This extensive review was originally published in ProPhoto magazine, and while the full review text is below, many of the test and menu images, and the full specifications list, are not included in this online version. We recommend clicking the button to the right to view the original magazine pages.
The DX Factor
Even Nikon would agree that its D5 flagship D-SLR isn’t for everyone. It’s built to take a fair amount of punishment and many of its key specifications – particularly its continuous shooting speed – are aimed at photographers who really need them which means largely specialist applications such as fast-action sports, news gathering and wildlife. It’s big and it’s expensive, yet there are lots of elements of the D5 that most photographers would want. So what if you could have a smaller, lighter and cheaper Nikon D5? You can. It’s called the D500.
This camera hasn’t had an easy start to life. It was announced along with the D5 so ended up very much in its big brother’s shadow. Then its launch was delayed due to issues with sensor supply, and a lot of interesting new cameras have come along in the meantime. But here’s the thing… the D500 is quite possibly the best D-SLR Nikon has ever built, regardless of sensor size. Yes, the D810’s performance is amazing and the D750 is a brilliantly compact package, but the D500 is arguably the better package overall because, in a nutshell, it’s the ‘APS-C’ version of the D5… and that makes it a powerfully compelling argument for the smaller-sized sensor. It also graphically illustrates that, as time goes on in digital imaging, sensor size is becoming less and less of an issue. Now it’s true that pixel size is related to certain performance benefits – all related to the signal-to-noise ratio – but data processing is becoming so sophisticated that the end results are indistinguishable. Just look at what the latest Micro Four Thirds cameras are doing, for example. It’s also true to say that we’re becoming more comfortable with the concept of ‘sufficient quality’ compared to the ‘buffer zone’ which film always provided… and all but a few professionals never actually needed to exploit. In reality, 20 megapixels of resolution – no matter how it’s delivered sensor-wise – is going to be sufficient for a great many users.
It’s interesting to note that the D500’s ‘APS-C’ imager delivers exactly the same three image sizes at full resolution as the D5’s full-35mm sensor – namely, 5568x3712, 4176x2784 and 2784x1856 pixels. These are, of course, smaller pixels (4.2 microns versus 6.45 microns), but in real world terms are you going to be able to discern any difference at a pictorial level? Maybe – just maybe – at very high sensitivity settings, but here the D500’s range happens to be far more realistic than that of the D5 anyway so the short answer is probably ‘no’. Which makes the D500 one helluva a camera because everywhere else it’s pretty much a mini-me D5. It’s not quite as fast, but then 10 fps – with continuous AF and AE adjustment – is pretty respectable by any standard and, again, more than sufficient for many applications. And that’s it, give or take a few minor items which the D500 more than makes up for by having a few major advantages over its big brother – topped by a tilt-adjustable LCD monitor screen (the same size and resolution as the D5’s), but also including different format memory card slots (an interesting mix of SD and super-fast XQD), Nikon’s new ‘SnapBridge’ Bluetooth-based wireless communications system (plus WiFi with NFC), increased AF zone coverage (very nearly edge-to-edge) and a higher magnification viewfinder.
Less Is More
The big plusses are actually all the minuses… the key things that the D500 has a lot less of compared to the D5 – millimetres, grams and, of course, dollars. It’s still not a small camera – especially by mirrorless ‘APS-C’ format standards – but it’s a whole lot less of a handful than the D5 in terms of both bulk and weight (the latter by close to half a kilo). And you could buy three D500s for the same price as the D5, spending the difference on a couple of new lenses perhaps.
Yet you still get the D5’s AF and metering system, the exposure and white balance controls, all the same image processing options, the buffer memory capacity, 4K video recording, a weather-sealed magnesium alloy bodyshell, and controls such as the joystick for quicker and easier AF point selection. You even get the back-illuminated buttons – which is a truly useful feature – and, similar to the D5, the reflex mirror mechanism has been redesigned to minimise the blackout time with continuous shooting. And while we’re here, we should also mention that the ‘APS-C’ format sneaks you a 1.5x increase in effective lens focal length which is very handy if you’re shooting sports or action and need some extra telephoto power without the attendant extra cost and bulk… the 70-200mm f2.8, for example, becomes a 105-300mm f2.8. Nice.
Now that we’re no longer stressing over sensor size, no matter which way you look at it, the D500 balances capabilities, performance, functionality and affordability like no other D-SLR on the market from Nikon or anybody else. Despite how much we like the D810 and D750 in this office, the D500 is the Nikon D-SLR to have. No argument.
Externally, it’s better looking and much more nicely proportioned than the D5, although you can bulk it up with an optional battery grip if you so desire. Beneath the alloy body covers is a carbonfibre chassis (which also helps keep the weight down), and the ergonomically-shaped handgrip offers the usual Nikon levels of comfort and control.
There are a number of styling cues borrowed from the flagship, including the V-shaped scallop in the pentaprism housing and the red flash at the top of the handgrip, while the top deck control layout is virtually identical. This extends to the top of the rear panel so, if you do happen to be mixing D5s and D500s there’s a high degree of commonality.
The distinctive buttons-within-a-dial control cluster has been a feature on high-end Nikon D-SLRs for a while now, and there’s another slight variation on the D500 which incorporates four keys – compared to the D5’s three – for direct access to the image quality settings, metering modes, white balance settings and exposure modes. Below is the selector for the drive modes which include the self-timer, mirror lock-up and the two ‘quiet’ release options (i.e. single-shot and continuous). A dedicated ISO button is located astern of the shutter release so all the basics are directly accessible in a very straightforward manner.
The D500 gets the enhanced customisable control options of the D5, but Nikon still lags a long way behind what’s possible here with, for example, a Panasonic Lumix G Series mirrorless camera. Nevertheless, the ‘Fn1’, ‘Fn2’ and ‘PV’ (preview) buttons do provide some scope for fine-tuning operations in conjunction with the front and rear input wheels.
Disappointingly, the touchscreen implementation is as limited as that of the D5 so, curiously, it’s not available for navigating the menus or the monitor-based info display (which would otherwise be another efficient way of directly accessing camera settings). The good news is that in live view, the ‘Touch AF’ function now actually focuses rather than just positioning the focusing point, and it can be combined with automatic shutter release. There’s also the nifty ‘Spot White Balance’ function available in live view, as introduced on the D5, but clearly there’s scope for more here. At the moment, the touchscreen mostly comes into its own for image reviewing, allowing for speedier browsing, zooming or searching the thumbnail pages. The live view screen can be configured with a real-time histogram, dual-axis ‘Virtual Horizon’ level display or guide grid. There’s also a split-screen view which shows two zoomed-in sections from a scene to assist with focusing and alignment.
The optical viewfinder is both the D-SLR’s advantage and its Achilles Heel. The D500’s is brilliant – with the highest magnification available in an ‘APS-C’ format reflex – but the camera’s top speed of 10 fps is near the limit of what’s physically possible with a piece of glass rapidly flipping up and down between frames.
As the D500 doesn’t go quite as fast as the D5 – but it’s worth noting that the latter’s top speed is only achieved with the reflex mirror locked up – Nikon hasn’t had to go to quite the same lengths to make its mirror mechanism work. However, as noted earlier, it’s still had to make some modifications to minimise the blackout duration and limit bounce. Here, then, is where a mirrorless design would be the obvious solution now that EVFs work so well (especially at 120 fps or even 240 fps), although it has to be said that the D500 is actually a fine advert for the D-SLR.
The viewfinder comprises a comprehensive read-out panel below the image area, plus superimposed focusing points – simplified when you’re actually shooting to just brackets delineating the total AF area and points bounding the selected group – dual-axis level indicators and a small selection of status indicators. There’s also the option of having a framing grid. What’s immediately obvious when you have the full set of AF points active is that the left-to-right coverage extends virtually across the entire frame, and with only small spaces at the top and bottom. This is the benefit of using the D5’s 153-points ‘Multi-CAM 20K’ autofocus module over a smaller imaging area… another tick for the ‘APS-C’ format sensor.
Its autofocusing system is the D5’s greatest asset so the D500 inherits something very special. The ‘Multi-CAM 20K’ autofocus module employs 153 measuring points, 99 of them being cross-type arrays. Fifty-five points are manually selectable, and 35 of these are cross-type arrays.
Not only is the spread of points wider and deeper, they’re also more densely packed which enhances the detection speed and accuracy, especially with smaller subjects. Sensitivity extends down to -4.0 EV. Fifteen focus points (nine of them manually selectable) can operate with a maximum lens aperture as slow as f8.0 which takes into account using a teleconverter. All 153 operate down to f5.6. There’s a choice of seven AF area modes; including ‘Dynamic Area’ set to single, 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 also engages face detection. In the viewfinder, the manually selectable focusing points are shown as small boxes while the rest are represented by dots which keeps this display from looking confusingly chaotic.
Both the single-shot and continuous modes can be set to either release-priority or focus-priority, and the auto tracking function can be fine-tuned via ‘Lock On’ adjustments. Here you can define the subject’s movement characteristics (using a scale from Steady to Erratic) and the response to an interruption caused by a blocked shot (ranging from Quick to Delayed). Face detection can be enabled when using auto tracking too.
Autofocusing in live view is via contrast detection using the imaging sensor with, as noted earlier, touch AF and auto shutter release functionality. The modes here are face detection, normal area, wide area and subject tracking. Manual focus assist is via a magnified image of up to 11x and with a navigation pane, but as with the D5, again there isn’t a focus peaking display.
AF 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.
Also borrowed directly from the D5 is the D500’s metering system which is based on a RGB sensor with 181,000 pixels which provides multi-zone, centre-weighted average, highlight-weighted and spot measurements. The spot meter can be linked to the active focusing point. 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 6.0 mm, 8.0 mm (the default), 10 mm or 16 mm. Metering sensitivity extends down to -3.0 EV at ISO 100.
The standard selection of auto exposure control modes is backed by an AE lock and up to +/-5.0 EV of compensation and auto bracketing which can be set to sequences of up to nine frames. Additionally, the auto exposure bracketing can be set to include the flash level or for flash alone. The D500 doesn’t have a built-in flash, but it again follows the D5 in being compatible with Nikon’s new ‘Advanced Wireless Lighting’ system (AWL) for radio-controlled remote operation – as opposed to optical – in an off-camera TTL set-up. RF control has a longer range and is more reliable, especially in bright sunny conditions.
The focal plane shutter has a speed range of 30-1/8000 second with flash sync up to 1/250 second and, like the D5, the D500 also has a sensor-based shutter (a.k.a. an “electronic first curtain shutter”), but it’s only available as an option when shooting with the mirror locked-up, primarily to help eliminate vibrations when using longer telephoto lenses. While shooting with live view is technically mirror-up photography too, Nikon specifically means when the D500 is in the ‘M-UP’ mode as selected from the drive options… so no other potential benefits of a sensor shutter are utilised. Consequently, for example, the D500 doesn’t have the D5’s ‘Silent Live View’ shooting mode. For the record, the standard FP shutter is rated at 200,000 cycles.
While the D5 has only gained automatic flicker detection and reduction via a recent firmware upgrade, the D500 has had it right from the start. Flicker reduction is designed to deal with the rapid switching characteristics of gas-ignition lighting (i.e. fluorescent or mercury vapour 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. On the D500 it’s available both when using the optical viewfinder or live view (which obviously includes shooting video) and can be either set to auto or specifically to the 50 Hz or 60 Hz cycles of the mains power supply (depending which country you are in). The D500 also mirrors the D5 in its selection of white balance controls, including three correction modes called ‘Keep White’, ‘Normal’ and ‘Keep Warm’. ‘Keep White’ is designed to give white whites in situations where there are different types of lighting, both natural and artificial. ‘Keep Warm’ maintains a warmer look, particularly when shooting under incandescent lighting. All three operate over a range of 3500 to 8000 degrees Kelvin. Alternatively, there’s a selection of 12 presets (seven for different types of gas-ignition lighting), provisions for storing up to six custom settings, fine-tuning, manual colour temperature control over a range of 2500 to 10,000 degrees Kelvin, and auto bracketing. As with the AEB, this can be set to sequences of two, three, five, seven or nine frames.
The D500’s CMOS sensor has an imaging area of 23.5x15.7 mm and packs a total of 21.51 million pixels (20.9 MP effective). To help optimise the resolution, there is no optical low-pass filter (OPLF).
In addition to the standard ‘DX’ format, there’s a smaller image size called ‘1.3x’ which is equivalent to a 18x12 mm imaging area and gives a further increase in the focal length magnification factor, but the maximum resolution available is now 12 MP. A choice of large, medium and small image sizes is available in each format.
The D500 uses its own version of Nikon’s latest-generation ‘Expeed 5’ processor which delivers both a range of performance enhancements (including smarter noise reduction) and the speed necessary for shooting stills at 10 fps and recording 4K video. The native sensitivity range is equivalent to ISO 100 to 51,200 with extensions to ISO 50 and 1,640,000… the highest setting currently claimed for an ‘APS-C’ size sensor.
Images can be captured as JPEGs, TIFFs or RAW files; the latter in a variety of configurations – either 12-bit or 14-bit RGB colour and with lossless compression, lossy compression or uncompressed. 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 compression regimes for optimum image quality or the smallest file size. Conveniently, you now make this selection in the image quality submenu, where the optimum quality settings are accompanied by a star symbol. RAW files can also be captured in large, medium or small sizes, and there are quite a few options for configuring RAW+JPEG capture. A big buffer memory allows for bursts of up to 200 JPEGs or 12-bit RAWs and, even with the weightier 14-bit uncompressed RAWs, Nikon is still claiming a maximum sequence of up to 79 frames.
As with the D5, there’s an emphasis on optimising JPEG performance, probably in the recognition that photographers who shoot many hundreds of images in a session (i.e. sports, wildlife, weddings, etc.) often don’t use RAW capture because of the time needed to process them post-camera. The D500’s JPEG processing functions are largely the same as those offered on the D5, including the Flat ‘Picture Control’ preset which is primarily designed to optimise the dynamic range when shooting video (making colour grading easier in post-production). The remaining six ‘Picture Control’ presets – Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape – are as they’ve been forever on Nikon D-SLRs with the option of creating up to nine user-adjusted versions. For the colour presets, the adjustable parameters are for sharpening, clarity, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. 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.
As is also standard across Nikon D-SLRs, ‘Active D-Lighting’ (ADL) processing is available for dealing with contrast in order to optimise the dynamic range, and there’s the choice of four manual settings (compared to the D5’s five) from Low to Extra High, or auto correction. An auto bracketing function is also available for ADL processing. The alternative for dealing with contrast is a multi-shot HDR function which captures two images – one underexposed, the other overexposed – either with a preset exposure adjustment of 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0 EV or via automatic adjustment based on the scene’s brightness range. A smoothing adjustment can be set to Low, Normal or High to deal with any slight edge variations between the two frames. Multiple exposures – up to ten – can be created with the options of Add or Average exposure adjustment or, as on the D5, Lighten or Darken modes which use only the brightest or darkest pixels respectively.
Review And Retouch
The review/replay options are pretty much the same as those of the D5, including pages of four, nine or 72 thumbnail images; zooming up to 21x and a slide show with adjustable frame intervals.
Individual images can be displayed full-frame with or without basic capture info or as thumbnails accompanied by either a brightness histogram alone, a full set of RGB histograms or a brightness warning (with the option of cycling through the individual RGB colour channels). The autofocus points used to take the shot can also be shown. Additionally, you can cycle through various pages of capture data which are shown superimposed over the image.
A selection of in-camera editing functions are available via the Retouch Menu – another Nikon staple – and these include ‘D-Lighting’ (for dealing with contrast issues post-capture), distortion, perspective, straighten, image overlay, a couple of basic filter effects (warm and skylight), B&W conversion and RAW-to-JPEG conversion. The D500 also has the D5’s ‘Side-by-Side Comparison’ feature which allows for a retouched image to be compared directly with the original.
The D500 was the first camera to use Nikon’s new ‘SnapBridge’ wireless communications system which employs Bluetooth Low Energy (also called Bluetooth Smart Ready) protocols to enable an “always on” wireless connection. SnapBridge is Nikon’s solution to some of the issues plaguing wireless data transfer and provides a continuous low-energy connection – so there’s less demand on the camera’s battery – with automatic file transfer when shooting.
Set-up only needs to be done once and you can use multiple devices. The SnapBridge app also allows for remote camera control (albeit fairly limited), and while it was initially only available for Android devices, the iOS version is due any time now. You’re not locked into SnapBridge, however, as the D500 also has built-in WiFi with the convenience of NFC connectivity.
The D500 records 4K video in the UHD resolution of 3840x2260 pixels at 30, 25 or 24 fps. However, it doesn’t use the full sensor area and instead crops to 16.2x9.1 mm which avoids the artefact issues associated with down-scaling, but means there’s a further increase in the effective lens focal length, taking it up to 2.25x (i.e. 1.5x + 0.75x)… great if you’re shooting sports or wildlife, less great for landscapes or interiors. For the Full HD and HD resolutions the crop is 23.5x13.3 mm which, of course, is pretty close to the full ‘APS-C’ frame size.
Video is recorded in the MOV format using MPEG-4 AVC/H .264 compression. Full HD footage can be recorded at 24, 25, 30, 50 or 60 fps (obviously the D500 is multi-region) and HD at 50 or 60 fps. New files (up to eight) are automatically – and seamlessly – created at each 4.0 GB point – up to the full clip limit of 29 minutes and 59 seconds that’s allowable under European taxation laws (relating to video cameras).
Electronic image stabilisation is available for both Full HD and 4K recording and provides three-axis correction (i.e. up/down, left/right and rotational). It can be combined with the optical image stabilisation in VR-equipped Nikkor lenses.
The D500 has built-in stereo microphones with adjustable level and a choice of two frequency response settings called ‘Wide Range’ and ‘Vocal Range’. There’s also a low-cut filter for reducing wind noise. Both a stereo audio input and an output are provided – standard 3.5 mm minijack terminals – the latter enabling headphones to be used for monitoring. An uncompressed video feed (8-bit, 4:2:2 colour) is available at the camera’s HDMI connection for recording to external devices and, usefully, it’s also recorded simultaneously to a memory card to create a back-up.
The level of video functionality is very good and all the exposure control modes can be used, although shutter-priority auto works like the program mode (i.e. you can’t manually adjust shutter speeds). Manual ISO control is only available when using the manual exposure mode, but the auto range covers the full span from ISO 100 to ‘Hi 5’ (i.e. ISO 1,640,000). All the ‘Picture Control’ presets are available with the Flat option specifically designed for video shooting as dials down the colour saturation, sharpness and contrast to enable easier grading in post-production. Continuous autofocusing is available when shooting with the options of face-detection, subject tracking or normal/wide area modes, and the D500 has a proper touch-focus facility which works particularly well for video. Likewise the ‘Power Aperture’ function which enables smooth, stepless adjustment of the lens iris.
There’s a zebra pattern indicator for blown-out highlight and flicker detection, but as with live view photography, the only actual aid for manual focusing is a magnified image rather than the much more effective focus peaking display. Time-lapse movies of up to 20 minutes in length can be created in either the 2K or 4K resolutions.
The UHD image quality is, of course, stunning, but the Full HD resolution delivers excellent results too. The pity here is that Nikon just hasn’t taken the D500 quite far enough as a video camera, although on balance, it’s a pretty capable machine, it’s just not the same knockout package it is as a stills camera.
Speed And Performance
Loaded with our reference 128 GB Lexar Professional SDXC UHS-II/U3 (Speed Class 3) ‘2000x’ memory card, the D500 captured a sequence of 200 JPEG/large/fine frames – the starred variety for maximum image quality – in 21.16 seconds which represents a shooting speed of 9.45 fps.
What’s particularly impressive here is that it kept going to the quoted 200 frames buffer limit without missing a beat when most cameras only stagger up to this line at a much slower speed. The average test file size was around 10.8 MB so this is over 2.1 GB of data floating around in the buffer and it was all shuffled off to the Lexar card in under a minute. In reality, we can’t see anybody ever needing a sequence of 200 frames, but it’s good to know that the 10 fps top speed – or very close to it – is available no matter how long the burst length. The autofocusing performance is a highlight of the D5, it’s just so stunningly good.
Not surprisingly then, the D500 is equally accomplished here, if not slightly superior thanks to the wider AF coverage afforded by the smaller frame. But we’re not just talking speed here – and it is very, very fast – but the intelligent processing of the subject data in order to assign the right focusing point or group of points. This camera thinks like you do so even if the main subject is off to the edge of the frame – and quite small in relationship to everything else in the picture – the D500 still picks the right focusing points. It got to the stage where we were deliberately trying to trip it up with all sorts of challenging focusing scenarios and it simply worked brilliantly and accurately every time. There are lots of good reasons for buying the D500, but its autofocusing capabilities top the list… you’ll never be frustrated with AF issues again.
The 180k pixels RGB metering is also unflappable, handling tricky contrast with aplomb. You could conceivably forget where the exposure compensation button is… you’re not likely to need it much. The white balance controls also benefit from the capabilities of this sensor and the standard auto control delivers a level of accuracy that we haven’t seen before on a D-SLR. Anything with a colour temperature lower than 3000 degrees Kelvin is going to cause an issue – unless you actually want the warmer tones – but otherwise the colour balance is generally spot-on.
Of course, the D500 has a different sensor to the D5, but it still matches it in terms of imaging performance, if not does a little better in a couple areas. The absence of an LPOF definitely boosts definition, resulting in a very crisp rendering of fine details and, it has to be said, slightly smoother tonal gradations.
The dynamic range is exceptional straight out of the camera with the brighter highlights, in particular, holding together very well. Nikon’s processing for contrast, saturation and sharpness delivers pleasingly punchy images, and that’s even before you start to do any tweaking with the expanded selection of ‘Picture Control’ parameters. The look really is similar to shooting with transparency film and its ‘first generation’ clarity and fidelity.
The D500’s high ISO performance is also a bit of a revelation and noise isn’t an issue right up to ISO 3200, but even here Nikon’s processing balances sharpness, contrast and colour saturation with noise reduction exceedingly well.
The same is true at ISO 6400, but you just won’t be able to make quite as big enlargements. Shoot with RAW capture and you can venture even higher up the sensitivity range and process for the loss of contrast and saturation later on. In the end, the D500 isn’t quite as clean as the full-35mm D5 at these high ISOs, but it does an exceptional job for an ‘APS-C’ camera which further adds to its comprehensive all-round capabilities.
Whichever way you look at it the D500 is, to all intents and purposes, an ‘APS-C’ format D5. It borrows so much from the full-35mm sensor camera that the differences in performance – both camera-related and image-related – are negligible and, in fact, the D500 does a little better in a few areas.
It looks to be just as strongly built and the viewfinder is equally good. It’s actually nicer to handle and, of course, is a lot lighter to carry around. The key performance difference between the two cameras is the top shooting speed – 12 fps versus 10 fps – but in reality this is going to represent no difference to many photographers who simply don’t need that extra 2.0 fps. The all-important burst length is still the same for shooting both JPEGs and RAWs.
All this is brought into sharper focus by the difference in the prices. If it was all relative, the D500 should be selling for around $6000 (or maybe more), but it’s half this price which makes it the best value proposition anywhere. The fact that this actually isn’t the most compelling reason for buying the D500 gives you some idea just how good the rest of the package is. Mirrorless may be on the march, but here is the most convincing argument for buying another high-end D-SLR – and, what’s more, an ‘APS-C’ format model – that there is.
Price: Body only = $2999. $4099 with AF-S Nikkor DX 16-80mm f2.8-4.0 ED VR zoom lens. Estimated average street prices.
For full specifications, see the PDF of original magazine pages.