Whenever gear really excites, and I’m talking dropping jaws and inducing smiles, my poetic waxing trends towards profanity as way to punctuate enthusiasm. I’ll spare you cursing here today — it’s not for every reader — but if you care to, feel free to imagine any of the compliments below delivered with your favorite swears…
Because, friends, the Nikon D500 is one awesome camera and it’s hard not to get excited about a piece of gear this good.
Kyle Schurman already did a bang-up job reviewing Nikon’s new flagship DX-format SLR over on the main site, so I’ll try to avoid rehashing his thoughts and the full specifications and feature lists. That said, I had the pleasure of traveling with Nikon (and some extremely talented photo journalists) to Palm Springs, CA to test out the D500 with a variety of lenses and accessories. The purpose of this post is to show off as many sample images as possible while describing what it’s like to use the D500 in the field, shooting thousands of photographs for several long days in punishing desert conditions.
How did the D500 hold up in the heat? Read on.
MEET THE NIKON D500
After years of anticipating a D300 successor, Nikon has a new flagship DX-format camera for 2016. Top-of-the-line for Enthusiast Photographers, the D500 isn’t a cheap camera — $1,999.95 for the body-only; $3,069.95 for the 16-80mm kit — but image quality and performance features of this caliber are well worth the premium. 20.9MP APS-C (DX) image sensor, ISO 100-51,200, Ultra HD video recording, 10 FPS burst shooting (up to 79 14-bit uncompressed RAW/NEF; up to 200 lossless compressed RAW/NEF), and a 153-point AF array are just the tip of a very large iceberg. The bottom line, as I hope you’ll see over this post, is that the D500 may be in Nikon’s Enthusiast camera line because of the smaller image sensor, but in it’s heart, the D500 is all Pro.
BUILD QUALITY & DESIGN
Right out of the box the D500 feels rugged, tough, and solid in the hands. Not necessarily stylish — expensive DSLRs all kinda look the same — but in its reserved simplicity, the camera disappears allowing you to focus on the photography. It wants nothing more or less than to be shooting all the time. And, as long as you have the batteries, it’ll keep doing that. Click after click after click.
In the 105-degree desert weather and blowing dust of Palm Springs, the D500 didn’t miss a single beat, inspiring confidence with every shutter release. Worry about safety and your shot, the D500 can keep up with you. Next time we’ll have to take it some place cold and wet to check the rest of the weather sealing, but I’m confident it would perform.
The Nikon D500 is extremely comfortable in hand, feeling like the extension of your arms and body. That said, after a couple years of primarily using Micro Four Thirds systems like the the Olympus OM-D E-M5ii, there’s a considerable difference in weight and size. In other words, if you’re shooting long hours over multiple days, get ready for a workout. On the other hand, for those used to working with pro gear, the D500 feels practically compact, especially when paired with the 16-80mm kit lens (more on this below) or one of the NIKKOR AF-S primes.
The 3.2″ tilting LCD touchscreen is also well designed. Live Mode is predictably slow, but for high or low angle shots, the LCD is helpful in composition. And, the touchscreen is great for adjusting settings and rifling through your growing collection of images (zoom in and out just like a smartphone).
I also love all of the on-body buttons and dials. Not only are they rugged, but the combination of (customizable) Function and dedicated buttons makes adjusting settings like ISO, aperture, shutter speed, exposure mode, or Auto vs. Manual Focus very intuitive. Pay special attention to the AutoFocus button; tapping it allows you to toggle between AF Area modes, which I’ll get to in a moment. Also, there’s a four-way button on the back that, when tapped while reviewing your photos, zooms to that shot’s center of focus. This is super-helpful in knowing if you nailed an action shot.
While the overall ergonomics are quite good, I do have one nitpick. The Menu is dense and a little bland. Granted, it’s like every DSLR, you can customize your favorite settings for near-instant access, and muscle memory kicks in the more you use the D500. All the same, I was left wondering if the industry has reached Peak DSLR Menus? Do DSLR Menus need an app on a phone? A reconfigured GUI? Should photographers simply dig in and read the manual? I’m not sure, but there’s probably a cleaner inference waiting to be invented or implemented.
FORGET THE FILTERS
The first thing anyone upgrading to this flagship enthusiast camera will notice is that everything on it is designed for photographers who already know how to shoot with manual-oriented DSLRs. Yeah, there’s a Program Auto mode for ease of use, but you won’t find any Creative Art Filters or Setting Modes or Film Simulation options like you will on entry-level DSLRs, M4/3 ILCs, and point-and-shoot camera systems.
This isn’t a complaint, mind you, but worth noting for anyone who enjoys those types of visual special features.
However, there are modes for picture adjustment (I particularly enjoyed the Monochrome settings). Much like the filters mentioned above, these adjustments only apply to JPEG images. RAW files are always untouched, which is the way I like it. Even though I shot extensively in Monochrome for an afternoon with Nikon, I enjoyed going back to the RAW files to develop my shots in Adobe Lightroom CC.
Which reminds me… Every sample image in this review was captured in 14-bit RAW/NEF, developed and cropped as needed in Lightroom, and then scaled down and saved to JPEG for web presentation. FYI, RAW files are approximately 25MB per image, compared to JPEGS in the 8-13MB range.
The next thing you notice when with the D500 — particularly during editing and developing — is latitude. I spend a lot of time writing about Ultra HD televisions and home entertainment gear, where one of the key features is High Dynamic Range. In the past, digital video and photography couldn’t match the latitude of film. Today, with new sensors like the ones Nikon keeps secret, digital photography simply blows film stocks out of the water (in terms of dynamic range and contrast). Even with underexposed images. The Nikon D500 captures a staggering amount of detail and color in every shot. The results, when paired with good glass, can be anything you want. I found many images to be tactile and filmic, almost painterly at times when creating a lush bokeh. At other times, the image is tack-sharp from camera to infinity. You can crush your black levels and pull details from spectral highlights and everything in between.
If the Nikon D500 did nothing else well (and it does), this sensor’s ability to capture light the way it does is worth the price of admission all by itself.
DX vs FX
There’s always chatter in some circles about how Full Frame is the only true image sensor size, because it represents the digital equivalent of shooting on film. Nikon’s FX format cameras are Full Frame. In that sense, and probably because they’re in entry and enthusiast-level DSLRs, the APS-C image sensor (Nikon’s DX format) is a bit of a red-headed stepchild. After years of trying out Full Frame, APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, smartphone, and point-and-shoot digicams — and talking to pros who use and evaluate such systems every day — I will say that most people simply don’t need Full Frame sensors. Outside of professional movie making and ultra large format prints, Micro Four Thirds and APS-C have a lot of offer beginners, enthusiasts, and even some pros. “Good enough” is one of my least favorite arguments, so I apologize, but in this case, the D500 stands shoulder to shoulder with pro equipment and has few APS-C rivals.
Weddings, time-lapses, portraits, street photography, travel, web, print; the D500 could be a main (or secondary) camera system for many working photographers.
That said, I will say the one trade off (other than crop factor) is noise levels. The D500 has an extended ISO range of ISO 50 to ISO 1640000, which was just impossible to imagine only a few years ago, and generally performs quite well. Check out the Steve’s Lab samples, where everything up to ISO 51200 looks surprisingly good. That said, in lower lighting conditions, I found the need to apply some noise reduction above ISO 6400 or ISO 8000.
Much has already been written about the Nikon D500’s new 153-point AutoFocus System. Simply put, this is a Pro-level system stuffed into an Enthusiast camera; it’s so good it will ALMOST make you a better photographer. I still made tons of mistakes during the press trip where we shot Polo and drifting BMW M3s. Turns out the best way to photograph automobiles — to give that sense of drama in motion — is to drop shutter speed to absurdly low levels, which means the D500 may grab focus, but if you’re not panning and tilting the DSLR perfectly, you get blur in all the wrong places.
Mistakes aside, we also shot at a skate park and in moving Jeeps and in ultra low light and this AF system nailed focus more times than not (especially with faster shutter speeds).
AF options include Single Point, Group Area, Auto Area, and 3D Tracking. Auto Area is basically for face detection; it selects a close point or group. Single Point focuses on one point. It’s set at frame-center, but you can move the focus point anywhere in frame if you like. Also, you can set the camera to temporarily consider 25, 72, or 153 surrounding points. Group Area AF is for shooting more complex scenes that might trip up Single Point. Every focus point gets equal priority. Lastly, 3D Tracking, or Matrix, allows shooters to manually selection a person or object, and the camera will the track said subject as it moves. You can also add Face Detection to 3D tracking, and the camera will prioritize human faces over other moving objects.
Honestly, there are so many options it’s a lot to take in at first. I found myself, over the course of this trip, using either Single Point with 72 or 153 points engaged, or 3D Tracking. We shot a lot of moving objects (people and animals and vehicles) and 3D Tracking worked quite well for slow to mid-speed subjects; if they’re moving too quickly, it’s a challenge to both select a subject and then track it before snapping away. In that sense, Single Point was perfect for sill subjects as well as incredibly fast ones (planes, birds, cards). Either way, the D500 AF system is good enough to up almost anyone’s game. Like anything else, though, I would recommend taking a class, or going on a photo trip, to get a handle on which system works for you and when.
The Nikon D500 shoots Ultra HD resolution video, a format that’s really coming into its own in television and movies. Assuming you set your shutter speed correctly, the D500 shoots a pretty picture overall, but the H.264 recording codec limits footage to 8-bit so you’re not getting the full benefit of UHD HDR. In other words, where your still photographs can be 14-bit and graded in HDR, your videos won’t have the same latitude. And the AutoFocus doesn’t work as well here (it’s noisy and slow). And sound needs to be captured on an external device.
None of this is surprising, or takes away from what this the D500 was designed to be — an amazing still camera. I simply wouldn’t recommend trying to shoot professional video on this device. For home movies and wedding videos, the results are pleasing.
Another feature from Nikon’s Pro cameras, the D500 comes equipped with dual memory card slots. One is your standard SD slot, while the other is for the newer, faster XQD memory cards. For our adventures, Nikon gave us each one 64GB Lear Professional 2933x XQD card. These things aren’t cheap — about $99 for the 64GB version — but they’re ultra fast and the best way to capture still images and video.
Unfortunately, these cards are also buggy on the D500. On two different D500 bodies with two separate XQD cards, I encountered a Memory Card Error when scrolling through captured images too quickly. Fortunately, no images were ever lost or corrupted, and turning the D500 off and back on proved to be a fix. Nikon is currently working on a patch for this.
For our press trip, we borrowed two EN-EL15 rechargeable LI-ON batteries. The D500 with this battery should be able to take upwards of one thousand shots on a single charge. My experience was about half that. According to Nikon, not all EN-EL15s were created equal, which may explain the discrepancy. That said, and while others were put off by these results, I have to say I was impressed. A half a day of hard shooting, with multiple Menu adjustments, while constantly reviewing images, and frequent use of burst mode. If there are versions of this battery that will last a full day, that’s even better, but I have to say a half day of shooting in 105-degree whether impresses me.
Nikon also provided us with the $599.95 SP-5000 AF Speedlight. To be honest, I don’t have much flash photography experience, but if you’re considering any accessory for the D500, this speedlight is terrific. Not only can it be mounted to the hot shoe, but there’s also an RF-enabled remote system to pair one or multiple Speedlights to the D500. And you don’t need line-of-sight to make it work. For the sample image above, we tested the Speedlight in direct sunlight to fill in a shadow under the brim of a hat. I think it worked quite well. Later, Nikon put together a photoshoot where two models were captured at night using 5 or 6 Speedlights, that were remotely linked together to light the models as well as key background and foreground objects.
As a flash novice, I definitely need to spend more time with the SP-5000, but it’s an easy system to use, and the results speak for themselves.
While Nikon brought a limited number of macro, fish-eye, zoom, and telephoto lenses to demo on our excursions, we had two zoom lenses for the extended review period. First up: the $1,069.95 AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR. Perfect for wide angle and portrait photography, the 16-80mm is a gorgeous piece of glass. Light and compact, I loved the shallow depth of field where it was perfect for hiking amidst close canyon walls. That said, while it lends itself for wide angle (and wide aperture) applications, it has just enough zoom length to come in handy.
The second lens included with my kit was the $999.95 AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR. This fun zoom that is great for travel or any scenario where you need an all-in-one — you’re covered for (moderately) wide angles, portraits, and telephoto requirements; and everything in between. It’s incredibly versatile and I was surprised, even a f/5.6, it produces a nice Bokeh. On the downside, you’ll need to lower your shutter speed and raise ISO as night approaches. And I’m not a huge fan of lenses that telescope outwards, or zoom lenses that have a shifting max-aperture range. That said, if you shoot in manual or aperture priority, set the aperture to f5.6 and have at it. This is an extremely useful piece of high quality glass.
I was also fortunate to try out the AF-S DX Fisheye NIKKOR 10.5mm f/2.8G ED (terrific, but you need to be extremely close to your subjects), the $2,099.95 AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 ED VR II (beautiful in low light, but pricey), and the $479.95 AF-S NIKKOR 85 f/1.8G (an excellent and affordable prime with lovely bokeh).
Overall, NIKKOR glass isn’t the cheapest option out there, but when paired with the D500’s sensor and autofocus capabilities, you can’t help but be impressed by the images produced.
The one feature I didn’t test during my loaner period was Nikon’s wireless photo transfer system, SnapBridge. At the time, the iOS iteration was unavailable, though plenty of the Nikon folks on my trip were using the app on their Android devices. I’ll wait to make any full judgments, but from what I witnessed, file transfer is somewhat slow and reduces camera battery longevity. However, the ability to drop high quality stills into your phone where they could be shared, or edited / developed for web purposes looked like a fun, time saver. We’ll make sure to revisit this feature in the future.
I was completely blown away by the Nikon D500. Breathtaking image quality. Fast. Tons of latitude. Accurate AutoFocus. Solid body. Sensible ergonomics. Good battery life (possibly great if the right batteries are used). Compatible with a range of great Nikon and third-party glass. Pro performance stuffed into a, relatively speaking, affordable body. For the price of one Full Frame DSLR body, you can snag a D500 and two nice lenses and off you go.
Simply put, Nikon’s flagship Enthusiast camera is awesome. Try one. Buy one. And then take a class with someone who knows the camera to unlock its full potential.
WHERE TO BUY
The Nikon D500 is available online via retailers like Amazon.com (BODY-ONLY or the 16-80mm KIT) or at any authorized Nikon dealer. The SB500 Speedlight is also available, not to mention the 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6, 10.5mm f/2.8G, 85mm f/1.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. You can also pick up extra batteries, a Lexar XQD card and card reader, and Adobe Lightroom CC.
ADDITIONAL SAMPLE IMAGES
Here are a few more images captured during my time with the Nikon D500. Thanks so much for reading.
We took Nikon's new flagship Enthusiast-level DSLR -- the Nikon D500 -- to the scorching deserts around Palm Springs, CA and came away mighty impressed. This awesome camera is rugged, ergonomical, fast, and produces outstanding still images for under $2,000. It might not be cheap, but in the photography world, this is pro performance at one heck of a bargain.