If you are a Nikon shooter, you probably aware of one particular DSLR camera that a lot of people have been waiting for it, but Nikon just never release it. I’m talking about the successor to the semi-professional Nikon D300s.
The D300 was released in the 2007 alongside the D3 and the updated version D300s was released in 2009 adding a few features like video, virtual horizon, dual card slots..etc. Since then Nikon have released many many DX (APS-C) DSLRs, most of them are technically more advanced than the D300/D300s, and have better image quality, but none of them gives you the same kind of control, rugged body that the semi-professional D300/D300s can give you.
But after so many years, when almost everyone (me at least) thought there will not be another semi-professional DX DSLR. all of a sudden Nikon announced the new D500, a true successor to the D300s. Just like the D300 which is basically a mini D3 with cropped sensor, the D500 has pretty much all the latest technology from the latest flagship D5, minus the full frame sensor, plus a few extra tricks even it’s bigger brother doesn’t know.
D500’s body design is pretty much what everyone expected a D300s successor would be. It’s got a metal alloy body, weather sealed, and with professional buttons/controls layout. The grip is deep and feel very nice, and the camera’s ergonomics is just fantastic like most Nikon cameras. As a semi-professional camera, the D500 doesn’t have D7200’s consumer oriented scene and effects mode on the left top dial, instead you have the 4 buttons for the professional/advance users, which are WB, QUAL, Metering, and Mode buttons.
Where is the ISO button? Nikon has moved the ISO to the right side, next to the shutter button. This allows single hand ISO changing operation. (Note: The new D5 also has the same button layout changes.)
Look at the back of the camera, the first thing you’ll notice is probably the circular viewfinder. This is the first time a non single digit DX camera received this symbolic circular viewfinder. Maybe it’s a way for Nikon to tell people the D500 is a serious camera. Or this is purely because the D500’s viewfinder has a 100% coverage and 1.0x magnification? But anyway, the viewfinder is really big and bright for an APS-C DSLR. It’s bigger than D7200 and also D300s rectangular viewfinder and the best thing is that you can use accessories like the DK-17M magnifying eyepiece straight out of the box.
Underneath the viewfinder, is the new 3.2” touch-enabled 2359k-dot LCD screen, which is the same size and resolution as the D5. The only difference is that the D500’s screen is also tilt-able while the D5 is fixed. The folding screen hinges are quite strong and should be able to take a bit of abuse.
The touchscreen implementation on the D500 is very similar to the D5 and last year’s D5500. It’s mostly used for you to review photos, like pinch-to-zoom. But you can also use it in Live View to select the focus point. Unfortunately, you can’t use the touchscreen as a trackpad to select your AF point when shooting using the optical viewfinder like the D5500. It’s probably because Nikon has added a little joystick next to the screen for that purpose but personally I really want to have the option to slide the finger on the touchscreen to move the AF point quickly. Overall the touchscreen works quite well but is a bit limited in what you can do. I would definitely want to see Nikon expand the touchscreen control further more in the future.
One cool feature that was introduced by the D4 is the illuminated buttons at the back and top of the camera. This is a very useful feature but most importantly your camera looks super freaking cool at night! Until now only the flagship models (D4,D4s and D5) have this feature, even the D810 doesn’t have it. But it’s like Nikon really want to put all the cool features on the D500 and that includes these illuminated buttons.
The D500 has dual card slots, one XQD and one SD. Frankly as a D800 user, I’m not a big fan of this dual card type configuration as I found mixing two types of card is really a pain. I would prefer Nikon make it either dual XQD or dual SD slots. Dual SDs would be more friendly to most users as pretty everyone would have a lot of SD cards in our camera bag. But XQD does give us some really big benefit which I will talk about that next.
One reason why the D7000 series cameras can’t satisfy a lot of serious D300s owners is it’s limited buffer size. Even the latest D7200’s buffer is still small when you compare to the D300s or the Canon 7D Mark II. It almost look like Nikon intentionally did that on purpose to leave room for the D300s replacement. And here we come, the D500 has a HUGE 200 frames buffer. And it’s 200 full resolution 14 bit lose-less compressed RAW, same as the D5. This is unheard of for a camera at this price range. Just to give you some ideas, D7200’s buffer is 18 14-bit compressed RAWs, Canon 7D Mark II is 31, Nikon D4s is 78. D500’s 200 frames buffer is even larger than the latest Canon flagship 1D X Mark 2 which is a very respectable 170 frames. D500’s huge image buffer is definitely a great news for any sports photographer who need to keep shooting and shooting at it’s maximum 10fps burst rate!
But one thing you need to aware is that the 200 frames buffer is only achievable if you are using XQD card. The buffer size becomes smaller if you are using the slower SD cards. I don’t have any fast SD cards myself but I’ve heard reports of around 80 frames buffer using some of the faster SD card. Quite a bit smaller than 200 frames, but still very very good compare to any other camera in this class. With my pretty slow class 10 60MB/s SD card, I can only get around 32 shots before I filled up the buffer. So seeing XQD is what Nikon wants to use in the future in all it’s high end cameras, I would say definitely add a good XQD card to your shopping cart when you are picking up your D500.
The D500 has a brand new 20.9MP sensor with latest EXPEED 5 processor, no anti-alias filter. Is it a coincidence that the new D5’s resolution is almost identical? Probably not. While 20.9MP is definitely not high resolution in 2016 standard, it is a good balance between speed, amount of details captured and overall image quality with the technology we have today.
To see how good the D500’s image quality is, I’ve borrowed a D750 from Nikon NZ and do some comparison tests with the D500. I reason I picked the D750 is because these two cameras’s price is quite similar, and have a similar sized body so I guess some people could be choosing a camera between these two. In my opinion the D750 is probably still the best Nikon FX DSLR for a lot of users so I want to see how this new DX camera performs when I put it against the best FX camera.
First thing I want to look at is the high ISO performance. D500’s native ISO range is 100 – 51,200, and expandable to maximum Hi 5 setting, which is 1,640,000! This definitely look crazy but then spec on paper is one thing and actual performance is another so really need to take some photos and see how does it perform against the full frame D750.
With the excellent high ISO performance we have today, I started the ISO comparison at ISO800. And the results are below. Please note all the photos are RAW files converted to JPGs with zero noise reduction and everything at default setting (Profile: Camera Standard). As the D500 and D750 have different output resolution I’ve normalised (resized) all the photos to 16MP for a direct comparison. It also means you can compare these results with the D5 (and Df) when my D5 review is up in a few weeks time.
Look at the crops above, up to ISO 3200, the image quality from both cameras are very similar. There is very minimal amount of noise and the cameras retain a good level of details and colour information. Images from the D750 is slightly cleaner but the difference is quite small.
From ISO 6400 onwards, the amount of noise becomes a lot more obvious and image quality drops a bit but overall D500’s image quality is still pretty good until ISO 25600. I would say for most usage, image quality is borderline useable at ISO 51200 and the D750 seems to be able to maintain a bit more fine details but the advantage is probably around half stop at most when compares to the D500.
When ISO reaches six digits, the image quality drops dramatically and anything from 200k onwards is purely for emergency use only. The claimed 1 Million+ maximum ISO is more or less a marketing gimmick as I don’t see people would normally use it . Having said that, look at the photo below that was taken at almost ISO100000. Who would have thought an APS-C camera can give you (borderline) useable image at such high ISO! And the fact that the D500 can almost match D750’s high ISO performance, with a much smaller sensor is just damn impressive.
Next, I want to compare D500’s exposure latitude with the D750. All the comparison photos were captured within a 10 minutes period, in 14 bit RAW. Postprocessing is limited to just push/pull exposure in Lightroom with no other processing. The results are below.
When pushing the exposure (i.e. the original photo were underexposed), the RAW files from both cameras managed to give me similar and very good results up to +5EV. At +6EV, the D500 file still manage to retain a lot of shadow details and not much chromatic noise. The D750’s output is similar but you can see there is quite a bit of chromatic noise in the shadow area. The D500 clearly performs better in this test. Unfortunately I wasn’t really expecting the D500 can handle a +6EV push so well otherwise I would have done a +7EV test and see the result from a +7EV push.
Next is the pull exposure test.
When trying to pull exposure, up to -2EV, results from both cameras are quite good. At -3EV I can see noticeably more highlight clipping from the D750. Just look at the sky/cloud area and you can see the difference. Both cameras can’t handle -4EV very well. The result from the D500 is slightly better but both aren’t really useable.
It’s quite apparent the D500 exposure latitude is better than the D750. It can handle both push or pull exposure better. This is very exciting as D750’s exposure latitude is already one of the best in the market. And compare the pull to the push results, you can see the latest sensors still has a much bigger exposure latitude in shadow than highlight, opposite to colour negative film.
The D500 has a brand new 180K-pixel RGB metering system which is the same as the one D5 uses. The metering sensor has double the amount of pixel of D4’s metering system and the metering seems to be more consistent and predictable. Nikon says the metering system works in conjunction with the autofocus system to improve the face and object tracking performance.
D500’s 153 point Multi-CAM 20K autofocus module is also brand new and as you have probably guessed, also the same as D5. I’ve already spent two weeks shooting with a D5 before reviewing the D500 and I was truly amazed by this new autofocus system. Now with D500’s cropped sensor, the same AF module covers even larger area. In fact, apart from a bit of gap at the top and bottom of the frame, the 153 autofocus points virtually covers the whole frame. And unlike the old Multi-Cam 3500 system where all the 15 cross type AF points are located near the centre, D500’s 99 cross type autofocus points are spread out from edge to edge. It means the autofocus performance won’t drop dramatically once the target leaves the centre area.
Low light autofocus performance is great (down to -4EV) and D500 can autofocus on backlight objects with much greater accuracy and consistency than any other DSLR I have used before.
There really isn’t anything I can complain about the autofocus system. It’s the best autofocus system I’ve ever used, argue-ably better than the D5 because of it’s wider coverage area. If you shoot anything that moves, or under low light, or backlight, or AF point is not centre, you’ll love D500 (and D5)’s autofocus system.
To be honest, just the autofocus system alone is worth the upgrade price. But there is more.
DSLRs use phase detection system as it’s primary autofocus system. It’s fast and great for tracking. Unfortunately it is quite often you’ll need a bit of fine tune to get perfect autofocus especially if you shoot with fast prime lenses. That’s why a lot of DSLRs these days have AF fine tune feature, but if you have tried that yourself, you would agree the process is just cumbersome and time consuming. Basically you need to adjust, shoot and check photo and repeat until you get the best result. But what Nikon has created for the D500 (and D5) is a feature called automated AF fine-tune. Basically the camera can automatically figure out the best AF fine tune value for you. You just need to press a few buttons and the whole process should only take a few seconds.
If I’m to nitpick, I would say one problem with Nikon’s AF fine tune system is that it’s only optimised for a single shooting distance, so it’s possible the optimised value is not the best for all the different shooting distance, or focal length if you are using a zoom lens. But regardless, this automated AF fine tune is just so good and quick to setup. I would never want to go back to the old way.
The D500 is as far as I know the first DSLR that has built-in Wifi, NFC and bluetooth connection, even the D5 doesn’t have any of them. This allows the camera to create and maintain a persistent connection with your smartphone using the Nikon Snapbrige app. With the persistent connection, the camera can automatically send all the images to your phone in the background using the bluetooth connection. You can also setup your phone to then automatically backup your images to the cloud. The Snapbridge app also allows you to remote control (shooting) from your phone, and sync the clock and location information to the camera. While I haven’t got a chance to test it, Nikon said it will allow you to receive the latest firmware updates so you don’t need to manually download the firmware and install it yourself.
The remote control and some features are a bit simple but everything works as expected. I do also expect Nikon will continue to update and improve the Snapbridge app in the future. Having the photos automatically backup to your phone is really a powerful feature in this Instagram age where people want to post photos instantly, maybe when you are still at the events or you are travelling and don’t have the computer with you.
The only downside with the Snapbridge app is that despite it is using the Bluetooth low energy (BLE) technology, there is definitely a noticeable impact on the camera’s battery life. I could only get around 600 shots per charge when I have the camera always connected to my phone and sending all the photos to my phone. So if you don’t need these features, it’s better to turn it off and you’ll get a much better battery life.
Just like the D5, the D500 can also record videos at 1080P and 4K resolution. I haven’t spend too much time playing with the videos so I’m not going to comment too much about it.
My last DX camera was a Nikon D200, I replaced it with a FX (full frame) D700 and have been staying in the FX family since then. When I heard people asking when the D400 (i.e. D300’s successor) will be released, I just thought this will never happen. Price of the full frame camera has come down so much in the last few years so why bother with a semi-pro DX camera that would cost as much as a lot of full frame camera?
But after using the D500, I think I was wrong.
As a wedding photographer that is obsessed with shallow depth of field, I still won’t rush and go order a D500 for myself. But with the amazing 153 point autofocus module, the new metering system, the huge 200 frames buffer, the 2359k dot tilt-able touch-enabled LCD screen, 10fps burst rate, persistent connection with your phone using the Snapbridge app, 100% 1.0x viewfinder, those cool looking illuminated buttons, 4K video, automated AF fine tune, all inside a really customisable semi-pro body, the D500 is easily the best APS-C camera in the market. Nothing even come close. It’s basically a mini D5 with a cropped sensor.
And the new 20.9MP image sensor? It’s fantastic. I won’t say it outperform a full frame sensor, but it’s overall performance is very close to the best full frame cameras in the market.
There is no doubt the D5 (review coming soon) is the ultimate camera for Nikon shooters. But with the 1.5x crop factor (there is also a 1.3x crop mode on top of that), the same killer autofocus system (which would covers to the edge thanks to the cropped sensor), 200 frames buffer, and only 2fps slower, I would say the D500 is arguably the best camera for sports, birds, motorsports photographers, or anyone that needs range and speed.
The best thing is you can buy three D500s for the price of one D5. Talk about value for money with the latest technology.
All photos were shot in RAW converted to JPG using Adobe Lightroom, adjusted to taste, uncropped unless specified
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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