The D500 is the new flagship model in Nikon's DX-format lineup. Michael Topham gets hands on and shares his first impressions
We’ve had to be patient, but Nikon has finally announced the long awaited successor to the D300S in the shape of the Nikon D500 at CES 2016. Arriving seven years on from when the Nikon D300S was first announced, the D500 becomes Nikon’s most advanced DX-format DSLR to date and brings the number of DX-format models in manufacturers range up to four, sitting above the entry-level D3300 and D5500, as well as the more advanced D7200.
Launched at the same time that Nikon announced its new flagship FX-format DSLR, the D500 has a similar relationship to the new Nikon D5 that the Nikon D300 did to the Nikon D3. Nikon was keen to make the target audience of the D500 known at its launch and it’s a DSLR designed to offer the best of both worlds, offering advanced enthusiasts and professionals the benefits of the DX-format, such as smaller form-factor and crop factor, whilst offering many of the advanced pro features that the Nikon D5 has. There’s a lot of hype about the D500. Without further ado lets take a closer look at the key features.
Focusing our attention on the sensor, the D500 features an all-new 20.9-million-pixel CMOS DX-format chip that goes without an optical low-pass filter. We’re told the sensor is designed by Nikon and a new EXPEED 5 image processing engine allows the D500 to shoot continuously at a blistering 10fps with a 200 shot buffer when shooting JPEG or 14-bit lossless compressed Raw files. Whereas the D300S has a rather conservative ISO range by today’s standards, the D500 improves in this area by delivering a standard ISO sensitivity of 100-51200 that’s expandable to ISO 50-1640000. Although the ISO range isn’t quite as wide as the Nikon D5, which can shoot up to an astonishing ISO 3280000 in its Hi-5 setting, the D500’s sensitivity range improves upon the Nikon D7200, which has been Nikon’s most advanced DX-format offering up until recently with an ISO range of ISO 100-25,600, extendable to ISO 102400.
Claimed by Nikon to be their ‘best enthusiast DSLR offering’ the D500 supports this statement with a truly impressive autofocus system. It inherits the Multi-CAM 20K autofocus module from the Nikon D5, meaning it has the same configuration of 153 AF points that cover an extremely wide area of the frame. Out of the 153 AF points on offer, 99 of these are the sensitive cross-type variety. It’s not just the number of AF points that impresses either – the advanced autofocus system enables the D500 to focus down to an impressive -4EV with the central point and down to -3EV with all other points.
Another feature that ties in with the new autofocus system is the D500’s 3.2in, 2359k-dot touchscreen at the rear of the camera. This allows users to reposition the focus point across the frame by simply tapping the screen and there’s the option to enable a touch shutter function too for those who’d like to fire the shutter by tapping the rear display. The pre-production samples that we used at CES didn’t allow us to navigate the menu using the touchscreen so we’ll have to wait to see if there are any changes in this respect on the final production samples. During my time with the D500 I did discover however that image comments can be made using the touchscreen. The screen is the tilting type as opposed to being fully articulated, with buttons positioned down the left of the body in similar fashion to the D7200.
Directly above the screen is the D500’s optical viewfinder that provides 100% coverage of the frame. The viewfinder has an impressive 1.0x magnification and offers dioptre adjustment from -2.0 to +1.0m.
As well as appealing to advanced stills photographers, Nikon has gone after videographers and those who’d like to record high-quality movies by equipping the D500 with 4K UHD video. The D500 can record 4K UHD (3840×2160) footage at 30p/25p/24p, with the the option to also record 1080/60p. Unlike the Nikon D5 that can only record a maximum of three minutes 4K footage, the D500 can record for up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds. The D500 also allows users to generate 4K UHD time-lapse movies within the camera – a first for any Nikon DSLR. Both a headphone and a 3.5mm mic port feature at the side of the body and the movie-rec button is convieniently located close to the on/off switch.
Elsewhere, the D500 introduces a new type of connectivty that Nikon has named SnapBridge. The idea of this technology is to offer a better link between the camera and mobile devices and requires users to install a SnapBridge app that’ll be made available as a free download. As explained in our interview with Dirk Jesper, Product Manager for Professional Products and Product Planning at Nikon Europe, one of the major benefits of SnapBridge is that it uses the power of bluetooth technology to ensure you’re always connected. Nikon has made sure that users will still have the opportunity to transfer large size files using Wi-fi connectivity and SnapBridge is one of the many new features on the D500 we’re looking forward to putting to the test when our review sample arrives.
So what else is new? A new MB-D17 multi-power battery pack will be made available for those who’d like to increase shooting stamina and the camera will accept Nikon’s EN-EL15 rechargeable Li-ion batteries. One slightly controversial idea is the arrangement of an XQD slot alongside an SD card slot. Nikon has opted for this ahead of twin SD card slots or a single slot for SD media and a single slot for Compact Flash. According to Nikon, Compact Flash has reached the end of what’s possible in terms of speed and XQD is more future proof solution in the long term. Nikon users who’d like to take full advantage of the D500’s power and speed will want to bear in mind that buying a few XQD cards could see the price of the camera (body only) soar close to £2k.
Build & Handling
The body of the Nikon D500 is constructed with rugged magnesium alloy and carbon fiber materials. It features the same durable, rugged build and ergonomics that we’ve come to associate with Nikon’s best DSLRs and it has dust and water-drop resistance to guarantee peace of mind when the camera might be used in extreme or harsh environments. Finished to the usual high-standard that we expect from Nikon, I found myself itching to move from the press conference and onto the touch and try session to find out how it feels in the hand.
Picking up the camera for the first time I was instantly aware that I was holding onto a body that feels larger and heavier than the Nikon D7200. The top plate is neatly laid out and has more of an advanced, professional feel about it than Nikon’s other DX-format DSLRs. Where you’ll find the mode dial on the D7200 there are four buttons with direct access to mode, white balance, image quality and metering mode. From beneath this you can rotate a dial to change the drive mode, which is similar to the D300/D300S it follows on from.
By repositioning the mode button to the left of the body, Nikon has created space for a dedicated ISO button directly behind the on/off switch, which is intuitive to use from behind the camera. A large top plate LCD panel features just like it did on the D300/D300S, however there’s no pop up flash. To tie in with the launch of the D500 and D5, Nikon has announced a new flagship SB-5000 speedlite, which combines the power of the SB-910 in a smaller, more compact package.
The handgrip of the Nikon D500 feels chunky and sturdy. The body panels don’t creak when it’s squeezed and the buttons beside the screen are laid out just like the D300/D300S with a new Fn2 button at the bottom. Those wondering where the Fn1 button is location, this can be found at the front of the body next to the lens mount. The AF toggle that’s used to reposition the AF point around the frame is the same as the Nikon D5’s and it’s perfectly positioned so that you barely need move your thumb to find it. The touchscreen offers a good level of resistance when it’s pulled out and tilted. I also found it to be extremely responsive to light touches when I was experimenting with repositioning the AF point.
The arrival of the D500 has caught many out by surprise, especially those who thought the next DX-format DSLR from Nikon might be the replacement for the entry-level D3300. With a good amount of time to get hands on and explore it, I can report that its autofocus system is one of the most impressive features. It’s incredibly responsive in low-light and there was simply no hesitation or delay at acquiring focus in what can only be best described as unfavourable lighting conditions. The fact it uses the same autofocus system as the Nikon D5 means serious enthusiasts looking to progress from an entry-level model, or D7200 say, now have the same focusing performance available to them as professionals using Nikon’s full-frame flagship DSLR, the Nikon D5.
Though the level of weather sealing and robustness isn’t expected to be quite in the same league as the Nikon D5, the D500 serves as a very tempting choice for Nikon users searching for a more advanced DX-format DSLR without jumping up to full frame. I can see the Nikon D500 being an extremely popular DX-format DSLR with serious enthusiasts and it’s also likely to fall into the hands of some working pros who’d like to use a smaller and lighter model. The Nikon D500’s crop factor (1.5x) and longer video recording possibilities are other reasons for professionals to take a closer look.
It has been a long time coming, but it’s great to see that the successor to the popular D300/D300S is finally here. It certainly seems like it’s not going to disappoint and now we just have to wait for our review sample. Fingers crossed, we’re hopeful the D500 will arrive with us sometime during February.
The Nikon D500 will hit the shops and online stores from March. It’ll launch at £1729 (body only) and will also be made available with the Nikon AF-S 16-80mm f/2.8-4G VR ED lens for £2479.
Interview with Dirk Jasper
While attending CES 2016 in Las Vegas, we caught up with Dirk Jesper, Product Manager for Professional Products and Product Planning at Nikon Europe. As well as answering questions about the Nikon D500, Dirk Jesper told us more about the new Nikon D5. Find out what he said to say in our video interview.