The 20.9-megapixel D500 (R25 999, body only) is Nikon’s most recent enthusiast DSLR and, to date, the best DSLR with an APS-C sensor (DX-format, in Nikon terms, versus FX-format for full-frame) that we’ve played with. Although the company has many more options with higher resolution, such as the D7200 (another APS-C DSLR we like), this one is so crammed with goodies it puts them – and many competitors – in the backseat.
FEATURES AND DESIGN
When you’re in DSLR territory, stylish design is not an emphasis. The all-black D500 looks like every other Nikon DSLR geared toward enthusiasts, including the red Nikon trademark on the grip and a faux-leather textured finish. It’s big and bulky, measuring 5.8 x 4.6 x 3.2 inches and weighing about 750 grams for the body alone. Add a battery and lens and the scales climb mightily. This is no surprise as most weather-sealed DSLRs with magnesium alloy frames are quite substantial – the size and weight is similar to the full-frame D750.
There’s no shortage of quality Nikon glass for the D500’s F-mount. During our tests we used fisheyes, 400mm telephotos, other primes, and a variety of zooms; a 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED zoom was used most often as well as the 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED model. These are DX lenses, but the D500 will work with full-frame FX lenses as well. There are a number of other controls on the front of the camera, but the most critical is focus control on the side of the mount (more on this later).
The top deck has a large LCD readout to quickly check your settings. There’s a hot shoe (no built-in flash) and a two-tiered control dial. The top dial accesses Quality, Metering, Mode, and White Balance, while the bottom portion lets you quickly change burst and quiet modes, self-timer, mirror-up (to help minimize camera shake), and other settings. On the grip are the shutter, power on/off lever, and buttons for video record, ISO, and exposure compensation. There’s a jog wheel below the shutter and another on the back.
The rear has a 3.2-inch tilting touch-capable LCD rated 2,359K dots, which is about as good as it got two years ago. The optical viewfinder is also sweet with 100-percent coverage and 1x magnification; it’s large, bright, and very comfortable to use. There are myriad buttons flanking the LCD along, including the Live View controls for stills and videos.
On the right side is a compartment with two card slots, and it’s here that you get a better idea how advanced the D500 really is. One slot accepts standard SD while the other supports the new XQD 2.0 format.
There are three compartments on the left for USB 3.0, HDMI, mic and headphone connections. On the bottom is the compartment for the battery, which is rated a hefty 1,240 shots. Given the fast burst rate and 4K video, a spare makes sense although we did make it through most days without the battery giving up the ghost.
You’ll find the body, strap, battery, plug-in charger, USB cable, cable clips, and caps. There’s also a 400-page user’s manual for bedside reading; this is a sophisticated piece of gear so checking out the manual is a great idea. Nikons offers a free download of NX-D for RAW file conversion as well as View NXi for photo management. Also download the SnapBridge app for sending images to your smartphone.
SPECS, PERFORMANCE, AND USE
The 20.9MP D500 features Nikon’s new Expeed 5 image processor. If you like to shoot action, this camera is for you. Since one of the D500’s big claims to fame is its 10-fps burst mode, we had the opportunity to shoot race cars, polo players, and skateboarders – typical Sandton subjects. Along with fast action, there were dramatic desert landscapes, zoo animals, and croquet players to photograph.
The results, for the most part, were spectacular, especially the stills. Colours were right on the money and the number of keepers we grabbed far exceeded any camera we’ve recently tested.
One thing that sets the new Nikon apart is a 153-point autofocus array. It is breathtakingly fast and accurate, and it’s the same system used in the Nikon D5. By adjusting the AF control, you have options for 25, 72, and 153 points. We used the 153-point Group setting most often. Check out the samples and you’ll see how crisp and sharp the resulting images are, thanks to the AF system.
The camera is designed for enthusiast photographers, so it’s no surprise the D500 has only PASM settings – no handholding scene modes here. One feature of note: a top ISO setting of 1,640,000! Although the native range is a more sensible 100-51,200, you can go below to 50 and all the way up to the top mark. This is about as high as it gets for mainstream cameras; the D5 hits 3 million-plus. Who would need this level of high-sensitivity? Think law enforcement. As you can imagine, shots taken at top ISO (H5.0 setting) are useless without extensive post processing, so it’s not for everyday use.
This DSLR takes 4K video at 3,840 x 2,160 pixels (UHD) and 30p, using the MOV format. The quality is quite good with very accurate colors and detail. But – and this is a big but – the autofocus is not the best for this situation, as it is with still photography. The clips aren’t bad but manual focus is recommended and this is a skill that requires practice and patience. (In general, for many DSLR videographers, manual focus is preferred when video is concerned). Realise this DSLR is primarily built for stills but with the right technique, you’ll get some fine video.
Practically every high-end camera has Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity and so does the D500. Nikon’s new SnapBridge system goes a bit further by adding Bluetooth as well. Now your smartphone or tablet can quickly pair with the camera, and low-level functions are handled via Bluetooth (more intensive tasks, like image transfers, would still require Wi-Fi). Our sample was a little pokey at first and it took a few attempts to pair the DSLR with a Huawei Mate 10 and Apple iPhone 8 Plus. When we got it working, it downloaded images to the phone very quickly (over Wi-Fi). When you sign up for a Nikon ID you get cloud storage and the app lets you control the camera remotely.
Camera reviewers tend to get jaded as we play with the latest toys all the time, often questioning whether a new product is as good as a company claims. Well, Nikon has certainly delivered a lot with the new D500. Given the quality of the stills, it holds its own against more expensive full-frame cameras. Nikon pulled out the stops for this APS-C model and it really shows.
For more images taken with the Nikon D500 see our Honda review here