Nikon D500 Review: First Impressions from Palm Springs

A fast, agile and fun to use APS-C DSLR

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 05/18/2016

30mm eq. (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S), f/4.5, 1/30s, ISO 180
This image has been modified. Click for original image.


Nikon invited me along with numerous colleagues in the industry to Palm Springs, California to work with the new Nikon D500 for a few days. In the scorching desert heat, the hottest thing wasn't the air, but the camera. While not without a few shortcomings, like every camera, the Nikon D500 is a very promising model that looks poised to be a very worthy successor to the D300S of 2009.

Day 1: Lots of travel and a few sunset portraits with the D500

After a long day of travel, which is an inevitable consequence of living in Bangor, Maine, I arrived in a very warm Palm Springs. A few snowflakes fell in Bangor the day before, so stepping out of the plane into high-90's temperatures was a shock to the system.

After a short rest in my hotel room, I headed to a gathering, caught up with a few old friends and made some new ones. As we all chatted about the new gear, a few models played croquet in the afternoon light. I'm not an expert on the lawn sport, but I got the sense it was more of an exhibition match, at best, than any sort of genuine competition. Nonetheless, I was able to test out the D500 in a very interesting backlighting situation.

203mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 110
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Unfortunately, my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens was not fine-tuned before I started shooting on the first day, so the focus on the shots was a bit off. If you haven't seen my Caffeine Priority on the new AF Fine-Tune feature (the article is written about the Nikon D5, but it works the same way on the D500) -- check it out here. Nonetheless, my main takeaway of the afternoon was that the camera handled backlight really well and the matrix metering mode did great work at controlling the highlights without losing out on the shadows.

255mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/2.8, 1/250s, ISO 140, +1/3 EV
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Day 2: A zoo, harsh light, and a trip to the canyons for the D500

The following morning presented the D500 with a wide variety of very challenging situations. This was a theme of the trip and certainly by design; the team at Nikon really wanted us to put the camera through its paces and see what it's capable of.

First up was breakfast at the nearby Living Desert Zoo, a very neat and surprisingly expansive facility housing animals from deserts around the world. These are not animals that will want for heat in Palm Springs, I assure you of that.

I photographed some warthogs (think Pumba from the Lion King except not quite so jovial) that were sort of milling about their habitat. It was definitely a difficult lighting situation, but the Nikon D500 metered it well. I thought that the automatic white balance could've been metered a bit better as the images came out a little flat straight from the camera, but otherwise I was impressed. It wasn't an easy situation, and I was still able to capture a decent shot.

240mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/2.8, 1/1600s, ISO 100
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This time I used the D500's Auto AF Fine-Tune feature to get my 70-200mm f2.8G VR II lens to play nicely with the Nikon D500 and captured images of a wide variety of animals, including a gorgeous cheetah. As is often the case with animals, the cheetah wasn't particularly interested in being a cooperative subject, but it was nonetheless a beautiful animal.

300mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/5.6, 1/400s, ISO 100
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Giraffes and addax were out on the plains, but they were happy to mostly be in the shade or just eating next to the fence, neither one being an ideal location. This is a situation which really put the D500's sensor to the test as I was forced to recover a lot of shadow detail and deaden the highlights a bit. For using an APS-C sensor, the Nikon D500 shows an impressive amount of dynamic range. Obviously, the sensor will need to be tested out in the lab, but it struck me as a particularly good APS-C sensor.

300mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/8, 1/320s, ISO 125
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We loaded up the bus to head back to the hotel for a brief break, after which we piled into a fleet of Jeeps and got a very cool canyon tour in the mountains.

The bright late afternoon light was harsh and throwing long shadows across much of the canyons, making capturing great shots very tricky. This situation called for a lot of exposure compensation and just trying to balance a scene as best you could. Despite being a desert (one of the criterion for being a desert is getting less than 10 inches of precipitation each year) there were a lot of wildflowers in the canyons.

30mm eq. (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S), f/8, 1/125s, ISO 100
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These wildflowers presented an opportunity to try some close-up shots with my Nikon 20mm f/1.8G lens which can actually focus quite closely. Later on, I got to try a Nikon 10-24mm f/3.5-5.6 lens for landscapes.

30mm eq. (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S), f/1.8, 1/100s, ISO 100
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Following dinner, interested photographers split off and headed to Joshua Tree National Park to do some night shooting, and I was excited for the opportunity. I used my 20mm f/1.8G lens for this and put the D500 through its paces in the desert night. As far as I'm concerned, night shooting is one of the great tests of a camera's abilities, both in handling and in image quality.

30mm eq. (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S), f/1.8, 15s, ISO 1600
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With the f/1.8 maximum aperture lens attached to the D500, I was easily able to dial in my focus using Live View. This is fantastic for me as a big fan of nightscape photography because having to get your focus just right using the focus scale and a trial-and-error process is not only annoying but wastes a massive amount of time, especially when I am also adjusting my focus regularly to capture foreground images.

30mm eq. (Nikon 20mm f/1.8G ED AF-S), f/1.8, 20s, ISO 2500
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You know what else wastes time? Having to shine a light on the buttons on your camera while you're still familiarizing with it. Sure, this isn't a problem once you're a veteran of the particularly body, but the Nikon D500's illuminated buttons make this learning curve a thing of the past. It may not sound like a big deal, but if you're someone who does a lot of work at night like I do, you'll greatly appreciate it!

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

Day 3: Action sport and fast cars put Nikon D500's AF to the test

After getting to sleep well after 2am because of the Joshua Tree excursion (which was very much worth it, by the way), waking up early felt impossible. I powered through in the hopes of capturing some cool shots of skateboarders at a local skate park.

With the temperatures eclipsing triple digits, I was able to test out whether the D500's grip can handle sweaty hands -- it can. More importantly, I was able to test out the Nikon D500's continuous autofocus performance. With a talented BMX biker going in and out of the bowl at the park, getting staggering amounts of hang time, the D500 did a great job of maintaining focus as the biker went up and came back down.

158mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/2.8, 1/4000s, ISO 560
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After capturing a lot of bursts of the biker and the skateboarders at the park, I was able to borrow and try out a Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX fisheye lens. I've never shot with a fisheye before; it's an addictive lens! I had to get really close to the edge to use it, which felt a bit risky, but it made for some very cool photos.

16mm eq. (Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX Fisheye), f/3.5, 1/4000s, ISO 100
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After lunch at the Empire Polo Grounds, I was able to photograph a polo match, a sport I've never seen let alone shot. It's quite difficult to keep track of horses as they move in all different directions, but the Nikon D500 did a really good job. Even with a Nikon TC-20E III teleconverter on the 70-200mm f/2.8, autofocus performance felt very quick and accurate across the entire AF coverage area.

435mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S with TC-20E III), f/5.6, 1/4000s, ISO 450
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Next up was the event that I was most looking forward to, an afternoon at the BMW Performance Center in Thermal, California. Not only were we going to be able to photograph the cars (BMW M3's for those car fanatics out there), but we were actually going to be able to drive them!

300mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/16, 1/60s, ISO 80, -1/3 EV
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I'll spare you all of the details of my driving and eventual second place finish in the hot lap challenge (congratulations to Michael Frank on his big win) and get on to the stuff we all care about, the D500's performance, which was in a word, great. I attempted a lot of panning shots. Panning is a difficult technique and one that is mostly outside of my wheelhouse, but the D500 did everything it could to help me capture great shots.

105mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/16, 1/160s, ISO 100, -1/3 EV
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Focus was responsive, metering was consistently good, and the 10 frames per second continuous shooting was very good. Not only was the speed itself impressive, but the buffer depth is great. Sure, the D5 is faster at 12fps (14fps with mirror-up), but the EXPEED 5-powered D500 delivers the same autofocus and buffer depths as the D5, for $4,500 less. Let that sink in.

105mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/16, 1/160s, ISO 100, -1/3 EV
This image has been modified. Click for original image.

What else does the D500 have to offer?

A few things became apparent throughout the duration of the event. First is that the D500's 3.2-inch tilting touchscreen display is really good. The tilting mechanism is very strong, and I think it's built to last. Obviously I can't be sure, but the weather-sealed D500 sure feels like a tough camera body.

Speaking of how the Nikon D500 feels, it fits very nicely in the hands. The grip is deep and feels similar to the D750. Buttons are placed in convenient locations, particularly the ISO button that's been moved to the top right part of the camera near the shutter release, so now all exposure controls are reachable with your right hand. This small change makes a big difference out in the field. There is also a second function button that has been added to the left of the display.

What about the D500 is there to dislike?

There is a lot more testing for me to do with the Nikon D500, but Nikon did an excellent job of providing me with opportunities to test some of the camera's major features and see how it held up in difficult conditions. As you can tell, I found the camera to perform very well but there were a few shortcomings that I found during the event.

While the tilting touchscreen is very good, you can't use it for navigating menus or changing settings on the quick menu, which really feels like a missed opportunity. Matrix metering is pretty good, but it can be thrown off by bright areas in the frame. This isn't an issue unique to the D500 by any means, but I expected better from the new 180k-pixel RGB metering sensor.

Wrapping up: With the D500, things are looking up for DX shooters

The autofocus performance is great. In my opinion, this could be a game-changer for DSLRs as the D500 manages to take the same AF performance found in the flagship D5 camera and makes it even better by having it cover more of the frame due to the smaller DX sensor.

240mm eq. (Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II AF-S), f/2.8, 1/320s, ISO 100
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Look forward to our full review of this exciting new camera. While the Nikon D500 has made an excellent first impression, there is still much more testing to do to see if this camera can live up to the hype, and if it really is the camera that many Nikon photographers have been waiting for, but so far so good!


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