Nikon D5 Field Test Part I

Impressive performance helps the Nikon D5 hit a home run

by Jeremy Gray |

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 220, -0.7 EV
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.


The D5 is Nikon's latest flagship camera and it promises to deliver top-end performance across the board. Designed from the ground up for professional photographers who demand extreme reliability and agility in all conditions, the Nikon D5 offers an improved autofocus system and a class-leading ISO range.

I will be doing two field tests for the Nikon D5 and this first one focuses on the camera body, autofocus performance, and technical performance. The second field test will focus on image quality, low light performance (although there's some of that here), and video performance.

Key Features

  • 20.8-megapixel CMOS full-frame sensor
  • Professional-oriented body and controls
  • 153 focus points, including 99 cross-type sensors
  • Native ISO range of 100-102,400
  • ISO expandable to 3,276,800
  • 12 frames per second continuous shooting (14fps with mirror up)
  • 4K UHD video at up to 30fps

The Nikon D5 handles very well

A professionally-oriented DSLR has to be many things including fast, powerful and reliable. It also has to be comfortable to use for an extended period of time and have all of the important controls at your fingertips. There's a delicate balance to be struck between giving photographers everything they demand without giving them too much and actually slowing them down. The Nikon D5 strikes an excellent balance between control and usability.

There are a lot of function buttons on the camera and perhaps some photographers won't want to use all of them, but they're there if you need them. Compared to the D4S, the Nikon D5 adds a pair of function buttons and moves a few things around. An excellent change is that the ISO button is now on the top right of the camera near the shutter release instead of on the back (I love this location for the ISO button, by the way, as now I can easily change ISO with my right hand and even enable/disable auto ISO using the secondary command dial).

In addition to a few subtle tweaks to the body, the Nikon D5 also adds a touchscreen display. Don't get too excited yet, though, as you still won't be able to move the autofocus point around using the touchscreen (unless you're recording video, more on that in my second field test). The touchscreen is really only useful for playback functions. With that said, the 3.2-inch display is excellent overall, but I do wish that its touchscreen functionality was more fleshed out. It's also worth noting that the display has 2,359k dots, up from the 921k-dot display of the Nikon D4S.

The viewfinder has also seen improvement. The frame coverage remains 100%, of course, but the magnification is up to 0.72x from the 0.70x of the D4S. That isn't a big difference but it is a welcome improvement nonetheless. A much more important change is that blackout time has been reduced for an improved high-speed continuous shooting experience. Additionally, the fluorine-coated eyepiece adapter is now detachable making it much easier to clean.

As is the case with other professional-grade D-series Nikon cameras, you can easily shoot with it in portrait orientation. This works really well and the grip, despite being a bit narrow, is comfortable. The only issue I found is that the AF-On button is very sensitive and even resting my thumb on it triggered autofocus. In this regard, it behaves differently from the AF-On button you use when shooting the camera in landscape orientation for whatever reason.

A camera like the Nikon D5 is meant to be customized to fit your own needs, and the camera certainly provides you the ability to do so. All of the controls you need are right at your fingertips and the camera is remarkably comfortable to use.

New autofocus system is one of the Nikon D5's standout features

Nikon is billing the D5's autofocus as its "fastest, most accurate AF system yet." While that's a big claim, my experience with the Nikon D5 backs it up. The new Multi-CAM 20K AF sensor module delivers excellent results; the autofocus is fast, accurate and reliable.

One of the important new autofocus features is the number of autofocus points for the Nikon D5. There are 153 focus points, 99 of which have cross-type sensors. All 153 autofocus points are compatible with f/5.6 or faster lenses and the center 15 points work with f/8 lenses. It is worth noting that of the 153 focus points, you are only able to select from 55 of them (which is might be a good thing because having to cycle through 153 points manually would be tedious).

In addition to a larger number of autofocus points, the Nikon D5 has improved low-light autofocus performance. The D5 can autofocus in light as low as -4 EV according to the company, 2 EVs better than the D4S and 3 EVs better than the D3S.

An interesting new feature is automatic AF fine-tune, which allows you to have the camera automatically fine-tune front/back focus for each of your lenses. I wrote about this feature in a Caffeine Priority post, so check that out. The main takeaway is that it works well and should help iron out any focusing issues you have with your lenses.

Lightning-quick AF-S performance

AF-S (single-servo AF) performance is very good. The camera is able to autofocus remarkably quickly and it nailed focus in nearly every instance. Unlike its predecessor, the D4S, the Nikon D5 includes a dedicated AF processor.

When shooting in AF-S autofocus mode, you can select from single-point, group area AF, and auto area AF. Selecting an autofocus mode is simple, you press the focus-mode selector button on the front of the camera and cycle through modes using the command dials (the secondary command dial handles mode whereas the main command dial handles AF-S versus AF-C selection).

800mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR with Nikon TC-20E III teleconverter), f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 1800.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

As a side note, you can assign various AF area modes (except for 3D-tracking) to different function buttons on the camera. For example, you can assign group-area AF to one of the function buttons while using the camera in single-point autofocus area mode. When you press the function button, you can shoot in group-area AF as long as you're pressing the function button. Once you've released the button, the camera will go back to single-point AF, or whichever AF area mode it is set to.

Moving the autofocus point when shooting with single-point or group-area autofocus is easy with the Nikon D5. You simply use either the multi-selector or the sub-selector. Personally, I like using the multi-selector, but the joystick-like sub-selector works well too. The sub-selector does take a bit of getting used to, but when shooting in portrait orientation it is much easier to reach (for me, at least) than the multi-selector.

Auto area autofocus performance is quite good and works well if you don't have time to select an individual focus point or group of focus points. With face-detect turned on, it gives priority to faces, which makes it a good choice for fast-paced events or just general event photography. When shooting sports with only one person in the frame, it works quite well too (more on that in a bit).

600mm (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens with Nikon TC-14E III teleconverter), f/8.0, 1/1600s, ISO 400.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

When you get right down to it, the Nikon D5 is particularly well-suited for continuous autofocus performance, but it needs to have excellent AF-S performance to lay down a solid foundation. And excellent AF-S performance is something it has in spades.

Intelligent and reliable continuous autofocus make the Nikon D5 a high-speed star

Continuous autofocus performance is where the Nikon D5 truly shines. I was very impressed with its ability to not only acquire focus on a moving subject, but maintain focus during fast motion.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 3600.
Click for full-size image.

One of my favorite autofocus modes is the dynamic-area AF which allows you to select from 25, 72, and 153 points. The 153-point dynamic-area AF mode works very well. You select an initial focus point and then if your subject leaves this area, the camera maintains focus using additional focus points. This mode was very reliable for me.

The 3D-tracking autofocus mode is also effective for capturing moving subjects. Like with dynamic-area AF, you select the initial focus point and then the camera uses the rest of the points to maintain focus on the subject. 3D-tracking uses color information to help track the subject while the shutter is pressed halfway.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 4500, -0.3 EV.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

The Nikon D5 also comes with new settings for lock-on autofocus performance. On previous pro-level Nikon D-series cameras, you could select from different speed settings for how quickly the camera would switch focus. With the D5, you can select from two different parameters. The first is blocked shot AF response. You can select how quickly the camera will try to focus on a subject that gets in front of your original subject. For example, if you're photographing an athlete and another athlete moves into your frame and blocks your subject. The other parameter is subject motion where you can select between "erratic" and "steady" on a sliding scale.

GIF showing the Nikon D5 acquire focus during a high-speed burst of a play at the plate. The focus had been on the pitcher, but when I saw that there was going to be a play at the plate I quickly moved the camera over to cover the play. As the play started, the camera was out of focus, but it quickly acquired focus before the main action took place. Click on the GIF above to see an in-focus frame from the burst.

Overall, the Nikon D5 does a superb job of maintaining focus on moving subjects. Fast movements are handled really well and the camera is able to get focus locked in quickly. When using the D5, I got more in-focus images during burst shooting than with any other Nikon camera I've used.

EXPEED 5-powered Nikon D5 is a solid all-around performer

Excellent continuous autofocus performance doesn't mean much if the camera is slow to capture images, and the Nikon D5 is not slow at all. The new EXPEED 5 image-processing engine delivers up to 12 frames per second shooting with full-time AF and AE.

Nikon reports that you can capture up to 102 14-bit uncompressed RAW images (the largest RAW files available) in a burst with a Lexar Professional 2933x XQD 2.0 card which is rated at 400MB/s for writes. We found that the buffer was exhausted after 61 frames in the lab, but we tested with a somewhat slower Sony G-Series XQD 2.0 card rated at 350MB/s for writes. The buffer then cleared in about ten seconds. While this is quite a bit less than the published figure from Nikon with the fastest XQD card currently available, it's still impressive. And if you want more buffer depth with RAW images, you can shoot lossless-compressed or compressed RAW files for up to 200 frames in a burst according to Nikon.

GIF showing the Nikon D5 capture a series of images at 12fps. Click on the GIF above to see a frame from the burst.

When shooting optimal quality JPEG images the buffer was tested at 200 frames (capped by the programmable Max Continuous Release range is 1 to 200) and the buffer cleared in less than a second, which is incredibly fast. See our lab Performance test results for details.

An additional continuous shooting option is continuous high mirror-up, which provides 14fps shooting but AF and AE are locked with the first frame. If you're shooting a mostly stationary subject, this will work well. You do lose the optical viewfinder experience, but you get an extra couple of frames per second of high-speed shooting.

A particularly impressive aspect of the Nikon D5's overall performance is how quickly you can view images and cycle through them. When you're done a burst, your images are ready to be viewed. If you're shooting an event, it's great to be able to quickly view a burst, make any necessary adjustments, and then get right back to shooting.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 360.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

On the topic of new performance features, the improved viewfinder (which I touched on a bit previously) is due to a new mechanism that drives the camera's mirror. There's a stepping motor that accelerates initial up and down movements of the mirror while also decelerating it just before the mirror completes its downward movement, which reduces mirror bounce and provides a more stable viewfinder experience. This motor is also responsible for the decreased blackout time.

Note: I tested an XQD Nikon D5. The Nikon D5 is also available with dual-CF card slots. We have not tested the CF model in the lab, but it stands to reason that it will offer reduced buffer depth and clearing performance than the faster XQD cards.

In the field: Nikon D5 hits for the cycle at the ball park

I was able to extensively test the Nikon D5 at high-level (and high-speed) baseball games. When photographing a University of Maine double header, the D5's fast shutter and continuous shooting performance was really put to the test. The double header also proved that the Nikon D5's battery life is very good. It is CIPA-rated for 3,780 shots on a charge, which is simply excellent.

With pitchers throwing at about 90 miles per hour, a fast shutter speed is a must. Even 1/8000s isn't enough to completely freeze the ball in mid-flight, but it does a good job nonetheless. With a very bright sun and a difficult uniform combination of navy blue over white for the local UMaine team, the metering abilities and the dynamic range of the D5's sensor was put to the test.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 200, -0.7 EV.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

You might have seen rumblings on the web about the Nikon D5's dynamic range performance at lower ISOs. It's true, it's not as good as the D800-series or some other recent Nikon cameras, but it is still plenty good enough to rescue highlights and bring shadows up when the need arises.

Metering performance, on the other hand, was mostly good. I'll discuss metering more in-depth in my second field test, but for now I'll just say that both exposure and white balance metering performed well and the well-located exposure compensation button allowed quick adjustments. The best thing a camera's metering system can do is be consistent, and the Nikon D5 is very consistent, even though there are a few quirks to its matrix metering mode.

When shooting baseball, the 12fps continuous shooting performance is really critical. Capturing the ball hitting the bat or the pitcher at his release point is tough to do, but your odds are certainly better at 12fps. When you don't need the excellent optical viewfinder experience, you can increase your odds a bit by using the D5's 14fps mirror-up continuous shooting mode, which works really well. It's also quite a bit quieter, so this is a mode I like for wildlife shooting as well.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 8000.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

I also had the opportunity to photograph a Portland Sea Dogs minor league baseball game. The cloudy evening conditions and 6pm first pitch allowed me to put the D5's low-light performance to the test and it performed very well.

Even in conditions requiring high ISO speeds, the Nikon D5 handled very well and produced a lot of really nice images. The in-camera high ISO processing and noise reduction didn't slow the camera down at all and its high ISO performance was generally very good.

400mm (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 40000, -0.3 EV. While this image wouldn't look good printed at a very large size, this is still a very impressive image quality for having been shot at ISO 40,000. The colors are a little washed out, but the image still has good contrast and pretty decent sharpness when viewed at less than 100%.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

I did find that the automatic white balance metering struggled slightly with the stadium lighting and images can get a bit washed out at higher ISOs, but other than that, I was very impressed with its performance.

In both cases of shooting baseball, the strong performance of the EXPEED 5 image processing engine and value of the XQD card became apparent. Firing off a large burst of images at 12fps and being able to view them on the display immediately after you finish capturing the images is impressive.

In the field: Unpredictable wildlife is no problem for the Nikon D5

While not necessarily as demanding as sports photography, wildlife photography presents a different set of challenges. I don't have much control over where subjects are and they can often be much smaller in the frame, particularly birds.

500mm (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 360.
Click for full-size image.

A small subject can often present challenges for an autofocus system as it can quickly lose focus on the subject and then focus on the background, but this didn't happen very often with the Nikon D5. When it did, it was able to reacquire focus on the selected point quite quickly.

Photographing small birds, especially on a full-frame sensor, often requires the use of teleconverters on long lenses. This is where all 153 autofocus points being compatible with f/5.6 lenses comes in particularly handy, as my 400mm f/2.8G lens with a 2x teleconverter becomes an 800mm f/5.6 equivalent lens. Even with the 2x teleconverter on the 400mm lens, the D5 autofocused very well and quite quickly across the entire frame.

500mm (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 4500.
Click for full-size image.

Using a Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens with a 1.4x teleconverter makes it an f/8 lens, which can be too slow for autofocus to work on many DSLRs, but the D5's 15 central focus points for f/8 lenses worked really well. In fact, despite not being "officially" listed as able to autofocus with the rest of the autofocus points with an f/8 effective lens, the Nikon D5 was capable of focusing fairly quickly across the entire array of AF points at f/8.

Nikon D5 Field Test Part I Summary

The D5 impresses in demanding situations

What I like:

  • Very comfortable and customizable camera body
  • New function buttons are great additions
  • Relocated ISO button puts all exposure-related controls within reach of the right hand
  • Autofocus performance is great all-around
  • Continuous shooting performance is very impressive, particularly with an XQD card

What I dislike:

  • Portrait-orientation AF-On button is overly sensitive
  • Touchscreen functionality feels tacked on and isn't particularly useful
500mm (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 400.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

The Nikon D5 is a professional workhorse. It has been designed from top-to-bottom to provide reliable high-speed performance in all conditions. During my experience with the camera for this field test, it has thoroughly impressed me. The autofocus performance and continuous shooting performance were particular standouts when shooting sports and wildlife.

In my next field test, I will be further discussing shooting modes, the overall user experience, low-light performance, and video performance. I will also give a final wrap-up of my time with the camera. Stay tuned!

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