On Trial – Nikon D500
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