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Nikon D500 review: The D500 scores on almost all counts

Fast and flexible, the Nikon D500 is one of the best dSLRs you can buy for under $2,000.

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Lori Grunin
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Lori Grunin

Senior Editor / Reviews

I've been writing about and reviewing consumer technology since before the turn of the century. I'm also a photographer and cat herder, frequently at the same time.

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After 6 years neglecting the power APS-C action photographer, Nikon released the mostly impressive D500 dSLR, the little sister to the pro full-frame D5. With the same autofocus and metering systems as that model, a high-sensitivity 20.9-megapixel CMOS sensor, a large tilting touchscreen and 4K video, it hits most of the essential targets for a camera in its class. Only a couple of flaws knock it slightly off course.

The Good

The Nikon D500 is fast with excellent continuous-shooting and autofocus performance, its 4K video support is a welcome novelty for its dSLR price class and, of course, there's the great photo quality.

The Bad

Terrible wireless file-transfer and remote-control app, and its Live View (contrast) autofocus could use a boost.

The Bottom Line

There's tons to like about the Nikon D500, from its fast shooting and excellent image quality to its broad feature set and streamlined design. But it still falls short with its Live View autofocus and seriously subpar wireless file transfer and shooting operation.

The D500's body runs $2,000 (£1,730, AU$3,500); the camera also comes in a kit with the DX 16-80mm f2.8-4mm lens for $2,600 (£2,480, AU$4,500). Unlike a lot of kit lenses I've seen, this one's pretty good, and has a useful general-purpose focal-length range equivalent to 24-120mm. The lens is sharp, with a reasonable maximum-aperture range that should match the needs of people who'd be buying the body and want something for routine situations.

Joining the 1-million ISO club

It takes more than just raw speed to optimize a camera for continuous shooting. You need the ability to take decent photos at high sensitivities. That's the only way you can use action-stopping fast shutter speeds and sharpness-maximizing narrower apertures under a lot of conditions; most activities don't take place in bright, direct sunlight. The D500 delivers a maximum sensitivity of ISO 1,640,000 -- highest in its price range -- though the camera's native range stops at ISO 51200, leaving five stops in the expanded range.

Nikon D500 full-resolution photo samples

See all photos

JPEGs look clean through ISO 6400. At ISO 6400 you can still process the raws to obtain more detail, though the trade-off is a lot of "grain" and hot pixels in dark areas. Between ISO 12800 and ISO 102400 (Hi 1) in JPEGs you can see some smearing and processed color noise, but it still retains modest amount of detail. Beyond that, you can still get recognizable photos at small sizes. Processing the raw files doesn't help much; I suspect Nikon's performing some in-camera wizardry to produce what it does. Overall, though, the similarly priced Nikon D750, with its full-frame sensor, still produces better photos

The color rendering and white balance are excellent. Its default Standard Picture Control increases contrast and you lose some highlight and shadow detail, and midtones are compressed, but the occasional hue shift is minor.

The D500 is the first camera to bring 4K video to a consumer-priced dSLR, and the quality is quite good for an APS-C sensor; sharp, with a solid dynamic range and the same excellent color. You can see a lot of noise in shadows above ISO 6400, but overall it's peachy.

Analysis samples

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JPEGs look sharp and clean in the low ISO sensitivity range.

Lori Grunin/CNET
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Despite the stratospheric ISO sensitivity claims, JPEGs are only clean through about ISO 6400, though depending upon the scene and lighting you may get pretty good results through ISO 25600.

Lori Grunin/CNET
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You don't want to venture into the expanded sensitivity ranges often, but they'll serve if you're desperate in low lighting. There's an odd white-balance shift in both raw and JPEG files at ISO 102400.

Lori Grunin/CNET
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In dim light the highest ISO sensitivity images look much better than our test shots, but you still don't want to use them at 100 percent.

Lori Grunin/CNET
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I'm impressed that Nikon can produce a recognizable image from this noisy mess at its Hi 5 sensitivity, equivalent to ISO 1638400. (JPEG on left, unprocessed raw on right.) In the expanded ranges, the JPEG processing delivers better results than you can probably get with raw processing, so if you enter that territory then change the in-camera settings to help keep from blowing up the highlights.

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The D500 delivers excellent color reproduction and white balance under most conditions.

Lori Grunin/CNET
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The camera's tonal range is pretty good, with a reasonable amount of recoverable highlight and shadow detail.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Rat-a-tat-tat

It's fast. Really fast for its price class, with concomitantly fast and accurate autofocus. For single shots, the cheaper Canon EOS 7D Mark II performs about the same (our charts overstate small differences in performance). Part of the slight lag stems from the 16-80mm lens, which is reasonably speedy but doesn't drive fast enough to keep up.

At continuous shooting, however, with both autoexposure and continuous autofocus enabled, the D500 sustains a rate of 10.7 frames per second for an unlimited number of JPEGs and more than 40 raw+JPEG shots to the XQD card before slowing; with an SD card, the rate is a still-nothing-to-sneeze-at 10fps.

And the autofocus keeps up quite well -- unsurprising given that it has the same AF system as the D5 -- though you really have to customize it to the type of action for best results. The camera can focus in really dim conditions, too. There's a one-shot exposure lag (for instance, if a bicyclist moves from light to shadow the first shot in the shadow was usually underexposed) but that's typical in cameras that support AE in maximum-speed burst.

Continuous shooting seemed to eat up the battery life and it depleted faster than I expected, but that may have been caused by the 90-plus degrees F temperature when I tested outdoors (that's 32 C for the rest of the world). Battery life is still pretty good, though. I can also attest that the dust-and-weather-sealed body is impervious to sweat.

The one blot on the D500's speed record is its Live View autofocus, which is pretty slow: the shot lag in good light is about 1.3 seconds. And the continuous AF in Live View when shooting video isn't great. It hunts too much and feels too ratchety. I didn't try all the settings, though, so it's possible there's a combination that adjusts more smoothly and quickly. The display does support touch focus, though, which compensates somewhat.

Shooting speed

Olympus PEN-F 0.1 0.1 0.2 0.2 0.8Canon EOS 7D Mark II 0.2 0.3 0.2 0.2 0.8Nikon D750 0.4 0.4 0.2 0.2 0.2Nikon D500 0.4 0.5 0.2 0.2 0.2Nikon D7200 0.6 0.6 0.2 0.2 0.3
  • Shutter lag (typical)
  • Shutter lag (dim light)
  • Typical shot-to-shot time
  • Raw shot-to-shot time
  • Time to first shot
Note: Seconds (shorter bars are better)

Continuous-shooting speed

Nikon D500 10.7Canon EOS 7D Mark II 9.5Nikon D750 6.6Olympus PEN-F 5.6Nikon D7200 5.0
Note: Frames per second (longer bars are better)

Almost everything you need

The camera's sturdy and comfortable to hold for long periods, with an intelligent control layout and a big, bright viewfinder. It has 4 banks of Nikon's typical array of customizable settings.

Its feature set has most everything you need in this class of camera. That includes a mic and jack, flat color profile, a frequency-response option for optimizing between voice and general recording and electronic image stabilization for video. You can also customize control mapping and settings for video and stills separately, and it remembers the different exposure settings in each mode.

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The D500 has two card slots, XQD and SD. The XQD provides noticeably faster performance for continuous shooting.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The camera's only real weakness is its wireless operation. Snapbridge is Nikon's branding for its wireless file transfer system, but I think the company spent more time and money on the branding than it did on the implementation. Though the D500 adds Bluetooth for a persistent, low-power wireless connection, the app isn't even robust enough for consumers much less the advanced users of this camera. (And I had to delete it from my phone because even disabled it was draining the battery.)

It seems like it's predominantly intended as a utility for uploading photos to Nikon's redundant file-sharing service. The remote shooting is really lame -- it's just a shutter. And the iOS app isn't even slated to come out until August. As Nikon has perpetually lagged in its wireless implementation, I don't have high hopes for improvement.

Conclusion

The Nikon D500 is 95 percent of a terrific camera. I enjoy photographing with it, the image quality is excellent for its sensor class, the feature set has all the essentials plus a bit more and it's fast in most shooting situations. For action stills and video it's the best dSLR for the money. I just wish it had a grown-up wireless implementation and faster Live View operation.

Comparative specifications

Canon EOS 7D Mark IINikon D500Nikon D750
Sensor effective resolution "20.2MP Dual Pixel CMOS 14-bit""20.9MP CMOS 14-bit""24.3MP CMOS 14-bit"
Sensor size 22.4 x 15.0 mm23.5 x 15.7 mm35.9 x 24mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.6x1.5x1.0x
OLPF YesYesYes
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 16000/ISO 51200 (exp)ISO 50 (exp)/ISO 100 - ISO 51,200/ISO 1,640,000 (exp)ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 12800/51200 (exp)
Burst shooting "10fps 1,090 JPEG/31 raw""10fps 79 raw ""6.5fps n/a"
"Viewfinder (mag/ effective mag)" "Optical 100% coverage 1.0x/.67x""Optical 100% coverage 1.0x/0.67x""Optical 100% coverage 0.70x/0.70x"
Hot Shoe YesYesYes
Autofocus "65-point phase-detection AF all cross-type center dual cross to f2.8""153-point 99 cross-type (15 cross-type to f8) Multi-CAM 20K""51-pt 15 cross type 11 cross type to f8 (Multi-CAM 3500-FX II)"
AF sensitivity -3 to 18 EV-4 - 20 EV-3 - 19 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync1/8,000 to 30 secs bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync (1/8,000 sec x-sync with FP shutter)1/4000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync
Shutter durability 200,000 cycles200,000 cycles150,000 cycles
Metering 150,000-pixel RGB+IR 252 zone180,000-pixel RGB sensor 3D Color Matrix Metering III91,000-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering III
Metering sensitivity 1 - 20 EV-3 - 20 EV0 - 20 EV
Best video "H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/60p, 30p, 25p, 24p @ 50Mbps"H.264 QuickTime MOV 4K UHD/30p, 25p, 24p"H.264 Quicktime MOV 1080/60p, 50p, 30p, 25p, 24p"
Audio Stereo, mic input, headphonesstereo; mic input; headphone jackstereo; mic input; headphone jack
Manual aperture and shutter in video YesYesYes
Maximum best-quality recording time per clip 4GB/29:59 mins4GB/29:59 mins20 minutes
Clean HDMI out YesYesYes
IS OpticalOpticalOptical
Display "3 in/7.5cm Fixed 1.04m dots""3.2 in/8 cm Tilting touchscreen 2.4 million dots""3.2 in/8cm Tilting 921,000 dots plus extra set of white dots"
Memory slots 1 x CF, 1 x SDXC1 x SD, 1 x XQD2 x SDXC
Wireless connection via optional WFT-E7A Version 2Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFCWi-Fi
Flash YesNoYes
Wireless flash YesYesYes
Battery life (CIPA rating) "600 shots (VF); 250 shots (LV) (1,865 mAh)""1,240 shots (1,900 mAh)""1,230 shots (1,900 mAh)"
Size (WHD) "5.9 x 4.4 x 3.1 in 148.6 x 112.4 x 78.2 mm""5.8 x 4.6 x 3.2 in 147 x 115 x 81 mm""5.6 x 4.5 x 3.1 in 140.5 x 113 x 78 mm"
Body operating weight "32.5 oz 920 g""30.3 oz 848 g""29.6 oz 840 g"
Mfr. price (body only) "$1,600 £1,370 AU$2,140""$2,000 £1,730 AU$3,000""$2,000 £1,650 AU$2,900"
Release date November 2014March 2016September 2014
nikon-d500-01.jpg
8.4

Nikon D500

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 9Image quality 8