Nikon D500 Review
The Nikon D500 is the newest flagship APS-C DSLR from Nikon. Unlike previous flagships, the D500 does not replace its predecessor but extends the lineup to a whole new level. Seen as the long-awaited successor of the venerable D300S, the new Nikon D500 combines a state-of-the-art 20 megapixels CMOS sensor with class-leading sensitivity and a high-speed mechanical shutter combined with a highly sophisticated 153-Point Phase-Detect autofocus sensor to squarely aim at the needs of action photographers.
After already being 8 years old, the Nikon D300S was long due for a replacement and this new digital camera changes everything! For differences in specifications, use the Neocamera Camera Compare Tool with the D300S and D500. The real story is that the D500 was introduced as an APS-C version of the top-of-the-line full-frame Nikon D5 XQD reviewed here. Due to its smaller APS-C sensor and single-grip design, the D500 manages to be 3X lighter while still delivering a comparable feature set, being only one stop less sensitive and just 20% slower.
The Nikon D500 is a 20 megapixels APS-C DSLR in the body of a full-frame model. Its design is clearly a modern Nikon with dual control-dials and plenty of modeless controls, save for the Drive-Mode dial and Focus-Mode switch. A top-mounted monochrome status screen follows other high-end Nikon DSLRs, while debuting a large tilting touchscreen LCD at the rear, just below a large OVF with 100% coverage, 1X magnification and a built-in shutter.
The core of this DSLR is the most sensitive APS-C sensor on the market. It boasts a standard sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 51200 and a whopping ISO 50 to 1,600,000 expanded range, something only exceeded by the full-frame D5 siblings. This incredible sensor offers fast read-out to capture 4K Ultra-HD video at 30 FPS or Full 1080p HD video at 60 FPS, although 4K is taken from a 1.5X crop-area of the APS-C sensor.
A fast mirror mechanism and matching shutter allow this DSLR to shoot continuously at 10 FPS and reach shutter-speeds of 1/8000s, among the maximum speeds reached by a mechanical shutter. Towards the slow end, the D500 can capture exposures of 30s or longer thanks to Bulb and Timed exposure modes. No sport camera would be complete without a sufficiently fast AF system which the D500 takes from the top-of-the-line D5. It supports 3D Tracking using color-information or conventional Dynamic-Group continuous focus with 25 to 153 points in effect.
Like most full-frame bodies, the D500 lacks a built-in flash yet supports Nikon Creative Lighting System via a standard hot-shoe and additional studio lights using a standard Sync-Port. A proprietary 10-pin connector supports an Add-On GPS while the camera itself already integrates WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1 LE, NFC, USB 3.0 and HDMI connectivity. The only option missing compared to the D5 is an Ethernet port. Unlike its higher-end sibling, the D500 is available in only one version equipped with one XQD and one SDXC memory-card slot.
This DSLR is aimed at professional action photographers that benefit from the longer reach afforded by an APS-C sensor. It offers every feature expected from its class and more like a built-in viewfinder shutter, an Interval Timer, Time-Lapse Video, HDR and dual memory-card slots.
In this in-depth digital camera review, the Nikon D500 is analyzed in terms of features, usability, ergonomics, performance, image quality and controls.
Nikon D500 Features
- 20 Megapixels CMOS sensor
- No Anti-Alias Filter
- Nikon DX Format APS-C sensor
- Standard ISO 100 - 51,200 range
- Expanded ISO 50 - 1,638,400 range
- Customizable Auto ISO
- Built-in Dust-Reduction
- JPEG, TIFF, RAW or JPEG+RAW Output
- PASM exposure modes
- 1/8000s - 30s Shutter-speed, plus Bulb and Timed
- EC, ±5 EV, 1/2 or 1/3 EV steps
- FC, -3...+1 EV, 1/2 or 1/3 EV steps
- Matrix, Highlight-Weighed, Center-Weighed, Average & Spot metering
- AE, Flash or AE+Flash Bracketing: 2, 3 or 5 frames, maximum 3 EV steps, 7 or 9 frames, maximum 1 EV steps
- Exposure Fine-Tuning, ±1 EV, 1/6 EV steps
- Exposure and ISO steps of 1, ½ or 1/3 EV
- HDR, 2 shots, 1-3 EV steps, 3 blending levels, single image or series
Focus & Drive
- 153-Point Phase-Detect autofocus system
- 99 cross-type points, 15 sensitive to F/8
- Autofocus sensitivity down to -4 EV
- Single-Shot and Continuous focus-drive
- AF-S: Single, Group or Auto focus-points
- AF-C: Single, Group, Dynamic Area or 3D Tracking
- Dynamic AF Area: 9, 25, 72 or 153-point
- Contrast-detect AF for Live-View and video
- Face-Detect AF in Live-View
- 10 FPS Drive, 200 JPEG or RAW
- Customizable Self-Timer, 1-9 Shots, 2-20s Start Delay, ½-3s Interval
- Quiet-Shutter with delayed mirror-return
- Mirror-Up and Exposure-Delay, 1-3s
- Multiple-Exposure: 2-10 shots, optional Auto Gain
- Internal-Timer: 1-9999 Times, 1-9 Shots, ½s-24h Interval, 1min-1week Start Delay
- Time-Lapse: 1s-10m interval, 1m-8h capture time
- Optional Autofocus Fine-Tuning
- Automatic Autofocus Fine-Tuning
- AutomaticThree types: Normal, Remove Warm Colors & Preserve Warm Colors, Preset, Kelvin and Custom6 Memories WB
- Preset White-Balance Fine-Tuning, 49 steps along G-M axis, 25 steps along A-B
- Kelvin White-Balance Fine-Tuning,G-M, 49 steps
- Picture Styles, 6 built-in, plus user-defined ones
- Automatic or Manual Sharpness, 37 steps
- Automatic or Manual Clarity, 41 steps
- Automatic or Manual Contrast, 25 steps
- Automatic or Manual Saturation, 7 steps
- Manually Adjustable Hue, 25 steps
- Manually Adjustable Brightness, 13 levels
- Virtual WB Bracketing, 2-9 frames, 3 steps, 2 axis
- Virtual Active D-Lighting Bracketing, 2 - 5 frames
- Optional High-ISO Noise Reduction, 3 levels
- Optional Long Shutter Noise Reduction
- Optional Distortion-Correction
- Optional Vignetting-Correction, 3 levels
- Optional Active D-Lighting (ADL), 5 levels or Auto
- Optional Dust-Off reference photo
- In-Camera RAW development
- sRGB or AdobeRGB color space
- Dual control-dials
- 8-Way joystick
- 8-Way controller
- Configurable AF-On button
- Modal drive-mode dial
- Modeless Exposure-Mode control
- Independent Bracketing button
- 2 Customizable Function buttons
- Customizable DOF-Preview button
- Customizable Video-Record button
- Live-View trigger
- Focus-Point lock
Viewfinder & Displays
- 100% Coverage viewfinder, 1X magnification
- Built-in viewfinder shutter
- 3.2" Touchscreen LCD, 2.4 Megapixels
- Illuminated top LCD status display
- Dual-Axis Digital-Level
- DOF-Preview in viewfinder
- Optional OVF composition grid
- Optional OVF 1.3X-Crop overlay
- Sound-Level monitor
Body & Construction
- 3840x2160 @ 30 FPS 16:9 Ultra HD 4K
- 1920x1080 @ 60 FPS 16:9 HD
- Time Lapse with optional Exposure Smoothing
- Quicktime H.264 codec, 2 quality levels
- Built-in microphone, 20 levels
- Wide or Vocal Frequency Response
- Optional Wind Noise Reduction
- Optional Flicker Reduction
- Stereo Audio Input mini-jack
- Stereo Audio Output mini-jack
Capability - What can it do?
The Nikon D500 is extremely feature-rich and highly customizable. It offers every feature one would expect from a professional DSLR. In this review page, we therefore cover those features which are unique to the D500 or done differently. Even the 400-page manual does not cover all capabilities of this DSLR.
The only real omission from this DSLR is a built-in flash. Although with such an extreme ISO range and its fast continuous drive, it does not really need one. External lighting is supported though via a hot-shoe and sync-port. One thing to know for completeness is that Nikon uses lens-based stabilization and so none of their DSLR cameras have stabilization built-in. The same is true for Canon, leaving the only stabilized full-frame DSLR to Pentax, other than discontinued models. Note that there exists stabilized full-frame mirrorless cameras though.
There is 3-way power-switch on the Nikon D500. Two positions are the usual On and Off choices. The third position is spring-loaded and triggers illumination of the top status LCD screen plus most buttons on the left side of the body. This is formidable for working in the dark. Optionally, they can be permanently illuminated while the camera is On. Even when the camera is off though, the status LCD nicely indicates which card is inserted and how much space is available in the first occupied slot.
This DSLR offers same extensive set of drive modes as its predecessors. There is a Continuous Low and a Continuous High position, both customizable. The Low one, CL, shoots between 1 and 9 FPS. The High one, CH, shoots 10 FPS. To reduce shutter-shock, the D500 adds a front-curtain Electronic-Shutter. Exposure still ends with the closure of a mechanical shutter to avoid rolling-shutter artifacts.
The only unusual mode is Q which stands for Quiet Shutter. It works by moving the mirror slower than usual to reduce noise made by the camera. It also does not return the mirror to its up-position until the shutter is fully released. In practice, it barely makes a difference on the D500. The mirror sound lasts longer and has a slightly lower pitch. There is a Qc option is is a 3 FPS continuous version of Quiet Shutter.
As repeated several times since the D4 review
Nikon D4, there is one custom menu option which should truly be a drive mode: Exposure Delay Mode. This is effectively a 1 to 3 second self-timer which raises the mirror up at the beginning of the delay. In fact, without a remote release, this is the only way to prevent camera shake. The D500 finally makes this assignable to one of the Fn buttons, making it accessible without navigating through the menu system.
The Interval Timer is set separately from drive modes. Nikon's implementation is the most sophisticated, matching that of the D5. One can specify the number of intervals and the number of shots taken at each interval. With AEB, this can be used to create an HDR time-lapse. The interval can be between ½s and 24h and number of intervals between 1 and 9999. Between 1 and 9 shots can be taken at each interval. A Start Time can be specified up to 1 week in advance now!
There is a separate Time Lapse feature which automatically creates a video from a series of frames. The interval between frames can be selected from 1s to 10m in 1s increments, while the total capture time can reach up to 8 hours. Intelligently, this DSLR warns in advance if sufficient memory is not available. Time Lapse video are rendered at the selected movie resolution and frame-rate. Crucially tough, they are framed at a 16:9 aspect-ratio. An Exposure Smoothing option makes the changes in Auto Exposure more gradual during recording of a Time Lapse Video.
A new 153-point Phase-Detect AF system makes its debut in the Nikon D500. This is a very sophisticated system which includes 99 cross-type points and is sensitive down to a class-leading -4 EV. 15 of the cross-type points work down to F/8 which is practical when using lenses with telephoto extenders. There are a number of dynamic modes, including full 3D Tracking AF which is customizable for different subject motion and temporary obstacles. Face-Detection can even be combined with 3D Tracking.
The AF system is quite complex. To tame this, the D500 allows photographers to restrict the number of focus points and focus modes available. One can also recall different points depending on the orientation of the camera. Face-Detect AF is allowed to provide feedback to Matrix metering.
Nikon is the only manufacturer to implement a Automated Autofocus Fine-Tuning system. This replaces the usually combersome and repetitive process by one which uses Contrast-Detect AF to calibrate the Phase-Detect AF system. The procedure is not explained in the manual but Nikon has a clear tutorial here.
Metering patterns are chosen by a top-mounted button used with the rear control-dial. There are four choices: Matrix, Highlight Weighed, Center-Weighed/Average and Spot. Matrix is Nikon's name for Multi-Segment metering. Highlight Weighed, introduced on the Nikon D810
Nikon D810, provides a segmented metering system that gives priority to highlights. Spot is for Spot metering. Depending on a custom setting, the third choice activates Average or Center-Weighed metering. The same option lets the camera use one of four sizes8mm, 12mm, 15mm or 20mm for the central-portion.
Auto-Exposure Bracketing can be enabled for 2 to 9 frames with steps up to ±3 EV when taking 5 frames or less. One can bracket exposure parameters, flash or both. Virtual Bracketing for WB or Adaptive D-Lighting can be performed instead with 3 step sizes for WB and 5 for ADL. In both cases, only one photo is taken but it is rendered multiple times. For obvious reasons, Virtual Bracketing only applies to JPEG.
Standard ISO sensitivities run from 100 to 51,200. Expanded ISO values are identified by label. ISO 50 is called L 1.0. ISO 102,400 is called H 1.0 all the way to H 5.0 for 1,638,400. Full stops, half-stops or third-stops are also available. Auto ISO is specified in the same way as on the D5. Users configure separate maximum ISO sensitivities for normal and flash exposures, plus a minimum shutter-speed. The D500 then adjusts the chosen ISO within the permitted range to obtain at least the specified shutter-speed.
There are now three types of Automatic White-Balance. One attempts to render whites as neutral, one tries them look natural and the last is to warm lighting. This is the same naming of AWB options as on the D5, which is different from other Nikon DSLRs.
White Balance options are quite numerous. There are 6 presets With 7 sub-types for Fluorescent: Sodium-Vapor, Warm-White, White, Cool-White, Day-White, Daylight, High Temperature Mercury Vapor.. Custom WB now has 6 memories. Each nicely shows a thumbnail of the image from which it was recorded. For measurements taken with through the OVF, the entire frame is used. For those taken via Live-View, a small selectable area can be sampled. Kelvin WB can be selected between 2500K and 10000K. WB Fine-Tuning offers two axis except for Kelvin which only supports the G-M axis. Regardless, there are always 49 steps along G-M and 25 along B-A. The temperature span along each axis is actually the same, only Nikon allows ¼-point for one and ½-point increments for the other.
This camera features Nikon's Active D-Lighting image processing technology which lightens up dark areas of images to bring out details. There are 5 levels of ADL which differ by how much shadows get boosted. ADL can be manually or automatically set to one of those levels or turned off entirely. ADL indirectly affects RAW capture because exposure is adjusted according to the selected ADL level.
The Nikon D500 features a built-in viewfinder-shutter. A simple rotating switch next to the eye-piece opens or closes it. This shutter prevents light from entering the camera through the optical viewfinder to avoid problems with long exposures. The OVF is large and relatively bright. It shows 100% full-frame coverage at 1X magnification. A layer of liquid crystal allows the OVF to overlay a 1.3X crop frame which is roughly equivalent to framing with a 2X crop sensor, similar to Four-Thirds yet with a 3:2 aspect-ratio.
The display of the Nikon D500 acquired several changes. First, two pieces of bad news:
- The display is now mounted on a tilting double-hinge. This allows for some additional flexibility in framing while making such a high-end product much less robust. When tilted, the screen exposes a black ribbon-cable which the manual advises not to touch. The advantage offered by this design is mute considering that the camera can send its Live-View on a nearby phone via SnapBridge.
- It is now a touch screen. Touching the screen inadvertently changes the focus point which results in an increase in missed shots. Plus, the screen gets covered in fingerprints and becomes less usable quickly. Luckily, touchscreen functionality can be disabled entirely.
Now the good news about the display:
- The extra-large 3.2" LCD has an incredible 2.4 megapixels of definition and very good visibility.
- In Manual mode, and only in that mode, Nikon added an Exposure Priority preview by pressing the OK button during Live-View.
- Live-View has been made more fonctional with features like Instant 100% Electronic Zoom. This feature is also available during Playback mode.
- It can be adjusted for color-balance and brightness to improve accuracy.
This DSLR can capture JPEG images or RAW files, using the NEF format. The Nikon D500 can produce RAW files uncompressed, losslessly compressed or with lossy compression. Lossless compressive saves on average 40% space without any drop in quality, so this is the recommended option. All measurements here are done on losslessly compressed 14-bit per pixel RAW files. Optionally, RAW depth can be reduced to 12-bits per pixel. It saves around 20% space at the expense of 2 stops of precision.
As a professional tool designed for fast photography, the D500 includes a large number of features to improve efficiency. There are two sets of Memory Banks. One for the Shooting menu, the other for the Settings menu. Each has 4 memories which can be selected independently. The only thing not stored are functions that involve multiple images such as Multiple Exposure and Interval Timer.
The Nikon D500 offers asymmetric dual memory card slots. One accepts common SDXC memory cards, the other the faster yet rare XQD type. This makes managing cards somewhat cumbersome and requires both types of card to take advantage of dual slots. XQD cards are appealing because of their performance and robustness. The risk though is that only Sony makes them since the demise of Lexar. XQD readers are also rather rare now. The implementation of dual memory-cards allows the usual Overflow, Backup and Separate RAW and JPEG modes. Unfortunately, when deleting an image, it only gets deleted from a single card. This can get very tedious if you are shooting action where the success-rate is relatively low.
Connectivity is notably different from its siblings. There is still a proprietary 10-pin connector for using a GPS module but WiFi is now built-in, as are Bluetooth 4.1 LE and NFC. This seems like a lot of options, yet they are all tied together. NFC is used to initiate a connection, Bluetooth is used to maintain it and WiFi is used to transfer images. This keeps whatever smart device gets loaded with Nikon SnapBridge quite busy. Wired transfer can be done via a standard USB 3.0 cable. It also has a mini HDMI port that outputs at 4K. Two mini jacks allow stereo sound input and output for video use.
Nikon D500 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 24 x 16mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|20 Megapixels DSLR||ISO 50-1640000|
|Nikon F Mount|
|Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|2 Axis Digital Level||Custom white-balance with 2 axis fine-tuning|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Hot-Shoe & Sync-Port|
|10 FPS Drive, 200 Images||Stereo audio input|
|3840x2160 @ 30 FPS Video Recording||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|3.2" LCD 2.4 Megapixels||Secure Digital Extended Capacity|
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