Pros

  • Excellent image quality: high quality Raw and JPEG
  • Superlative autofocus performance even at 10 fps
  • Well-designed ergonomics and handling
  • 4K video quality is generally strong
  • Joystick makes AF point selection faster
  • Ability to switch AF point mode with button press really useful
  • AF Fine Tune process greatly simplified to increase central AF accuracy
  • Touchscreen implementation fast and effective
  • Flicker reduction mode gives better consistency under artificial light

Cons

  • 4K video taken from small crop of sensor, limiting lens choice
  • Snapbridge wireless system is simplistic and (currently) inconsistent
  • Video tools are somewhat limited
  • Autofocus in video prone to wobble and re-focus
  • Quirky battery usage prompts regular use of Airplane mode
  • Default JPEG noise reduction and sharpening a little high
  • USB charging would be a useful addition

Overall conclusion

The D500 is one of the most expensive APS-C ILCs currently on the market but its sheer capability demonstrates the continued relevance of the format at this point in the market, even if Nikon seemed a little uncertain about that for a few years. The pixel count and sensor size allow the camera to achieve 10 fps shooting with 1.5x effective extra reach, relative to full frame (albeit at an image quality cost).

It may look a lot like existing Nikon models, but the D500's level of capability and performance is something different.

It's this combination that marks the camera's appeal: plenty of less expensive rivals can match the D500 for image quality - at least in most everyday shooting situations. Cameras such as the Canon EOS 7D Mark II and Sony's a6300 appear to offer comparable capabilities on paper, but these appearances prove deceptive in real-world use: the D500's autofocus and continuous shooting performance is noticeably better.

Body and handling

The D500's ergonomics are superb. It's not so much a question of size (though the substantial handgrip is nice), it's more the position and logic of the controls. Most key functions are placed at your fingertips and with a suitable number of customizable buttons also near to hand so that you can get quick access to the majority of the features you might want. Equally, the camera makes great use of its command dials, with many features controlled by pressing a button and turning a dial, meaning you don't need to delve into menus.

 Tamron 85mm F1.8 VC USD. ISO 100, F2.8, 1/320th.
Photo: Richard Butler

The D500 lets you customize more buttons and gives a more complete range of choices than we've seen on previous Nikons. This is useful because, although it means setting up the camera takes a little longer, it also greatly increases the range of ways of working the camera can be adapted to. Options such as being able to temporarily engage a different AF point mode are hugely useful.

Rugged as you like. The D500's build inspires confidence that it's just as likely to survive the fall as you clamber up to a vantage point. Adobe Camera Raw conversion with selective brightening/warming of shadows.
AF-S Nikkor 16-80mm F2.8-4E VR, ISO 100, F7.1, 1/100th.                               Photo: Richard Butler

The build feels reassuringly solid and, from unintended first-hand experience, I can say that the claimed 'dust and water resistance' counts for something, even if its extent is somewhat unclear.

The D500 is a big, heavy camera in comparison to any of its mirrorless rivals (it's bigger, even, than the D750), but this is the price you pay for its capabilities. You may be less likely to carry it around with you all the time, but on the occasions where you need the shots it'll get, it's worth the effort.

The camera's much-heralded Snapbridge Bluetooth/Wi-Fi system is currently fairly limited and its behavior seems poorly-matched to the kinds of shooting the D500 is likely to be used for.

Autofocus and performance

Autofocus is the D500's great strength: along with the D5 it's the best we've ever used. Just as mirrorless cameras appear to be closing the gap when it comes to following simple subjects, the D500 comes and blows them (and its DSLR rivals) all out of the water. It's not just a question of the mirrorless-esque across-the-frame AF coverage or of the number of cross-type focus points, it's this plus some of the best subject tracking we've seen and the fine-grained customization that allows the behavior to be tailored to shoot a wide range of different sports.

On top of this, the D500 simplifies the autofocus fine tune process (for generating a value relative to the central AF point, at least), which helps eliminate some of the error that can accumulate between different camera bodies and lenses.

Image 1 Image 2 Image 3 Image 4
The D500 can confidently autofocus track even when shooting at 10 frames per second. The marked AF point may lag a little behind the subject, but click on the image to examine the full size image and you'll find they're all in focus
AF-S Nikkor 16-80mm F2.8-4E VR, ISO 100, F2.8, 1/4000th                         Photos: Richard Butler

These abilities benefit from the camera's increased customization, relative to existing Nikon models. It's difficult to appreciate the utility of being able to temporarily engage a different AF point mode, whether it's in response to a change in the action or a switch to a totally different shooting situation, until you've tried it.

The viewfinder blackout isn't as impressively short as on the D5, so it's not quite as easy to follow the action, but it's still very good compared to almost anything else. For more considered shooting, the viewfinder is a pleasure to use: the closest thing in size to a full frame viewfinder to grace an APS-C DSLR.

Adobe Camera Raw conversion. Vignetting and contrast added. Luminance NR: 25
Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 VR II, ISO 9000, F2.8, 1/1000th                                  Photo: Richard Butler

Along with the autofocus performance is the camera's ability to combine this with continuous shooting. Again, the numbers themselves don't paint the whole picture: 10 frames per second is no longer the preserve of pro-grade cameras. However, the ability to keep shooting for 200 Raw frames, with the near-instant ability to punch-in to check focus of the images you've just shot, is still extremely rare.

Image quality

The D500's image quality, while extremely good, is perhaps the least 'stand-out' feature of the camera. That's not because it isn't good, but that cameras like the D7200 and Sony's a6300 have gotten so good that it's difficult for the D500 to set itself apart. Ultimately though, the camera's dynamic range and high ISO noise performance are as good as we've ever seen from any APS-C sensor: it's essentially ISO invariant and on a par with the best we've tested.

Keeps playing in the dark. Reprocessed in camera: +0.7EV Noise Reduction Low. D-Lighting Low. Tamron 85mm F1.8 VC USD. ISO 2000, F3.5, 1/160th.                     Photo: Dan Bracaglia

JPEG noise reduction is a little heavy-handed, as is the camera's sharpening, which is rather large-radius, so can obscure fine detail. Thankfully, both of these can be adjusted and the in-camera Raw conversion system makes it easy to find a series of settings that works best for you.

Video

The D500's video isn't as impressive as its stills capabilities. As we saw on the D810, Nikon has made some efforts to improve the camera's handling during video capture: there are now exposure highlight warnings and power aperture control, which means you don't have to drop in and out of live view just to make adjustments. Sadly there are still few tools to guide manual focus and live view autofocus is a little too prone to hunting to use for important clips, which in turn undermines the value of the touchscreen for video shooting.

Not just for test charts: the D500's image quality looks good in real-world shooting too. Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 VR, ISO 200, F5.6, 1/1250th.                                                 Photo: Richard Butler

The inclusion of mic and headphone sockets are a useful addition, as is the tilt-up monitor, but the thing that prompts our biggest concern is the crop that the camera uses for its 4K capture. The 4K footage looks pretty good, even if it isn't quite up there with the best of its contemporaries, but a 2.25x crop, relative to full frame, limits the available options if you want to shoot particularly wide-angle.

The Final Word

The D500 is the most well-rounded DSLR we've ever tested, and among the very best. Every one of us who has picked it up, regardless of which brands we've most often shot, has been impressed by its autofocus system's wide coverage and ability to find and follow a subject. If you need this, the large viewfinder, solid build and the ability to just keep shooting, then the D500 is peerless. It's not cheap but it looks like pretty good value if you look at it as a huge chunk of the D5's capabilities for a fraction of the money.

If you don't need that cutting-edge high-speed performance, cameras such as the D7200 offer essentially the same image quality, and if you want to shoot video there are better choices, too. But as an APS-C sports and wildlife camera, the D500 is without rival, and that puts in on the top of our awards podium.

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.

Nikon D500
Category: Semi-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 D500 is among the best DSLRs we've ever tested. Its strengths are its superlative autofocus combined with the ability to keep shooting at 10 frames per second. There are other APS-C cameras that offer similarly excellent image quality but none that offer the speed, ergonomics and dependability of the D500.
Good for
Anyone looking to shoot sports or crucial-moment photography. Photographers looking for a durable camera with excellent ergonomics.
Not so good for
Landscape photographers needing more resolution or anyone looking for easy portability. Photographers looking to dabble in video.
91%
Overall score

Nikon D500 real-world samples

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Nikon D500 Sample Gallery

109 images • Posted on Apr 29, 2016 • View album
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