Nikon D500 Image Quality


Color

Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Vibrant colors with average hue accuracy.

ISO Sensitivity
50
100
200
400
800
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 D500 pumps dark blues a lot, dark green, dark orange, and reds moderately, and most other colors slightly, though yellow and aqua are slightly undersaturated. Overall, mean saturation levels are a little higher than average at 15.3% oversaturated at ISO 100 versus a more typical 10%, however colors are quite pleasing and vibrant in real-world images as a result. The D500'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 91.9% at ISO 819,200. Camera JPEGs are quite discolored at extended ISOs above 204,800, though, with a red or magenta tint, so take those numbers with a grain of salt. 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 D500 did fairly well with Caucasian skin tones, rendering them with a bit of a pink tint with both Manual and Auto white balance in our "Sunlit" outdoor lighting, but they were a bit on the warm side. However when using Daylight white balance, they were definitely too yellow, so we preferred Auto or Manual white balance. 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 D500 produces a few color shifts relative to ideal colors, as do most cameras. 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 5.42 after correction for saturation, which is about average, and remains about average up to ISO 204,800, increasing rapidly from there due to the aforementioned tint at very high extended ISOs. Hue is "what color" the color is.

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

Sensor

Exposure and White Balance

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

Auto White Balance
+0.3 EV
Incandescent White Balance
+0.3 EV
Manual White Balance
+0.3 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 D500 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, though perhaps a touch cool. The Nikon D500 required +0.3 EV exposure compensation, which is about average among cameras we've tested for this scene. 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 very good exposure outdoors, but somewhat high default contrast.

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

We found skin tones fairly realistic with both Auto and Manual white balance in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot. Default contrast is on the high side, so a few highlights were clipped in the mannequin's shirt, pendant and some of the flowers while darker shadows are quite deep, though noise in all but the deepest shadows is quite 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 very well exposed, with only a few clipped highlights in very bright white areas and in specular highlights. Again, detail in the shadows is quite good, and deep shadow noise is 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

Resolution
~2,550 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, about the same from converted RAW files.

Strong detail to
~2,550 lines horizontal
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,550 lines vertical
Camera JPEG
Strong detail to
~2,550 lines horizontal
ACR processed RAW
Strong detail to
~2,550 lines vertical
ACR processed RAW

Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns up to about 2,550 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and to about 2,550 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 decent 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 images, though default sharpening is a bit high and generates noticeable sharpening halos. Minor noise suppression artifacts at base ISO.

Excellent 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 good in
the darker parts of the model's hair here.

Sharpness. The Nikon D500 produced very sharp, detailed images for a 21-megapixel sensor at default settings, though edge enhancement artifacts are somewhat conspicuous 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 some minor detail loss and smudging 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 D500 does a great job at capturing lots of fine, crisp detail in its JPEGs for its resolution, 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 9.6 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, it's clear that ACR extracts a bit more detail that isn't present in the JPEGs from the camera itself, even in the red-leaf swatch Nikons traditionally do very well with. The ACR conversion manages to resolve more of the thread patterns in the fabrics while the camera treats them as noise and blurs them away. While it doesn't look quite as finely detailed, Nikon's rendering is smoother-looking with higher contrast and more vibrant colors, and noise is less visible in the shadows and flatter areas. 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 D500's sensor. That said, the D500's in-camera JPEGs are excellent at low ISOs, and you can always try adjusting image processing settings to your tastes.

ISO & Noise Performance
Excellent high ISO performance for an APS-C sensor.

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

Nikon D500 images are clean and very detailed up to ISO 800, with just a touch of luminance noise becoming more visible in the shadows as ISO increases, as well as a very slight drop in fine detail due to noise reduction processing. ISO 1600 shows more noticeable luminance noise, but fine detail is still quite good, and chroma noise is very low. ISO 3200 still contains very good detail and relatively low noise. ISO 6400 exhibits a larger drop in image quality, but fine detail is still fair. Image quality drops off more rapidly at ISO 12,800 and above, with increasing noise "grain", blurring from noise reduction and chroma blotches, and ISOs above 51,200 are so noisy and discolored we question why Nikon included them other than for pure specmanship.

All in all, though, excellent high ISO performance for an APS-C camera, one of the best we've tested.

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
Excellent dynamic range despite the high default contrast. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.

+0.3 EV +0.7 EV +1.0 EV

Sunlight:
The Nikon D500 performed well in the deliberately harsh lighting in the above test, despite its high default contrast. We felt +0.7 EV exposure compensation was required to keep the mannequin's face bright, but that led to only a few highlights blown in her shirt and flowers, and shadows contained good detail with relatively low noise. Note that these shots were captured with the Nikon D500'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 and Auto) available on the Nikon D500 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:


Off
(Default)


Auto


Low


Normal

High

Extra High

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, the default exposure was somewhat dim so almost no highlights were blown to begin with, but we can see that enabling Active D-Lighting boosted shadows and lower midtones for a better overall exposure (still too dim, though), while at the same time preserving highlights even when cranking up the level. Normally, there is a noise penalty to be paid for boosting shadows, but noise levels in the shadows are quite low with this camera, so increased shadow noise is not really a concern here at base ISO. It's also interesting to note that the default ADL setting for the D500 is Off, while in more consumer-oriented models, the default is Auto.

Far-field Active D-Lighting (0 EV)
Off
Low

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 D500 offers an in-camera high-dynamic-range imaging function. When enabled, the D500 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
Off

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 D500'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 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 D500's dynamic range (in orange) to that of its aging predecessor, the D300S (yellow), and also to its closest current competitor, the Canon 7D Mark II (red).

As you can see from the above graph (click for a larger image), the D500's dynamic range is significantly higher than the D300S' across the board, with a peak of 14 EV as base ISO, versus 12.2 EV for the D300S (a 1.8 EV advantage), and with an even larger advantages at higher ISOs. We've come a long way since the D300S!

Incidently, the Nikon D500 also performs well against class-leading modern APS-C sensors like the D7200's. At base ISO, the D7200 has about a 0.6 EV advantage, but at ISOs above 400, the D500 actually does better.

The Nikon D500's dynamic range is also decidedly better than Canon's 7D Mark II across the ISO spectrum, with a 2.2 EV advantage at base ISO, however the advantage isn't as stark as compared to the D300S at higher ISOs, but still quite significant.

Overall, excellent dynamic range from the Nikon D500. Click here to visit the DxOMark page for the Nikon D500 for more of their test results and additional comparisons.

  1 fc
11 lux
1/16 fc
0.67 lux
1/16 fc
No NR
ISO
100

2 s
f2.8

30 s
f2.8

30 s
f2.8
ISO
3200

1/15 s
f2.8

1 s
f2.8

1 s
f2.8
ISO
51200

1/250 s
f2.8

1/15 s
f2.8

1/15 s
f2.8

Low Light. The Nikon D500 performed 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 51,200, but still quite usable.

Color balance with Auto white balance is pretty neutral here at one foot-candle, just a touch cool, but with a noticeable cyan tint at 1/16 foot-candle.

We didn't notice any issues with hot or overly bright pixels, banding (fixed pattern noise), or heat blooming during our low-light tests.

LL AF: The D500's phase-detection autofocus system was able to focus on our low-contrast AF target down to below the 1/16 foot-candle light level (0.4 Lux or -2.6 EV) unassisted with an f/2.8 lens, which is very good. (Our low-contrast AF target is more difficult to focus on than how manufacturers rate their cameras; when using our high-contrast AF target, the D500 was able to focus down to 0.02 Lux or about -7.0 EV, significantly better than its -4 EV rating.) The Nikon D500 doesn't have a built-in AF illuminator, but can utilize the illuminator found on most compatible flash units.

In Live View mode, the D500's contrast-detect autofocus was able to focus on our low-contrast AF target at even lower light levels than phase-detect AF, down to about 0.28 Lux or -3.2 EV, but not quite as low as phase-detect with our high-contrast target, at 0.06 Lux or -5.4 EV. Still, excellent low-light AF performance overall.

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 D500 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.

Output Quality

Print Quality
Superb 30 x 40 inch prints at ISO 50-200; a nice 13 x 19 at ISO 3200; a good 5 x 7 at ISO 25,600.

ISO 50 through 200 prints look superb at 30 x 40 inches and larger, until you run out of resolution. Fine detail is excellent, colors are rich and well-balanced and the images have a three-dimensional "pop" to them. Excellent printed images at these lowest ISO's.

ISO 400 also looks terrific at 30 x 40 inches. You have to really get close to the print to notice a slight drop in fine detail and crispness in some areas of our target like our mosaic tile region, but the difference is negligible and the print is still excellent in overall quality.

ISO 800 yields a 30 x 40 inch print that, amazingly, can still be used effectively for wall display purposes and less critical applications; anything but close-up critical viewing. The 24 x 36 inch print here is quite good and very much passes our good grade, with only the mildest drop in contrast detail in our tricky red-leaf swatch, and some minor apparent noise in a few flatter areas of our test target. Fine detail is still good throughout the majority of the image, and this is a nice achievement for this sensitivity.

ISO 1600 prints warrant a reduction in size to 16 x 20 inches, the first time the Nikon D500 begins to look like a mere mortal in the APS-C world. This is still a nice printed size for ISO 1600, but anything larger begins to reveal too much in the way of noise reduction artifacts to pass our good grade.

ISO 3200 yields a print with good color reproduction and overall fine detail at 16 x 20 inches, but displays just a trace too much noise in some flatter areas of our target to merit our good rating here. A reduction to 13 x 19 inches does the trick and delivers a solid print with good fine detail, full colors and very little in the way of noise reduction artifacts.

ISO 6400 produces an 11 x 14 inch print that just passes our good grade. There is a trace of visible noise in some flatter areas of our target, but not enough to prevent us from assigning our good seal here. You won't see many cameras on our site as of this writing with APS-C sized sensors that can deliver a good 11 x 14 inch print at ISO 6400. Most contrast detail is lost in our troublesome red-leaf swatch, but this is typical of most cameras we test by this ISO setting.

ISO 12,800 delivers an 8 x 10 that comes oh-so-close to passing our good rating! To my knowledge that would be a first in the APS-C world. Indeed, the 5 x 7 inch print here is the best we've yet seen at this ISO from an APS-C camera -- a really superb image for this ISO!

ISO 25,600 shots just pass our good grade at 5 x 7 inches, and yet again this is a stellar feat for this ISO from an APS-C camera. Full color reproduction and nice fine detail are still apparent with very little visible noise at this print size. Well done!

ISO 51,200 prints a 4 x 6 that almost passes through, and is certainly usable for less critical applications. It's just a bit on the noisy side, with slightly muted colors, to warrant our good seal. But again this is a lofty ISO for an APS-C camera as of this writing.

We've certainly come a long way since 2009 and the days of the Nikon D300S! That was a camera to be reckoned with for its time, but in the past seven years the stakes have definitely changed. For the APS-C world, the Nikon D500 is now one of the heavy hitters in the print quality department as ISO rises, besting other cameras like the Canon 7D Mk II, Nikon D7200 and the Sony A6300 at ISO 6400 and higher. Only the Samsung NX1 and NX500 have fared as well or better at print quality in the APS-C category.

It's too bad that the five extended high ISOs are basically useless for printing purposes. We've been scratching our heads wondering why Nikon is offering sensitivities so high that they don't really have any practical use in the enthusiast camera world, including going as high as ISO 1,638,400 but with abysmal image quality. This is perhaps useful for surveillance of some kind, but definitely not for enthusiast photography.

But extended ISOs aside, if you need large prints as ISO rises in an APS-C camera body that can deliver quality prints through ISO 25,600, the Nikon D500 is one of your best bets as of this writing.

 

The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D500 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 D500 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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