Nikon D500 Review: Nikon’s Best DX Format Camera Yet

Think you need a full frame DSLR? Think again.

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The Nikon D500 is the latest and the greatest DX format camera that had ever come out of the Nikon assembly line. It has speed that would rival the likes of the D4, it has extremely high ISO sensitivity, and it is loaded with features that easily makes it an irresistible option even for die-hard full-frame users. Make no mistake, the D500 is easily a monster wearing a sheep skin, a camera that can knock the wind out of a number of highly fancied full-frame systems in terms of performance and handling. In this review we shall be taking a closer look at its features and try to find out why it kicked a storm in the photography arena.

Specifications

Let’s start with the sensor. The D500 is powered by a newly developed 20.9 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor. Nikon has uses EXPEED 5 image processor in this camera. The D500 clocks the fastest speed when it comes to DX format cameras. It can shoot at a phenomenal 10 fps rate. Speed without the associated buffer is meaningless. The D500 has the buffer to back up its phenomenal shooting speed. It can shoot up to 79 RAW frames before the buffer overruns.

DX format cameras offer a huge advantage to photographers who love shooting with their full-frame lenses. The 1.5x crop factor propels a lens to a longer focal length, without the associated drop in maximum aperture. Thus, if you have a 300mm lens, with the D500 your lens becomes the 35mm format equivalent of 450mm. It becomes a fantastic lens for photographing birds and wildlife. The camera has a 153-point AF system, out of which 55 are selectable. The biggest draw is definitely 4K / UHD shooting abilities.

Image Processing

Powering the image processing unit is Nikon’s EXPEED 5 image processor.

nikon-d500-2Auto-focusing

Auto-focusing on the D500 is powered by a 153-point Multi-CAM 20K system. The AF points are distributed across almost the entire viewfinder. This makes it extremely easy to lock focus regardless of the position your subject is in the frame and then track focus as it moves across the frame. 99 of these sensors are cross-type. You can, however, only select 55 of these. The rest will remain invisible and be used for subject tracking.

The number of available selectable points will keep getting diminished as you use older (Nikon says non AF-S) lenses and lenses which have smaller maximum apertures. A total of 15 of these are usable even when shooting with a lens with a maximum aperture of f/8. 9 out of which will be selectable. All 153 of these points can lock focus at an EV of -4.
In actual shooting auto-focusing performance has been very good. Initial focus locking is snappy. Once focus is locked the 153-point system is quite reliable most of the times to keep focus lock, even if the subject moves about. Still focusing with auto-focus is instantaneous.

Still Shooting

We have already read about the shooting speed and buffer capabilities of the camera. The D500 would make sports, action and wildlife shooters happy. It has an incredible shooting speed with full Auto-Exposure and Auto-Focus. RAW performance is impeccable. JPEG quality is slightly less par in quality.

ISO range

One of the greatest things about the D500 is its low light shooting abilities. The native ISO on the D500 ranges up to 51200. On extended mode it goes to a ridiculous level of 1640000. But that is beside the point. It is not the ability to shoot at such high ISO levels but whether the camera is capable of producing usable files is what matters. The Nikon D7200, before the D500, had been the undisputed APS-C champion in that regard. The D500, if not better than that is a close match.

Viewfinder & LCD Screen

The rear side of the D500 is dominated by a 3.2” 2359k-dot tilting RGB touchscreen capable LCD screen. The touchscreen capabilities of the LCD screen has profound implications. It not only responds to menu selection, but for those with dexterity and preciseness in mind, the D500 has the ability to focus on touch.

A promotional video showed action and adventure photographer Keith Ladzinski using touch to focus feature of the camera while photographing climbers while being suspended off a cliff 500’ in the air.

You don’t always have to go that extreme to make use of that feature. You could shoot videos while planted firmly on terra firma and yet get excellent results with the tilt-screen.

nikon-d500-3Build quality

The D500 and the D5 launched at the same time. As a sort of announcement to the whole world that Nikon is ready to challenge the world in both formats. The D500 shares many of the build qualities that are incorporated into the D5. The D500 has a magnesium alloy construction. This gives the camera a rugged solidity. On top of that the camera has carbon fiber composites. This makes it lightweight and yet durable.

The D500 is designed as an upgrade of the grand-daddy of DX cameras, the D300S. The look and feel of the camera is somewhat similar to that one. While the outgoing champ, the D7200, is definitely more boxy, the D500 is more laid out. The positioning of the buttons as well as the overall genomics are however, highly subjective and you may or may not agree with third party opinion.

Video Shooting

The D500 is one of the few DSLRs that comes with the ability to shoot native UHD/4K video footages. UHD video recording uses a 1.5x crop of the sensor. Effectively that makes a normal 35mm format lens become 2.25 times longer. When shooting full HD, the crop is 1.3x times. Thus, a normal 35mm format lens produces a focal length 1.95x its original focal length. When shooting full HD, however, the entire length and breadth of the sensor is utilized.

As you can imagine with the full sensor being utilized, this produces the widest angle of view together with the shallowest depth of field possible. The higher the video resolution, the smaller the sensor area being used the more the depth of field. This is important to remember when selecting the video resolution for your shoots.

Frames are variable as you can imagine. At 4K / UHD you can shoot at 30, 25 and 24p. At full HD you can shoot at up to 60p. There is an important addition on the D500 and that is highlight warning. This feature like the zebra functions warns you when you have clipped your highlights.

Having said that, however, there are some important omissions which will not please professional cinematographers or users looking to use this for serious video shooting. There is no focus peaking when shooting manually. You are stuck relying on your eyes or use some external options.

The D500 has traditional contrast detect auto-focusing in live-view / video mode. This is reliable but nearly as effective when it comes to dual-pixel CMOS auto-focusing that drives the rival Canon flagship APS-C system. For Nikon shooters this is one area where the D500 would lose out to the 7D Mark II.

nikon-d500-4Connectivity

First up is the SnapBridge Connectivity. The D500 is one of the few cameras that Nikon makes that comes with SnapBridge connectivity. This technology allows easy transfer of images and videos. It also has BLE or Bluetooth Low Energy connectivity as well. The speed of Bluetooth transfer however is far from being convincing as is the general experience. With the app, however, and when you are connected to a Wi-Fi network you can transfer your images to the cloud.

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