Nikon D500 Conclusion

900mm eq (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens with Nikon TC-14E III), f/8.0, 1/800s, ISO 560
This image has been cropped. Click for full-size image.

In 2009, Nikon released the D300S, and since then, they had not released a new professional-quality APS-C DSLR until the D500 was released this spring. The Nikon D500 shares many features with the simultaneously-announced D5 flagship DSLR, and in fact, save for the smaller body and sensor, there are not as many differences between the D500 and D5 as you might expect. They both use the same new 153-point AF system, 180k-pixel metering sensor, fast EXPEED 5 image processor and offer 4K UHD video recording.

The Nikon D500's rugged body is pro-oriented and comfortable to use

The Nikon D500 is quite large for an APS-C sensor DSLR. Compared to the D7200, the D500 is both heavier (by about three ounces) and larger in every dimension. Even compared to the full-frame D750, the D500 is heavier and larger, although the margins are much smaller. Despite being quite large, it's comfortable to hold due to its narrow, deep front grip.

Like the D5, the D500 is one of Nikon's first cameras to include the ISO button on the right side of the camera, putting all of the exposure controls within the reach of your shutter finger. Controls are good overall, and we particularly liked the D500's inclusion of a sub-selector joystick. All of these well-placed buttons light up too, allowing photographers working in the dark to easily find the right button. On the back of the camera is a 3.2-inch articulating touchscreen LCD with 2,359,000 dots. The touchscreen functionality works well, particularly during Live View and video recording, and the display's articulation is very good and feels rather durable.

If Live View shooting isn't up your alley, don't worry, the viewfinder is excellent, with its nearly 100% frame coverage and 0.67x magnification (35mm equivalent). The D500's mirror mechanism has been improved to reduce viewfinder blackout time, which is great for tracking fast-moving subjects. Not everything is an addition or improvement, however, as the D500 is the company's first APS-C camera to eschew a built-in flash.

Overall, the camera handles very well. We were impressed with the robust build quality, professional-oriented controls and the small details (such as the new location of the ISO button and illuminated controls) that separate a camera like the D500 from lesser cameras.

New 20.9-megapixel DX sensor helps D500 reach new heights

Excellent image quality

While many of Nikon's current DX cameras come with 24-megapixel sensors, the D500 bucks the trend and comes equipped with a 20.9-megapixel CMOS sensor. When comparing the D500 to its predecessor, the D300S, the image quality difference is substantial. Of course, the D300S came out in 2009 and offered up 12 megapixels, so it's not exactly a fair comparison. When compared to the D7200, the D7200 offers a bit more detail due to its higher-resolution sensor, but the D500 captures images with less noise. Thanks to its lack of an optical low pass filter (OLPF), the D500 resolves slightly more detail than its Canon competitor, the 20-megapixel 7D Mark II.

750mm eq. (Nikon 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 280
Click for full-size image.

Nikon D500's high ISO performance is very good for an APS-C sensor

At high ISOs, Nikon's choice to go with 20.9 megapixels rather than 24 like their other DX offerings shows its value. At ISO 1600, the D500 provides cleaner images than the D7200, which itself is a very impressive APS-C camera. Even compared to the full frame D750, the D500 doesn't produce much more noise at ISO 1600.

1050mm eq. (Nikon 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens with Nikon TC-14E III), f/8, 1/640s, ISO 10000
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

For critical printing applications, the D500 can produce 30 x 40 prints at up to ISO 400. Less critical uses could get away with a print that size at ISO 800. At ISO 1600, a great print tops out at 16 x 20. You could almost get away with a print this size at ISO 3200, but you're better off opting instead for a 13 x 19 print. At ISO 6400, an 11 x 14 is about the best you can do, but this is still impressive for an APS-C camera. Feel like pushing the D500 to its native ISO limit of 51,200? Go for it if you must, but stick with a 4 x 6 print and even then, it isn't going to pass our test. Don't be influenced by the maximum ISO 1,638,400 setting you see mentioned in marketing materials, however, as all of the extended ISO settings are basically useless.

As of right now, the D500 is one of your best bets for an APS-C camera that offers excellent high ISO performance.

Dynamic range: The D500 is not as good at low ISOs as D7200, but it's still very good

It isn't just the noise levels though that make this DX camera impressive in low light, it's the high ISO dynamic range. As was the case with the D5, Nikon has opted for high ISO dynamic range at the cost of low ISO dynamic range. Granted, the trade off is much smaller in the case of the D500 with DxOMark giving the D500's sensor a landscape dynamic range score of 14 EVs compared to the 14.6 EVs that the D7200 received. Color depth and low-light ISO scores are actually slightly lower than the D7200's as well. Past ISO 400, however, dynamic range results from the D500 surpass those of the D7200, and the gap gets particularly large (over 1 EV) past ISO 12,800. The D500 also offers a rather large dynamic range performance advantage over the Canon 7D Mark II across the entire ISO range.

615mm eq. (Nikon 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 180
Click for full-size image.

Nikon D500's user experience is strong across the board

Thanks to its impressive touchscreen display, the D500 provides one of the better user experiences of any Nikon DSLR we've tested. While a dedicated touch-friendly quick menu would be nice, the camera is still designed very well and proved to be user-friendly in real-world shooting situations. It has no major shortcomings in use, and its small touches like the relocated ISO button and illuminated buttons make it a very satisfying camera to use.

New metering sensor is dependable

Both the D500 and D5 include the same all-new 180k-pixel RGB metering sensor. The results it delivers are mostly good, although automatic white balance can sometimes be a bit warm. Exposure metering performance was very good overall, but the camera's high default contrast may be a bit excessive in some cases. The 3D Color Matrix II metering sensor is definitely one of Nikon's best. It's also worth noting that spot metering is tied to the AF point, and both AF and AE can be locked by pressing the sub-selector joystick.

120mm eq. (Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR DX AF-S lens), f/4, 1/4000s, ISO 320
This image has been cropped. Click for full-size image.

D500's 153-point AF system is Nikon's best so far

Sporting the same AF system as in the D5, the Nikon D500 has excellent autofocus performance. Capable of focusing down to -4 EV with the central AF point, the D500's low-light autofocus performance was quite impressive. While the single shot AF is great, where the D500 really shines is with its continuous autofocus performance. We found that the improved dynamic autofocus modes worked well, particularly when tracking a small part of the frame, such as a subject's eyes. Group autofocus works well for larger subjects and 3D autofocus is mostly good, although bright areas in the frame can throw it off.

With its own dedicated AF engine, autofocus speeds are very impressive overall. In addition to being fast and accurate, the 153 AF points cover a lot of the frame, extending almost to the sides. Of the 153 points, 55 are user selectable with the rest located between selectable points.

390mm eq. (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 800, +0.67 EV
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

For photographers who regularly use teleconverters -- which is sure to be a large portion of wildlife photographers who may be interested in the D500 -- the D500's AF system is prepared for that. All of the points are compatible with maximum f/5.6 aperture lenses (such as a 300mm f/2.8 with a 2x teleconverter, for example). 37 of them are compatible with lenses slower than f/5.6 but faster than f/8. Finally, 15 of them are compatible with effective f/8 lenses, such as a Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens with a 1.4x teleconverter.

In the instance where one of your lenses isn't quite precise with its autofocus, you can utilize the D500's new Automatic AF Fine-Tune feature to quickly dial in your lenses' AF. You can read more about that feature here.

Overall, between the high number of AF points, expansive frame coverage and very dependable continuous autofocus performance, this is the best DX camera Nikon has made for shooting in low light or shooting action.

Nikon D500's new EXPEED 5 processor is very fast

A good sensor and excellent autofocus performance means that the D500 is poised to be a great action camera. However, in order to live up to its potential, it needs to have a sensor up to the task of handling fast continuous shooting speeds and a large buffer. Fortunately, the D500 performs very well with its new EXPEED 5 image processor.

With continuous shooting speeds of up to 10 frames per second and a buffer of up to 200 frames, the D500 is an excellent performer for its class and isn't too far off the speedy performance of its big brother, the D5. The D500 can take many shots very quickly, capturing all of the action -- all while having reduced blackout time due to its improved shutter mechanism. When shooting lossless compressed 14-bit RAW files, the camera is rated to shoot up to 200 frames. When shooting uncompressed 14-bit RAW files, the buffer depths drop down to 52 frames, but the buffer still clears in an impressive four seconds. When shooting uncompressed RAW files and JPEG files, we were able to capture 23 frames with a buffer clearance time of five seconds.

300mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S lens), f/16, 1/60s, ISO 80, -0.33 EV
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Shutter response is an impressive 0.170 second when using full AF with the center-most single AF point and 0.049 second when manually focused. This is a dramatic improvement on both counts when compared to the D300S. In addition, battery life performance is very good, rated for 1,240 shots when using the optical viewfinder.

The Nikon D500 is a much better multimedia camera

The D500 is the first Nikon DX DSLR to include 4K UHD (3840 x 2160) resolution video. It mostly works well, although there are a few issues. We were unimpressed by the D500's inability to shoot 4K UHD video with the entire DX frame, and instead capturing 4K footage with an additional 1.5x crop factor. Full HD and HD video, on the other hand, utilize the entire width of the sensor. Likewise, the camera's interesting -- and decent -- electronic vibration reduction is only for 1080p or lower resolution video.

With that said, 4K UHD video (available with frames rates up to 30fps) is quite impressive. Even at ISO 3200, we found the video quality to hold up. You can record all the way to ISO 1,640,000, but beyond ISO 12,800 there really isn't much point as the quality falls off dramatically. Continuous autofocus performance when recording video is good, although it does display some jitter as it works to keep a subject in focus. The wobbling focus of the contrast-detect Live View AF system can be very distracting. We found that utilizing the touchscreen display to set and move the AF point worked well.

Overall, the D500 offers more video performance and features than most Nikon DSLRs and helps position the D500 as a multimedia camera. Further, the D500 has nice auto ISO functionality, a dedicated movie shooting menu and the ability to plug in a mic and headphones, so it should satisfy those who like to shoot video more than just occasionally. With that said, we still think that there are better options for those who are primarily videographers, but this is one of the best DSLRs for video work that Nikon has offered thus far.

Is the Nikon D500 their best APS-C DSLR ever?

24mm eq. (Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR DX AF-S lens), f/14, 1s, ISO 100, -0.33 EV
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

If you're looking for a compact DSLR, the D500, despite having a DX sensor, is not the smallest option. However, if you're looking for a capable, professional-quality DSLR with rugged build quality, a touchscreen, a great sensor and excellent autofocus -- with 4K UHD video recording thrown in for good measure -- then the D500 is a terrific option.

We found that its autofocus performance excels and that its performance is very good, making the Nikon D500 not only a true successor to the D300S, but also an excellent alternative to the D5. As was the case with the D300(S), you can think of the D500 as something of a junior D5. Don't let that fool you, however. This camera shares as many flagship features with Nikon's actual flagship camera as any Nikon DSLR ever has. In fact, this is itself a flagship camera, just one with a DX sensor and a much lower price point.

With that said, $2,000 for an APS-C DSLR is substantial. What you're getting for that money is professional performance, and in some ways, a camera better suited for action and wildlife photography than its $6,500 sibling. This is undeniably the D300S successor that Nikon photographers have been anxiously waiting for. In fact, it's better than many could've anticipated.

The Nikon D500 is one of the most capable, well-rounded DSLRs on the market, and undoubtedly takes the prize as a Dave's Pick.

Pros & Cons

  • Superb image quality for an APS-C camera
  • Very good ISO performance, excellent for an APS-C sensor
  • Excellent dynamic range, even at higher ISOs
  • 153 autofocus points with excellent AF point frame coverage
  • Reliable, fast continuous autofocus performance
  • Excellent battery life (1,240 shots)
  • Very low shutter lag
  • AF point select joystick
  • Able to focus in very low light
  • Face detection supported with optical viewfinder
  • Quick startup and mode switching
  • 10fps burst speed with deep buffers and fast buffer clearing (with a fast card)
  • 200 frame buffer (when not shooting uncompressed RAW images)
  • Automatic AF Fine-Tune mostly works well
  • 4K UHD video quality is decent
  • Rugged, comfortable camera body
  • Relocated ISO button near the shutter release puts all exposure controls in the same area
  • Large, bright optical viewfinder
  • 3.2-inch articulating touchscreen display works very well
  • Illuminated buttons
  • Dedicated Moving Shooting menu
  • Always-on Bluetooth Low Energy and Nikon SnapBridge functionality
  • Dual card slots (but see Con)
  • Built-in Wi-Fi, NFC and Bluetooth
  • USB 3.0 port
  • External mic and headphone jacks
  • Default sharpening a bit high
  • Ridiculously high extended ISOs aren't useful
  • No built-in flash
  • 4K UHD video has a ~1.5x crop factor on top of the DX crop factor
  • No hybrid AF for live view/movies
  • Joystick near vertical grip doesn't work as well as a directional pad for moving AF points
  • Touchscreen display, although good, could be utilized for more of the user interface
  • Dual slots support two different card types (XQD and SD)
  • You need to use the XQD card slot for the best performance
  • XQD is fast, but it's not a widely-adopted media

Follow on Twitter!


Editor's Picks