Conclusion

Pros Cons
  • New 20.8MP full-frame sensor with bar-raising overall high ISO performance
  • 12fps continuous shooting with low viewfinder blackout times
  • Class-leading AF subject tracking performance with 153 AF points
  • 99 cross sensors spread across the frame for AF in challenging light
  • High-resolution RGB metering sensor enables robust face-and-eye detection
  • Extremely robust build with intensive weather sealing
  • Insanely good battery life
  • Comfortable grip, good ergonomics, handling and customizability
  • Nearly unlimited buffer, unbelievable write times with XQD
  • Overall good JPEG color and quality
  • 4K/30p video recording
  • Automatic AF Fine Tune fixes back/front-focus issues quickly
  • Low ISO dynamic range and Raw file malleability lacking, comparatively
  • Large size and heavy weight will put off some users
  • JPEG engine noise reduction is still clumsier than the best on the market
  • XQD card model required for maximum buffer performance
  • Wifi is optional and expensive add-on
  • Some controls 'mushier' than we'd like
  • Video quality and features still lacking compared to other systems
  • USB 3.0 connection requires additional software install
  • Automated AF Fine Tune can sometimes yield erratic results

Overall conclusion

The Nikon D5 is the latest in the company's evolving line of double-grip, full-frame action-oriented DSLR cameras. With a newly designed 20.8MP sensor, 12fps of continuous shooting with low viewfinder blackout and an intelligent and effective 153-point autofocus system, the D5 handily outguns its predecessor in almost every key area to take its rightful spot atop the Nikon lineup.

Honestly, though, that shouldn't come as any surprise. A careful reading of the 'Pros' and 'Cons' above should indicate that we had a hard time finding many faults with this camera - indeed, many of the marks against the D5 pale in absolute significance compared to what it has going for it.

But no camera, not even a $6500 flagship, is completely and utterly perfect. While the D5 is a powerful machine, it must be mentioned that there are some ways in which it does lag behind cameras in other market segments. It's just a question of whether you care.

The Nikon D5 is a camera worthy of the title 'flagship,' but it's not all aces all the time. Processed and cropped to taste from Raw. Nikon AF-S 300mm F4 PF @ F4.5 | 1/2000 sec | ISO 100. Photo by Carey Rose

Handling

Weighing in at just over three pounds without a lens, there's no denying the D5's big size and relative heft (friends have expressed surprise at my carrying such a 'beast' around with me everywhere). It's covered in buttons, dials and switches, and will be familiar for the most part to established Nikon shooters (you'll need to re-train yourself for the ISO button move, however). Despite its heft, it's comfortable to hold, and with a good strap, you'll be fine carrying it and using it for hours at a time without a hand cramp.

Good for the full 90, and then some. Despite its heft, the D5 never felt like a burden during the match. Processed and cropped to taste from Raw. Nikon AF-S 300mm F4 PF @ F4 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 20000. Photo by Carey Rose

This is a complex camera, though, and we recommend spending some time going through the menus and figuring out how you'd like it set up for you. There is a good deal of customization at your fingertips with the D5 that you'll want to be familiar with to get the most out of the camera for your style of shooting.

Of particular significance is a new-for-Nikon approach of assigning new autofocus area modes to function button presses. As a back-button shooter, I can assign AF-ON to initiate 3D Tracking. A press of the 'Fn1' button shifts to single-point continuous autofocus, and a full-press of the AF joystick (sub-selector, in Nikon lingo) switches to Auto Area AF, all with AF activation. If you include manual focusing since I've decoupled AF from the shutter button, that's four entirely different focus modes that I have access to all the time without even shifting my grip. It's perfect for both rapidly changing shooting conditions and simply getting familiar with which mode will work best for the particular situation you're in.

The D5's autofocus system isn't just about speed, but also repeatable autofocus accuracy - including those AF points all the way to the side. Processed to taste from Raw. Sigma 35mm F1.4 Art @ F1.4 | 1/160 | ISO 100. Photo by Carey Rose

There will be those that bemoan the inclusion of a touchscreen on a camera of this caliber, but Nikon's put some thought into it and it tends to work well. You can double-tap anywhere on the screen to 100% into that particular spot (as opposed to the one-button 100% zoom, which only zooms to the point of focus), and you can drag along the bottom to scrub quickly through a large quantity of images. And of course, you can always simply disable the touch functionality if you don't want to use it. At which point you may appreciate the ability to use the front dial to scrub through detected faces at 100% in image review.

Autofocus and overall performance

The D5 ups the ante for DSLR autofocus systems, with a total of 153 phase-detection points (99 of which are cross-type, and 55 of which are user-selectable) and an updated 180k-pixel RGB metering sensor. The autofocus module and metering sensor work in tandem throughout most of the D5's more sophisticated autofocus modes to more intelligently track subjects through the viewfinder, and during 12fps burst shooting. That last point is important: while non-Dx series Nikons can often subject (3D) track very well, they tend to falter in doing so during bursts. Not the D5.

The advanced subject tracking also negates some of the perceived issues around 'only' having 55 selectable points: in any dynamic area focus mode, the camera will automatically, and more importantly reliably, select appropriate surrounding points to stick to your subject if your point falls off of it. Importantly, most of those points the cameras may use to track your subject are reliable: 99 cross-sensors all the way out to the edges of the AF area mean consistent focus with little hunting, even in backlit or low light situations.

There's also a new degree of customization for its tracking modes, now offering you the choice of biasing the system toward 'erratic' or 'steady' subjects. Even though many of the subjects I was shooting were more 'steady,' I found that keeping the camera set up for 'erratic' and a 'blocked shot AF response' value of 3 netted me a high degree of keepers without much fuss.

While the subject wasn't terribly 'erratic,' leaving AF on that setting still worked great for 3D Tracking, allowing the D5 to peg the motorcycle's front fork. Processed and cropped to taste from Raw. Nikon AF-S 70-200 F2.8 VR II @ F11 | 1/125 sec | ISO 200. Photo by Carey Rose

And that's the real story about the D5. The autofocus system just works, and works well, from screw-drive lenses to silent wave motors, 16mm to 300mm, fast apertures to slow apertures, and nearly regardless of lighting conditions. With AF-ON set to 3D Tracking, the camera would lock focus instantaneously and track just about everything very well. With erratic subjects and long lenses, the rapidity of initial focus becomes very important, since you still have to place the AF point over your subject before 3D Tracking can begin. Good thing the D5 excels here, allowing near-instant focus acquisition for situations where I barely had time to place that AF point in the first place. As for the times my subject was confusing the tracking mode, I could easily switch to single-point and follow the subject myself, but that happened incredibly rarely.

Perhaps most impressively, Auto Area AF is a revelation on the D5 - in my experience, it does not simply focus on what's closest to the camera, instead analyzing the scene with some degree of intelligence and trying to decide what I'd actually want it to focus on. It's not a mode I use all the time, but if you're going to miss a moment trying to place an AF point over your subject, letting the D5 do it for you - with just one button press now that AF modes are assignable - might just get you the shot before the moment's over.

Despite incredibly low (and warm) lighting conditions, the D5 nailed autofocus on this subject in 3D Tracking mode without fuss. Processed and cropped to taste from Raw. Nikon AF-S 24-70mm F2.8E VR @ F2.8 | 1/160 sec | ISO 64000. Photo by Barney Britton

Helping you make the best of how well the autofocus system works is the outright performance of the D5. It is, simply, blazingly fast. This is due to instant power-on, short enough viewfinder blackout to allow you to easily follow your subject during bursts, and almost instant image review regardless of how long you've been shooting continuously. Couple all of that with a battery that's easily good for 4,000+ images, and you're set up with a camera that you may not forget is slung around your shoulder, but in terms of creating images, it just gets out of your way and lets you get on with it.

Stills and video image quality

The D5's newly designed 20.8MP full-frame image sensor seems to be a compromise of sorts. Lacking the insane dynamic range we've come to expect from other full-frame cameras across different systems, the D5's sensor partly makes up for it with better high ISO performance and incredibly fast read-out speed. So in the unlikely event that you want to shoot at an insanely high frame rate and still get D810 levels of Raw dynamic range, you can't. In a turn of events, Canon's new 1D-X II actually supersedes the base ISO dynamic range of the D5, thought it falls behind at high ISO.

Take a break from those Raws. Out-of-camera JPEGs from the D5, like this one, exhibit punchy but not inaccurate colors and good sharpening that shows more detail than a D4S. Nikon AF-S 300mm F4 PF @ F4 | 1/1000 sec | ISO 100. Photo by Carey Rose

In real world shooting, the D5's dynamic range hasn't been a huge problem. Sure, you'll need to watch your exposure in high contrast scenes more than you would on, say, a D750 or D810 - pushed low ISO Raw files out of the D5 exhibit a lot more shadow noise than those other cameras. But that's taken care of by either sacrificing some highlight detail during your exposure, or with a little bit of luminance noise reduction in post. And if you shoot JPEG and nail your exposure, or routinely in low light, there's even more to like. Nikon's JPEG processing still doesn't retain quite as much detail, particularly at high ISO, as Sony's content-aware algorithm, but it's noticeably better than the D4S, retaining more detail at higher ISOs with less noise and better color retention.

In fact, high ISO JPEG quality with regards to color is excellent on the D5, and that's something that will be very important to those photographers that shoot on a deadline with clients who only accept JPEGs. And when, as a photographer, your images are being pushed primarily to the web and being viewed on smartphones, the overall appearance (which is very much influenced by color) matters more than the retention of very slight details that your audience won't be able to see anyway.

We've found skin tones in particular to be excellent from the D5. Processed to taste from Raw. Nikon 135mm F2D @ F2.8 | 1/3200 sec | ISO 100. Photo by Carey Rose

For a camera being touted for its updated video specs, the overall video experience on the D5 is still lacking. The 4K video quality is good but not outstanding, and the 1080p and 720p modes are so soft as to make you wonder whether you missed focusing. Speaking of focusing, Nikon's live view autofocus still hunts enough to effectively ruin your footage, so the tap-to-focus functionality is much less useful than on, say, a Canon 1D-X II, which racks very smoothly thanks to its Dual Pixel tech. If you choose to leave it in manual focus, there are no focusing aids whatsoever - no peaking, and no magnification during recording. There are both microphone and headphone ports, though, as well as zebra patterning and a 'flat' picture profile to help you get the most dynamic range out of your footage. But as with other Nikon DSLRs that shoot video, the D5 is first and foremost a stills camera, with video being a bonus if you need to take the occasional clip.

The final word

For much of the prospective camera-buying market, the D5 represents a benchmark against which to compare more practical purchases. But what a benchmark it sets. Use one, and you'll be rewarded with as close to a polished, pure and responsive photographic tool as you can get. To be clear, that's 'pure' in a much different sense than when you compare it to, say, a Leica. It's pure in the sense that it just gets out of your way and lets you get on with taking pictures, whether you're someone that needs maximum control at your fingertips, someone that's looking to free up some brainpower by letting the camera do some of the work for you, or if you're somewhere in-between.

In that sense, the D5 ably carries on the tradition set forth by its predecessors. It gives professionals the tools they need to do their jobs effectively, with very little fluff. This camera is likely to stand up to wet, freezing, projectile-laden or otherwise unsavory conditions better than its operator. And with the best JPEGs I've seen from any Nikon in the current lineup, the D5 helps photographers get photos of those unsavory conditions out to the rest of the world quickly (though built-in Wi-Fi would help even more with that).

If you can keep up with the D5, the D5 can keep up with the action. We initiated 3D Tracking on this biker when he entered the frame far off in the distance, near the bushes to the right. Despite a 12 fps burst, the camera continuously tracked him across the frame, while refocusing, so we could hold our composition and choose the decisive moment just as he exited the frame. Nikon AF-S 24mm F1.8 @ F2.8 | 1/8000 | ISO 320. Photo by Rishi Sanyal

The D5 is a big camera that represents a big investment. But with increased battery life, an updated metering sensor and autofocus that's more reliable than ever, the D5's value proposition for those that truly need it is better than its price and sensor specification might suggest. The D5 may not re-imagine the high-end sports camera market segment, but it doesn't need to. It's an eminently enjoyable and reliable camera to use in the real world, and has the best autofocus system that anyone in the DPReview offices has ever used - bar none.

The D5 will serve established photographers very well at the upcoming Olympic games in Rio, to say nothing of the wedding photographers, action photographers, or other photographers that just need ultimate speed, durability and reliability for their livelihoods.

Nikon D5
Category: Professional Interchangeable Lens Camera / DSLR
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Metering & focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Low light / high ISO performance
Viewfinder / screen rating
Performance
Movie / video mode
Connectivity
Value
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The Nikon D5 represents a more remarkable upgrade to the D4S than its appearance suggests. With a completely revamped autofocus system, the D5 will keep up with just about any subject under just about any lighting conditions. The new sensor offers class-leading low light image quality, especially due to an improved JPEG engine, but Raws aren't the most flexible when shooting high contrast scenes. The improved, extensive customization allows for quick adaptability to fast situations, with instant AF mode overrides at the touch of a button. The D5 is a specialized tool capable of highly professional results.
Good for
Photographers who shoot fast action, are frequently using available light in low light situations, and those that need ultimate reliability in adverse conditions.
Not so good for
Hardcore landscape photographers or photographers on a budget, serious videographers, individuals that need ultimate Raw file flexibility and people that like to travel light.
89%
Overall score

Scoring is relative only to the other cameras in the same category.
Click here to learn about the changes to our scoring system and what these numbers mean.

Samples Gallery

Nikon D5 real-world samples gallery

123 images • Posted on Apr 13, 2016 • View album
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