Camera Review: Nikon D5

September 20, 2016

By Greg Scoblete

Nikon’s superhero has faster, more accurate autofocusing and see-in-the-dark ISO settings.

If digital cameras were superheroes, Nikon’s D5 would unquestionably be Superman, at least in the Nikon universe. Like the Kryptonian, the D5 has terrific vision—locking focus on fast subjects or in low light.

And, like the Man of Steel, it’s tough, with incredible endurance. But even the mightiest heroes have weaknesses, so we turned the D5 over to New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño (www.davidpatino.com) to see what this superhero could do. Our lenses of choice were the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70 f/2.8 ED and the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II.


The D5 boasts a 20.8-megapixel full-frame sensor with a native ISO of 100-102,400. This industry-leading ISO performance can be pushed still further to ISO 50 or, wait for it, ISO 3,280,000.

The autofocus system has been upgraded with 153 AF points—the most of any DSLR to date—including 99 cross type points and 15 points supported to f/8. The D5 is capable of focusing on objects in low light, down to -4EV at the central point and -3 EV at all other points. Then there’s speed. The D5 torches with a continuous shooting rate of 12 fps with continuous AF engaged. Fix focus on the first frame and shoot in mirror-up mode and you can push speeds to an incredible 14 fps.

The D5 is Nikon’s first full-frame DSLR to support 4K video recording. The camera records 3840 x 2160 video at 30, 25 or 24 fps and full HD video at up to 60 fps. Firmware released as we were concluding our review pushed video recording up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds (4K video had been capped to 3 minute clips).

There are two variants of the D5: one with a pair of CompactFlash slots and one with a pair of XQD memory card slots (we tested the XQD model). We don’t quite understand why there’s a CompactFlash option—far better to adopt the future-proof (and faster) CFast card alongside XQD—or use the more popular SD card. In any event, you’ll get a higher buffer capacity with XQD memory—up to 200 lossless JPEGs (12-bit) at a clip. That’s the option we think most photographers should spring for.

Outstanding build quality and battery life make the D5 an ideal camera for any number of shooting scenarios.

Outstanding build quality and battery life make the D5 an ideal camera for any number of shooting scenarios.


The D5 is suitably robust, with duplicated shutter buttons and handgrips to support horizontal and vertical shooting positions. It’s heavy, at 49.6 ounces, but anyone upgrading from earlier flagship models knows what to expect. Patiño says he really appreciated the locking memory card door, which makes it less likely to inadvertently pop open.

Some buttons, such as ISO, have been relocated from their spots on the D5’s immediate predecessor, the D4s, but the control layout is intuitive and highly customizable. The 3.2-inch display is fixed and is touchscreen, but touch isn’t consistently applied—you can’t scroll through the menu or adjust camera settings using touch.


Patiño shot the D5 outdoors, in the studio with Profoto strobes and in “very dark conditions” without flash or LED lighting. While the 20-megapixel sensor isn’t industry-leading in resolution terms, Patiño tells us the files showed good dynamic range, accurate colors and the RAW files had “plenty to work with.”

Shooting RAW, noise is visible starting at ISO 800, but with some noise reduction in Lightroom, there’s plenty of room to clean up RAW files through ISO 25,600. Patiño says he would be reluctant to shoot above those sensitivities unless the content required it. One issue that Patiño encountered when cranking the ISO: “At ISO 500,000, I ran out of shutter speed!”

Shooting JPEGs, Nikon’s noise reduction (set to normal) does a nice job of keeping images clean up to ISO 51,200, which is excellent. Of course, there’s a steady loss of detail as you climb the ISO ladder but it’s still the best ISO performances we’ve seen—only Sony’s a7S II compares. At 102,400 there’s a sharp degradation where colors shift, details are lost and image quality takes a hit.

About ISO 3 million: It makes for an eye-catching spec, but in practice any image shot at that setting is good for glitch art but not much else. In fact, there are five Hi settings that push ISO from 204,800 to 3,280,000 and all of them render images that are awash in pink and purple noise, even with JPEG noise reduction set to high.

Video quality, captured in-camera, was excellent. The D5 will use a 1.5x crop of the sensor when shooting 4K but the footage was crisp and color accurate. We set the camera to capture in its flattened profile, but the results weren’t as desaturated as we were expecting. Despite its high price tag and flagship status, the D5 doesn’t have the numerous cinema-friendly picture profiles that lower-priced mirrorless models deliver and outputs an 8-bit, not 10-bit, uncompressed signal. There’s no focus peaking or zebra stripes, either.


Patiño used the D5 for a series of outdoor environmental portraits. He was duly impressed by the focusing capabilities of the camera. “You can’t miss,” he says. For one image outdoors, he was literally swinging the camera up from below waist level and firing at waist point; focus was locked. “It has an
‘it just works’ quality to it,” Patiño says. Low-light focusing was particularly impressive, he tells us. We were able to focus the camera in a darkened room illuminated only by the light seeping in under the door.

The D5 focuses so quickly that even if you want to select focus points manually, you can quickly recompose images using the joystick to pick AF points. Coupled with zero shutter lag, the camera is a speed demon. With the high ISOs enabling faster shutter speeds and the D5’s ability to lock focus in very low light, event and wedding photographers have a potent tool at their disposal. Bird photography? We set the D5 and the 70-200mm on a tripod aimed at a stationary feeder with AF set to continuous and the D5 hit an impressive number of in-focus shots of birds in flight and tussling over the seed. When using the 3D predictive tracking, the AF was less consistent—sometimes it locked on a bird in flight, other times on an adjacent tree branch or the stationary bird feeder.

If the D5 is fast, it’s not stealthy—the shutter is loud. There’s a quiet shooting mode, but to our ears, it wasn’t significantly quieter. The silent shooting mode (electronic shutter) is only available for JPEGs and caps file sizes at 5MB.

Given all the computational horsepower, you would think that the D5 would devour batteries, but just the opposite. Battery life is an incredible 3,780 shots, per CIPA standards. That makes a mockery of any mirrorless camera but also bests, by a wide margin, the performance of Canon’s 1D X Mark II’s CIPA-rated 1,210 shots.


For those firmly in Nikon’s camp, the D5 makes a powerful case for continued investment. To quote Patiño, “the D5 is a $6,500 autofocusing machine.” It’s the best we’ve tested in that department. It’s low-light capabilities—sensitivity and focusing—are equally unparalleled.

If you’re weighing a 1D X Mark II, there are some significant differences: Canon delivers a better video feature set, slightly faster burst performance and costs less. Nikon’s D5 offers vastly better battery life, more AF points and better low-light sensitivity. It’s a choice that’s less about the merits of each flagship than about your particular needs.

Nikon D5

PROS: Impressive AF speed and accuracy; outstanding battery life; durable build; blazing continuous shooting speeds; high ISO sensitivity.

CONS: Lacks built-in GPS; noisy shutter; limited video feature set.

PRICE: $6,500

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