Words by Daven Mathies.
Photos by Daniel Sloan.
Like this review, Nikon’s D500 was late to the game. After years of claiming the D7000 series was the only replacement to the D300S we were ever going to get, Nikon finally gave in to pressure and gave us the camera we always wanted: an unbridled, high-tech, no-holds-barred DX flagship. Does it cost a lot of money? Yes, $2,000 for the body only. Do we care? Nope. Given that the D500 is 90% of what the $6,500 D5 is, we’d say it’s worth it.
The D500 is what happens when a camera company builds a camera for real photographers, and we couldn’t be happier about that. But Nikon may have had good reason to avoid making this camera for so long. D7000 series models were cheaper to make, sold quite well, easily surpassed the image quality of the D300S, and offered near enough the same performance as to make no difference for the majority of shooters.
The D500, for all its broad capabilities, only appeals to a small target demographic that the D7200 can’t quite reach. To invest resources into developing such a camera probably didn’t make sense to someone in a suit somewhere, and we likely have an impassioned engineer to thank for the D500’s existence. Or at least, that’s how I like to think the story went down.
Design and build quality
The D500 uses the same magnesium alloy and carbon fiber monocoque body style introduced with the D750. It allows the camera to be thinner and lighter while improving on the ergonomics D300S shooters are used to. Personally, the D500 is one of the most comfortable DSLRs I’ve ever used, but it is quite big for an APS-C model, which may be a turn off for some users.
Other new design features include a tilting LCD screen that sits neatly recessed into the back of the camera. Despite the addition of an articulated screen, Nikon claims the weather sealing is on par with the D810.
The camera is also designed for easier operation in low light settings, with illuminated buttons on the back of the camera and in the top left control cluster, just like on the D5. Simply tug the power switch all the way over to the right to turn on the lights.
The controls will feel immediately familiar to any Nikon shooter. The biggest addition, which is actually quite small, is the new focus point selector joystick. It’s positioned exactly where it should be and the textured surface generates just the right coefficient of friction against your thumb. It provides satisfying tactile feedback and is sturdy yet easy to operate. It makes for a focus point selection experience that is second to none, which might be the nerdiest thing I say in this review (but don’t hold me to it).
The viewfinder has also been updated and uses Nikon’s round eyepiece for true pro status (the D300S used the unquestionably amateurish rectangular eyepiece). It features 100% frame coverage and 0.67x magnification. Whatever all the numbers mean, it looks very good. Crop-frame DSLR viewfinders usually leave me wanting, but the D500’s is an exception — and a reminder that the best electronic viewfinders out there are still no comparison to a really nice optical one.
One thing missing from the top of the viewfinder is a flash. Yep, that’s right, Nikon finally saw fit as to nix the pop-up flash that is the source of much heated debate whenever it shows up on a professional camera. I have always been in the pro pop-up flash camp, citing examples of how it’s been used without sacrificing weather sealing, as on the D750 and D810. I know using the pop-up flash as a primary light source is silly, but if you can have a built-in remote flash trigger, as most Nikon pop-up flashes function, why not take it? Other users, however, adamantly stand against it, saying a pop-up flash is useless and amateur. Well, the nays have it: At least on Nikon’s flagship DSLRs, the pop-up flash is dead. Long live the pop-up flash.
Guts and glory
Beneath the magnesium alloy and carbon fiber lies a network of all-new silicon. Rather than reuse the 24-megapixel sensor of the D7200, Nikon went with a new 21MP unit. In technical analyses, its image quality is neck-and-neck with the D7200 (that is to say, very good) but shaving off 3MP allows the D500 to shoot at a sustained 10 FPS.
That new burst rate is in part thanks to the Expeed 5 processor, the same one found in the D5. It also puts the D500 right alongside its most direct competitor, Canon’s 7D Mark II, which also tops out at 10 FPS. Of course, shooting at 10 FPS doesn’t do much if the files don’t have anywhere to go, so Nikon borrowed another technology from the D5: XQD memory. Every D500 has one XQD slot and one SD slot. When using the latest XQD cards, you can fire off RAW photos at maximum continuous speed pretty much until the card fills up. (Technically, the camera will cut you off after 200 shots, but you can start a second burst immediately after, if for some reason 200 wasn’t enough for you.)
The D500 also boasts the greatest ISO range of any APS-C camera on the market: ISO 100 to 51,200, expandable up to 1,640,000. In fact, that’s a higher maximum ISO than most full-frame cameras; the D5 being one exception. Granted, images won’t look good at 1.64 million ISO, but it’s there if you need it.
If the D500 is starting to sound a lot like a baby D5, you’re not wrong. And it gets better: the D500 received an updated autofocus system, the same one as found in the D5. It features 153 points in total, 99 of which are cross-type, and a center point that is sensitive down to -4 EV. In short, it can focus in the dark. Only 55 of the points are user-selectable in single-point AF, while adjacent points remain active to assist the selected point.
While it is the same module as found on the D5, it looks considerably different through the viewfinder due to the 1.5x crop factor of the DX format. Whereas all of the focus points are clustered in a central region of the frame on the D5, they span nearly from edge to edge on the D500. This is fantastic news for wildlife and sports photographers who can use Nikon’s excellent 3D tracking to stay locked on to a subject from the moment it enters the frame to the moment it exits on the other side.
4K is here, but it could be better
Like the D5, the D500 also gets 4K video (Ultra HD, 3,840 x 2,160 resolution). This was quite a surprise when Nikon announced both cameras a year ago. The bad news is that Nikon employs a simple pixel-to-pixel crop in 4K mode, which means much of the sensor becomes wasted space. If you need 4K, it’s there, but if you’re just shooting video for casual use, sticking with 1080p may give subjectively more pleasing results as it records from the full sensor area.
Nikon still did a lot right with regard to video on the D500. For example, it has both microphone and headphone jacks and the USB port supports USB 3, so transferring large video files to a computer will be much faster, even without a separate card reader. Like other Nikons, clean, uncompressed, 8-bit 4:2:2 footage can be output over HDMI and recorded externally. And, yes, it can do this in 4K (something not even Canon’s 5D Mark IV can do).
When it comes to usability, Nikon doesn’t offer anything to rival Canon’s incredible Dual Pixel live view autofocus, found on the 5D Mark IV and 80D. The 5D Mark IV’s 4K mode is even more limiting than the D500’s, though, and the 80D is stuck at 1080p. Overall, the D500’s video mode isn’t going to win any awards, but it makes it a decent multimedia machine.
Unfortunately, decent isn’t good enough in this day and age. If great 4K video is what you’re looking for, the Sony A6300 does more for less. Even the Fujifilm X-T2 has video features not found on the D500, like a log gamma profile. And if you really want to spend $2,000 on a still camera that is also very good at video, just get a Panasonic GH5.
Against the D5
Among APS-C DSLRs, the Nikon D500 kind of dominates right now. Its biggest competition really comes from Nikon’s own D5, and even though that camera costs three times as much, the D500 still holds it own against it. It has superior dynamic range (at least at lower ISOs) and a more usable AF system thanks to the smaller frame. It matches the resolution of the D5, but the 1.5x crop factor makes it better for sports and wildlife shooters in need of greater reach. Sure, the D5 is a little faster, you can get it with two XQD slots, and its low-light image quality is unbeatable, but the D500 has plenty of performance for most photographers.
If you think of the D500 as a $2,000 APS-C camera, it sounds expensive (never mind that Olympus and Panasonic now both make Micro Four Thirds cameras that cost that much). But if you think of it as a $2,000 D5, it sounds almost ridiculously cheap, and makes a lot of sense. I loved shooting the D5; that thing is absolutely incredible in low light. But the D500 is the camera I’d rather own. Not only is it cheaper, it’s more compact, lighter weight, and produces image quality at base ISO that is objectively on par or superior to that of the D5.
One thing found in the D500 that you won’t see in the D5 at all is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). In addition to built-in Wi-Fi, BLE provides a new way to transfer images to a mobile device (iOS or Android) via Nikon’s Snapbridge app. The idea is that images can transfer in the background, even with the camera turned off, all while consuming so little power as to not significantly drain the battery.
I did not personally test this feature, but user reports have been somewhat mixed. Many people report it to work well, while others have cited pairing issues and battery life problems as reasons to avoid it.
Here’s to another seven years
For many reasons, the D500 remains a niche camera, reserved for advanced enthusiasts and professionals. Nikon won’t sell as many as they do D7200s or D5500s, but the D500 is the one to covet. It is a stalwart example of a dying breed of DSLR, standing strong against the onslaught of smaller mirrorless cameras. It is built to be tough and fast, putting function over form. It is, in short, everything D300S users have been waiting for — even if that group has grown considerably smaller than it once was.
Nearly seven years passed between the release of the D300S and the D500. So enjoy this camera. Who knows when we’ll see another one like it.
- Studio 80%
- Photojournalism 90%
- Travel 69%
- Casual 63%
- Filmmaking 73%
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.