Hands on: Nikon D500 review

It might have a smaller body and sensor than the D5, but the D500 has much in common with Nikon's new top-end camera.

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

At last Nikon has a professional-level APS-C format camera to replace the D300S and compete with the Canon 7D Mark II and it looks like a real contender with an impressive AF system and great low-light credentials.

For

  • Same AF system as the top-end D5
  • 10fps shooting for 200 raw files
  • Metal, weather-sealed body

Against

  • 20Mp rather than 24Mp

I had a hunch that Nikon would have something more enthusiast focused than the D5 up its sleeve at CES, and I wondered if it might be the D400, the fabled replacement for the D300S. Well the name might have changed to sit more comfortably alongside the company's new top-end full-framer, but make no mistake, the D500 is the camera that many Nikon users have been holding out for.

The D500 sits at the top of Nikon's APS-C (DX) format SLRs and it's aimed at serious enthusiast and professional photographers who want a smaller, lighter camera than a full-frame model like the D810 or D5. It's also designed for pros who want the focal length magnification of the DX format sensor to give their telephoto lenses greater reach.

One surprise about the D500 is that its APS-C format sensor has 20.9 million effective pixels, less than the company's other recent (24Mp) SLRs of the same format. Interestingly the D5 announced at the same time has 20.8 million pixels on its full-frame sensor. I'm told that the two cameras use the same sensor architecture, built to Nikon's specification.

Nikon D500
The D500 has a surprising amount in common with the brand new professional D5.

There are several other similarities between the two new cameras which make the D500 an exciting proposition. The EXPEED 5 processing engine is the same, as is the 153-point Multi-CAM 20K autofocus (AF) system with 99 cross-type points. And, like the D5, the AF central point is sensitive down to -4EV while all the other points are sensitive down to -3EV, potentially making it useful in very low light. The processing engine also brings a maximum continuous shooting rate of 10 frames per second (the D5 can hit 12fps) for up to 200 14-bit lossless compressed raw files, as well as the ability to record 4K UHD movies. It adds up to a pretty enticing package for sports photographers.

In addition to the new imaging sensor, there's a new 180,000-pixel RGB sensor metering and white balance sensor which also informs the automatic scene recognition system to help improve autofocusing with better subject detection.

Sensitivity and sensor size

Having the same pixel count as the D5 but on a smaller sensor means that the D500's photo receptors are smaller. This naturally has an effect on their light gathering power and low light performance. Consequently the D500 doesn't have quite the same crazy sensitivity range as the D5 – its standard range is ISO 100-51,200 and there are five expansion settings taking it up to the equivalent of ISO 1,640,000 – a stop lower than the D5's crazy maximum. That's still an incredibly high figure.

Whereas the D5's 4K shooting capability is limited to 3 minutes it's possible to shoot 4K UHD (3840 x 2160) 30p/25p/24p video for up to 29 min 59sec with the D500. As usual, there are lower resolution video modes and full HD footage can be shot in 60p for slow motion playback. In addition, 4K UHD time-lapse movies can be created in-camera and there's electronic Vibration Reduction to reduce the impact of camera shake when shooting movies hand-held.

Nikon D500
The D500 has a tilting rear screen – the mechanism feels very robust.

Like the D5, the D500 has a 3.2-inch 2,359,000-dot screen that's touch-sensitive. Unlike the D5, however, this can be used to set the AF point – the D5's is limited to use when reviewing images and inputting text for copyright information etc.

Another aspect that distinguishes the D500 from the D5 is the presence of Nikon's new SnapBridge technology which allows the camera to stay permanently linked to a smart device by a low-power Bluetooth connection (or via Wi-Fi). It means that after the first connection has been made, images can be transferred automatically to your phone whenever you shoot and they should be ready to be shared via the Internet when you pick up your phone.

As befits a camera aimed at professional and serious enthusiasts, the D500 has two card slots, one accepts SD type media while the other is for the faster XQD cards. Although they've been around for quite some time, XQD cards haven't become commonplace yet with most cameras accepting SD-type media. This could be set to change.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.