOS-1D X Mark II) appealing to photographers outside this ‘demographic’ given there’s a steadily increasing number of mirrorless options which can also tick most, if not all, of their boxes… plus add innovation to the list. And it’s also telling that the D5 delivers some of its best capabilities when it’s not using its reflex mirror and optical viewfinder (including when shooting video).

That said, the Nikon D5 may be old school, but it’s gloriously old school. It may also be a big camera, but it handles well even with a long lens fitted, and the improved ergonomics give even more efficient operational workflows. The new AF system is brilliantly accurate in any situation, including when tracking something fast-moving at 12 fps, and you just know that this camera isn’t going to let you down when the going gets tough.

There are a few disappointments though… the touchscreen controls aren’t fully implemented and nor are the 4K video capabilities (even with the clip duration extended). Opportunities have been missed here, but then coincidentally both are related to when the camera is in a mirrorless configuration. Just sayin’.

Sooooo… beyond being a Nikon-dedicated sports or wildlife shooter, why would you buy the D5? Well, it’s a lot cheaper than a Leica SL or the Hasselblad X1D, and is backed by a much more extensive lens system. It has a superior AF system to the Sony A7R II, particularly in terms of tracking fast action, and is generally much superior when it comes to continuous shooting. However, the Sony has twice the resolution at nearly half the price and its lens system is growing by the minute.

In the end, it probably now all comes down to desirability and fortunately, as well as its many laudable features and specifications, the Nikon D5 has this in spades.

So, in other words, if you really want one, go ahead and buy one… you won’t be disappointed.

NIKON D5
​Price: Body only = $8949. Estimated average

FOR TEST IMAGES AND SPECIFICATIONS, see the magazine pages by clicking the button to the right. 

Product page: Nikon Australia