Nikon D500 Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Ultimately, it is the image quality that makes a camera worth buying. For a digital SLR, image quality greatly depends on the lens used. While color, noise, contrast and exposure are properties of the camera, distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations are properties of the lens. Sharpness depends on the weakest link. So, the camera cannot capture more details than the lens lets through. Conversely, a lens can transmit a greater amount of details than the sensor can capture.
Image Noise & Sharpness
The new 20 megapixels APS-C sensor in the Nikon D500 boasts an unprecedented sensitivity range for this sensor-size. The real secret is an equally improved EXPEED 5 processor which eliminates noise with minimal impact to details and image quality. Images from the D500 are very clean with very little noise until ISO 3200. Maximum print sizes are possible until ISO 3200. For a 20 megapixels sensor, this means a large 14" x 21" print is easily possible. ISO 6400 still looks reasonably good at that size, just not impeccable. More standard 12" x 18" prints look fantastic though.
ISO 12800 clearly shows deterioration with the finest details being destroyed by softness due to noise-reduction. Up until ISO 6400, the performance of the D500 and full-frame D5 were remarkably similar! At ISO 12800, the difference is clearly in favor of the D5. The D500 tries to compensate with more aggressive noise-reduction but that reduces possible image-size anyway. Those who depend on such stellar ISO, simply must go full-frame.
ISO 25600 is even noisier, with color noise starting to intrude. Details soften further and dynamic-range starts to really suffer. Bright mid-size prints can look reasonable but dark scenes should be limited to smaller print sizes. At the highest standard sensitivity of the D500, ISO 51200, color noise starts to become dominant, although softness does not increase by much. Small prints remain usable but barely.
The extended ISO range seems to be there mostly for bragging rights. ISO 102400 surprisingly produces a recognizable image, yet appears grainy at any size. ISO 204800 is of limited use until no other option exist. From ISO 409600 to 1638400, images are simply unusable. It is difficult to say what is in such images. These stellar sensitivity are of little practical value.
Image sharpness is excellent on the D500. The EXPEED 5 processor produces very sharp images even at the default setting of 3. There is some slight sharpening artifacts which are only visible when seen at 1:1 magnification. Tuning down Sharpness to 2.5 instead results in images free of artifacts. Between 2 and 3, results are very nice. Lower is quite soft and higher settings start adding outlines to edges. There is a Clarity setting which affects micro-contrast and is useful to produce more crisp images. The optimal setting for this is around +2.5 which produces detailed yet looking natural images.
The EXPEED 5 processor can optionally correct for Vignetting and Distortion, just like most recent Nikon DSLRs. Vignetting correction is something that is easy to perform with minimal impact on image quality when characteristics of the lens are known. Oddly, the D500 does not seem to have that information and instead offers 3 levels of Vignetting Correction. This is poor approach to the problem since vignetting changes with aperture and focal-length even for a single lens. Distortion Correction is something that is not recommended since it can have a damaging impact on framing. Furthermore, the same distortion is not equally noticeable between different scenes, so one rarely needs to have it corrected on every image.
Metering & Color
The Nikon D500 offers a large set of few metering modes. The default Matrix metering is prone to over-exposure. It appears too much weighed on the center of the frame which causes bright skies to get blown out even if the camera has sufficient dynamic-range to capture it along with the foreground. Highlight Weighed metering is highly conservative and more reliable. It mostly needs some positive exposure compensation for scenes with bright highlights. For pleasant ready-for-print results, the D500 needs to have EC dialed down for Matrix metering or up from Highlight Weighed metering. Spot and Average metering work exactly as expected.
Image parameters are plentiful and adjustable with very fine steps. There are six picture styles offering various degrees of realism. The Standard style is closest to reality with natural and nicely saturated colors. More realistic output is possible by toning down Saturation to -0.5 and shifting Hue to +0.5. The Standard tone-curve is slightly harsh by default, so setting Contrast to -1 and Brightness to +0.5 improves shadow details while producing images with plenty of punch.
Automatic white-balance is average under most conditions but struggles somewhat under dim artificial light. There are three Auto settings that vary in how they deal with the warm color-cast typical of tungsten lighting. Unfortunately, they all leave a noticeable orange cast in images under low-light. This issue is not entirely consistent either, so using a Preset or Custom WB is recommended for such conditions.
Dynamic-range of the Nikon D500 is exceptional. It manages to capture a whopping 14-stops at ISO 50, going barely down to 13-stops at ISO 100 and 200. Even ISO 400 and 800 manage to record 12-stops of dynamic-range which is a best-in-class performance. At ISO 3200, there is a clear dip in dynamic-range, which is still better than usual. As one would expect, things go quickly south from there.
Speed & Autofocus
The Nikon D500 is an incredibly fast camera. Reaching a speedy 10 FPS, the continuous drive can sustain bursts up to 200 maximum quality JPEG images or losslessly compressed 14-bit RAW files. This lets is shoot for 20 seconds at maximum speed without interruption. Only shooting in RAW+JPEG reduces the maximum buffer-depth a little. Recall that the Nikon D500 features asymmetric dual memory-card slots, so the best performance is achievable only when shooting to a single XQD card. Doing the same with an SDXC card or dual both cards as backup keeps the same fast 10 FPS while narrowing the buffer-depth proportionally to memory card-speed.
This DSLR is extremely responsive with one exception, entering the menu system which takes ½s or so. Every other button and dial gets an instant response though. Parameters change with every dial turn and the camera immediately confirms changes in the viewfinder or status display. Entering Playback mode occasionally hangs for up to a second but most times it happens quickly.
Every feature and control on the Nikon D500 is responsive and lets the photographer keep working. The D500 is built for speed above all else and is characterized by the following performance numbers:
- Power On: Instant. Excellent.
- Power Off: Instant. Excellent.
- Autofocus: Under ¼s even in low light. Too fast to measure!
- Focus Confirm: Instant for both autofocus and manual focus. Excellent.
- Shutter-lag: Instant followed by extremely short black-out. Extremely good.
- Shot-to-Shot Speed: About ¼s. Excellent.
- Instant Review: Just under ½s. Average.
- Playback Mode: ¼s. Very good.
- Shooting Mode: Instant. Great.
This is an excellent performance by all counts. There is one metric which is simply average and that is Instant Review. Enabling either Vignetting or Distortion correction also slows the camera down by adding about ¼s to the Instant Review delay. Unsurprisingly, these are nearly all the same numbers as the previously reviewed full-frame D5.
The 153-point Phase-Detect AF system shared by the D500 and D5 is ultra-fast and barely slows down in low-light. It is extremely sensitive, down to a class-leading -4 EV, making it possible to automatically focus on scenes which require the extreme ISO sensitivities that the D500 is capable of. Accuracy of this autofocus system is highly reliable. After taking hundreds of photos down to extremely low light-levels, the camera only produced a handful of out-of-focus images. On the D500, the autofocus system covers nearly the entire APS-C frame.
Nikon quotes a battery-life of 1240 shots-per-charge for the D500. This is a good number but we never even got close to it. Despite not having a flash, most days of shooting fell short of 600 frames before emptying the battery. Actual performance depends on a number of factors, including Instant Review and use of Wireless connectivity option. Even with those turned off, battery-life of the D500 does not quite match its closest competitors. For most people, a second battery will take them through a day of shooting. Action photographers though should stock up on a several more spares. All-in-all, this is the single largest performance difference between the D5 and D500.
Performance - How well does it shoot video?
When Nikon launched the D5 and D500 together, they unveiled their first DSLRs capable of capturing 4K Ultra-HD video. Like its full-frame counterpart, the D500 record 3840x2160 video at 30 FPS from a 1.5X crop of the sensor. This narrows the field-of-view while avoiding pixel skipping which can cause artifacts in video. It can also capture 1080p Full-HD video at up to 60 FPS from the full-width of the sensor.
The D500 offers a total of 10 combinations of resolution and frame-rates, from 4K to 720p and 24 to 60 FPS, other than for Ultra-HD which has a limit of 30 FPS. All videos are saved in Quicktime format using an H.264 codec. In order not to defeat the purpose of 4K video, that resolution is always saved in high-quality, while lower ones have a high and standard quality setting.
Nikon is recognizing that videography requires different settings than photography even for the same subject and conditions. To help with this, the D500 replicates some settings between the Photo Shooting and Movie Shooting menus. Video files can have their own naming, while the camera can use different ISO, WB, Picture Control, Active D-Lighting and High ISO Noise-Reduction for video than for stills. Additionally, video offers adjustments to Microphone Sensitivity, Frequency Response and optional Wind Noise-Reduction. For WB and Picture Control, the D500 cleverly offers an As Photo option since those are likely to be the same regardless of medium under the same circumstances.
This DSLR luckily features a dedicated video mode. It is activated by entering Live-View with the rotating switch set to Video. The preview shown on the LCD for is Exposure-Priority which begs the question why it is not for stills. During video capture ISO can only be Automatic in Manual mode, which effectively makes it not truly manual. In every other exposure mode, ISO remains automatic. Despite being selectable, there is no Shutter-Priority mode, nor is there a Program Shift in P mode. Aperture-Priority though works as expected.
Video can be recorded with or without sound. The camera includes a built-in stereo microphone with adjustable sensitivity, either automatic or 20 user-selectable levels. Sound can be monitored using a head-set connected to the stereo output mini-jack. It can be recorded from an external stereo source too via another mini-jack. Videos can be recorded to either memory card.
One thing that Nikon revived a while back with their D600 reviewed here is Time Lapse Video. The D500 and D5 are both capable of producing time-lapse videos in-camera at up to 4K Ultra-HD. Unlike time-lapse videos created by assembling frames on a computer, ones from the camera are shot at an aspect-ratio of 16:9.
The interval between the start of exposures can be set from 1 second to 10 minutes, in one second increments. The total time to capture the time-lapse can run from 1 minute to 7 hours and 59 minutes, in one minute increments. While setting these parameters, the camera shows the length of the resulting video. The OK button can be used to interrupt the process and stores the time-lapse captured up to that point.
Any exposure-mode can be used for the time-lapse and both metering and autofocus are performed for each frame. Resulting images are scaled down and combined into a video of the selected resolution and frame-rate. The output quality is therefore comparable to video quality since it uses the same codec and compression.
The Nikon D500 produces quality videos with crisp details, good dynamic-range and contrast. 4K Video is very sharp and shows little compression artifacts in generally static scenes. A relatively low bit-rate smears details when there is significant movement in the scene, such as during panning. There is some aliasing when filming fine textures but very seldom. It can be seen in the Ultra-HD video sample on the building in the opening shot.
Full HD video has the advantage of supporting twice the frame-rate which makes motion appear considerably smoother. Details are notably softer though since HD videos are down-sampled from the entire sensor. Fewer details, so less aliasing. It is a natural trade-off. Regardless of resolution and frame-rate, the D500 can keep recording until a memory-card fills up or the battery runs out, whichever occurs first.
The Video Record button starts recording almost instantly like on the D5. Pressing it again immediately stops the recording. There are two focus modes when recording video:
- AF-S: Single-shot AF which is performed each time the shutter-release is pressed half-way. The focus-area can be moved anywhere in the frame using the 8-way controller. Manual focus is also available before and during filming using any lens with an M/A mode.
- AF-F: The camera focuses continuously at all times, before and during filming. This results in audible noise which is captured by the built-in microphone. More alarming is the back-and-forth lens movement due to the nature of Contrast-Detect autofocus. Avoid this mode.
Four AF-areas options are available for video capture: Wide, Normal, Tracking and Face-Detect. If you must use AF for video, use AF-S with Normal area and perform autofocus at the least bothersome time with the focus-point positioned neatly on the desired subject. Remember that missed focus attempts will be seen in recorded video and disturb viewers which is why quality videos are normally produced using Manual Focus.
Nikon surprised everyone with the introduction of the D500. Years passed since the D300S and the price-gap between Full-Frame and APS-C digital cameras has become rather narrow, putting into question whether there is room for higher-end cropped-sensor cameras. The Nikon D500 is a clear answer that they think so. Laws-of-physics dictate that a state-of-the-art APS-C sensor must be behind a Full-Frame one in terms of image-quality, which Nikon anyway launched simultaneously in the D5 twins, stressing the position of the D500 within the Nikon DSLR lineup.
By any measure, the Nikon D500 is a superb camera. It offers class-leading specifications with performance to back it up. The new 20 megapixels APS-C CMOS sensor offers a standard sensitivity range of ISO 100-51200, expandable to an unmatched ISO 50-1638400. A fast EXPEED 5 processor renders output from the sensor with crisp details and fantastic color at 10 FPS and for up to 200 frames, regardless if those are JPEG images or RAW files. Equally new is a class-leading 153-Point Phase-Detect Autofocus system built into the D500 and D5.
The quality of images produced by the Nikon D500 is simply the best seen from any APS-C camera to date. Image noise is virtually inexistent up to ISO 3200. At ISO 6400, some noise just starts being noticeable and only when seen at 1:1 magnification, making this sensitivity completely usable even for moderately large prints. By ISO 12800, some degradation and softening of details occurs, limiting potential print sizes. The next two stops, ISO 25600 & 51200, are visibly worse and represent the end of the usable range. Anyone needing such sensitivities really has no choice but to go full-frame.
Dynamic-range of the Nikon D500 is exceptional with a maximum of 14-stops, meaning it is pulling off detail at every single bit from the sensor. It also manages to stay at 12 EV or near even until ISO 800. Where there is something to complain about is the new metering system which tends to either overexpose in Matrix metering or be excessively conservative with Highlight Weighed metering. The JPEG rendering engine though delivers an impressive performance with realistic colors, good saturation and sharp details. Automatic White-Balance is reasonably good but could see some improvement in low-light.
The 153-Point Phase-Detect AF module inside the Nikon D500 is in a league of its own. It covers nearly the whole APS-C frame with AF-points, including up to 99 Cross-Type points, depending on the mounted lens. The autofocus system is sensitive down to a best-in-class -4 EV. Focusing is very fast and with continuous autofocus available at 10 FPS with predictive 3D-Tracking. Autofocus accuracy is just as good.
The D500 is an APS-C camera in a full-frame body. Its design is remarkably similar to that of the Nikon D810 reviewed here, having dual control-dials, a large 100% coverage viewfinder with built-in shutter and a principally modeles interface. Buttons have been shuffled a bit between these models yet the layout will be completely familiar to Nikon users. Compared to other professional APS-C DSLRs though, the D500 looks gigantic. This is actually the only downside of this DSLR that cannot be worked around. While this can equally mean a more comfortable hold and spacious design, the rich feature set of the D500 make it rather complex to take fully advantage of and Nikon has not revised the design sufficiently to improve this.
This DSLR is very fast and highly responsive. The black-out-time is barely noticeable and shot-to-shot times are among the fastest. Only entering Playback mode is a tad slower than expected, with the rare unexplained hiccup. Still, the D500 never gets in the way of photography. Changing exposure parameters is efficient and moving the focus-point can be easily done with the camera at eye-level. This DSLR particularly excels at usability low-light photography with its backlit status LCD, illuminated controls and built-in viewfinder shutter. Battery-life is unusually short for such a high-end product, yet this is such an easy thing to deal with.
Now that we know that its image quality is best-in-class, its speed is unmatched and its ergonomics efficient, there is no doubt that the Nikon D500 deserves our rare Excellent+ rating. The reason why this review had to be so critical remains though: Are its significantly higher price and larger size worth it? For action and sport photographers, it is clear that the new autofocus system will tip the balance in favor of the D500. The only alternative is the even larger and much more expensive D5 XQD reviewed already. A travel or landscape photographer may have to be more cautious before deciding on a larger camera to carry. Portrait photographers who wish to shoot with available light could really use such stellar high-ISO performance with a really fast and wide-coverage autofocus system.
Nikon D500 Facts
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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