Nikon D500 Review
Ergonomics - How easy is it to handle?
As a professional DSLR, the Nikon D500 is designed for efficiency. Its large body features a high number of buttons and dials, including dual control-dials, to access a high number of crucial photographic controls. Despite offering 24 buttons, 5 switches and 3 dials, the body of the D500 does not feel cramped at all. In fact, the Nikon D500 is an APS-C camera in the body of a Full-Frame DSLR. This may be its most apparent downside compared to other professional APS-C digital cameras.
The tall grip of the D500 is comfortable to hold, with space for all fingers to hold on. There is a deep lip below the shutter-release which provides excellent support for the camera. Considering it is rather heavy and expensive, some kind of strap is highly recommended. Nikon provides a standard nylon strap with the brand and model of the camera indicated in yellow thread. The strap eyelet is high enough on the grip-side of the body to never get in the way or cause any discomfort.
In hand, this DSLR feels somewhat heavy yet is well-balanced. There is enough of the body opposite the grip to additionally support the camera with a second hand. Gripping the camera, the index finger falls right on the shutter-release. From there, the front control-dial is easily reached, as are three round buttons behind the release which is itself surrounded by a 3-way power-switch, described in the previous page of this review.
The back grip-side of the camera offers a spacious thumb-rest where an 8-way joystick, a dedicated AF-On button and a rear control-dial form an arch within easy reach of the thumb. The 8-way joystick serves to move the focus area. Depending on the actual Focus Mode, this can mean moving around just a single point or a group of 5, 25 or 72 points. In the camera manual, the joystick is called Sub-Selector. It can also be pressed to activate one of 26 functions: Select Center Focus-Point, Select Preset Focus Point, Highlight Active Focus-Point, Switch to Preselect AF-Area Mode6 Modes available, Autofocus using Preselected AF-Area Mode, Depth-Of-Field Preview, Flash Lock, AE/AF-L, AE-LThere is no dedicated AE-L button., AE-L and Release, AE-L and Hold, AF-L, AF-OnThere is a dedicated AF-On button., Toggle Flash, Bracketing Burst, +RAW, Matrix Metering, Center-Weighted Metering, Spot Metering, Highlight Weighed Metering, Viewfinder Grid, Dual Axis Digital Level, Multiple Camera Sync Release, My Menu, My Menu Top Item or Playback Mode. There are tons of extremely useful options here.
The AF-On button is also customizable with 8 possible functions: AF-On, AF-Area Mode, Autofocus on AF-Area Mode, AE/AF-L, AE-L, AE-L and Release, AE-L and Hold or AF-L. Again, Nikon provides a good number of useful and related functions. Right below the thumb-rest, there is an 8-way controller surrounded by a lock switch. The switch locks both the 8-way controller, called Multi-Selector, and the 8-way joystick above. The 8-way controller is used for navigating menus and to move the focus-area, making the Sub-Selector almost entirely redundant. The only difference is that the Multi-Selector has a center button which can only trigger one of 3 functions in Capture mode: Select Center Focus-Point, Select Preset Focus-Point and Highlight Active Focus-Point. In Playback mode, the central button of the 8-way controller provides access to two extremely thoughtful options: Histograms View and Electronic ZoomAvailable for 1:2, 1:1 and 2:1 magnifications., in addition to toggling thumbnails. This lets photographers easily check for exposure or focus issues quickly.
Further down, there are three more buttons: Info, i and Live-View. Info cycles through various display modes, including Dual Axis Digital Level in Live-View. This is the only way to get the virtual horizon in Live-View since any button assigned to that function is simply ignored while Live-View is engaged. i brings up a small menu of shortcuts to seldom used functions. Unsurprisingly, the Live-View button toggles Live-View. A switch around it selects between Live-View for stills or video. This is pretty much the best way to have a camera offer both photos and videos, since video necessarily requires Live-View.
With the camera at eye-level, its optical viewfinder provides 100% coverage and 1X magnification for framing. There is a hard-rubber eye-piece around it which could really be more comfortable. At the upper-left corner of the OVF, a small switch toggles the built-in shutter designed to avoid stray light from entering the camera during long exposures. Its a shame more cameras do not include this instead of the usual viewfinder cover which can only be placed after removing the eye-piece. The view through the OVF is large for an APS-C camera and provides a flexible liquid-crystal overlay. This allows the Dual-Axis Digital Level and 1.3X Crop Frame to be overlaid, yet both of these are thin and black which makes them difficult to discern over a dark background. Autofocus points light up for a very brief moment when changed.
Nikon has one of the most informative status line below the view in the OVF. It shows the Metering Mode, Shutter-Speed, Aperture, Exposure Mode and ISO or Remaining Frames. Considering how important ISO is and how large modern memory cards can be, it is much preferable to show the ISO there. Exposure Compensation, AE-L, AF-L, Bracketing and a Flash Compensation indicator appear when away from default settings.
The left shoulder of the Nikon D500 has a cluster of 4 buttons setting on top of the Drive Mode dial. These buttons control Quality, Metering, Exposure Mode and White-Balance. The dial below it is locked to prevent accidental changes. One must press a button in front of the dial to rotate it. There are 7 positions on the Drive Mode dial: Single, Continuous High Speed, Continuous Low Speed, Quiet Shutter, Continuous Quiet Shutter, Self-Timer and Mirror Up. As detailed further down, several of these modes are customizable. On the back of the camera, to the left of the LCD, there are 8 more buttons: Playback, Delete, Menu, Picture Control/Lock/Help, Zoom In, Zoom Out/Flash, OK and the customizable Fn2. Reaching any of these buttons requires moving the hand that supports the camera which explains why these are reserved for generally lesser used functions.
All those controls, including the Drive Mode dial, are illuminated. When the Power-Switch is pulled to the Light Up position, it springs back to On and leaves the backlight on for the top status LCD and controls on the left of the camera. This lasts a few seconds. Repeating the procedure turns the illumination off. Optionally, the D500 can be configured to keep this illuminated at all times. The light going through the controls is just soft enough to be nearly invisible during the day but makes the controls perfectly readable at night. This is a rare and fantastic feature.
Doors and Ports
The D500 appears very solid with exception to the hinge for the rear LCD. On the side of the body, there are three thick rubber flaps that may eventually show some wear before the rest of the camera. The upper flap reveals a standard USB 3.0 female connector. The middle one opens in two steps, first revealing a mini-jack for stereo audio input, then another mini-jack but for stereo audio output. The lowest flap covers a mini HDMI 1.4 female connector capable for 4K Ultra-HD output.
Two more rubber flaps, made to look like one piece, are located at the front of the camera. The top-half unveils an industry-standard Sync-Port which is normally used for external lighting. At least, that was common before the days of wireless triggers. The lower-half, hides a proprietary 10-pin connector which Nikon uses for add-on GPS and WiFi modules, although it is unclear if the D500 supports the latter since it has WiFi built-in already.
A battery door opens at the bottom of the camera on the grip-side, making it easy to change batteries while the camera is tripod-mounted. The bottom of the camera also has a metal tripod mount directly in-line with the center of the lens. The side of the grip has a tall memory-card that covers slots for XQD and SDXC cards one above the other. Both the battery and memory-card compartment doors feel quite durable.
Usability - How easy is it to use?
The Nikon D500 introduces another level of APS-C DSLR with correspondingly higher pricing, so this review is unusually critical. Yet this is essential to evaluate how much more can the D500 deliver overs its peers.
There is no doubt that the Nikon D500 is aimed at action photographers. High-speed continuous drive and high-sensitivity aside, what such professionals need are efficient and responsive controls. Nikon has been making this type of camera for decades, slowly refining their design and control layout. The D500 is clearly a Nikon and users of any of their professional DSLRs will instantly be familiar with the new D500. At the same time, Nikon has avoided making improvements which require major changes to the operation of their DSLRs.
Ironically, the most significant design change to the D500, its tilting display, reduces the robustness of the flagship APS-C DSLR. The display hinge is certainly not fragile but its hinge shows some flex and exposes a fragile ribbon cable when the display is not in its default position. One could have easily done without by implementing better features in the remote control app.
The D500 is largely a modeless camera. One the Drive Mode dial, Focus Mode switch and Stills/Video switch have fixed positions which cannot be overridden. This allows the camera to store and recall most settings. Nikon provides 4 banks for Shooting Settings and 4 banks for Custom Settings, making it easy to switch between various configurations. By enabling the Extended Photo Menu Banks setting, these banks can even store exposure parameter values such as Aperture, Shutter-Speed and ISO.
Given that most buttons are large and spaced apart, the Nikon D500 remains highly usable with gloves on. The one exception is the Drive Mode dial whose texture is not as ribbed as the control-dials. While this camera is fully weatherproof when used with a compatible weatherproof lens, it is not freezeproof, so expect a quick drop in batter performance when shooting below freezing.
Nikon placed three buttons within easy reach of the index finger yet put arguably the most important one in the least comfortable position. EC should really have been where the Video Record button is, keeping the latter smaller as it is. ISO is placed in just the right location yet could be improved by giving it a most distinguished shape, consider photographers must be able to change both EC and ISO with the camera at eye-level. This is not the case for Video Record since that feature only works with the camera in Live-View mode.
The next set of most-frequently used controls are the dual control-dials. Both dials are well-placed, have good detents to prevent accidental turns and deep ridges to make them usable while wearing gloves. Alone these dials change one or two exposure parameters, depending on the mode. The front dial usually changes Aperture, the back one Shutter-Speed. There are a number of options to swap the functions of these dials for different settings. On one hand, the flexibility is good but on the other, the dial assignment never seems to be perfect. More importantly, one dial is left unused in all but Manual mode. One can assign the unused dial to EC, which is risky as it can introduce unwanted change to exposure, yet not to ISO, as it possible on other professional Nikon APS-C DSLRs. This omission is consistent with the D5 but certainly an odd choice.
High on the back of the D500 body there is a dedicated AF-On button. This invokes AF each time it is pressed. If AF on shutter half-press is disabled, this puts the camera into Back-Button Focus mode which is quite useful when the photographer anticipates taking a photo with the subject at a specific location such as sports players reaching a particular position. For those who do not use this feature, AF-On can easily be repurposed as AE-L or AF-L button, among other functions.
People generally like having a joystick to move the focusing area. The one provided on the back of the D500 is easy to reach and quite sensitive to movement. Making it clickable introduces another control-point with using up extra space. It works so well that it puts in question as to why Nikon did not provide much customization to the 8-way controller further down which is otherwise mostly redundant. Since both are on the sensitive side compared to other controls, a lock is provided to prevent them from moving the focus-area.
The Live-View trigger works perfectly. Press it to engage Live-View, press it again to disengage. While this is no longer such a new feature, the Nikon implementation is limited. The view shows 100% coverage, like the viewfinder, plus a number of overlaid information and guides. There is a Dual-Axis Digital-Level which has a quite intrusive representation. The view is Display-Priority, so it does not reflect the final exposure unless the Exposure-Priority option is enabled and the camera is in Manual exposure mode and the OK button is pressed. This means that the preview is wrong most of the time. The same is true of the optional Live Histogram. It is mostly correct when there will not be any overexposure, so when it is not really needed! Color and WB changes though are shown on the display. This being a camera for action photography, use of Live-View is certainly expected to be limited.
Depth-of-field is now previewed by default. Pressing the DOF Preview button actually undoes the preview as it opens the lens to its widest aperture. This is exactly the reverse as using the OVF!Live-View on the Nikon D500 allows three considerably helpful features though: One is an Electronic Zoom which magnifies the image around the focus-area to check critical focus; Another is a Spot Custom White-Balance sampler; The last is the unique Automatic AF Fine-Tuning. None of these would be possible without Live-View, so kudos to Nikon for thinking about these.
The 3.2" LCD on the back of this DSLR is incredibly sharp with 2.4 megapixels of resolution. It has good visibility with a wide angle-of-view. Color balance can be adjusted for greater accuracy. It also happens to be a touchscreen. Touch functionality is limited but it can change the focus-point. It only takes a light touch to do so which causes frequent unwanted changes in focus-area. Luckily, the touch functionality can be disabled entirely, and it should, not just on the D500 but on every camera that has it. Not only are touchscreen always accidently prone, the encourage constantly dirtying the screen.
Buttons on the left of the LCD screen are unremarkable. At the bottom of the column, there is an eighth customizable button. It supports many functions such as Shutter Delay Mode. which has no dedicated control. One button has three purposes: Lock in Playback mode, Help while navigating menus and Picture Control in Capture mode. Another doubles as Zoom Out and Flash control, while the other 6 always do one thing which is nothing in Capture mode! This is nearly identical to the layout on other high-end Nikon DSLRs but could really use some rethinking. With a camera that does so much, many of these buttons could be put to better use. The OK button in particular, which is required to confirm some menu actions, is in an oddly awkward position.
On the left shoulder, a cluster of four buttons are found on top of a slim drive-mode dial:
- The QUAL button allows to select file format, image quality and resolution. Holding down this button while rotating the front control dial selects between 20, 10 or 5 megapixels resolutions. Rotating the rear control-dial cycles through combinations of file format and image quality. Since this camera and shoot JPEG, RAW, JPEG+RAW and TIFF, including a whopping 6 qualities of JPEGs, there are a total of 14 options to cycle over. Photographers rarely change these, so this prominent button could have been put to better use.
- Metering mode can be changed by rotating the rear control-dial while holding the Metering button. It cycles over Matrix, Highlight-Weighed, Center-Weighed and Spot. An option in the Settings menu determines if Center-Weighed is in fact Average metering. One can also adjust the size the the center circle for Center-Weighed metering.
- Ironically named Mode offers modeless access to standard PASM exposure modes. To change modes, turn the rear control-dial while holding down Mode. The change is shown in the viewfinder status line and on the top status LCD. Neatly, memory banks can set the camera to any exposure-mode this way.
- WB unsurprisingly controls White-Balance. With it pressed, the rear control-dial selects a WB setting while the front applies WB Fine-Tuning along the B-A axis. For Kelvin, this effectively changes the color temperature. Changes along the G-M axis require using the menu system. This is also true for WB sub-selection such as the type of AWB or fluorescent lighting.
The Drive Mode dial is self-locking. One must press a small unmarked button at the front-left corner of the top-plate in order to rotate the Drive Mode dial. The dial itself is the only control on the D500 which is difficult to use with gloves on. While it offers 7 choices, several are configurable within the Settings menu. The Continuous Low speed can be set there. The most flexible mode though is the Self-Timer. It can take up to 9 shots after an initial delay of up to 20s and with a ½ to 3s interval between each frame. This is quite useful when a self-timer is needed for less predictable subjects. Since the mirror still lifts right when the exposure starts, the Self-Timer alone does not reduce vibrations much. Instead, the Shutter Delay Mode, which is hidden in the Settings menu, must be used to avoid mirror-shock.
The smallest and most difficult to reach button on the Nikon D5 is BKT which stands for Bracketing. It is located on a side-facing part of the body at the front of the camera, close to the D500 logo. Unlike other front controls, this one must be reached over the camera, which requires a complete change of position of the left hand. On the D5, it is located above the Drive-Mode dial which it is easier to use.
By default, the BKT button controls Auto Exposure Bracketing. When held, the front control-dial chooses increments and the rear one selects the number of frames. Not all combinations of increments and frames are possible. A menu option can change the type of bracketing to AE & Flash, Flash Only, WB and Adaptive D-Lighting. Possible increments and frames change according to the type of bracketing. The BKT button can instead be configured to activate HDR or Multiple-Exposure.
The front of the D500 has three more controls. At the lower-right corner of the lens there is a control to configure the highly versatile 153-point autofocus system. The outer part of the switch rotates between AF and MF mode. At the M position, AF is obviously disengaged and no further AF functions apply. At the AF position, the central button enables the front control-dial to set the focus-point selection mode and the rear one to set the focus-drive mode. An option in the Settings menu can reverse this to make it more intuitive.
Focus Drive can be Single-Shot (AF-S) or Continuous (AF-C). There are a total of eight Focus Selection modes, except only the first three available with AF-S:
- Auto: The camera automatically selects among its 153 AF points and highlights those in focus, giving priority to those which are closer to the camera.
- Single-Point: Select one of 55 positions using the joystick or 8-way controller on the back of the camera. Each position is made of multiple AF-points which are hidden from the user. The central button of the 8-way controller brings back the position to the center of the frame.
- Group: Select one of 27 groups of 4 positions from the 55 above. The selected positions form a small diamond and are visible to the user. AF is performed using the entire group simultaneously.
- 9-Point Dynamic Area: Chose one of 55 points and uses 8 surrounding points to assist with autofocus.
- 25-Point Dynamic Area: Focus on one of the 55 user-selectable positions and uses up to 25 surrounding AF-points to keep the chosen position in focus.
- 72-Point Dynamic Area: Focus on one of the 55 user-selectable positions and uses up to 72 surrounding AF-points to keep the chosen position in focus.
- 153-Point Dynamic Area: Select a single among 55 positions while the camera uses all its 153 AF-points to ensure that the subject remains in focus at the selected position.
- 3D Tracking: The camera locks onto the subject under the selected focus-point and follows it around the frame, switching to any other point as needed. Subject motion and temporary obstacles are considered to predict the AF-point to track.
On the grip-side of the front, there are two customizable buttons. The top one defaults to DOF-Preview but, like the other one, can be set to any one of 31 functions, 24 alone and 7 when used with in conjunction with the rear control-dial. It is extremely practical to have one of these control Exposure Delay Mode.
The last remaining items of interest on the front are the lens release, in its usual Nikon location, plus two rubber flaps which hide a Sync-Port for external lighting and a 10-pin connector for remote operation. The flaps are held by a rubber band tied to the left camera strap eyelet.
The Nikon D500 is one of the most complex DSLRs on the market. Nikon made it predictably usable by sticking with their own familiar design and layout. Any user of professional Nikon DSLRs will know how to get started with it. However, new features of this digital camera are stressing its contemporary Nikon design. Many useful features, such as HDR and Exposure Delay Mode, remain buried in menus while there are enough buttons to bring them out. Some functions, like Image Quality, really do not need the prime-location they got.
The menu system has gotten deeper and more difficult to manage. It requires quite a few button pressed to get around it and change settings. Some actions in the menu are not entirely consistent either, confirming is not always needed but sometimes it is, sometimes with the center-button of the 8-way controller and others with the dedicated OK button. Exiting some levels of the menu requires to press left but sometimes one must press the Menu button which brings the user up two levels.
This is digital camera is heavy with features. It can do so much which is clearly better than not doing enough. At the same time, it could use a cleanup to make it more even more efficient. It probably does not really need 6 JPEG quality levels in 3 resolutions! Separate options for Image Rotation and Rotate Tall is possible two options too many. Not sure if there is any reason to offer Uncompressed RAW, considering there is an option with Lossless Compression. The D500 already has a 1.5X crop as an APS-C sensor and there are no F-mount lenses designed for smaller imaging circles, so the additional 1.3X crop is probably never used.
The bottom line though is that the Nikon D500 can almost do anything its predecessors can with just as much ease. The large 100% coverage viewfinder with built-in shutter is fantastic and its numerous buttons plus dual control-dials and focus joystick place every essential feature at photographers' fingertips.
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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