Controls & Setup

Sure, the D5 feels a lot like a D4S, but when you dig a little deeper, the D5 (along with the D500) brings the possibility of some interesting customization options to its controls, as well as a touchscreen interface that works very well.

First and foremost, it's now easy to set up customizable buttons, thanks to the new graphical user interface for customization:

New to the D5 and D500: a GUI for button customization. This list is 3 pages long on the D5: it's an immensely customizable camera.

A touchscreen? On a flagship?

The D5's touchscreen is very well implemented, responsive and introduces some useful new functionality, even for photographers that might otherwise be inclined to disable it.

As you would expect, you can swipe between images and pinch-to-zoom with a similar 'smoothness' to modern smartphones. And though you can hit the center button on the directional pad on high-end Nikons to quickly zoom in to 100%, it will only zoom into 100% at the point of focus.

But let's say you wanted to check focus on an image where you focused-and-recomposed, so the center button-press would zoom you somewhere irrelevant. In this case, you can double-tap anywhere on the screen to zoom in to that point. It's a small distinction, but it can be handy. Lastly, Nikon has implemented a 'scrubbing' feature. By holding your finger on the bottom of the screen and dragging left and right, you can scrub through a large number of images very quickly and efficiently. Also, thanks to face detection, you can zoom into a face in playback, then twiddle the rear dial to move between images at that zoom level while the D5 automatically moves the zoomed view to correspond with any movement of that subject's face. It's pretty handy, especially with this sort of burst speed.

The touchscreen offers some predictable (but still handy) functionality in live view. You can touch to move the focus point in both stills and movie modes, but Nikon's contrast-detect movie AF isn't great and you can expect some hunting. Still, it's a welcome addition for setting your focus point prior to starting recording, at least.

We've also found visibility on the screen to be so good that, while it isn't as convenient for low-or-high angles as a tilting design, it is good enough to allow framing and touch-to-focus at angles that wouldn't have been possible on previous models.

Where the touchscreen falls down is its inability to help you navigate menus or manipulate on-screen options in live view. This isn't a deal breaker, but it's a bit odd not to have the option. As an example, it'd be really handy to use the touch interface to add items to and re-order Nikon's 'My Menu' functionality.

Customization and autofocus

Although it has never been a weak point on Nikon's flagships, the D5 increases the breadth of customization options for its assignable function buttons. New in this generation is the ability to press a function button and have it change the AF Area mode, and also engage that new area mode if you so choose. This means you can have a half-press of the shutter correspond to one mode, assign another mode to one of the front function buttons (or all of them, if you wanted - I personally use the one under my ring finger for this purpose), then assign AF-ON to yet another mode, and also assign a full-press of the AF joystick to another mode. 

You can assign any AF area, with or without AF activation, to any function button. If your main AF mode fails for the scenario you're shooting, you can quickly try a different mode with the press of a button. Oddly, 3D Tracking is not assignable, so you'll have to make it your main AF mode if you want to use it.

Even as a back-button AF user, I have the D5 set up to instantly switch between three different AF modes with simple button presses. Sure, changing modes with the AF switch and twiddling a dial was already pretty fast, but if I find that a mode isn't working for a particular subject, I can change modes with my eye to the finder and without even switching my grip. That's the kind of speed and adaptability I'd imagine would be useful for, say, athletics photographers at the Olympics.

Despite low-ish lighting conditions and an abundance of possible subjects in this frame, Nikon's Auto Area AF just worked, hitting the guitarist with no less than five AF points. Processed to taste from Raw. Photo by Carey Rose. Nikon 24-70mm F2.8E VR @ 24mm | F2.8 | 1/250 sec | ISO 9000

If that weren't enough, you can even assign any of these buttons to instantly jump to a preset focus point. You can't assign different points to different buttons though; only one overall preset point is remembered, though the camera can store two separate such preset points per shooting orientation, if you have a7 ('Store by orientation') enabled under Autofocus settings. 

The one thing this Nikon won't let you do? Change from AF-C to AF-S with a single button press. But that's an edge case that won't matter to many people, and as someone who shoots in 3D Tracking mode most of the time anyway because it just works so darn well, it isn't a huge deal to me either.

Other controls

As stated earlier, the D5 is riddled with buttons to keep you from having to stop taking pictures and dive into the menus. Those buttons are solid with a good amount of travel, the control dials aren't too rubbery, but as is typical for Nikon Dx cameras, the 8-way controller on the back of the camera is still mushy.

Regarding the AF joysticks (sub-selectors), I'm not alone in the DPR offices in being a bit frustrated by their operation. Probably in an effort to minimize the risk of accidental bumping, the joystick doesn't work so well when you tap it to move the AF point. It just doesn't respond sometimes. Instead, if you roll your thumb around on it, it works very well - continuously moving the AF point in the direction you're pressing. But this makes it difficult to precisely place the AF point. The Canon 1D-X cameras instead expect you to tap to move the AF point in single steps (they don't continuously move the point at all), and work quite well this way. Furthermore, sometimes I'll want to do a full-center press of the joystick to initiate a different autofocus mode, but it will move the focus point instead. Other times, the opposite happens. With some practice, it's been happening less frequently, but it's worth noting.

The AF joysticks might be a little fiddly, but there's nothing fiddly about how reliably the AF system can lock focus in dark conditions. Processed and cropped to taste from Raw with slight additional noise reduction. Photo by Carey Rose. Tamron SP 85mm F1.8 VC | F1.8 | 1/200 sec | ISO 40,000

An additional gripe - the 'lock' switch on the back only locks the 8-way controller and the AF joysticks, with no provision to lock either individually. It's a small thing, but frustrating nonetheless.

Appropriately for a camera that shoots at up to ISO 3.2 million, almost all of the back panel buttons of the D5 as well as the mode dial are backlit for easy manipulation when the sun goes down. It's something you take for granted until you switch to a lesser body without it, especially if (or more likely when) you forget about that mode-and-ISO-button shuffle.

Light-up controls for all of your 'available darkness' shooting needs.

Let's move on to the overall operational performance of the D5. No surprises here - this thing is fast.