Nikon D500

I never did completely lose faith. I think in the end it was probably just myself, Thom Hogan and one or two others – the true believers. Nikon would give us a legitimate successor to the D300S. I think that the many who told us to give up and move on to FX because DX is dead, or that the D7200 was the real D300S replacement, perhaps missed the point. The D7200 is an absolutely excellent camera, but I have always thought it pretty obvious that Nikon was holding back on the D7x00 series. And as far as moving on to FX, well we were already there shooting D4s, D800s, etc., but looking back to DX for the potential advantages that a smaller format, high-performance body could bring to shooting wildlife and other action. There was room at the top of the DX model lineup for a specialist camera and now we have it – the D400 D500. Nevertheless, I was caught off-guard, along with most people I think, when the D500 was announced alongside the D5 in early 2016. We all knew the D5 was coming, but just how did Nikon manage to keep the D500 a secret?

Nikon D500

The D500 takes its place at the top of the Nikon APS-C (“crop sensor”) format camera body lineup as a true flagship model and as the undisputed, long dreamed of replacement for the D300S (has it really been 7+ years?). There is no question that the D500 is meant to be viewed as, and perform as, a mini-D5. Consider the naming of the two, the simultaneous announcements, the new auto-focus system common to both, the use of XQD memory cards in both cameras, and even the identical resolution 21MP sensors, among many other commonalities. Quite frankly, on paper the D500 looks like a dream. And clearly, I’m not the only one thinking that. The first batch of cameras sold out rather quickly and at the time, specs on paper is all there was to go on. And at the time of writing (late June) it is once again out of stock at major online retailers. Interestingly, Nikon classifies the D500 as “enthusiast” rather than “professional”, placing it in the same camp as the D7200. Given the specifications, I think we have to conclude that it is simply the sensor size that prevents Nikon from considering it a “professional” camera. Snobbery over sensor size won’t prevent many professional and non-professional photographers from doing amazing work with this camera. Of that I have no doubt. Some have commented that the US $2,000 price tag is a little steep. Next to the D7200 at $1,200 when announced and now discounted, it does seem so. But then consider that the D300 was announced in 2007 at $1,800, alongside the D3 at $5,000. In that time we have seen an 11% increase in price for the top DX model versus a 30% price hike for the top FX model. So if the ask for the D500 seems high, just put it alongside its big brother, the D5 at $6,500, and the price tag on the mini-D5 starts to look somewhat mini itself.

Reddish Egret (white morph) - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 220 1/4000s f/5.6
Reddish Egret (white morph) – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 220 1/4000s f/5.6

1) Specifications Summary

  • Sensor: 20.7MP (5568 x 3712) APS-C “DX” format CMOS sensor (23.5mm x 15.7mm)
  • Pixel Size: 4.2μ
  • ISO range: 100 – 51,200 (50 – 1,640,000 extended range)
  • Shutter: 1/8000s – 30s (flash sync. 1/250s)
  • Shutter Durability: Rated to 200,000 actuations
  • Continuous Capture: up to 10 fps, up to 3 fps in quiet continuous mode
  • Processor: EXPEED 5
  • Storage: 1 XQD and 1 SD (UHS-II)
  • Viewfinder: Pentaprism with 100% frame coverage and 1.0x magnification
  • LCD Screen: Tilting and touch-sensitive LCD, 3.2 inch, 2.36 million RGB dots, 1024 x 768 pixels
  • Metering: 180,000-pixel RGB sensor, -3 to +20 EV range
  • Autofocus System: Multi-CAM 20K with 153 focus points (55 selectable)
  • AF Sensitivity Range: -4 to +20 EV
  • AF modes: Single point, Dynamic 25, 72 or 153 point, 3D-tracking, Group-area, Auto-area
  • Movie: 3840 x 2160 (UHD) up to 30fps, 1920 x 1080 (HD) up to 60fps, H.264/MPEG-4 encoding
  • Connectivity: Wi-fi 802.11b/g, Bluetooth 4.1, USB 3.0, HDMI out, Analog stereo audio in/out
  • Power: EN-EL15 Li-ion battery 14Wh, 1240 shots per charge (CIPA standard)
  • Dimensions/weight: 5.8in. x 4.6in. x 3.2in. / 147mm x 115mm x 81mm (WxHxD), 26.9oz / 760g camera body only

Crested Caracara - Nikon D500, 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 360mm, ISO 250 1/2000s f/5.6
Crested Caracara – Nikon D500, 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 360mm, ISO 250 1/2000s f/5.6

2) Nikon D500 vs D7200 vs D300S Specifications Comparison

Let’s take a quick look at how the Nikon D500 compares in terms of specifications with the D7200 and the D300S:

Camera FeatureNikon D500Nikon D7200Nikon D300S
Sensor Resolution21MP (5568 x 3712)24MP (6000 x 4000)12MP (4288 x 2848)
Native ISO range100 – 51,200100- 25,600200 – 3,200
Expanded ISO range50 – 1,640,000100 – 102,400100 – 6,400
Image Processing EngineEXPEED 5EXPEED 4EXPEED
Continuous Frame Rateup to 10 fpsup to 6 fpsup to 7 fps (8 fps with MB-D10)
Buffer Capacity (RAW)up to 200up to 18up to 17
Storage Media1 x XQD, 1 x SDXC (UHS-II)2 x SDXC1 x CF, 1 x SDHC
Viewfinder Magnification1.0x0.94x0.94x
Shutter Durability200,000 actuations150,000 actuations150,000 actuations
Metering System180,000-pixel RGB sensor2,016-pixel RGB sensor1,005-pixel RGB sensor
Metering Sensitivity-3 – 20 EV0 – 20 EV0 – 20 EV
Autofocus ModuleMulti-CAM 20KMulti-CAM 3500 IIMulti-CAM 3500DX
Autofocus Points153 (55 selectable)5151
Autofocus ModesSingle, Dynamic 25/72/153,
 3D-tracking, Auto-area,
 Group-areaSingle, Dynamic 9/21/51, 
3D-tracking, Auto-areaSingle, Dynamic 9/21/51,
 3D-tracking, Auto-area
Autofocus Sensitivity Range-4 – 20 EV-3 – 19 EV-1 – 19 EV
Autofocus Fine-TuneAutomatic, ManualManualManual
LCD Size3.2in.3.2in.3.0in.
LCD Resolution2.36M dots 
1024 x 768 RGB pixels1.23M dots
 640 x 480 RGBW pixels922K dots
 640 x 480 RGB pixels
LCD Tilt & TouchYesNoNo
Movie FormatsUHD 3840 x 2160 30fps,
HD 1920 x 1080 60fpsHD 1920 x 1080 60fpsVGA 640 x 480 24fps
Flash (Built-in)NoYesYes
Wireless ConnectivityWi-Fi 802.11b/g,
 Bluetooth 4.1Wi-fi 802.11b/gNo
Battery TypeEN-EL15 BatteryEN-EL15 BatteryEN-EL3e Battery
Battery Life1240 shots (CIPA)1110 shots (CIPA)950 shots (CIPA)
Size5.8in. x 4.6in. x 3.2in.
(147mm x 115mm x 81mm)5.4in. x 4.2in. x 3.0in.
(136mm x 107mm x 76mm)5.8in. x 4.5in. x 2.9in.
(147mm x 114mm x 74mm)
Weight26.9oz (760g)23.9oz (675g)30oz (840g)

As might be expected, the D500 stands out from the D7200 and D300S in almost every way. Performance improvements include a very fast top frame rate with a huge buffer. The metering module is very high resolution compared to the older cameras and is also far more capable in low light. On paper, at least it has 3 stops greater sensitivity. Of course there is next generation auto-focus which is functional down to an incredible -4 EV. So what is that in terms of an actual exposure? 1 second at f/1.4 and ISO 3,200 – very dark! The LCD monitor has received a big spec bump with all the attention going to the tilt and touch capabilities. But note too the increase in resolution. More on that later. UHD (not quite 4K) movie recording is now possible. And with SnapBridge (Wi-Fi & Bluetooth), Nikon is making an attempt to provide wireless connectivity that is actually useful. The jury is still out on whether they have succeeded.

Yellowstone National Park (1)
NIKON D500 + 300mm f/4 @ 420mm, ISO 800, 1/200, f/8.0

3) Nikon D500 vs D5 Specifications Comparison

And here is the Nikon D500 compared to its big brother, the Nikon D5:

Camera FeatureNikon D500Nikon D5
Sensor SizeDX 23.5mm x 15.7mmFX 35.9mm x 23.9mm
Sensor Resolution21MP (5568 x 3712)
Native ISO Range100 – 51,200100 – 102,400
Expanded ISO range50 – 1,640,00050 – 3,280,000
Image Processing EngineEXPEED 5
Frame Rateup to 10 fpsup to 12 fps
 (14 with mirror locked up)
Buffer Capacity (RAW)Up to 200
Storage Media1 x XQD, 1 x SDXC (UHS-II)2 x XQD or 2 x CF
Shutter Life200,000 actuations400,000 actuations
Metering Module180,000-pixel RGB sensor
Metering Sensitivity-3 – 20 EV
Autofocus ModuleMulti-CAM 20K
Autofocus Points153 (55 selectable)
Autofocus ModesSingle, Dynamic 25/72/153, 
3D-tracking, Auto-area,
Autofocus Sensitivity-4 – 20 EV
Autofocus Fine-TuneAutomatic, Manual
LCD Screen Size3.2in.
LCD Resolution2.36M dots 
1024 x 768 RGB pixels
Tilt & TouchTilt, TouchTouch
Movie FormatsUHD 3840 x 2160 30 fps,
 HD 1920 x 1080 60 fps
Wireless connectivityWi-Fi 802.11b/g,
 Bluetooth 4.1External module
Battery TypeEN-EL15 batteryEN-EL18a battery
Battery Life1,240 shots (CIPA)3,780 shots (CIPA)
Size5.8in. x 4.6in. x 3.2in.
(147mm x 115mm x 81mm)6.3in. x 6.3in. x 3.7in.
(160mm x 159mm x 92mm)
Weight26.9oz (760g)~49oz (1400g)

There are three very obvious factors that differentiate the D5 from the D500: sensor size, camera size and price. But looking past those, the two are remarkably alike. Notice how many of the features in the table above are common to both. It is not a comprehensive list by any means, but does pretty well illustrate the shared raison d’être of these two cameras. In recent years it has been a very frustrating fact that, as a Nikon user, the only way to get a really high speed camera was to get a D4 or D4s. There has been no affordable alternative since the D300/D300s until now.

Reddish Egret (white morph) - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 900 1/3200s f/5.6
Reddish Egret (white morph) – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 900 1/3200s f/5.6

4) Camera Size Comparisons

Below are comparison shots with the D500 side-by-side with other Nikon DSLR cameras. The images are to scale giving an idea of the relative sizes.

D500 and D300S

Here we see the shiny new D500 next to the venerable old D300S. Overall size is very similar – the D300S with squarer shoulders and rounder hips. The old boy is noticeably heftier at 840g versus 760g. I always appreciated the weightiness and solid feel of the D300/D300S. It meant business.

D500 and D7200

The D500 is large for a DX camera. It is significantly larger and heavier than the D7200 and absolutely dwarfs the D5500. But for me the relatively large size is a good thing. The D7200 is just too small to feel really comfortable in my hand. There is not quite enough to grab onto and my little finger feels like it’s about to fall off the bottom. By contrast the D500 has a tall and deep, though slightly narrow, grip which is very comfortable. Things improve when adding a vertical grip to each camera. The MB-D15 for the D7200 transforms it into a full-size camera. Now all my fingers fit and when held vertically I actually find it slightly more comfortable than the MB-D17 on the D500.

Perhaps surprisingly, the D500 is also larger and heavier than both the D610 and D750 FX bodies. You won’t be buying this one to save space and weight. It’s not until you get to the second largest camera in the Nikon DSLR range, the D810, that you have something a little larger than the D500. The D810’s grip is fatter than, but not as deep as, the D500’s grip. Both are very good but I have a preference for the D810’s shape.

D500+MB-D17 and D5

Of course the D5 towers over the D500. Big brother really is big. Heavy too, at around 1,400g or approaching double the weight of the D500. I had actually hoped the new DX flagship would have an integrated grip mirroring the D5, but that was just wishful thinking. However, once you add a vertical grip, the D500 approaches the size and weight of the D5. The MB-D17 “Multi Battery Power Pack” (Nikon speak) is a great addition to the D500. For my photography, I consider vertical grips essential and shooting the D500 vertically without one is something I find to be quite awkward to the point where I shoot less verticals, which is not a good thing. Equipment should not dictate the kind of pictures taken. So the MB-D17 goes on and stays there. As a bonus, you can load an extra battery to help with “range anxiety”. Having to remove the vertical grip to get at the in-body battery is a small annoyance that comes with using the accessory grip. I always set the camera to use the MB-D17 battery first which often means at the end of the day there is no need to remove the primary battery for charging.

5) Ergonomics

The D500 has some welcome additions to control points that are mostly reflections of what is seen on the D5. Probably most significant is the auto-focus joystick that Nikon calls the sub-selector, not to be confused with the standard circular multi-directional control that Nikon calls the multi-selector. The sub-selector is primarily intended for focus-point selection and its position adjacent to the AF-ON button, and right next to where your thumb rests, makes for fast and easy adjustments, especially when compared to the alternative which is to reach down for the multi-selector. We also have a couple of extra buttons: the Fn2 button on the bottom left of the camera back, and the ISO button on the top panel next to the shutter release.

D500 multi-view

Great stuff! More buttons are good, right? Only if you can use them. For some strange reason, it was decided that the Fn2 button should be restricted to only three possible functions. Two access the My Menu user customize-able menu in different ways, and the third is for assigning a star rating to images. I find this seemingly arbitrary restriction on button assignment infuriating. The Fn1 button on the front of the camera has a list of 24 possible functions assignable. Why not Fn2 as well? The addition of a dedicated ISO button to the top panel will make a lot of people happy. For a long time on Nikon cameras it was not possible to change ISO with the right hand while gripping the camera, and the left hand would normally be out in front supporting the lens. The ISO button solves that problem. Only the problem had already been solved some time ago when Nikon allowed us reassign the movie record (red dot) button to ISO. This was great. It worked. So why solve the same problem a second time? And annoyingly, the ISO button cannot be reprogrammed. Now I realize almost everybody will want to use the ISO button as is, but I cannot see a reason for not allowing all buttons to be reprogrammed to the user’s taste.

There are a number of features of the D500 body that remind one of a high-end FX body and give the feeling of using a truly professional grade camera. The round eyepiece with built-in shutter is an example. Another is the 10 pin remote terminal that means your FX body accessories, such as cable release, will plug straight into the D500.

A minor annoyance is the small diameter multi-selector pad. Because of the small size, it is more difficult to use than the larger version on the D810. It looks as though the size is dictated by the fact that the tilting screen has quite a wide frame that occupies a fair amount of real estate on the back of the camera. I recently picked up a Pentax K-1 for the first time and noticed how thin-framed that camera’s tilting screen is, so I know it’s possible for Nikon to do better in this regard.

D500 backlight

A very nice new feature (for a non-D4/D5) is back-lit buttons. It’s another obvious reflection of the D5, but something that I think Nikon could have easily gotten away with not implementing on the D500. Bravo Nikon for going the extra mile and giving us this very handy feature.

D500 tilting screen

And finally, of course, we have the tilting touch-sensitive rear LCD panel. The panel tilts through a range of approximately directly down to directly up but cannot be completely flipped over so as to face forward and nor does it swing left or right. This is the same as the tilt screen on the D750. The tilting mechanism seems quite robust and the panel clips neatly into the back of the body when not tilted. I don’t have any immediate concerns about this being a weak point of the camera although it’s unclear how much it affects the degree to which the camera is weatherproof.

American Avocet - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 220 1/2500s f/5.6
American Avocet – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 220 1/2500s f/5.6

Along with tilt comes touch and I have to say that this was a pleasant surprise for me. I’m not sure how much I will use it, but the touch screen is responsive and works pretty much like a smart phone. For some reason, I was expecting a sluggish and unresponsive touch interface that would serve as a checklist feature but that nobody would actually want to use. I’m glad to be wrong about that. While touch control does not extend to the menus, it is active for image review and live view. In image review, swiping left or right works as expected, taking you to the next or previous image. Direction of travel can be customized in the Setup menu, where there is also a global on/off switch for all touch control. Sliding a finger along the bottom of the screen provides fast scrolling through all images as an alternative to swiping an image at a time. A double tap on an image will zoom in at the point tapped. This is different to using a button for zoom (e.g. multi-selector center button) which zooms to the focus point of the image. Sliding a finger on the screen pans the image when zoomed. Pinch-zooming in and out is also possible. A subtle detail is that pinch-zooming in will automatically stop at 100% magnification, which is exactly what it should do. A second pinch gesture will zoom past 100%. In live-view, we get tap to focus and, optionally, capture an image. Tapping an on-screen icon cycles through no-touch, tap-to-focus, and tap-to-focus and image-capture. It’s possible to use live view touch in combination with Exposure Delay and Electronic First-Curtain Shutter. So then a single tap on the screen will focus at the point tapped, initiate image capture, wait for (up to) three seconds and begin the exposure with no mirror or shutter movement. Very nice! Bizarrely though, you still need to have the release mode dial set to mirror-up to enable the electronic shutter, even though you’re in live view. That must make sense to someone at Nikon but it doesn’t to me.

Little Blue Heron - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 180 1/3200s f/5.6
Little Blue Heron – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 180 1/3200s f/5.6

6) High-DPI LCD Screen

Not everyone will use the tilt and touch features of the LCD screen, so the most significant upgrade there, versus other current Nikon models, might be resolution. The screen is 2.36 million dots, which turns out to be 1024 x 768 pixels at 3 dots (RGB) per pixel. For the 3.2 inch (diagonal) screen that’s 400 pixels per inch, which is right up there with high-end smartphones. The previous high-end spec for Nikon DSLRs was 1.23 million dots, 640 x 480 pixels at 4 dots (RGBW) per pixel, 250 pixels per inch. So it’s quite a big jump in resolution. The white sub-pixel (the W in RGBW), which I believe was supposed to help viewing in bright light, is gone. But is it really an upgrade?

I spent a little time comparing the D500’s screen to the one on the D810, expecting it to be better in every way. I was surprised by what I found. The pictures below tell the story:

D500 monitor image details
D500 vs. D810 monitor image details close-up

The resolution difference is obvious when looking closely, though not really at normal viewing distances. But when reviewing an image and zooming to 100% to check sharpness, I realized that the higher dpi of the D500’s screen may not be an advantage, but rather the opposite. Because of the greater pixel density, the magnification is actually less when viewing one image pixel per screen pixel.

D500 vs. D810 monitor image 100%

Which of the above images is sharper? To me the image on the D500’s screen clearly looks sharper, but in fact they are the same image. The same image file is displayed on the two cameras zoomed to 100%. The D500 looks sharper only because the pixels are smaller. I have been using a MacBook Pro with a high-dpi “Retina” display for a few years now and it looks great, but it is not ideal for image editing due to tiny pixels. It is difficult to judge sharpness and I much prefer a lower resolution screen when performing sharpening and noise reduction. The same problem here. It is possible to zoom past 100%, but it’s pointless because then you’re looking at an interpolated picture and you cannot reliably judge sharpness.

D500 vs. D810 monitor outside
D500 vs. D810 monitor outside shaded

Above is a comparison of screen brightness between the D500 and the D810. The pictures were taken outside on a bright sunny day. Both cameras were set to maximum brightness. In the top pair of images, the screens are reflecting bright blue sky. In the bottom pair, a black shirt shielded them and cut the reflection. In both cases, it’s obvious that the D810 screen is brighter and has higher contrast. And it’s obvious to the naked eye, not just in these pictures. I can also say that at the minimum brightness setting, the D810 is dimmer. So it is both brighter and dimmer and has higher contrast. Perhaps the W in RGBW was important after-all! Hey, it’s not the end of the world. But it is a step backward, apparently required in order to gain touch capabilities. Was it worth it?

One last thing has me scratching my head. The sample image of the Dunlin shows a small number of “blinkies” (overexposed pixels) on the D810 but not on the D500. Huh? Remember, this is the same image on both cameras. It’s the same RAW file with the same embedded JPEG image. Why does one camera show over-exposure and the other does not? Please explain.

7) Autofocus Performance

Probably the headline feature of the Nikon D500, other than its very existence, is the brand new Advanced Multi-CAM 20K auto-focus module which is touted by Nikon as “a new era of auto-focus”. This is certainly not just an incremental improvement on the previous generation. With great strides being made elsewhere in on-sensor auto-focus capabilities, it seems Nikon engineers decided to show us there are still gains to be made with traditional off-sensor phase-detection focusing. The new AF system will go some way to maintaining the performance gap between DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

Reddish Egret - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 320 1/2500s f/5.6
Reddish Egret – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 320 1/2500s f/5.6

A total of 153 focus points stretch horizontally to the edges of the frame. The vertical coverage is still just a little limited however. I have often found myself wanting to trade in a few of those points at the extreme left and right for some more above and below. But overall, the sensor coverage is a big step forward. 55 points are user-selectable with gaps filled by points engaged as needed by the focus module in any of the subject tracking modes.

On my first trip into the field with the new camera the immediate impression was one of speed. Focus is very snappy. Soon I noticed a small problem. It may actually be a little too sensitive and jumpy. With default settings for Focus tracking with lock-on (Custom setting a3), I was often losing focus to a point behind or in front of the subject. But it was reacting so quickly, that I could almost ignore it. As fast as it lost the subject, it was back again. So of course I started messing around with the Custom a3 settings trying to find the sweet spot. Have not found it yet. I look at this as a period of adjustment and learning. It’s like having a new high-performance sports car and having to refine your driving skills to get the most out of it.

Coyote pups - Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 640 1/1600s f/8
Coyote pups – Nikon D500, 500mm + 1.4x T.C., ISO 640 1/1600s f/8

Tom Redd and I each had several weeks of shooting with the D500 before getting together to compare notes. Autofocus performance is mostly what we talked about. Here is what Tom had to say:

The Nikon D500 autofocus was the one feature that I was most excited about, with the ISO capabilities running a close second. I hoped the new 153 point AF system would live up to my anticipated expectations. Oftentimes, photographers’ anticipated expectations are too great to be realistic, as may have been the case for the low light/high ISO abilities of the D500. Leading up to the launch date of the D500, many forums were discussing the high ISO abilities of the D500 and the expectations were all over the board and often placed way too high to be realistic. While the low-light capability of the D500 has pleased me, it hasn’t been as insanely good as some were predicting and/or hoping for.

Let’s get back to the autofocus. While I could have sky-high hopes for an AF system that never misses, it isn’t realistic. What I can say in short, is that the new AF system in the D500 does not disappoint and it is the best AF system that I have shot with so far. I haven’t shot with the big brother D5, but they share the same system. I will share some thoughts and as I do, please keep in mind that these are just that, my thoughts. Your experience may be different and ultimately, what works best for you is what you will use. I have had to take some time to try different AF modes from previous cameras. While 3D is improved, I haven’t found it to be as great as other reviewers have. It still is slower than the other modes to lock on initial focus and that bothers me. I use 3D most when the subject movement is predictably coming straight at me. Otherwise, I prefer modes that are faster to acquire lock-on. To be fair, I may not have used this mode on the D500 enough to say otherwise, but this is my impression so far.

When it comes to Dynamic Area, I have found these settings to be a bit of a mixed bag. I use 9 point AF on my D750 and D4 more than other settings. On the D500, 9 point AF is replaced by 25 point AF and it has been a little more challenging than I expected. What I find is that the 25 point AF setting does more searching. When the center point is on the subject, the camera often quickly will jump into the foreground or background and back to the center point – it is quick, but it hunts. I didn’t experience that as often with the older 9 point AF setting. I have used the D72 and D153 when a bird is perched and I am awaiting a takeoff shot. It seems to track well since the initial focus is already acquired. I don’t personally use Group or Auto much. They might be wonderful, but since I don’t use them much, I can’t speak to them. In the past I have used Group some, but never felt that it was all that great in my hands. I know others love it, and so to each his own.

A pleasant surprise is that I find that I use a single point focus in AF-C mode more than any other setting. This was unexpected and replaces my 9 point setting as my go-to setting. I have been surprised at how well this camera focuses and tracks with a single point focus and it isn’t my tracking ability because my focus point isn’t always staying put on the subject as it moves. I miss the subject plenty and yet the camera has stayed locked-on and tracked well, even when I wouldn’t have expected it to.

I want to mention a word or two about tracking a subject such as birds in flight, while using a burst. One thing that I notice when shooting bursts in continuous high mode, is that I seem to have more black-out time than with the D4. Both cameras have essentially the same frame rate at 10 fps, and yet the black-out time between shots seems noticeably longer with the D500 than the D4. This black-out period makes it a bit more challenging to track a bird in flight than with the D4 or D4s. I thought it was me and when discussing this with John, but he was as surprised as I was to find out that we both had come to the same conclusion. I’m not sure if it’s me, an illusion, or if it’s real, but it feels real to me and that might be a small niggle in what is otherwise an excellent camera.

I am finding that I have far fewer missed shots than with any of my previous Nikon DSLRs. The difference is hard to place a number to, but I can say this, it is not a small or incremental difference. The difference is significant. Overall, the AF system of the D500 is so good that I find that I grab the D500 over the D4 in almost every instance. The D4 still has the edge in the low light/high ISO department as far as I’m concerned.

I find it interesting that Tom and I have had such similar experiences and noticed so many of the same things that set the D500 apart from other Nikon cameras. It looks like Nasim pretty much shares the same thoughts after using the Nikon D500 for a couple of months. We are all still learning the new AF system and I wonder if in the end we come to the same conclusions about how best to utilize the AF for shooting wildlife, or if we come up with different solutions for the same challenges.

Osprey - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 220 1/3200s f/5.6
Osprey – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 220 1/3200s f/5.6

Before even getting my hands on the camera, I had dreams of setting 3D-tracking mode and having the subject magically tracked all over the viewfinder without having to chase it with the focus point joystick. While the new tracking abilities probably are significantly improved they are unfortunately still nowhere near good enough for reliable tracking of fast and unpredictable movement. You may be focused on the eye of a bear but then it turns its head to the side and the camera sees fur. And fur on the head looks like fur on the shoulder and the back and the leg. And so manual intervention is required to get back on target. I’m frequently amazed at what modern auto-focus systems can do, but I am just as frequently reminded of how fallible they still are.

Loons - Nikon D500, 500mm f/4, ISO 900 1/2000s f/8
Loons – Nikon D500, 500mm f/4, ISO 900 1/2000s f/8

The new auto-focus system is different enough from the old that I think it is worth dropping all assumptions about how to use it and then reassessing all the different focus modes and how they might fit a given shooting style or subject. For myself, I am considering the 153 point mode and maybe even auto-area in certain cases. The tried and true D9 (now D25) may not be the way to go any longer. Time will tell.

Nikon has a D500 tips page with in-depth information on camera settings that goes beyond what is found in the user manual. In particular, there is an extensive section on recommended autofocus configurations when applied to a range of sports. It’s worth taking a look at this document to get a sense of how the new auto-focus system is supposed to work.

Great Egret - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 320 1/1250s f/5.6
Great Egret – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 320 1/1250s f/5.6

8) Automatic AF Fine-Tune

Automatic AF fine-tuning is an eagerly anticipated feature made available for the first time on the D500 and D5. It promises to take a tedious and error-prone process and make it quick and easy. Manual AF fine-tuning has been available on many DSLRs for years (see Nasim’s detailed article on how to calibrate lenses with AF Fine-Tune). It allows for manual calibration of the auto-focus system to account for slight differences in the distance light travels to the focus module at the bottom of the camera as opposed to the focal plane at the back of the camera. Manufacturing tolerances are such that there will always be some amount of misalignment which results in front or back focusing. In many cases the imperfect focusing is not noticeable but in some cases it is and you end up with consistently out of focus images. To date, the process for manual calibration involves either taking a series of test shots against a target and eyeballing them to try and determine which has best focus, or tethering your camera to a computer running special calibration software and again shooting a test target. Only this time the computer does the eyeballing for you. The first method is prone to error and both are slow and tedious. Nikon’s automatic AF fine-tune on the other hand, involves simply picking a flat, well-lit, high-contrast and stationary subject, and focusing in live-view using contrast detection autofocus. Because you are focusing on the image sensor, in theory your focus at that point is spot-on. Then press a couple of buttons and you’re done. The calculated calibration value is stored in the camera’s memory. It is highly recommended to perform the test a number of times and go with the median value.

Black Bear cubs - Nikon D500, 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm, ISO 3200 1/400s f/3.5
Black Bear cubs – Nikon D500, 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 200mm, ISO 3200 1/400s f/3.5

E.g. I calibrated the D500 with my Nikkor 600mm f/4G VR lens. Test was performed six times with the following results: +4, +4, +3, +2, +3, +4. I went with +3 although +4 or even +2 would have been acceptable. You would not notice the difference between a point or two.

How does it work? I have not seen an official explanation of what is going on under the covers but I think it is a rather simple process:

  • In live view mode, focus is achieved on the focal plane (sensor) by the user.
  • The mirror flips down so the phase detect AF module can view the scene.
  • The phase detect AF module calculates how far out of focus it thinks it is but does not refocus the lens. The nature of phase detect auto-focus is such that it can determine the direction and distance required to achieve focus. Because we already have correct focus, whatever focus adjustment it thinks is required is actually the amount by which it is in error.
  • This error amount is translated into an AF fine-tune value and stored in the camera. It will be applied any time that camera/lens combination is in use.

The clever thing about this method, is that once initial focus is achieved, there is no further focusing required. The phase-detect module only passively reads the the scene, but does not initiate focus itself. There is no need of a special test target and no image capture and analysis is required. It is quick and simple, and reliable enough to be done on the fly in the field, if necessary.

However, there is one “gotcha” with this method. As discussed in a number of articles written at PL, AF Fine-Tune has a number of huge limitations – calibration only works for a particular distance and there is no way to save different values for different focal lengths or distances when calibrating zoom lenses.

Yellowstone Lake
NIKON D500 + 24-70mm f/2.8 @ 32mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/8.0

9) Continuous Shooting

It sure is nice to be back in the fast lane. In recent years, I’ve been getting by with a capture rate of 4 or 5 frames per second, knowing that I am missing shots or at least missing out on being able to select the optimal moment from a burst of action because it occurred in-between captures. The Nikon D500 sure helps with that problem. One simple question led me to conduct a bunch of testing on the frame rate and buffer depth of the new camera. I like the idea of setting backup mode for image storage. That is where images are written to both cards as they are captured. If one card goes bad, you have a backup. But I wanted to know how much of a hit I would take in terms of time to clear images from the buffer and allow continuous shooting at maximum speed.

D500 Capture Speed and Buffer Depth

Under ideal conditions, the camera will push above 10 frames per second, but I was not able to get close to 200 shots before the buffer filled. The best was around 100 as shown on the chart when writing to the XQD card. The fast UHS-II SD card fell well short of the XQD as shown here, although in other tests the difference was not so large. The red chart tells me what I really wanted to know. When writing to both a fast XQD and a fast SD card, the performance is not too far short of writing to SD alone. That is 3.5 versus 4.2 seconds of full speed shooting, which is plenty for almost any situation. When I first got my hands on the D500, I had no fast cards, just a UHS-I SD card from my D810. I started shooting with it and weeks went by before I thought about getting anything faster. You can see how the “slow” SD card performed on the yellow chart. It’s full speed for more than 3 seconds. After that, the frame rate plummets. But in a month of shooting, I never did hit that wall. Meanwhile, the cost of XQD cards was also plummeting 😉

There are a huge number of factors affecting frame rate and buffer clearing performance. If you ran your own tests, your numbers would likely be different. Things like scene complexity (affecting file size), ISO and the brightness of the scene, and many other things will affect the outcome. In some of my tests, I could barely get above 9 fps and I think it may have simply been because of a darker scene requiring a higher ISO. But the tests presented here show that the camera can certainly capture at least 10 frames per second and also that the buffer is very large, but has real limits.

Reddish Egret (white morph) - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 160 1/4000s f/5.6
Reddish Egret (white morph) – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 160 1/4000s f/5.6

10) Viewfinder Black-out

One of the stand-out features of the D500 is the high continuous capture rate, up to 10 frames per second (along with a huge buffer so that speed is actually usable). For too long the only really high speed Nikon DSLR has been a high dollar flagship model. The D300 with grip could do 8 fps which was great, but that was a long time ago. The missing speed in recent years is one of the prime reasons so many longed for a proper D300 replacement. Nikon certainly did not disappoint in that area with the D500. Oh what fun it was that first morning out with the new race horse, firing off high speed bursts at anything that wandered in front of my lens, not because I needed to but just because I could. Yes, speed is addictive. But once the excitement began to wear off a little, I noticed something. Running the D500 at 10 fps I found pretty significant viewfinder black-out, which was especially apparent when shooting a moving subject. In particular, a fast and erratically moving subject, where tracking is a challenge even under the best of conditions. How much of a problem was it? I would say just enough to make me wish for a little more viewing time when in the middle of a burst, but not enough to stop me shooting that way. Interestingly, Tom Redd later told me he had similar thoughts about shooting the D500 at top speed. We both felt that the viewfinder black-out was significant and right at the edge of being a problem. At that time I had not shot with a D5 but had read that the black-out on that camera was impressively short. I wondered how the two would compare. I have not seen an official number quoted for either camera and so decided to make my own measurements.

My testing was done with an iPhone 6s recording video at 240 fps and positioned close behind the camera’s eyepiece giving a clear view through the viewfinder. At 240 fps, each frame of recorded video is a little over 4 milliseconds. That’s not enough resolution to give a really accurate number for viewfinder black-out duration, but I think it’s good enough for an approximation for the tested camera and for comparisons between cameras. My main interest was a comparison of the D500 and D5, but I also had a D7200 and D810 close at hand and so decided to include those as well. Several seconds of video was recorded with each of the cameras firing at various speeds. Each clip was then reviewed on a desktop computer, stepping through the recordings frame by frame and counting the number of frames where the viewfinder was clearly illuminated and the number blacked out. The results are summarized in the table below.

Disclaimer: Don’t take these numbers as gospel. Manufacturers will have their own methods for measuring. They probably don’t use iPhones! I would expect official manufacturer numbers to be different. But my test results were very consistent with low variability which gives me confidence that they have some validity. At the very least they should be good for comparative purposes because all the cameras were tested the same way.

Viewfinder Black-out

Here is what I learned:
– Tom and I were not imagining things. At 10 fps, the D500 viewfinder is blacked out most of the time. It’s about a 60/40 split, blacked-out versus illuminated.
– The D5 does much better at 10 fps. In fact, it flips the split to about 40/60, blacked-out versus illuminated.
– Even at the D5’s top speed of 12 fps, it still has less overall black-out time than the D500 at 10 fps.
– You need to slow down the D500 to 7 fps to approximate the D5 at 10 fps.
– The D500 at frame rates 10 through 5, the black-out time was quite consistent and averaged about 62 ms. Black-out time per frame increased slightly at lower frame rates although overall black-out time went down as you would expect.
– The D5 went the other way. At 10, 11 & 12 fps the per-frame black-out time actually increases at the higher speeds. That doesn’t make much sense to me but that’s what the numbers say. The D5 averages in the low 40ms range for black-out duration.
– The D500 has about 50% longer black-out time than the D5. Now you know where the money goes, some of it at least.
– The D7200 and the D810 both have about 70ms black-out times, but because of their relatively slow frame rates, it’s not an issue.

So is this really a problem? Many will never notice I’m sure. And of course the option is there to select a lower frame rate if needed. Less frames per second means more mirror-down time and more “seeing”. 10 fps is overkill in many cases anyway. But it does highlight a potential area for improvement in the future. Perhaps a successor to the D500 may get down into the 40ms range of the D5. That would most certainly be welcome. There’s something else…viewfinder black-out time also means auto-focus black-out time. Both the D500 and the D5, at top speed, seem to have only about 38ms between frames to do their auto-focus magic. Remember that AF just got faster, smarter, more accurate – now with less time to think and act. It just makes the new AF system look even more impressive.

11) High ISO Performance

Low-light shooting conditions are not normally when you expect to see a crop-sensor camera shine. In recent years shooting the D7100 and the D7200, I would start to get nervous when ISO pushed past about 800, and by 1,600 I’d consider not shooting at all. I just have not had confidence in getting good results at high ISOs. Expectations have been high for the D500 to bring some kind of incredible breakthrough in low-light performance. Some even thought we would somehow see multiple stop improvements over existing crop-sensor cameras and the D500 would equal or better full-frame cameras like the D750 in terms of dynamic range and noise levels. Have those expectations been met? No, they have not. That’s mainly because the expectations were in large part completely unrealistic. But while lab testing has shown that the sensor in the D500 performs at close to the same levels as the D7200’s sensor, I have had my eyes opened by some examples of what the D500 can produce at ISO settings that I had thought were completely out of the range of a cropped sensor. And maybe I’ve been selling the D7200 short all this time.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird - Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10
Broad-tailed Hummingbird – Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10

Tom Redd got it into his head that shooting hummingbirds at ISOs well above 3,200 was a good idea and wanted to share the results. I’m blown away by this ISO 4,500 shot! First of all, it’s crazy sharp and while there’s plenty of noise in the raw capture, it doesn’t seem to break down the fine details in the image the way I would have expected. Below are 100% crops of the above image showing the noise and how it is handled by Adobe Lightroom.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird - Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10
Broad-tailed Hummingbird – Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10

This is the unedited raw capture with Lightroom’s default sharpening and noise reduction zeroed out. It’s certainly noisy, but fine detail is present in the feathers and even here you can see it’s a sharp image.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird - Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10
Broad-tailed Hummingbird – Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10

Here, I enabled Lightroom’s default color noise reduction and you can see that the color speckling in the background has been tidied up nicely, but at the cost of destroying the rich greens and pinks in the feathers. The hummingbird now looks washed out and dull.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird - Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10
Broad-tailed Hummingbird – Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10

After some tweaking, I determined that a setting of just 5 for color noise reduction, as opposed to the default of 25, was sufficient for cleaning up the true color noise while leaving untouched the richness and range of green tones in the forehead feathers and the vibrant pinks of the gorget.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird - Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10
Broad-tailed Hummingbird – Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 4500 1/2000s f/10

And finally, some luminance noise reduction and sharpening was applied. Re-sampling down to a lower resolution will of course also help with perceived noise and sharpness, which is evident in the full image at the top.

12) Is Nikon D500 The Best Wildlife Camera?

Is the D500 the best camera available today for wildlife photography? I’m going to assert that, in some cases, it is. And it comes down to this – the crop factor. I’m not talking about the 1.5x multiplier for DX versus FX, at least not directly. I’m talking about the dirty secret of wildlife photography, which is cropping. Very often, it is not possible or not advisable to approach our subject close enough for it to be as large in the frame as we would like. It is one of the biggest challenges of shooting wildlife and why the D800/D810s are popular wildlife cameras, despite having a slow frame rate (by today’s standards) and falling behind D4/D5s in dynamic range at high ISO settings. All those pixels can be a lifesaver for cropping. So it’s about pixels on the subject. But not only that. It’s also about dynamic range and the resulting noise levels in an image. High dynamic range and low noise are why we want to shoot full-frame. But what happens when you crop that full-frame image? Read on…

American Avocet - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 280 1/15s f/8
American Avocet – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 280 1/15s f/8

Bill Claff’s Photons to Photos website is a respected resource for image sensor data. His analysis covers most camera models from a lot of manufacturers and allows for objective assessment of how a camera sensor will perform across the full range of available ISO settings in absolute terms as well as versus other cameras. For the Nikon FX models, he not only provides full-frame data but also data for the FX sensor cropped to DX equivalent. The results are very interesting, particularly with regard to the D500 and the D5.

DR D500 vs. D5(DX)

It is remarkable that up to ISO 2,000 the D500 has greater, or at least equal dynamic range, and beyond that the difference is no more than about a third of a stop in favor of the D5. Remember, this is the D5 cropped to DX size, not full-frame. The absolute numbers are not particularly important, just the relative differences between the two cameras. Visit the this page on Photons to Photos and make your own comparisons with other cameras.

Greater Roadrunner - Nikon D500, 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 140 1/2500s f/5.6
Greater Roadrunner – Nikon D500, 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 140 1/2500s f/5.6

The point of looking at it this way is that for subjects that are small in the frame (DX size or smaller) you might be better off with a D500 than a D5. The obvious part of that is the resolution. The D5 sensor cropped to DX is about 8.9 MP and so there is a big advantage to shooting with a high pixel density camera like the D500. But by cropping the D5, you are not just throwing away pixels, but also light. You are forgoing the inherent light gathering advantage of a full-frame sensor. And the graph above shows that on a level-playing field, the D500 sensor really shines (as does the D7200 sensor). At high ISOs the D5 does still pull ahead, but these are ISOs that I am not normally going to be shooting at, so the small difference is not very relevant to me. Of course it’s not quite that simple. When you can use all of the full-frame sensor, the D5 has a distinct advantage over most of the ISO range. And it has advantages in other areas too. But given the enormous price differential between the two, the D500 sure looks good in this kind of comparison. If you have a D5 and are often cropping to 9 MP or less, then maybe you need a D500 in your bag as well.

Grizzly - Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 900 1/320s f/8
Grizzly – Nikon D500, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x T.C., ISO 900 1/320s f/8

Filling a Niche

The flagship Nikon DSLR camera (D3/D4/D5) has long been considered a niche camera, a very specialized tool. It does a few things in a way lesser models can’t match. Things like very fast continuous capture, insane low-light performance and physical toughness. But with the more affordable models becoming more and more capable, and the cost of the top model continuing to rise, the niche seems to be getting smaller with each iteration. I think the introduction of the D500 will push the D5 into even more specialized territory. How many potential D5 buyers will be taking a long look at the D500 as a viable alternative? I think many. When the D4 was introduced, was there a serious alternative elsewhere in the Nikon lineup? At that time (2012), the D300S was three years old. The D700 was four years old. The D500 is a serious contender as an alternative to a D5. Before the announcements, I thought in 2016 I would be buying a D5. Now I’m probably more likely to own two D500s than a single D5. Having said that, a D5 and a D500 would be a terrific combination for action photography.

It seems to me that the D500 is in its own way a niche camera. It is bigger, heavier and costs a lot more than any of the other DX models. It has high-end features most people won’t take advantage of. How many really need 10 fps and a 200 shot buffer? The current 51-point AF system found in the D7200 performs extremely well, and comparing sensors, the D7200 has similar dynamic range and noise levels, along with more pixels. At around half the price, the D7200 looks like great value for such a capable camera.

Snowy Egret - Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 100 1/2500s f/5.6
Snowy Egret – Nikon D500, 600mm f/4, ISO 100 1/2500s f/5.6

Final Thoughts

The D500 is an instant classic. So long anticipated and it gets so many things right. I’ve spent some time in this review pointing out some disappointments or frustrations with the camera, and there have been a number of operational glitches uncovered by users, causing lock-ups. In fact, my own D500 has locked up twice on me, requiring battery removal to reset. But I can overlook those things, because this camera is so capable, so much fun to use, even exciting. I see possibilities with the D500 I didn’t see before. The capture speed will get me moments I previously missed. The autofocus system will deliver more in-focus shots of fast action. The sensor performance is making me rethink how high I can realistically push ISO on a crop sensor. The controls are very well laid out and it feels good in my hands. It’s the right size, even without an accessory grip. Yeah, I love this camera. One month, 11,000 frames, and I didn’t pick up my D810 once. Tom Redd, who owns a D4 and D500, summed it up when he told me if he were to sell a camera today, it would be the D4. Before we knew there would be a D300S successor, many questioned if a market even still existed for that kind of camera. Seems funny now. Nikon is going to sell a lot of D500s for sure!

Grizzly - Nikon D500, 500mm f/4, ISO 500 1/640s f/5
Grizzly – Nikon D500, 500mm f/4, ISO 500 1/640s f/5

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