Fast cameras, just like fast cars, are notoriously expensive. But with the Nikon D500, the speed of the most expensive flagship DSLRs are now accessible at a third of the cost. The D500 wraps up many of the features of the best-in-class D5, including a speedy burst mode, 153 autofocus points and wide ISO range, but uses a smaller APS-C sensor.
So is trading the D5 for the D500 like trading an Aston Martin for a plain jane sedan? I set out to find out just what the camera packs in — and what it leaves out — in a Nikon D500 review.
Nikon D500 Review: Body & Design
The Nikon D500 camera looks and feels like it’s packing quite a few features inside — which of course means that it’s a bit on the heavy side. The D500 weighs about a half pound more than the D7200. Compared to the three-pound D5, it’s a lightweight, but photographers looking to upgrade a less-powerful APS-C camera will likely notice the weight increase.
While the D500 is the heaviest of Nikon’s APS-C cameras, the bit larger body is also weather-sealed. There’s a big difference in the feel of the D500 versus the much cheaper D3300.
The D500 is one of two of Nikon’s APS-C DSLRs to feature a tilting touchscreen — the other is the D5500 while the D7200 skips the feature. While the feature is nice for the occasional awkward angle, the screen is very sharp and easy to use for previewing images. That’s paired with a large optical viewfinder that’s just as sharp.
While much of the design mirrors Nikon’s iconic DSLR style, there are a few noticeable differences. First, there is no mode dial — there’s really no need, since as a high end professional camera the D500 has only the four manual mode options. The drive mode dial (for choosing the burst speed and timer options) sits where you’d expect the mode dial to be. That’s easy enough to use — though like with earlier models placing the drive modes here I still don’t like the way you need to press a button to move the dial (I can’t manage to do this with one hand). On top of that drive dial there are four buttons — including the mode button that you hold down then flip through using the back dial. Quality, metering and white balance shortcut buttons join the unusual mode set-up on the top left.
Like the D7200 and Nikon’s more advanced DSLRs, the D500 includes dual control wheels as well as a secondary screen at the top for displaying all the shooting settings. The settings are still accessible on the back LCD screen by pressing the info button, but the set-up is helpful for keeping all the details handy at any given time without wreaking havoc on the battery life. Between that screen and the shutter release, Nikon included dedicated controls for exposure compensation, ISO and a separate movie record button.
The back of the camera, then, is largely dedicated to the tilting LCD as well as the main menu and preview controls. While there’s a customizable function button and flash option in the bottom left corner, most shooting settings remain in easy reach without taking your eye from the viewfinder, including the AF-On for back button focusing. While the usual menu arrows will control the focus point, a joystick that’s comfortably close to the thumb serves the same function with a bit more finesse.
What’s noticeably absent, however, is the pop-up flash. The D500 isn’t Nikon’s only more advanced camera to eliminate the flash, but it is still uncommon to exclude. Photographers purchasing a camera at this level will most often also have (and prefer) a hot shoe flash. The trouble is that the pop-up flash serves as a handy trigger for firing Nikon flashes off camera. You can still fire a Nikon flash wirelessly, but you need the $250 SU-800 to do so. Granted, the commander also allows you to fire without a line of sight, unlike triggering with the pop-up. Still, it’s something photographers considering the D500 need to be aware of.
Outside of the missing flash that may be a nuisance for some and a joy for others, the Nikon D500 is very well built. It’s a bit heavier than the next-best option, the D7200, but that’s expected with the more advanced features. Most of the shooting settings are easy to adjust without pulling the camera away from your face (the exception being that pesky lock button on the drive mode dial). That makes accessing the different settings almost just as fast as the camera itself.
Nikon D500 Review: Performance
The design may be nice, but the real reason to seriously consider the D500 is speed. The Nikon D500 can shoot at 10 fps, a speed that really was only previously accessible for Nikon fans in their small sensor mirrorless or their $6,000 flagship.
That 10 fps tech spec? It looks just as nice in person as it sounds on paper. The camera has an excellent processor that’s able to keep up that speed for quite some time. And while I sometimes have delays waiting for the images to record on my D7200, the D500 was able to record and recall photos at a much faster pace. The D500 can keep up the 10 fps pace for about 33 RAW photos if you are using a Class 10 SD card — processing those photos took about eight seconds, but the camera allows you to continue shooting (at a slightly slower pace) while it records. But those who really want to get full speed from the camera can steadily chip away for 200 photos with a QXD card, since the camera offers both options.
Shutter lag on the camera is nearly non-existent, or at least faster than my fingers — I was able to take single shots just as quickly as I was able to press the button, between .15 and .2 seconds apart. The autofocus is impressively quick, so much so that I had a hard time actually measuring it. The camera powers on just as quick, ready to start shooting as soon as you can flip the switch and press the shutter release.
The Nikon D500’s 153 point autofocus system was able to keep up with those quick shooting speeds fairly well — any blur that I picked up on in my sample photos was largely a user error (shutter speed too low) and not an autofocus glitch.
The only thing slow about the D500 is the autofocus while in Live View mode. In order to display the image, the camera uses a contrast detection system that’s just sluggish after focusing through the viewfinder. While Live View can be easily avoided shooting stills, shooting video is another story. The autofocus was slow to catchup while recording video.
Performance is the biggest reason to consider the D500. The 10 fps speed is hard to find in a DSLR at this price point and the quick processor and advanced autofocus do well at keeping up. The camera keeps the modes simple — there’s only four manual modes (M, A, S and P) with no auto option — but the D500 is aimed at photographers who won’t miss the automatic features. The D500 sits as Nikon’s best performer, outside of the luxuriously priced D5.
Nikon D500 Review: Image Quality
While performance is paramount, the speed would mean nothing without the image quality to back it up. Fortunately, the D500 is able to deliver there as well.
I was most impressed by the camera’s dynamic range. Even though I didn’t have a polarizing filter or grad to use with the review model, I was still able to maintain an impressive amount of detail in the sky while shooting landscapes. Color and white balance was overall accurate.
Like other Nikon DSLRs without the optical low pass filter, the D500 captures a solid level of detail. I tested the camera with the AF-S DX Nikkor 16-80mm f/2.8-4EED VR and AF-S DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6 ED VR lenses and both were able to capture sharp photographs, even with the longer zoom range.
The Nikon D500 does drop some resolution from options like the D7200 by about four megapixels. That move was largely to achieve that 10 fps burst speed, but it also helps to offer better noise reduction. While noise becomes noticeable in a crop at ISO 800, I personally wouldn’t hesitate to push the camera to ISO 6400. After that, color and detail suffers, even though the camera can reach a range of over a million ISO.
|ISO 100||ISO 200||ISO 400||ISO 800|
|ISO 1600||ISO 3200||ISO 6400||ISO 128000|
|ISO 25600||ISO 521200|
The D500 includes 4K video, and while it’s becoming increasingly easier to find (particularly on mirrorless cameras), the D500 is still one of few DSLRs to include 4K, especially at the price point. The footage is impressively crisp, but the 4K has a 1.5x crop while the regular 1080p HD mode does not. While that quality is impressive, the slow autofocus in Live Mode makes it tough to push the D500 for video. The quality is worthwhile though for experienced filmmakers that like the cinematic effect and control of using manual focus.
The Nikon D500 does drop slightly in quality from the D7200 in order to achieve the faster performance, but those four megapixels are tough to truly notice. Image quality is quite solid overall and helps to round out a truly impressive camera.
Nikon D500: Sample Images
Nikon D500 Review: Conclusion
With a fast burst speed, quick autofocus, impressive image quality and a solid design, the Nikon D500 is a solid contender, especially for sports, events and wildlife. The biggest downfall is that the video autofocus doesn’t reach the same impressive level as when shooting with the optical viewfinder. While portrait photographers may want to stick with the higher resolution and lower price of the D7200, the D500’s speed is pretty hard to resist for action shooters.
The D500 is the first APS-C DSLR from Nikon to boast such impressive speed, but it’s not entirely alone. The Canon EOS 7D Mark II offers the same 10 fps burst speed. But Canon’s option still includes the optical low pass filter on the sensor, has a lower ISO range, only 1080p video and a lower battery life of just 800 shots. As an older model, the 7D Mark II is slightly less expensive than the D500, however. The D500 beats out the 7D Mark II in several areas. Outside of these two options (or a SLT like the Sony A77II), consumers would need to venture into the $6,000 flagships or a mirrorless camera like the Fujifilm X-T2.
The Nikon D500 is an impressively quick DSLR. If performance is your number one must-have, this camera should be on the top of your list.