2016 Rio Olympics is not too far away and it means it’s time for the next generation Nikon flagship professional camera, introducing the Nikon D5
As Nikon’s 5th generation professional DSLR, the D5 comes with many new features and improvements. The latest 20MP full frame sensor that can goes up to three million plus maximum ISO, the new 153 point autofocus system, 12fps burst rate (14fps without AF), the huge 200 frames buffer and the automated autofocus fine tune feature are just some of the camera’s hero features, but how does the camera perform in real world? Let’s find out in this review.
Let’s talk about the camera body. The D5 body design is very similar to the D4/D4s. It’s got a full size, weather sealed magneisum alloy body with integrated portrait grip. The controls and buttons layout are very similar to the D4s, but there are a few changes. The grips are really really good and supportive, a lot of sports photographers will be using this camera with some heavy and big lenses so a big supportive grip is pretty much essential. The camera’s ergonomics is just fantastic and the camera just feel amazing when you hold it in your hands. Just like the Nikon D500, the ISO button is now moved to the top right of the camera next to the shutter button. This allows quick one hand ISO adjustment. Consider the insane ISO range D5’s sensor can handle, (more about that later), a quick and easy way to adjust ISO would definitely benefit the professional users. And because of that, the Mode button is moved to the top left next to the bracket and metering mode buttons. On the front of the camera, there is a new FN2 button so there are total of three customisable buttons at the front.
The D5’s viewfinder is really really nice. Probably the biggest viewfinder I have ever used and has 100% coverage. Combines that with the zero delay and very minimal blackout time really make it a pleasure to shoot fast action even at maximum burst rate.
As the camera is designed for professional photographers to use under all sort of weather conditions and shooting time critical events, the viewfinder eyepiece can be easily detached to allow attachment of rain cover (on a separate eyepiece) very quickly.
Nikon put two different card slots on the D4/D4s, one XQD slot and one CF slot. While I can totally understand the reasons behind and thought it’s a good idea initially, but after using a D800 for 2 years which also has this mixed card design, I am not really a big fan of carrying two kind of memory cards and card readers. It is really a pain. So I’m very happy when I heard Nikon gives you the option to go for either dual CF slots, or dual XQD slots this time with the D5. (The new D500 on the other hand, still has the mixed XQD + SD card design)
While most D5 buyer should already have plenty of CF cards in the camera bag, personally I would go for the XQD version as the CF card is slower and more importantly the camera’s unrivalled 200 frames buffer is only achievable with the XQD version. With the CF version you only about half that buffer size due to CF card’s much slower write speed. Having said that, even with the CF version D5 sample I was using for this review, I’ve never filled up the buffer completely when shooting real world photos, not even once.
The D5 has a new 3.2″ touchscreen LCD at the back. It’s not a tillable one like the D500 but the spec seems to be the same otherwise. Very high resolution, very bright with good contrast and colours. The touchscreen is very responsive and great for reviewing photos. But overall I do feel the touchscreen implementation is a bit limited (even though works very well) and love to see it expands more in the future. For example I really want to be able to select focus point by sliding my thumb on the LCD screen (when shooting using the viewfinder) just like the D5500.
The camera has a brand new 20.8MP full frame image sensor. The resolution may seem a bit low in today’s standard but you have to remember the D5 is designed for sports photographer and photo journalists so the image sensor is optimised for high speed, high ISO rather than high resolution output.
And the maximum ISO is now a ridiculous 3.2 Million ISO at Hi-5. Yes, 3.2 MILLION ISO. I still remember I was in shock when the Nikon D3 was announced with it’s ground breaking 25600 maximum ISO. That wasn’t that many years ago and now D5 and reach 128x higher, with almost double the resolution (D3 was 12MP).
I want to see how good the D5 sensor’s high ISO performance is, and how does it compares with the 16MP Nikon Df. According to DxOMark, the Df is the best low light camera from Nikon, with low light score even better than D4 and D4s. So if the D5’s high ISO performance is better than the Df, then it’s pretty safe to say it’s the best high ISO camera from Nikon (or maybe even any camera manufacturer)
Now since D5 has a higher resolution than the Df, I’ve normalised the output images to 16MP and below are the 100% crops at various ISO. They are all RAW converted to JPG with zero noise reduction applied.
Note: You can compare the results from the Nikon D750 and D500 from my D500 review as they are all normalised to the same resolution
Both cameras delivers excellent image quality from base ISO up to ISO 12800. From ISO 12800 onwards, image quality starting to degrade a bit but with the D5, image quality is still pretty decent up to ISO 51200. Once you hit ISO 102400, noise and especially chromatic noise becomes apparent and you starting to loose a bit of contrast as well. ISO 204800 is still useable (but borderline) for normal usage. From ISO 819200 up to the maximum ISO 3276800 are really for emergency use only or unless you are a paparazzi.
Compare with the Df, you can see the D5 has nearly 1 stop better performance at very high ISO. ISO 409600 from the D5 is very similar to ISO 204800 from the Df. Remember the Df is the best low light camera from Nikon? Sorry Df, please give way to the new king.
If you have been reading some of the early D5 reviews, one (maybe the only?) negative comment about the D5 is it’s dynamic range. It appears the D5 has worse dynamic range or exposure latitude than the last generation Nikon full frame cameras. Is this because of the better high ISO performance or higher resolution? And what does it actually mean for real world photos? I did some exposure latitude test against the Nikon Df. And see how the new 20MP sensor performs against the old 16MP.
Firstly, I basically underexposed the photo from 1EV to 6EV, and then try to fix it in post processing by increasing exposure in Adobe Lightroom and compare the results.
From +1EV to +4EV, the results from the D5 and Df are virtually the same. Photos from both cameras recover very well when you push photo taken at base ISO up to 4EV in post processing. At +5EV, you can see some chromatic noise in the shadow area from D5 while the result from Df looks a bit better with better colours and contrast . At +6EV, the result from D5 definitely doesn’t look as nice as the Df. There are more chromatic noise and noticeable drop in contrast.
Next, what about if we pull the result? (i.e. overexposed the photo and try to fix it in post processing) Below are the results.
From -1EV to -3EV, the results from D5 looks pretty good. But the -3EV result from the Df already has some hints of clipping. -4EV seems too much for both cameras. But the result from the D5 looks quite a bit better as you still got a little bit of blue and contrast in the sky which the Df is completely blown out. To make sure it’s not because of the changes in cloud or light, I’ve repeated the test again on another day and the result was pretty much the same. It seems the D5’s 20MP sensor has better highlight recovery latitude than the old 16MP sensor.
So, it is true that D5’s shadow recovery ability is slightly worse than the old 16MP sensor, but on the other hand, it has also improved better highlight recovery ability. I would say D5’s 20MP overall exposure latitude is very similar but definitely not better than the old 16MP sensor.
As mentioned at the beginning of the review, the D5 has many many hero features, and if there is one I’m most interested in, it would be the new 153 autofocus point, the MultiCAM 20k autofocus module.
Not only it nearly triples the amount of autofocus points, the number of cross type AF point is also increased from 15 to 99 points. And what’s even more important is the fact that the cross type AF points are spread out across the frame, unlike the old system where all the 15 points are very close to the centre. This should give us a more consistent and reliable autofocus performance even when our subject is moving towards the edge of the frame.
To test how good the new autofocus system is, I drove to the Muriwai Gannet Colony, which is about an hour from Auckland centre to take some gannet in flight photos there. It was early May, late Autumn so most of the gannets already flew across the Tasman sea to Australia. But there were still some gannets there. When I got there, I took the D5 out from the camera bag with the AFS 300mm f/4 VR PF lens on it and started taking photos. After just a few minutes of trying out different settings, I can already tell D5’s new autofocus system is a huge improvement over D4’s autofocus system. While the autofocus speed is certainly good, it’s the accuracy and consistency that really impressed me. I also no longer need to try make my subject to stay here the centre of the frame as the tracking works very well even when my target moves to the edge.
After 10 minutes, I feel like I am playing a first person shooter game with some super cheat mode turned on. It’s just so easy to get the picture I want, I just need to point the camera to the gannet and the autofocus system works flawlessly for me.
After 20 minutes, I actually felt a bit bored. The autofocus system works so well it doesn’t feel like a challenge to take some tack sharp photos of those flying gannets. Even when the gannets were backlit and there were strong reflected lights behind the gannets, with other cameras, it’s very often the camera would focus on the background instead. But not so much with the D5, the autofocus system work really really well and very rarely would it be distracted by the much brighter background.
Even when I have my AF 135mm f/2 DC lens mounted on the D5, one of my favourite portrait lens. The really shallow depth of field and screw-drive autofocus combined means the 135 DC is really not the best lens for shooting fast moving object, but I still got very good results when I took photos of my daughter running around at maximum burst rate 12fps. Out of the hundreds or so photos I took, only a handful were not focused correctly and most of them were when my daughter were almost next to me.
I don’t have the chance to fly to Rio to shoot the 100m sprint final. So I asked my little Olympian to run at full speed, she was backlitted and I shot the photos with the AF 135mm f/2 DC at f/2, focus is bang on on every single photo.
Strong backlight, low light, fast moving objects, or fast moving backlit object under lowlight just don’t seem to bother D5’s autofocus system at all. Even the “auto” focus mode, something I almost never trust with other cameras work very well. D5’s autofocus is just amazing. If you shoot anything outside a studio, the improvement in autofocus alone is well worth the upgrade. Its the best autofocus system I’ve ever used, and it’s by a big margin. Nothing even come close to it.
Compare to the amazing 153 point phase detection autofocus system, autofocus performance in Live View mode using the contrast detection system is quite average. It works, it’s accurate, but the speed is noticeably slower and it hunts slightly back and forth when it’s trying to lock on to it’s target. It’s still very useable and better than the previous Nikon DSLR, but it’s definitely one of D5’s weaker area.
Apart from the new Multi-CAM 20k autofocus system, D5 also has a brand new metering system which uses a 180,000 pixels RGB TTL exposure metering sensor. This doubles the pixel of D4’s metering system and metering is very consistent and predictable. When shooting backlight portraits, I got pretty good exposure without having to dial in any exposure compensation. The metering system is also used to help the focus tracking as well.
A new feature Nikon introduced with the D5 (and D500) is the automated AF fine tune.
The nature of the phase detection autofocus system means it’s quite possible the autofocus result is not 100% accurate. With the image resolution getting higher and higher, any inaccuracy in autofocus become more and more noticeable in the photo. And that’s why a lot of high end DSLRs have the autofocus fine-tune feature for user to correct any inaccuracy in autofocus. But if you have tried doing it yourself, you would agree it is quite a cumbersome process and time consuming as well. The Nikon D5 comes with a really great new feature which makes AF fine-tune process really fast and easy. Basically what you need to do is just fix your camera at one place, use Live View to focus on an object located at your most usual shooting distance (to make sure the auto fine-tune works the best at that distance) and press a few buttons on the camera and that’s it. It only took me a few minutes to setup a few different lenses and it definitely make my photos a lot sharper. Below is the result I got with the Nikon AFS 35mm f/1.4G lens.
Maybe in the future, Nikon can further improve this feature by allowing user to setup AF fine-tune value at different focus distance and for zoom lenses, different focal lengths to further improve the overall AF fine tune accuracy. But anyway, what we have on the D5 (and the D500) now is already a huge improvement over the old manual system, a very useful innovation for some strange reason no one had invented it earlier.
The Nikon D5 uses EN-EL18a battery, same as the D4s. The official battery figure is 3780 shots per charge (CIPA rated). During the 2 week review period, I’ve took almost 2000 photos, a dozens or so videos, and as you can imagine, spent lots of time going through the menus, trying all the different settings, reviewing photos/videos. And when I return the camera to Nikon the battery still have about 40% charge left. The battery life is just amazing. As a professional camera, a long battery life is very important so you don’t have to change the battery a few times a day. It is one of the things the D5 (or any DSLR in general) has a huge advantage over any mirrorless cameras.
There are two kinds of cameras that I find it hard to review. One is the kind which the camera is 99% the same as the one it is replacing. You got the same sensor, same body, same AF system, same image quality, you got the picture, there really isn’t much you can talk about especially if I have just reviewed it’s predecessor 12 months ago and it’s predecessor’s predecessor 24 months ago. The D5 is on the other kind of camera that I find hard to review as well but for completely opposite reasons. There are so many new features and improvements that I don’t know what I should talk and where I should stop in my review. I could easily write a 2000 words paragraph just talk about D5’s autofocus system as there are so much technology, various modes and settings I can go through them one by one. But if I do that, it’ll probably take me 1 year to do the review. So I have to skip a lot of really cool but smaller features and focus on what I believe is most important for most users.
Anyway, after using the D5 everyday for 2 weeks, I’m actually a bit scared by the camera. I got that shivering feeling when I’m shooting with the D5. It has an amazing autofocus system that works under almost any light condition, the image sensor can shoot at insanely high ISO, the new metering system, the pro tank like body, the bright beautiful viewfinder, that huge 200fps buffer, almost every area of the camera is amazing and everything works so well together that I know if i didn’t get the shot I want, it’s me, the photographer that is the weakness link, I can’t blame the autofocus system, or image sensor or the design of the camera, it’s me that is not good enough.
I feel that the Nikon D5 is not just an answer to Canon’s 1DX Mark II, it’s also a way for Nikon to tell people that while the mirrorless camera has improved a lot in the last few years, DSLR is still the best choice for the serious and professional photographers and Nikon still have plenty of killer features against it’s mirrorless competitors.
All sample photos were converted from RAW to JPG using Adobe Lightroom CC 2015.5. Adjusted to taste but with zero vignetting, CA, distortion adjustment.
Reviewer: Richard Wong
Richard is a multi-award winning wedding/portrait photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com
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