Nikon D500 Digital Camera Review
The DSLR that proves APS-C can still pull its weight.
We're in the middle of a full-frame resurgence, thanks to cameras like Sony's line of A7 cameras, the Pentax K-1, and even Nikon's affordable D610. It's easier than ever to get into a full-frame system, whatever brand you prefer, for around $2K.
It's easy to see that with Micro Four Thirds on one side, full frame on the other, APS-C might seem like it's less and less exciting to camera buffs.
The Nikon D500 (MSRP $1,999.95) puts in extra hours to prove there's still a reason to grab a crop-sensor DSLR. Announced alongside the new flagship Nikon D5, this Nikon does everything its big sister can manage, but behind its mirror is a sensor that's the smaller APS-C size. What that nets you is blisteringly fast burst shooting, 4K video abilities, and world-class weathersealing all in a condensed package.
Just because this camera isn't going to give the full-frame spec junkies their bokeh fix doesn't mean that it's a camera to be taken lightly. For action photographers and videographers, the D500 is a tempting proposition.
Design & Handling
Nothing less than the best of Nikon
If you think of an APS-C camera, you might imagine a Nikon D3300 or a Canon Rebel T6i. Something small, insubstantial, and most of all, plasticky. A couple models like the Canon EOS 80D, or quirky also-rans like the Pentax K-3, offer up nice, solid-feeling builds and tough weathersealing, but the status quo for APS-C isn't pretty. Given its top-tier cost, the D500 is impeccably assembled from metal and rubber to underscore the top-shelf performance you'll get from the components inside.
The control layout is pure pro Nikon, with front and rear control dials, a rear selection pad, and a big, dense top-mounted LCD let you control just about everything without diving into the menu system. It's rare that a pro DSLR like this would get even more controls, but compared to other advanced Nikons, there's nothing missing. You get backlit keys, a joystick for AF point selection, and even touch input on the tilting rear display.
One important control is the live view toggle. Since Nikon put extra effort into the D500's video functionality, it's only right that you can switch effortlessly from stills to video. The easy-to-reach live view toggle lets you kick the D500 into 4K mode in a matter of seconds.
That's not to say that Nikon hasn't done its due diligence when it comes to stills. If the dedication to normal photography wasn't clear from the camera's pro controls, the awesome optical viewfinder helps get the point across. With 100% coverage over the frame area, you're not going to miss anything. You even get a shutter for the viewfinder, a pro Nikon feature that's useful for long-exposure photography like astrophotography. The shutter helps block any incident light from entering the viewfinder, which can assure high image quality in the final image.
Even though the D500 looks a bit like the cheaper D7200, the D500 has a super-rugged metal build that's fully weathersealed. It feels hefty, but the large, comfortable front grip lets you grab onto it with ease. Since the controls are very, very similar to something like an older D4, if you just want a more compact camera that gives you the burst speed you're looking for, this is the way to do it.
That said, if you're stepping up from something like the D5200, you're going to have to relearn how to switch into different modes. Users who still wield D300s bodies will be able to make the leap effortlessly, as will previous full-frame pro Nikon owners.
Got the need for speed? The D500 delivers.
Whether it's 4K video or blisteringly-fast continuous shooting, the D500 is an awesome DSLR. Since Nikon put its fastest-performing guts into an APS-C camera, the only thing you're really missing out on is a full-frame sensor. As far as a multi-purpose photographic tool goes, you couldn't ask for much more. If a crop sensor isn't a dealbreaker, you get a bargain multipurpose DSLR that costs less than 1/3 the price of a D5.
As far as action photography goes, there's no other Nikon APS-C body that can stand toe-to-toe with the freakishly fast D500. In our tests, we were able to easily match Nikon's advertised rate of 10 fps. The thing seriously sounds like a gatling gun when in its high continuous mode. If buffer capacity is important to you, you'll be glad to discover that Nikon didn't skimp. We were able to capture 43 JPEGs before the burst rate started slowing down, and 24 images with RAW+JPEG before we hit the buffer cap.
Nikon's put some of its most advanced AF hardware into the D500 and its confident, speedy focusing means you'll get plenty keepers from each burst. With 153 max AF points, there's no part of the frame that goes without. 99 of the AF points are cross-type and nine of the points can focus up to f/8 with no problem. Between this and the incredible burst speed, this is where the rubber hits the road with the D500.
If hybrid video/stills shooting is more your interest, then Nikon delivers, thanks to 4K/30p shooting abilities. Video quality looked fantastic for the most part, with only a little bit of tearing in our standard video test (I'm going to blame a fast-but-fussy SD card we used when testing in our lab) The only downside to shooting 4K is that the already healthy 1.5x crop factor of APS-C becomes 2.25x, so you're not getting the benefit of the entire sensor size.
Overall image quality from the camera's DX sensor was terrific, easily rivaling that of Canon's sporty EOS 7D Mark II, which is this DSLR's direct rival. With this 21-megapixel sensor, you get less resolution than with the cheaper D7200, but seeing how many cameras can do amazing things with only 16 million pixels, we can't complain too much. We didn't see much performance difference between the 21 megapixels here, and the 24MP the D7200 offers, but it's impressive nevertheless that a sensor can be this fast and still keep noise in check at high ISOs.
Pro ports and Nikon's Snapbridge sweeten the deal.
The Nikon D500 is refreshing to consider since it's a no-holds-barred APS-C DSLR. Unlike some of Canon's best APS-C bodies, this one gives you just about the same features and flexibility of something like the D810 for a much lower cost.
Video shooters can be hard to please, and Nikon's gone a long way here to make sure they're taken care of. On top of 4K 24 and 30p modes, the D500 crams in all the ports you'd want, including an in-body mic jack, headphone port for monitoring. There's also a mini-HDMI port for external monitoring and recording. What didn't get included in the D500 is any kind of focus assist while shooting video, so you won't be easily able to manual focus.
USB 3.0 comes along for the ride, which is great if you want to shoot in a studio setting, while tethered to a computer. Inside the camera, there's the option for using both SD and XQD cards. That makes sense since action photographers who want to use a D500 as a secondary camera might already have a collection of that type of flash storage. Having the flexibility to use both kinds of storage means you can get the higher speeds of XQD if you want them, but if you're mostly invested in cheaper SDXC media, you'll be able to shoot with those too.
Nikon's latest and greatest Snapbridge technology is built-in, with no fiddly WiFi adapter required. This image transfer solution uses Bluetooth to send photos to your compatible iOS or Android device as they're taken, without needing to go into a transfer app yourself.
Expensive, but for the right pro, easily worth the money.
I'm not going to mince words here: $2,000 is a lot of dough—even for a pro-grade camera. Where the D500 starts making perfect sense is in the context of its older sister, the queen of all the F-mount land: the Nikon D5. At less than a third of the cost of a D5, you can keep up with flagship cameras, with the only drawback being that you're only shooting with a smaller APS-C sensor. Given that we've seen pros even make do with cameras like the Micro Four Thirds Olympus OM-D E-M1, the D500 is more than able to give you the shots that'll pay the bills.
For enthusiasts, this is a much tougher sell. Since sensor size tends to be a thing that many spec-minded camera geeks are always obsessing over, you can get into Nikon's full-frame system with a D610 for a whole lot less money. That's great if you don't plan on shooting anything at a high frame rate, but at 10 fps, the D500 earns its keep for capturing action, wildlife, or sports.
Heck, if you simply want a weathersealed APS-C Nikon, you can save a bunch on an excellent D7200 instead. The D500 isn't for you unless you absolutely need the best performance you can get in the smallest Nikon available.
If you're interested in using the D500 for video, there are still some compromises that keep it from being an easy recommendation. Two competing cameras go against it and win in unique ways, and often for a whole lot less money. I'd still recommend the Panasonic Lumix GH4 if 4K is your primary goal, since the D500's cropped sensor and extra crop factor mean the area used isn't much bigger at the end of the day.
Then there's Canon's awesome EOS 80D, which has everything you'd want for video shooting, including Canon's Dual Pixel AF, for smooth, automated focus pulls. The 80D doesn't shoot 4K, but I prefer Canon STM lenses for video anyway since, generally, Canon's AF tends to be quieter and faster in live view.
Though it's easy to dismiss it as just another APS-C DSLR in an age of full-frame mirrorless, Nikon proves that its best technology is still relevant to pros. Taken on its own, the D500 might be the highest-performing APS-C camera we've ever seen, period.
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