Although it has an APS-C format sensor the Nikon D500 is a professional-level SLR aimed at experienced photographers. It uses the same sensor architecture as Nikon’s flagship SLR, the D5, and this in combination with the Expeed 5 processing engine and a relatively modest effective pixel count of 20.9 million, enables a very wide sensitivity range.
There’s also an excellent autofocus system which works well in gloomy conditions, helping to make the camera an excellent all-rounder and a great choice for sport and action photographers.
There are a couple of minor handling niggles, but the camera has a high degree of weather-sealing and should be able to survive intensive use.
|Camera Name||Nikon D500|
|Date announced||5th Jan 2016|
|Price at launch||£1,729.99/$1,996.95 (body only)|
|Sensor size||APS-C (23.5 x 15.7mm)|
|Effective pixel count||20.9 million (5568 x 3712)|
|Sensitivity range||ISO 100-102,400 expandable to ISO 50-1,640,000|
|AF system||153-point with 99 cross-type|
|Max shooting rate||10fps|
|Max video resolution||4K (3840 x 2160)|
|Storage||XQD and SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-II)|
|Viewfinder||Optical with pentaprism 100% coverage|
|Screen||3.2-inch TFT LCD with 2,359,000 dots|
|Dimensions||147x115x81mm /5.8x4.6x3.2 in|
|Weight||860g with battery and XQD card|
The D500 is the camera that Nikon photographers have been anticipating for years, finally putting all those Nikon D400 rumours to bed and taking the top-spot in the company’s DX (APS-C) format DSLR line-up. It fills the gap between the D7200 and full-frame (FX) models like the D810 that has existed ever since the D300S (launched in 2009) ceased production.
Although it has an APS-C format sensor the D500 a pixel count of 20.9 million, very similar to the 20.8-million-pixel Nikon D5 announced at the same time. While that might disappoint owners of 24Mp Nikon DSLRs like the D3300, D5500 and D7200, it’s worth remembering that the if the D500’s sensor was sized to match the D5’s it would have an effective pixel count of 48.6 million.
The pixel count has been kept to a more modest level to enable better low light performance. With this in mind, the D500’s sensor and Expeed 5 processing engine combo enable a standard sensitivity range of ISO 100-51,200 and a series of five expansion settings take the top figure up to ISO 1,640,000.
This is a stop (1EV) lower than the D5’s ISO 3,280,000 maximum to compensate for the fact that the D500’s photosites (aka pixels) are smaller.
There are plenty of other similarities between the D500 and the D5, Nikon’s top-end FX camera. The two cameras use the same 153-point Multi-CAM 20K autofocus module for example. This means that the D500 has 99 cross-type AF sensors with the central one being sensitive down to -4EV and the others down to -3EV, so it’s effective in very low light.
Like the D5, the D500 has a top continuous shooting rate of 10 fps (frames per second) with a burst depth of up to 200 14-bit lossless compressed raw files, making it very useful to sport, action and wildlife photographers.
The two cameras also use the same 180,000-pixel RGB sensor for metering and white balance sensor. This device also provides information to the automatic scene recognition system which helps the camera understand what it’s being asked to photograph and helps the autofocus system with subject detection and tracking.
In a couple of respects the D500 offers a bit more than the D5. Both cameras are capable of shooting 4K UHD (3840 x 2160) movies, for example, but the whereas the Nikon D5 is limited to recording just 3 minutes (at least until a promised firmware upgrade arrives) the D500 can record up to 29 minutes 59 seconds. It’s also possible to shoot Full HD footage at up to 60p for slow motion playback.
The second bonus of the D500 is that it has Nikon’s new SnapBridge technology, the D5 doesn’t. After the first connection has been made, SnapBridge enables the D500 to stay wirelessly connected to a smartphone or tablet using a low-power connection so that images can be transferred automatically from the camera ready for sharing from the phone.
The D500 also makes more use of the touch-sensitivity of its 3.2-inch 2,359,000-dot screen. Whereas the D5 only allows the screen to be used when reviewing images and to input text, the D500 allows the AF point to be set with a tap on the screen in live view and video mode.
As you’d expect with a pro-level camera, the D500 has two card ports, one for SD-type media and the other XQD cards – these have faster read and write times.
Nikon D500 Build and handling
It may not have quite the same durability as the D5, but the D500 is clearly a tough customer and it’s weather-sealed beyond the D300S’s specification. It also doesn’t have the double-grip design of the D5, but it’s grip is well-shaped and comfortable to hold with a textured coating giving good grip.
As mentioned earlier, the D500’s screen is touch-sensitive but it’s not possible to make menu selections or settings adjustments using the screen and there’s the full compliment of physical controls that you’d expect. This includes a mini-joystick type controller for setting AF point when the camera is held to your eye.
It seems odd to me that the screen that’s activated by pressing the ‘Info’ button isn’t interactive, and that the options revealed by pressing the ‘I’ button aren’t customisable – or at least a collection of options that are more likely to be required on a shot to shot basis.
Being an SLR, the D500 has an optical viewfinder. It’s a high quality pentaprism unit that shows 100% of the field of view and (as you’d expect) there’s a very brief blackout period when shooting at 10fps so it’s easy to follow a moving subject.
In addition, the screen provides a very clear view with plenty of detail. It’s also mounted on a very tough feeling tilting bracket.
One minor but nevertheless annoying issue I had with the D500 was that the Focus selector lock (around the navigation control) shifted to the locked position accidentally on numerous occasions as I carried the camera on the strap over my shoulder. After a while I got used to checking it as I lifted the camera to my eye.
Nikon D500 Performance
One of the big selling points of the D500 is that it has the same focusing system as the D5 and it doesn’t disappoint. Even in very low light it’s capable of getting moving subjects sharp and tracking them as their distance from the camera changes. Naturally you can play a part in upping the hit rate by selecting a sensible AF-Area mode.
The 3D-tracking system, for example can be very useful for tracking subjects that move erratically but it relies on a strong colour contrast between the target and its background, so it can’t always be relied upon and isn’t a good choice when photographing team sports.
Similarly 153-point can also be useful, but using 72-, 25- and single-point increasingly enhances your chances of success – although it becomes harder to hold the active area over the subject as the number of points decreases.
While the contrast detection autofocus system that’s used in live view and video mode seems better than the ones in some of Nikon’s other DSLRs, it’s not a patch on the one in the average compact system camera and there’s noticeable backwards and forwards adjustment even in good light. I recommend videographers use manual focus if they need to shift focus while recording.
Images taken at the lower sensitivity settings have lots of detail which is maintained well up to around ISO 6400. Even though the coloured speckling of chroma noise starts to make an appearance in ISO 12,800 images at 100%, they still look very good. Naturally the level of noise creeps up with sensitivity, but it’s still controlled well at the top native sensitivity value (ISO 51,600).
There are five expansion settings beyond this value, the first (equivalent to ISO 102,400) produces respectable results but you can expect to see banding in images shot at values higher than this. I wouldn’t recommend using settings above this, the results at the top setting are pretty dire.
The D500’s automatic white balance and Matrix metering systems both work well, but the metering system particularly impresses with brighter than average scenes.
Nikon D500 Verdict
While Nikon could be accused of chasing headlines with the D500 and D5’s sensitivity expansion settings, the results from the native sensitivity range are very good, giving photographers plenty of scope for low-light shooting. In addition the D500’s autofocus system is superb, getting fast moving subjects sharp in challenging conditions.
The D500 is also very durable and although there are a couple of handling niggles that are familiar from other Nikon DSLRs, it’s a pleasure to use. It adds up to being an excellent camera. It’s particularly pleasing that owners of other Nikon DX format cameras and lenses now have a model to upgrade to without having to go for a full-frame (FX) camera.
Best DSLRs in the world in 2016
DSLR cameras explained: 10 things to know about single lens reflex
Other cameras to consider
Canon EOS 7D Mark II
Canon 5D Mark III