Nikon D5 Review: Field Test Part II

Excellent low light performance, robust video and a great user experience

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 06/02/16

400mm eq. (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/4, 1/400s, ISO 280.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.


In the first part of my field test for the Nikon D5, I discussed the camera body's design as well as autofocus and high-speed performance. In this second installment, I will be covering the new image sensor, overall user experience, low light performance and video before giving a final wrap-up of my experiences with the Nikon D5.

While the D5 is very impressive for fast-paced continuous shooting, it is also very good for slower-paced work and is excellent for low light photography. It is also the first flagship FX Nikon camera to include 4K UHD video recording.

20mm eq. (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S), f/11, 8s, ISO 100, -0.67 EV.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Nikon D5's 20.8-megapixel sensor delivers good results

The Nikon D5 comes equipped with a new 20.8-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor, which was developed in-house by Nikon and is designed for capturing images with better quality at higher ISOs. This engineering for higher ISOs comes at a slight cost to dynamic range at lower ISOs, though. With that said, it still does have a very respectable dynamic range of 12.3 EVs, according to DxO Mark's review. At the begining of the ISO range, the D5's dynamic range starts at a lower level than other full-frame cameras, but it also stays higher for longer as ISO is increased. At higher ISOs, from roughly ISO 1600 onward, the D5's dynamic range surpasses that of the earlier D4S and D3S.

With four more megapixels than its predecessor, the D4S, the Nikon D5 doesn't experience a massive leap in resolution, but it still captures sharp, detailed image files. If maximum resolution is needed, a camera like the 36MP D810 is perhaps more appropriate, but overall, D5's sensor offers impressive image quality.

24mm eq. (Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR AF-S), f/8, 1/50s, ISO 100.
Click for full-size image.

D5's strong metering contributes to an excellent user experience

With excellent ergonomics, the D5 certainly feels nice in the hands. It has the features and performance to follow that up with a great overall user experience as well.


The pixel count of the 3D Color Matrix Metering sensors in Nikon cameras has continued to increase over the years. For example, the Nikon D3S had a 1,005-pixel RGB sensor and the D4S upped it to 91,000 pixels. The Nikon D5 has a 180k-pixel RGB sensor along with Advanced Scene Recognition and face-detection options, including a customizable watch area.

This new metering system delivers very good metering performance. No camera is going to perfectly meter every situation or be able to read your mind, even top of the line DSLRs such as the D5, but it does come as close to perfect as any Nikon DSLR I've used.

70mm eq. (Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR AF-S), f/8, 1/80s, ISO 220, Auto 2 White Balance (keep warm lighting), +0.67 EV.
Click for full-size image.

Available metering modes are matrix metering, center-weighted area, and spot. Center-weighted metering is customizable in size with options ranging from 9mm to 20mm with 12mm being the default and the one that the camera uses when a non-CPU lens is attached. Spot metering is tied to the autofocus point and encompasses approximately 1.5% of the frame and has an additional "highlight-weighted" option which tells the camera to assign the greatest weight when determining the correct exposure to highlights in the image, which ideally will reduce the amount of detail lost in highlight areas.

In the relatively rare instances when the D5 struggles to meter a scene, the exposure compensation button is easily reached with the right index finger. If you find that a particular metering mode typically requires a level of compensation for your own shooting, you can fine-tune exposures for each metering mode in the camera's custom settings.

800mm eq. (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR + Nikon TC-20E III TC), f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 900.
Click for full-size image.

Along with the new metering sensor, the Nikon D5 also includes new white balance metering options. There are now multiple auto white balance options available: Auto 0 (keep white, reduce warm colors), Auto 1 (normal, same as the D4S) and Auto 2 (keep warm lighting colors). Overall, auto white balance works really well, although I did find that Auto 2 still neutralized warmer whites quite a bit.

Another neat feature that the D5 offers is spot white balance metering during Live View shooting. When in Live View, you set White Balance to "PRE" on the rear of the camera and select direct measurement (this shows up as "d - 1" on the smaller information display on the rear of the camera). You can then move the selector over your white balance target and then hold the shutter-release button down. You can save the results as white balance presets for up to six targets.

Standard assortment of modes, plus a not so quiet Quiet mode

Offering a pretty standard suite of exposure modes, the Nikon D5 will feel familiar to anyone who has shot with a DSLR. Your P, S, A, and M modes are all there on the mode dial. Besides that, there really is not much else, nothing too fancy here. The D5 does offer a quiet shutter release mode that allows for continuous shooting at up to 3 frames per second. It is definitely quieter, which isn't saying too much considering the D5's very loud shutter, but it is far from what I would consider quiet.

For quieter shooting, utilizing Live View is much better than either of the two shutter release modes. For the utmost in quiet shooting, the D5 does offer a special "Silent Live View Photography" mode, but the camera only records in low-resolution JPEGs (2784 x 1856, and the ISO is restricted to Auto ISO unless you're in Manual exposure mode. Here, you can shoot at either 15 or 30fps, and shutter speed can be set as slow as 1/30s in M mode. It's basically like a movie mode except you're only capturing stills.

Familiar menu system

Menus, in general, on the D5 are well-organized. Granted, I'm used to Nikon menus, but you mostly find settings where you would expect them, which is something I can't say for every camera menu I've experienced. For your most frequently used settings, you can place them in My Menu, which can then be accessed via a one of the many customizable function buttons if you so desire.

Nikon MyMenu screenshot with default items. On the right, you can see the menus from which you can add items to your MyMenu. You can add, remove and re-rank selected items.

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 and was very reliable for me. You select an initial focus point and then if your subject leaves this area, the camera maintains focus using additional focus points.

Summing up the very good user experience

The overall user experience is excellent. In both field tests, I've touched on various aspects of the D5's body and controls. With very few exceptions, this is a brilliantly-designed camera that is fun to use. You can use it for a long time too, as the D5's battery life is an incredible 3,780 shots in single-frame release mode and up to 8,160 shots in continuous-release mode.

Nikon D5 offers fantastic low light performance

The Nikon D5 brings with it something of a revolutionary ISO range. If you thought that the D4S' native range of ISO 100-25,600 was impressive, then the D5's native ISO range of 100-102,400 is staggering. But, the D5's expanded ISO range of ISO 50-3,280,000 might just blow you away. It is worth noting that Canon's latest 1D X Mark II camera, the D5's most obvious competitor, has a native range of 100-51,200 and can expand to 50-409,600.

So, the D5 can shoot images at over ISO three million, but what does that actually mean for real-world performance and image quality? Well, as you may expect, you won't be getting good images at ISO 3 million, as the noise is very extreme. But you will be able to capture high-quality, clean images at some very high ISO levels. JPEG images can look quite good straight from the camera, even at very high ISO settings. Consider the image below from a night baseball game that was captured at ISO 40,000.

400mm eq. (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR), f/2.8, 1/8000s, ISO 40000, -0.33 EV. Normal high ISO noise reduction applied in-camera.
Click for full-size image.

100% crop RAW file for the above image captured at ISO 40000. Default Adobe Camera RAW settings applied.
Click for full-size image.

Sure, there's a lot of visible noise when viewing the 100% crop image, but it's also a 100% crop of a RAW image shot at ISO 40,000. There's a lot of detail still visible in the image, and it looks good when viewed at smaller sizes. There is also still a good amount of contrast in the image as the black of the batting gloves and baseball bat aren't completely washed out. Colors are generally well-rendered, although the shadow areas are a bit rough overall.

Most importantly, the D5's really good high ISO performance allowed me to shoot at the shutter speeds I wanted to without worrying about the ISO speed. The less time I spend wondering about whether or not I will be able to capture good images, the more productive I can be in the field.

800mm eq. (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR + Nikon TC-20E III TC), f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 8000.
This image has been cropped. Click for full-size image.

Impressive high ISO performance lets me put a teleconverter on my longer lenses and not worry about the decrease in maximum effective aperture. The image above, shot at ISO 8,000, would be difficult to capture with many other cameras. The JPEG file has "normal" noise reduction applied to in-camera, and it still delivers impressive sharpness and an overall very clean image file.

Good high ISO images doesn't mean as much if the camera's low light autofocus struggles. Fortunately, the Nikon D5's autofocus is fantastic in low light. Every autofocus point on the Multi-CAM 20K autofocus sensor is rated to focus down to -3 EV, but the central point is rated down to -4 EV. No matter where your subject is in the frame, the D5 is very capable of achieving focus even in low light.

Overall, the Nikon D5 is one of the most impressive low light cameras I've used. Its sensor strikes an excellent balance between resolution and high ISO performance.

In the field: Night shooting is no problem for the Nikon D5

The Nikon D5 is an excellent night photography camera for a couple big reasons. Firstly, its high ISO performance is excellent, as I discussed in detail above. Secondly, it has a variety of night-friendly features.

While you can stack a multi-shot sequence of high ISO images of the night sky in software to reduce noise, it is often desirable to get good results using a single file because it is faster and better for shooting subjects like auroras or meteors. While I didn't have the opportunity to shoot either of those subjects with the D5, its handling when photographing the Milky Way was very impressive.

I often have to make the difficult decision of getting tack sharp stars or having an image with acceptable levels of noise. The D5 does a great job of providing me with the ability to achieve both goals. For example, the image below was shot at ISO 8,000 and made a very clean file that still allowed me to make adjustments during post-processing without ruining the file. ISO 8,000 also allowed me to capture the shot with a 15 second exposure, which ensured that the stars didn't move too much during the exposure.

14mm eq. (Nikon 14-24mm f2.8G IF-ED AF-S), f/2.8, 15s, ISO 8000.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Besides the excellent high ISO performance, the D5 also has some neat features that allow this camera to shine at night. Like the D4/D4S, the D5 has illuminated buttons, but, whereas the D4 models illuminated only the rear buttons, the D5's mode dial now illuminates too.

Live View also works very well at night, provided that you disable the live view exposure preview option. By pressing the "OK" button to the left of the display, you can toggle exposure preview on and off. Exposure preview is fine during the day, but not good at night because the exaggerated noise renders the live image practically useless. When not previewing exposure, you can easily dial in focus using a bright star or the moon (assuming you have a fast lens on your camera, which you should for night shooting).

14mm eq. (Nikon 14-24mm f2.8G IF-ED AF-S), f/2.8, 20s, ISO 6400.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Regarding the optical viewfinder for night shooting, it can be useful in certain situations. If your eyes are well-adjusted to the low ambient light and you're using a fast lens (f/1.4-2.8), then the optical viewfinder can be useful for framing. There are a lot of variables at play here. For focus, I recommend that you use Live View. Of course, once you use Live View then your night vision will need to readjust.

In the field: Bass Harbor Lighthouse at sunset challenges the D5

Bass Harbor Lighthouse is one of the most picturesque locations along the rugged Maine coast. At sunset, you can sometimes be treated to brilliant colors, but depending on the cloud cover you can also be subject to some very difficult lighting conditions because the sun sets almost behind the lighthouse from the most accessible shooting locations.

20mm eq. (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S), f/11, 4s, ISO 100, -0.33 EV.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Unfortunately, as the sun was setting the conditions were such that there was a very bright blotchy area of the sky to the left of the lighthouse. This provided me the opportunity to test out both the D5's in-camera HDR and also its exposure bracketing functions.

One slightly annoying thing is that you have to manually turn off RAW image capture before the HDR option becomes selectable. A better option would be to select HDR and then have the camera present a dialog saying something like, "To use this feature, you must disable RAW recording. Would you like to disable RAW recording now?" This may be a small issue, but it does slow you down in the field and this camera is designed to always be fast.

Non HDR image
HDR image

In-camera HDR can be set to single photo or series (when it is set to single photo, HDR automatically turns off after one image is captured). HDR in the Nikon D5 combines two images into one final file. You can select from Auto, 1 EV, 2 EV or 3 EV for exposure differential, and you can select from low, normal or high smoothing. Overall, the Nikon D5 did a good job handling what was a very difficult shooting situation. If you'd like to do your own HDR images, the D5 does bracketing very well. You can bracket up to nine shots provided that exposure increments are less than 2 EV. For exposure increments of 2 EV or more, you can bracket up to five shots.

HDR created using Nik's HDR Efex Pro 2. This was created from five frames captured using the D5's exposure bracketing feature.

4K video makes its way to the Nikon D5 with a couple of caveats

Nikon D5 4K UHD Video Sample #1, 3840 x 2160, 30p
Download Original (340.7 MB .MOV File)

The Nikon D5 is Nikon's first full-frame DSLR to include 4K UHD video recording capabilities, but it does come with some caveats. 4K UHD (3840 x 2160) video can be recorded at up to 30 frames per second and uncompressed video is available via HDMI output. You can also capture still images during video recording, including full 20MP JPEGs with FX-format 1080p video mode or 8MP 4K stills when using 4K UHD mode. There are a few gotcha with this: it's JPEG-only at Fine Quality level, and video recording will be interrupted -- you'll have to manually restart video capture after recording a still image.

Thanks to the new sensor, the Nikon D5 offers high quality video without line-skipping or downsampling for most video modes. When recording 4K UHD video, the 3840 x 2160 resolution comes from the central 3840 x 2160 portion of the sensor with full pixel readout, so there's a noticeable crop factor when recording in 4K, which is something of a disappointment if, for example, you're looking to get the most out your wide angle lenses. The angle of view is approximately 1.5x the focal length, similar to a DX-format (APS-C) crop factor. If you want to "zoom in" more on your subject, you can record in the 1920 x 1080 Crop mode and achieve an approximately 3x crop factor -- again using full pixel readout from a central 1920 x 1080 portion of the sensor.

To utilize the full-width FX sensor, you need to record in FX-format mode, which only crops part of the top and bottom of the frame to achieve 16:9 aspect ratio. In this mode, the video is therefore resampled down to the 1080p or 720p resolution. The D5 also offers a DX-format movie mode for both Full HD and HD resolutions (1.5x crop), that's also downsampled from an APS-C-sized area of the sensor. For those hoping to record 4K video using the full width of the sensor, I'm afraid that the D5 won't satisfy your desires in that regard.

Nikon D5 1080p FX Video Sample (1x crop), 1920 x 1080, 60p
Download Original (15.1 MB .MOV File)
Nikon D5 4K UHD Video Sample (1.5x crop), 3840 x 2160, 30p
Download Original (44 MB .MOV File)
Nikon D5 1080p Crop Video Sample (3x crop), 1920 x 1080, 60p
Download Original (111.4 MB .MOV File)

With that said, this is a very capable DSLR for recording video. The D5 offers Flat Picture Control, which records as much image information as possible and is ideal for post-production work. There are a number of other useful features available as well, including exposure compensation, power aperture control,and auto ISO when recording using a fixed shutter speed and aperture. Sound controls include 20 sensitivity increments and a frequency response function. There is also a new dedicated movie shooting menu in the camera's menu system, placing all of the important movie recording settings in their own dedicated tab.

Nikon D5 4K UHD Video ISO 102400 Sample, 3840 x 2160, 30p
Download Original (178.1 MB .MOV File)

There is one more caveat for the D5 and 4K video, one that I hope will be addressed in the future via firmware update, but for now the D5's continuous 4K video recording is limited to a mere 3 minutes. In contrast, the D500 can record 4K video continuously up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds. I'm not sure why this disparity exists, but it is something to keep in mind if your workflow is emphasizing video. For most 1080p and 720p video options, continuous recording is increased to the more common 29:59 limit, however 1080/60p (and 50p for PAL) is limited to 10 minutes for High quality and 20 minutes for Normal quality. (Update: Firmware v1.10 has since increased the D5's video recording limit in all modes to 29m:59s by recording across multiple 4GB files which can be concatenated using software, and has also added Electronic VR for movies.)

Nikon D5 4K UHD Video Autofocus Sample, 3840 x 2160, 24p
Download Original (299.4 MB .MOV File)

Like previous Nikon DSLRs, the D5 lacks on-sensor phase-detect autofocus, so Live View focusing displays a characteristic wobble as it adjusts focus. However, despite being a contrast-detect AF system, Live View AF on the Nikon D5 is really fast; faster than any Nikon DSLR that I've used. Nikon claims that it is up to 50% faster than previous AF systems. Nevertheless, in the field, using Live View for both stills and video is a much faster than on earlier Nikon DSLRs. For video, you will notice some characteristic CDAF "wobble," but it's generally quite brief as the camera adjusts focus quickly. Also, as you can hear in the sample video above, autofocus noises can be audible so care should be taken in sound-sensitive environments either by using an external microphone or a quieter-focusing lens.

I'm not a seasoned video shooter, but I am a seasoned Nikon shooter, and I found the Nikon D5 to offer better video performance than previous Nikon DSLRs I've used. For the first time, I can say that the D5 actually feels like a multimedia camera rather than a stills camera with video recording tacked on. That 4K recording limit, however, is certainly a potential issue for some shooters.

Nikon D5 Field Test Part II Summary

The D5 is an impressive all-around camera

While the Nikon D5 is clearly designed for fast-paced shooting, it handled very well when I slowed down and took it out in the field for landscapes and night images.

The sensor is impressive at higher ISOs but does have a slight disadvantage at lower ISOs when considering both resolution and dynamic range. When thinking about its target audience though, this is an understandable trade off. There are numerous useful features in the D5, such as the touchscreen and the illuminated buttons, that make it very good for landscape and night photography. It would be nice if the screen tilted, but given the strenuous conditions that a D5 might be subjected to, I understand the decision to stick with a non-tilting display for sheer durability.

400mm eq. (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR ), f/8, 1/250s, ISO 100, on camera SB-5000 used.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Wrapping it all up: The Nikon D5 is a true flagship camera

What I like:

  • Consistent and impressive metering performance
  • 4K UHD video
  • Illuminated controls
  • Fantastic battery life
  • Very comfortable and configurable camera body
  • Relocated ISO button places all exposure controls in the same area
  • Fantastic autofocus performance
  • Excellent continuous shooting speeds and performance

What I dislike:

  • Loud shutter
  • Touchscreen serves very little purpose outside of Live View
  • 4K video recording limit of 3 minutes might be an issue for some

At $6500 USD, the Nikon D5 is without a doubt an expensive camera. With this high cost Nikon has delivered excellent build quality, durability and top-end features and performance. However, can you justify the cost? That's ultimately for you to decide, but if you do need this camera, you'll know it and there will likely be a variety of excellent reasons why you choose to purchase a D5.

400mm eq. (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR ), f/2.8, 1/400s, ISO 220, +0.67 EV.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

If you decide to go the route of the D5, then you'll get an excellent camera that will take whatever you throw at it and ask, "Is that all you've got?" Fast subjects, demanding conditions, these are what the D5 is made for. It is the ultimate Nikon DSLR, as it well should be considering its lineage and steep price tag. With that said, it is not a jack-of-all-trades. It is not the perfect landscape or portrait camera nor is it a compact traveler. The Nikon D5 is an immensely fast camera with superb autofocus, image processing and build quality that is designed to stand the test of time.

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