I Shot with the Nikon D500. Here Are My Thoughts
It's been a big week for Nikon announcements at CES 2016 in Las Vegas, with launches of the Nikon D500, Nikon D5, and new SB-5000 Speedlight. The new D500 is a camera that many people have been waiting a long time for — a successor to the Nikon D300/D300s and a true flagship for the Nikon DX line of APS-C cameras. The D500 packs in many of the same new, next-generation features as the Nikon D5 that was also just announced, including a brilliant new autofocus system, EXPEED 5 image processing, and a whole lot more.
With the Nikon D500 now official, I am extremely excited to say I had the privilege of shooting with the D500 to create images for its launch. I've had to keep this project under wraps since August, but now that the camera has been announced, I can finally share my thoughts on this new DX flagship DSLR.
I'm a music photographer. If it rocks, I can shoot it. Live music photography, youth lifestyle and band/celebrity portraits are my trade. My images have appeared in publications like Rolling Stone, Q Magazine, and SPIN, and my clients include brands like iHeartRadio, Red Bull, and Live Nation. Still, for me, as a lifelong Nikon shooter, working on the campaign for a flagship DSLR has been a dream come true for me as a photographer. The fact that Nikon has never featured a music photographer before and that I was the first made this project even more special for me.
In early August of 2015, I received an email with the simple subject line, "Possible assignment offer." After a non-disclosure agreement and months of planning later, in early November of 2015 I received a prototype that exceeded anything that the rumor mill had hoped for: the long-awaited successor to the Nikon D300's throne.
We had an amazing shoot over three days with the Toronto four-piece Dilly Dally, whose look and killer live show was perfect for the kind of band we wanted for this project. Not only that, but I'm a big fan of their music, and it was great to shoot with them right as their debut album, Sore, was garnering praise from the likes of Rolling Stone, VICE, Pitchfork, The Guardian, and more.
This shoot was a massive challenge, as we basically had the band's sound check and raucous 50-minute live show to shoot the majority of these images. But if it's one thing music photographers are used to, it's a bit of a challenge!
Here are my impressions of this new flagship DX DSLR:
Body and Design
Overall Design Notes
The D500's overall design builds on the basic platform of the Nikon D810 and introduces a number of really nice improvements. Shooting with the Nikon D500 for the first time is kind of like coming home to discover someone has just upgraded your TV, renovated the kitchen, and upgraded all the appliances — everything is in the same place, it's just better. If you shoot with a Nikon DSLR, that's how the D500 camera feels.
There's no mistaking the D500 is a pro DSLR. From the rugged build to the tactile feel of the buttons and dense feel of the grip in your hand, the D500 is all business. The body features dedicated buttons for ISO, image quality, metering mode, WB, etc, and not a scene mode in sight.
In general, I prefer DSLRs with the form factor of the D500 and D810. The integrated vertical grip of cameras like the Nikon D5 are nice, but the portability and lighter weight of this smaller design are a huge benefit for most photographers. After owning the Nikon D2x and Nikon D3, I have shot with these smaller bodies since the Nikon D700, and, for my work, I haven't looked back since.
Dual Card Slots for XQD and SDXC
The D500 features what is currently the best combination for professional shooters — the combination XQD and SD slots, compatible with the latest G-Series and UHS-II standards, respectively. The newest XQD cards allow for speeds up to 400 MB/s write and 350 MB/s read, over twice as fast as the fastest CF cards (which, as of January 2016, clock out around 160 MB/s write). The SDXC slot lets you use leverage the handful of cheap and large-capacity SD cards that every pro photographer I know has knocking around their camera bag.
So, you basically have the best of both worlds — best-in-class speed with XQD and the ubiquity and utility of SD. As always, you can set the second card slot for backup, overflow, or just saving JPG copies.
While Nikon's move to XQD from CF might force an upgrade in storage for some pros, the increase in speed is worth it. More on this in the Speed section of the shooting impressions.
The Nikon D500 features an eye-level pentaprism viewfinder, which offers 100% vertical and 100% horizontal coverage for precise framing and 1.0x magnification. These might seem like trivial specs, what this means is that the viewfinder shows precisely what you capture in your files, allowing for the most critical framing.
No Built-In Flash
The D500 does away with the built-in pop-up flash entirely, a decision I feel pro photographers everywhere support. On my pair of Nikon D800s, I keep the built-in flashes taped down with gaffer tape to prevent them from popping up until I need to use them — which is never. To me, built-in flashes are just a liability that can break or break off.
This change allows for a big pentaprism while still allowing for a very low-profile hump. I love it. The big boys like the Nikon D4 and new D5 don't have a built-in flash, and the D500 doesn't need one, either.
Tilting Touch Screen
Though a touch-enabled LCD was introduced with the Nikon D5500, the D500 is the first time we've seen this feature in a professional Nikon DSLR. If you've used a smartphone in the last 5 years, the use of the touchscreen is completely intuitive. During playback, you can pinch and stretch to zoom in or out of images, and swipe left or right to navigate through images.
The touch screen makes image review extremely fast, especially with the "frame advance bar" feature. This interface allows you to move through a series of images instantly, without having to swipe the images. Since the image zoom and framing remains locked, the frame advance bar is perfect for reviewing focus or sharpness of images shot in continuous mode.
With live view shooting, Nikon has implemented touch AF/shutter with the new touch display — tap anywhere on the screen to set focus and take a photo. Tough AF works in movie mode as well.
For my shooting, I loved being able to shoot overhead with the D500's tilt screen. The tilt screen itself is basically the same design implemented on the Nikon D750 — it articulates 180º for low-angle or overhead shooting. The tilt mechanism is great; there when you want it, and completely out of the way and invisible when you don't need it.
Controls — Sub-selector
The D500 adds a sub-selector control pad to the back of the camera, positioned near the AF-ON button. Introduced with the Nikon D4, the sub-selector is a more ergonomic input for selecting AF point while shooting. Since the sub-selector is positioned in the same arc of the thumb as the rear command dial and the AF-ON button, it makes for an even more fluid shooting experience.
With live music photography, being able to react to a moment on stage is key to being able to make the best images, so, personally, I love to see Nikon pushing for the best user experience, interface, and ergonomics. While it's a small change, but the sub-selector makes Nikon's famous ergonomics and controls even better.
For me, one of the true marks of a professional camera is the connectivity it offers, and here the Nikon D500 does not disappoint. Like the D5 and D810, the D500 offers a PC-sync socket and 10-pin port, which allow the D500 to use a range of industry-standard accessories. Ports like this might be a minor feature, but for they can add up to be a big consideration when using studio gear and accessories, so it's great to see that the D500 has these pro options.
A minor but very important new feature of the D500 is flicker reduction when shooting under 50/60 Hz lighting, such as fluorescent lighting. The D500 essentially detects the oscillation of light levels and minimizes this effect by shooting at the brightest moments.
This is of particular advantage for anyone who shoots sports or other high-speed photography, where minute changes in lighting exposure can ruin the best frames of a decisive moment.
20.9 Megapixel DX Sensor
The D500 features a 20.9 megapixel DX sensor with an resolution of 5568 × 3712 pixels. Personally, I feel like 20mp is a sweetspot for many photographers and especially the DX format. Coincidence that the newly announced Nikon D5 full-frame flagship also sports a 20.8mp sensor? I don't think so.
At the 20-megapixel range, you get enough resolution that retouching portrait work is still a breeze, but not so much that file size requires a server farm or a supercomputer to process.
Furthermore, pixel density is kept modest, so you're able to have bigger photosites, which translates into less noise at the sensor level. This is even more true for the smaller DX format, and keeping the resolution at 20mp leverages high detail while still allowing for amazing high ISO performance.
I shoot with the 36mp Nikon D800, but that's basically only because I'm a masochist. Even used to the higher resolution of the D800, I was amazed at the detail and pixel-level quality produced by the D500. Not just for a DX sensor, but for any DSLR, period.
No Optical Low-Pass Filter
Part of the reason for the fantastic image quality the D500 produces is a result of the sensor design. The D500 ditches the optical low-pass filter, which is a great decision for 99% of the photographers who will use this camera.
Low-pass filters apply a minute level of blurring at the sensor level — the reason for them is to reduce moiré patterns, artifacts that can cause false color or false detail at the pixel level. The downside to low-pass filters is that in order to reduce moiré patterns in the rare instances they do appear in real-world shooting, they sacrifice the sharpest details 100% of the time.
By leaving out the low-pass filter, the D500 is able to deliver extremely crisp detail and make the absolute most out of the 20mp sensor. This is the same decision that Nikon has made with the Nikon D810, which I think signals a favorable trend of really delivery maximum detail and clarity.
Exposure latitude, highlight recover, and shadow detail with RAW files from the D500 are all excellent. Nikon's last generation of cameras have all had superb latitude in the RAW files, and the D500 is no exception.
Even at high ISO, where most cameras begin to suffer with regard to the elasticity of their RAW files, I found the D500 provided plenty of headroom. All sample images in this article were shot and processed from RAW using Nikon Capture NX-D software.
I must note here that the cameras I used were all pre-production prototypes. And, while I was extremely impressed by the image quality, they were prototypes nonetheless and I must stress that the image quality of my samples should not be taken as the final quality of the production release of the D500.
The D500 shoots at a pretty blazing 10 FPS and will sustain this for 200 frames of 14-bit lossless compressed RAW using XQD cards. Let me repeat that. 200 frames of 14-bit RAW. Or in other words, what you get is basically the fastest continuous shooting available on a Nikon DSLR outside of the Nikon D5, and not by much. And for reference, 10 FPS is the same frame rate as the previous full-frame flagship, the Nikon D4/D4s. This is insane.
As a music photographer, I'm constantly chasing those small, fleeting, "rockstar" moments — those instances at the height of a performance. The 10 FPS continuous rate of the D500 is a huge boon to capturing those perfect moments.
Here, the speed of the D500 is another reason why the 20.9mp sensor hits a sweet spot, allowing the camera to provide a level of agility and performance that punches far above its weight and size.
In case you were wondering what 10 FPS sounds like…
If I had to pick just one feature of the D500 that stands out, I would have to pick the new AF module. Honestly, when I read the technical specs of the camera, I thought there must have been a mistake. 153 autofocus points? 99 cross-type sensors? 55 user-selectable points? We've never seen an AF system like this in a DSLR. And it's awesome.
While the new D5 also features this same new 153-point system, the layout truly sings on the DX format, offering an amazingly wide spread of AF points that fill the frame.
In terms of low-light focusing, the D500 features 15 AF points that are compatible with f/8 effective maximum aperture down to -4 EV. Excuse me while I scream like a fangirl at a One Direction concert.
But specs aside, how does the new 153-point system work in the real world? Shooting with the Nikon D500, when ambient light conditions called for ISO 12800 and above, the AF of the D500 crushed it, even with moving, low contrast subjects in dim lighting (AKA live music photography). When I photograph musicians, they are almost in constant motion — rocking back and forth, moving up to a mic stand to sing and then shifting back to shred — and this kind of action often happens in very low lighting. A typical show might require an exposure of ISO 6400 at f/2.8 and 1/500, and in this type of lighting, AF has to perform or you go home without the shot. The Nikon D500's AF nailed these kinds of challenges with ease.
I shoot almost exclusively in AF-C, and I found that the D500 new AF module and algorithms are as good as anything I've ever used and better. Nikon's AF has always been excellent and one of the reasons I have always used Nikon DSLRs, and the D500 only improves on this legacy.
High ISO Performance
As a music photographer, I live and die at high ISO. My job starts when the lights go down, and I rarely shoot below ISO 3200 for my live music photography. So this statement is not something I make lightly: The high ISO performance of the D500 blew me away.
Not only does this camera have an astounding native range – ISO 100 to 51200 — but the quality in this range is just tremendous. What Nikon has done is basically made a DX sensor that shoots in the dark like a full-frame sensor. That's how good the high ISO image quality is.
And if 51200 isn't enough, the D500 offers not just HI-1, HI-2, or 3… but HI-5 for an equivalent of ISO 1640000. Yes. ISO One-Point-Six-Million. Million.
Overall, the image quality that the D500 delivers at high ISO is excellent. I consider it a bad day at the office if I have to stretch to ISO 12800, but even here the D500 offers outstanding image quality, not to mention seven (!) more stops of headroom. For my work, I could easily shoot at ISO 6400 and ISO 12800 all day, the high ISO performance is just that good.
Having a DX sensor perform like this is pretty amazing. When I started shooting concerts 10 years ago (yes, I'm going to pull out that card) I used a Nikon D2x. The native ISO range went to 800, and to even get to ISO 3200 you were at HI-2, the end of the road… It's pretty amazing to see what a decade of innovation and improvements mean in terms of high ISO performance, looking back to the D2x and then to the new DX flagship, the D500.
Shooting Music Photography with the D500
Shooting concert photography is pretty much like taking your camera and punching it in the face. The shooting conditions range from dim to dark, the targets are moving, and if you're lucky you only get splashed with flying beer and not a boot to the head. The D500 endured all this abuse and just laughed.
With the D500, Nikon took everything I love about their DSLRs and made it better. Ergonomics. Customizability. Image quality. Autofocus. Everything is top of the line. The D500 is the definition of a flagship camera.
But don't take my word for it. Here are the images shot with the Nikon D500 made for the launch campaign. (And again, I should remark that these images were all made with pre-production copies of the D500):
Location Portrait Photos With the D500 and SB-5000
These images were all photographed with the Nikon D500, new SB-5000 speedlight and WR-10 radio trigger. For modifiers, I used the Profoto 4' RFI Octabox and 36" Photex Softlighter II on the keylights. Both of these light modifiers worked perfectly with the SB-5000, with a beautiful quality of light that I highly recommend.
I was extremely impressed by the power of the SB-5000 units, which were more than capable in shooting in bright sunlight as well as throttled down to balance with any existing ambient lighting.
It's been 9 years since the introduction of the D300 and 7 years since the release of the D300s. For those photographers who need the performance of a truly professional DX flagship, worthy of the throne, the wait is over.
I feel like the new Nikon D500 delivers on the speed, performance, and quality that the DX format originally promised us. We have a DX sensor that rivals the image quality of full-frame cameras for per-pixel acuity and high ISO performance, with an agility and responsiveness that is up to the most demanding photographic tasks. All in a compact and lightweight DSLR system.
In particular, the new 153-point AF system is class-leading, and I think that this, combined with the 10 FPS continuous shooting rate, are going to be game changers for any photographers who chase decisive moments.
This whole shoot was a huge team effort just working on my small part of the campaign, and I'm so excited to finally share these images. I started shooting concerts in smoky dive bars — never did I dream my path in music photography would lead to working on a project like this. It was truly a thrill and an honor.
About the author: Todd Owyoung is a music photographer based in New York City. He's available for worldwide travel for editorial and commercial assignments. He also runs the website ishootshows.com, a leading website for music photography. You can see more of his work on his website. This article was also published here.
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