CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Canon EOS 7D Mark II||Nikon D500||Nikon 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 mm||23.5 x 15.7 mm||35.9 x 24mm|
|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"|
|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-sync||1/8,000 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 cycles||200,000 cycles||150,000 cycles|
|Metering||150,000-pixel RGB+IR 252 zone||180,000-pixel RGB sensor 3D Color Matrix Metering III||91,000-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering III|
|Metering sensitivity||1 - 20 EV||-3 - 20 EV||0 - 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, headphones||stereo; mic input; headphone jack||stereo; mic input; headphone jack|
|Manual aperture and shutter in video||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Maximum best-quality recording time per clip||4GB/29:59 mins||4GB/29:59 mins||20 minutes|
|Clean HDMI out||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|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 SDXC||1 x SD, 1 x XQD||2 x SDXC|
|Wireless connection||via optional WFT-E7A Version 2||Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC||Wi-Fi|
|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 2014||March 2016||September 2014|