Camera Review: Nikon D500
December 15, 2016
Nikon’s D500 had the somewhat unfortunate fate of being announced to the world right alongside the company’s flagship full-frame DSLR, the D5. Like a younger sibling who has to watch the world fawn over the wunderkind while it sits brooding in the corner, the D500 runs the risk of being overlooked. It shouldn’t be.
In many respects, the D500 is a D5 in miniature. It boasts a smaller 20-megapixel APS-C-sized CMOS sensor, yes, but the same EXPEED 5 image processor. While its ISO range isn’t quite D5-ridiculous, it still stretches from 100-51,200 with options to push to 1,640,000. Its AF sensor packs an identical 153 AF points that fill the frame and include 99 cross-type sensors and 15 that are supported to f/8. You’ll be able to manually select 55 AF points, including 35 of the cross-type sensors and nine of the f/8 sensors. The AF system is sensitive to -4 EV and supports autofocus fine tuning—just like the D5.
The D500 incorporates SnapBridge, Nikon’s term for the use of Bluetooth Low Energy to maintain a constant connection between the D500 and your mobile phone. This always-on connection means you won’t have to constantly pair your phone to your camera to initiate image transfers—after an initial setup, those photos are transferred automatically every time the phone and camera are turned on within proximity. You won’t be transferring RAW images to your phone, but it’s ideal for getting social media-friendly JPEGs into your phone for uploading (you mustn’t keep your Instagram fans waiting, you know).
There’s also Wi-Fi and USB 3.0 but no GPS. You can, however, use the SnapBridge connection to append time and location data to your images from your smartphone. The D500 has both an SD and XQD card slot—the latter is necessary to hit the camera’s top burst speeds.
We turned the D500 over to New Jersey-based photographer and director David Patiño for his impressions and one of the first elements of the camera he remarked on was the ergonomics and build quality. While Nikon markets it as an “enthusiast” camera, it’s got a pro feel, Patiño says. It’s lighter than the D5 and lacks the extensive weather sealing but is still reassuringly sturdy with a pronounced grip that gives you a secure hold. Compared to its crop sensor peers, though, it’s on the bulkier side—slightly heavier than Canon’s 7D Mark II and a giant next to mirrorless models like Sony’s a6300.
You’ll find a 3.2-inch display on the back of the camera that’s touch sensitive but not fully touch (you can’t navigate the menu using touch). It’s a tilt screen and while it’s not fully articulating, it does give you a few options for composing at tough angles. The button layout is roughly identical to the D5, though it lacks the D5’s duplicate set of controls for vertical shooting. There are plenty of ways to customize the controls to your liking.
The D500 delivers much what you’d expect in the image quality department—Patiño described the image quality as “spot on.” The D500 has the best dynamic range we’ve seen in an APS-C camera lately and Patiño tell us adding that the low-light performance of the D500 was “excellent. I’d have no problem shooting this camera at up to ISO 12,000.”
RAW images will start to show noise at ISO 1600 when zoomed in at 100 percent but through ISO 12,000 they’re pretty easily cleaned up in Lightroom. JPEG image quality starts to noticeably deteriorate at ISO 12,000 too—an excellent performance from a camera in this class. While its smaller sensor may not catch as much light as the full-frame D5, the D500 is still extremely capable in lower light environments. Much like with the D5, the very high ISO values (the Hi settings) aren’t really producing useable images and ISO 1,640,000 is shot-through with pink and purple noise.
We tested the camera with the AF-S NIKKOR 16-80mm DX VR ED lens, which is bundled with the D500 in some kit versions. Shooting wide open at f/2.8 we spotted very strong vignetting. Caveat emptor.
Like the D5, the D500 records 4K video at 2840 x 2160 at 30 or 24 fps alongside full HD at up to 60 fps. And, like the D5, it works with a crop of the sensor—a fairly jarring 2.2x crop in the case of the D500. That said, video recorded in camera was color accurate and 4K was crisply detailed. The D500 offers a flat picture profile for a more desaturated file, though the effect is not as dramatic as log formats on competitive models. There’s a microphone and headphone jack for audio work.
The D500 clocks in with a solid continuous shooting rate of 10 fps, a hair below Sony’s a6300 and on par with Canon’s 7D Mark II. While Patiño says the camera’s AF performance wasn’t always as responsive as the D5, it still locks on its target with pronounced speed. We loved the wide AF coverage—it usefully stretches right out to the edge of your frame—and found AF tracking performed superbly. The D500 was able to keep frenetic youth soccer players consistently in focus with just a few misses sprinkled among 100 frames. We noticed that the camera would miss more frequently in 3D tracking when there were multiple objects in the frame, but on balance, the AF system proved more than capable on the sidelines. Low-light focusing was equally impressive.
That said, the 7D Mark II’s Dual Pixel CMOS AF provides significantly better AF performance in video, something the D500 struggled with. Most serious video users will likely avoid AF altogether, but if video AF is important, the D500 isn’t top of its class.
The D500 continues Nikon’s strong showing in the power management department. It boasts a CIPA-rated 1,240-shot battery life, besting Canon’s 7D Mark II by a fair margin and more than doubling the battery life of flagship mirrorless cameras.
At nearly $2,000 for the body, the D500 is a pricey crop sensor option. It’s double the price of Sony’s a6300, which is another excellent camera for capturing fast-moving subjects. What’s more, it’s physically far larger than the a6300 with fewer video features, though it boasts better low-light performance and vastly better battery life.
Its closest DSLR competitor is Canon’s aging 7D Mark II which has fallen in price since its debut, making it $500 less than the D500. Across most metrics, though, the D500 is the clear winner: it boasts a wider ISO sensitivity, superior low-light metering, more plentiful AF points (though fewer cross-type points), 4K recording and built-in Wi-Fi. When we ask Patiño to sum up his time with the D500, he tells us bluntly, “It’s one hell of a camera.”
PROS: Constant smartphone connectivity; snappy AF performance; excellent image quality and dynamic range; great in low light environments; comfortable ergonomics; strong battery life.
CONS: 4K video is tightly cropped; AF video performance lags competition; fairly bulky.