Hi all. So today I thought I would write a quick review on the fairly recently released Nikon D500 DSLR Camera. I have been asked by many to share my thoughts on this camera, so in the below review I will talk about some of the major things I really like about the camera and some of the things I don’t. I will also discuss some setup options I have used on my own D500. So by no means is this review extensive but it does cover most of the questions that pop up regularly.
Also note, my below review is not one of those technical crazy reviews, but rather a practical review based on my hands-on experience with this camera whilst photographing wildlife over the past few weeks. I am more interested in the practical results of the camera and seeing how it performs in the real world rather than stats.
Controls and Layout
I really like the controls and layout of the camera, being similar to most Nikon non-pro style bodies; it has a few really great new features and buttons. The camera also feels great in the hand. One of my key concerns before purchasing the camera was size. I didn’t want it to be too small as I found the D7000 range uncomfortable in my hand. However, this is not the case with the D500, it fits perfectly in my hand and is very comfortable. Size wise, it is somewhere between the D7000 range and the Nikon D810.
1. I really like the new location of the ISO button next to the Shutter release. The new location of the ISO button allows for quick, intuitive adjustments of ISO and I find it really handy. Basically, Nikon has swapped the Mode Button and the ISO button around from previous models.
2. The addition of a little joystick on the back of the camera is much easier to use than the multi-selector arrows, especially for selecting and quickly moving focus points.
3. The new tilt screen is also an interesting feature. I haven’t really used it, but I can see how this can be of benefit when trying to get down really low for eye level shots, low landscape compositions and even some macro work. This new screen also features touch commands and I have to admit that at first, I didn’t really use it. I suppose I am just used to using the buttons as I do with my other camera bodies. But once I got into it I really liked it. Basically, it works much the same as a smartphone: double tap the image to zoom in 100%, move the image around with your finger and double tap the screen to zoom out again and simply swipe the screen to scroll between images. The touch functions also allow you to focus by tapping the screen when you are in live view.
4. Finally, the camera has multiple customizable buttons and options making the setup even more configurable to each photographer’s style of shooting. Some of these buttons that can be customized are the AF-ON Button, the new Joystick, the multi–selection center button, the PV Button as well as two cFN buttons.
Note, some of these buttons only have limited customizable options but still works amazingly well. Another customizable option is being able to deactivate various focus modes such as AF-S, AF-A or AF – C as well as focus point selections and groups. For me, this was a great addition and at the end of this review I will add a list and explain how and why I have configured and customized my own D500 in various ways.
This is where I was the most impressed with the D500 and where it really comes into its own. My keeper rate while shooting this camera has been amazing and the focus acquisition and tracking abilities are just out of this world, even outperforming the D810 and D4s particularly when using the group AF function. However, this seems to be the same case through all the AF Point functions. The focus area modes I mostly use are Single, D25 and Group and all seem vastly improved; but I did find myself leaning more towards the Group for Birds in flight and some wildlife action and then single for general wildlife.
Nothing is more frustrating to me than seeing the focus point on the subject but your camera is struggling to lock on. The D500 though, just locks on no matter what conditions you put it in. Not only is the focus acquisition of this camera improved but the tracking is phenomenal also and it actually very seldom loses focus once locked on. (I also found that when it wasn’t locking on due to user errors such as over tracking or slow tracking, once I corrected, the camera would immediately lock on again. )
There have also been some great changes to the Focus Tracking with Lock-on Functions. This has now been split into two sections, firstly, the Blocked Shot AF Response, which gives us 5 options from quick to delayed. Basically this allows us to choose how sensitive the focus should be when obstacles are encountered in front of or behind our subject or in other words how quickly the focus will be attracted away from our subject by obstacles. The quick settings will therefore be more sensitive to obstacles than the delayed options, however it’s a little more complicated than that.
Although it is more sensitive to obstacles, the quick option will also lock on faster than the delayed options, thus this is something I change regularly depending on what I’m shooting and the conditions I’m shooting in. For the most part, it is set to 2 or 3. The second option we have is the subject motion, so far, I have this set in the middle between erratic and steady, however, I can see that erratic could be very useful for those unpredictable moments.
With the D500 the 153 AF points are spread right across the screen, which I love. I move my AF point constantly for composition purposes and the greater area of the sensor these cover the easier I can compose exactly how I want to. With the additional focus points, the dynamic area focus group numbers have changed from D9 to D25, D21 to D72 and D51 to D153 respectively. I find that the area covered by the D25 and D72 groups is much the same as previously in the D9 and D21 but there are just more focus points active the in the area, which also vastly improves focus acquisition and tracking.
I was recently shooting doves in flight coming down and taking off from a waterhole in Etosha, Namibia. Shooting with the D500, Nikkor 400mm f2.8 with a 2x teleconverter, which is effectively a massive 1200mm in focal length. Focus acquisition and tracking was amazing and completely blew me away in that it would just lock on and track those fast-moving subjects with ease.
So basically, if you were looking for just one reason to upgrade to the D500, this has to be it. The AF system is phenomenal.
Frames per second (FPS) and Buffer
10 FPS is the perfect number for me and with this camera it is just great. Many people get caught up in the FPS ‘the more the better’ scenario and even though this is partly right, it’s also wrong. Yes, the more FPS we have the more consecutive images we can shoot of a particular hi-speed event, thus giving us more choice in selecting that perfect image. However, all of this is pointless if we can’t follow the action in the viewfinder due to mirror blackout. I find for most cameras that around 9-10 fps mirror blackout is acceptable, any faster than this and seeing and following the action through the viewfinder starts to become a problem, the mirror blackout is just too excessive.
I have been asked about the buffer on the D500 numerous occasions now and how this is affected by the different card types being XQD and SD. I don’t use many XQD cards but I do have a few now especially for the D500 as well as SD cards, which I use mostly. So with my Lexar 95 MB/s SD card I was getting 45 images in the buffer before the camera started to choke a bit, and in my opinion this is more than enough for any form of photography. Having said this, the XQD is another story altogether. With a Lexar 440 MB/s card in the camera I was getting almost 200 images in the buffer, which is the limit by the way, so if for some reason 45 wasn’t enough with the SD, surely 200 is more than enough! One thing I did notice with the buffer is that even when you do hit the buffer and the camera starts to choke, the speed at which it recovers is much faster than usual and in some cases, depending on the speed of your card, is actually immediate.
Dynamic Range, Colour & Sharpness
I really like what I’ve seen from the files out of the D500. Colour rendition wise it’s just as good as my D810 and the files are really nice and easy to work with in Adobe Lightroom. The files don’t have the dynamic range that the D810 has, but they still have enough to really pull out detail from the highlights and shadows. It is definitely better than the D4 and D4s and probably only about a stop behind the D810 and very similar to the D5 at only half a stop behind. In essence, the dynamic range is great and nothing to worry about.
I have found that the camera naturally underexposes quite a bit, so typically I’m shooting between 0.3 and 1 stop over-exposed depending on the subject and situation.
Sharpness wise, I have shot this camera with my Nikkor 400mm f2.8 with and without teleconverters, as well as on my Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 and my Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 and the results have been amazingly sharp and the detail is incredible.
Remember that high megapixel DX format cameras such as the D500 are much less forgiving than the FX bodies. Due to this, I find myself trying to keep my shutter speed about 1.5x higher that I normally would – for example shooting larger birds in flight with my 400mm f2.8 on my D810 I try to keep my speed up around 1600/sec where as with the D500 and same lens I’m keeping up around 2500-3200/sec.
How does the D500 handle ISO and low light conditions? Well, I have to say for a crop sensor it is amazing, far better than I thought it would be. You have to remember that it is a crop sensor camera and it’s not going to compete with its full frame big brothers. What I have found is that I’m happy to shoot in really low poor light up to about ISO 1250 and then at night with a spotlight up to ISO 2000. During the day in reasonable light and in order to get the shutter speed I need, I shoot at around ISO 2500 but beyond this the noise is just too much and I start to lose detail in the subject. This is a little bit subjective as well, as for example for stock purposes I have to be very ISO sensitive and very seldom go over ISO 1000.
Batteries and Usage
One of the things I have found with the D500 is that it uses a massive amount of battery power. In fact, I would go far as to say about double that of my D810 – in other words I get double the amount of shots out of my D810 over my D500 on a fully charged battery. I have heard that putting the camera into airplane mode helps the battery last longer, however I haven’t had the chance to test this. The other thing I need to warn you about is that it seems that at the moment most generic batteries are not working on the D500. I would recommend you rather spend the extra money and purchase the Nikon battery to avoid disappointment.
My setup and recommendations
AF Mode – I always have this set to AF-C (Continuous AF) as this is what I recommend for any kind of action or anything that moves. I have, in actual fact disabled the AS-S function on my D500. You can do this in the custom setting menu under a10.
AF Area – I have this set to Group AF for the most part but I also use the D25, D72 and the single point. The rest of the options I have once again disabled. You can do this in the custom setting menu under a9.
AF On Button – As I focus with my shutter button, my AF-ON button is set to focus lock.
Focus Tracking With Lock On – As mentioned above, I do actually change this quite regularly, but my default starting point is as such: The first part “Blocked Shot AF Response” is set to 2. The idea here is that if something comes between you and your subject, the camera won’t jump focus to that obstacle. The other part of tracking settings is “Subject Motion”. This new setting is a way for you to let the camera know how erratic or steady your subject is. For the most part, I have this set to the middle.
Sub-Selector – This I have left as default which when pushed around moves the focus point and when pushed in/depressed resets the focus point back to the center.
Pv – This button I have set to Exposure lock. Something I use quite a bit especially for back-lit images.
Fn1 – While I’m shooting with flash, which I usually do, I sometimes want to quickly turn my flash off or temporarily disable it so it doesn’t fire, therefore I have set this button to do exactly that.
Fn2 – As I mentioned before, I change my Focus tracking with lock on quite regularly. Due to this fact, I have set this button as a shortcut for quickly changing this setting.
All of the above can be changed in the menu seen below.