By Adam Hanlon - Editor, www.wetpixel.com

The arrival of Nikon's new DX camera, the D500, created a stir among wildlife and underwater photographers.

At Wetpixel.com we set out to thoroughly review the camera and we've been shooting it for over a month continuously during the Wetpixel Raja Ampat Expedition on Damai 1, the Wetpixel/Alex Mustard Lembeh Macro workshop at Lembeh Resort and in the UK's Farne Islands with Farne Islands Divers. In the course of the past few weeks we have produced just under 9,000 images in a wide variety of conditions and photographic genres.

 Nauticam NA-D500 housing, Zen 170mm dome port and Inon Z240 strobes

Underwater, the D500 produces very pleasing images straight out of the camera, with sharp details and vibrant colors.

The DX sensor delivers a 1.5 X crop factor which makes wide-angle lenses less wide and macro lenses more magnified. It also increases depth of field. The latter makes producing wide angle images with acceptable corner sharpness easier when behind a dome port and removes some of the need for shooting at high ISO sensitivities.

Traditionally, one of the advantages of FX cameras underwater has been their low light, high ISO performance. Light levels are significantly reduced underwater. This is further complicated by the need to maintain apertures of F11 or so (on FX cameras) in order to provide sufficient depth of field to ensure that the whole curved image produced by a dome port is in focus.

With a DX camera, the additional depth of field inherent in the smaller sensor size does reduce this problem somewhat, and as far as high ISO image quality is concerned, the D500 is competent to at least ISO 2000, with clean images possible beyond this point, especially after Raw post-processing. The D500's low light performance, while not a par with the D810 or D5, is very impressive.

Autofocus

Nikon has introduced a new autofocus system in the D5 and D500 cameras, with a dedicated CPU that processes only AF data.

AF shooting modes are a matter of personal preference to some extent, and I tend to use Continuous AF (AF-C) in either 3D or 153 point Dynamic area focusing area mode. 3D Tracking uses color information from the camera's Scene Recognition System to track the subject around the frame. It does take something of a leap of faith to trust it, but it is almost infallible, even in very low light.

Extreme low light focusing.... Bigfin reef squid, Lembeh Straits, Indonesia. D500, Nikon 60mm f2.8, 1/250 @ F6.3, ISO100.

My experience is that the D500's AF performance is simply the best that I have ever used. With 3D tracking, following reef fish's movements around the frame is almost too easy. It simply does not miss. Of the nearly 8,000 images shot for this review, there are no more than 20 that are are unusable due to missed focus. I should clarify though - that not all of those remaining 7920 images are focused exactly where I wanted them to be. However until the camera can read my mind, I'm confident that this is user error, not camera error!

I have found that newer AF systems are more accurate than my eye and in situations where they fail (the complete darkness inside a submerged wreck for example) locking off the autofocus at a known distance in the light zone prior to entering the darkness is a viable technique. With super macro wet lens attachments, the AF is racked in to its closest focus and then sharpness achieved by rocking the whole camera back and forth.

Ergonomically, the D500 is similar to previous Nikon DSLRs, but the ISO button has moved from the left hand side of the top-plate, over to the right near the shutter release. Although this makes perfect sense for shooting on land, it presents a challenge for housing manufacturers. It would be nice to see Nikon address this by allowing more customization of controls in a future firmware release.

Nauticam's response to Nikon moving the ISO button is to add a lever that rests under the right thumb, just behind the shutter release.

For those coming from the D800 series, the D500's battery life seems less. It is easy to get a day's shooting out of a battery, which is all that is really needed, but not much more. For those used to the seemingly inexhaustible batteries of the FX models, this can seem limited. Practically, it is wise to have a few spare batteries around. 

The D500 takes the ubiquitous EN-EL15 Li-ion batteries, but older versions can cause issues. If you have a collection of EN-EL15 cells from previous-generation Nikon DSLRs, make sure that they're marked 'Li-ion20' on the underside.

Whilst the touch screen is of limited value underwater, it does allow for quick and easy image reviews (you can even two finger pinch to zoom in), as well as efficient input of text into the camera's copyright, image comments and IPTC settings. The latter is another new feature, previously only available on the newer single digit D series cameras. IPTC information can also be loaded from a PC using either Nikon's app (which needs Silverlight) or the free IPTC Preset Editor

Speed

The D500 is capable of shooting at up to 10 frames per second, with a buffer of 200 frames. When paired with a fast XQD card, it can shoot almost indefinitely. I cannot seem to make the buffer fill. It is so much faster than the D810 that it makes the latter feel pretty stodgy.

Speed test showing the performance of a Lexar 64GB 2933X Professional XQD card using a Lexar Professional Workflow XR2 XQD 2.0 USB 3.0 card reader.

Of course, when shooting with strobes their recycle times will effect shooting speed far more than the camera. In this instance, the lack of a a pop up flash is actually an advantage. Using electrical connections or the excellent electro-optical converters like that in Nauticam's D500 housing will allow some of this camera's potential speed to be used.

For shooting big animals underwater and fast action without a strobe, this camera is blazingly fast. In conjunction with the speed and accuracy of the AF mentioned above, I expect that this camera will be responsible for some very impressive images during the course of its product lifespan. In a world where getting the shot is crucial, this camera sets new standards.

Summing up

To sum up, the D500 is, in my opinion, the best camera that Nikon currently make for underwater use. To be sure, there are some specific things that it does not do as well as some of the other models in Nikon's product range, but if I had to select one camera to do it all, I'd pick the D500.

The level of detail that is possible to capture can be seen in this image of a mantis shrimp with its eggs. D500, Nikon 60mm f2.8, 1/250@f20, ISO100

It is perhaps unfair to compare the two in terms of pure image quality, but if I was planning to solely shoot large wide angle reef scenes, the D810 combined with big powerful strobes like the Seacam Seaflash 150s or Ikelite DS161 would still be my tool of choice. That said, the D810 needs to be paired with expensive lenses and large (and also expensive) ports to really deliver its potential. It is both simpler and significantly cheaper to shoot with the D500.

For macro use, the D800/D810 allows for more cropping while retaining acceptable resolution. For shy or skittish subjects, this can be an advantage. However, the D500 offers a 1.5 X crop factor, which gives macro lenses more reach by definition. The D500's amazing AF performance will do a better job of keeping those subjects in focus too!

For those already shooting the D7200, the D500 offers significantly better AF, improved low light performance, a more rugged build quality and faster shooting. The downside, of course, is the cost of the camera and a new housing.

For underwater photographers still shooting with a Nikon D300 or D300s, now is the time to upgrade. The performance enhancements will allow you to capture images that your existing setup simply will not. The ability to properly use ISO as an aid to exposure, the improved image quality, the AF performance and its overall speed are all persuasive arguments for the D500 becoming your next camera.


Thanks to Phoebe Lu of Nauticam for supplying their NA-D500 housing and 45° magnified viewfinder to me for use with this review. Many thanks to the crew, staff and my fellow guests on all the trips. Visit www.wetpixel.com for the latest in underwater photography news and reviews.