Nikon D500 – animal magnet (25.06.2016)
Text and photos: Sven Začek
450mm f4, 630mm f5,6 or 450mm f2,8, 630mm f4 and 900mm f5,6 or 600mm f2,8, 840mm f4 and 1200mm F5,6. Great numbers, aren’t they? These are the angles of view that Nikon D500 offers together with 300mm F4 VR, 300mm F2,8 VR and 400mm F2,8 VR lenses and 1,4x and 2x converters. We are talking about the equivalents of the angles of view, not focal lengths. These numbers are the dream of every animal photographer!
Nikon D500 has been in my camera bag for three weeks now. Or to be honest, it has spent more time out of my camera bag because I have been very interested in putting this camera to test and already in the first day, I realised that D500’s performance is something new among half-frame sensor cameras.
Until now, half-frame sensor cameras have been like neutered photo machines. I have understood the need to neuter: expensive technology and other kind of niche. These cameras offer good companionship to an active enthusiast but when doing everyday work, they tend to annoy more than be helpful. The problems include weaker autofocus, poor-quality ISO sensitivity due to the small sensor or weak processors that enable only 6 fps continuous shooting mode that brings a tear to the eye when you meet an exciting creature in the deep forest and it is not from happiness. And of course, their lack of ergonomics. But all these things are relevant when compared to big full-frame cameras. That is why; I haven’t been that interested in half-frame cameras not to say I have not been interested in them at all.
With Nikon D500, Nikon engineers decided to go through a decent optimizing process with the purpose of positioning as many important functions in its small body as possible and still keep the price as low as possible so that all photography enthusiasts would basically be able to afford it. I am glad that I didn’t have to take part in this process because it must have been a very nerve-racking maze of compromises that needed to be achieved for the launch of this camera. But they did it.
I am sure that the reader is dying to ask what D500 is like compared to its big brother D5. I think that D500 has two main advantages compared to its big brother. The first technical advantage is that with D500, 20 megapixels cover a smaller area. Thus, from my point of view, I have more pixels on the animal. For example, let’s take the first number from the first chapter – 450mm f4. When D500 puts 20 pixels on the 450mm f4 angle of view, D5 puts the same number on 300mm f4 angle of view. The other advantage is of a practical kind and it is the price. In other aspects important to me, D5 was better and at times, a lot better. But of course, when looking at the prices, it should be like that. But it rather speaks for the strengths of D500 rather than weaknesses that this camera can even be mentioned in a same sentence with a full-frame camera. Anyway, this is a new step for the half-frame cameras. There’s Nikon D500 and then there are all the other half-frame cameras. Let us now take a look at some practical and technical strengths and weaknesses of D500 that I could come up with during the time that I have been using D500.
D500 is a camera created for specific work
Nikon D500 is a niche camera but for me, this camera fulfils the most important task – namely, animal photography. The necessity of D500 can also be transmitted to sports photography, journalism and anywhere else where it is necessary to get close to the subject. Yes, D500 can be successful in other areas as well but in those, you won’t notice the strengths of D500 and rather notice the weaknesses.
The first thing that you notice when you are used to using full-frame cameras and their big bodies (D3x, D4s, D5) is the lack of balance when using big telescopic lenses. For example, D500 together with 300mm F4 VR is a very nicely balanced combination that you can use for “panning“ birds without tearing a muscle and that you can carry along while spying around. When f2,8 300mm and 400mm come out from the camera bag, the assignment gets a lot more difficult. More difficult for the muscles and also because after getting the camera and lens in the exact right position, it is difficult to move them during the capturing process since the barycentre is totally unbalanced due to the camera being small. Thus, those who are planning to pair D500 with the mentioned lenses should definitely purchase D500 together with a battery grip. I believe that a battery grip is a compulsory accessory for this camera. Don’t leave the store without it! In addition to adding balance, battery grip increases the time period of shooting because the standard battery of this camera is not able to withstand the shooting speed and the computing power of D500. The decrease in the battery energy is about as follows: 100 clicks cost 10 % of the battery. And it is summertime at the moment. During the cold period, it is much more critical. So, I am going to say this again – battery grip, battery grip, battery grip.
The other thing that catches the eye is the fact that you cannot sense the shooting distance. Not that the camera doesn’t but the photographer doesn’t. Animals are suddenly very close. It is not a big surprise for those who are used half-frame cameras but for full-frame camera users, there’s a big difference.
The third aspect becomes evident when looking into the viewfinder. When doing so, one eye starts to laugh and the other to cry. The crying eye complains about the viewfinder being like a keyhole compared full-frame cameras (OK, I am exaggeration a bit) But then, the laughing eye interferes and notices that the focus points reach from edge to edge and that is something totally new in my photography history. Composition wise, the small viewfinder full of focus points offers a lot of solutions. If I had a third eye then that would be somewhere in middle of crying and laughing because it would notice that the focus points are quite big. D5 has just spoilt me with its small focus points because these enable to focus on the animal very precisely. With D500, one has to hope that the camera understands the needs of the photographer. There’s no better solution than to take a double shot at the location which actually happens anyway due the D500’s release shutter being very sensitive and eager to shoot.
Nikon D500 shoots 10 fps and compared to D4s, it does it very quietly (D5 is smaller than D4s but still louder than D500) – anyway, thank you for that in the name of all the animal photographers! The continuous shoot of D500 is not as quiet as that of D810’s but almost.
Autofocus and ISO quality
Those who have read my camera reviews before know that for me, autofocus and ISO quality are the most important quality indicators. And Nikon D500 does not let me down. Yes, its focus is not as precise and eager as that of D5 but compared to D800 series cameras; it is a totally new level. Again, somewhere where D5 would be. And we are still talking about a half-frame camera in the same context with full-frame cameras. I should actually compare this camera with other half frame cameras but then, my review would be very short because Nikon D500 is the absolute king of half-frame cameras. So, let it play in the playground of full-frame cameras. The speed of its autofocus is comparable to that of Nikon’s flag ship. And I think that the shortages in the speed and accuracy are the result of focus points’ size. D500 has to choose an area to focus on from a much larger area and inevitably that takes more time. Accuracy also suffers because the camera does not have a clear understanding where to focus. But I am talking about a marginal thing because so far, D500 has not made me lose any photos. “Knock on wood!”
When it comes to ISO quality, I cannot talk about D500 in the same context as full-frame cameras, at least not as the cameras of the newest generation because in this case, the smaller sensor and fewer pixels have an effect. Fortunately the logic behind the D500 sensor is similar to that of D5. This means that compromises have been made in the lower end to keep the higher end cleaner. The same goes for colour transfer and dynamic range. I am very satisfied with this compromise because I rarely use lower ISOs. With Nikon D500, I have mainly used ISO 1600 up to 3200. On the first day, I tried ISO 6400 which is totally usable and if the wolf and bear were fighting over boar carcass in the dawn, I wouldn’t say no to ISO 12800 but the quality of ISO 6400 and 12800 is too poor for a so-called beauty shot. So, for me, the line between getting a good beauty shot is ISO 3200. This ensures me good quality, I don’t have any doubts when I set these numbers on the display. The noise level is good, and so are the colour transfer and dynamic range. If there’s not enough light for this sensitivity, the bigger brother has to step up, when more light appears, D500 starts his work day. In the evening it is vice versa – D500 starts and the bigger brother finishes. Those who do not own a bigger brother get to go home earlier – their family is going to be happy!
I would praise D500 the most for letting me photograph from a distance and that is why, 80% of the time, I prefer D500 to full-frame cameras. Taking close-ups from animals is only one part of the half-frame camera advantages. The other part is that I couldn’t be further away while shooting but with the help of a quiet shutter, I have an opportunity to really go into the world of animals without disruptions like the noise of full-frame cameras. The longer the photo session, the bigger the chances to get an exciting photo. If you can remember my review of Nikon D5, then you know that I said that I’d rather photograph with a brick-shaped camera that that has an excellent auto focus, enough pixels and good ISO quality than with a perfect shaped camera that does not feature these qualities. And now, the reality is that my full-frame camera which feels perfect in the hand stays in the camera bag a lot more because my half-frame camera is able to do most of the work itself. Yes, handling D500 compared to D5 is like handling a small uncomfortable piece but in the end of the day, getting a good photo is what matters. I am prepared for any inconveniences and bigger efforts for a good photo. During the few weeks that I have been using D500, I have come up with the perfect camera in my head. It should have Nikon D5’s body with its 36MP sensor and by pressing a button, one should be able to activate 36 MP with the dynamics of the D810 to capture landscapes and other still subjects. By pressing the button again, 36 MP would be recombined by adding pixels and improving their light sensitivity to the level of D5’s ISO sensitivity 20MP full-frame sensor. The third button press would let the camera know that the pixels in the edges should have a rest now and there should be a 1.5x crop in the middle part of the sensor to get a D500 type of 20MP half- frame sensor. Oh, the dreams!
To who is Nikon D500 meant?
I think that this camera is mainly meant for an animal photographer. For photographing situations a bit further away (with Nikon D500, these are in a minority) the focus points are located throughout the whole frame. It is possible to take a beautiful photo in the dim light by using ISO sensitivity up to 3200 knowing that in an emergency, you can still use higher ISOs. 10 fps continuous shoot together with fast autofocus supports the photographer while capturing birds. Nikon D500 – yes, for me please!
Nikon D500 advantages and shortcomings
- 1.5x sensor troughs out the unnecessary, more pixels on the motif;
- Fast and sensitive (-4 EV) auto focus, a lot of sensitive focus point in both directions;
- 10 very quiet clicks in a second;
- auto focus points cover almost entire viewfinder which enables compositional freedom
- photo quality up to ISO 3200 (my opinion)
- tilting touch screen
- illuminating buttons
- good price/performance ratio
- ergonomics (this is when compared to D5, for those who are used to half-frame cameras, it is a step forward)
- handling the camera with big telescopic lenses in front without using the battery grip
- battery life (100 photos = ~10% of battery, 1 photo equals 0,1% of battery) again a reason for purchasing a battery grip.
- In some situations, the focus points are too big