Nikon D500 Review: Field Test

The D300 successor you have been waiting for

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 06/09/16

750mm eq. (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 250.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.


In the years since the Nikon D300S debuted in August of 2009, Nikon users have been waiting for its successor. There have been a handful of enthusiast-oriented Nikon DX DSLRs, but there were always a few features missing that left many photographers longing for another professional-level DX DSLR. The waiting is finally over with the release of the Nikon D500.

The D500 combines the same new autofocus system found in Nikon's latest flagship camera, the D5, with a variety of oft-requested features and agile performance. How does this new DX-format DSLR compare to its predecessor and is this the camera that users have been anxiously waiting for? Read on to find out.

Key Features

  • 20.9-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor
  • Durable build quality and professionally-oriented controls
  • 3.2 inch articulating touchscreen display
  • 153 AF points, 99 of which are cross-point
  • 10 frames per second continuous shooting for up to 200 frames
  • Native ISO range of 100-51,200 (expandable to 50-1,638,400)
  • 4K video at up to 30fps
  • Wi-Fi, NFC, and Bluetooth along with new Nikon SnapBridge connectivity

Robust and comfortable camera body

The Nikon D500 is quite large for an APS-C DSLR, but it isn't unwieldy. The front grip is fairly narrow and really deep, allowing for me to get a strong and comfortable hold on the camera. As a pro-oriented DSLR, it has a lot of conveniently placed physical controls and a large LCD display on the top deck of the camera. An aspect of the camera's controls that I particularly like is the repositioned ISO button on the top right part of the camera, which puts all exposure-related controls within reach of the right hand.

The rear display is large at 3.2 inches (diagonally) and has 2,359,000 dots that offers excellent detail. Not only is it a big, high-resolution display, but it also articulates and offers touchscreen functionality. The display is unfortunately not a tilt-swivel display, but its articulation is good nonetheless. It can be a little stiff to pull out and tilt, but you get used to it quickly. With that said, it is a rugged mechanism that appears to be built to last.

In addition to the touchscreen and the standard navigation button configuration, the D500 also includes a sub-selector joystick like you'll find on the D5. The joystick is quite small and probably not ideal for precisely navigating through the menus, but it works well overall.

The viewfinder design is similar to that of the D810 and can be opened and closed with a switch to block stray light during long exposures. The cover can be unscrewed for cleaning or swapping out, too. In addition, the mirror mechanism has been designed to reduce viewfinder blackout time which helps when following moving subjects.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention one of the D500's best new features, its illuminated buttons. When you rotate the power switch all the way over -- how you would normally illuminate the top LCD on a previous Nikon DSLR -- you now also illuminate the buttons along left side of the display and the mode dial on the top of the camera. This is one of those features that you might not have been anxious for, but once you have it, you can't go back; it becomes a must-have feature, especially if you often shoot at night like I do.

Overall, the Nikon D500 delivers really good handling. The camera is designed very well and offers a variety of excellent handling features, such as the sturdy articulating touchscreen LCD and illuminated buttons.

Nikon D500's 20.9-megapixel DX sensor delivers top-notch results

Despite having 3.3 fewer megapixels than Nikon's previous top-dog APS-C DSLR, the D7200, the new Nikon D500 offers plenty of resolving power with its 20.9-megapixel CMOS sensor. To help capture fine details, the D500 also forgoes an optical low-pass filter (OLPF), which does mean it is more prone to moiré. Having shot with a D800E for a few years, a camera which cancels out the effect of an OLPF, this is very rarely an issue for me.

Nikon is known for producing APS-C cameras with impressive dynamic range, particularly of late, and the D500 is no different. The dynamic range of the Nikon D500 is very impressive, and it's clear that this is a DSLR well-equipped to deal with difficult exposure situations.

390mm eq. (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 800, +0.67 EV

This was a particularly challenging situation with an essentially white background and a dark subject. I was able to tone down the highlights and bring out shadow detail in the moose's fur and eye.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

When viewing JPEGs straight from the camera, default settings lead to sharp images. It's common for cameras to over sharpen files at their default settings, but that isn't much of an issue with the Nikon D500, in my opinion. Fortunately, you can customize photos by adjusting Picture Control settings to find the right look for your images.

If the DX image area (23.5 x 15.7mm) isn't providing you enough reach, you can utilize an in-camera 1.3x crop image area (18 x 12mm) as well. In addition to image area options, you also have some interesting RAW image recording options on the D500. Beyond the basic 12- versus 14-bit options and compressed, lossless compressed, and uncompressed file quality options for RAW images, you can also record small and medium RAW files. If you still want the flexibility of a RAW file but won't need the full 5568 x 3712-pixel image size, you can use one of these smaller RAW image options to save memory. This isn't something I would personally opt for, but it is always good to give photographers more options.

Overall, as I will discuss more in the section on high ISO performance, the Nikon D500 has a very impressive sensor. While you will need to dig into the lab results to get the full scoop on the sensor, my impressions of it are that it's the best APS-C sensor I've ever used.

24mm eq. (Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR DX AF-S lens), f/7.1, 1/80s, ISO 100, -0.33 EV
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Don't overlook the D500's versatile, capable kit lens

The Nikon D500 can be purchased with a 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR DX AF-S Nikkor lens for roughly an extra $1,000 USD, bringing the total for the kit to around $3,000. This is a pretty steep price for a kit lens, but it is a solid performer that offers a useful 24-120mm eq. focal length with an impressive maximum aperture throughout the range. Considering its focal length and maximum aperture, the lens is fairly light, weighing in at just over a pound.

Getting a feel for the Nikon D500's user experience

For a camera such as the D500, which is aimed primarily at sports and wildlife photographers (photographers most often yearning for more reach), it is important that the camera handles well in the field and does its best to stay out of its own way, and the D500 accomplishes these tasks.

600mm eq. (Nikon 400mm f/2.8G IF-ED AF-S VR lens), f/8.0, 1/160s, ISO 100, on-camera Nikon SB-5000 fired.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Touchscreen and Live View

While I enjoyed using the touchscreen for moving the AF point(s) around and quickly interacting with images during playback, there are a few aspects of the camera that, oddly enough, don't support touchscreen functionality. First, the camera's menu system is not compatible with touch. Besides text entry, you will have to use the multi-selector buttons or joystick for navigating the menus. Second, when you press the 'Info' button on the rear of the camera, the display shows a wide variety of shooting settings and options. This appears to be a UI that would work nicely with touch capabilities, however it's not, sadly.

The Live View experience with the D500 is very good. The contrast detect autofocus is excellent and very quick. Focus changes are almost instantaneous as soon as you tap your subject on the display. In addition to good autofocus, Live View offers exposure preview, which allows you to preview various settings changes. This works well in good light, but not so well when your ISO is set high, like for night shooting, as the simulated image becomes too noisy.


The Nikon D500 includes a new 180k-pixel 3D Color Matrix II metering sensor which delivers solid results. Spot metering is tied to the autofocus point, which I like a lot, and there is matrix metering and center-weighted average metering modes available as well.

Matrix metering works well overall. Center-weighted metering is set to an area equivalent to an 8mm diameter circle by default, but it can be customized when using a CPU lens. Spot metering uses a circle roughly 2.5 percent the size of the frame and will center around the selected AF point, however, when using auto-area AF, spot metering is locked to the center of the frame. There is also a highlight-weighted metering mode in which the camera assigns greater importance to preventing blown out areas in your image than it does by default.

White balance metering is pretty good, and the D500 even comes with a couple of new auto white balance modes, Auto 0 and Auto 2. Auto 0 keeps white in your images and Auto 2 keeps warmer tones.

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.


With a standard assortment of shooting modes (P, A, S and M), the D500's offerings ought to be familiar to seasoned photographers. There are also two quiet modes, Quiet Continuous and Quiet, which attempt to dampen the sound of the shutter. The D500 also includes some neat built-in features such as 10-shot multiple exposures, in-camera HDR and time-lapse features.

Non-HDR image.
In-camera HDR. Auto EV with "normal" smoothing.

All of the exposure modes are made better by the good Auto ISO implementation found in the D500. When you are pressing down the ISO button, you can rotate the secondary command dial to switch between a constant ISO and Auto ISO. You can still set a minimum for Auto ISO using the main command dial and can get a maximum allowable Auto ISO setting in the camera's menu. And of course you can still set a minimum shutter speed before ISO is boosted, or have the camera select it automatically based on the lens' current focal length. One nice addition is being able to set maximum ISO for flash shots separately.

Nikon D500 has a phenomenal autofocus system

Autofocus is incredibly impressive with the Nikon D500. The camera has access to a whopping 153 autofocus points, which is a really large number for a DSLR and the most Nikon has ever put into a camera (along with the Nikon D5). The new Multi-CAM 20K autofocus sensor module is the same one found in the flagship D5 DSLR and includes 99 cross-type sensors. In addition to the 99 cross-type sensors, the D500's autofocus sensor has 15 autofocus points which support maximum f/8 aperture lenses (which is particularly important for lenses being used with teleconverters). Of the 153 autofocus points, you can select from 55 of them.

Nikon D500 autofocus coverage. The black rectangle is the AF coverage when using the 1.3x crop mode, which reduces the usable AF points to 117 total and 45 selectable.

Part of what makes the Nikon D500's autofocus performance so good is just how much of the frame is covered by autofocus points. Its coverage is immense and as far as I know the broadest of any DSLR available. So while the AF system is the same as the one used in the D5, the D500 has an advantage in frame coverage due to the smaller-sized sensor. There are technical limitations to how much of the frame can be covered by the AF sensor with DSLR cameras, so what Nikon has achieved with the D500 is impressive. As is the case with the D5, the D500 also includes Nikon's new automatic AF fine-tune feature. You can read more about that here.

Autofocus modes

Autofocus performance is very good overall. The camera is quick and accurate across the entire range of AF points and does a great job in its variety of autofocus modes. Autofocus modes include single-servo and continuous-servo and area modes, include dynamic-area AF (25-, 72-, and 153-point options are available), 3D-tracking, group-area and auto-area AF. Switching between AF-S and AF-C requires holding down the AF button on the front of the camera and rotating the rear command dial. To change the autofocus area mode, simply rotate the front command dial instead.

1050mm eq. (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens with Nikon TC-14E III), f/8.0, 1/320s, ISO 3200.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

By default, selecting an AF point or area can be done at any time by using the multi-selector. You can also use the joystick for selecting autofocus points, although I personally prefer the feel of the multi-selector. It is worth noting that when using the joystick, pressing it down locks both focus and exposure with default settings.

Continuous autofocus and subject tracking

Simply put, the Nikon D500 offers phenomenal continuous autofocus performance. It offers a wide variety of autofocus modes, providing a good choice for many different situations.

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.

When shooting a small subject, or a small part of a larger subject like a bird's eyes or a car's headlight, the improved dynamic AF modes work very well. You select a single autofocus point and then the camera will try to track your, moving the AF point if your subject moves throughout the frame.

A larger subject is a good candidate for group autofocus. After introducing group autofocus a few years ago, a lot of photographers have come to swear by its utility. I don't like it for a small subject, but when your subject is filling a good portion of the frame and you don't need the AF point to be precise, group autofocus works really well at keeping your subject in focus.

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.

3D autofocus is mostly impressive, although it is occasionally thrown off by bright elements in the background. Unless you have a clean background, 3D autofocus can be a bit frustrating because it'll lock on your subject, but then shift focus. When it loses focus, it can usually recover fairly quickly. With that said, 3D autofocus is a good option for when you can't consistently keep your subject in the same area of the frame.

Summing up the fantastic autofocus performance

Considering its outstanding coverage of the frame, I think that the Nikon D500's autofocus system is the most impressive I've seen in a DSLR. Having shot extensively with both the D5 and D500, their speeds and accuracy are indistinguishable in real-world shooting scenarios. In fact, I might even give the edge to the D500 in the AF department because its smaller image sensor allows for better frame coverage.

1050mm eq. (Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens + TC-14E III), f/8.0, 1/1250s, ISO 1000.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

EXPEED 5 makes the Nikon D500 a fast camera

According to Nikon, when capturing lossless compressed 14-bit RAW files, you can capture up to 200 frames at 10 fps. The buffer depth gets a lot smaller when you record 14-bit uncompressed RAW images, but it's still rated for an impressive 79 shots. In my own experience using a 64GB Lexar 2933x XQD card, which is rated for 400 MB/s write speeds, the capture rate of 14-bit uncompressed RAW images slowed down after around 60 frames and 14-bit lossless compressed RAW images were captured for around 200 frames before the camera slowed down. In both cases, the D500 clears the buffer very quickly.

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.

Further, I was curious if there's a performance difference between writing to the XQD slot or the SD slot (the D500 has one of each) and there is no speed difference that I found for continuous shooting speeds, but the buffer clearly fills up faster when recording to the class 10 SD card I tested. Just over 30 uncompressed 14-bit RAW files later and the camera was slowing down. It was also noticeably slower during playback when viewing the images after capture.

1050mm eq. (Nikon 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens with Nikon TC-14E III), f/8, 1/640s, ISO 1600.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

As confirmed by our performance lab tests, the general takeaway is that the D500 is a very fast camera, particularly when recording to XQD cards. With 10fps continuous shooting and a very deep buffer, the D500 is very well-suited for sports and wildlife photograph (especially if you choose lossless compressed RAW quality).

In low light, the Nikon D500 lights the way

Low light is no problem for the D500 despite its APS-C sensor size. The camera's native ISO range is 100-51,200, and it is expandable to 50-1,638,400.

750mm eq. (Nikon 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/1600s, ISO 3600.
Click for full-size image.

100% crop of RAW image with Adobe Camera RAW default settings applied.

100% crop of JPEG file with "Normal" high ISO noise reduction applied in-camera.

As you can see in the images above, even at ISO 3600, the D500 does a pretty good job of capturing fine details. The 100% crop of the RAW file shows quite a bit of visible noise, but it is good for a crop sensor at that ISO. As you can see in the 100% crop of the JPEG file (captured with the default "Normal" high ISO noise reduction), the D500's in-camera processing is pretty good at maintaining sharpness while reducing visible noise. You can still see the pattern of noise, particularly in the background, but contrast and color reproduction are handled well.

690mm eq. (Nikon 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 9000.
Click for full-size image.

In the above image, captured at ISO 9000, I was really impressed with the overall quality of the file. I wouldn't want to print it at its full resolution because there's quite a bit of noise, but the takeaway is that I was able to capture a usable wildlife image in the dense forest with an f/5.6 lens. That is not something that was possible with the Nikon D300. Straight from the camera, the file lacks a bit of vibrancy and the contrast leaves a bit to be desired, but it wouldn't take much processing to end up with a shot I really like. You can see a 100% crop of the RAW file for this image below.

100% crop of the RAW file of the above image. Adobe Camera RAW default settings applied.
Click for full-size image.

When shooting wildlife, especially when I'm using a Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens, my ISO often hovers between 800-3200 to maintain a fast enough shutter speed. It is really important that a camera be able to handle that ISO range well, and the Nikon D500 handles does just that.

Nikon D500 in the field: Wildlife photography

I have touched on wildlife photography in this field test, but I want to cover it in a bit more detail because I consider wildlife photography to be one of the best applications of the D500's particular feature set.

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.

While I would typically opt for a full-frame sensor for landscape photography, that is not always the case when I am photographing wildlife. The 1.5x crop factor that the APS-C DX sensor provides is great for bird photography in particular. The trade-off used to be, at least with the D300, that you were getting the extra reach but with a notable sacrifice in image quality, particularly at higher ISOs. This is not a trade-off that you have to make any longer with the D500. Image quality holds up very well across a wide range of ISOs.

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.

Beyond image quality, the Nikon D500 has a few other features that make it especially well-suited for wildlife photography. The 153-point autofocus system is fantastic for locking in focus on small subjects, such as an animal's eyes. With the ability to very quickly move the autofocus point around the frame with the multi-selector, I was often able to get AF point exactly where I wanted it and achieve focus before the animal moved on. Couple the fast autofocus speeds and wide AF coverage with a 10fps continuous shooting, and the D500 is a camera that is great for capturing action. Overall, I'm hard-pressed to think of a better Nikon DSLR on the market for photographing wildlife.

690mm eq. (Nikon 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR AF-S lens), f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 900.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Nikon D500 in the field: Night photography

Night photography with a crop sensor? Yeah, the D500 actually handles night photography very well. You aren't going to get quite the same high ISO performance as you would on the similarly-priced full-frame D750, but the gap is not nearly as wide between the two as one might expect.

24mm eq. (Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR DX AF-S), f/2.8, 20s, ISO 12800.
Click for full-size image.

Not only does the D500 produce good high ISO images, but its Live View is usable for zooming in on a bright star and locking in your focus, which is traditionally a nuisance to do at night. Beyond that, the camera is the first DX camera body to include illuminated buttons. All of the buttons on the left side of the camera's rear (save for the Fn2 button) light up, as do the buttons on the top of the mode dial and the white indicator showing you the release mode setting.

The D500 offers very good 4K video, but there are a few issues

4K video has finally made its way to a Nikon DX DSLR. In addition to 1080p video at up to 60fps, the D500 can record 3840 x 2160 resolution video at up to 30fps. 4K UHD video can be recorded from ISO 100 all the way to a whopping ISO 1,640,000. In my opinion, noise gets slightly distracting around ISO 3200 and sharpness really starts to fall off at ISO 6400. By the time you get to ISO 12800, I think you'd have to be pretty desperate to record footage because the quality isn't there. But, at lower ISOs in particular, the D500 records crisp, high-quality 4K UHD footage.

Nikon D500 4K UHD Video Sample #1: 3840 x 2160, 30fps, ISO 1600
Download Original (151.8 MB .MOV File)

Autofocus speeds are quite impressive as well, although the built-in mic is highly sensitive and will often pick up focusing noises. Tap to focus works very well, especially with the tilting display.

Nikon D500 tap to focus sample: 4K UHD, 3840 x 2160, 30fps
Download Original (223.2 MB .MOV File)

Subject tracking works pretty good if your subject fills up a lot of the frame, but it struggles when light is low or your subject is relatively small. You can see in the video sample below, using the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8E VR lens, that the camera was regularly coming in and out of focus and making small adjustments. Part of this is due to the nature of contrast detect autofocus, which is a bit jumpy, but part of it is due to the camera struggling to find the designated subject.

Nikon D500 autofocus tracking sample: 4K UHD, 3840 x 2160, 24fps
Download Original (273 MB .MOV File)

You can see this same issue with a stable scene in the video below. Focus jumps about halfway through the video for no obvious reason.

Nikon D500 focus jumping sample: 4K UHD 3840 x 2160, 24fps
Download Original (242 MB .MOV File)

The Nikon D500 can record 4K UHD video continuously for up to 29 minutes and 59 seconds (compared to the D5's maximum clip length of 3 minutes), making it much more useful for 4K video than its pricier sibling.  Also, the D500 includes electronic vibration reduction, although this feature is limited to 1080p video recordings. (Editor's note: A D5 firmware update has since increased the 4K video recording limit to 29m:59s and has added Electronic VR.)

Electronic VR works okay, but it is not going to perform any miracles or be a suitable substitute for a tripod, particularly when recording at long focal lengths. The video sample below was recorded with electronic VR enabled.

Nikon D500 Electronic VR sample: 1080p, 1920 x 1080, 60fps
Download Original (86.4 MB .MOV File)

Overall, the D500 offers more video features than many other Nikon DSLRs and the ability to record 4K UHD video is a welcome upgrade. Performance is quite good considering the limitations of contrast detect autofocus. I like the sensitivity of the built-in mic for recording ambient sounds (not so much for autofocus sound) and the 4K UHD video is able to capture a ton of detail.

Nikon D500 4K UHD Video Sample #2: 3840 x 2160, 30fps
Download Original (440.3 MB .MOV File)

Bluetooth Low Energy and Nikon SnapBridge seem promising

The Nikon D500 comes equipped with both Wi-Fi and NFC as well as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Via the BLE connection, your photos can be automatically transferred to your mobile device, provided that it has Nikon's new SnapBridge application installed. This requirement proved problematic for me because the app is not yet available for iOS. It is available for Android, but since I don't have an Android device I was unable to test the wireless features for myself. However, I was able to play around with the app during the Nikon Palm Springs press event, and I can say that the new SnapBridge features look really cool. The transfer speeds were pretty good.

As far as remote control is concerned, the functionality in SnapBridge is identical to that found in the old Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility application, which is to say that it's fairly bare bones. I hope to be able to write more about SnapBridge in the future, but as of now I cannot comment much on it since I've been unable to get my hands on the iOS app. For more information on SnapBridge, see here.

30mm eq. (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S lens), f/1.8, 15s, ISO 1600.
This image has been modified. Click for full-size image.

Nikon D500 Field Test Summary

The Nikon D500 may be the best DX camera ever

What I like:

  • Ergonomic and full-featured camera body
  • Tilting touchscreen
  • Excellent 20.9-megapixel DX sensor
  • Fast autofocus system that covers much of the image frame with 153 AF points
  • 4K UHD video

What I dislike:

  • Can't use the touchscreen for menus (except for text entry)
  • 1.5x crop factor when recording 4K UHD video
  • Electronic VR with video struggles with longer focal lengths
  • Live View focusing still uses contrast-detect AF

The Nikon D500 is not only the camera that DX-users have been anxiously waiting for years to arrive, but it's also an excellent camera overall that should grab the attention of all Nikon photographers who love to shoot sports and wildlife, or just want high-speed performance without shelling out the big bucks for a flagship FX camera. With the same great autofocus performance found in the highly impressive D5 (among other shared features), the D500 offers some advantages over the D5, including better AF point coverage across the frame and a much lower price point.

You'll notice that I have mentioned several times that the Nikon D500 shares a lot of the same technology with the flagship D5. In some ways it reminds me of the D3 and D300 when they were released. It is surprising how many important features from the D5 are also found on the D500 despite it costing $4500 less.

At right around $2000 USD, the Nikon D500 is an excellent value and a very good camera. While its DX sensor will come up short against some of its FX peers, it may be one of the best APS-C sensors I've ever used. Overall, the Nikon D500 is, without a doubt, a true flagship DX camera.


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