On Trial – Nikon D500


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Nikon’s D5 flag­ship may have grabbed all the head­lines, but the D500 is ar­guably the more ca­pa­ble all-rounder and mounts a very com­pelling ar­gu­ment for adopt­ing the ‘APSC’ size sen­sor in pref­er­ence to full-35mm… smaller, lighter, cheaper (need we go on?).

Nikon makes the ‘APS-C’ pro-level D-SLR sexy again with the D500 which has ev­ery­thing that the D5 has and a lot less… which is a good thing. A Very Good Thing.

EVEN NIKON WOULD AGREE THAT ITS D5 flag­ship D-SLR isn’t for ev­ery­one. It’s built to take a fair amount of pun­ish­ment and many of its key spec­i­fi­ca­tions – par­tic­u­larly its con­tin­u­ous shoot­ing speed – are aimed at pho­tog­ra­phers who re­ally need them which means largely spe­cial­ist ap­pli­ca­tions such as fast-ac­tion sports, news gathering and wildlife. It’s big and it’s ex­pen­sive, yet there are lots of el­e­ments of the D5 that most pho­tog­ra­phers would want. So what if you could have a smaller, lighter and cheaper Nikon D5? You can. It’s called the D500.

This cam­era hasn’t had an easy start to life. It was an­nounced along with the D5 so ended up very much in its big brother’s shadow. Then its launch was de­layed due to is­sues with sen­sor sup­ply, and a lot of in­ter­est­ing new cam­eras have come along in the mean­time. But here’s the thing… the D500 is quite pos­si­bly the best D-SLR Nikon has ever built, re­gard­less of sen­sor size. Yes, the D810’s per­for­mance is amaz­ing and the D750 is a bril­liantly com­pact pack­age, but the D500 is ar­guably the bet­ter pack­age over­all be­cause, in a nut­shell, it’s the ‘APS-C’ ver­sion of the D5… 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 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 (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 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 tiltad­justable 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’ Blue­tooth-based wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem (plus WiFi with NFC), in­creased AF zone cov­er­age (very nearly edge-to-edge) and a higher mag­ni­fi­ca­tion viewfinder.

The big plusses are ac­tu­ally all the mi­nuses… the key things that the D500 has a lot less of com­pared to the D5 – mil­lime­tres, grams and, of course, dol­lars.”

Less Is More

The big plusses are ac­tu­ally all the mi­nuses… the key things that the D500 has a lot less of com­pared to the D5 – mil­lime­tres, grams and, of course, dol­lars. It’s still not a small cam­era – es­pe­cially by mir­ror­less ‘APS-C’ for­mat 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, spend­ing the dif­fer­ence on a cou­ple of new lenses per­haps.

Yet you still get the D5’s AF and me­ter­ing sys­tem, the ex­po­sure and white bal­ance con­trols, all the same im­age pro­cess­ing op­tions, the buf­fer mem­ory ca­pac­ity, 4K video record­ing, a weather-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 the at­ten­dant ex­tra cost and bulk… the 70-200mm f2.8, for ex­am­ple, be­comes a 105-300mm f2.8. Nice.

Now that we’re no longer stress­ing over sen­sor size, no mat­ter which way you look at it, the D500 bal­ances ca­pa­bil­i­ties, per­for­mance, func­tion­al­ity and af­ford­abil­ity like no other D-SLR on the mar­ket from Nikon or any­body else. De­spite how much we like the D810 and D750 in this of­fice, the D500 is the Nikon D-SLR to have. No ar­gu­ment.

Ex­ter­nally, it’s bet­ter look­ing and much more nicely pro­por­tioned than the D5, al­though you can bulk it up with an op­tional bat­tery grip if you so de­sire. Be­neath the al­loy body cov­ers is a car­bon­fi­bre chas­sis (which also helps keep the weight down), and the er­gonom­i­cally-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 there’s a high de­gree of com­mon­al­ity.

The dis­tinc­tive but­tons-within-adial 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.

Dis­ap­point­ingly, the touch­screen im­ple­men­ta­tion is as lim­ited as that of


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