This year has been rich in new exciting product releases. While most wedding photographers were probably awaiting the Canon 5D4 announcement, the action and sport photographers were looking forward to the new pro bodies, such as the Nikon D5 and Canon 1DX II. However, Nikon surprised us with the D500, their new APS-C flagship camera. Being the geeky photographer that I am, I wanted to try it out and see if it was good as a Nikon full frame body.
This review is probably different than most other D500 tests available out there. While most people took the APS-C camera and demonstrated how capable it is for action and wildlife photography, I made a different choice. The fact is, this camera is priced equally to the Nikon D750, has the same rugged body as the Nikon D810, and offers very similar features to the Nikon D5. So why limit it to two genres of photography? Looking at the specifications, it should be a very capable all around camera, and that’s what I aimed to find out.
Like aforementioned, in terms of form factor, the D500 looks very much like a D810 with D5-like ergonomics. Compared to the D750 it feels much better in the hand, it seems more rugged but keeps the tilt screen that is so useful for low to the ground or overhead shots.
Having switched from Canon earlier this year, something I’ve missed is the AF selector. While using the directional pad works, I much prefer the selector found on the 5D3 or 7DII… or the D500! Because, yes, Nikon finally introduced the secondary selector to a camera that is not a pro body.
When I tried my first Nikon, it was a D4s. I found the idea of having backlit buttons absolutely fantastic and couldn’t understand why it was only found on that camera. Here again, Nikon added it to their APS-C flagship body.
If I had to describe the build quality and ergonomics of the Nikon D500, I would say it’s the best camera body I have had in my hands, aside from the D5 and Phase One XF – but they are in a very different price range.
The one thing I could complain about is the viewfinder. Yes, it is bigger than any APS-C camera out there, but still, I found myself wondering quite a few times if the autofocus was working or not… It is not a D500 issue per say, but something to keep in mind if you are considering buying this camera and are used to manual focusing.
Small Sensor, Big Performances
The Nikon D500 is nothing but a beast. I must admit that looking at the specs, the only thing that refrains me from calling it a pro body is its form factor.
Ideal Wildlife and Action Camera
I already said it, but I’ll say it again, this camera is very similar to the D5 but with an APS-C sensor. While I don’t shoot any wildlife, if I had to pick one camera for action photography, this would be it. The reason being that it has all the advantages of the Nikon D5, but with a few added exciting features that can make up for the 10 fps vs. 12 fps.
WiFi and Bluetooth are embedded, so there is no need for a very expensive transceiver. It also makes triggering the camera remotely quite easy. I haven’t used it thoroughly, but it works very similarly to the D750 – meaning it’s not perfect, but it gets the job done.
Its AF is as good as the D5, with 153 AF points amongst which 99 are cross-type. But it gets even better than that: the points go all the way to the border of the frame making creative composition very easy. For mirrorless users, this is nothing new, but for someone who is used to DSLR or medium format, this is a revolution!
Close to Perfect Wedding Camera
Yes, I will dare say this camera is close to the perfect camera for weddings. Firstly, it can accommodate for two memory cards, one SD and one XQD, meaning you can set it to have a backup of your images while shooting. Something that might be a minor detail to many, but that is crucial to wedding photographers.
I won’t speak about the AF again, but as you can imagine, if it’s good enough for wildlife and action photography, it is more than sufficient for wedding photography. Having the AF points going all the way to the border of the frame is just an amazing thing when shooting events!
Another feature that is very handy is the quick access to the custom modes. Here again something I got used to with my Canons and that I find myself lacking on the D810 and D750. On the D750 it's accessible using the mode dial, but in fast-paced action, it’s not the most practical option. On the D810 it just doesn’t exist. On the D500, you can set the movie record, the Fn, or Pv button to change the custom shooting mode. For weddings, it’s very handy because you can configure ahead of times a few modes. For example, one could be aperture priority with EV at +1 and auto-ISO enabled, another could be manual with the shutter at 1/250s for flash sync with ISO fixed at 400, and another could be in manual with the shutter at 1/100s to avoid any issue with artificial lighting. Then switching from one to another is just a matter of pressing one button.
But what many of you are probably more interested in is the high ISO performance – so am I! I don't want to spoil it, but you will not be disappointed. Quite the opposite actually. I’m personally blown away! It performs just as good as the D750 if not better.
All the samples above are from raw files, with no post processing aside from the white balance correction.
Wedding photographers also love cameras that aren’t loud. The Nikon D5 and D750, for example, are not the most discreet cameras in the world. The D500, on the other hand, is much quieter! It is probably because the mirror is much smaller than on a full frame camera, but still, Canon 5D and 6D perform better in that regard.
Good Enough Camera for Portrait Photography
With close to 21 megapixels, the Nikon APS-C flagship has more than enough resolution for most photographers that shoot portraits or commercial work.
The first issues I potentially saw with this camera were the dynamic range and the exposure latitude. The sensor being smaller, I was afraid that it wasn’t up to par with the other cameras of the brand. Well, here again, Nikon did a fantastic job! The camera is almost as good as the D750 regarding exposure latitude! I could almost pull back five stops with virtually no noise:
Something I couldn’t say about the Nikon D5… it performed really poorly here. The D5 blew every Nikon camera out of the water when it came to high ISO performance – as you previously saw –, but in terms of latitude exposure, it is far from being the best camera on the market.
Comparing it to the D810, D5, or D750, the raw files colors looked slightly less good straight out of the camera opening in Capture One. But after retouching the files, it’s hard to say which picture was made with what camera.
The only thing that could really give the D500 away is the bokeh. It’s a tiny bit less pleasing. Shooting in studio with a fairly closed aperture, it doesn’t matter much, but if isolating your subject is crucial, it might be detrimental. However, the difference is not always very visible…
The first portrait above was shot with the D500 and second with a D5. But without knowing, would you really have guessed which image was shot with what camera?
Who Is This Camera For?
Priced at $1,996.95, exactly the same as a D750, the D500 is an amazing camera. It offers everything the D750 is lacking – great ergonomics, rugged construction, 1/8000s max shutter speed, custom shooting modes, backlit buttons, touch screen, etc. – while building on the great features of the D750 except for one: the sensor.
For wildlife and action photographers, this is a no-brainer. The D500 is currently the best choice out there unless you can justify a D5 or a 1DX II.
For wedding photographers, I would be tempted to say the D500 is a better choice, but at the same time the full frame sensor still has an edge when isolating a subject is necessary. On the other hand, the D500 offers a slightly longer reach with its crop factor and that might come in handy in some situations. I would say, having a combo of a D500 and D750 or D5 would be ideal. You then would get the best of both worlds.
For portrait photographers, the choice is even more difficult. The dynamic range is great, colors are far from bad but not perfect at the same time, the exposure latitude is amazing, the AF as good as a pro body… but then again, if you want that creamy bokeh, the D750 and D810 might be better choices. If you don’t mind the slightly smaller sensor, then the D500 is a better choice on all aspects, except resolution when compared to the D810.
What I Liked ?
I think this is pretty obvious: I loved that camera. It’s the (almost) ideal camera in my opinion. I won’t list everything I have liked because I would basically list the specs of the camera except for "APS-C".
What I didn’t Like
- I wish Nikon - and Canon for that matter – followed Sony and included in body stabilization.
- No full frame version of this amazing camera.
- Batteries seem to drain quicker than in my D810 or D750.
The Nikon D500 is truly a wonderful camera. When I asked Nikon to have one unit for a few weeks to try it out, I didn’t think I would miss it when sending it back. But truth be told, I do miss it! I have loved my D750 since I had it, but this does just as well if not better despite the smaller sensor! I would bet that if Nikon were to place a full frame sensor in this camera body, every photographer would be all over it! At the same time, I don’t know how well the D5 would do then… One thing for sure, I cannot wait to see what the Japanese manufacturer has up its sleeves for the next iteration of the D7xx and D8xx.