By Daven Mathies

June 10, 2016

It’s 9:00 p.m. on an uncharacteristically warm Portland evening. I’m at Kelly’s Olympian, a downtown dive bar that would give the Mos Eisley Cantina a run for its money. Overhead, classic motorcycles hang from the ceiling, while on the floor, legacy video game arcade tables provide a solid resting surface for well gin and cheap beer. Regulars sip their drinks while basking in the red gleam of the neon signs that serve as the bar’s primary light source. An opening band is playing on the stage next door, the erratic sounds of guitar and drums forcing their way through the closed door to my left.

On my right, tucked close against my hip on the bench seat, $12,000 worth of Nikon gear is hidden away beneath the canvas flap of my ThinkTank camera bag. Over half of that value comes from one item: Nikon’s new Death Star, the D5.

A dive bar may seem an unlikely place to bring such a camera, but it provides a challenging lighting environment, a good test of the D5’s new capabilities. I’m also here to photograph local rock duo, Kool Stuff Katie, who, in classic dive-bar-headlining fashion, won’t go on stage until 11. Time to grab another Old German and bump up the ISO.

The first thing I noticed when I picked up the D5 was how familiar it felt, in a good way. It is very similar to the D4s, although that camera’s smooth curves have been replaced by a blockier, more aggressive facade. It’s a machine that means business, built to inspire confidence in its user and strike fear into the hearts of its enemies. Wielding it manifested superhuman qualities within me: I’m positive I grew a foot taller and became instantly more attractive. (Read: I buckled under its weight and looked terribly nerdy; at least I left the photo vest at home.)

Compared to the D4s, subtle but welcome changes have been made to the exterior. The viewfinder has seen a slight bump in magnification up to 0.72x. A second function button has been added to the front, between Fn1 and the depth of field preview button. Theses buttons feature alternating concave/convex surfaces, illustrating exquisite attention to detail, so you can easily tell which button is which just by feel. (It’s the little things, you know?)

Undoubtedly the most important improvement to the body is that the dastardly mode button from the D4s has been moved to the left shoulder, away from its annoying and hard-to-reach position above the shutter button. The ISO button has more-or-less taken its place, but it lives closer to the shutter release so that you don’t have to break your finger to reach it. It’s now possible to adjust ISO with one hand without taking your eye away from the viewfinder (so I guess Canon had it right all along).

On the back of the camera, the most interesting change can’t be seen until an image is played back. The new, 2.36m-dot LCD is over twice the resolution as the screen on the D4s. And, a first in a Nikon pro camera, it is touch-sensitive—and surprisingly responsive. Unfortunately, touch functionality is limited to live view, playback, and text input (hello! So much easier to enter copyright info!); you sadly can’t use the LCD as a touchpad to select focus points when using the optical viewfinder.

On the camera’s left, all the standard Nikon pro connectivity options are back, but there’s a couple important upgrades. First, the D5 supports USB 3, for blazing-fast file transfers that take full advantage of the XQD format (XQD cards will offload in about half the time as CompactFlash). Second, the HDMI port can now pipe out 4K video ready for an external recorder. One notable omission is built-in WiFi—you still need a separate (and expensive) wireless adapter for that.

D4s owners will be happy to know that they can migrate their existing stash of EN-EL18a batteries over to the D5. What’s better, battery life has jumped up to 3,780 shots, according to CIPA testing. Nikon doesn’t much care for CIPA’s methods, though, which it feels don’t accurately mimic real-world use. In its own internal testing, Nikon claims over 8,000 shots on a single charge. (But who cares? Either number is sufficiently large, and significantly ahead of the competition).

The D5’s understated exterior refinements may mistakenly give the impression of a lackluster upgrade. But rest assured: locked safely behind its weatherproof skin, protected by a skeleton of magnesium alloy, a very powerful heart beats.

Hyperspeed

The D5 is available in two flavors: dual CF card slots, or dual XQD slots. While CF is the more universally accepted media, XQD promises astonishing performance for photographers who need it. In fact, when shooting lossless compressed raw files, the latest XQD cards are so fast that you can shoot 12 FPS indefinitely. The camera does impose a 200-shot limit, but if somehow you reach it, just lift your finger off the shutter momentarily and then you can begin shooting a second burst—without needing to wait for the buffer to clear.

XQD cards aren’t technically as fast as the latest CFast 2.0 cards (currently), but they are significantly less expensive.

Literally everything inside the D5 is new, and it’s all optimized for low light performance. The 20.8MP full-frame sensor offers a native ISO range from 100 to 102,400 (expandable down to 50 and up to a—wait, are you serious?—3,280,000). The new EXPEED 5 processor is more efficient, using less power and keeping the noise down across the ISO range (it can also pump out full resolution images up to 14 FPS when the mirror is locked up).

Now, how much of that range is actually usable is largely a matter of opinion, but I don’t think the vast majority of photographers really care if they can shoot at a bajillion ISO. What’s more important is getting clean files at less extreme settings, say ISO 3200, 6400, maybe even 12,800. This seems to be where Nikon has focused its efforts with this new sensor and processor, and while I’ll tell you right now it has accomplished this goal, the D5’s high ISO success may have come at a cost.

But first, let’s talk about the good, because there’s a lot of it.

With sufficient light, virtually any modern camera can handle high ISOs with ease. Outside on a sunny day, even my old D300 could shoot at ISO 3200 and you’d be hard pressed to know it without pixel-peeping. But in darkness, the true capabilities of a camera are revealed, and it is in darkness where the D5 is built to excel.

In my case, even the most inky corner of Kelly’s Olympian didn’t ask for more than ISO 6400, as long as I was willing to shoot in the neighborhood of 1/100s at f/2. This is where I was first impressed with the D5’s performance. Despite the resolution increase over the D4s, Nikon has managed to keep the noise completely in the luminance channel. It means none of that speckled green/pink nonsense that used to be the bane of high-ISO digital photography. It yields a softer, less distracting noise pattern reminiscent of film grain.

I can’t call it a stark improvement over the already-excellent D4s, but I can say I happily shot raw files at ISO 6400 without worrying about noise reduction.

In fact, I was comfortable shooting up to ISO 12,800 while still expecting “normal” looking results. Push much farther beyond that and chroma noise begins to creep in, although it remains relatively well managed throughout the ISO range. Depending on your output resolution, you may be more comfortable shooting at higher settings. I played around at ISO 102,400 for the heck of it, and I have to admit, I was pretty impressed. The shadows were definitely noisy, but mid-tones and highlights could pass for usable—at least at a rock concert.

Armed with the 58mm and 85mm f/1.4 lenses, I never needed to go beyond ISO 12,800, even when facing away from the stage into the completely shadowed faces of the audience. But, it’s nice to know that I could shoot indoors, in the dark, at f/11 if I wanted to.

See light in the darkness

The D5 continues Nikon’s legacy of unbeatable low light performance that began with the D3. The standard ISO range reaches 102,400, helped along by a new high-transmission color filter. That’s already a two-stop improvement over the D4s (and well beyond what most photographers will ever need) but it can be boosted even further, up to a staggering 3,280,000.

Don’t expect to deliver images shot at three million ISO to clients, however, as the noise is considerable. The primary purpose of those boosted values is for CSI photography and documenting evidence—or for going on ghost hunts, presumably. Still, it’s impressive how much detail the camera can see even after your own eyes have given up.

A good sensor and efficient processor aren’t the only things a camera needs to perform well in low light. If you can’t get the shot to begin with, clean high ISO is meaningless. This is where one of the most impressive new features of the D5 comes in: its autofocus system.

After nine years, Nikon has finally moved beyond the 51-point AF module that debuted with the D3 and D300. And it goes way beyond it, boasting 153 points, 99 of which are cross type, with a center point capable of focusing in lighting as dim as -4EV. That came in handy when I wanted to get a shot of the audience. It was too dark for the non-center AF points, which function down to a respectable -3EV. But when I switched back to the center point, the camera locked focus easily. I could barely see what it was focusing on with my naked eye, and yet it had no trouble at all.

To be sure, in these extremely dim conditions, you won’t be impressed by the speed of the autofocus, at least not with a lens like the 58mm f/1.4, which has a rather long focus throw. As expected, the system performs much faster when it has plenty of light. What really impressed me, though, was how accurate it was in the dark. I never noticed the camera front or back-focusing, and the only inaccuracies occurred when using Group AF at a wide aperture, which I can’t really blame on the camera.

Should you discover a lens to be front or back-focusing, Nikon has made it easier than ever to make micro-adjustments thanks to the new automatic AF Fine Tune feature. It works by borrowing a trick from mirrorless cameras, which have inherently more accurate autofocus because focus is achieved directly on the imaging sensor. Auto AF Fine Tune uses live view to dial in perfect focus, then saves that information in a lens profile for use in non-live view shooting. It requires a couple button presses, but you can do it anywhere, with no need for a focusing chart or having to manually enter front and back-focus values.

One aspect of the new AF system that some may see as a downside is that only 55 of the points are user-selectable. However, each point is now much smaller, making it easier to set your focus exactly where you want it. All those other points really come in handy in 3D Tracking mode, where the higher density of the AF sensor helps the camera stay locked on to moving subjects.

The other drawback is that the AF system is shared with the D500, which means it has to fit all of those focus points into the DX area (a 1.5x crop). I wrote about the pros and cons of this previously, but I do think it’s a little unfortunate that, despite all of those extra points, the D5’s AF area still doesn’t cover the entire frame. By contrast, on the D500, you can put that focus point anywhere from edge to edge, simply by nature of it being a smaller format. To be fair, though, this is petty nitpicking. The D5 has arguably the best AF system in a DSLR today.

Stay on target

The D5 uses an all-new AF module: the Multi-CAM 20K. With sensitivity down to -4EV at the center point, and -3EV at all others, it can achieve focus in some of the most challenging conditions. It features 153 AF points (99 cross-type) and the area of coverage has increased by 30% over the D4s. While only 55 points are user-selectable, adjacent points remain active to assist the selected point.

Powering the system is a dedicated AF processor, a first in a Nikon. Combined with a new, 190k-pixel RGB metering sensor, the D5 can perform more accurate face detection when using the optical viewfinder. 3D tracking is now even more responsive, with additional options to program it for either steady or erratic subject movement. This means sports and action shooters should get an even higher percentage of keepers.

So here’s the real, worthwhile complaint about the D5; the result, I speculate, of engineering a camera to be the best at just one thing. For as good as it is at high ISOs, its base ISO dynamic range has actually decreased compared to the D4s.

Dynamic range is the ability of a camera to preserve detail from shadows to highlights, generally denoted by the number of stops it can capture from black to white without clipping. I don’t test for this sort of thing, because DPReview has already done a much more thorough job of it than I ever could, but I have seen their results and absolutely agree with their conclusions: dynamic range is not great. But what really makes this disappointing is that this is an area where, historically, Nikon has excelled.

This means the divide between Nikon’s pro cameras is even clearer: for low light shooting, the D5 wins, hands down. For landscapes and studio work, however, the D810 is still the king, and by a fair margin. Now, given the difference in resolution and other attributes about those two cameras, this isn’t anything shocking, but it’s still a little disconcerting that the Nikon with the largest price tag is the one with the least dynamic range.

That said, it’s likely not a huge issue: the D5, like its predecessors, remains focused on the sports, photojournalism, and event photography crowd, who typically need the best high ISO performance they can get. All of the D5’s new technology serves to focus it more narrowly on these existing specialities, rather than open it up to new ones.

Another feature that has become increasingly important to this demographic is video, which is a bit of a mixed bag on the D5. On the plus side, it shoots 4K, and it does it at a 1:1 pixel readout at roughly a Super35 crop. This all sounds great, but… 4K is limited to just three minutes of recording time in-camera. Huh. Bummer.

The good news is, you can bypass that limit by recording externally via the HDMI port into something like an Atomos Shogun. This should work well, although the uncompressed HDMI feed is just 8bit. You do get 4:2:2 color, but Nikon still doesn’t have a log gamma curve, so you’ll have to make due with their “Flat” profile, which is decent, but not great.

This is somewhat opposite of how Canon does video on the 1D X Mark II, which can record up to 30 minutes of 4K internally, but can’t output 4K over HDMI at all. Both Canon’s and Nikon’s approaches seem odd to me, and I can’t really decide which is better. I suppose it just depends on your video needs—photojournalists probably don’t want to carry around an external recorder, and a 3 minute limit won’t cut it for interviews. But filmmakers working in a studio or on location with even a small crew probably want the ability to capture the uncompressed HDMI feed.

So if your primary focus is video, you should probably just go with, you know, a video camera.

Story time: The SB-5000 flash fiasco

Let me tell you about the time I made the mistake of thinking I could test out Nikon’s new flagship Speedlight as part of this review. Announced alongside the D5 and D500, the SB-5000 has a built-in RF receiver for improved remote operation compared to Nikon’s existing flashes that must be triggered optically. It may very well be a great flash and a great system, but I have no way of knowing—I didn’t get to shoot it.

Firstly, you should know that the D5 does not have a built-in RF transmitter; you have to buy a two-part transceiver system that plugs into the 10-pin port on the front of the camera. This alone doesn’t bother me too much, as Canon doesn’t build-in RF transmitters either, and of course both companies want to sell as many accessories as possible. And really, the WR-R10/WR-A10 transceiver combo isn’t such a bad thing (other than the product name). It’s quite small, lightweight, and doesn’t hog the hot shoe, so you can still use an on-camera flash at the same time.

The trouble begins in a footnote on the SB-5000 product page, where it mentions that the WR-R10 requires firmware version 3 before it can wirelessly pair with the SB-5000.

Now, being a millennial, I am not phased by firmware updates, so I stroked my beard, sipped my latte, opened my MacBook, and navigated to Nikon’s support page to download the firmware and… it wasn’t there. The only firmware listed for the WR-R10 was version 2; no mention of version 3.

Turns out, Nikon actually requires the WR-R10 to be physically sent to its service center (in the mail!) to have the firmware updated. In an age where I can use a slab of glass and metal in my pocket to order a pizza and then eat it no more than 30 minutes later, it is unacceptable that I should have to use snail mail to receive a good that is inherently digital.

Nikon did such a poor job of communicating this with both customers and dealers, that people are walking out of stores with a new D5 or D500, SB-5000, and WR-R10/WR-A10 expecting, as customers are right to do, to have a solution ready to go out of the box, only to get home and realize it won’t work and they are powerless to do anything about it. I even tried to find a hacked copy of the firmware online, that’s how desperate I was to avoid going to the post office (because, again, I’m a millennial). I mean, surely, some Nikon engineer with a heart would have leaked it? Nope.

The silver lining is that any WR-R10s we receive from this point forward should already have firmware version 3 installed, and the number of WR-R10s out in the world before this point was probably five (what were they even used for?). But that doesn’t change the fact that the RF system works only on the D5 and D500. You can’t shoot remote, radio-controlled flash photos with the SB-5000 and, say, your D4s.

Oh, just for reference, there are third-party TTL flash transceivers out there that work with just about any Nikon DSLR and flash. Just saying.

Only when the lights come up do I realize how exhausted I am from shooting the D5. As drunken chatter moves in to replace the music, I wander outside to grab a few last snapshots as people smoke and drink beneath the neon. I try to gather my thoughts into some sort of conclusive statement on the D5.

Cameras are interesting things. Unlike just about any other tech product, the most expensive one is not necessarily the one you want. If you have all the money in the world, you don’t walk into a BMW dealership and ask to have fewer options, or go into an Apple store and walk out with a 16GB iPhone. But when it comes to the D5, all the money in the world doesn’t make it the best camera for you. Sure, anyone will be impressed by the 12 FPS burst rate and the chorus of applause it gives you from the sound of the mirror slapping up and down, but you really have to need this camera in order to want it.

For me, the biggest selling point is that AF system—it was just so accurate, even in extremely dim lighting. I don’t think I’ve ever used a DSLR with autofocus I could trust that much. It may have taken Nikon a long time to build a new AF module, but they delivered.

Then there’s the the impressive ISO performance. But honestly, it was pretty dang impressive on the D4s, too. The lack of dynamic range at low ISO is unfortunate, but shouldn’t affect the D5’s demographic too much. Multimedia shooters who would otherwise be excited by the prospect of 4K video will likely be let down by the three minute clip limit. Overall, however, the D5 brings much more good news than bad. It is the most confident DSLR I have ever used, and the type of upgrade we only get to see maybe twice a decade. But what I really like about this camera, is that its capability courtside or in pit lane hasn’t made it feel any less at home at a dive bar. Cheers.

Overall assessment

  • Studio 81%
  • Photojournalism 95%
  • Travel 62%
  • Casual 43%
  • Filmmaking 62%
Score explanation

This is our assessment of a camera’s usability based on both objective and subjective measurements in four categories. Each category’s score is a function of all measurements, but with different weights.

Studio – A high rating in this category means a camera is well-suited to use in a studio environment, where size and weight don’t matter and lighting can be fully controlled. This score is most affected by resolution, while ISO sensitivity and cost are negligible.

Photojournalism – Cameras that perform well in this category are generally good for concerts, weddings, sports, and travel photography. This score is most affected by ISO sensitivity, build quality, and performance (AF and continuous shooting speed, battery life), while resolution is negligible.

Travel – Above all else, a good travel camera is one you can take with you anywhere. Size and weight matter most to this category, while build quality and ISO sensitivity are also important.

Casual – A casual-use camera is one that you can easily carry with you and is great for family pictures, vacations, hiking, etc. This score is most strongly affected by size, weight, and cost.

Filmmaking – This score looks at all the video features of a camera, such as video resolution, frame rates, and audio inputs and outputs. Keep in mind, this score is provided in the context of a camera being reviewed for its still photography first. A high score in this area does not necessarily mean you should shoot your next blockbuster indie skate rap video on this camera.

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