MIR­ROR, MIR­ROR ON THE WALL, WHO’S THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL?

Want a D5 but can’t af­ford it or just don’t want some­thing that’s so big? The good news is that the D500 is es­sen­tially a scaled­down D5… with some ex­tra fea­tures too. And it’s a third of the price. Is this the best D-SLR – in any for­mat – money can buy?

Camera - - ON TRIAL -

It’s a funny old world. When Nikon launched its com­pact D-SLRs with full-35mm sen­sors – in par­tic­u­lar the bril­liant D750 – there sim­ply didn’t seem any good rea­son for stick­ing with the smaller ‘APS-C’ size im­ager. We pretty well said as much when we re­viewed the D750 and D610… and, for a while there, it even looked like Nikon might have agreed too. Ru­mours abounded that it would aban­don the for­mat.

Fast for­ward to now and the D500 pretty well re­verses the ar­gu­ment. In a nut­shell, it’s the ‘APS-C’ ver­sion of the Nikon D5 D-SLR flag­ship… and that makes it a pow­er­fully com­pelling ar­gu­ment for the smaller-sized sen­sor. It also graph­i­cally il­lus­trates that, as time goes on in dig­i­tal imag­ing, sen­sor size is be­com­ing less and less of an is­sue. Now it’s true that pixel size is re­lated to cer­tain per­for­mance ben­e­fits – all re­lated to the sig­nal-to-noise ra­tio – but data pro­cess­ing is

be­com­ing so so­phis­ti­cated that the end re­sults are in­dis­tin­guish­able. Just look at what the lat­est Mi­cro Four Thirds cam­eras are do­ing, for ex­am­ple. It’s also true to say that we’re be­com­ing more com­fort­able with the con­cept of ‘suf­fi­cient qual­ity’ com­pared to the buf­fer zone which film al­ways pro­vided… and all but a few pro­fes­sion­als never ac­tu­ally needed to ex­ploit. In re­al­ity, 20 megapix­els of res­o­lu­tion – no mat­ter how it’s de­liv­ered sen­sor-wise – is go­ing to be suf­fi­cient for a great many users.

It’s in­ter­est­ing to note that the D500’s ‘APS-C’ im­ager – Nikon’s ‘DX’ for­mat – de­liv­ers ex­actly the same three im­age sizes at full res­o­lu­tion as the D5’s full-35mm sen­sor – namely, 5568x3712, 4176x2784 and 2784x1856 pix­els. These are, of course, smaller pix­els in the for­mer (4.2 mi­crons ver­sus 6.45 mi­crons), but in real world terms are you go­ing to be able to dis­cern any dif­fer­ence at a pic­to­rial level? Maybe – just maybe – at very high sen­si­tiv­ity set­tings, but here the D500’s range hap­pens to be far more re­al­is­tic than that of the D5 any­way so the short an­swer is prob­a­bly ‘no’. Which, then, makes the D500 one hel­luva a cam­era be­cause ev­ery­where else it’s pretty much a mini-me D5. It’s not quite as fast, but then 10 fps – with con­tin­u­ous AF and AE ad­just­ment – is pretty re­spectable by any stan­dard and, again, more than suf­fi­cient for many ap­pli­ca­tions. And that’s it give or take a few mi­nor items which the D500 more than makes up for by hav­ing a few ma­jor ad­van­tages over its big brother – topped by a tilt-ad­justable LCD mon­i­tor screen (the same size and res­o­lu­tion as the D5’s), but also in­clud­ing dif­fer­ent for­mat mem­ory card slots (an in­ter­est­ing mix of SD and su­per-fast XQD), Nikon’s new ‘SnapBridge’ wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem (plus WiFi with NFC), in­creased AF zone cov­er­age (very nearly edge-toedge) and a higher mag­ni­fi­ca­tion viewfinder. But the big plusses are ac­tu­ally all the mi­nuses… the key things the D500 has a lot less of com­pared to the D5 – mil­lime­tres, grams and dol­lars. It’s still not a small cam­era – es­pe­cially by mir­ror­less ‘APS-C’ stan­dards – but it’s a whole lot less of a hand­ful than the D5 in terms of both bulk and weight (the lat­ter by close to half a kilo). And you could buy three D500s for the same price as the D5, so this dif­fer­ence trans­lates into a few very nice lenses or a trip over­seas to visit some­where pho­to­genic.

You still get the D5’s AF and me­ter­ing sys­tem, the ex­po­sure and white bal­ance con­trols, all the same im­age pro­cess­ing op­tions, buf­fer mem­ory ca­pac­ity, 4K video record­ing, fully-sealed mag­ne­sium al­loy bodyshell, and con­trols such as the joy­stick for quicker and eas­ier AF point se­lec­tion. You even get the back-il­lu­mi­nated but­tons – which is a truly use­ful fea­ture – and, sim­i­lar to the D5, the re­flex mir­ror mech­a­nism has been re­designed to min­imise the black­out time with con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing. And while we’re here, we should also men­tion that the ‘APS-C’ for­mat sneaks you a 1.5x in­crease in ef­fec­tive lens fo­cal length which is very handy if you’re shoot­ing sports or ac­tion and need some ex­tra tele­photo power with­out tak­ing out a sec­ond mort­gage. All this has ob­vi­ously in­flu­enced Nikon’s think­ing be­cause it’s been a very long time be­tween drinks – seven years, in fact – as far as the D300S’s re­place­ment is con­cerned… long enough to think that maybe this line was fin­ished and the big­ger sen­sor rep­re­sented the fu­ture in higher-end Nikon D-SLRs. At this point, though, the D500 makes more sense than ever. Now that we’re no longer stress­ing over sen­sor size is­sues, no mat­ter which way you look at it, the D500 bal­ances ca­pa­bil­i­ties, per­for­mance, func­tion­al­ity and af­ford­abil­ity like no other D-SLR on the mar­ket. De­spite how much we like the D610 and D750 in this of­fice, the D500 is the Nikon D-SLR to have. No ar­gu­ment.

IN THE HAND

It’s a hand­some beast and much more nicely pro­por­tioned than the D5, although you can bulk it up with an op­tional bat­tery grip if you so de­sired. Be­neath the mag­ne­sium al­loy body cov­ers is a car­bon­fi­bre chas­sis (which helps keep the weight down), and the shaped hand­grip of­fers the usual Nikon lev­els of com­fort and con­trol. There are a num­ber of styling cues bor­rowed from the flag­ship, in­clud­ing the V-shaped scal­lop in the pen­taprism hous­ing and the red flash at the top of the hand­grip, while the top deck con­trol lay­out is vir­tu­ally iden­ti­cal. This ex­tends to the top of the rear panel so, if you do hap­pen to be mix­ing D5s and D500s – we’re talk­ing mostly pro­fes­sion­als here, of course – there’s a high de­gree

THE D500 IS ONE HEL­LUVA A CAM­ERA BE­CAUSE EV­ERY­WHERE IT’S PRETTY MUCH A MINI-ME D5.

of com­mon­al­ity. The dis­tinc­tive but­tons-within-a-dial con­trol clus­ter has been a fea­ture on high-end Nikon D-SLRs for a while now, and there’s an­other slight vari­a­tion on the D500 which in­cor­po­rates four keys – com­pared to the D5’s three – for di­rect ac­cess to the im­age qual­ity set­tings, me­ter­ing modes, white bal­ance set­tings and ex­po­sure modes. Be­low is the se­lec­tor for the drive modes which in­clude the self-timer, mir­ror lock-up and the two ‘quiet’ re­lease op­tions (i.e. sin­gle-shot and con­tin­u­ous). A ded­i­cated ISO but­ton is lo­cated astern of the shut­ter re­lease so all the ba­sics are di­rectly ac­ces­si­ble in a very straight­for­ward man­ner. The D500 gets the en­hanced cus­tomis­able con­trol op­tions of the D5, but Nikon still lags a long way be­hind what’s pos­si­ble here with, for ex­am­ple, a Pana­sonic Lu­mix G Se­ries mir­ror­less cam­era. Nev­er­the­less, the ‘Fn1’, ‘Fn2’ and ‘PV’ (preview) but­tons do pro­vide some scope for fine-tun­ing op­er­a­tions in con­junc­tion with the

front and rear in­put wheels (a.k.a. ‘Com­mand Di­als’).

Dis­ap­point­ingly, the touch­screen im­ple­men­ta­tion is the same as that of the D5 so, cu­ri­ously, it’s not avail­able for nav­i­gat­ing the menus or the mon­i­tor-based info dis­play (which would oth­er­wise be an­other ef­fi­cient way of di­rectly ac­cess­ing cam­era set­tings). The good news is that in live view, the ‘Touch AF’ func­tion now ac­tu­ally fo­cuses rather than just po­si­tion­ing the fo­cus­ing point, and it can be com­bined with au­to­matic shut­ter re­lease. There’s also the nifty ‘Spot White Bal­ance’ func­tion avail­able in live view, as in­tro­duced on the D5, but clearly there’s scope for more here. At the mo­ment, the touch­screen mostly comes into its own for im­age re­view­ing, al­low­ing for speed­ier brows­ing, zoom­ing or search­ing the thumb­nail pages. The live view screen can be con­fig­ured with a real-time his­togram, du­alaxis ‘Vir­tual Hori­zon’ level dis­play or guide grid. There’s also a split-screen view which shows two zoomed-in sec­tions from a scene to as­sist with fo­cus­ing and align­ment.

ON VIEW

The op­ti­cal viewfinder is both the D-SLR’s ad­van­tage and its Achilles Heel. The D500’s is bril­liant – with the high­est mag­ni­fi­ca­tion avail­able in an ‘APS-C’ for­mat re­flex – but the cam­era’s top speed of 10 fps is near the limit of what’s phys­i­cally pos­si­ble with a piece of glass rapidly flip­ping up and down be­tween frames.

As the D500 doesn’t go quite as fast as the D5 – but the lat­ter’s top speed is only achieved with the mir­ror locked up – Nikon hasn’t had to go to quite the same lengths to make its mir­ror mech­a­nism work, but as noted ear­lier it’s still had to make some mod­i­fi­ca­tions to min­imise the black­out du­ra­tion and limit bounce. Here then is where a mir­ror­less de­sign would be the ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion – now that EVFs work so well (es­pe­cially at 120 fps or even 240 fps) – although it has to be said that the D500 is ac­tu­ally a fine ad­vert for the D-SLR.

The viewfinder com­prises a com­pre­hen­sive read-out panel be­low the im­age area, plus su­per­im­posed fo­cus­ing points – sim­pli­fied when you’re ac­tu­ally shoot­ing to just brack­ets de­lin­eat­ing the to­tal AF area and points bound­ing the se­lected group – dual-axis level in­di­ca­tors and a small se­lec­tion of sta­tus in­di­ca­tors. There’s also the op­tion of hav­ing a fram­ing grid. What’s im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous when you have the full set of AF points ac­tive is that the left-to-right cov­er­age ex­tends vir­tu­ally across the en­tire frame, and with only small spa­ces at the top and bot­tom. This is the ben­e­fit of us­ing the D5’s 153-points ‘Multi-CAM 20K’ aut­o­fo­cus mod­ule over a smaller imag­ing area… an­other tick for the ‘APS-C’ for­mat sen­sor.

SHARP SHOOT­ING

Its aut­o­fo­cus­ing sys­tem is the D5’s great­est as­set so the D500 in­her­its some­thing very spe­cial. The ‘Multi-CAM 20K’ aut­o­fo­cus mod­ule em­ploys 153 measuring points, 99 of them be­ing cross-type ar­rays. Fifty-five points are man­u­ally se­lectable, and 35 of these are cross-type ar­rays.

Not only is the spread of points wider and deeper, they’re also more densely packed which en­hances the de­tec­tion speed and ac­cu­racy, es­pe­cially with smaller sub­jects. Sen­si­tiv­ity ex­tends down to -4.0 EV. Fif­teen fo­cus points (nine of them man­u­ally se­lectable) can op­er­ate with a max­i­mum lens aper­ture as slow as f8.0 which takes into ac­count us­ing a tele­con­verter. All 153 op­er­ate down to f5.6. There’s a choice of seven AF area modes; in­clud­ing ‘Dy­namic Area’ set to sin­gle, 25, 72 or 153 points, ‘Group Area’ which picks a point and then uses the sur­round­ing points for fur­ther fine-tun­ing, ‘3D Track­ing’ which taps into colour in­for­ma­tion to fol­low a mov­ing sub­ject, and ‘Auto Area’ which also en­gages face de­tec­tion. In the viewfinder, the man­u­ally se­lectable fo­cus­ing points are shown as small boxes while the rest are rep­re­sented by dots which keeps this dis­play from look­ing con­fus­ingly chaotic.

Both the sin­gle-shot and con­tin­u­ous modes can be set to ei­ther re­lease-pri­or­ity or fo­cus-pri­or­ity, and the auto track­ing func­tion can be fine-tuned via ‘Lock On’ ad­just­ments. Here you can de­fine the sub­ject’s move­ment characteristics (us­ing a scale from Steady to Er­ratic) and the re­sponse to an in­ter­rup­tion caused by a blocked shot (rang­ing from Quick to De­layed). Face de­tec­tion can be en­abled when us­ing auto track­ing too.

Aut­o­fo­cus­ing in live view is via con­trast de­tec­tion us­ing the imag­ing sen­sor with, as noted ear­lier, touch AF and auto shut­ter re­lease func­tion­al­ity. The modes here are face de­tec­tion, nor­mal area, wide area and sub­ject track­ing. Man­ual fo­cus as­sist is via a mag­ni­fied im­age of up to 11x and with a nav­i­ga­tion pane, but as with the D5, again there isn’t a fo­cus peak­ing dis­play.

AF mi­cro-ad­just­ment is avail­able to fine-tune for the fo­cus­ing characteristics of in­di­vid­ual lenses (up to 20) and it’s now done au­to­mat­i­cally which is both more con­ve­nient and more re­li­able.

SEE­ING THE LIGHT

Also bor­rowed di­rectly from the D5 is the D500’s me­ter­ing sys­tem which is based on a RGB sen­sor with 181,000 pix­els which pro­vides multi-zone, cen­tre-weighted av­er­age, high lightweighted and spot mea­sure­ments. The spot me­ter can be linked to the ac­tive fo­cus­ing point. As on all top-end Nikon D-SLRs, the size of the cen­tre-weighted me­ter’s cen­tral zone can be var­ied; in this case set to 6.0 mm, 8.0 mm (the de­fault), 10 mm or 16 mm. Me­ter­ing sen­si­tiv­ity ex­tends down to -3.0 EV at ISO 100.

The stan­dard se­lec­tion of auto ex­po­sure con­trol modes is backed by an AE lock and up to +/-5.0 EV of com­pen­sa­tion and auto brack­et­ing which can be set to se­quences of up to nine frames. Ad­di­tion­ally, the auto ex­po­sure brack­et­ing can be set to in­clude the flash level or for flash alone. The D500 doesn’t have a built-in flash, but it again fol­lows the D5 in be­ing com­pat­i­ble with Nikon’s new ‘Ad­vanced Wire­less Light­ing’ sys­tem (AWL) for ra­dio-con­trolled re­mote op­er­a­tion – as op­posed to op­ti­cal – in an off-cam­era TTL set-up. RF con­trol has a longer range and is more re­li­able, es­pe­cially in bright sunny con­di­tions.

The fo­cal plane shut­ter has a speed range of 30-1/8000 sec­ond with flash sync up to 1/250 sec­ond and, like the D5, the D500 also has a sen­sor-based shut­ter (a.k.a. an “elec­tronic first cur­tain shut­ter”), but it’s only avail­able as an op­tion when shoot­ing with the mir­ror locked-up, pri­mar­ily to help elim­i­nate vi­bra­tions when us­ing longer tele­photo lenses. While shoot­ing with live view is tech­ni­cally mir­ror-up pho­tog­ra­phy too, Nikon specif­i­cally means when the D500 is in the ‘M-UP’ mode as se­lected from the drive op­tions… so no other po­ten­tial ben­e­fits of a sen­sor shut­ter are utilised. Con­se­quently, for ex­am­ple, the D500 doesn’t have the D5’s ‘Si­lent Live View’ shoot­ing mode. For the record, the stan­dard FP shut­ter is rated at 200,000 cy­cles.

While the D5 has only gained au­to­matic flicker de­tec­tion and re­duc­tion via a re­cent firmware up­grade, the D500 has had it right from the start. Flicker re­duc­tion is de­signed to deal with the rapid

NO MAT­TER WHICH WAY YOU LOOK AT IT, THE D500 BAL­ANCES CA­PA­BIL­I­TIES, PER­FOR­MANCE, FUNC­TION­AL­ITY AND AF­FORD­ABIL­ITY LIKE NO OTHER D-SLR ON THE MAR­KET.

switch­ing characteristics of gasig­ni­tion light­ing (i.e. flu­o­res­cent or mer­cury vapour types) which can af­fect both ex­po­sure and colour bal­ance when shoot­ing at faster shut­ter speeds. The anti-flicker ca­pa­bil­ity de­tects the fre­quency of a light source’s blink­ing and sub­se­quently times the shut­ter re­lease to min­imise the ef­fect, even with con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing. On the D500 it’s avail­able both when us­ing the op­ti­cal viewfinder or live view (which ob­vi­ously in­cludes shoot­ing video) and can be ei­ther set to auto or specif­i­cally to the 50 Hz or 60 Hz cy­cles of the mains power sup­ply (de­pend­ing which coun­try you are in).

The D500 also mir­rors the D5 in its se­lec­tion of white bal­ance con­trols, in­clud­ing three cor­rec­tion modes called ‘Keep White’, ‘Nor­mal’ and ‘Keep Warm’. ‘Keep White’ is de­signed to give white whites in sit­u­a­tions where there are dif­fer­ent types of light­ing, both nat­u­ral and ar­ti­fi­cial. ‘Keep Warm’ main­tains a warmer look, par­tic­u­larly when shoot­ing un­der in­can­des­cent light­ing. All three op­er­ate over a range of 3500 to 8000 de­grees Kelvin. Al­ter­na­tively, there’s a se­lec­tion of 12 pre­sets (seven for dif­fer­ent types of gas- ig­ni­tion light­ing), pro­vi­sions for stor­ing up to six cus­tom set­tings, fine-tun­ing, man­ual colour tem­per­a­ture con­trol over a range of 2500 to 10,000 de­grees Kelvin, and auto brack­et­ing. As with the AEB, this can be set to se­quences of two, three, five, seven or nine frames.

PIX­ELS AND PRO­CESS­ING

The D500’s CMOS sen­sor has an imag­ing area of 23.5x15.7 mm and packs a to­tal of 21.51 mil­lion pix­els (20.9 MP ef­fec­tive). To help op­ti­mise the res­o­lu­tion, there is no op­ti­cal low-pass fil­ter (OPLF).

In ad­di­tion to the stan­dard ‘DX’ for­mat, there’s a smaller im­age size called ‘1.3x’ which is equiv­a­lent to a 18x12 mm imag­ing area and gives a fur­ther in­crease in the fo­cal length mag­ni­fi­ca­tion fac­tor, but the max­i­mum res­o­lu­tion avail­able is now 12 MP. A choice of large, medium and small sizes is avail­able in each for­mat. The D500 uses its own ver­sion of Nikon’s lat­est-gen­er­a­tion ‘Ex­peed 5’ pro­ces­sor which de­liv­ers both a range of per­for­mance en­hance­ments (in­clud­ing smarter noise re­duc­tion) and the speed nec­es­sary for shoot­ing stills at 10 fps and record­ing 4K video (see the Mak­ing Movies panel for the full video story). The na­tive sen­si­tiv­ity range is equiv­a­lent to ISO 100 to 51,200 with ex­ten­sions to ISO 50 and 1,640,000… the high­est set­ting cur­rently claimed for an ‘APS-C’ size sen­sor.

Im­ages can be cap­tured as JPEGs, TIFFs or RAW files; the lat­ter in a va­ri­ety of con­fig­u­ra­tions – ei­ther 12-bit or 14bit RGB colour and with loss­less com­pres­sion, lossy com­pres­sion or un­com­pressed. JPEGs can be set to one of three com­pres­sion lev­els – fine (at a 1:4 ra­tio), nor­mal (1:8) or ba­sic (1:16) with the op­tion of set­ting com­pres­sion regimes for op­ti­mum im­age qual­ity or the small­est file size. Con­ve­niently, you now make this se­lec­tion in the im­age qual­ity sub­menu, where the op­ti­mum qual­ity set­tings are ac­com­pa­nied by a star sym­bol. RAW files can also be cap­tured in large, medium or small sizes, and there are quite a few op­tions for con­fig­ur­ing RAW+JPEG cap­ture. A big buf­fer mem­ory al­lows for bursts of up to 200 JPEGs or 12-bit RAWs and, even with the weight­ier 14-bit un­com­pressed RAWs, Nikon is still claim­ing a max­i­mum se­quence of up to 79 frames.

As with the D5, there’s an em­pha­sis on optimising JPEG per­for­mance, prob­a­bly in the recog­ni­tion that pho­tog­ra­phers who shoot many hun­dreds of im­ages at a go (i.e. sports, wildlife, wed­dings, etc) don’t gen­er­ally use RAW be­cause of the time needed to process them post-cam­era. The D500’s JPEG pro­cess­ing func­tions are largely the same as those of­fered on the D5, in­clud­ing the Flat ‘Pic­ture Con­trol’ pre­set which is pri­mar­ily de­signed to op­ti­mise the dy­namic range when shoot­ing video (mak­ing colour grad­ing eas­ier in post-pro­duc­tion). The re­main­ing six ‘Pic­ture Con­trol’ pre­sets – Stan­dard, Neu­tral, Vivid, Mono­chrome, Por­trait and Land­scape – are as they’ve been for­ever on Nikon D-SLRs with the op­tion of cre­at­ing up to nine user­ad­justed ver­sions. For the colour pre­sets, the ad­justable pa­ram­e­ters are for sharp­en­ing, clar­ity, con­trast, bright­ness, sat­u­ra­tion and hue. The

Mono­chrome pre­set re­places the colour ad­just­ments with a set of con­trast fil­ters and a choice of nine ton­ing ef­fects each with seven lev­els of den­sity.

As is also stan­dard across Nikon D-SLRs, ‘Ac­tive D-Light­ing’ (ADL) pro­cess­ing is avail­able for deal­ing with con­trast in order to op­ti­mise the dy­namic range, and there’s the choice of four man­ual set­tings (com­pared to the D5’s five) from Low to Ex­tra High, or auto cor­rec­tion. An auto brack­et­ing func­tion is also avail­able for ADL pro­cess­ing.

The al­ter­na­tive for deal­ing with con­trast is a multi-shot HDR func­tion which cap­tures two im­ages – one un­der­ex­posed, the other over­ex­posed – ei­ther with a pre­set ex­po­sure ad­just­ment of 1.0, 2.0 or 3.0 EV or, al­ter­na­tively, au­to­matic ad­just­ment based on the scene’s bright­ness range. A smooth­ing ad­just­ment can be set to Low, Nor­mal or High to deal with any slight edge vari­a­tions be­tween the two frames. Mul­ti­ple ex­po­sures – up to ten – can be cre­ated with the op­tions of Add or Av­er­age ex­po­sure ad­just­ment or, as on the D5, Lighten or Darken modes which use only the bright­est or dark­est pix­els re­spec­tively.

CAR­ING AND SHAR­ING

The re­view/re­play op­tions are pretty much the same as those of the D5, in­clud­ing pages of four, nine or 72 thumb­nail im­ages; zoom­ing up to 21x and a slide show with ad­justable frame in­ter­vals.

In­di­vid­ual im­ages can be dis­played full-frame with or with­out ba­sic cap­ture info or as thumb­nails ac­com­pa­nied by ei­ther a bright­ness his­togram alone, a full set of RGB his­tograms or a bright­ness warn­ing (with the op­tion of cy­cling through the in­di­vid­ual RGB colour chan­nels). The aut­o­fo­cus points used to take the shot can also be shown. Ad­di­tion­ally, you can cy­cle through var­i­ous pages of cap­ture data which are shown su­per­im­posed over the im­age.

A se­lec­tion of in-cam­era edit­ing func­tions are avail­able via the Re­touch Menu – an­other Nikon sta­ple – and these in­clude ‘D-Light­ing’ (for deal­ing with con­trast is­sues post-cap­ture), dis­tor­tion, per­spec­tive, straighten, im­age over­lay, a cou­ple of ba­sic fil­ter ef­fects (warm and sky­light), B&W con­ver­sion and RAW-toJPEG con­ver­sion. The D500 ac­tu­ally has the D5’s ‘Sideby-Side Com­par­i­son’ fea­ture which al­lows for a re­touched im­age to be com­pared di­rectly with the orig­i­nal.

The D500 was the first cam­era to use Nikon’s new ‘SnapBridge’ wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem which em­ploys Blue­tooth Low En­ergy (also called Blue­tooth Smart Ready) pro­to­cols to en­able an “al­ways on” wire­less con­nec­tion. It’s now also avail­able on the new D3400 en­try-level D-SLR. SnapBridge is Nikon’s so­lu­tion to some of the is­sues plagu­ing wire­less data trans­fer and pro­vides a con­tin­u­ous lowen­ergy con­nec­tion – so there’s less de­mand on the cam­era’s bat­tery – with au­to­matic file trans­fer when shoot­ing.

Set-up only needs to be done once and you can use mul­ti­ple de­vices. The SnapBridge app also al­lows for re­mote cam­era con­trol (al­beit fairly lim­ited), and while it was ini­tially only avail­able for An­droid de­vices, the iOS ver­sion is due any time now. You’re not locked into SnapBridge, how­ever, as the D500 also has built-in WiFi with the con­ve­nience of NFC con­nec­tiv­ity.

SPEED AND PER­FOR­MANCE

Loaded with our ref­er­ence 128 GB Lexar Pro­fes­sional SDXC UHS-II/U3 (Speed Class 3) ‘2000x’ mem­ory card, the D500 cap­tured a se­quence of 200 JPEG/large/ fine frames – the starred va­ri­ety for max­i­mum im­age qual­ity – in 21.16 sec­onds which rep­re­sents a shoot­ing speed of 9.45 fps.

What’s par­tic­u­larly im­pres­sive here is that it kept go­ing to the quoted 200 frame buf­fer limit with­out miss­ing a beat when most cam­eras only stag­ger up to this line at a much slower speed. The av­er­age test file size was around 10.8 MB so this is over 2.1 GB of data float­ing around in the buf­fer and it was all shuf­fled off to the Lexar card in un­der a minute. In re­al­ity, we can’t see any­body ever need­ing a se­quence of 200 frames, but it’s good to know that the 10 fps top speed – or very close to it – is avail­able no mat­ter how long the burst length.

The aut­o­fo­cus­ing per­for­mance is a high­light of the D5, it’s just so stunningly good. Not sur­pris­ingly then, the D500 is equally ac­com­plished here, if not slightly su­pe­rior thanks to the wider AF cov­er­age af­forded by the smaller frame. But we’re not just talk­ing speed here – and it is very, very fast – but the in­tel­li­gent pro­cess­ing of the sub­ject data in order to as­sign the right fo­cus­ing point or group of points. This cam­era thinks like you do so even if the main sub­ject is off to the edge of the frame – and quite small in re­la­tion­ship to ev­ery­thing else in the pic­ture – the D500 still picks the right fo­cus­ing points. It got to the stage where we were de­lib­er­ately try­ing to trip it up with all sorts of chal­leng­ing fo­cus­ing sce­nar­ios and it sim­ply worked bril­liantly and ac­cu­rately ev­ery time. There are lots of good rea­sons for buy­ing the D500, but its aut­o­fo­cus­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties top the list… you’ll never be frus­trated with AF is­sues again.

The 180k pix­els RGB me­ter­ing is also un­flap­pable, han­dling tricky con­trast with aplomb. You could con­ceiv­ably for­get where the ex­po­sure com­pen­sa­tion but­ton is… you’re not likely to need it much. The white bal­ance con­trols also ben­e­fit from the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of this sen­sor and the stan­dard auto con­trol de­liv­ers a level of ac­cu­racy that we haven’t seen be­fore on a D-SLR. Any­thing with a colour tem­per­a­ture lower than 3000 de­grees Kelvin is go­ing to cause an is­sue – un­less you ac­tu­ally want the warmer tones – but oth­er­wise the colour bal­ance is gen­er­ally spot-on.

Of course, the D500 has a dif­fer­ent sen­sor to the D5, but it still matches it in terms of imag­ing per­for­mance, if not even do­ing a lit­tle bet­ter in a cou­ple ar­eas. The ab­sence of an LPOF def­i­nitely

THERE ARE LOTS OF GOOD REA­SONS FOR BUY­ING THE D500, BUT ITS AUT­O­FO­CUS­ING CA­PA­BIL­I­TIES TOP THE LIST… YOU’LL NEVER BE FRUS­TRATED WITH AF IS­SUES AGAIN.

boosts def­i­ni­tion, re­sult­ing in a very crisp ren­der­ing of fine de­tails and, it has to be said, slightly smoother tonal gra­da­tions.

The dy­namic range is ex­cep­tional straight out of the cam­era with the brighter high­lights, in par­tic­u­lar, hold­ing to­gether very well. Nikon’s pro­cess­ing for con­trast, sat­u­ra­tion and sharp­ness de­liv­ers pleas­ingly punchy im­ages, and that’s even be­fore you start to do any tweak­ing with the ex­panded se­lec­tion of ‘Pic­ture Con­trol’ pa­ram­e­ters. The look re­ally is sim­i­lar to shoot­ing with trans­parency film and its ‘first gen­er­a­tion’ clar­ity and fidelity.

The D500’s high ISO per­for­mance is also a bit of a rev­e­la­tion and noise isn’t an is­sue up to ISO 3200, but even here Nikon’s pro­cess­ing bal­ances sharp­ness, con­trast and colour sat­u­ra­tion with noise re­duc­tion ex­ceed­ingly well. The same is true at ISO 6400, but you just won’t be able to make quite as big en­large­ments. Shoot with RAW cap­ture and you can ven­ture even higher up the sen­si­tiv­ity range and process for the loss of con­trast and sat­u­ra­tion later on. In the end, the D500 isn’t quite as clean as the full-35mm D5 at these high ISOs, but it does an ex­cep­tional job for an ‘APS-C’ cam­era which fur­ther adds to its com­pre­hen­sive all­round ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

THE VER­DICT

The bot­tom line is that the D500 is, to all in­tents and pur­poses, an ‘APS-C’ for­mat D5. It bor­rows so much from the full-35mm cam­era that the dif­fer­ences in per­for­mance – both cam­er­arelated and im­age-re­lated – are neg­li­gi­ble and, in fact, the D500 does a lit­tle bet­ter in a few ar­eas. It looks to be just as strongly built and the viewfinder is equally good. It’s ac­tu­ally nicer to han­dle and, of course, is a lot lighter to carry around. If you choose to fit non-DX Nikkor lenses you get a 1.5x fo­cal length in­crease for free which also trans­lates into sav­ing weight – for ex­am­ple, the 70200mm f2.8 mid-range be­comes a 105-300mm tele­zoom.

The key per­for­mance dif­fer­ence be­tween the two cam­eras is the top shoot­ing speed – 12 fps ver­sus 10 fps – but in re­al­ity this is ac­tu­ally go­ing to rep­re­sent no dif­fer­ence to many pho­tog­ra­phers who sim­ply don’t need the ex­tra 2.0 fps. The all-im­por­tant burst length is still the same for shoot­ing both JPEGs and RAWs.

So all this is brought into sharp fo­cus by the dif­fer­ence in the prices… the real bot­tom line. If it was all rel­a­tive, the D500 should be sell­ing for around $6000 (maybe more), but it’s half this price which makes it the best value propo­si­tion any­where. The fact that this ac­tu­ally isn’t the most com­pelling rea­son for buy­ing the D500 gives you some idea just how good the rest of the pack­age is. Mir­ror­less may be on the march, but here is the most con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ment for buy­ing an­other D-SLR – and, what’s more, an ‘APS-C’ one – that there is. Bravo!

‘Honey, I’ve shrunk the D5!’ The D500 is es­sen­tially Nikon’s flag­ship in a smaller pack­age with an ‘APS-C’ size sen­sor. Good then.

All the main con­trols have back­light­ing which is very use­ful for night pho­tog­ra­phy. Mon­i­tor-based info dis­play sup­ple­ments the top panel read-outs. Pity the touch con­trols aren’t avail­able here. Bor­rowed straight from the D5, new jog con­trol al­lows the quick set­ting of AF points and also serves as the AF/AE lock. The rear panel lay­out is log­i­cally ar­ranged. The navigator pad can be locked off.

Mag­ne­sium al­loy body cov­ers over a car­bon­fi­bre chas­sis. Top deck lay­out is pure Nikon pro D-SLR… so no built-in flash. Mono­chrome read-out panel is ‘old school’, but still handy in many shoot­ing sit­u­a­tions. Nikon’s er­gonomics have al­ways been good, but the D500 is prob­a­bly the best bal­ance of com­fort and ef­fi­ciency we’ve seen yet. Con­trol clus­ter al­lows di­rect ac­cess to key cap­ture func­tions. The ‘ISO’ but­ton is be­hind the shut­ter re­lease.

Nikon’s menu sys­tem re­mains one of the best de­signed in the busi­ness. Nav­i­ga­tion is quick and log­i­cal.

Im­age re­view screens in­clude (from top) a thumb­nail with ba­sic cap­ture info, a full set or his­tograms, or pages of over­laid cap­ture data.

The D500 in­her­its the D5’s bril­liant AF sys­tem com­plete with fine-tun­ing for sub­ject track­ing and host of area modes.

Live view screen op­tions in­clude a dual-axis ‘Vir­tual Hori­zon’ level in­di­ca­tor and a guide grid.

New 21.5 MP CMOS sen­sor goes with­out an op­ti­cal low-pass fil­ter to op­ti­mise res­o­lu­tion.

Both a stereo au­dio in­put and an out­put are pro­vided. Con­nec­tions all have their own in­di­vid­ual cov­ers to help main­tain weath­er­proof­ing. Nikon kindly sup­plies cable clips for the HDMI and USB ports.

Dual mem­ory card slot ac­com­mo­dates the SD and XQD for­mats.

LCD mon­i­tor screen is ad­justable for up/down tilt and boasts a high res­o­lu­tion of 2.539 megadots.

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