Nikon D5 Image Quality


Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Vibrant colors with average hue accuracy.

ISO Sensitivity
In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center. Mouse over the links above to compare ISOs, and click to load a larger version.

Saturation. The Nikon D5 pumps dark blues a lot, dark green, dark orange, purple and reds moderately, and quite a few other colors slightly. Overall, mean saturation levels are a little higher than average at 16.8% oversaturated at ISO 100 versus a more typical 10%, however colors are quite pleasing in real-world images. The D5's default mean saturation is fairly consistent at low to moderately high ISOs, but starts to fall off at ISO 51,200, to a minimum of 95.7% at ISO 1,638,400. Images are quite discolored at extended ISOs above 409,600, so take those numbers with a grain of salt. (Note that we had to use an ND filter above ISO 204,800, which may impact color accuracy results.) Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.

Skin tones. The Nikon D5's rendering of Caucasian skin tones were a bit too saturated and pinkish with Manual white balance in our "sunlit" outdoor lighting. However when using Auto white balance, skin tones were slightly on the pale side, and in Daylight white balance, they were definitely too yellow, so we preferred Manual white balance overall. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.

Hue. The Nikon D5 produces a few color shifts relative to ideal colors. Reds are shifted slightly toward orange, and cyan toward blue, but there are only slight shifts in yellow, orange, green and purple. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) Mean "delta-C" color error at base ISO was 5.24 after correction for saturation, which is about average, and remains about average up to ISO 204,800, increasing rapidly from there. Hue is "what color" the color is.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images


Exposure and White Balance

Indoors, incandescent lighting
Warm results with Auto and Incandescent white balance, though excellent color balance with Manual. Better than average exposure accuracy.

Auto White Balance
0 EV
Incandescent White Balance
0 EV
Manual White Balance
0 EV

Indoors, in common incandescent lighting, color balance is a little warm and reddish with the default Auto white balance setting, however performance here is noticeably better than prior Nikons. The D5 has Auto WB options to reduce warm colors ("Keep white") which is the default tested here, "Normal", or "Keep warm lighting colors", however we did not test the non-default options. The Incandescent setting is very warm with a strong yellow tint. (Some users may prefer this look, though, as being more representative of the original lighting.) The Manual white balance setting produced accurate results. The Nikon D5 didn't require any exposure compensation while most cameras need about +0.3 EV for this scene, so the D5 performed better than average here. Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.

Outdoors, daylight
Vibrant color and good exposure outdoors, but high default contrast. Options like Active D-Lighting and contrast adjustment are a help when faced with tough conditions like these.

Manual White Balance
+0.7 EV
Auto White Balance,
0 EV

We found skin tones a touch pale in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with Auto white balance, so we preferred Manual WB, though pink skin tones are little too exaggerated. Default contrast is on the high side, so quite a few highlights were clipped in the mannequin's shirt, pendant and some of the flowers while darker shadows are quite deep, though shadow noise is very low. Exposure accuracy was about average for this shot, requiring +0.7 EV exposure compensation to keep the face bright. The Far-field image on the right is just slightly hot at default exposure with a few clipped highlights in very bright white areas and in specular highlights. Again, detail in the shadows is very good, and deep shadow noise is remarkably low. Color here with Auto white balance is very pleasing, if a little more pumped than we're used to seeing from Nikon.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

~2,500 to ~2,600 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, about the same from converted RAW files.

Strong detail to
~2,600 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,500 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,600 lines horizontal
ACR processed RAW
Strong detail to
~2,500 lines vertical
ACR processed RAW

Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns up to about 2,600 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and to about 2,500 lines per picture height in the vertical direction in JPEGs. (Some might argue for higher, but lines begin to merge at those resolutions.) Complete extinction of the pattern didn't occur until around 3,400 lines with signs of moiré/false color suppression. We weren't able to extract any more resolution with RAW files processed through Adobe Camera Raw, though the ACR conversion contained more color moiré than the in-camera JPEG images, so the camera's processing does a pretty good job suppressing it. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.

See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images

Sharpness & Detail
Very crisp detail for the resolution, though default sharpening is a bit high and generates noticeable sharpening halos. Minimal noise suppression artifacts at base ISO.

Very good definition of
high-contrast elements,
bur with some evidence of
edge enhancement.
Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast,
though detail remains strong in
the darker parts of the model's hair here.

Sharpness. The Nikon D5 produced very sharp, detailed images for a 21-megapixel sensor at default settings, though edge enhancement artifacts are visible around high-contrast edges, such as the sharpening halos around the lines and lettering in the crop above left. Default sharpening is probably optimized for crisp-looking prints which can look overdone on screen at 100%, and you can always turn it down if you prefer. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing color and tonal differences right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.

Detail. The crop above right shows only minimal detail loss due to noise suppression, as the darker areas of the mannequin's hair show a lot of detail. Individual strands are still distinguishable even in the lighter shadows, though some begin to merge as shadows deepen, and in places where the tone and color of adjacent strands is very close. The hair is also virtually free from chroma noise, which is often not the case. An excellent performance here. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.

RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Nikon D5 does a great job at capturing lots of fine, crisp detail in its JPEGs, but more detail can often be obtained from carefully processing RAW files, while at the same time reducing sharpening artifacts. Let's have a look at base ISO:

Base ISO (100)
Camera JPEG, defaults
RAW via Adobe Camera Raw

In the table above, we compare an in-camera JPEG taken at base ISO using default noise reduction and sharpening (on the left) to the matching RAW file converted with Adobe Camera Raw 9.1 via DNG Converter 9.5 using default noise reduction with some strong but tight unsharp mask sharpening applied in Photoshop (300%, radius of 0.3 pixels, and a threshold of 0).

As is frequently the case, the demosaicing in Adobe Camera Raw and sharpening in Photoshop deliver finer detail than the camera, with fewer sharpening artifacts. Looking very closely at the images, ACR extracts a bit more detail that isn't present in the JPEGs from the camera itself, even in the red-leaf swatch Nikons do very well with. The ACR conversion manages to resolve some of the thread patterns in the fabrics while the camera treats them as noise and blurs them away. While it don't look quite as finely detailed, Nikon's rendering is smoother-looking with higher contrast and more vibrant colors, and if you look very closely, there's a touch less visible noise, though noise is by no means an issue with the D5. Still, we'd personally go the Adobe (or other high-quality third-party RAW converter) route here if we were concerned about making the best images possible from the D5's sensor. That said, the D5's in-camera JPEGs are excellent and you can always try adjusting image processing settings to your tastes.

ISO & Noise Performance
Very good detail versus noise up to ISO 12,800!

Noise Reduction = Default
ISO 50 ISO 100 ISO 200
ISO 400 ISO 800 ISO 1600
ISO 3200 ISO 6400 ISO 12,800
ISO 25,600 ISO 51,200 ISO 102,400
ISO 204,800 ISO 409,600 ISO 819,200
ISO 1,638,400 ISO 3,276,800

Images are clean and very detailed up to ISO 1600, with just a touch of luminance noise becoming more visible in the shadows as ISO increases. ISO 3200 shows more noticeable luminance noise, but detail is excellent, and chroma noise is very low. ISO 6400 still contains very good detail and relatively low noise, but ISO 12,800 is a bit grainy with some blotchy chroma noise, however fine detail is still pretty good. Image quality drops off rapidly from ISO 25,600 on, with increasing noise "grain", blurring from noise reduction and chroma blotches, and ISOs above 204,800 are so noisy and discolored we question why Nikon included them other than for pure specmanship.

All in all, excellent high ISO performance with noise reduction processing that is improved over its 16-megapixel predecessor particularly at very high ISOs, however noise performance in RAW files appears to be similar and perhaps even not quite as good as the D4S when viewed at 100%.

Of course, the impact of noise and detail loss are highly dependent on the size the photos are printed at, and pixel-peeping on-screen has surprisingly little relationship to how the images look when printed: See the Print Quality section below for recommended maximum print sizes at each ISO.

A note about focus for this shot: We used to shoot this image at f/4, however depth of field became so shallow with larger, high-resolution sensors that it was difficult to keep important areas of this shot in focus, so we have since started shooting at f/8, the best compromise between depth of field and sharpness.

Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
Very good shadow detail, though default contrast is high blowing some highlights. Excellent low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.

+0.3 EV +0.7 EV +1.0 EV

Somewhat surprisingly, the Nikon D5 struggled a little with the deliberately harsh lighting in the above test, because of its high default contrast. We felt +0.7 EV exposure compensation was required to keep the mannequin's face bright, but that led to quite a few blown highlights in her shirt and flowers. Pros would likely prefer +0.3 EV or even 0 EV and brighten the image in post (or just shoot RAW), thereby holding on to highlight detail that the +0.7 EV exposure lost. Since shadows and midtones are quite clean, boosting shadows isn't really a problem in terms of noise. Note that these shots were captured with the Nikon D5's Active D-Lighting control set to its default of "Off." See below for how Active D-Lighting and contrast settings help with hot highlights and deep shadows.

Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)

Active D-Lighting
Active D-Lighting attempts to preserve detail in both highlights and shadows in high-contrast situations, while maintaining moderate levels of contrast. The series of shots below show the effect of the various Active D-Lighting settings (Off (default), Low, Normal, High, Extra High 1, Extra High 2 and Auto) available on the Nikon D5 on our high-contrast "Sunlit" Portrait scene.

Note that Active D-Lighting is different from the Retouch menu's D-Lighting, as it is performed during image capture instead of after. (It does affect only JPEG images, though, Nikon very properly doesn't apply tonal adjustments like this to RAW file data. NEF files are however tagged so that Nikon software can automatically apply the effect when converted.)

"Sunlit" Portrait Active D-Lighting
ADL Settings:






Extra High 1

Extra High 2

Mouse over the links to see how the various levels of Active D-Lighting affects our "Sunlit" Portrait shot at default exposure, and click on any link to get to the full-res image. (Active D-Lighting's effect can be a little subtle in shots like those above, so we use a mouse-over with matching histograms to better show how each setting compares.)

As you can see from the thumbnail images and histograms above, higher Active D-Lighting settings did a very good job at preserving highlights while bringing up shadows and deeper midtones, without making the image look too flat. Normally, there is a noise penalty to be paid for boosting shadows, but noise levels in the shadows are very low with this camera, so increased shadow noise is not a concern here at base ISO. It's also interesting to note that the default ADL setting for the D5 is Off, while in more consumer-oriented models, the default is Auto.

Far-field Active D-Lighting (0 EV)

Here are the results with our Far-field shot. As you can see, Active D-Lighting brought up shadow detail while holding on to highlights. The Auto setting did a pretty good job here.

HDR Mode
Like other recent Nikon DSLRs, the D5 offers an in-camera high-dynamic-range imaging function. When enabled, the D5 captures two images with one push of the shutter button -- one underexposed and one overexposed -- and combines them in-camera to produce a high-dynamic-range JPEG. (RAW format is not supported.) There are three exposure differentials available: 1, 2 and 3 EV, as well as an Auto option, and there are three Smoothing options: Low, Normal and High. You can also elect to do a series of HDR shots without having to re-enable the mode each time, or select a Single Photo option.

Far-field HDR mode

Mouse over the links to see how the Auto, 1 EV, 2 EV and 3 EV levels of HDR with default Smoothing affects our Far-field shot at default exposure. Click on a link to get to the full-res image.

Overall, we think Nikon D5's in-camera HDR is one of the better implementations we've seen, though it would be nice if more than two images were captured. Obviously moving subjects should be avoided, as you can see from the ghosting around the flags and leaves in some of HDR shots above.

Dynamic Range Analysis (RAW mode)
While we once performed our own dynamic range measurements based on in-camera JPEGs as well as converted RAW images (when the camera was supported by Adobe Camera Raw), we've switched to using DxO Labs' results from their DxOMark website. As technology advanced, the dynamic range of modern high-end cameras in some cases exceeded the range of the Stouffer T4110 density scale that we used for our own measurements. DxO's approach based on RAW data before demosaicing is also more revealing, because it measures the fundamental dynamic range of the sensor, irrespective of whatever processing is applied to JPEGs, or to RAW data by off-the-shelf conversion software.

In the following, we use DxO's "Print" dynamic range results, which are scaled based on camera resolution. As the name suggests, this scaling corresponds to the situation in which you print at a given size, regardless of how many megapixels the camera might have. (In other words, if you've decided to make a 13x19 inch print, that's the size you're printing, whether the camera's resolution is 16 or 300 megapixels.) For the technically-minded, you can find a discussion of the reasoning behind this here on the DxOMark website. Also note that DxO Labs uses a signal-to-noise (SNR) threshold of 1 when defining the lower boundary of acceptable luminance noise in their dynamic range measurements, which corresponds to the "Low Quality" threshold of the Imatest software we used to use for this measurement.

Here, we compare the Nikon D5's dynamic range (in red) to that of its predecessor, the D4S (yellow), and also to its closest competitor, the Canon 1DX Mark II (orange).

As you can see from the above graph (click for a larger image), the D5's dynamic range is significantly lower than the D4S at lowest ISO (12.3 vs 13.2 EV), despite having slightly higher resolution which helps with normalized dynamic range. However the D5 catches up at around the ISO 1600 mark, and is slightly improved or similar at higher ISOs.

The Nikon D5's dynamic range is however also significantly lower than Canon's 1DX II at low ISOs to moderate ISOs, with almost a 1-1/4 EV disadvantage at base ISO (12.3 vs 13.5 EV). The Nikon catches up to the Canon by ISO 3200, though, and offers up to a little more than 1/2 EV advantage at high ISOs, but they closely match at very high ISOs.

Still, the D5's dynamic range is not bad, but it's not up to the class-leading levels we've come to expect from recent Nikon DSLRs.

Click here to visit the DxOMark page for the Nikon D5 for more of their test results and additional comparisons.

  1 fc
11 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16 fc

2 s

30 s

30 s

1/15 s

1 s

1 s

1/500 s

1/30 s

1/30 s

Low Light. The Nikon D5 performed extremely well here, able to capture usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level (about 1/16 as bright as average city street lighting at night) even at base ISO. Noise is of course very low at ISO 100, and still quite low at ISO 3200, but as expected, noise is a little high at maximum native ISO of 102,400. (The maximum extended ISO of 3,276,800 was so noisy it was unusable so we've switched to shooting up to maximum native ISO for our low-light shots.)

Color balance with Auto white balance is fairly neutral, just a touch cool and without the usual magenta shift at the lowest light level we see often from Nikons, however a few shots have a slight cyan tint to them.

We didn't notice any issues with hot or overly bright pixels except when long exposure noise reduction is disabled (right-most column) where they are expected. Horizontal banding (fixed pattern noise) is visible at ISO 102,400 particularly when noise reduction is minimized, but we didn't detect any issues with heat blooming.

LL AF: The camera's phase-detection autofocus system was able to focus on our low-contrast AF target down to well below the 1/16 foot-candle light level (0.31 Lux or -3.0 EV) unassisted with an f/2.8 lens, which is excellent. (Our low-contrast AF target is more difficult to focus on than how manufacturers rate their cameras, and when using a high-contrast AF target, the D5 was able to focus lower than we could accurately measure.) The Nikon D5 doesn't have a built-in AF illuminator, but can utilize the illuminator found on most compatible flash units. In Live View mode, the D5's contrast-detect autofocus was able to focus even lower light levels, down to about 0.2 Lux or -3.6 EV with our low-contrast AF target, and again, down to lower than we could measure with our high-contrast target. Outstanding.

How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.

NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Nikon D5 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
High-quality prints up to 30 x 40 inches from ISO 50-800; Nice 8 x 10 inch prints all the way up to ISO 51,200; and a 5 x 7 inch print just squeaks by at ISO 102,400.

ISO 50/100/200/400/800 images are all amazingly detailed and show little to no noise, even at ISO 800. Despite the 20MP full-frame sensor, the D5 can make prints up to 30 x 40 inches at these ISO levels. That's pushing the resolving power of the sensor at this size, with some minor pixelation upon close inspection, but given the full dimensions and the typical viewing distance for a print of this size, a 30 x 40 inch print looks very good.

ISO 1600 prints still display amazingly low levels of noise and lots of fine detail. At this ISO, there is a bit of visible noise now, which limits prints to a very respectable 24 x 36 inches. Noise is, however, minimal enough that perhaps with careful post-processing a 30 x 40 inch print could be doable.

ISO 3200 images top-out with impressive 20 x 30 inch prints. Noise is understandably a bit stronger now, but at this size it's not much of an issue. Fine detail is great, and colors are still vibrant and pleasing.

ISO 6400 prints look great up to 16 x 20 inches. Stronger noise and a decrease in some fine detail prevent us from calling any larger sizes acceptable. That being said, you might be able to get away with a 20 x 30 inch print for less critical applications.

ISO 12,800 images have more visible noise, but there's still enough detail to make pleasing 13 x 19 inch prints.

ISO 25,600 prints display rather strong noise now, with noise reduction processing also taking its toll on fine detail. But, we can just squeak by with an acceptable 11 x 14 inch print at this ISO.

ISO 51,200 images display a remarkably low level of noise for such a high ISO. Here, the D5 can print an excellent 5 x 7 inch print, but noise is minimal enough that we think an 8 x 10 is usable here as well. Simply impressive!

ISO 102,400 prints just get by at up to 5 x 7 inches. Noise is quite strong now and has a noticeable effect on detail if you attempt to print larger.

ISO 204,800/409,600/819,200/1,638,400/3,276,800 images are all simply too noisy and lacking in detail for any sort of usable print. Particularly on the three highest expanded ISOs, noise is so strong that prints are completely unusable, even for less critical shots.

With a new 20MP full-frame sensor, the flagship Nikon D5 does an outstanding job with prints. Even up to ISO 800, the camera manages clean, crisp prints up to a whopping 30 x 40 inches. You're pushing the resolving power of the sensor, that's for sure, but detail is sharp and pixelation isn't much of an issue, especially at typical viewing distances for prints of this size. Going way up on the ISO scale, the camera still manages to impress us with rather large prints, such as a 16 x 20 at ISO 6400 and even an 11 x 14 at ISO 25,600. The D5 is also our new 8 x 10 champion, offering a usable print up to ISO 51,200. To date, no other camera has offered that kind of performance. The last useable ISO for prints is 102,400, which makes a decent 5 x 7. Cranking the ISO even higher results in images with too much noise and not enough detail for an acceptable print to our eyes.


The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D5 Photo Gallery .

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon D5 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

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