As is the case with any new top of the line Nikon camera there is always a lot of anticipation and excitement among photographers regarding how well the new camera will perform compared to the last model. In this review I will share some of my real world experiences on assignment and off using the new Nikon D5. I will also share with you image samples comparing the new Nikon D5 to a Nikon D4s and the new D500 camera.

To Nikon’s credit they have done an excellent job over the years redefining new levels of erformance and image quality going back to the original Nikon D1. Lets face it the Nikon D1 for its day was revolutionary compared to everything else available at that time, but I certainly wouldn’t want to use a D1 today. For me the real measure when upgrading to a new camera begins with how well the camera performs compared to the last generation camera.

Important performance characteristics before upgrading include:

  • Improvements in autofocusing speed and accuracy
  • Image quality at higher ISO’s
  • Increased motor drive speed
  • Improvements in ergonomics
  • Meaningful refinements to controls and menus

My first test using the new Nikon D5 was an assignment shooting a Portland Timbers soccer game at Providence Park. Before the game I set up a D5 using settings recommended by Nikon.

You can find these technical solution tips at: 

I did the same for the D4s, as well as the Nikon D500. For color comparisons I set all the cameras to normal automatic white balance mode. The reason for this was to see how well each camera adjusted for color based on the quality and color of the light I was working in. I shot pictures using a combination of RAW and jpg files. All files for this review where edited and output using Adobe Lightroom. I did not make any color adjustments to the images presented in this review.

Meaningful refinements to controls and menus

Right away I was thrown off by the new location of the ISO button on the D5. The mode button has always been placed in the upper right side near the shutter release for all previous D series cameras going back to the original D1. The change was annoying and frustrating because I would get confused while working with the older D4s. I wondered why Nikon had made such a drastic change. As the game continued and the light changed I would adjust my exposure using the ISO button on the top of the D5 and on the back of the D4s. A little later during the game, as the light changed yet again, I made another exposure adjustment using the ISO button. Suddenly it hit me! Of course, it makes perfect sense to move the ISO control. Let me explain. When shooting sports outdoors in changing light often I will leave my shutter speed and aperture set to a fixed 1/2000 at f/2.8 to capture stop action images. The only thing I ever change is the ISO as the light changes. Having the ISO control at the top of the camera near the shutter release was much more convenient then searching for it at the back of the camera. This was definitely a meaningful camera control refinement and an improvement over the D4s. Score one point for the Nikon D5 and for the Portland Timbers, too – no, really.

Jun 1, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Timbers defender Liam Ridgewell (24), left, celebrates with teammate midfielder Ben Zemanski (14) after scoring a goal during the first half against the San Jose Earthquakes at Providence Park. The Timbers won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports 

Image quality and higher ISO’s

Okay, so far so good. What about the D5 image quality compared to the D4s? Let’s face it, since the introduction of the Nikon D3 no one has come close to matching Nikon’s high ISO quality. And for low light sports photographers this is a big deal. To test the D5 I shot in a gym at a local high school. The light was a mixture of florescence and daylight, an awful combination for any photographer to work in. So how did the new D5 stack up against the D4s? See for yourself.

Left: Nikon D4- Lens: AF-S Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G ED -Exposure: 1/1250 sec. f/2.8 ISO 25600
Right: Nikon D5- Lens: AF-S Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8G ED -Exposure: 1/1250 sec. f/2.8 ISO 25600

On the left is a photograph made using a Nikon D4s. On the right a photograph made using a Nikon D5. Which photograph do you prefer? I thought you might agree. The D5’s auto white balance does a very nice job providing a hint of warmth overall, which you can see in the basketball, bricks, floor and flesh tones of the players, for a much more pleasing color image. I found this warmth prevalent from my test at a Timbers game assignment, as well. The auto white balance of the D5 produces a better color image and brings out more natural looking colors in difficult lighting situations. I see this as another score for the D5!

Improvements in autofocusing speed and accuracy

I am beginning to believe this new Nikon D5 may well be more than an incremental upgrade as claimed by some reviewers. What about focus speed and accuracy? Sure the D5 has 153 focus points versus 51 points for the D4s. But does the addition of more focusing points and a new AF sensor really make a difference? To answer that question I went back and reviewed pictures I shot from the Timbers game. I was interested in seeing how well the D5 tracked and held focus overall versus the D4s. What I discovered was the majority of action sequences from the game were better tracked and focused using the D5. The new autofocusing sensor worked to hold focus more consistently giving me more usable photographs to send to the agency. During my review I also found the D4s did an amazing job, but lost focus tracking slightly more often than the D5.

Nikon D5- Lens: AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G ED Exposure: 1/4000 sec. f/2.8 ISO 4000

Above is a typical sequence showing how the Nikon D5 holds focus as another player slowly moves in front. Notice how the main subject is sharply focused throughout the play. Amazing. It should also be noted that the D5 allows photographers to make more advance tracking choices using a new focus tracking with lock on custom function (custom menu a3).

For my second test of the new Nikon D5 focus system I decided to have my daughter ride her bicycle toward me while I squeezed the shutter release to see how many sharp frames the camera would give me before the buffer kicked in. I also wanted to see how well the D5 tracked forward movement, from shadow to sunlight, as the subject came at the camera. After reviewing the photos taken with the D5 I had 77 perfectly focused pictures to choose from. Not one photograph was out of focus. How about the D4s? It provided 54 perfectly focused pictures to choose from. Not bad either, but it sure was nice to have so many more pictures to choose from.

Nikon D5 Review

Nikon D5 – Lens: AF-S Nikkor 400mm f2.8G ED – Exposure: 1/1000 sec. f/2.8 ISO 400

Score another point for the new Nikon D5!

Improvements in ergonomics

Let’s talk about the ergonomics of the D5. Nikon has always done an excellent job listening to photographers needs when it comes to the ergonomics and functionality of their top of the line cameras. The D5 has taken an already excellent design from the D4s and made substantial improvements to the D5. Even though the D5 is slightly heavier it is well balanced. You will find a newly designed thumb contour on the exterior of the D5. This is important to photographers and will help reduce hand fatigue when shooting throughout the day.

As for camera controls the most used and needed controls are now found on the outside of the camera. Instead of having to dive into the custom menus in the middle of an assignment to change the frame rate, as an example, you simply need to push a button on the back of the camera to quickly and easily make an adjustment. Instead of a dedicated voice memo button there is now an Fn3 button available to use and assign any function you like – including voice memo activation if you prefer. This is a great improvement because it provides an additional function button and a different location on the camera for ease of use. Nikon has also changed the location of the info button and added an Fn2 button to the front of the camera. The mode button is now at the top left of the camera. I found the new control locations a vast improvement over the D4s once I became familiar with the changes. It is evident to me that the designers decided to take a new approach with the D5, while listening to working photographers needs, to come up with a much improved camera control layout. Another point scored by the Nikon D5!

Increased motor drive speed

Shooting fast moving subjects on assignments with tight deadlines requires a professional camera with plenty of speed enhancements. Besides offering an improved motor drive speed of 12 fps over the 11 fps of the D4s, I found the dedicated XQD cards far superior to the older CF XQD card combo found in the D4s. Using the faster cards really made a difference to me on assignment in the photographer work room during halftime at the Timbers game. I also like the addition of a new 14 fps motor drive boost for those situations when you want maximum speed for a remote camera. I believe the new D5 scores another point in the category of motor drive speed and the improvements give photographers additional options and opportunities to make great photographs on tight deadlines.

Image quality at higher ISO’s

For my final analysis of the D5, and the new D500, I decided to compare image files for color fidelity and image quality at various ISO settings using a set of color paint samples. I decided to put all three cameras to a difficult test and instead of using controlled studio lighting shoot my test images in open shade, which I often use for portrait work. I wanted to see how each camera’s auto white balance handled the cool colors often found in open shade. I also adjusted the ISO of each camera to test image quality differences. Here are three image examples showing image quality differences between each camera at an ISO setting of 25600.

Image quality at lower ISO’s

Below are image samples taken at the same location using the same quality of light showing how each camera performed at a lower ISO of 200.

At ISO 25600 all the cameras performed extremely well. Of the three cameras there is no question the new D5 has better color fidelity and saturation than the D4s and D500. The D5 also had a smoother and less noisy image. I did like how the D4s captured the color in the green grass over that of the D5. In part that is because the D4s, like the D4 before it, has a yellow color bias in contrast to a warmer, more red color bias of the D5.

At ISO 200 each camera shined. The auto white balance adjusted for the heavy blue cast and produced pleasing color images. The D5 and D500 produced almost identical images. The D500 had a slightly brighter image at the same exposure setting giving the colors a brighter overall look. I think this phenomenon had more to do with the DX kit lens than the camera. The D4s produced an image with more yellow presence and the pink colors had lighter color tonality overall.

Final analysis

The new Nikon D500, using a much less expensive kit lens in this test, performed exceptionally well. If you are an enthusiast photographer and want a camera that can compete very closely with Nikon’s top of the line cameras don’t hesitate to upgrade to the new Nikon D500 DX format camera. What I appreciated most about the new Nikon D500 was its lightweight, solid feel, quick handling and especially the new 10 fps motor drive speed. It performed extremely well as a secondary camera for my wide-angle lens needs while shooting the Timbers game. And, as you can see for yourself, image quality at higher ISO settings is exceptional for this class of camera. Will I upgrade to the new Nikon D5? Absolutely! Nikon has done it again and produced a new professional grade camera that outshines its predecessors in every category important to me as a working professional. If you are a serious amateur, or professional photographer who needs a camera to capture fast moving subjects with maximum image quality at high ISO’s, while shooting in difficult lighting conditions, the new Nikon D5 is definitely for you.

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