Nikon D500 field-tested: Long-expected successor to the Nikon D300 worth the wait!

Nikon D500 field-tested: Long-expected successor to the Nikon D300 worth the wait!

Nikon D500 DSLR Camera (Body Only)Few cameras have had a more loyal following than the Nikon D300 (and predecessor Nikon D200). For those who wanted a pro-quality Nikon without moving to the size and expense of full-frame, they represented an excellent combination of features at a reasonable price. However, as the years have gone by, the tech in those cameras has been left in the dust. Many owners have been forced to move either “down” to a more consumer-oriented, but newer, model like the , or up to a larger, more-expensive, model like the . No longer. I shot almost exclusively in Alaska for two weeks with a , and loved it. It is easy to hold, fun to use, and took photos that are as high quality as I’ve ever seen from a 21MP sensor.


Ideal shooting experience

Sure, I love the heft and insane frame rate of the , for about 10 minutes. Then its three pounds makes me remember how heavy it is. I had no such issues with the . At less then two pounds (a few grams less than the !), I actually used it handheld for over half the time in Alaska. I don’t think I would have done that with a D5. The deep grip also makes it easy to hold. The best part is that I didn’t have to compromise performance. 10 fps makes shooting wildlife action a lot more fun, and more productive. You get that natively with the , a nice upgrade from the D300, which required a vertical grip to even get to 8 fps. The also has Nikon’s newest Autofocus technology.

Along with 10 fps comes a nearly unlimited buffer – the camera can record a burst of up to 200 14-bit Raw images without a pause. For all this power in a small package, you do give up the pop-up flash. Most users won’t find that much of a loss, as they’ll be relying on an accessory Speedlite, but there are certainly times when the built-in flash comes in handy.

The 153-point AF on the is quick enough to make even the not-so-fast Nikon 80-400mm lens look like a star for flight photography.
This Horned Puffin wasn’t quite as close as he looks, as this is a 4MP crop from the entire frame.
, Nikon 80-400mm AF-S lens @ 400mm, 1/1600s @ f/10, ISO 800

Nikon has borrowed from the new, improved control layout of the D5 as well. The ISO button is now simple to reach with your shutter finger, for example. The Autofocus control system is also Nikon’s latest and greatest, with lots of group modes and a variety of dynamic options. I mostly left the camera in Dynamic 153-point, and moved my primary AF point around using either the traditional joystick, or the new supplemental one. 3D focus worked well for many flight shot opportunities, but it got very confused when birds were on water (it would often lock on to the nearest wave). I really liked that the AF points are spread across almost the entire frame, making my preferred means of composing (framing and moving the AF point appropriately) easy.

Nikon made the interesting choice of XQD 2.0 for the primary card slot in the camera – necessary to get the amazing 200-image Raw buffer & 4K video capture performance. Fortunately XQD 2.0 is an improvement over 1.0, and a lot less expensive. You can get a .

Image Quality

Several of us were using s during our recent Alaska safaris. All of us have been thrilled with the image quality. We shot with lenses including the new 80-400mm zoom, new 300mm f/4, Nikon 70-200mm f/4, new Nikon 16-80mm zoom (kit lens for the ), new Nikon 500mm f/4, and the Nikon 600mm f/4. All the combinations delivered, although at the long end the D500+80-400 combo wasn’t as sharp as some of the others (not too surprising since that’s effectively 600mm on a superzoom lens). Like several newer Nikons, including the , the doesn’t have an OLPF (Optical Low-pass filter, aka anti-aliasing filter), providing slightly higher effective resolution than in similar cameras that have one.

It is impressive how well the holds up on the DxOMark image quality tests.
If you don’t need the speed, performance, and pro build of the , the is an excellent alternative.
The D7200’s overall higher score is driven primarily by lower noise in the dark areas at low ISOs.
For very low-light (e.g. high ISO) the D500 is definitely the winner.

Even cropped to 4MP, this image holds up very well.
, 1/800s @ f/8, @ 185mm, ISO 500

The is also a massive upgrade for video – to 4K at up to 30 fps. It’s pretty impressive for a “prosumer” camera. Here is some off-the-cuff footage I shot hand held (you can see the camera starting to wave around a little more as I lose a bit of concentration towards the end):


I shot this image with the “kit” lens, the new Nikon 16-80mm zoom. A great choice if you need a new DX-format zoom, as it gives you 24-120mm equivalent focal range.
, Nikon 16-80mm lens, 1/500s (to freeze the flowers in the breeze) @ f/14, ISO 500

Here is another image from the Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-f/4 zoom. Plenty of detail!

The and new are an amazingly light and effective combination for capturing action of every kind!
, ,  1/1250s @ f/7.1, ISO 320

Fireweed was in bloom early this year.
, , 1/400s @ f/5, ISO 320
On the full-size image you can zoom in and see reflections in the water droplets!

Here is a pixel-for-pixel crop of one piece of the image

Should you buy the ?

If you want the best possible (maybe the best that will ever be possible, as I expect to see more innovation moving to mirrorless over time) APS-C (aka DX) format camera, the is it. For about $2000, you get a pro quality, 10 fps, fast focusing camera that shoots excellent 4K video. And of course you can keep all your Nikon glass. For those thinking of moving to a mirrorless, but daunted by the thought of swapping out your whole system, the is a great alternative. If you want similar image quality for half the price, the is now selling for about $1050 – but you’ll give up some features and performance.

We’re fortunate that the area where we photograph brown bears has many beautifully-colored female bears.
First-year cubs, though, are almost always dark-furred, and a challenge for any camera to record.
, , Nikon TC1.4 II, 1/4000s @ f/6.3, ISO 800

Complete Specs:

Lens Mount
Nikon F

Camera Format
DX / (1.5x Crop Factor)

Actual: 21.51 Megapixel
Effective: 20.9 Megapixel

Max Resolution
5568 x 3712

Aspect Ratio

Sensor Type / Size
CMOS, 23.5 x 15.7 mm

File Formats
Still Images: JPEG, RAW, TIFF
Movies: MOV, MPEG-4 AVC/H.264
Audio: Linear PCM (Stereo)

Bit Depth

Dust Reduction System

Memory Card Type

Focus Type
Auto & Manual

Focus Mode
Continuous-servo AF (C), Manual Focus (M), Single-servo AF (S)

Autofocus Points
Phase Detection:153, 99 cross-type

Viewfinder Type

Viewfinder Eye Point
16.00 mm

Viewfinder Coverage

Viewfinder Magnification
Approx. 1.0x

Diopter Adjustment
- 2 to +1 m

Display Screen
3.2" Rear Touchscreen Tilting  LCD (2,359,000)

Screen Coverage

Diagonal Angle of View

ISO Sensitivity
Auto, 100-51200 (Extended Mode: 50-1640000)

Type: Electronic & Mechanical
Speed: 30 - 1/8000 second

Remote Control
WR-R10, WR-1 (Optional)

Mirror Lock-Up

Metering Method
3D Color Matrix Metering, Center-weighted average metering, Spot metering, Highlight Weighted

Exposure Modes
Modes: Aperture Priority, Manual, Program, Shutter Priority
Metering Range: EV -4.0 - EV 20.0
Compensation: -5 EV to +5 EV (in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV steps)

Continuous Shooting
Up to 10 fps at 20.9 MP for up to 200 frames in raw format

White Balance Modes
Auto, Cloudy, Color Temperature, Direct Sunlight, Flash, Fluorescent, Incandescent, Preset Manual, Shade

Flash Modes
1st Curtain Sync
Hi-Speed Sync
Rear Curtain/Slow Sync
Rear Sync
Red-eye Reduction
Slow Sync
Slow Sync/Red-eye Reduction

Built-in Flash

Max Sync Speed
1 / 250 seconds

Flash Compensation
-3 EV to +1 EV (in 1/3, 1/2 or 1 EV steps)

Dedicated Flash System

External Flash Connection
Hot Shoe, PC Terminal

Video Recording

Video Format
3840 x 2160p / 30 fps
3840 x 2160p / 25 fps
3840 x 2160p / 24 fps
High Definition
1920 x 1080p / 60 fps
1920 x 1080p / 50 fps
High Definition
1920 x 1080p / 30 fps
1920 x 1080p / 25 fps
1920 x 1080p / 24 fps
High Definition
1280 x 720p / 60 fps
1280 x 720p / 50 fps

Aspect Ratio

Exposure Control
Manual: Shutter Speed, Aperture, ISO

ISO Sensitivity
Auto/Manual, 100 - 51200, Expandable to 1640000

Continuous Auto

Video Clip Length
3840 x 2160
@ 30 fps: 29 min. 59 seconds
1920 x 1080
@ 60 fps: 29 min. 59 seconds
1280 x 720
@ 60 fps: 29 min. 59 seconds

Audio Recording
Built-in Mic: With Video, Stereo
Optional External Mic: With Video, Stereo

Self Timer
20 seconds, 10 seconds, 5 seconds, 2 seconds

Interval Recording

1/8" Headphone, 1/8" Microphone, HDMI C (Mini), Micro-USB, NIkon 10-Pin, USB 3.0

Wi-Fi Capable

1x EN-EL15 Rechargeable Lithium-ion Battery Pack, 7  VDC, 1900 mAh

AC Power Adapter
EH-5b (Optional)

Operating/Storage Temperature
32 to 104°F (0 to 40°C)
Humidity: 85 - 0%

Dimensions (WxHxD)
5.8 x 4.5 x 3.2" / 147.0 x 115.0 x 81.0 mm

1.89 lb / 860 g with battery and memory card

Package Weight
4.1 lb

Box Dimensions (LxWxH)
9.7 x 6.4 x 5.8"