Nikon D5 Conclusion

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 220, -2/3 EV
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We put Nikon's latest flagship camera, the D5, through its paces and came away very impressed. The Nikon D5 is designed to excel as a professional workhorse, and it shows in every aspect of the camera. From the Nikon-developed 20.8-megapixel full frame CMOS sensor to the new autofocus system, which offers an impressive 153 autofocus points, the D5 delivers exceptional performance across the board.

Nikon D5 body is big and heavy but very user-friendly

You know you're using a pro-oriented DSLR the second you pick up the D5. Its bulky, durable body impressed us with its refinement and comfort, but this is not the camera for you if you're looking for something compact and lightweight -- not by a mile. Weighing in at over a whopping three pounds, this beast is far from small and light.

With this size, however, comes excellent ergonomics and many external controls. A very welcome change on the D5 is the placement of the ISO button near the shutter release. All of the exposure-related controls are now in reach of your right hand. Regarding the viewfinder, magnification has been increased from 0.70x to 0.72x compared to the D4S and mirror blackout has been reduced. Overall, the camera body handles very well, despite its size.

The D5 has excellent high ISO performance, but it comes at a cost

The D5's new 20.8-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor offers 4.6 more megapixels than its predecessor, which isn't a big jump but it's certainly notable nonetheless. The new sensor includes anti-reflective coating on various sensor components, designed to reduce ghost and flare.

20mm (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S), f/11, 4s, ISO 100, -0.33 EV
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In conjunction with the new EXPEED 5 image processor, the sensor has also been designed to deliver improved tonal gradation and color reproduction. Our testing showed that the D5 displayed vibrant colors with average hue accuracy. Caucasian skin tones were a bit pale when using automatic white balance and a few colors were shifted (red toward orange and cyan toward blue). Yellow, orange, green and purple were pretty good though.

Regarding sharpness, the D5 produces very sharp JPEG images, although they're perhaps a bit too sharp at default settings as there are sharpening halos visible around fine detail. Noise suppression at base ISO is quite minimal, and the results were excellent overall.

Impressive high ISO performance and print capabilities

With default noise reduction, JPEG files look clean and exhibit very good detail until around ISO 1600. At ISO 6400, images are still quite clean and display many fine details. Even at ISO 12,800, the results are impressive, with only some slight grain and chroma noise issues. When comparing JPEG files from the D5 against its predecessor, the D5 proved to be better at higher ISOs despite increasing the resolution. However, the difference is less evident when considering RAW files.

14mm (Nikon 14-24mm f2.8G IF-ED AF-S), f/2.8, 15s, ISO 8000
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Up to ISO 800, the Nikon D5 is able to make very good prints up to 30" x 40". Maximum size for a good quality print drops down to 24 x 36 at ISO 1600, still a very impressive result. At ISO 6400, you can make a great 16 x 20 print, but you might even be able to achieve an acceptable 20 x 30 print if you don't expect a particularly close viewing distance. The D5 is also our first camera to deliver a usable 8 x 10 print at ISO 51,200! That's an incredible result. Beyond ISO 102,400, the D5 cannot produce usable prints, so the ISO 3,280,000 equivalent Hi-5 setting is more marketing hype than anything else. With that said, for a camera to deliver a print at all at its highest native ISO setting -- particularly when it's 102,400 -- is very impressive.

Dynamic range: An area of compromise

One area where the Nikon D5 under performs relative to both the D4S and the D5's current closest competitor, the Canon 1DX Mark II, is with regard to dynamic range at lower ISOs. DxO Mark found the D5's sensor to have a maximum dynamic range of 12.3 EVs compared to the D4S' 13.3 EVs and the 1DX Mark II's 13.5 EVs.

Considering the D5 against only the D4S, by the time you reach ISO 1600, the D5 pulls ahead of the D4S in dynamic range and offers a better tonal range across the board. Compared to the 1DX II, the Canon holds the dynamic range advantage until around ISO 2000, and then the D5 offers better performance until the two converge around ISO 102,400. What is particularly impressive about the D5's high ISO dynamic range performance is that the D5 offers right around 10 EVs of dynamic range at ISO 6400, which is quite remarkable.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 360
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What's the overall takeaway with the D5 and dynamic range? The D5 is not simply marketed toward photojournalists, sports photographers and others who demand good high ISO performance -- it is fundamentally designed for them. You give up dynamic range performance at the lower end of the ISO range in exchange for very good dynamic range at higher ISOs. Whether or not this is a good trade off depends upon what you want to do with the camera. Keep in mind that while its dynamic range at base ISO isn't as good as the competition, or the camera it replaces for that matter, it is still very good good. The camera's sensor is strong at tonal reproduction, so that's important to keep in mind, too.

The Nikon D5 offers an excellent user experience

With a new 180k-pixel RGB metering sensor and its improved ergonomics and controls, it's no surprise that the D5 offers a very good user experience. While its touchscreen is somewhat underutilized, it is good that Nikon has finally included the functionality in a professional DSLR body. We found that the D5 was comfortable to use and offered a lot of customizability in its controls and function buttons, allowing photographers the opportunity to augment their experience as they see fit. You expect speed and agility -- and a few perks like illuminated buttons -- when using a $6,500 DSLR and that's exactly what you get with the D5.

153 AF points help make the Nikon D5 a fast focusing DSLR

It's hard to single out any particular aspect of the D5 that is the most impressive, but the new autofocus system has to be a serious contender. Nikon calls it the "fastest, most accurate autofocus system yet," and our time with the camera certainly backs up the claim.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR ), f/2.8, 1/400s, ISO 220, +0.67 EV
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The excellent AF performance is driven by the new Multi-CAM 20K AF sensor module and a dedicated AF processing engine. With 153 focus points, 99 of which are cross-type -- compared to 51 and 15, respectively, in the D4S -- the D5 offers the most autofocus points of any Nikon DSLR to date (along with the simultaneously-announced DX-format D500). Of the D5's 153 AF points, the user can select 55 of them in various point configurations. All 153 AF points are compatible with f/5.6 or faster lenses and the central 15 points are compatible at f/8 -- a fact that should be of particular interest to photographers who use telephoto lenses with teleconverters.

Low light autofocus performance has been improved as well, with the D5 capable of focusing in light as low as -4 EV, which is 2 EVs better than its predecessor and 3 EVs better than the D3S. We found that the D5's autofocus performed very well in dim lighting conditions, certainly supporting Nikon's listed specifications for the camera.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 8000
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So single shot autofocus is excellent, but what about continuous autofocus? Continuous autofocus performance is critical for much of the D5's target audience, and we found results that should please them. During our field testing, the D5 performed exceptionally well shooting both sports and wildlife, two subjects that typically trip up lesser cameras. The D5's ability to not only maintain focus on a fast-moving subject, but also reacquire it in the event of the subject moving out from underneath the AF point or even leaving the frame entirely before reentering, was very impressive.

The densely-distributed autofocus points helped the D5 lock focus on very small portions of the frame, such as an animal's eye or a specific part of the frame when shooting sports. AF performance is important, as is the ability to quickly change your focus settings, and the D5 gives photographers quick and easy access to all of the critical settings without missing a beat. (As an aside: It's also worth noting that the D5 -- along with the D500 -- are the first DSLRs to offer automatic autofocus fine-tune. You can read more about that here.)

500mm (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 4500
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Single shot autofocus is very quick and accurate and continuous autofocus is excellent. It can at times feel like the D5 is reading your mind when you're shooting moving subjects; it's simply capable of being that fast. If there is a minor downside with the D5's autofocus system it's that its AF points -- as plentiful as they are -- don't cover more of the full frame image sensor. Frame coverage is better than it was on the D4/D4S, but it is still not quite what you can find on DX-sensor DSLR cameras or some full frame mirrorless bodies.

EXPEED 5 image processor takes D5's speeds up a notch

The D5 is powered by a new EXPEED 5 image processor that delivers excellent performance. When recording large fine JPEG images at 12.1 frames per second, the D5 can record 200 images and clear the buffer in less than one second. When recording 14-bit lossless compressed RAW images, we were able to capture 183 images at 12.1fps with the buffer clearing in a very impressive five seconds. RAW + JPEG with the same settings as above delivered 74 frames with the buffer clearing in seven seconds. When the buffer was exhausted recording RAW and RAW + JPEG images, shooting speeds slowed to around 6.6 and 6fps respectively. The D5 also offers 14fps continuous shooting when the mirror is locked up and this allowed us to capture 121 14-bit lossless compressed RAW images before the camera slowed down to around 10.5fps (although the slower fps results varied a lot).

Note that your results may vary depending on the XQD card that is used. The results above were achieved using a Lexar Pro 2933x XQD 2.0 400MB/s flash card. Further, the D5 is also available with dual CF card slots rather than XQD slots. We did not test a CF version of the D5, but you can expect the results to be less impressive than those that the XQD D5 provided.

If you're planning on using the D5's continuous shooting modes regularly then you'll be pleased to hear that the camera includes a new shutter mechanism that is rated for 400,000 actuations. The improved shutter is accompanied by a new mirror sequencing mechanism designed to "nearly eliminate blackout time and mirror slap." Shutter lag is a mere 0.132 second when using full autofocus with the center-most AF point, a big improvement compared to the D4S' 0.204 second result. With manual focus, shutter lag is 0.041 second, a four millisecond improvement over its predecessor. With that said, we did find that the D5's shutter -- even in the so-called "Quiet" release mode -- is very loud.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 4500, -1/3 EV
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4K UHD video comes to a full frame Nikon DSLR

4K ultra high-definition video has made its way to a full-frame Nikon camera. The D5 can record 3840 x 2160 resolution video at up to 30 frames per second for up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds. (Note, at the time of our field test, the camera was limited to 3 minutes of continuous 4K UHD video recording, but a June firmware update allowed the camera to record 8 files up to 4GB size for up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds of continuous 4K UHD recording).

While video performance itself is pretty good, it's disappointing that 4K UHD video is recorded with an approximately DX-sensor crop. Recording video with the full FX sensor is capped at 1080p resolution. Autofocus performance is okay, but Live View autofocus is still not very fast despite being improved from previous Nikon DSLRs.

Overall, video performance and features are improved over its predecessor, but it still leave something to be desired. For multimedia photographers with a stills focus, the D5 should offer plenty of video performance. But for videographers who want a good stills camera, they might look elsewhere.

Nikon D5: A pro workhorse that's more than just a speed demon

20mm (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S), f/11, 8s, ISO 100, -0.67 EV
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What you get if you part with your hard-earned $6,500 is a professional-quality DSLR that offers very good imaging, autofocus and technical performance. The camera is built to last, is very fast and consistently good in basically every way. When you are looking for cutting edge autofocus performance and speed wrapped in a dual-gripped professional-oriented body, you have to pay a premium, there's no way around that.

Whether this high-speed ride is worth the price of admission is difficult to say because it is one of those cameras -- like all professional cameras -- that you either need it or you don't. And if you don't? Well, you can get a lot of good and sometimes even better performance in limited areas by opting for something else. For example, you can buy a D500 -- which is almost as fast and uses the same autofocus system as the D5 -- or a higher-resolution D810 for less money than the D5 and still have some cash to spare.

With that said, we can say with certainty that the Nikon D5 has the best autofocus system, the best continuous shooting performance and the most refined camera body of any full frame Nikon DSLR. A Dave's Pick, for sure!

Pros & Cons

  • Excellent image quality with crisp, vibrant JPEG images
  • Excellent high ISO performance
  • Good dynamic range
  • Vibrant colors
  • Very quick power-up and mode changes
  • Fast autofocus with fantastic tracking performance
  • Able to autofocus in incredibly dim light, lower than we can measure
  • Very low shutter lag
  • 12 fps full-res burst mode (14 fps with mirror locked up)
  • Very deep buffers
  • Very fast buffer clearing with fast XQD 2.0 card
  • Big, bright, accurate viewfinder
  • Outstanding battery life (3,780 shots/charge)
  • Available with dual XQD or dual CF slots
  • Comfortable ergonomics with more function buttons than the D4S
  • ISO button relocated to near the shutter release
  • Improved viewfinder performance -- more magnification and less blackout time
  • Automatic AF Fine Tune is useful (although do it a few times per lens as results occasionally can be inconsistent)  
  • 4K UHD video recording (plus, updated with 29:59 continuous recording limit)
  • Joystick near vertical grip doesn't work as well as a directional pad for moving AF points
  • Portrait orientation AF-On button is very sensitive
  • Dynamic range not as good as predecessor or closes competitor (Canon 1DX Mark II) at low to moderate ISOs
  • Default sharpening a bit high, generating noticeable halos around high-contrast edges
  • Ridiculously high extended ISOs are incredibly noisy and not very useful
  • Loud shutter
  • Not just any XQD card will get you the specified continuous shooting performance
  • 4K UHD video is limited to an approximate DX-sensor crop
  • Live View AF is still sluggish
  • Touchscreen functionality is somewhat limited
  • Expensive

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