Nikon D5

The full text of the review that appeared in Camera magazine is below. But for text images, full specifications and other extras, download the original magazine pages as PDF using the button on the right.

Nikon launched its D5 with quite some fanfare. Photo magazine journalists were flown from all around the world to a ritzy, bells-and-whistles presentation in Las Vegas, timed to coincide with the massive annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Nikon wanted to make a point.

And it should be rightly proud of the D5 which trumps the already highly-accomplished D4S just about everywhere. It’s the pinnacle of D-SLR engineering, but yet it somehow seems like a turbo-charged V8 when we really should be seeing something more akin to a Tesla with a state-of-the-art electric motor.

As good as the D5 is, it’s still hard to see it – or, indeed, Canon’s EOS-1D X Mark II – making converts of anybody other than the existing owners of pro-level Nikon (or Canon) D-SLRs. There’s still unquestionably a place for big, fast and tough-as-nails D-SLRs as there is for digital medium format cameras, but the new reality is that these are now increasingly highly specialised machines and so, for many photographers, they are just too much. No, not too much money… too much camera… literally… physically. It’s hard to speculate what might have happened if Nikon had delivered a D5-type set of capabilities packaged up in a mirrorless camera platform, but it’s more certain that it would have stopped the ever-advancing Sony in its tracks and left long-time rival Canon floundering for a response. It could potentially have been a knock-out blow.

Understandably, given that they’ve had the interchangeable lens camera space largely to themselves for so long (with Pentax playing a valiant David against not one, but two Goliaths), both Nikon and Canon are reluctant to give up on the D-SLR, but the bottom line is that Fujifilm, Leica, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony haven’t entirely survived on finding brand new customers for their mirrorless cameras… they’ve pinched some market share from elsewhere. Well, let’s not beat about the bush here, they’re winning over increasing numbers of D-SLR owners and, with Sony’s full-35mm format A7 bodies in particular, attracting photographers who would otherwise certainly have bought another high-end reflex camera.

At the D5’s launch, a senior executive noted that “the D-SLR is a space Nikon is familiar with” and, near the start of the presentation, there was what essentially amounted to a ‘sales spiel’ for the mirror box and optical viewfinder which were described at one point as “80-year-old technology”. And, in fact, Nikon has had to go to considerable lengths to make this 80-year-old technology enable the sort of performance capabilities it wanted to give the D5; most notably continuous shooting at 14 fps with autofocus fixed to the first frame, 12 fps with continuous adjustment. This is quite a feat because, back in 1996, Nikon could only achieve 13 fps with the special-build 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.

Nikon D5Up To Speed
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 a conventional ‘flappy’ mirror, 12 fps is your lot. The D5 only does 14 fps with the mirror locked-up which… well, say no more.

To achieve 12 fps the D5’s mirror has a stepping motor which essentially turbo-charges the upward movement than 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.

While 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 using the menus.

Lighting Up
Like its predecessor, 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 gives you a choice, so you can have a D5 with 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 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 D5Inner Workings
On the inside the D5 is essentially all-new compared to the D4S – sensor, processor, AF system, metering system and the aforementioned shutter – with an attendant increase in all relevant specs.

The sensor is a CMOS with an imaging area of 35.9x23.9 mm – which Nikon calls the ‘FX’ format – and a total pixel count of 21.22 million. It retains an optical low-pass filter. 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”. 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 levels from ISO 409,600 (i.e. ‘Hi 3’) onward are truly horrendous. You’d have to think these higher ISO settings are more about bragging rights than anything that has ‘real world’ usefulness. Rather more usefully, though, there’s also a one-stop ‘pull’ to ISO 50.

Nikon D5

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 which is designed to optimise the dynamic range when shooting video (see the Making Movies sidebar for more details) 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, albeit with a clip time limited to just three minutes.

The remaining six ‘Picture Controls’ are unchanged – Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape with the option of creating up to nine user-adjusted version. 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.

Seeing The Light
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.

Points Ahead
The new AF 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, and 99 of these are 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 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 recently via the firmware upgrade V1.10.

Tracking can be optimised via a revised ‘Lock On’ function which can now be set to 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 actually focus in exactly the same way.

On Display
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 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 bit of an 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 (which is a function that news and sports photographers would use).

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, 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 and 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).

Making Movies
The D5 is a bit of a contradiction when it comes to its video recording capabilities. It can’t compete with the EOS-1D X Mark II here because the Canon is also specifically designed to be a pro-level video camera as it replaces the EOS-1D C, so it’s equipped accordingly. The D5 has a number of pro-level video features, but inexplicably lacks others, a couple of them quite basic such as a focus peaking display.

Importantly, the D5 records 4K video, but in the UHD resolution of 3840x2260 pixels rather than the pro-preferred Cinema 4K res of 4096x2160 pixels as on the -1D X II, and at 25 or 24 fps only versus the Canon’s 50, 25 or 24 fps (PAL standard, progressive scan). The clip length with 4K shooting has been extended to the full 29 minutes and 59 seconds that’s allowable under European taxation laws (relating to video cameras). Additionally, the recent firmware upgrade Version 1.10 allows for the automatic creation of a new file at 4.0 GB (for up to eight files).

The D5’s UHD image quality is superb with very low noise characteristics up to ISO 6400, and 4K clips can be recorded simultaneously to a memory card and an external device via the HDMI terminal which is handy for creating back-ups. The built-in stereo microphones are adjustable for level (over a useful range too) and there’s a choice of two frequency response settings called ‘Wide Range’ and ‘Vocal Range’. There’s also a low-cut filter for dealing with wind noise. Both a stereo audio input and an output are provided.

The recent firmware upgrade also delivers another video-orientated feature, namely electronic image stabilisation (i.e. by shifting the image area on the sensor) which is available for both Full HD and 4K recording. This provides three-axis correction (up/down, left/right and rotational) and can be combined with the optical image stabilisation in VR-equipped Nikkor lenses.

Carried over from the D4S is the very handy ‘Power Aperture’ function which enables smooth, stepless adjustment of the lens iris. Any of the ‘PASM’ exposure control modes can be used and the ‘Picture Control’ presets, including obviously the new Flat option which is specifically designed for video recording. Continuous autofocusing is also available when shooting with the options of face-detection, subject tracking or normal/wide area modes, but in practice it’s pretty sluggish and there isn’t a true touch-focus facility…you can only move the focusing zone this way, not actually focus.

So, a bit of a mixed bag and you get the sense that even Nikon isn’t convinced that videographers will opt for the D5 over other more-able D-SLRs in its line-up, including the ‘APS-C’ D500. The D5 records 4K UHD video at close to a ‘DX’ format crop anyway.

The Canon EOS-1D X II is a far superior package here should you want to use a high-end D-SLR for shooting video, but there are also many better-equipped mirrorless cameras, starting with Sony’s A7S II.

The Verdict
Things have changed since Nikon launched the D4S and, in many ways, 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 all else, a very tough camera. But the D-SLR is no longer the only game in town, even at the top-end of the market, and there’s an increasing number of mirrorless options which can also tick most, if not all, of these boxes… plus add innovation to the list. And it’s 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 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 and with 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, this camera has twice the resolution at nearly half the price and its native lens system is getting better by the minute.

OK, so it probably now all actually comes down to desirability and fortunately, beyond the many unquestionably laudable features and specs, the Nikon D5 has this in spades.

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