Nikon D500: A closer look

by | Jan 6, 2016 | News, Products

The D500 may be the little sibling of the powerful D5, but in many ways, it is actually the more intriguing camera. For one, it was simply unexpected—sure, rumors have abounded for years about a true replacement to the D300s, but most of us had simply given up on that hope. The D7000 effectively merged the D90 and the D300s, and when D7100 replaced it, without even a hint of a D400 being on the way, some people started scratching their heads. By the time the D7200 finally arrived, it was firmly cemented as Nikon’s top-of-the-line DX camera. A real successor to the D300s became nothing but a pipe dream.

While it’s clear now that the D400 will never become a reality, the D500 is here to do what we all wanted the D400 to do—and more. This camera represents the biggest technological jump we’ve seen from Nikon in many years. From the revolutionary autofocus system to the advanced wireless image transfer, there’s plenty to talk about. So let’s take a closer look.

D500 Landscape

Physical design

Like the D750, the D500 uses a monocoque design composed of magnesium alloy and carbon fiber. This means the body can be smaller and lighter weight without sacrificing ergonomics. It also allows for a tilting LCD screen that sits slightly recessed into the rear panel. Nikon also states that the weather sealing on the D500 is comparable to that of the D810. Basically, this is a camera that you should be able to take anywhere and use in just about any situation.

Image quality

While it remains to be seen how this camera performs in the real world, what’s on paper looks great. A 20.9MP APS-C sensor is slightly lower resolution than the 24MP unit found in the D7200, but this means larger individual pixels which may help reduce noise and increase dynamic range (areas in which the D7200 already performs admirably).

The new EXPEED 5 processor, according to Nikon, further reduces noise and is responsible for the increased native ISO range of 100 to 51,200. That’s a very big range for a crop-frame camera, and it can be extended even further, from the ISO 50-equivalent “Lo 1” to ISO 1,640,000-equivalent “Hi 5.” Sure, we don’t expect anything shot at 1.6 million ISO to look good, but you now have a camera that can give you a Hi 5 and a down Lo.

Video

Video has always felt like an afterthought on Nikons, but at least now it’s a 4K afterthought. Since the D5 also shoots 4K video, Nikon now has more 4K DSLRs than Canon does. In fact, they have twice as many. Whaaaaat? Yeah, that’s weird. Nikon still doesn’t offer a log profile or some of the more advanced video options found in the Panasonic GH4 or Sony A7R II, but that’s okay for most users.

On the plus side, you can now record to the internal memory card and externally via HDMI at the same time, both in 4K, which is not a feature seen on many other cameras. Overall, it makes the D500 a powerful multimedia machine; it may not be suitable for film production studios, but it’s great for the one-person-band, do-everything-yourself multimedia pros.

High technology

The autofocus system, which I’ve talked about already, sounds very, very impressive. Unlike on the D5, the active AF area on the D500 basically covers the entire frame. With 153 points, 99 of which are cross-type, you’ll have no trouble focusing exactly where you want to.* And for action photography, the system can track a moving subject virtually from when it enters the frame to when it exits.

Along with the D500, Nikon also introduced the SB-5000 Speedlight, and there’s a good reason for that. The SB-5000 is Nikon’s first external flash with a built-in radio transceiver. The existing optical trigger system has always been impressive, but reliability suffers if the camera doesn’t have a direct line of sight to the flash. The D500 is fully compatible with both the old (optical) and new (radio) systems, but users of the optical system take note: The D500 does not have a built-in flash. You will need to purchase a transmitter (or a second Speedlight) of some kind to take advantage of either system.

Finally, Nikon has put XQD memory card support into a second camera in its lineup. The D500 has both SD and an XQD slots. XQD stands for… something, maybe… and is basically really fast. It’s good to see Nikon putting it on more than one camera body, because maybe people will actually buy XQD cards now, and maybe they’ll catch on. They are, after all, a better technology than CF: faster, smaller, more durable, and are quickly becoming even cheaper.

Lastly, the D500 offers one piece of technology even the D5 doesn’t have: wireless image transfer over Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) with the upcoming Nikon SnapBridge app. This may finally be the wireless solution we’ve been waiting for, after dozens of different apps from various manufacturers have come and gone without really working the way we want them to.

With BLE, you now only have to manually connect your phone to your camera once—after that, your phone will see the D500 like any other Bluetooth device and pair with it automatically. Images will even continue transferring after the camera has been turned off. Because BLE requires so little power, it shouldn’t dramatically reduce battery life (we’ll wait and see if this proves true). While this may seem like a feature more suited to consumer-level cameras, it’s exciting to see Nikon implementing it here. Hopefully, it will trickle down to future versions of lower-end cameras.

So that’s the D500. As soon as we can get one, we’ll take it out for a full review. Until then, we are accepting pre-orders.

*UPDATE 4/13/16: As one reader pointed out, not all 153 points are selectable—only 55 can be selected for single-point AF. However, adjacent points remain active to assist the selected AF point.

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