It's been a long time since Nikon launched the D300, a camera that arrived at roughly the same time as the very first iPhone. Yep, that long ago. That camera's successor, the D300S, hit the market last decade too. But now the long wait for a replacement model is over: the Nikon D500, the spiritual D300 successor, is here - and it's been making waves.
Nikon has gone all out for the D500, which is a lot like the top-end D5 pro DSLR in many respects. It does, of course, swap the latter camera's full-frame sensor for a smaller APS-C one and ditches the massive £5,200 body-only price for an altogether more accessible £1,799, too.
With a 153-point autofocus system, 10fps burst mode, 21-megapixel sensor with ultra-high sensitivity (to ISO 51200, which expands into six figures with Hi1-5 extended options), there's not a lot missing.
Is, therefore, the Nikon D500 the best APS-C DSLR camera made to date? We've been shooting in Chicago and San Francisco to get a feel for how it handles.
Nikon D500 review: Super autofocus system
The D500 could be the most important camera that Nikon releases not only in 2016, but for a number of years. Especially considering the quality control knock of confidence the D600 gave its customer base with oil-related issues on the sensor in a number of models. So we were initially perturbed when the D500's focus system simply wouldn't work. Menu exploration came to no avail, so a full reset was necessary to get the camera underway. No oil issues to speak of here though - and this is a unit months following the official launch, so it's done the rounds and been in all kinds of transport too (from national couriers to international air travel).
But once the D500 gets going that autofocus system is one slick feature - we can't think of a better one in an APS-C camera, especially when paired with the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens that we used for the duration of this review.
This focus system is pulled directly from the D5, offering 153-points in total, 55 of which are selectable as individual points. The other 99 are there for reference, to help with moving subject prediction. Besides, having to cycle through triple digits of point numbers would be simply laborious and counteract quick focus point adjustment, so we think Nikon has got the balance right here. There's a simplified 15-point max for quicker yet adjustment too.
As per the D5 we suspect not many will use the fullest array for most conditions - we've been content with the 5-point group cluster in single autofocus - but the option for 25-point, 72-point or the full array (plus 3D tracking) in continuous autofocus will cater for different scenarios.
Sensitivity in portrait orientation is top-notch, too, thanks to 99 cross-type sensors - 15 of which support sensitivity to f/8 for heightened response when using a teleconverter, which is ideal if you're shooting without super-fast apertures available (not an issue with our 24-70mm f/2.8, of course).
Whether using single or continuous AF we've been mighty impressed with the accuracy and speed of the D500. From shooting in dim-lit bars without flash (the camera is sensitive to -4EV), through to bikers speeding down the street, this is one capable and versatile DSLR system that rarely falters.
Our only small moan, perhaps, is the location of the rear toggle/joystick to make autofocus point adjustments. It's a bit of a reach, although will feel familiar to current Nikon users - and at least we didn't knock it by accident when in the hand.
Nikon D500 review: New-wave features
With the advance of technologies we've seen all kinds of new features in cameras, which have slowly - and oh so slowly - started to trickle down into DSLR cameras. Principal to those is touchscreen technology, a typical go-to for compact system cameras and many high-end compact cameras too. And now it's the D500's turn to offer the power of touch.
Or, partially. The D500's 3-inch screen responds well to touch, but it can only be utilised in active shooting, i.e. when in live preview or during video capture. That's fine, but there's no option to use it to swipe through or touch menu options, which feels like a missed opportunity - even if it was customisable to then turn it off as desired.
Autofocus in live preview is far faster than in older generations of Nikon DSLRs, thanks to a new 180-pixel metering sensor which can be utilised to better recognise subjects and points of contrast. Despite being faster, however, it's not perfectly accurate and will often hunt to find final focus - this is an area where compact system cameras are much better.
Like its Nikon D750 cousin, the D500 also implements a tilt-angle LCD screen. We've used it almost every time we've utilised live view, so used to such a feature we are these days. And while we would like to see this kind of screen in more DSLR cameras, there are actually better implementations of it: take a look at the full variable screen on the Pentax K-1, for example, or some of the side-positioned vari-angle screens of Canon's lineup.
Nikon D500 review: Design tweaks
Design-wise, the D500 is otherwise a well proportioned DSLR, that will seem familiar to Nikon users. Its one major shift of controls is the ISO button moving to behind the shutter - which, again, is more Canon-esque, but of considerable use (although a press-and-hold to make adjustments in this position is a little fiddly).
As that ISO button has moved, other buttons have jostled around the body compared to many other Nikon cameras. The customisable function button (Fn2 in this instance), now found to the rear left, sees the info button slide along the rear of the camera body. It's all logical.
Another small but brilliant addition to the feature set are light-up buttons. Finally. Simply push the on/off toggle beyond its on position and not only will the top plate light up, but so will the left-hand side buttons (not the right-hand ones, such as info and live view).
In addition to that LCD screen is a viewfinder that, thanks to 1.0x magnification, produces a large image to the eye for added precision and judgement. What you see is what you get too, as its coverage is 100 per cent for edge-to-edge framing. Spot on.
Nikon D500 review: Image quality
Beneath that weather-sealed body the D500 has a new 21-megapixel sensor, which sees resolution slide slightly compared to the Nikon D7200 for the sake of speed and larger pixels to aid with heightened sensitivity. Not that the camera's extended ISO 1,640,000 sensitivity (“Hi5”) is as high as the D5's bonkers extended ISO 3,280,000 option. At this point we should point out the extended “Hi” settings are all far-reaching well beyond their useful quota and, ultimately, are only there as a headline grab.
But that's not to rubbish the D500's abilities when it comes to high-ISO shooting. When grabbing some exuberant lights in a San Franciscan bar, the ISO 14,400 selection looks better than you'd get in daylight from phone cameras, for example. Even ISO 18,000 of the bar behind holds enough detail to remain legible. It's impressive.
And that's the top-end of the ISO range. Go the opposite direction and the level of clarity at the lowest ISO 100 setting is exceptional. Shooting at f/2.8 or f/4.0 to enhance that blurred background and we've achieved some great-looking shots - from pugs to birds, even sea lions - that look every bit professional.
Ok, so the blurred background potential of an APS-C sensor - or DX format, as Nikon calls it - isn't quite as capable as a full-frame sensor, as per the D5, but the 1.5x crop factor associated with the D500 has its payoffs: one, the D500 is smaller; two, it's cheaper; and, three, that added zoom reach might be deemed advantageous if you're shooting far-away subjects.
We've found that new metering sensor to be capable for a variety of subjects, except for when the majority of the frame is one tone - such as when shooting pictures in an art gallery against white walls, which required exposure compensation and/or metering type adjustment, as predicted.
Colours look real too, while rarely pushing things to excess. The occasional exception is with reds/pinks which can be too saturated. But that's a small thing, and not as issue in raw shots.
Nikon D500 review: Performance and video
Another big push is in the D500's buffer ability, which exceeds that of many competitors. Assuming you have a decent xQD card in tow, the camera can suffer through 200 raw files at its full 10fps burst mode without quitting.
The point about that, though, is that you'll need an xQD card. The D500 does also accept CompactFlash - it's got one slot for each type - but, again, you'll want the fastest possible cards to make the most out of this camera. No CFAST compatibility here, which, thus far, has only been used by Canon.
Videographers might find the mix of two card formats a nuisance, too. And seeing as Nikon produces the D5 in multiple formats to your card preference, it's a shame that the D500 doesn't follow suit with multiple options. Can't have it all at this price point we suppose.
Still, videographers will be more than happy with the capabilities of the D500, which elevates the company's previous standings. Sure, Nikon was the first company to introduce a DSLR with video capabilities, back in D90 era, but Canon and other makes have quickly superseded the brand - the D300S maxed out at 720p24, which sounds like a relic of the past these days.
Not so the D500. It can capture 4K resolution footage at up to 30fps, from which you can save 8-megapixel JPEG images should you so wish. For the pros the ability to record to either memory card or external recorder via HDMI will come as a bonus, plus other high-end features like zebra stripes.
The Nikon D500 is a DSLR with little compare. It steps up beyond the Canon EOS 7D Mark II (assuming that isn’t replaced at Photokina 2016), while the range of Nikon DX optics will see it as the more practical solution compared to the Pentax K-1 for many - even if the Pentax has some standout features like the variable LCD screen.
In short, therefore, the Nikon D500 is certainly a contender for the best APS-C camera made to date. There are only some small gaps in its capabilities - such as unnecessary extended "Hi" ISO settings, slight hunting in the live view autofocus - but otherwise its awesome autofocus system and all-round capabilities are second to none.
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