First Impressions

by Richard Butler

It’s fair to say that the D500 has been long awaited. Whereas the D7000, D7100 and D7200 are brilliantly well featured enthusiast DSLRs, they don’t quite cut it in the area we used to call ‘Semi-Pro’ – those dedicated amateur and professional shooters who had grown accustomed to the combination of an APS-C sensor, fast continuous shooting and a hefty buffer encased in a durable body. My first impressions are that those people are going to really appreciate what the D500 brings.

While, for me, at least, the two most interesting trends in the market over the past few years have been the improvement of mid-market mirrorless and the increasing accessibility of full frame cameras, neither of these two trends have really encroached on the niche that the original D300 and Canon EOS 7D carved out. Having shot with it. I think the D500 makes a very strong case for the continued relevance of that niche – the high-speed APS-C camera.

Playing to its strengths - and winning

We’ve already looked at the Raw performance of the D500’s sensor and it’s extremely good. There’s also something rather lovely about hitting the shutter on a camera and hearing it rattle away at ten frames per second, especially when, with an XQD card, it can just keep doing so. But it’s the autofocus that’s most impressed everyone in the office that’s picked up a D500.

Nikon’s autofocus and, in particular, its focus tracking, have become very impressive in recent years but the D500 takes this further.

10 frames per second and very impressive AF gives you a good chance of catching the moment you want. ISO 100 | 16-80mm F2.8-4 VR | 1/4000th | F2.8. Photos: Richard Butler

We’ll be continuing to test autofocus as we push forward with the review but, even without adjusting the settings controlling the 3D Tracking’s reaction to different subjects, it does astonishingly well. Its ability to stick to a subject is uncanny.

I didn’t expect our bike test to be much of a challenge for the D500 but I don’t think I was prepared for just how easy it made it look. I was shooting it alongside another DSLR and, having watching it give a perfect hit rate time and time again, I gave up and used it as an opportunity to shoot impromptu portraits of my colleague who was on riding duty. It did pretty well at that, too.

Having not really been challenged by our bike test, I let the D500 try its hand at speed portraiture. This result at F2.8 gives an idea of how well it did. Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 VR | ISO 100 | 1/1000th | F2.8. Photo: Richard Butler

I’ve not yet had the chance to use fast portrait primes with off-center AF points – an area where DSLRs can stumble and where the D500’s AF fine tuning won’t necessarily help, but with long lenses so far it’s shone. The lovely big viewfinder and really wide, across-the-frame coverage are excellent, too.

A cheetah at 'The Living Desert' in Palm Springs, California. It only stepped into the sunshine for a moment, but it was enough to let the D500 find focus and rattle off a few shots. Nikon 200-500mm F5.6E VR | ISO 100 | 1/1600th | F6.3 Photo: Richard Butler

And, though I’m not suggesting 3D Tracking is completely infallible (it doesn’t appear to have been able to distinguish between a cheetah’s eye and its spots, for instance), the D500 makes it very easy to jump to another AF area mode in those situations where 3D Tracking doesn’t quite do the trick.

The D500's semi-pro credentials extend beyond autofocus, of course. At a recent Nikon press event in Palm Springs, California, I had the chance to shoot using a remote SB-5000 flashgun and the company's radio frequency flash control system. It'll be immediately familiar to anyone who's used Nikon's Creative Lighting System before but without the need to worry about maintaining a line-of-sight connection to the strobes and with no risk of bright light interfering with communication.

An SB-5000 speedlight, placed more directly under the rider than I was willing to position myself, triggered by radio. Nikon 16-80mm F2.8-4 VR | ISO 100 | 1/4000th | F2.8. Photo: Richard Butler

If you want, you can stop reading there. My first impression is that the Nikon D500 is extremely good at what it’s supposed to be. To the extent that, though I’m not all that excited about DSLRs in general, the D500 it reminded me of how much I loved using the D300S when I reviewed it, and how close I came to buying one at the time.

Other features

Let’s be clear, then, the D500 seems extremely good at the things it’s primarily designed for. However, alongside its stills capabilities, Nikon is also touting its 4K video capture and innovative ‘SnapBridge’ connection system. And, while I don’t think either of those is going to be a major purchase motivator, it does make sense to see how they perform, just in case would-be buyers were planning on using them.

4K video

The D500’s video performance is something of a mixed bag. Its actual video quality is pretty good, certainly good enough for most non-broadcast video projects. Its supporting features aren’t as extensive as those offered by the likes of Sony or Panasonic, so it’s not quite as easy to shoot with as it could be, but if it’s only used as an occasional feature, that’s probably not much of an issue.

More than any of these handling issues, it’s the additional 1.5x crop that I think will prevent many D500 owners from shooting much video. That 2.25x net crop (compared with full frame) is severely limiting if you want any sort of wide angle footage, meaning you’re stuck back with the camera’s rather underwhelming 1080 output, which leaves you no better off than using any existing Nikon DSLR.

Nikon's venerable (and CA-prone) DX fisheye lens captures huge sweep of the slot canyon we'd scrambled up. Exposed to protect the sun as it began to set behind the canyon's lip. Mouse-over the image to see the default conversion or over this caption to see the adjusted version. Nikon AF DX 10.5mm F2.8 Fisheye | ISO 100 | 1/200th | F7.1. Photo: Richard Butler

Snapbridge

The other non-core feature of the D500 is ‘SnapBridge.’ I had great hopes for this, having grown to really like the system on the Samsung NX1. Sadly, as it stands, it’s not terribly useful. The reliance on a low bandwidth technology for much of the image transfer is a poor fit on a camera that can produce so many images, so quickly.

16-80mm F2.8-4 VR kit zoom and a radio-triggered flash used to balance some evening sunshine on a recent Nikon press trip to Palm Springs. Nikon 16-80mm F2.8-F4 VR | ISO 100 | 1/125th | F4.5. Photo: Richard Butler

Even when used to transfer just the user’s chosen images, it’s currently slower and more awkward than strictly necessary. Still, just as Samsung improved its system in the months after launch, there’s every chance that Nikon will be able to improve the connection times and reliability of the app. With this done, if it makes it easy to select and transfer the images I want, then it’ll be no worse than the current system.

Even though both of these heavily-promoted features are a little bit of a let down, they haven’t really detracted from what the camera appears to get right: its role as a solid, comfortable high speed camera that makes shooting challenging subjects feel effortless.

Nikon D500 real-world samples

Nikon D500 Sample Gallery

109 images • Posted on Apr 29, 2016 • View album
Sample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photoSample photo