Nikon D5: A closer look

by | Jan 7, 2016 | News, Products

Nikon’s latest flagship camera, the D5, was one of the photo industry’s worst-kept secrets. Nikon even announced it was working on it a while ago, after which it was pretty thoroughly leaked through the rumor sites. Being expected, however, doesn’t stop us from getting excited about it now that it’s officially here. The D5 is a technological tour de force, the biggest update to Nikon’s single-digit D line since the D3, which was the company’s first full-frame camera. Whether or not you need it, whether or not you can afford it (there’s always rental), this is the camera you want to read about, and this is the camera you will covet and drool over. So let’s take a closer look.

D5 with SB-5000 speedlight

Physical design

The design of the D5 hasn’t changed dramatically from the D4/D4s, and that’s not a bad thing. This has always been Nikon’s toughest, most durable camera line. The D5 introduces new shutter and mirror mechanisms that I guess are even better and stronger than before, but, you know, I’m not sure how I’d ever measure that to appreciate them. But they’re there! There have also been some small tweaks to improve ergonomics, including a slightly redesigned hand grip. The ISO button has moved from the back of the camera to the top, replacing the Mode button near the shutter release, while the Mode button has joined the Bracketing and Metering buttons on the left shoulder. Reaching the Mode button on the D4s was a stretch for people who didn’t have enormous hands, so while this move may be subtle, it will likely be appreciated.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the design is that there are now two different D5 models: one offers dual CF card slots and another that features dual XQD slots. The D4 introduced XQD card support but only with a single slot, reserving a second slot for CF cards. It was a somewhat confusing arrangement that remained through the D4s. In fact, when the D4 was released, XQD was such a new format that Nikon shipped the first batch of cameras with a 16GB Sony XQD card and a reader included in the box—the cards simply weren’t available in stores yet. I’m glad that XQD is sticking around (even finding its way into the D500), but it’s also good that photographers aren’t being forced to use it. For sports and action photography, XQD promises the best possible performance, but CF is more widely adopted and is the better choice if you want to be able to use the same memory cards across different camera systems.

Image quality

At least on paper, the sensor in the D5 was predictable. Nikon is following a pretty clear pattern here: after two generations of the D3 at 12MP, the D4 introduced a new sensor at 16MP. Two generations of that sensor have led to another 4MP increase with the D5’s 20MP sensor. Something not talked about much, but which I think is really nice to see, is that Nikon has now fully embraced the idea of reduced-size raw files, allowing you to shoot 12-bit, lossless-compressed NEFs at Medium (~12MP) or Small (~6MP) sizes. As usual, full resolution (20.8MP) images can be captured in either 12 or 14 bits. Despite the increase in resolution, the D5 has a wider ISO range (100-102,400) than the D4s, thanks to the new EXPEED 5 processor. With boosting, ISO can be expanded to the equivalent of 3,280,000! So folks, there is officially no excuse for blurry pictures of Bigfoot, aliens, or sea monsters anymore. While obviously none of this means anything until we see it in the real world, the specs are promising.


Like the D500, the D5 can shoot video at 4K (UHD) resolution. As I mentioned in my closer look at the D500, it’s a little crazy that Nikon now has two 4K-capable DSLRs while Canon, long known for their prowess in the world of digital video, has but one. The D5 also shoots 4K at a 1:1 pixel readout for sharper images with less aliasing. However, this means a smaller portion of the sensor is used, which ends up being roughly equivalent to the 1.5x DX-format crop. This may sound like a downside, but I think it’s actually a good thing. DX crop is more-or-less equal to the Super35 cinema standard, so that’s not at all a bad frame size for shooting video. However, that doesn’t automatically make the D5 a Hollywood-caliber production camera. While a clean HDMI output allows for high-quality external recording, there’s no log gamma profile and rolling shutter will likely still be an issue as in past DSLRs. That said, it is a welcome feature that will help pro photographers create strong multimedia content without having to learn a second camera.


The D5 introduces Nikon’s first completely new autofocus system since the D3, and it is a giant leap forward. With 153 points, 99 of which are cross-type, it easily outclasses the D4s which had just 53 points in total. However, being a system designed to work on the D500, as well, it has to fit all of those points within the DX crop area. So while it offers more precision over the D4s, it does not cover a significantly larger area of the frame. Given the D5’s emphasis on sports and action photography, it would be nice to have an AF system that could track a moving subject right to the edge of the frame, but oh well. On the plus side, it is the most sensitive autofocus ever put into a Nikon. 15 points will function with lenses that have maximum apertures down to f/8, while the remaining are good to f/5.6. Furthermore, the center point can achieve focus in lighting as low as -4EV. That’s impressive. The remaining points are good to -3EV, which is still really good. Combined with that crazy-high ISO capability, this camera can basically operate underground, at midnight, during a full lunar eclipse. Or something.

Of course the reason anyone buys a camera like this is to switch it to continuous high-speed shooting mode and impress their friends with the sound of the mirror and shutter slapping up and down a ridiculous number of times per second. With the D5, that ridiculous number is now 12, with full AF and subject tracking enabled. If that number sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same as Canon’s 1D X. Also like the Canon, the D5 lets you shoot up to 14FPS with the mirror locked up and autofocus disabled. Of course, you’ll be firing blind if you do this, so this mode will likely only come in handy in studio situations where everything can be set ahead of time and controlled.

The D5 joins the D500 in being compatible with Nikon’s new radio wave-based, remote TTL flash system. The new SB-5000 Speedlight, also released at CES, replaces the SB-910 and 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 D5 is fully compatible with both the old (optical) and new (radio) systems, but you will need to purchase a transmitter (or a second Speedlight) separately to use as a trigger. Hopefully, the radio tech inside the SB-5000 will eventually trickle down to lower-end Speedlights, as well.

While the D5 is not compatible with the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) system introduced in the D500, it does support wireless image transfer via the new WT-6A transmitter. Like the D4s, it also features built-in ethernet which can now transfer images up to 400mbps over LAN for fast, tethered shooting in the studio.

Overall, the D5 an impressive, if expected, upgrade to Nikon’s flagship camera. We can’t wait to get our hands on one for a full review.

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